It was the morning after what could go down as one of the most consequential days in the career of his boss, An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar TD.
MU alumnus Philip O’Callaghan, special advisor to the Taoiseach, sat down for a quick cup of coffee and reflected on how he happened to find himself working at the centre of power during such an historical (and unexpected) pivot point in Irish-British history.
After all, it was the third week of October, the latest Brexit deadline of Halloween inching closer, and a day earlier British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a last-ditch deal following a breakthrough meeting with the Taoiseach at Thornton Manor outside Liverpool.
“If you talk about taking risks in government, well, going to the UK last week was a risk,” O’Callaghan said. “Working in a period this historical is huge.”
Personally for O’Callaghan it’s been thrilling, exhausting, and yes, hugely consequential. The Castleknock native, now living in Coolmine, became a teacher after graduating from Maynooth but ended up chasing his dream into politics.
He ran for Fingal County Council unsuccessfully in 2014, but when an opening came up in Varadkar’s office he left teaching to join him as a policy adviser. At age 24, O’Callaghan followed Varadkar to the Department of Health and then the Department of Social Protection before running his last campaign for Dublin-West.
The day Varadkar was sworn in as Taoiseach is forever inked in his memory. “You don’t know where life is going to take you. This chance won’t come around again so I have to give it my all,” he said.
And giving it all he is. O’Callaghan’s brief includes serving as policy adviser for Education, Agriculture, Rural & Community Development and Disability Services, keeping track of projects and policy priorities in the Programme for Government in those areas and working with the relevant Ministers. He is also the main liaison to all TDs and Senators, in addition to overseeing the Taoiseach’s domestic diary and other duties such as prepping the Taoiseach for Leaders’ Questions each week.
No small task, but O’Callaghan says his Maynooth degrees certainly helped. He studied Geography and Music, earning his BA in 2011. After participating in the Washington Ireland Programme, he returned to MU to complete is PDE in 2012 and an HDip in Innovative Teaching & Learning in 2014.
“The analytical skills of Geography, the logic skills of Music, and of course the education degrees had an impact, but it was also the cross-cutting skills that I learned at Maynooth that I think have been so helpful.”
Today, despite taking the fast train O’Calllaghan says he is trying to remember to enjoy the ride as well.
He accompanied the Taoiseach on a trip to Washington, DC, meeting President Donal Trump in the Oval Office—a “surreal experience,” he said. Other stand-out moments include the opening of a series of new respite homes for children he’d worked hard to implement, and riding and sleeping on a Navy ship patrolling from Cork to Galway, past the Cliffs of Moher.
“You need to stop during these experiences and take time to take them in. They’ve over in a heartbeat,” he said.
Philip said he had very fond memories of his time in Maynooth University, a University that offers so much but yet maintains its unique characteristics.