'I'm sorry." Brenda Power, the Sunday Times and Irish Daily Mail columnist and I have been arguing for about 20 minutes about the definition of marriage. When an apology of sorts comes: "You asked me do I regret anything. The one thing you don't want to do, and I genuinely don't want to do, is hurt people. Because everybody has a tough time. Everybody is struggling on some level. If I did genuinely hurt people then..." she pauses, "the one thing that made me think about it was a really good friend of mine said 'can't you just live and let live'. And yeah, I'm sorry. I really didn't mean to hurt anybody. That happens to be my view on children's rights. Maybe it was clumsy. Maybe it was a roundabout way of saying something and the gay community was collateral damage."
Power has a new book out, a collection of her columns, and we're discussing two columns Power wrote in the Sunday Times last year after Dublin's Pride celebrations in which she tackled marriage, gay marriage, gay adoption, drag, Pride and more. Oddly enough, the original column 'You can't trample on the wedding cake and eat it' isn't included in the collection, although its follow-up, 'I must not upset gays; I must not...' is.
As it happens, the night before the interview I'm at a craft night in Pantibar on Capel Street in Dublin, the trendy bar run by the drag artist Panti, aka Rory O'Neill, who Power took umbrage with in column number one. I tell my companions I won't be staying out late because I have to interview Brenda Power in the morning. Mouths open in shock. Brenda Power, along with the pope, David Quinn and Dermot Ahern, occupies a top spot on the gays' enemies list.
The ire unleashed on Power by the gay community after her now infamous column was incredible. She is still stinging from website comments and emails, calling them "nasty", "misogynistic", "an orchestrated campaign", "unprintable" and "they thought they were giving a woman a sneaky kick they could get away with".
At the time of Power's comments, the gay community was experiencing a period of hope and there seemed to be a momentum gathering towards the collective goal of civil marriage. Thousands were about to march to the Department of Justice protesting the inadequacies of the Civil Partnership Bill. There was a political drive and sense of purpose among gay people. Power rained on that parade, and she faced a lot of anger in return.
Power doesn't back out of arguments easily. Over the course of two hours we go back and forth on issues. Her key belief is that marriage is a child-centric institution that protects the rights of children, and that is its only purpose. "It's the only formula that will give children rights and entitlements against both of their parents. As things stand now, an unmarried father has no rights or responsibilities to the children he brings into the world – he can walk away," she says, getting increasingly animated, "and those children have no rights against him. Marriage is the only institution that supplies them with that right.
"So if every unmarried father was given the rights they say they want and the responsibilities to their extramarital children then there would be no need for marriage – you could marry anyone you liked, it would mean absolutely nothing. The whole purpose of marriage is to give a status to the children who might potentially result from the union between a man and a woman, because, get over it, they're the only ones who can produce kids."
Later we broach the issue of adoption and an argument ensues. "If you have a man and a woman wanting to adopt and a gay couple wanting to adopt, do you say to the child: 'I will deny you one role model from your life?'
I think it's about who will make the best parents, I say, and you can't say a heterosexual couple would be better parents than a homosexual couple. "Well you can't say the gay couple is better either," she counters. No, you can't, but you do have to say that they're equal, I say. So if they are equal, then there should be no preferential treatment, right?
"Okay, so they're both equal, but I still think that if it was my child who was being given up for adoption that I'd want them to go to the heterosexual couple – why should they be denied a role model?" Well that's your opinion on role models. There is nothing to say that a child raised by gay parents will be better or worse than a child raised by heterosexual parents. It's to do with the quality of parenting, not gender.
"I don't agree. All things being equal, the child should go to the heterosexual couple." And we reach one of several walls.
Power graduated in journalism from the then College of Commerce, Rathmines, in 1982 and went straight into the Irish Press on a work placement. She worked there until 1993, before joining the Sunday Tribune, where she remained for 10 years before heading to RTE to work on the Would You Believe documentary series. She then joined the Sunday Times as an opinion columnist.
Currently, she writes two columns a week for the Mail and one for the Sunday Times. A qualified barrister, she practised briefly after doing the bar exams in 1996. "I found it [law] very interesting but I had four children at the time and a lot of the effort down there involves simply being there, being seen there – you get as much work from colleagues as from solicitors," she says of her time at the Four Courts. "I kind of resented sitting there drinking coffee day in day out while somebody was minding my small children, so that's more or less why I packed it in."
Separated from former boxer turned barrister Mel Crystal, Power has five children, (ages six, eight, 11, 14 and 15). They all go to school in Rathgar, south Dublin. "They're five minutes' walk from the house, so if I can sit down at my desk at a quarter past eight and get five or six hours done, that's a full day."
She worries about what the future holds for her older children. "I hope they get jobs. I hope they'll be able to make a living. I hope they won't have to emigrate. I expect they probably will. My eldest, she's in transition year – in two years she'll be doing her Leaving Cert, a couple of years in college, I wouldn't be confident. I think this current crop of school-leavers and the two or three after them will be looking at emigration."
She thought about emigration recently when she went to see a production of Philadelphia Here I Come – the play caused her to reflect on how much emigration has changed and how returning home is much easier than it was 30 or 40 years ago. "You're looking at your kids and hoping that at least they'll do as well as you," she says, "but you're not confident about that anymore. It's going to be difficult explaining to them why they can't have a flat or a house in their 20s, why they're not going to have jobs, why they're strapped for cash, why they're going to be relying on their parents... probably."
Raising five children alone must be difficult, but she brushes it off. "They're really great kids. They get on well and look after each other. I actually think having five kids is easier than having two. People I know with two kids have a much harder time." Like kittens, I offer, and she laughs a little incredulously. "Yes, a litter. With two, if they fight they've no one to go to, or if so-and-so doesn't want to watch a movie. But with five there's always going to be somebody who's in a civilised mood. I'm blessed, really, they're great company. They're funny and smart, they're just great. I wouldn't trade it for anything. It's a busy household, a bit chaotic. We have a dog and cats and lizards and turtles and fish..." the list goes on.
A farmer's daughter, when Power was a child, "Santa came at Christmas and that was it", a line she repeats when she's giving her children a treat. They're sick of her saying it. "When I bring my kids to a toy shop or on a treat to the zoo or something, you're treating them, but you're also treating yourself... You are kind of treating your own inner child, do you know what I mean?" She leans back. "That sounds so terrible," she says, almost blushing at the very uncharacteristic Oprah-ism.
Power has an issue with the notion of instant gratification that dominated during the Celtic Tiger years. She recalls driving in Ballsbridge, getting stuck behind teenagers in a yellow BMW convertible, and praying for rain. She didn't "go mad" during the boom – her only luxury was buying a second car when her Chrysler Voyager struggled through the NCT. "I had this conversation with John Waters a while ago and he was saying 'all these smug people' and I said 'that's me actually. I always shopped in Lidl. I have the same car for 15 years, aren't I great'," she laughs. "But you do need people to take risks, people who'll put their houses and shirts on the line to set up a business. I have five kids. The opportunities to go mad at the height of the boom were limited."
Her two cars aside, Power is non-materialistic, but laments the lost riches of the noughties. She says that as far back as 2003 she was writing that it couldn't last, but nobody listened. "It was leadership that we lacked, there was no sense of anybody with a hand on the till. It didn't require them to be negative or killjoys, but to impose measures that would have curtailed spending and stopped house prices rising, but they didn't do it. The SSIA scheme was to get people to save – so what happened, you gave them one euro for every four they saved and then they went mad and spent it all on kitchens."
Power could talk for Ireland. The interview yields a transcript of nearly 10,000 words. The walls go up and occasionally fall before she playfully slaps me on the knee saying: "So you wrung an apology out of me," and I laugh. The discussion, for all its disagreements, is civilised.
Afterwards, we chat for an hour before she returns to the five kids, the cats, the dog, the turtles, the lizards...