‘Hell at the Gates’ review – political side of financial crisis

Book details fall of FF, features contributions from Brian Cowen and Brian Linehan’s family

It can seem the bailout era has been examined to its limits, but some aspects of those traumatic times have been overlooked.

The multitude of inquiries and reports largely scrutinised the economic and financial causes of the crash, but little by way of detailed work has been done on its associated political crisis, which saw the implosion of a government and the humiliation of a once-proud party.

A new book by political journalists John Lee and Daniel McConnell fills that gap in the public knowledge by chronicling the collapse of the Fianna Fáil-Green coalition and the disintegration of relationships at the top of that administration.

Entitled Hell at the Gates: The Inside Story of Ireland's Financial Downfall, after the phrase the late Brian Lenihan used to describe what he felt was coming as he travelled to Brussels to negotiate the bailout deal, it can be seen as a political companion piece to the banking inquiry report.


Perhaps with the comfort of the intervening years, many of the key players in the events are on the record. Cowen, who gave evidence at the banking inquiry, here answers many questions the inquiry members could not ask about the collapse of Fianna Fáil. The Lenihan view is given by the former minister's brother Conor and his aunt Mary O'Rourke.

The book is at its strongest when dealing with the raw politics of those unprecedented times, when the Fianna Fáil- Green government was hurtling downhill.

It is not a hagiography of the late Lenihan, as other accounts on this period have tended towards. The extent of his plotting, and dithering about whether he should move against Cowen, is detailed and confirmed by numerous sources, such as current Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin and then junior minister Billy Kelleher, as well as Lenihan's family.


The authors come to some unflattering conclusions about the former finance minister, who at times is said to have engaged in “make-believe” politics in his pursuit of leadership. He is also described as a “deeply conflicted plotter” but he largely emerges with substantial credit.

Willie O'Dea recounts how Cowen called him up and asked his honest opinion on whether he should continue as taoiseach, and the Limerick TD told him it was time to go. Martin and Cowen both recount the meeting when Martin told his predecessor the game was up.

Often such exchanges are left as the subject of political gossip and never proven or substantiated. Hell at the Gates has ensured that key political moments of that time are now a matter of public record.