Michael O’Kennedy obituary: A Fianna Fáil veteran who enjoyed long and varied career

Former minister, senator and European commissioner is remembered for his integrity

Born: February 21st, 1936
Died: April 15th, 2022

Michael O’Kennedy, who has died aged 86, enjoyed a lengthy political career which included stints as a cabinet minister, a senator, and a European commissioner.

He was proud of his family's strong republican tradition. His uncle Michael was killed in Borrisokane in the War of Independence in 1920 and his father was interned in Belfast in the same year.

He was the second of six children born to Ned and Lena Kennedy in Nenagh, Co Tipperary. His father, an accomplished singer, managed the local cinema and died when Michael was 17. Lena ran the family grocery shop at Emmet Place and was a major influence on her son.


A bright student, he attended boarding school at St Flannan's College in Ennis. This may have guided his decision to train for the priesthood. He spent 18 months at St Patrick's seminary in Maynooth but concluded that it was not the life for him. He retained his strong faith throughout his life and kept in contact with the seminary and his former classmates.

He then won a scholarship to UCD, where he studied ancient classics and completed an MA on ethnography in the work of Herodotus. But like the priesthood, the life of a classics’ expert did not appeal and he changed course again, studying law at King’s Inns while teaching to fund his studies.

Major turning point

The decision to become a barrister would be a major turning point in his life. He met several young Fianna Fáil barristers and began a lifelong friendship with Brian Lenihan snr, who introduced him to the then taoiseach Seán Lemass.

He qualified as a barrister in 1961, and four years later ran on the Fianna Fáil ticket for Tipperary North in the general election.

He narrowly lost out, but his strong showing earned him a Seanad seat and his political career was under way. It was an eventful time in his life as he married his wife Breda Heavey in the same year.

When the next general election came about in 1969, he topped the poll and entered Dáil Éireann with fellow first-time deputies such as Garret FitzGerald, Barry Desmond and Ray MacSharry.

He would go on to represent Tipperary North a further seven times and hold ministerial portfolios including finance, foreign affairs, agriculture and transport.

After Jack Lynch resigned in 1979, he was the only cabinet minister to announce publicly that he would back Charles Haughey in the Fianna Fáil leadership battle with George Colley.

He later said his decision was guided by his constituents who saw Haughey as “a man who could make things happen . . . I was always very influenced by what was said at home. I made my decision on that basis, and that basis alone.” His support was seen as a crucial factor in Mr Haughey’s victory.

He became a European commissioner in 1981, with responsibility for personnel, administration and the statistics office. However, he missed the cut and thrust of the Irish political scene and was happy to return to contest the 1982 general election and win back his seat. He turned down Mr Haughey’s offer of the position of attorney general in that cabinet, saying he had been away from law for too long.

Potential leader

After Fianna Fáil left power following the second general election of that year, his name was floated as a potential party leader, but rumours of Mr Haughey’s resignation were premature and Mr Haughey led the party into government in 1987.

O'Kennedy was appointed minister for agriculture in that government and held this post until 1991. When Mr Haughey resigned the following year, O'Kennedy was among the eight cabinet ministers sacked by his successor Albert Reynolds.

O’Kennedy made a bid for the Fianna Fáil nomination for the presidency in 1997, but the momentum behind Mary McAleese’s campaign swept him aside. He was a co-chair of the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body between 1997 and 2002 and became the first former government minister to accept an honour from the British queen: he was awarded an honorary CMG for his work in forging links between the parliaments. His family said his republican background meant that he agonised over accepting the award, but he believed it was in the public good.

In 2000 O’Kennedy announced his decision to retire from the Dáil after the next election – which came two years later. Speaking to this newspaper, he said it was, by far, the most difficult decision he ever had to make. And he paid tribute to his family for keeping him grounded. “I would not have survived 35 years in politics if I did not have the stability and certainty of my family, who would bring me down a peg when I needed to be.”

O'Kennedy returned to his work as a senior counsel in 2002 and also served on the Refugee Appeals Tribunal, where he was remembered as a fair and impartial chairman.

First love

Politics was always his first love, according to his son Brian, who recalled that he loved the personal interactions involved in canvassing. "I remember him at the after-Mass rallies, up on the back of a trailer giving speeches. They were very exciting. He never passed a door when canvassing. He'd never say, that's a Fine Gael or Labour or Sinn Féin house so we won't go in there."

Former colleagues from all sides of the house paid tribute to his integrity and courteousness. Taoiseach Micheál Martin said he was always available to give quiet words of advice and encouragement. "To him, what was important was not just holding office, but using it for the good of our country." Former tánaiste Mary Harney said he was very helpful to her as a young politician, and she greatly valued his wise counsel.

Friends and colleagues remembered how his eyes always lit up when talking about Nenagh and Tipperary. At his funeral Brian O’Kennedy told mourners his father’s proudest moment in politics was when he brought a group of 20 EU agricultural ministers down the narrow street in Nenagh to meet his mother in her little grocery shop.

Outside politics, he loved sport, particularly GAA, and played hurling with Nenagh Éire Óg. He had been sea swimming long before it was fashionable, escaping to the Forty Foot whenever possible.

Like his father, he loved to sing, and he was known for his renditions of Slievenamon and other Tipperary songs at Fianna Fáil gatherings.

He was diagnosed with dementia 12 years ago, and while his short-term memory failed, his long-term memory remained sharp. He could still recite poetry and sing songs right up to his death.

Michael O’Kennedy is survived by his wife Breda, his children Brian, Orla and Mary and their extended families, and siblings Sheila, Páidí, Noreen and Eamonn. He was predeceased by his sister Breda.