Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny, Ireland’s next taoiseach (prime minister), finds himself at the pinnacle of his career at an age when most politicians are winding down.
He will be 60 in April, but an exceptionally youthful appearance makes him look at least a decade younger. He will be the second oldest Irish leader on assuming office -- only Sean Lemass was older.
His physical fitness is legendary, especially his mountain climbing -- he has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro ---and bicycling skills. In his youth he was a talented Gaelic footballer.
The odds would have been long against Kenny becoming taoiseach based on the early part of his political career.
He was only 24 when he first took over the seat held by his late father, Henry, in 1975. His father was a famous Gaelic footballer who won an All-Ireland medal with Mayo in 1952. His mother at 93 is still hale and hearty.
Kenny, the third of five children, was the chosen son to keep the seat in the family. He grew up in Castlebar, a market town, and later trained as a teacher before he took his father’s seat.
At just 24 Kenny found the going pretty hard in a Dail (Parliament) dominated by Fianna Fail, which had a record election victory in 1977. Like many young men in politics, he was seen as a lightweight in a party dominated by old bulls.
When Fine Gael finally got into power in 1981, led by Dr. Garrett FitzGerald, Kenny was passed over for promotion and would be on the backbenches for a decade. In 1986 he had a brief spell as a junior minister at the Department of Education.
His career stalled a further seven years when Fine Gael were defeated in the 1987 election, but he became a prominent spokesman for the opposition on several issues as well as chief whip, in charge of marshalling the votes, for a brief period.
It was 1994 however, and almost 20 years in the Dail before Kenny got his chance at becoming a front rank leader. He was appointed Minister for Tourism by incoming Taoiseach John Bruton.
He had a successful term, highlighted by growing tourism numbers and the rejuvenation of the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Dublin, which had fallen on hard times, and bringing a stage of the Tour de France to Ireland for the first time ever.
In 2001, out of power again, Bruton resigned and Kenny made his first leadership challenge but lost which turned out to be his first lucky break.
The victor was Michael Noonan, who went on to a crushing defeat in the following election as the Celtic Tiger years had begun in style.
Fine Gael was reduced to just 31 seats in the 2002 election, and Kenny took over a deeply demoralized party.
With Ireland still in thrall to the Celtic Tiger and the first cracks only barely appearing, Kenny was in for a tough battle to wrest control from Fianna Fail in the 2007 election. Luckily for him, given subsequent events, he did not make it, and Fianna Fail was returned.
By 2011 the economy was in wrack and ruin, and Kenny and Fine Gael ran a highly disciplined campaign that resulted in a record haul of seats and Kenny as the next leader of Ireland.
On the night of his party’s victory he flew by helicopter from Mayo to Dublin to a victory rally. A journalist who accompanied him noted that there were tears in his eyes on several occasions as he reminisced about his late father and the people who had meant so much to him on his climb to the top.
Kenny got off the helicopter and arrived at the victory reception almost blinded by the huge crush of photographers snapping away and the vast number of media cameras present.
Enda Kenny had arrived at the pinnacle at last, and the mountain climber could proclaim victory. It had been an upward struggle, but he had finally reached the top and planted his flag.
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