Opening the Phelan file

Angela Phelan's latest Who's Who in Ireland, a list of influential Irish people has attracted some attention for its inclusions and omissions. The Irish Independent gossip columnist was herself poltically influential when she innocently caused the Labour-Fianna Fáil government to fall. By Emma Browne.


Angela Phelan might have included herself in a prominent position in her Who's Who catalogue of those deemed most influential in Ireland today. As a mere gossip columnist she might hardly aspire to a claim of influence, although the tone of her columns infer a social categorisation which, if anybody paid attention to it, might indeed have social consequences.

But her claim, or rather her entitlement, to a role of influence has more to do with the hyperbole surrounding the part she played in a political drama that had serious consequences for a family which features high in Phelan's imagined social hierarchy.

It has to do with the fall of the Albert Reynolds government in 1994 – and it should be stated at the outset that she modestly denies any role in that affair.

In his book, Snakes and Ladders, Fergus Finlay, the former programme manager for Dick Spring when he (Spring) was Tánaiste, says a "female gossip columnist" close to the Reynolds family started a chain of events that caused the downfall of the Reynolds government.

The story goes that Angela Phelan was in the Reynolds household as the controversy over the appointment of the then Attorney General, Harry Whelehan, to the presidency of the High Court was breaking. That controversy was fuelled by a perception that Harry Whelehan as Attorney General was tardy in the processing of a request by the Northern authorities for the extradition of a priest, Fr Brendan Smith, in connection with allegations concerning child sexual abuse. (Incidentally, Harry Whelehan had no part in any such tardiness.)

According to the story, Angela Phelan heard Albert Reynolds make reference to another case, the Duggan case, where there had also been a delay in processing the extradition of another priest. The story goes that Phelan made an innocent reference to this in conversation with a friend and former colleague, Jim Farrelley, who, as managing director of the Drogheda Independent, made mention of this to the editor of the newspaper, Paul Murphy, who in turn passed it on to the then Labour TD for Louth, Michael Bell, who in turn alerted Dick Spring. Spring, believing Albert Reynolds had concealed a significant dimension to the brewing controversy, walked himself and Labour out of government. The Albert Reynolds administration fell.

The story is all the more ironic because Angela Phelan had courted the Reynolds family for many years and through them had fuelled her gossip column with tales of the social doings of another inner circle.

Whether the story is true or not hardly matters for it situates Phelan not in the tawdry world of mere tittle-tattle but amid the great happenings of history, if that, too, is not stretching matters.

Her notion of who is influential in Irish society has been challenged since the publication of her Who's Who. Roy Keane, Garret Fitzgerald, Van Morrison, John Bruton and Mary Robinson are not counted as influential Irish people. But Harrison Ford, Emilio Estevez, Mariah Carey and Robert De Niro are!Angela Phelan

Angela Phelan has been writing the weekly gossip column for the Irish Independent, called the Phelan File, for nearly 20 years. She also wrote the shopping bible on New York bargains, So New York, and co-wrote a book with Ann Lenihan on Brian Lenihan's trip to the Mayo clinic for a liver transplant. Off the back of the New York shopping book she has even taught some 'shopping classes'.

Her background is relatively modest – relative, that is, to the glamorous social world she extols in her columns. She comes from Cork and attended St Angela's College there. After school she studied applied psychology at University College Cork. Then to Stanford University, California, where, according to the blurb for her shopping classes, she picked up her expertise for bargain hunting during stop-offs in New York.

Through her weekly gossip columns, charting the social hierarchies, events and goings on of Ireland's social elite, she has assumed the role of the arbiter of Ireland's social-class structure – who is "in" and who is not – with lots of borrowed references from the British television series Absolutely Fabulous – sweetie and darhling - and full of acronymns like VBF and TGIF (Very Best Friend and Thank God its Friday). She is enthused by such significant social phenomena as the arrival of Harvey Nichols in Dublin. She claims (by inference) to be the arbiter of the canon of dress sense, her own preference apparently being the 80s power-lady look with padded shoulders and coffered hair.

Her talents as a columnists are not universally appreciated in Independent Newspapers. The former editor, Vincent Doyle, was a fan but some in the lower executive ranks of the Irish Independent were less appreciative of her journalism. The new editor, Gerry O'Regan, is also, apparently, a fan. She sells newspapers, or at least gossip columns sell newspapers.

She has a skill at getting access to the circles of the powerful, or those she considers powerful. She was close to the Reynolds family and particularly to Kathleen Reynolds. After Kathleen was diagnosed with breast cancer, Phelan became involved in fundraising for cancer research in New York. She befriended Celia Larkin when Larkin was Bertie Ahern's partner and they have gone on shopping trips to New York. She sought the company of Charles Haughey but it is likely he gave whatever morsels of social gossip he had to a rival columnist.

Phelan lives in Clonskeagh, Co Dublin with her husband, Tom and they have three children. She travels to New York regularly and to Marbella, where she publishes iStlye, a gossip magazine charting the goings on of the Irish socialites in the Costa del Sol.

Who's in and who's not in 2006

Angela Phelan took over editing of the Who's Who list from Maureen Cairnduff who was behind the last edition in 1999.

For the recent launch of Who's Who in Ireland: the influential Irish in Brown, Thomas Phelan's friend Bertie Ahern launched the book and seemed surprisingly impressed that he made it in onto page three.

This edition includes a section dedicated to Irish Americans, some of whom have tenuous Irish links, for instance, the Hollywood actor Harrison Ford, who is third generation Irish, and Martin Sheen's son Emilio Estevez, who is also third generation. Other 'Irish-Americans' on the list with somewhat closer genetic links are international superstar Mariah Carey and actor Robert De Niro. No doubt the inclusion of the Irish-American section will make the book a good seller in the pre-Christmas market stateside.

The list is unusual for its omissions as well. Roy Keane, Van Morrison, John Bruton and Mary Robinson are all omitted. Phelan justifies this by claming Mary Robinson's sphere of influence is outside Ireland now and that none of the overseas ambassadors were included so John Bruton wasn't.

Brendan Drumm of the HSE and Garda Commissioner Noel Conroy said they were not influential enough to be included in the list.

Phelan says a significant change with this year's list is the increase in divorces, legal separations and second and third marriages.

The book is on sale for €50.