Profile of Stevie Coughlan
STEPHEN COUGHLAN, T.D., Mayor of Limerick has in the last few months emerged as the George Wallace of Irish politics-personifying a parochialism and prejudice hitherto unknown at a national level-at least in recent times. Furthermore, he has become the focal point of unrest in the Labour Party which has been deeply divided on urban/rural lines since the General Election.
Until a few months ago Coughlan's career was very much like that of many other politicians and he showed little desire to deviate from the path of steady accumulation of political power and influence in Limerick. Neither has Stevie an unusual background. He was educated in Limerick and afterwards spent three weeks as a candidate for the priesthood in Blackrock College. He was a republican sympathiser in the 1930's and occasionally boasts that he was a highly trusted memberof the LR.A. who was given the important mission of killing General O'Duffy in Tralee in 1934.
Later Stevie spent many years working as a salesman and as a publican before he began the gradual climb to political ascendancy. The path Stevie took to the top was the usual one. He began in local government in the Clann na Poblachta party, a loose alliance of various republican tendencies. In 195I he was elected Mayor of Limerick and subsequently remained a prominent and outspoken member of City Coucil.
For many years he was very unlucky in Dail elections. In the General Election in 1954 he lost on the last count to Michael Keyes of Labour by a mere 29 votes. In the next General Election in 1957 he again lost in the last count. Sub-sequently Clann na Poblachta collapsed and Stevie, after flirting with the major parties, found his niche in the Labour party and won a seat forth at party in the 1961 General Election defeating Ted Russell. Coughlan also used the traditional methods of gaining votes. He neglected the business he had built up as a bookmaker and publican, and worked hard cultivating Limerick's voters. As a consequence his financial position has considerably worsened and he had to sell his chain of book-makers shops operating since then as a course only bookie at racecourses and greyhound tracks. It is undoubtedly true that Coughlan has worked hard for his constituents in Limerick and that many hundreds of them owe, or believe they owe, their blue cards and houses to his intercessions. Even his political enemies admit that he has worked hard for constituents and most likely his strongest political support is based on such mundane hard work. In many ways, then, Coughlan, has had a normal, successful political career. Nevertheless it has continuously burst into controversy over the last few years. It is obvious that Stevie Coughlan can no longer be considered an ordinary, run-of-the-mill, Irish, rural politician.
Power in Limerick
Stephen Coughlan T.D. is a very powerful politician in Limerick particularly since Donogh O'Malley died. The latter consistently out did him in both gimmickry and constituency one-upmanship. He headed the poll inthe city of Limerick in the last election and is presently holding the office of Mayor for the second time in his career. In many ways he is not unlike the gombeen politicians who compromise the majority of the back-benches in the Dail. Coughlan's poli-tical power in Limerick has grown not only because of hard work but because he exemplifies and flagrantly exhibits the attitudes of his constituents. He is violently parochial-almost a Limerick Home Ruler-he eagerly seeks favourable publicity from the local press, he is extremely religious in public and, whenever itis politically necessary, he is highly emotional.
His parochialism is single minded and of long standing. In the Dail he has concentrated almost uniquely on local issues and has entirely ignored national political questions which have a far more profound influence on the lives of the people. In 1961, the year on which he entered the Dail, his only foray into national issues was on the question of amending the Licensing Act and in this he was holding a brief for the Licensed Vintners Association of which he was once president. His major Dail contribution was on the vexed question of the appointment of a Mr. Clancy as Principal of Limerick's Municipal Technical Institute. In the following year he continued to interest himself in the public house question and his main Dail speech was on the Intoxicating Liquor Act. He was all for the extension of hours more or less indiscriminately arguing that people wanted it and that it was the only way to keep the people on the land. His argument was pitched at the ordinary man who wanted his pint after the pictures, or after working late in the fields during the Summer. His only other contribution to national debate that year was on the finances of Bord nagCon. He stated "Is the Minister prepared to see £122,000 of public money thrown down the drain by members of the Board gallivanting all over Europe". Rather incongruously then he stated that the money had been spent in Miami, Florida. Coughlan's main activity in the Dail has been to ask recurrent questions on Limerick's problems. Over the years he has continually put down questions on the condition of William Street Garda station. In 1966 when he asked the question yet again he replied, when the Minister avoided committing himself, "I heard that seven years ago". His chief concerns in the Dail have been matters such as radio interference in Limerick around 5.00 p.m., Limerick's tele-phone service, industrial problems in the Limerick area, educational facilities in Limerick and the pension for Garda widows. On the local Limerick scene Stevie is always ready to pose as the champion of the common man. In Novem-ber 1967, for instance, when there was a fire in Lenihan Avenue Stevie rushed to the scene and claimed that the fire hydrants were insufficient andinefficient. Next day he had a banner headline in the Limerick Leader which read "City Hydrants! Who is responsible?" A year later when a Limerick woman had triplets Stevie rushed to the hospital, was photographed with them, and put down a question in the Dail demanding that state grants for triplets be greatly increased. In recent years his interest in national affairs has declined. This year when the estimate for Defence was produced Coughlan, who is the official Labour party spokesman on Defence, failed to speak in the resulting debate.
"I am Limerick"
His parochialism has always been mingled with the desire to dominate Limerick absolutely. This over weening pride in his unquestioned ideological and political dominance of Limerick has led him in recent months to identify himself with Limerick in a messianic way when under acute stress. On December 17 1969 he revealed his parochialism when he attacked Barry Desmond for saying that Limerick should not give a civic reception for the South Africans. He said "What a damned cheek for this jumped up overnight politician to come to Limerick and tell us how to act". He continued in an unlikely vein-"I want to warn these extremist off beats that Limerick holds no future for them. Let them pack their bags and baggage before they are crushed without mercy". In one of the more extreme reactions to criticism following his altercation with Barry Desmond he exclaimed "I am Limerick". His pride in Limerick undoubtedly also was a significant factor in his anti-semitic outbursts in the last month. Coughlan claimed he was defending Limerick from 'attacks from left and right". His unconscious correlation between Stevie and Limerick may also have occasioned the Jewish remarks. At the credit union meeting Stevie claimed that his parents had been "active in the matter" (the pogrom). The Limerick Leader reporter Bernard Carey conveniently reported this as "I remember my father and mother being as active as Fr. Creaghin matters of charity". However, in fact, Stevie probably felt that anything the Coughlan's were involved in in Limerick must of necessity have been an excellent crusade. Coughlan is furthermore a highly religious man in public. When he was mayor for the first time he used to demand unanimous acceptance of adjournment motions in order that the Council could attend Mass on suitable Feast Days. In the early 1950's he encouraged the practice of voluntary rosaries in Limerick's factories and stores for the "Church of Silence" in Communist countries. In 1916 he was involved in rushes on Jehovah Witnesses who were attacked on several occasions in Limerick city although there is no evidence that he had took any part in organising these harrassments or that he ever came to blows in defence of his religion.
Stevie and the Redemptorists
Coughlan's relations with the Redemptorists have always been politically crucial for him. The Redemptorists through their Confraternity exercise a great deal of influence with the working class. While it is acceptable for a middle class person such as a lawyer or doctor not to participate in the Confraternity it is not so for a worker. Every working class area has a Confraternity Prefect who keeps a register of membership and attendance in his neighbourhood. Non members are continually encouraged to join and some members of the Labour party in Limerick who are not members have been challenged to join by successive Directors of the Confraternity. For many years Stevie and Donogh O'Malley vied with each other for the support of the Confraternity but since the death of the latter Stevie has met with little opposition. Stevie's religiosity has become even more apparent since the Labour party adopted new socialist policies in the last four years. For instance earlier this year on January 21 Coughlan defined his socialism thus: "We have been acting on the lines of a Christian socialism with Christian social ideals. Side issues are being introduced now by a handful of radicals", if they want to practice their socialism as the people of city want it there are plenty of opportunities available such as meals on wheels, the Social Service Centre and the Simon Community in Broad Street. This is practical socialism. I have set my career on those lines and I will never deviate from it." On the Maoists Stevie believed his clinching argument about the Bookshop was "what would happen if I set up a Catholic bookshop in Red Square in Moscow". Even more recently he declared emotionally about the Late Late Show at "the Credit Union meeting" I was again contacted on Saturday and I again refused, but if I had known that Fred Fennessy, the treasurer of the Redemptorist Credit Union, the biggest union in Ireland, was going I would certainly have gone and stood shoulder to shoulder with him". This illustrates Stevie's religious sentiment. It is based both on pragmatic political necessity and on sentimental feelings of solidarity with his native city and with the poorest sections of it who attend the Confraternity and benefit from its credit union. He has ensured a constant supply of favourable publicity for himself by his championing of local causes. He has, however, in periods of temporary personal eclipse resorted to bizarre methods in order to keep himself in the public eye. In 1952, for instance, just after his Mayoralty and his first failure to enter the Dail, he embarked on a strange venture.
Stevie and the Wrestler
On September 22 1952 Coughlan arrived home from Nice in the South of France. A short while before that he had embarked on a sales trip to Vienna to enquire about a processed dry food chemical industry. Of this he merely said "there will be more about that later". Stevie had a more exciting revelation in hand; he announced that he had formed a new Limited company. His partners in the company were a French inventor called Monsieur Bloque and Mr.Alfred James Deane, better known as Man Mountain Deane, the ex British wrestling Champion. This strange trio had purchased a "non skid device" which Coughlan announced would shortly be tested in Limerick. On October 8 Stevie announced that the test would be carried out on the Dock Road by Spike Rhiendo, the famous motor racing champion. On October II Stevie once again reached the front page of the Limerick Leader when he revealed that the stretch would be treated with oil, grease and similar lubricants and that several prominent local citizens and Churchmen had been invited to watch the demonstration. On the following day Spike Rhiendo did his duty and the car did not skid. However on October 18 Stevie played his card. He announced that the non skid device was to be made in Limerick. Limerick at the time was suffering from severe unemployment and Stevie's new factory was gratefully hailed in the local press which carried main headlines on the news. Shortly afterwards during another test again in front of a "distinguished" gathering-the car turned over a number of times and the whole non-skid device idea was quickly forgotten. In later years Stevie has lost none of his flair for publicity. In 1967, for instance, when a meat factory was closed in Limerick Stevie did not attack the closure in the Dail. Instead he turned up during another debate in a dishevelled state, was greeted with cries of "you're drunk" from government benches and shouted incoherently about the factory's closure. He was removed forth-with from the house by ushers. This garbled intervention did not save the jobs of the workers in Limerick but it earned him the praise of the local press and the gratitude of the newly unemployed.
Stevie and the Milkmaids
He is also a highly emotional person. This has its political benefits and drawbacks. When combined with a high degree of emotional stress and slight over indulgence in alcohol it can lead him to make statements which have been well nigh politically suicidal for him in the Labour party. But it also allows him leeway to make speeches and pleas which no other politician could possibly get away with. Few other politicians can become enthused by the various Irish dairy products and retain his credibility, but Stevie re-Stevie-the Poet
Only Stevie could get away with that. At all times and occasions Stevie has been capable of high flown, flowery emotion. In 1951, for instance, as Mayor he welcomed American delegates to the National Rural Life Congress with "Ireland owes a lot to the U.S.A. but the U.S.A. owes a lot to Ireland. For it was Ireland who set the torch of Faith alight on the American continent. Irish Christian social principles are based on family and parish". Stevie, however finds it easiest to be emotional about himself and especially when he evokes the numinous, almost sexual unity, of Stevie and Limerick. In his 1968 Christmas cards which he sent to 23,000 constituents he poetically evoked this union:
"I am your voice to question wrongs; To state your case and plead it; To wrangle for your civic rights, To quarrel if you need it. And I who am your voice, salute you And Give you festive greeting. May your Chrisunas time be merry As a Dail Eireann meeting, Though not so acrimonious-And may your heart rejoice. I wish you all you'd wish yourself, for am I not your voice?" The following Christmas Steve and Peggy had become Mayoress and Mayor and Stevie's poetry propounded a similar thesis. "When protestors and rioters leave and men of good will sadly grieve who will raise up their hopes and show them the ropes? No one better than Limerick's own Steve". Stevie has frequently used his emotion to further his political ambitions. During the last election his primary tactic was a plea to give him his pension. From house to house he pleaded, with some justification, that he had two more years to go in the Dail before he qualified for his pension and surely the poor people of Limerick would not turn him out of office on to the streets.
Stevie and the locusts
Like most gombeen politicians Stevie has not infrequently utilised the more reactionary and less rational of his constituents prejudices to gain electoral favours. An obvious example is the whole Maoist scare but a much more invidious one is Coughlan's consistent attitude to itinerants. In June 1955, for instance, as a member of City Council Coughlan made an incredible speech. He said "it is difficult to obtain water in Garryowen". This was quite probable as amenities in working class areas of Limerick were not very good in the 1950's. But Coughlan proceeded to blame the itinerants for interfering with the water supplies. He continued by alleging that tinkers' horses were wandering into people's gardens and related that he had gone with the Mayor (Alderman G. E. Russell) and the City Manager on a deputation to the Gardai about it. This charge against the itinerants was quite plausible but at the next meeting on August 8 Coughlan brought forward some draconian proposals to solve the problem. After complaining once again about the itinerants horses he suggested that two squares in the Blackboy Pike be blocked off to prevent tinkers camping and then added "if something is not done soon the people will take the law into their own hands". He finished by suggesting that itinerants should be forcibly put into a fenced-in site with water. In November 1964 Coughlan made an even more invidious speech about itinerants at the City Council. He denounced the itinerants as "a plague,far worse than the locusts of long ago". Stevie, then removed his glasses and pointed them at Councillor Jack Kirby and said "I blame the publicans as well as anyone else. I blame Councillor Kirby for serving them drink". On the same evening the City Council refused to obey a request from Mr. Blayney to set up a serviced site for itinerants. From time to time, of course, the exigencies of local politics force Stevie to adopt a stance to the left of his stated social ideals. Last year during the Maintenance strike when Cement Ltd. locked out 14 craftsmen in Limerick in solidarity with the Federated Union of Employers and precipitated an unnecessary 5 week strike, Coughlan took an unpreceden-ted swing to the left. On successive weeks in the Dail he called for the abolition of the Federated Union of Employers and the compulsory nationalisation of Cement Limited. Since then he has resumed friendly relations with Cement Limited after his overtures for a settlement of the Cement strike were rejected in Portlaoise by the two strike committees involved. Coughlan's source methodically harps on the backward political attitudes of some of his constituents but, this has no fixed ideological right wing base. When the occasion demands it Stevie can swing on the political pendulum to any position left, right or centre.
Stevie and the Reds
Coughlan's weakness as a politician has only become evident in the last four years. He has shown himself to be excessively attached to power in Limerick. His reaction to any real or imagined challenge to his status has been unbalanced and often hysterical. Similarly his reaction to challenges inthe local Labour party have been unwarranted and have exposed his susceptibilities rather than confirmed his unchallenged position. Whereas 5 years ago Stevie, like most Irish politicians, hardly cared at all about ideology his continuous defeats within the Labour party have caused him to develop a consuming hatred of left wing socialism and of the men who have confounded him with quotations from Connolly and Larkin. The first sign of Labour's new shift to socialism in Limerick carne in1966. Jim Kemmy, a self-educated highly articulate and intelligent brick-layer and organising secretary of the only Labour branch in Limerick City, began a recruiting drive in Limerick which brought in over 100 new working class members, Once the new members had been enrolled Kemmy planned to educate them in the basic tenets of socialism. This scared and angered Stevie who distrusted this new unknown force and the new unknown member. On April 26 the City branch announced a press conference to publicise plans for modernisation and a further recruitment drive. Coughlan turned up early for this meeting with a bunch of tough old Clann na Poblachta butties. They locked the doors, refused to let any journalists into the meeting, seized all copies of the proposed plans and in effect sabotaged the meeting. After this move by Stevie the Labour party sent down an investigation team headed by Brendan Corish and Michael O'Leary. At the time there were nine rural Labour branches and only one city branch so Coughlan packed the meeting with his cronies from the rural branches. At the meeting he proposed that Jim Kemmy and Dan Clancy-Chairman of the city branch and founder member of the party in Limerick be expelled. However, Kemmy with his strong trade union support and Clancy with his old guard backing stymied the attempt. Coughlan's hegemony was further threatened early in 1967 when the local election boundaries were altered. The Labour party formed seven branchesin the city of Limerick to cater for the new wards. Coughlan opposedthese changes bitterly and understandably so as the new re-arrangement gave Kemmy a strong base in the party in Limerick which later ensured his election on to the Administrative Council of the party.
Stevie and the Election
Coughlan became more and more estranged from the political ideals of the Labour party. Prior to the General election last year he opposed the proposed membership of Labour's new intellectual T.D.s, particularly the entry of Conor Cruise O'Brien. He predicted that Labour would be "going to the Dail in a mini-bus" if it allowed these gentlemen into the party. He was almost correct in his assessment of the number of Labour seats in the new Dail but to his surprise and dismay the intellectuals, far from losing their deposits, were all elected in Dublin. Coughlan ran a personal campaign for re-election. Before the election he sent out an appeal for funds, including once again a snatch of his poetry without consulting the Labour party and issued raffle tickets on behalf of the Labour Party re-questing that all money be sent to his home. On the day prior to the election his drinking friend, the editor of the Limerick Leader, Tom Tobin, published a suspicious anonymous letter from a "Labour Veteran" which read "I am an old Labour supporter and on this occasion as usual I will be voting for Steve Coughlan, who has given wonderful service to the people of Limerick, regardless of their political affiliations .... The sad thing is that we have others who would like to push out old veterans like Steve and it would appear they are making a damned good try. As will be seen from the newspapers, radio and television, Labour has gone way out in adopting the intellectuals. We will see how far they get through this and we will see that the people of Ireland are not the softies that the leaders of the Labour party would like us believe. We do not want Labour to be represented by people who have turned their backs on the needs of the ordinary people of this country time after time in the not too distant past ... I realise Mr. Editor, that I may not be fair to the other Labour candidates in Limerick by seeking support for Steve Coughlan, but I am a staunch believer in getting things done and Coughlan has shown us he can make progress." This letter, the author of which was never re-vealed, was placed conspiciously on the front page of the paper and was a clear attempt to stop people voting for Mick Lipper and Tony Pratschke, the other Labour Candidates.
Stevie and the Leader
After the election, when the bitter reality of defeat carne home to Coughlan, his anger at the new leaders of the Labour party intensified. He has conducted an often hysterical campaign against the new Labour T.D.s and many members of the local Labour party especially Jim Kemmy. This has been facilitated by the friendship Coughlan has developed and courted with the editor of the Limerick Leader, Tom Tobin. Indeed in each of Steve's anti-leftist drives since the General Election he has been in close liaison with the editorial staff of the Limerick Leader. The Limerick Leader has not always been a supporter of Coughlan. Indeed early in 1969 it criticised Coughlan for calling a Fine Gael Councillor "an irresponsible reptile". Similarly in 1966 it criticised him for locking out the press from the above mentioned press conference. However in 1969 Steve struck up a firm friendship with Tobin and Cormac Liddy in the Commercial Club where journalists drink. The two pronged force of Coughlan and the Limerick Leader has forced political tempers in Limerick up to a crescendo. When Coughlan attacked Bernadette Devlin when she visited Limerick he was reported favourably. When he snubbed Conor Cruise O'Brien when he spoke in Limerick by not turning up until the end of the meeting he was not criticised. In December when he attacked Barry Desmond the "overnight politician" the Leader commented "Is Mr. Coughlan to toe the party line? Or will he stick to his personal views and see that the Springboks are given a true Limerick welcome?". When Coughlan attacked the "handful of radicals all of whom with one exception have not presented themselves to the public", the Limerick Leader went one step further "sincere and honest politicians like Alderman Coughlan have every right to represent the people of this city and they must not be hindered by extremists who would hoist the red flag over Limerick if they had their way . . . there must be an end to all this bickering that is going on inthe Labour party and the only way it can be done is by throwing out the radicals. "When the Limerick Leader on January 26 commented "We say that the Irish Revolutionary Youth Movement must be crushed in Limerick and they must be run out of this city without delay. We call on everyone and particularly the clergy and the trades unions of Limerick to rise up and unite to crush the menance that is threatening the youth of this city today". Coughlan was not slow to follow. He said a day later "As mayor of Limerick I wish to alert the citizens to the dangers of the insidious propaganda being distributed by left wing agents of a foreign power .... The Limerick Leader has already drawn attention in forceful terms to this grave situation and I add my voice to theirs and issue a solemn warning while there is still time". The recent controversy over the Jewish pogrom of 1904 is very illustrativeof the character of Coughlan. He blustered into a silly inarticulate hallucinatory condemnation of the Jews at the time-not from any anti-semitic feeling nor indeed from personal recollection as he implied (he wasn't born then) nor informed knowledge-but solely in response to an attack, as he saw it, on Limerick in last month's issue of Nusight.
His fanatical parochialism is capable of evoking hysteria in his "I am Limerick" complex. Illusions, tears and de-nunciations flow freely. Once embroiled in a controversy he is too stubborn to retract even in the face of overwhelming reason and fact. But despite it all-his prejudice, parochialism, irrationality, ruthlessness and emotionalism' Stevie is basically loveable. He had replaced his soul-brother Donogh O'Malley in the hearts of many Limerick people and even if on a national level his politics are often despicable and his antics laughable, his inate generosity and big heartedness to his own, his own people absolves him of much.
The Labour Party's reaction to Coughlan's recent outbursts has been shamefully cowardly, It remained mute during the Springbok affairs and on the Maoist incident issued a scared equivocal statement after Coughlan had threatened to resign from the party if it publicly admonished him. The left-wing trade-unionist element in the party was becoming increasingly restive with Coughlan's association with them and when he blurted out his anti-Jewish remarks - they revolted. Motions condemning Coughlan and calling for his expulsion from the party came streaming into headquarters-but they had little effecton the Administrative Council meeting on April 30th. At this meeting Matt Merrigan, secretary of the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers Union, proposed that Coughlan be expelled from the party. The motion was opposed by all the Dail deputies present. Dr. John O'Connell argued that Coughlan was unwell and should be left alone. Justin Keating concurred as did Brendan Corish who prior to the meeting had canvassed support in favour of Coughlan. Michael O'Leary and Sean Treacy adopted a more militant line. O'Leary hysterically attacked Jim Kemmy calling him a fifth columnist and a "Nusight" spy. "I suppose all this will be appearing in the next issue of 'Nusight'-he jeered." Sean Treacy also attacked Kemmy and "Nusight",citing it as typical of the ungodly typeof journalism that was driving theLabourParty to the brink of ruin. Hefurther insisted that is was "the
lefties" that were driving Coughlan out of his mind. The T.D.s were supported by Joe Bermingham who was the Labour candidate in the recent Kildare by-election, and Vincent McDonald. Merrigan argued that the Labour Party had lost all credibility as asocialistparty because of its acqui-escence to Coughlan's antics and thatit was now indistinguishable fromFianna Fail.The motion was rejected by 16votes to 10 and then Jim Kemmy,MattMerrigan, Brendan Scott, John Byrne and the Financial Secretary, Niall Green, all resigned from the administrative council. Their resignations provoked wild jubilation among some of the other members.
Obviously the dispute will not end here. Indeed it's likely to go on until next January when the annual conference takes place and then the full·implications of the Coughlan affair will become manifest. The Labour Party is an unnatural political coalition of socialists and conservative rural independent careerists. The sooner it splits the better for socialism and for sensible politics inIreland.
*O'Leary is correct in suggesting that 'Nusight' interviewed Jim Kemmy in connection with last issue's feature on"Fascism in Limerick", as it did for this article. However in both cases our sources have been diverse and numerous. We are sure O'Leary would be surprised if he knew of our source of information on the A.C. meeting.