Mary O’Rourke: ‘You’ll be at the kitchen sink – and you will see this lovely tree…’

A magnolia planted when times were tough has been a comfort


I have always thought the colour of a magnolia flower is beautiful, that delicate pink shading to a deep fuchsia colour.
I have always thought the colour of a magnolia flower is beautiful, that delicate pink shading to a deep fuchsia colour.

Spring means different things to different people. If you’re in love, your heart beats faster – what’s around the corner, what does the future hold?

But whatever age you are, spring means a lot to many people. The days are longer and brighter, and all around us nature is opening up. Yesterday, outside my window, a blackbird was trilling from about a quarter to five onwards.

His song was beautiful and of course I could have listened all day. The grass (and weeds) are growing at a prolific rate. So, all around us, the bounty of nature is bursting through.

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This is particularly so in these gorgeous mid-spring days that we’ve been having for the past number of weeks. So the sun shines, the birds sing, and hearts beat faster.

For me, the small magnolia tree outside my kitchen window has a special significance. As I write, it is bursting into bloom – my magnolia tree, in full magnificent bloom, with those wonderful pink and cream flowers.

I have always thought the colour of a magnolia flower is beautiful, that delicate pink shading to a deep fuchsia colour. And so it is right now with my tree.

Why is all of this so significant? Well, the tree combines so many memories.

On February 11, 1992, Albert Reynolds, as the new leader of Fianna Fail, was voted into his job as Taoiseach in Dail Eireann.

On that same day, he sacked 10 full government ministers. One by one we were brought in to see him. I was the last to be brought in to be told: “I’m replacing you, Mary, as Minister for Health, with Dr John O’Connell.” I was devastated. I had been sent to Health by Charlie Haughey after four-and-three-quarter years in the Department of Education. Yes, I was scared of a department like Health, with so many unknowns, but I was beginning to get to grips with it, and was looking forward to the challenges facing me.

Be that as it may, the 10 of us were dubbed the ‘St Valentine’s Day massacre’. We were told to come into the Dail later as Albert outlined his whole new cabinet.

Now, I know quite well he had every right as the new Taoiseach to appoint his own people. Why ever not; he would not get a chance again. But of course that wasn’t the way I saw it. I was stricken with all sorts of emotions.

Oh how I railed against my fate. Oh how I decried the unjust way he had treated me, and indeed all of us 10 ministers. But I soon came to realise that that is politics; there are ups and there are downs, and you just learn to coast with them and make the best of wherever you find yourself.

Anyway, that was Tuesday, February 11. On Friday, February 14, Valentine’s Day, I was coming back to Athlone, and before I left the Dail I received a telephone call from the Athlone Women’s Group.

This was a group of strong, determined women, who back in November of 1982 had worked might and main to get me elected to Dail Eireann. They were a group of about 12 women and one of them rang me to say that they were so upset about what had happened to me in the ‘massacre’ that they would like to meet me in Horseleap to make me a presentation.

I duly arrived in Horseleap and there was the women’s group, full of talk and full of verve, full of giving out about what had happened, and regrets, regrets, regrets. They presented me with a potted plant, which they said was a magnolia tree, and would bear wonderful pink blossoms. I had a big thank you, with hugs and promises of friendship all round.

When Enda and I got home, he planted the magnolia in a patch of grass just outside the kitchen window. As he said himself, and I can hear him saying it, “You will be at the kitchen sink and looking out you will have the joy of seeing this lovely tree in bloom”. Now what would the ‘Me Too’ movement make of that – “You will be at the kitchen sink”? But how right he was.

Anyway, from then on the magnolia tree bloomed and I took great joy in it. My political life bloomed again, too. I was duly appointed Minister of State with responsibility for Labour Affairs, and I sailed on into that, full of life and full of determination that I would make a good job of that role.

The magnolia tree bloomed.

So much has happened in the intervening years in personal life, in political life, in family life. And yet each year when spring comes around and I look at my budding magnolia tree right outside my kitchen window, I have so many vivid memories of the friendship and love of the Athlone Women’s Group who were determined that they would remember me and I would remember them.

Then I have the love of Enda, who dug it into the ground that Saturday after I came home. So in those blooms I have so many threads of love and friendship, and above all of remembrance.

So the magnolia tree continued to bloom. For a while at the beginning of the 2000s after Enda had passed away, it seemed for two years then there were no blooms, just a few stragglers. But patient care and the gardener lore of David Henry caused it to flourish again, and now there it is, in full magnificent colour.

For me, each day as I look at it, I am reminded of so much that was wonderful, good and blooming in my whole life, and I am so grateful for all that led to that tree and its constant renewal as the sun shines during this beautiful spring weather.

I’ll finish with these wonderful lines:

‘Tis the ever green stately Magnolia,

Its pearl-flowers pure as the Truth,

Defiant of tempest and lightning,

Its life a perpetual youth.

(Albert Pike)

Mary O’Rourke is former Minister for Education, Health and Public Enterprise. She is also the author of two best-selling books, ‘Just Mary’ and ‘Letters of My Life’, and co-editor of the book on Brian Lenihan Jr, ‘In Calm and Crisis’

Sunday Independent

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