Dr Martin McAleese is a dentist, a former accountant and Senator, husband of former President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, and has been a significant player in the peace process on this island.
Most of us are lucky, or more likely unlucky, if we have one significant story to tell from our life. Martin McAleese has many. His stories involve a great deal of adversity, a desire to use every and any ability he might have, failure, success, forgiveness, and a willingness to try. A Catholic nationalist raised in a Protestant and staunchly loyalist area of Belfast, he suffered verbal abuse for the first 20 years of his life. What does that mean? It means that many days as a child and a teenager that he was out of the house, he was told he was a Papist, Fenian bastard and several variations of that. Intimidation was so frequent as to be normal, and physical abuse was occasional but regular. That’s one story.
Another is how his parents valued education and he went on to study physics at Queen’s University, despite failing his 11-plus exam. Then he graduated but decided business, not science, was his future and joined Stokes Kennedy Crowley & Co, the chartered accountants firm, in Dublin. Before he left for Dublin, he had captained the Antrim minor football team of 1969, won a Sigerson Cup with Queen’s in 1971, and his family had been forced out of their home by the eruption of the Troubles. After his family left their home, Martin says he decided to start his life afresh and completely forget the first 20 years. It would, of course, play a significant role later in his life – but he wasn’t to know it then.
His personal demeanour is really interesting – at least to this observer. He is a very engaging and warm person. He is thoughtful and considered and remarkably open to discourse (a journalist’s delight), but he speaks very softly. His body language is of a man who learned to blend into the background very early in life. Not to stand out. Not to draw attention to himself. Behind the soft voice though, is a man who can do something rare: blend a fine intellect with what lately has been called emotional intelligence. The soft voice will put you at ease as he talks with you. I suspect it did so when he was talking with those former neighbours who were loyalist paramilitaries, and when talking to the Queen and other members of the British Royal Family.
The dentist’s story
So which story will we tell? In this Journal, we must focus on the dentistry. The route to dentistry in Martin’s life is through his desire to learn. The spark for that desire was failure and disappointment.
Secondary education was free in Northern Ireland from 1948 and Martin’s mother was determined her family would avail of it. In Martin’s case, he was far more concerned about football and having fun than about working for the 11-plus exam. That sounds perfectly normal for a young lad, but the terrible disappointment in his mother’s face shook Martin when he failed the 11-plus. She marched him down to the Christian Brothers Grammar School in Belfast and “basically bullied” the headmaster into accepting Martin. Apparently you could pay for the first year and if the child passed the end-of-year review, he or she could continue on through secondary education up as far as A-Level. So Martin got the message and from that point worked hard at his studies. Out of that failure – and his mother’s acute disappointment – came a strong set of A-Levels in pure maths, applied maths, physics and chemistry, as well as access to third-level education.
And so into Queen’s University where Martin says he enjoyed the full student experience. Lectures were missed every now and again, football was played, parties were enjoyed, and exams, he says, often required all-night cramming. No doubt Martin was enjoying university life, but his brain was in gear too. He came to the conclusion that he would be well-served in life by gaining a good understanding of accounting and of business. So when the Dublin-based accountants Stokes Kennedy Crowley came to Queen’s on a recruitment mission, Martin got himself a start as a trainee accountant. Off to Dublin he went and at one point shared a house with Moss Keane, Denis Coffey and Jim Coughlan – all of whom he had met playing university football, and sadly, all of whom are dead now.
Shortly after he got married, he became financial controller and company secretary of two Aer Lingus travel subsidiaries. Four years later, with Mary working in Trinity as Reid Professor of Criminal Law, Criminology and Penology and doing some work in RTÉ, Martin left work to enter Trinity as a student of dentistry. Why on earth did he leave such good work to go back to study dentistry? “I have always believed that what ever you work at – most people would like change. We often think about change. I think that change is the most energising and rejuvenating thing that you can do. Why do a lot of people not grasp change? First of all, there has to be an opportunity. The things that hold people back are mortgages, commitments, self doubts, complacency.”
Where did the idea spring from? “At 30 years of age you have got to be very careful that what you change to will vindicate the change, that it will give you a good return and allow you to comfortably support your family. Dentistry for me fulfilled that requirement. I knew that if I did dentistry, I would have a reasonable quality of life. The second thing is that it gave me a great contrast. If you can imagine, I was in an office with a door closed struggling with balance sheets, deadlines, board meetings, monthly management accounts, taking work home and all of that.
Dentistry is completely different. You are working with people and you are working with your hands. One of the things that also struck me was that you finished your work at half-five or six o’clock and you cannot take your patient home with you. But you do take your worries home with you. Will a problem develop overnight? Will you be met with an irate patient at half-eight the next morning? Litigation? You take your worries home with you. I didn’t realise that until I practised.”
Training was first class
Did he ever feel afterwards that he should have stayed with accountancy? “No. The training in the Dental Hospital was first class. It pre-dated problem-based learning but it was excellent. The only criticism I would have would be the lack of business training. So I arrived up in Bessbrook and started work with Des Casey and it was a mixed practice: two locations, and private and NHS. We referred very little and I thought that was the norm. So we would have extracted wisdom teeth, performed complex crown and bridge work, orthodontics, we did general anaesthetics in the surgery, which you wouldn’t even dream of now. The only thing that I remember referring was difficult lower wisdom teeth. That was normal. We were very busy. The Dublin Dental Hospital prepared me very well for that. There was no situation that I found myself in when I was practising that I didn’t know what to do. And I knew what not to do.”
Having the advantage of being mature and having business training, what could he do that helped the business? “I did the annual accounts of the practice. If you do that, you know exactly what is going on. You know where the issues are, you know where remedial action is required. You know how to manage the patient base, you know how to efficiently run the practice. We were one of the first practices in the North to computerise.
“Don’t forget, dentists are healthcare providers but you can’t be a healthcare provider if you run your business at a loss. You really have to know how to run your business and I don’t know if that has changed a lot in recent years in undergraduate training.”
Was he happy as a dentist? “I was very happy. I think I am very fortunate to have enjoyed every moment of everything I have done. The business experience was crucial. That thing about bringing worries home – I think that should be explained as being normal. That is not something that is unique to a dentist when he or she feels it for the first time. That is a common thing. No dentist should ever be under the illusion that what they are experiencing in terms of being worried is exceptional or abnormal. The very knowledge of it being normal goes a long way to making it easier. … (Another) lesson is that working with someone else, or two other dentists, is a great comfort and I think it is better for both dentists and their patients.
“The other lesson is the treadmill effect: it is very easy to become absorbed in your work. You end up spending all of your good quality time on your dental work. And then poor quality, leftover time goes to family, friends, recreation. I was very bad at this, which is why I feel so strongly about it. Apportion your quality time over all the things that are important in your life.
“Communication with patients is very important. You have to strike a balance between the cold, detached professional, and the dentist who is too involved with the patient. I believe you can warmly engage with your patient and still maintain a certain detachment. Getting that right is hugely important. Working in a pub from 14 to 20 taught me how to engage with people. The skills I got from that have been a phenomenal foundation for my life. Life is about engaging with people and I enjoyed that pub job as much as any.” A modest statement to conclude from a man for all seasons.
“My mother and father were country people who came to Belfast in the late 1940s. My father was from Portglennone in County Antrim, and my mother was from Lisnaskea in County Fermanagh. They came from big families on small farms. My father was one of the very few Catholics who got a job in Short Brothers. As a result, they bought a house near to his work – right in the heart of Protestant, loyalist east Belfast. We grew up, therefore, disconnected from our own community. Loners in our own community. Those circumstances led to a very difficult upbringing because of the exclusion and the sense of fear and intimidation and of sectarianism.
Mary gets sense!
“Mary went to St Dominic’s High School in Belfast and we met through a debating competition when we were 17 years of age. I went to her 18th birthday party. She invited me because she was interested in my friend…but she ended up with me! We are married 40 years next year. We got engaged. Broke off. She got engaged to another fella …but she got sense! I would say that anyway.”
On his outreach to loyalist paramilitaries
“… when I first sat down with some loyalist paramilitaries and began the process of outreach and engagement, the greatest asset that I could bring to the table was the first 20 years of my life. …They couldn’t say that you don’t understand. I knew their streets, their pubs, their clubs, their schools, their churches. I had lived among them and their people. I understood their accents and could share their sense of humour. All of those things conspired to give a great street credibility that was absolutely crucial in that engagement and the subsequent development of relationships. It is an aside but what I was leaving behind came back as a tremendous asset.”
Favourite moment of Mary’s Presidency
“The Queen’s visit. Mary had met the Queen a good number of times before she was elected President. If we could get to the point where the Queen could visit Ireland and be well received, we felt that things would never be the same again. We could never go back. And that is what happened. It took the 14 years and I thought I would never see the day, but it happened. That was the highlight. We knew that she wanted to come. She’s a very warm person. There never were any tensions in any of our relationships with any member of the Royal Family.There is a lot of ordinariness about people. Everybody has that. She was very well informed on Irish history and genuinely wanted to make an impact. And she did – at the Garden of Remembrance, through her speech at Dublin Castle and, of course, visiting Croke Park.”
Martin’s father’s story
“Emma arrived in September 1982. We would get up very early and I would drop her off at the creche and then the staff at the creche went on strike. That was a big problem because we had no infrastructure. My mother died at the end of December 1981. M father, Charles, retired three months later. It was very sad. I remember phoning him in early 1983 and asking him would he come down? So he came down to Dunshaughlin. To see a man who was, in my mind, “only a breadwinner” getting involved with Emma, doing the housework, minding her, feeding her, changing her, cooking meals for us when we came home. It was fantastic. A man of 66 years of age and he was enjoying it. If that strike hadn’t happened in the creche, in my mind, my father may only ever have been a breadwinner. He got an opportunity to express all those other things and he did it in such a way that was fantastic. And he stayed with us for 19 years. He never went back and ended up being waked in the Áras. He was taken in a coffin from the Áras to Ballymena and on to Portglennone. That was some story. People talk about Mary being elected to the Áras but behind that was a story of a man who was the eldest of 11 children from Paisley country in north County Antrim, who existed on the fruits of a very small farm, which never had running water, and for whom I am sure in the early part of his life, everything looked very bleak. Fast forward years and here he is in his coffin being waked in the Áras with the Taoiseach, Government ministers and ambassadors coming to pay their respects. And that is a big story. He died in 2001 at the age of 84. When he was born the Lord Lieutenant was still in the Park. His funeral was attended by the Garda Commissioner and the Chief Constable of the PSNI. I think there was a great pride in the Protestant community of Northern Ireland about Mary because she came from their place. And I remember the goodwill that came from that funeral. The write ups in the local press reflected great pride on both sides of the community.”