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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 18 Nov 2015

Vol. 243 No. 8

Tributes to Former Senator Jack Fitzsimons

We will now pay tribute to the late Jack Fitzsimons who was an honourable Member of this Chamber.

It is a custom in this House that we pay tribute to former Members and I am delighted that Jack's widow and five children are in the Public Gallery today to listen to the tributes we have to offer. I hope that they will give them some satisfaction.

I offer the collective sympathy of this side of the House. Some Members may have dealt with Jack through politics or through his profession as an architect and a distinguished author. Jack first came to national prominence in 1971 when he penned what was to become a best-selling book called Bungalow Bliss. This work challenged many of the preconceived ideas held at the time about development practices. It is credited nationally with making the construction of homes more affordable by reducing the prices people paid for professional plans from architects and draftsmen. Interest in the book and its ideas continues today in the context of the debate on one-off housing, which has been brought to the floor of this House on many occasions. Jack continued to write and went on to publish a history of his native parish in Kilbeg, entitled The Parish of Kilbeg. This was an indication of Jack's pride of place and sense of community, both of which served him well in his public life. He also authored Democracy Be Damned, as well as books on County Meath's heritage and its thatched cottages. The latter includes photographs he took during and after his political career.

Following a term on the urban council in Kells, Jack first entered Seanad Éireann in 1983 when he was elected from the Industrial and Commercial Panel. He was elected as a Fianna Fáil Member to the 17th Seanad and was subsequently re-elected in 1987, serving on both occasions with a nomination from the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland, RIAI, an organisation he represented with distinction in the House. He lost his seat in 1989 and resigned from Fianna Fáil in the same year, following a well-documented falling out with his then party leader. It was around this time that he wrote Democracy Be Damned, which has a certain humour to its title.

Following his time as a Senator, Jack stood in the local and European elections as an independent candidate on an anti-blood sport ticket, seeking a mandate for his view that hare coursing should be banned. He was elected to Meath County Council on that platform and worked tirelessly to highlight the plight of the hare in the Irish countryside. He organised a march from his native Kells to Dublin where he spoke to a large gathering outside Dáil Éireann about the need to protect the Irish hare. This spoke volumes of his devotion to the cause. In 1994 Jack published a book in which he made a powerful case against hare coursing, Coursing Ban Be Damned, continuing his whimsical and ironic humour in the titling of his works. He went on to back the late Deputy Tony Gregory's attempt to tackle hare coursing by means of a Private Member's Bill in 1993. Although the measure was voted down, it led to coursing clubs muzzling greyhounds from then on.

Jack is a loss to his numerous friends in many fields, including in the Irish political landscape and in Kells where he served as a councillor. It is his family, however, who will miss him most. I wish to express my sincere sympathy to his wife and family on behalf of the Government. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.

On my behalf and on that of the Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party, I offer my condolences to the family of the late Jack Fitzsimons, a former Member of this House. To his wife, Anne, his children, Cora, Lana, Lloyd, Emla and Ken, and his grandchildren I offer the collective sympathy of this House and of the people of Meath, many of whom crossed paths with Jack not only through politics but also through his professional career as an architect and businessman in Kells and as a distinguished author.

In welcoming Jack's family to the Gallery today, I offer them our sympathies once more. At the time of Jack's passing just over a year ago, I commented that he was one of the most influential people in County Meath in the latter half of the 20th century in the spheres of politics and architecture. We recall the massive funeral that Jack had in Kells last year. I remember thinking at the time that it could be one of the last civic-type funerals to take place in the town, following the abolition of Kells Town Council. The presence of local political representatives meant it was almost like a State funeral in the town. It was absolutely huge. It was a mark of respect to Jack and a sign of the respect in which he was held in the town. In light of the abolition of Kells Town Council, b'fhéidir nach bhfeicfimid a leithéid de shochraid arís.

Jack first came to national prominence in 1971 when he penned Bungalow Bliss, which was to become a best-selling book. As I remarked to Mrs. Anne Fitzsimons, the last person I met in the foyer of the Leinster House 2000 building before I came to the Chamber today asked me what business was taking place in the Seanad this afternoon. When I explained that we were having expressions of sympathy for the late Jack Fitzsimons, the woman in question told me that she got her house from Bungalow Bliss. It is clear, therefore, that Jack enabled a substantial number of people to build houses in the countryside. In many cases, people were able to come out of really bad living conditions by getting these plans at a reasonable cost and furthering their lives and those of their families. The book, which contained more than 75 house designs, was later credited with making the construction of houses more affordable nationally by bringing about reductions in the professional fees that people had to pay to architects and draftsmen. Jack helped thousands of young families throughout the country to construct their homes at much-reduced rates. I understand that Bungalow Bliss was reprinted ten times. More than 250,000 copies of it were sold, which is an indication of the level of interest in it and its popularity.

In 1974, Jack published a comprehensive and detailed history of his native parish of Kilbeg. I have a copy of the book, The Parish of Kilbeg, which was bequeathed to a colleague of mine who keeps it at home. It survives as one of the most informative and illuminating books written in north Meath in the latter part of the 20th century. When one dips into that book, one gets some fascinating insights. I have a huge interest in the Irish language. Jack explains clearly that the etymology or derivation of the placename Staholmog comes from the word "teach" in the Irish language. The manner in which that word used to take an "s" in front of it in the Irish language is peculiar to these surrounds within County Meath and led to placenames like Staholmog, Stagreen, Stameen, Stamullen and Stackallen in the county. Jack wrote a lovely paragraph about this topic, which I certainly find fascinating. His interest in the Irish language was demonstrated in many Seanad debates. As the Leader has said, Jack went on to write many books and essays, including Democracy Be Damned, Bungalow Bashing and New Homes from Old.

I would like to speak about Jack's political career. He was appointed as a peace commissioner by the Minister for Justice in 1973. He was elected to Kells Urban District Council, as it then was, in 1979. He was re-elected in 1985 and became chairman of the council after the local elections of that year. He ran for election to the Seanad in 1981 on the Industrial and Commercial Panel, having been nominated by the Irish Architects Society. When he won a seat in the Seanad in 1983, he was one of three people from Meath and the part of Westmeath that was in Meath at the time to be elected to this House. He was elected to the Seanad along with Donie Cassidy and Michael Lynch from Oldcastle. Jack's relationship with the Fianna Fáil Party was not always harmonious. His resignation in 1989 has been well documented and reported on in the past.

Today we pay tribute to a man of zealous political capability who was prepared to put his way of thinking on the line. He was an extremely principled man. When our Leader mentioned the issue of hare coursing, I recalled a story that Michael Lynch told me about canvassing with Jack in County Tipperary. They were on different panels, so they were not in direct competition with each other. Michael Lynch told me that he begged Jack to tone down his opinions on hare coursing in front of the Tipperary councillors, but he was simply not prepared to do so. He went to Tipperary with what would have been an unpopular viewpoint among Fianna Fáil councillors and refused to set aside the principles to which he was deeply committed. I think that is to be commended, because too often politicians are worried about what people want to hear. Jack certainly did not go with that. With Jack's passing, we have lost one of life's great gentlemen and most colourful characters. We have lost a man of distinction and immense ability. Jack's political life reminds the rest of us who are so lucky and privileged to be elected to these Houses that we must not always follow the herd instinct. We must stand up for what we believe in and, in some cases, disregard our own political ambitions and aspirations for the greater good. Jack was bold, brave and courageous in all facets of his political and personal functions.

In preparation for today's tributes, I read through some of the debates to which Jack contributed as a Member of the Seanad over a six-year period. He made significant contributions to the debates on the Air Pollution Bill 1986, the Building Control Bill 1984 and the Animals Bill 1985. His direct involvement and deep input into the National Monuments (Amendment) Bill 1986 cannot be underestimated and must be remembered. He drew on his professional experience when contributing to that Bill and others. As a Member of this House, Jack spoke on a wide range of topics, including the pollution of our waterways and the role of European law. In March 1986, Jack made an absolutely excellent speech on the use of the Irish language, about which I am passionate. One of the points he made was "ba mhór mar a chuideodh sé leis an teanga náisiúnta a leathadh mar ghnáth-theanga na ndaoine dá mb'eol dóibhsean go raibh an gradam is dual di ag an Ghaeilge i dTithe an Oireachtais". He was saying that if the Irish language was used more often in the Houses of the Oireachtas, it would enjoy much more respect among the public and get much more use among the public. That is certainly something I believe. I think we need to redouble our efforts in this regard. We have done that from time to time here in the Seanad. We have tried to speak Irish not only when debating Gaeilge or Gaeltacht issues, but also in general debates. The point made by Jack in that 1986 debate will stick with me. I will try to implement his vision and influence others to do likewise.

Jack was a role model to the public and to public representatives. He was an extensive legislator as well. His contributions to the drafting of legislation in Seanad Éireann shaped many different areas. It is evident from his speeches that Jack was always aware of the difficulties faced by ordinary working people. The people who benefited from Bungalow Bliss were ordinary working people, by and large. Jack's work made the dream of owning a home much more affordable for them. Following Jack's departure from the Seanad, he remained a consistent advocate for good planning and the preservation of our wildlife heritage. He continued to work tirelessly for the causes he believed in. He also continued to write and publish books. Jack had much to be proud of, including his family, his home and the successful business he set up in Kells. There was much more to the life of Jack Fitzsimons, however. The positive, constructive and innovative contribution he made to public life in Ireland and in the Oireachtas is something to be proud of. I know his family is very proud of Jack's achievements throughout his life.

It would be remiss of me not to mention Jack's deep and profound love for the town of Ceanannus Mór, County Meath, where he lived for most of his life, where he reared his family and where he set up and ran his business. Throughout Jack's professional life and his involvement in many community and voluntary organisations in Ceanannus Mór and throughout County Meath, he was much loved and cherished by the people he encountered. I know for a fact that Jack was respected by his peers, his neighbours, the students of nearby schools and the people of the town as a man of substance, distinction and high estimation. He is sadly missed by his loving family - I know they miss him dearly - and by the community of Ceanannus Mór and beyond. Go ndéanfaidh Dia trócaire ar a anam dílis.

I would like to join other Senators in paying tribute to the late former Senator Jack Fitzsimons, who died last year. I welcome his family to the Gallery. I would like to express sympathies on behalf of all of us here in the House and in particular in my role as leader of the Labour Party group. As others have said, Jack was a Fianna Fáil Member of Seanad Éireann. He was elected in 1983 and re-elected in 1987. He was based in Kells, County Meath. As we have heard, he was very active in his local community. His work had an impact well beyond his own community. As others have said, his work as an architect and his publishing record - I am thinking particularly of the famous 1970s publication Bungalow Bliss - had a huge impact on many people throughout Ireland. This book has been described as a design handbook for affordable housing that shows how bright modern bungalows can be synonymous with escape from rural poverty and domestic drudgery. It spawned a great deal of debate on development and planning across the country.

As we have heard, Jack was also well known for his views as a vocal opponent of hunting and hare coursing and his resolutely principled stance on those issues.

As others have said, he also took a principled and independently minded stance with his resignation from Fianna Fáil in 1989 on the grounds that there was, apparently, no ideology, consistency or positive approach within the party at the time. As others have said, he went on to have a very active career in local politics and to run for the European Parliament. While in the Seanad, as we heard, he contributed to debates on a range of topics, including the Irish language and, perhaps most important, the national monuments legislation. His work in planning and conservation arising from his professional practice as an architect deserves honourable mention. His publications, including not just Bungalow Bliss but others on Meath, democracy and other topics, have been mentioned and are particularly noteworthy.

I express sincere sympathies to his wife, Anne, his children, his grandchildren and his extended family.

I am very honoured to have the opportunity to be associated with the tribute to former Senator Jack Fitzsimons. I am alone in those present in having served with Senator Fitzsimons as I was first elected in 1987 and he was here for two years after that. Reference has been made to a very distinguished career both in national and local politics and I will not reiterate all that has been said about the detail of that political career.

We all know, of course, about Bungalow Bliss. A rather interesting aspect is that it generated controversy and I understand there was a disagreement between Jack and the environmental journalist, Mr. Frank McDonald, who coined the phrase "bungalow blitz" as part of a series of articles attacking what he called the spreading fungus of the proliferation of ribbon development bungalows in Ireland. In an essay, the academic, Mr. Stephen Quilley, highlights the country's planning laws rather than the architectural qualities of the bungalows as being the main problem of the time. The essay refers to one of the core drivers of Bungalow Bliss, which was that "bright, modern bungalows were synonymous with an escape from rural poverty and domestic drudgery". As we know, Jack published a further range of books on aspects of Meath, its heritage and politics, as well as some fiction.

On a more personal level, reference has been made to his falling out with Fianna Fáil. He was a bitter opponent of Mr. Charles Haughey and, as Senator Byrne noted, he was a man of great principle and enormous political courage. I remember he took the position against hare coursing at a number of parliamentary party meetings during my time here when there would have been a very powerful hare coursing lobby. Senator Byrne was correct in his description of the anecdote involving Senators Lynch and Fitzsimons and the Tipperary councillors. I remember canvassing at the time and being asked straight out my position and that of Senator Fitzsimons. I regret to say that my opinion now is the same as my opinion then. He lost his Seanad seat directly as a result of the position he took on hare coursing within the Fianna Fáil group. He was certainly one of the most effective Senators, as has been outlined.

There was a bit of a joke about Jack as the amount of correspondence he sent to councillors throughout the country was voluminous. It is a tradition of all Senators relying on county councillors to be elected that they would keep in touch regularly, but Jack always went the extra mile. As a new Senator, I was deeply in awe of his ability to connect with his councillors, which makes it all the more sad and regrettable that it was on that issue - my contemporaries of the time would agree - that he lost his election. It was not because he was a poor Senator or because he did not contact his electorate. It certainly was not because of the extraordinary and frequent contributions he made in the House.

His resignation from Fianna Fáil was regretted by many of us who knew Jack as a decent and honourable man but who also understood him as a man of great passion and strength of principle. He just did not like Charlie Haughey. It happened after his defeat in the Seanad election. He subsequently wrote a book, which has probably been referred to here, and it was interesting to us here that he referred to his time in the Seanad, highlighting those people who had impressed him. I obviously did not have much of an impact on Jack as I was not mentioned. I remember very well poring through the book to find the names of the people to whom he referred and whether they were good, bad or indifferent. He was not in any way critical but it was his opinion nonetheless. It was a matter of great regret to me at the time that I was not mentioned in Jack's opus.

Jack was very friendly with the then chairman of the General Council of Irish County Councils, which has now been renamed. The man, former councillor Jim Joe Shortt from County Leitrim, would have been known to both of my colleagues. He and Jack had a very strong rapport. In the 1997 election, Jim Joe and I were very close friends. He came to me saying that Jack was a very good friend and an Independent councillor and that he would go to Kells to try to get Jack to vote for me. I welcomed that, of course, and I remember as if it were yesterday being in the house in Kells, having the chat and, before we left, Jack saying he would give me the number one, not because of me but because of Jim Joe Shortt. He did not mean that in any sort of negative sense at all but he was still somewhat estranged from Fianna Fáil. He did it in a most gentle way and, from my perspective, it did not matter at the end of the day as I was getting the vote. I had no doubt about the vote and as those of us who have gone through a Seanad election will testify, a voter may not follow through every time he or she indicates she will vote for a person. I knew, leaving Kells and knowing Jack, that he had nailed his colours to the mast. I remembered that in the course of trying to gather some thoughts about my time with Jack here.

The family must be justifiably proud of the long legacy he has left. It is something for a politician to have a legacy and something for people to talk about, even long after that person's passing. I extend my deepest sympathy to all the family, including Anne, who is here, and also to Cora, Lana, Lloyd, Emla and Ken, as well as the grandchildren, who are also here. As often happens between younger and older generations, they probably miss their grandad more than anybody. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.

I welcome the Fitzsimons family, whose names are on the record. These are very important occasions in which the Seanad pays tribute to former Members. We stand on the shoulders of giants here and traditions, including interest in the environment, were built by the likes of Jack Fitzsimons and enhanced every day. Senator Norris is the leader of the university group of Senators and has asked me to communicate his condolences. He served with Senator Fitzsimons.

From what we have heard, we know he was practical, principled and a preservationist. Currently we are preparing for the climate change conference in Paris at the end of the month, so interest in the likes of thatched cottages and their preservation is very important.

We are interested in growth as well, and they criticised Bungalow Bliss. Dr. Mary Corcoran and Dr. Michel Peillon, in their book, Ireland Unbound, wrote of how Ireland emerged in the early years of the 21st century from poverty and drudgery, and the bungalows were part of that. The sale of 250,000 copies is an immense achievement but it is hardly surprising because Kells today hosts a significant book festival, the Hay Festival, every year.

Of his interest in local history, in Kells, everybody feels that. It is a place of great historical context, huge connotations in music, the great theatre, memorials to the late Maureen O'Hara and the late Dick Farrelly, the composer of the music for "The Quiet Man". It is not surprising he was so proud of Kells and Kilbeg, and as Senator Byrne stated, wrote Kilbeg's history. We acknowledge all of those achievements.

He was a principled man. As for Democracy be damned, one of the things we have had to do in this Seanad is to try and restore democracy because there was such pessimism three or four years ago when the country had to be rescued by the IMF. All of us in public life must restore that trust and confidence, and that includes paying tribute to those who embodied the traditions that we seek to uphold and to further today.

His opposition to hunting and hare coursing would fit with the opinions of many today, and he had the courage to do it, as Senators Mooney and Byrne stated, even in the heart of coursing territory, such as Tipperary. He was a man of principle.

The final point on occasions such as this, which I value very much, is to thank his family. The life of Senators and Deputies demands extremely long hours and the families, wives and children who share Members of the Oireachtas with this House and with Leinster House in general deserve our thanks because it is a life which is, in many cases, not family friendly. We hope the family will feel gratified today that we held the late Jack Fitzsimons in the esteem in which I am sure they did. I thank them for sharing him with us. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.

As Leas-Chathaoirleach, I also pay tribute to the late Jack Fitzsimons who was a Member of this House. Although I did not serve with him, I became a Senator, in October 1989, in the same year that he lost his seat in the Seanad.

It is a great honour and privilege for anybody, irrespective of party politics, who gets elected to the local authority, town council or local county council, and it is a particularly elevated honour to serve as a Member of the Oireachtas, which Jack did for six years, 1983 to 1989.

He was an architect by profession and published a range of books. He was not a tunnel-vision politician, unlike many of us who get bogged down in the cobwebs of politics and do not look outside the Pale or beyond our life in politics. It must be a great tribute to his family that he not alone served in the political system but did other work, such as writing books. It takes a lot of dedication to produce books.

Earlier, Senators spoke of his dedication and principled stand. No doubt not relinquishing his principles in the area of hare coursing probably cost him his seat. Having canvassed in places such as Waterford and Tipperary, and, indeed, Kerry and parts of Cork, I am aware that it is nearly a crime to mention anything about those involved in hare coursing, who are a powerful and strong lobby. As Leas-Chathaoirleach, I am honoured to pay tribute to Jack today.

I thank the Senators who contributed, the Leader of the Seanad, Senator Cummins, Senators Mooney, Barrett and Bacik but, more particularly, Senator Thomas Byrne, a fellow Meath man, who made a strong and heartfelt tribute. I heard Thomas speak, when Jack passed away, of the huge respect in which Jack Fitzsimons was held in the local community. As a colleague of Senator Byrne, I know of the huge regard he has, not alone for the late Jack Fitzsimons but for his entire extended family, and he said so on more occasions than one.

For his wife, Anne, and children and grandchildren, this is a special, poignant occasion. They are very welcome to this Chamber. I now ask my colleagues to stand for a minute's silence as a gesture of respect to the late, great honourable Senator Jack Fitzsimons.

Members rose.
Sitting suspended at 2.36 p.m. and resumed at 3.30 p.m.