EU Couple Brings Political Prowess, Irish Charm to Washington
Finola Bruton possesses an endearing Irish charm. This vivacious 54-year-old mother manages homes on both sides of the Atlantic, served as her husband’s best campaigner, and continues to be an enduring mentor to her four grown-up children. She is fun and serious, but most of all she is genuine.
Finola is the wife of John Bruton, the European Union Commission’s ambassador to the United States who, as the former prime minister (or Taoiseach) of Ireland, helped to transform the Irish economy and bring peace to Northern Ireland. Not surprisingly, this dynamic duo has brought their consummate political style to Washington diplomacy with great results.
“It is hard for me to imagine what life was like before I met Finola. She is very much her own person and that has been a great help in my political career,” said Ambassador Bruton, who served as Ireland’s prime minister from 1994 to 1997. “While she has been a full-time mother to our four children, she has also found time to keep her own interests going, stay in touch with her family and friends, read widely, learn Italian, stay up to date on everything from world events to fashion.”
The doting husband added: “Finola is most of all very strong and has helped me beyond words through political disappointments and personal loss. Her input in my decision making has always been invaluable.” Finola was born and raised in Westport in the western part of Ireland. “This is a place of spectacular natural beauty on the shores of Clew Bay,” she told me as we sat in the couple’s Kalorama living room. Already, I found her warm welcome irresistible, and I could sense that this effervescent ambassador’s wife was going to be anything but boring.
Graduating with honors in politics and Arabic from University College Dublin in 1979, Finola was always interested in seeing the world. In addition to spending a summer touring Europe, she worked in a kibbutz in Israel and studied at the University of Kuwait. While still a student, she also spent time in the United States. In fact, she not only learned how to drive here, but drove cross country from New York to San Francisco.
“I was fearless,” she admitted. “The van broke down on the George Washington Bridge leaving New York. The steering went. It was an old repossessed hippy van, with mattresses under the seats.”
When Finola hit New Jersey’s Asbury Park, she worked in a poker casino. When she landed in the West Coast, she worked as a waitress in Long Beach, Calif. Once back on Irish soil, this feisty young Irishwoman followed her conscience into the political arena. “My first cousin was a politician and I come from a very political county. I was working at the polling booths when I was 15,” Finola noted.
Later, while still in college, she ran for Dublin’s City Council in 1979. Then, she met John Bruton at a political party conference in Galway. He was a junior minister dealing with educational and industrial policies and she was a student.
“Despite the fact that he criticized one of my speeches, true love still managed to blossom,” she recalled. “He was very different on stage then. He had a very serious demeanor. Afterward, he introduced himself and apologized.”
Finally, after two years of encounters at more political conferences, John invited her to a movie and dinner at a Greek restaurant. They were married in September 1982, by which time John had become Ireland’s minister of finance.
Ever since then, neither Finola nor John has ever hesitated to confront each other over differing viewpoints. “In fact, I believe one of the things that makes our—or any—marriage work is our ability to be completely honest with one another about our views, and to respect differences that inevitably arise and also keep life interesting,” Finola said. “I suppose we were lucky that it was like that from the word go.”
As a young married woman in Dublin who also had in interest in improving other peoples’ lives, Finola worked with homeless girls for three years. She then trained as a counselor and worked with single parents (they say “lone” parents in Ireland) for the next eight years.
Their own four children now range in age from 18 to 25. The eldest, Matthew, is in Washington doing work on crafts; Juliana, 23, has completed her business degree and is preparing for a post-graduate degree; Emily, 22, is an artist who graduated from Dublin’s College of Art and Design and has already had successful art shows; and Mary Elizabeth, 18, begins college at home this fall after finishing high school at Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School, where she was the prom queen last year.
“Our children are my responsibility and my total focus,” Finola explained. “We have a two-week vacation at home when everyone is there at our country place outside Dunboyne [in] County Meath. I’m big into my garden there and grow lots of vegetables in the summer. At Easter and Christmas, the whole family is always together. This will be our first Christmas here. I go home about every six weeks unless they come here. We used to have to take two flights to get home but now we have Aer Lingus direct to Dublin from Dulles. That makes everything so different—it’s so much easier to commute.”
She also stays in regular contact with her children by phone and e-mail, in addition to staying in touch with her husband throughout the day. “We don’t hesitate to call each other,” Finola said. “Marriage is a commitment. We are partners. We both have a very strong sense of family and we’re always coming back to our family. Our kids are our priority.”
With her degree in politics and political philosophy, Finola is also an intellectual companion for this high-powered and extremely effective ambassador. “Plato and Rousseau are my two favorite philosophers. The platonic concepts of truth, justice and goodness, in my view, are on a higher plane than the modern-day concept of ‘choice,’ which after all is only a means to an end. But the most important thing is my faith—my life has been given as a gift from God,” Finola said.
“I have a deep interest in how society works,” she continued. “Here, we are on the world stage and we’re interested in where the world is going.” Likewise, when she was growing up, “we all watched the news. At home, the first three minutes are about Ireland and then we have news about Europe and the world. We always knew the world was out there.”
Washington is a great post for the Brutons, both professionally and personally. “We honeymooned in Washington,” Finola noted, her whole face lighting up. At the time, John was finance minister and they vacationed here during a conference for the International Monetary Fund in Washington before enjoying a “proper” honeymoon in St. Lucia.
“But this time, it was plenty unexpected,” she added of her husband’s current posting. Just before his appointment two summers ago to represent the European Commission here, John was an important member of the Irish Parliament, especially well known for his contributions in drafting the European Union Constitution.
Surprisingly, one of the reasons Finola loves living in Washington is that she still has “a bit of anonymity here. I can get into my runners [sneakers], walk down Massachusetts Avenue, and go to the hairdressers. In Ireland, we are so well known and our country is small that I must be well dressed all the time. I always meet someone when I go out, even if I didn’t know them before. I must be very polite and engage with them. I have much less privacy than here.”
To enjoy that privacy, the couple swims and takes walks around Kalorama or Rock Creek Park. “On weekends, we eat out. We walk to Typhoon or Café Deluxe or maybe get take-out pizza from Two Amy’s,” Finola said. Although there are no pets here, at home in Ireland, their two cats await to greet them on their next visit.
In the future, Finola, who has written for the Irish times and the Irish Independent, said she would like to get back into freelance writing and maybe consider tackling a novel. ‘I love to write and hopefully when we return to Ireland, I might just have a little time!”
For now though, she is perfectly content where she is. “After a lifetime devoted to the sometimes divided politics of our country, it is great to be working now for the European Union, whose aim is to break down divisions between 27 countries.”
She added: “With the children now making their own way in the world, and John’s and my own keen interest in politics, being here in Washington at such an interesting time is a wonderful opportunity for us. This is a lovely time in our lives.”
About the Author
Gail Scott is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and lifestyle columnist for the Diplomatic Pouch.