Saturday 17 March 2018

Political voices of the past come alive in historical Dail debates


The art of political rhetoric may be dead but nostalgia is alive and well in Leinster House.

The wisdom of William Butler Yeats, James Dillon and John Kelly, as well as the steely exchanges between Garret FitzGerald and Charlie Haughey, can now be easily accessed online along with the contents of the most dramatic Dail and Seanad debates in the history of the State.

The collection, which is contained in the education section of the Oireachtas Eireann website, begins with the Treaty debate of 1921 which records the dramatic interactions between political giants such as Michael Collins, Eamon de Valera and Countess Markievicz.

Sadly, there is something all too familiar about the next excerpt from the Dail records, which features Ernest Blythe's defence of the infamous decision to cut a shilling off the old age pension.

The date may be 1924, but the difference between Blythe's plea and the current Finance Minister Brian Lenihan's most recent claims is only one of degree.

Happily, Yeats's famous "we are no petty people'' speech in defence of maintaining divorce is a far livelier read. The poet's defence of the rights "won by the labours of John Milton and other great men" was certainly prescient in its warning that "we shall all be much bitterer before we are finished'' if the State "attempts legislation upon religious grounds".

The writer's citing of the less-than-perfect sexual mores of Irish heroes such as O'Connell, where "you could not throw a stick over a wall without hitting one of his children'', and Parnell was all too much for the then Cathaoirleach who issued a despairing plea: "Do you not think we might leave the dead alone?"

This is followed by a rare moment of optimism when in his speech on the 1937 Constitution Eamon de Valera claimed it was "a clear document, easily read and easily understood". The Taoiseach, however, was rather more accurate in his concern about how, when it came to the rights of women, "I seem to have got a bad reputation. I do not think I deserve it."

One of the more poignant moments in a series of debates consists of an excerpt where Captain Peadar Cowan asked about the beating of a schoolboy at the industrial school in Artane. The Fianna Fail minister for education, Sean Moylan, said that "accidents will happen in the best regulated families".

In the Seventies, the very real drama of the arms trial debate is captured by the transcript of the cries from the Fianna Fail benches of "take him out'' when the then Fine Gael leader Liam Cosgrave was speaking.

The steely Cosgrave's response, "Keep quiet. Do not worry I won't be silenced by anyone", was greeted by an angry reply from a J Lenehan of "Ah shut up, your father sold the North and damn well you know it."

We may live in quieter times now, but the series does conclude with one delightful moment from the Noughties where Joe Higgins responded to Bertie's belated conversion to socialism. "You can imagine how perplexed I was when I returned to find my wardrobe almost empty. The Taoiseach had been robbing my clothes."

These and other debates can be accessed at

Sunday Independent

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