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INTERVIEW Senator Marie-Louise O’Donnell

Senator Marie-Louise O’Donnell is proud of her Foxford roots

A life less ordinary

Senator Marie-Louise O’Donnell is proud of her Foxford roots

Willie McHugh

WHEN Marie-Louise O’Donnell launched Ballinrobe Active Retirement Writers’ Group’s publication, ‘Red Shoes And No Clichés’ in the local library last November, she caught many in the audience by surprise.
Who was this larger-than-life passionate lady full of charisma with the lovely rich brogue? She immediately kidnapped undivided attention with a delivery dolloped in a flaithuil sprinkling of humour and mirth.
Through mumbled tones they attempted an unravelling of the mystery of the lady in their midst. Someone said she was a member of the Senate. She’s a regular panellist on the ‘Tonight With Vincent Browne Show’ came another “tuppence worth” offering. Then the realisation dawned that she was also the lady who regales the nation with her weekly slot on ‘The Pat Kenny Show’.
Those are just a few of the many strings on the bow that is Marie-Louise O’Donnell.
In her oration that night she waxed eloquently about the beauty and splendour of Mayo, its landscape and its people. So who is this proud daughter of Mayo who went on to carve a significant niche for herself on the bigger academic and political stage?  
For a start she’s Frank O’Donnell’s daughter from the Main Street in Foxford. She was born, and spent her formative years, in the town on the banks of the Moy. Her dad worked in Foxford Woollen Mills, as did her uncles and grandfather.
There’s a strong family connection with the mills that kept Mayo, and indeed the great wide world, warm in their beds. Marie-Louise throws a lovely line that, if you can’t find warmth in your life through romance then a Foxford blanket is the next best thing. And well she might peddle that notion. Her grandmother was a lady named Ann-Catherine Sherry and it was her brothers who founded Foxford Woollen Mills.
Marie-Louise O’Donnell’s mother came from Newry. She was a speech and drama teacher. A few years after their marriage the O’Donnells moved to Dublin. But it was to Foxford and the home of her grandmother that Marie-Louise and her older brother returned to spend their Easter and summer holidays.
Foxford moulded her and she’s proud of the influence the town and its environs had on her life.
“Some people say you are your memories and you always remember where you were happiest. So, for me, Foxford and Mayo played a huge part in my life and they always will. My brother still has a home here. Foxford centred people because there was work here in the Woollen Mills and, therefore, people didn’t have to emigrate as was the case in most other rural towns. Growing up here was a wonderful experience. Going to feiseanna in the Browne Memorial Hall, fishing and playing along the River Moy, and Sunday trips to the beach in Enniscrone.
“My cousins lived all around and I had lots of friends here. We did all the usual young people things like dancing in Pontoon and Castlebar. And later we shared flats and bedsits in Dublin and the link was maintained.”
But her greatest influence of all was her four grand-aunts. She affectionately refers to them as ‘The Dollies’. Let Marie-Louise herself familiarise you with this amazing female quartet who left the biggest impressions of all on her.
“At the top of the town lived my four grand-aunts. They were known as the ‘The Dollies.’  Nonnie, Lizzie, Katie and Mary were all spinsters. They lived in a very ordinary bungalow but it had moments of great decency within.
“They went to China and America in their 20’s and returned in their late 50’s to sit in their kitchen in the small house waiting for something to happen. They rarely left the house. They only ventured down town for funeral Masses with pinned navy hats on their heads.
“But ‘The Dollies’ were international communicators. They knew everything that was going on. They were a human internet site, a worldwide web, a ‘Dollie web’ at the top of the town and they never moved out.
“I work in an organisation with the best of computers, phones, lasers, internet, photocopiers, email, and fax machines, and yet we do not communicate. So how did ‘The Dollies’ do it at the top of the town? They told stories and they listened to stories. All great communication is about storytelling and all great drama is about stories. ‘The Dollies’ were my unique and original storytellers.”

THEATRE and Drama held her interest after college. “I got a lectureship in drama in Carysfort Teacher Training College. I regard the national school system of education as one of our greatest flagships. I spent ten happy years there and when it closed DCU offered me a job as Lecturer in School Communications.
“My ear was my greatest influence and it was the sounds tuned here in Foxford like the noises of the mart, the funeral, talk and the echoes of life itself that tuned it to near perfection. DCU sent me to train in the BBC and I got invaluable training there and I brought all that back.
“I taught radio documentary making, radio storytelling, speaking, and all the other disciplines and I also developed arts in the campus with the help of Danny O’Hare and it all grew from there culminating in forming of The Helix.
“But it all came from what I learned on the streets of Foxford and the influence a Mayo town and its people had on me. I loved my time in DCU and the whole structure there and I was always surrounded by young minds and that keeps me young.”
Then Enda called offering her a seat in the Senate. She was returning to Dublin having covered Queen Elizabeth’s visit to the Rock of Cashel when her phone rang. She didn’t recognise the number.
“I said, ‘Enda Kenny, The Taoiseach, are you serious?’ He said, ‘Yes, and I’m appointing you to The Senate’. I couldn’t believe it and my eyes welled up with tears because I was so proud and I told him I would never let him down.
“It was a most profound moment in my life. I regard my appointment as affirmation and recognition of the work I do. And it’s great to get things later in life because you value them more and you have a much more balanced sense of what you got.
He handed her a simple brief. “‘Champion what needs to be championed’, he told me and that’s what I try to do. Mind you I told him when he addressed The Senate that I would challenge him if he attempts to disband it because it serves a useful purpose.
“But even though I was a nominee I feel it should come from the electoral system and probably held in conjunction with government elections. But I would hate it to become another door that opens to candidates who fail to get elected. It should never be that.”
Her weekly slot on Pat Kenny covers everything from ploughing, fishing, poultry rearing, turf-cutting and a plethora of other topics. It takes hours and hours of research and nobody can articulate her topic better than Marie-Louise and her subject is a lovely aside to a programme couched mainly in matters relating to current affairs.
Vincent Browne came about when she suggested writing a radio column for his Village Magazine. ‘Do it so’ was Browne’s gruff response and Marie-Louise was as good as her word.
“You can never fully armour yourself defensively for Vincent’s attack when you appear on his TV programme. You might go out to the studio expecting to discuss a particular topic and Vincent will throw you completely by choosing a different debate.
“He’s a highly intelligent man and informed in his thinking and he always tells his guests not to confuse his questions with his actual opinions. He will interrogate you, and I’ve been in the firing line often enough to know what it’s like. But he has a very humorous side to him also and nothing is ever personal with Vincent.”
While Enda charged her with the task of championing what needs to be championed, Marie-Louise has been doing that for her beloved Mayo always. Nobody extols the virtues or trumpets all that is good and great about this county better than she does.
Marie-Louise, the listener, constantly returns to Foxford and it’s there she likes to tap the tuning fork of the mind.
To rambles up the street to the house at the top of the town and peer through cobwebbed panes into the room where ‘The Dollies’ once reigned with the wisdom of their years. To browse a while at the ghost of Nonie eating at the table, Katie at the range baking, buxom Lizzie at the large chair by the standalone radio, and Mary resting in the bedroom next to the kitchen. Theirs was the hob she sat in and listened whilst all the best Foxford yarns were weaved.
‘The Dollies’ rarely left the house. And in a way Marie-Louise never left either. Mayo will always be home.