Category: Asset 3Arts & Leisure

The personal was the political for O’Hanlon

March 7, 2012

By Staff Reporter

The Recorder: the journal of the American Irish Historical Society. Spring and Fall 2011:  Paddy O’Hanlon’s “End of Term Report.”


Confession time: I approached this book with my prejudices bristling. For a start it’s not your conventional book but the Spring and Fall 2011 edition of The Recorder, the journal of the American Irish Historical Society. As a rule I come out in hives when faced with academic writing; add to that the fact that the entire edition is given over to a book about politics over the past 40 years, told from an SDLP  perspective. As I reached for the book my stomach started asking my head some serious questions, like “Why are you doing this to me?” But I opened it and what do you know? This is a book with some weaknesses but many delights.

O’Hanlon, a founder-member of the SDLP, does two things in it: he tells the story of his personal life, even making his short career as a politician part of that personal life; and he details his role in drafting the Good Friday Agreement. The second of the two I found mildly tedious.  Fourteen years on from the signing of that Agreement, I’m more interested in its out-workings than I am in who drafted what bits.  But the first of the two – the account of O’Hanlon’s personal life – at times is simply terrific.

It’s the honesty that does it. He’s especially honest about the drug that politics is – how you get the high from success, recognition, status; and how you get the withdrawal shakes when all that’s taken from you.  He’s good at describing his first day at Stormont; he’s even better at describing what it feels like when the electorate reject you:”The next six months were ego rough, a lot of pain and a mountain of bullshit from the loser, a lot of late nights in assorted pubs and dubious company, and me with talk for four sets of teeth, explaining why I was an important man. The street calls pointed to something different, a satisfaction that I was an ex-MP, and there is nothing as X as that. A person stopped me in the street one day and asked me if I used to be Paddy O’Hanlon and it was a killer comment, almost as good as the graffiti saying that Enoch Powell was a count”.

The description of his lapse into alcoholism and the departure of his wife links with his failure at the polls, and is equally frank and well-told. So too are his efforts to live a life free of alcohol, and later, that hurdle cleared, the bewildering, numbing arrival of his wife’s cancer.  The final few chapters, as I say, told me rather more about his input to the Good Friday Agreement than I cared to hear.

He was an interesting man, O’Hanlon. A “border cub,” a politician, a drinker, a barrister, a novelist, a playwright, a singer. Above all, he was a truth-teller and that’s what sends energy coursing throughout much of the book.  He died in 2009 at age 64.  Ar Dheis Dé go raibh a anam uasal.



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