“Look, I don’t know if I’m ‘a politician’. I class myself as someone who’s there for people, to attend the meetings, to do the best I can and to take the tough decisions when needed for the good of my county.”
IT’S been quite a journey for self-described ‘thoroughbred narie’ Terry O’Brien.
The Labour councillor, now resident in Tonevane, has seen the best of times and the worst of times and has the air of a man who’s enjoying life, despite the rigours of the canvass in the run-up to the May 23 election.
I met him in his office at the Kerry Branch of the Irish Wheelchair Association in Killeen to find out more about the past and what he and fellow councillors can do for the town’s future, should he be re-elected.
The youngest of ten children from a house in Cahill’s Park, Terry was educated in Holy Family, The Green and later the Technical School in Clash where he played on the football team (“I loved my time there”).
In the summer of 1989 he went to upstate New York to do Summer Camp counselling. On August 22, the day before he was due to go home, he had an accident in a swimming pool which changed his life forever. He broke his neck and was paralysed from the waist down.
Terry spent about the next year between hospitals and rehabilitation centres, but he didn’t wallow in self pity or get depressed.
“Very early on I accepted it was my mistake. It’d be different maybe if somebody was drunk and ploughed into me in a car. Then perhaps I may have said ‘I don’t deserve this, it was your fault’. But it was my mistake, I dived into the pool.”
He spent some time in Tralee RTC (where he met his wife Teresa) and later did a CE scheme before he joined the staff at the Kerry branch of the Irish Wheelchair Association, where he still works.
So how did he get involved in politics? According to Terry, the family didn’t have any political allegiances but, being from the Strand Road area, they were neighbours of the Springs.
“You had to be big admirers of the Springs and what they have done for the town. I remember when I had my accident, Dick called to the house to see how I was getting on and was there anything he could do for me. I was impressed by him, he was a real statesman.”
In 1999, Dick came calling again, but this time it was business. He asked Terry would he run for the Town Council and he agreed. At the time he was involved with the Kerins O’Rahilly’s GAA Club, Partnership Tra-Li and other groups.
“I was interested to see how I’d get on. I admire anybody who puts their name up for election. I was lucky I got a good vote but I did have the blessing of having Maeve Spring on my side. She was class, a great councillor.”
Maeve Spring became ill before the elections in 2004 and suggested Terry go for her seat on the County Council, as well as the Town Council again. He topped both polls.
He was then selected by the party to contest the general election in 2007 but, as he said, “I got my answer from the public that time.” He came fourth and said he wouldn’t be rushing back to run again.
He retained both county and town council seats in 2009 and here he is, running for the county again.
Terry says the role of the councillor is not the “gravy train’ some people make it out to be.
“People talk about expenses and the gravy train and so on, but it is hard work. The year that I was Mayor of Kerry, while it was a great honour, was tough sometimes. There’s a lot of travelling, meetings and unsociable hours.”
Terry says it’s a very different ball game going for the council rather than the Dail.
“The local elections are all about the person. The person who you’re sure will go to the meetings and do the work in the community. The general election is a very dirty campaign. I wouldn’t do it again. There’s nasty stuff written about you on the internet, which is all faceless. I remember when I running for the general election there was rumours going around that I was in trouble with the guards and I was thrown out of school when I was younger. I never saw the inside of the station growing up. Mind you, my mother probably thought I should have!” he joked.
When it comes to the issues facing Tralee, Terry realises that the powers of the council are limited.
“I got a text last night from a guy, irate that I was supporting the water charges. The water charges are coming in because of the Troika, but some people think that the county councillors can change the world. What we can do is look out for things like zoning and planning which are hugely important. And also to promote tourism. Look at what the Town Council has helped bring to the town over the past 15 years, especially with the Fels Point area, the cinema, the Wetlands, the museum and so on.”
He’s not in favour of making promises regarding bringing down the property tax either.
“Maybe it’s not the best to make the populist choice all the time. You have to be a realist with the hand we’re dealt with at the moment. It’s fine to say ‘I want a reduction in the tax or the rates’. If you have a budget that’s balanced, what do you do? Reduce services? You have to be careful what you commit to.”
As chairman of the ITT, he feels the purchase of the Kerry Technology Park by the college and the merging of the Institute with CIT will be enormous for the town.
“The technology park is so important. We need to secure it and get more companies in there. Getting the Munster Technological University will be huge for Tralee. It’ll mean people can get their university degrees here. You won’t have to go to Cork, Limerick, Galway or Dublin. The spin-off for the town will be amazing.”
Away from politics and work, he keeps an eye on the fortunes of Man United (“I have the club membership badges from 1982. I’m no fair-weather supporter”) and Kerry football. One thing he would love to see is the return of Super-League basketball to town as he was Chairman of Tralee Tigers from some years. “The nights up in the complex back then, especially playing the Cork teams, were incredible.”
Of course Terry loves spending time with his family. He’s married to Teresa O’Sullivan from Bantry since 2001 and they have seven year old twins, Mark and Millie.
“They’re our little miracles, they’re just fantastic and they put things in perspective. Once you have your health and your happiness that’s what matters. A fella said to me the last day ‘what would you do if you lost your seat?’ I said you wouldn’t find me down the canal with my head in my hands.”