independent

Sunday 25 August 2019

A visionary who had a passion for life and justice

David Looby

In his short life Noel Whelan achieved more than most people would, had they three lifetimes.

One of 12 children born to Séamus and Myra Whelan, Noel grabbed every opportunity life threw his way and forged a career as a barrister, columnist, author and political commentator and pundit.

He also became a prominent social rights campaigner and founded the Kennedy Summer School which brings thousands of people into New Ross every September.

His death aged 50 on Wednesday evening came as a devastating shock to people not only in Ireland, but across the world, because Noel's passion for life and justice far outreached the confines of the courtrooms in which he made his living.

It was as a family man that Noel found true happiness.

He was a devoted husband to Sinéad McSweeney. The couple had a son Séamus, 10, whom Noel adored and doted on, his beloved son by his side at every opportunity, including at the Kennedy Summer School.

Noel grew up in a busy house alongside Ballycullane post office. He attended the local national school and went on to lead the debating team at Good Counsel College which enjoyed success at national competitions.

His father Séamus was a Fianna Fáil councillor and Noel was bitten by the political bug at an early age. After school he went to University College Dublin where he studied history and politics and he graduated with an MA. Following graduation he got a job as an official in Fianna Fail headquarters and his talent was quickly spotted. He was promoted to be a political adviser to Tom Kitt, who was minister of state for EU affairs from 1992-94. He stood as a Fianna Fáil candidate for Dublin South East in the general election of 1997. When he failed to get elected to the Dáil, he made an unsuccessful attempt to win election to the Seanad the same year. He was studying at the King's Inns at the time and was called to the bar in 1998.

While he began to build a legal practice he remained engaged in politics. Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin recalled that Noel understood and knew every constituency and local electoral area across the country and could, off the top of his head, remember quotas from an election held back in the 1980s. This detailed knowledge of politics prompted him to write a series of books about politics and elections beginning with The Tallyman's Guide to the local and European elections of 1999. He followed that up with a legal textbook, called Politics, Elections and the Law, a year later and subsequently produced guides to a succession of elections. In 2011 he released a book about a party that held such great meaning for him, called Fianna Fáil: A Biography of the Party.

Noel worked as a barrister in Wexford Circuit Court and later in Waterford Circuit Court and often represented clients in the High Court.

He was a prosecutor for the state, while also juggling a career as a newspaper columnist for the Irish Times.

His incisive columns on politics pulled no punches and were widely read for their honesty and keen understanding of the way political decisions are made.

Noel started contributing to the paper in 2003 and had a weekly column since 2006. He continued to write his column for The Irish Times, the last of which appeared just over a week ago.

He was also a regular pundit on radio and television and published a number of 'Tallyman' guides for a succession of general elections.

As a pundit, Noel was one of the first to predict the scale of the meltdown that was going to hit Fianna Fáil in the election which took place in the aftermath of the EU/IMF bailout of November 2010.

He moved back into political activity in 2013 by taking a lead role in the referendum campaign for a No vote to the Fine Gael/Labour Government's campaign to abolish the Seanad. Working with fellow barrister and former PD leader Michael McDowell, against whom he had run for the Dáil in 1997, and the late senator Feargal Quinn, they mounted an effective campaign which changed people's minds. The outcome was a shock defeat for the proposal which opinion polls had indicated would be carried comfortably.

That referendum victory prompted him to direct involvement in the campaign to change the Constitution to provide for gay marriage. It was an issue on which he felt deeply and he threw himself into the task with enthusiasm. His knowledge of electoral tactics was a vital ingredient in the success of the Yes vote. He brought the same energy and enthusiasm to the campaign to repeal the eighth amendment last year.

After the success of that campaign he briefly toyed with the idea of running for the presidency. However, once Michael D Higgins had declared his intention of seeking a second term he decided not to throw his hat into the ring.

Noel lived in Ranelagh, but was often back in Ballycullane and New Ross.

In the spring, he was diagnosed with a serious illness. He continued to work, writing a weekly column and making preparations for this year's Kennedy Summer School. Sadly his health deteriorated over recent weeks and he passed away at St Vincent's University Hospital with Sinéad; and several of his brothers and sisters and family by his side on Wednesday.

His brother Michael said: 'We all know of his intelligence but above all Noel was a generous man. Anyone in trouble, he helped them out with anything they needed. He had that common touch and coming from a big family he never forgot where he came from. He was very helpful to his nephews and nieces with work experience and was a great family man who always took a deep interest in his siblings' lives.'

Michael said his brother was a huge help to him when he sought election for the first time in 2014, orchestrating his campaign, adding that Noel sought updates throughout the local elections in May. A large crowd packed into the Church of the Holy Name, Beechwood Avenue, Ranelagh for his funeral Mass where Noel's wife Sinéad described her husband as someone who had an acute and highly attuned sense of fairness and justice which permeated his legal work. She said Noel had 'boundless energy. Sometimes that was exhausting for those of us around him, as he expected us all to make decisions and move at the same pace as he did'.

'He was an absolute tower of strength and the person to whom everyone turned when they had a problem. And as a man not short of opinions, Noel was rarely lost for a solution or an answer,' she said. Speaking of the love Noel had for her and their 10-year-old Séamus, Ms McSweeney said, 'Séamus and I never doubted the depth and strength of Noel's love for us. We are who we are because Noel knew and loved us'. She said the family has a 'treasure trove' of memories that will sustain them into the future.

'Noel loved parties and loved gatherings, and if we didn't have an occasion in our own lives to justify a party, he'd offer to throw a party for someone else to mark an occasion in their life,' she said.

Fr Derek Smyth said the longer you knew Noel 'the more you realised how remarkable a man he was, how devoted he was to his family, how loyal he was to his friends and how available he was, literally, to anyone who needed him. Through Noel, the landscape of this country has been changed forever.'

Noel was laid to rest in his native Ballycullane on Saturday evening with over 300 people attending. He is survived by his wife Sinéad; son, Séamus; mother Myra, siblings John, Joy, Thomas, James, Annette, Michael, Patrick, Paul, Kevin and Eamon; sisters-in-law; brothers-in-law; nieces; nephews; extended family, and his wide circle of friends, colleagues and fellow citizens. He was predeceased by his sister Mary Kelly.

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