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Liam Hyland at 90: From Ballacolla to Brussells – former Laois TD and MEP reflects on incredible political career

It’s a Friday afternoon in Fearagh outside Ballacolla. Liam Hyland opens the door of his home and welcomes us with a handshake as warm and firm as it was on the various election campaigns he embarked on over the years.

It’s the weekend of his 90th birthday and a selection of birthday cards are dotted around his front sitting room.

His mind is still as sharp as a tack and he’s wonderfully engaging company as he reflects on his life and times.

On the walls are various family photos and inside the front door are two framed mementos of his time in both chambers of Leinster House.

His has been a life lived through interesting times. For almost 40 years he represented the people of Laois – first in the County Council, then in the Senate, the Dáil and finally in Europe.

He may be gone from public life since he retired in 2004 but his name still carries weight in these parts; a former minister, a TD for 16 years and an icon for Fianna Fáil locally during the tumultuous 1980s, a time when he did battle with Charlie Haughey, ended Oliver J Flanagan’s poll-topping dominance in this constituency and became the party’s first chairman of Laois County Council.

He’s currently reading a biography of Eamon de Valera and our conversation over the course of a couple of hours touch on a variety of big moments and names in our history.

The War of Independence; the Civil War; Sean Lemass, de Valera, Jack Lynch, Haughey, Oliver J, Albert, Bertie, Cowen, the challenges facing Fianna Fáil now and the prospect of Mary Lou McDonald and Sinn Féin leading the country.

He was born in April 1933, the oldest child of Joe and Nano Hyland. History and politics was all around him. De Valera slept in their original home across the fields in Park when he was on the run.

His father was a Ballacolla man and a former old IRA Officer Commander. For a time he was jailed in an internment camp in the Curragh. ‘Tintown’ was a harsh place. Surrounded by barbed wire and kept in galvanise huts, their living conditions were freezing in the winter and stiflingly hot in the summer.

Liam Hyland with his sister Helen in 1942. Helen would go on to be a Presentation nun and founder of St Francis school in Portlaoise

That environment later led to health issues for Joe and when Liam was 13, and his younger sister Helen (who would later become a nun and be a founder of St Francis school in Portlaoise) was 11, he passed away.

His mother’s brother was a Holy Ghost priest and Liam was due to begin secondary school in Rockwell College that September. But at that tender age he was the man of the house and took on the family farm.

Liam Hyland in 1950 at a Muintir na Tire course in Mount St Joseph in Roscrea

Times were hard. Initially he milked the cows before he went to school in Ballacolla but soon after he remained at home. Rockwell never materialised. His school days were over.

“You were the boss,” I venture. “The boss,” he laughs. “The boss of what?! There wasn’t a whole lot to be the boss of.

“We’d very good neighbours but I’ll give you an indication of our circumstances. One of our neighbours got sick with an appendix and I was very upset.

“I cycled to Durrow to get him a get well card but when I had the card got, I didn’t have the price of the stamp.”

Joe died in their home in Fearagh, where Liam still lives now. “When he was dying he called me into the room and asked me to do three things,” he says.

“He said, ‘Be kind to your mother – she’s going to have a hard life; don’t be afraid of the dark (in the 1940s, rural electrification was still a while away) and stay away from politics’.”

Two of those things he abided by; staying away from politics was more difficult.

Though his primary education years were behind him and he got no secondary education, when he was in his early 20s, UCD ran a course in Portlaoise in Economic and Political Science.

He’d no car and intended to cycle to Portlaoise three nights a week to attend. In the end a neighbour, Bobby Bailey, was on the same course and he collected him and brought him.

He graduated with a 1st class honours. He was obviously bright. “I was anxious more than bright,” he says. “I was keen to learn.”

Liam and Agnes on their wedding day in 1959

In time he became secretary of the Ballacolla Fianna Fáil cumann. One year he travelled to Rathdowney for the convention to select candidates for the Local Elections.

“I went because I was a voting delegate. But I was the first person to be nominated. I told them I wouldn’t do it. I made an excuse but I didn’t give the real reason about my father.

“Eventually the convention decided to adjourn for a month. They adjourned to try and find their candidates.

“But from then on, I had somebody on to me nearly every day saying ‘the organisation wants you’.

Liam Hyland (centre) with Minister for Agriculture Joe Walsh in 1992. Also in the photo are Michael Dowling, secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Pat O’Neill, chief executive of Avonmore, Matt Dempsey, editor of the Irish Farmers Journal, Ray McSharry, EC Commissioner and Professor Seamus Sheehy from UCD

“Eventually my mother said ‘You’ll have to stand. They won’t leave you alone and your father would understand’.”

Though Nano didn’t live to see him elected, he took his place in Laois County Council in 1967.

And so began his political career. “I liked the council work. I liked it because you were closer to people than you were as a TD and certainly as an MEP.

“You were working closer with people and when I was reflecting this morning (ahead of the interview) I can’t avoid saying that I owe a deep debt of gratitude to the supporters I had. They were very loyal and trustworthy. They made my career.

“At the first council elections, I didn’t think I’d be elected. Someone came over to me to tell me to look at the Ballacolla box and the big pile of votes. I think I got 90%.

“When I saw that I said, ‘I don’t care now whether I get elected or not. Ballacolla backed me.'”

With Fianna Fáil stalwarts in 1992 – Padraig Fleming, Bertie Ahern and John Moloney

For years Fine Gael had dominated Laois County Council but Fianna Fáil were building up a head of steam.

“Fianna Fáil’s big ambition was to get control of Laois County Council. Year after year after year, you’d be at the AGM and it was ‘Councillor, I propose Thomas Keenan.”

Keenan was a giant of the Fine Gael party and served as a councillor for almost 50 years. He was chairman of the council for 14 years before Fianna Fáil finally had the numbers in 1985.

Hyland became the first Fianna Fáil chairman of the council; Fine Gael didn’t contest and Keenan placed the chain of office on Hyland as the balance of power shifted.

By then, he was also a TD. Paddy Lalor had held a seat since 1961 and Hyland ran as his running mate for the first time in 1977. Though he didn’t get elected, he got over 5,500 first preference votes. His time was coming.

In the meantime an opportunity arose to contest the Seanad elections where he was duly successful and by 1981, with Lalor retired, he led the way for Fianna Fáil.

The early 1980s was a remarkable era and within 18 months there were three General Elections. In February 1982, he took the first seat in Laois-Offaly, something he’d do again in November and in the 1989 election. In 1987, the poll was topped by Brian Cowen.

Fianna Fail heavy weights of the late 80s, early 1990s. Padraig Fleming, Liam Hyland, Ger Connolly, Mary O’Rourke, Brian Cowen and John Molone

But that 1982 triumph saw him knock Oliver J off his top spot, the first time in 10 elections, going right back to 1946, that he hadn’t topped the poll.

“It was a great thrill,” he says of being elected to the Dáil for the first time. And being the first TD in almost 40 years to better Oliver J Flanagan? “That was a good one,” he smiles. “I couldn’t get over that.”

To get used to his new environment in the Dáil, he went up to Leinster House before it convened.

“I went into the library and who was in there only Oliver J. When I saw him I went back out but he copped me and said ‘where are you going’.

Liam Hyland of Fianna Fáil and Oliver J of Fine Gael were both Laois-Offaly poll toppers in the 1980s.

“He shook my hand and said ‘my congratulations – you deserve it all. We’ve been at each other’s throats a long time (in the Council) but there’s no need for that here (the Dáil).

He got on well with Oliver J and indeed he says “a thing that helped me in my career was that I was socially friendly with the opposition”.

“I had a good relationship with a lot of my opponents.”

Fianna Fail Laois Offaly 1980s
Brian Cowen flanked by Joe Dunne and Liam Hyland at an election count in the 1980s

The leader of his own party, though, was someone he didn’t have a good relationship with – Charlie Haughey.

“There’s 50 Fianna Fáil cumann in Laois and I was attending the AGMs of every one of them. And at nearly every one of them it was being said to me ‘when are ye going to get rid of that fella’.

“The campaign against Haughey was well underway at that stage in Dublin. There was a special parliamentary meeting held and he said ‘I want to hear your views, good or bad’.

“I was harmless enough and told him. I would never disrespect the parliamentary party meetings and leak anything to the press but as soon as I left that meeting the photographers were waiting for me. Someone told them that I had spoken against Haughey.

The five Laois-Offaly TDs returned in February 1987 – Brian Cowen, Tom Enright, Ger Connolly, Charlie Flanagan and Liam Hyland. It was Charlie Flanagan’s first general election.

“Haughey said at the meeting ‘if you have strong feelings, come and talk to me, my office will be open tomorrow’.

“Again I was probably harmless enough and went to him. He was in his office surrounded by mahogany. He was sitting opposite me, behind his desk, but he got up and came around and sat right beside me. His knees were touching mine and he said ‘get out of this office’.”

The fake book-panelled design of the office made it difficult to find the door however. “Where’s the door,” asked Hyland. “There’s the window,” retorted Haughey. “That’ll f***ing do you.”

For Hyland there was to be no ministerial opportunities under Haughey but he says he took no pleasure either in Haughey’s demise.

Liam Hyland and Albert Reynolds

Albert Reynolds was a different story. “Albert,” he smiles. “Oh my god so many memories.” It was Reynolds who appointed him a Minister of State. In agriculture. It meant the world to him.

And Bertie? “I liked Bertie – and he liked me.”

By 1997 his time in the Dáil was up, though he was again elected an MEP in 1999 before retiring in 2004.

Significantly he wasn’t followed into politics by any of his six children.

“I didn’t encourage it,” he says. “I was always of the view that the tradition shouldn’t be there that a son follows a father. It shouldn’t be a family seat.

“There were ambitious younger people in the party. I felt it was only right that they get their chance like I did when I was starting out.”

His eldest son Joe, he says, though, was “fully made for it”.

Liam Hyland with his son Joe outside Leinster House on a visit in the late 1960s
Liam, Agnes and Joe Hyland at the election count in 1989

“He would have been good at it and he would have liked it. But I consoled myself with the fact that he did very well for himself in his own career. I say to him, ‘didn’t you do an awful lot better’.”

Our chat turns to Fianna Fáil now. “I’m a bit disappointed that we have lost a certain degree of support. A change in politics has happened and is happening. Young people don’t have the same allegiance to the parties their parents had. I feel sorry for the party.

“The difference between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is historical,” he says when asked about the party’s decision to first prop up their great rivals in the confidence and supply arrangement from 2016 to 2020 and then later go into coalition.

“Their difference in politics is not considerable. If you are serious about politics and you are supposed to be about the development of Ireland then the coalition was the option.

“The coalition has provided reasonable government but it’s a complex business and it’s difficult in the current climate.”

Micheal Martin with Fianna Fail TD Sean Fleming and former TDs John Moloney and Liam Hyland at a party event in the Castle Arms in Durrow in 2017

And what of the idea of Fianna Fáil going into government with Sinn Féin after the next election?

His demeanour changes immediately. “Definitely not,” he says defiantly. “No way. Absolutely no way.”

Why not?

“When you look at their history and what they have done. They have been involved in so many areas that is just not acceptable. No way could I support that.

“They have some decent and genuine TDs and Mary Lou McDonald could be the next Taoiseach but I think the support Sinn Féin enjoy now will decline.”

When he reflects on his political career, there are a couple of moments and achievements that stand out, most of them close to home in Ballacolla.

One of the big things in launching his career was his decision to form a Muintir na Tire branch in Ballacolla. Muintir is a national association for promotion of community development in rural Ireland. It was founded by Canon Hayes in Tipperary and the 1930s and its influence is still being felt in Ballacolla to this day.

“The organisation spread all over the country and advocated ‘from the ground up’. We started a branch in Ballacolla (in the late 1960s) and one of the first exercises was a questionnaire to every family in the parish asking what were the main priorities.

“Piped water was the overwhelming response. There was no toilets, no bathrooms at the time. We started a Ballacolla group water scheme and put down 40 miles of water mains on every road in and out of Ballacolla.”

Today Ballacolla is a thriving rural community, having benefitted from that foresight, something that has allowed generations of families live in the area with greater ease than might otherwise have been the case.

Liam Bergin, Martin Bergin, Elaine Hyland, Clifford Roe (chairman) and Liam Hyland (founding member) who unveiled the plaque at the Ballacolla Group Water Scheme 50th anniversary celebrations at Granstown, Ballacolla, in 2018
Committee members with founding member Liam Hyland at the Ballacolla Group Water Scheme 50th anniversary celebrations at Granstown, Ballacolla, in 2018. Pictures Alf Harvey
Ballacolla Group Water Scheme, Liam Hyland and Clifford Roe

A couple of years ago there was a 50-year celebration of its establishment; a commemorative stone was erected to honour Liam Hyland’s involvement.

Another place there is a commemorative stone to his endeavours is in Coolattin in Wicklow, the oldest oak forest in the country, that he played a key role in saving when he was a minister and had responsibility for forestry.

His role in preserving Aghaboe Abbey and its connections with the cathedral in Salzburg in Austria earned him the highest honour that Archdiocese in Salzburg can bestow on a lay person.

Establishing Laois Leader and playing a part in the establishment of the Midlands Prison, the ESB Training School and the Department of Agriculture being based in Portlaoise are also high up on his list of achievements.

“I’m still a proud Fianna Fáil man and so grateful to the public for backing me. I had a great career. I hope I’m not bragging but I don’t think there’s any other public representative in Ireland that covered the same number of areas that I did.

“The Council, the Health Board, the County Commission of Agriculture, Senator, Council of Europe, TD, Minister of State and MEP.

“I was born at a very interesting time. There was no electricity, very little money. We ploughed with horses.

“In hindsight it was very difficult but we didn’t know it at the time. Everyone was in the same boat.”

Though not as active as he was, he’s still out and about and still driving. He’s still attending political events too. Before Christmas he attended a celebration to mark the 100th anniversary of the Seanad. A couple of weeks ago he was in UCD for an event for the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

Liam Hyland and his wife Agnes

On Saturday night his family had a gathering to mark his 90th birthday.

“I’ve a great family. I’m very proud of them all and they’re very good to me.”

The final word he gives is to his late wife Agnes (nee Rafter), who was by his side throughout his career. From Kyledellig, up the road in Clough, she was came from Fine Gael stock – but was his biggest backer.

“I couldn’t say enough about Agnes. She was a great woman. It’s not an easy life being married to a politician and bringing up a family. It was a hard life but she was so supportive.

“At the Seanad reunion last year some people didn’t know she was dead and came up to ask me ‘How is that great woman Agnes?’.

“She was a wonderful, wonderful lady.”

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