Helen rolls up the sleeves to polish Limerick’s act

Independent community candidate Helen O'Donnell has plans to get Limerick's house in order. Photo: Brendan Gleeson.

LIMERICK businesswoman Helen O’Donnell greets me with a smile when we meet for a morning stroll around Westfields Wetlands in the heart of Limerick City. The widow of former Fine Gael Minister and MEP Tom O’Donnell is instantly likeable. It’s hard not to be won over by her good nature.

As we wind down the Shannon banks towards the wetlands – which Helen describes as “an oasis in the city” – she proudly shares that she has lived in Limerick longer than anywhere else.

In her capacity as Limerick City Tidy Towns committee chair, Helen has been heavily involved in the annual Team Limerick Clean-Up – the one-day spring clean that takes place every Good Friday. She takes great pride in keeping Limerick looking its best and is not impressed when we are greeted by dog foul along our path.

“Communal spaces are essential in towns and villages. If you don’t have a lovely garden to sit out in, or you don’t have a garden for your dog, you can sit out and walk your dog here once you are respectful of the space,” she insists.

“It’s hard to believe that people don’t pick up after their dogs. It’s shocking. Or they do pick it up and hang it on a bush in plastic bags. What is that about?”

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Alan Jacques speaking to Helen O’Donnell about her bid for the Election of Mayor of Limerick. Photo: Brendan Gleeson.

Cleaning up Limerick

The veteran Limerick lady says it’s “so important that we care for our environment”, but believes “we are just falling down somewhere”.

“That’s not just in Limerick,” she hastens to add. “That is all over. Other cities abroad don’t have a problem, and there’s international good practice, but we should perhaps look at how people are managing in other places.”

“It’s like anything, you clean your house, you want to keep it that way for as long as possible. But if there’s rubbish or something, people will add to it. So if you have a room with all rubbish, everything will end up in there.”

“People do care,” she believes. “We had over 20,000 out for Team Limerick Clean-up and they are so committed. There’s an awful amount of rubbish on the roads and that has to be sorted out. That’s one of my bug-bears.”

The mayoral hopeful, however, is no one tricky pony and is quick to point out that there is more to this new high-powered position than keeping Limerick clean.

Alan Jacques speaking to Helen O’Donnell about her bid for the election of Mayor of Limerick. Photo: Brendan Gleeson.

An impressive CV

In December 1994, Helen opened her first business, an art and craft gallery and restaurant at the Dolmen at Honan’s Quay. February 1997 saw the opening of what became a much-loved cafe at the Hunt Museum.

She has also gleaned extensive political experience across numerous organisational boards and forums. One such saw her sitting beside John Bruton and John Hume on the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation in 1994, as part of the Northern Ireland Peace process. She was invited to be a member of the forum by John Bruton, who became Taoiseach while the forum was in session.

In 2012, Helen was named Limerick Person of the Year, so her CV is an impressive one.

She stops along our walk to speak seriously of the importance of getting the right person for the mayoral job – which some are calling Limerick’s ‘executive mayor’.

Helen is funding her mayoral campaign herself, putting her money where her mouth is, and reckons she ticks all the right boxes to be Limerick’s first directly elected mayor.

“I’m a community candidate. I have been involved with communities for years. I have obviously been involved in business, the environment through Tidy Towns Limerick Clean-up. All those areas are very important to me, but obviously for this job, there’s specific areas.

“It’s a legislative job, it’s a very important role. It’s much bigger than just cleaning. You have economic development, encouraging FDI (foreign direct investment) into the county, looking at the city centre, county towns, county villages, working with communities to help themselves. There’s a huge amount of support,” she says.

Helen explains that she has “been asked on numerous occasions over the last 12 months” to consider her candidacy.

“I had to seriously sit down and consider it at Christmas. I had to talk to family and friends and weigh it up. It was a huge step for me to take and I have never been tempted before to go into politics.

“I had been asked, both locally and nationally, and I totally resisted. But this is different, this is about Limerick.”

Independent mayoral candidate Helen O’Donnell. Photo: Brendan Gleeson.

A surprise for Fine Gael

I point out that news of Helen’s candidacy as an Independent came as a surprise, with word on the grapevine from day one that she was likely to run for Fine Gael.

“It was a surprise to them too,” she admits.

“My firm belief is that this should be above politics. It’s going to be a very big challenge. It’s the first in Ireland. Limerick is the first. We are leaders here and we will be watched very carefully.”

For that reason, she says, “it is essential we get the right person for the job”.

“I think Limerick is crying out for leadership. They will also need the ability to be a team player, because you are going to be in charge of a budget with 40 councillors who all have their own challenges and own areas, and I totally respect that.

“You will be working with an executive who will think this person has arrived from Mars. I respect that these people are lifelong local authority employees and suddenly this person is going to be the head of the local authority. It’s going to be a big change.”

‘He was my greatest friend but my biggest critic.’

Before I let her back to the campaign trail, I ask Helen what her late husband, colossus Limerick politician Tom O’Donnell, might think about her running.

“The funny thing is, we talked about it,” she says.

“He was my greatest friend but my biggest critic. He could be critical. He was a very straight man. But he was incredibly supportive and he would say, ‘you should really be mayor’.

“We used to laugh about it. But then this whole conversation evolved and the plebiscite took place. We’d talk about that and he would say ‘you should consider this’. Then unfortunately, three years ago, he died.

“He loved everything I was involved in and it gave him great interest, because I would be coming home telling him who I met, what I did, and reading then what would be printed in the paper.”

Helen says her late husband was “a great mentor, and I am so privileged to have had Tom in my life. I feel he is with me in spirit.”