‘Traditional values of rural Ireland are being wiped out by a liberal crusade’
Rural Ireland has given a lot to Mattie McGrath.
As a child growing up in the parish of Newcastle – a former Gaeltacht area that straddles the border between counties Tipperary and Waterford – McGrath’s early exposure to farming, politics and religion laid the foundation for a moral compass that still guides him today.
One of many children, he learned the lessons of hard work and dedication on the family’s small fragmented farm; consisting of a mixture of cows, sheep, potatoes and cereals.
Every morning McGrath, and his siblings, milked two or three cows each by hand before school; and then again when they returned home in the afternoon.
“We’d go out to milk in our school clothes; then we’d be loaded into the back of a van with five or six neighbours; my father would sing ‘Oro se do bheatha abhaile’ all the way down to the school – that is a powerful memory,” he said.
During his secondary school days, the now 59-year-old, used to take a half day every Wednesday to go to the mart.
Back in 1974, calves were terribly cheap; I remember a lot of calves being abandoned in the mart. I remember bringing home five in one day; I bought them for a pound each.
“My uncle, and another man, worked with us for 60 years – that time most farms had men working like that; I learned a lot from them sitting at our kitchen table.
Politics was always a topic of discussion. His father, Seamus, was a member of the old Irish Republican Army (IRA).
“My father was an old IRA member and had been in prison for 14 months during the War of Independence and Civil War. He was on the republican side and ended up in jail in Clonmel, Limerick and the Curragh; along with my uncles,” he said.
His father was a founding member of Fianna Fail in the local area.
“There was a lot of storytelling when I was younger. My father’s experience gave me a great sense of place; a great sense of respect for the country we lived in. Our freedom was hard fought for,” he said.
“I am a Catholic, a practicing Catholic – that came from my parents. My mother had very strong morals; she had very good values and that was instilled in us,” he said.
At 16-years-old, McGrath was out on a tractor cutting hedges when he pulled up at an old mill where a young Fianna Fail meeting was being held. He got involved and quickly escalated through the ranks.
He was a big supporter of former Taoiseach Charlie Haughey.
“My father was a big Charlie man. I drove him up to the Dail the night he was made Taoiseach, so it was natural that I would follow on.
“He was very intelligent, very intellectual and he was able to see when he was dealing with people that weren’t up to the job. He took no prisoners; he was in charge of his department.”
The Independent TD vividly remembers how constituents were drawn to Haughey’s charisma when he visited Tipperary to open a bypass in 1990.
My feet and shins were black and blue with people trying to get near him; to touch him – especially the ladies. They were all in high heels trying to embrace him; I couldn’t believe his popularity.
While McGrath’s Fianna Fail star was on the rise, so too was the family contracting business he had established.
McGrath first stood for convention in Fianna Fail in 1979, and again in the 1985 local elections. He was co-opted to south Tipperary county council in 1990, and topped the polls in 2004 to become chairman.
“I bought a JCB first and then I developed the business. We now have 30 machines, my wife and I, in the company. We work 50/50 for the farming community and public services.
“We do a lot of work on farm buildings, excavating tanks, drainage and all that kind of work as well as hedge-cutting and a limited amount of slurry spreading,” said McGrath praising his wife, Margaret, for her commitment to the company while he was on the road.
However, when the economic crash hit Fianna Fail like a sledgehammer, McGrath’s belief in the party was thrown into disarray.
“We were requested to be in Dublin to vote on the bank guarantee. I knew it smelled rotten. The biggest regret I have is voting to bail out the banks, because we were just treated – and are still being treated – with sustain by the banks,” he added.
After a number of much-publicised run-ins with the upper echelons of government, McGrath lost his position as party whip in 2010 when he voted against the banning of stag-hunting.
He was losing faith in Fianna Fail party leader Michael Martin (TD). He said he was becoming “increasingly concerned” about the level of power and influence afforded to the party’s senior civil servants.
Personally, he was also finding it increasingly difficult to take a more liberal party line on deep-rooted, traditional issues that he associated with a conservative rural Ireland.
In 2011, McGrath made the “very difficult” decision to walk away from the party and announced that he would contest the 2011 election as an independent candidate.
“They stand for precious nothing. Micheal Martin is a weak leader; he has brought the party on a liberal crusade.
“I have some great friends in Fianna Fail, there are some great TDs and ministers over the years; but they are just ignored and laughed at,” he said.
I was never as happy as I am as an independent. I can say what I want to say; do what I want to do; instead of being told ‘that is not party policy, you can’t do it’.
McGrath, who remains heavily involved in his contracting business, says the impact of European legislation on farming has been devastating.
‘We can’t have a hen without a herd number’
“We have every small abattoir in the country closed down; wonderful businesses that killed locally, knew the quality and sold locally. Now they are all closed down with regulation and the ones left are crippled by it.
“We can’t have a hen now without a herd number. Everything is over regulated here because we have an army of officials where we get legislation in from Europe which can be detrimental.
“We want to be the best boys in Europe and what did we get from the banking inquiry? We got a kick up on the backside. It’s total overkill, it has become a lucrative industry here to police all these regulations,” he said.
However, McGrath explained that the biggest issue facing farmers in his constituency is “home-grown vulture funds” swooping on troubled farms.
“We have foreign vulture funds buying up properties from the banks, but we also have home-grown vulture funds in Tipperary buying up every piece of land that comes up in Tipperary, Waterford, east Cork, south Kilkenny, Kildare – vulture funds are buying up unimpeded.
“Where is the will of Government to tackle this obnoxious, disgusting, Cromwellian-type takeover of our people and their homes? There is no justice; it’s all over the country; they know about it and there is no legislation.”
Reflecting on the results of the same-sex marriage referendum in 2015 – 62% in favour, 38% against – McGrath believes there is a “silent cohort” of voters that feel “completely unrepresented” in Leinster House.
He claims this fraction, and possibly more, would vote in support of retaining the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland – the equal right to life of the mother and the unborn child – when a referendum is called next year.
“I’m 101% in favour of retaining the Eighth Amendment. It has saved hundreds of thousands of lives.
“It’s a matter for the electorate; but, there are a lot of silent people out there that don’t want it changed. I meet them every day of the week; and many are Fianna Fail.
There are 38% out there who feel they have no representation; if not more; and they are appalled and abhorred to repealing the abortion legislation, especially the way the Citizens Assembly voted on it.
“The Citizens Assembly is a flawed process. It is meant to be independent, randomly picked, but there are counties with no membership. That is very disappointing,” he said.
Throughout his career, McGrath has depended on his traditional value system to lead him through some of the country’s darkest days. He regrets that many of the current generations are “so quick to disregard” traditional morals and principals historically associated with country life.
“There is a religious attack on all churches now, not just the Catholic Church. It’s as if we want to get rid of anything that is deemed to be old fashioned.
“The traditional values stood us well in this country. What kind of moral compass is operating at the centre of Government today. We are too much influenced by international sources and we’ll be shouting stop when it’s too late,” he concluded.