Each Senator featured in this exhibition was a political, social or economic changemaker in Ireland over the course of the last 100 years. They championed issues or causes that were often less visible or important to the mainstream political system and used their position to advocate for change.
This Seanad100 exhibition aims to highlight the unique role that Seanad Éireann, and so many of its Senators, played in helping shape our country since the first sitting in December 1922. One of its key roles was to give a platform for representation to the Protestant and Unionist community, who found themselves as a minority voice in the new state.
Over the last 100 years this transitioned into voices representing other minority communities and minority opinions, often leading to major change in our country.
I hope you will agree with me that the exhibition reminds us how much impact an individual can have in championing minority communities and minority causes by harnessing the power of being a member of Seanad Éireann in our national parliament. It is an honour and one that those Senators exhibited, and many others seized upon.
‘Minority Voices, Major Changes’ is both the theme of this exhibition and of the wider Seanad100 centenary programme and I would encourage you to explore the various outreach initiatives running throughout the year ahead.
Finally, may I extend my thanks to everyone who is contributing to Seanad100 and the marking of this important milestone for our parliament.
Kathleen Clarke (1878-1972)
Kathleen Clarke was a Republican activist who served as vice-president of Cumann na mBan.
She was imprisoned after the 1916 Rising and her husband Tom Clarke and brother Edward Daly were executed.
Elected to the Dáil in 1921, she voted against the Treaty.
Nominated to the First Seanad in 1928 as Fianna Fáil member, she argued against a section in the Conditions of Employment Bill 1935 which precluded women from taking position in certain industries. Clarke refused to accept the consensus that “equal pay for equal work” would lead to driving down of men’s wages.
In 1939 she became the first woman Lord Mayor of Dublin.
Labhrás Ó Murchú (1939-)
Labhrás Ó Murchú is a Fianna Fáil politician. He is the director general of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann which promotes Irish music, song and dance.
He was a member of the Seanad from 1997 to 2016 on the Cultural and Educational Panel. He consistently championed the cause of the arts, culture and Irish language in the Seanad.
During his time as Senator, he supported Private Members’ Bills and motions that advocated for the rights of those with disabilities, including a motion on access to educational and other opportunities for people with disabilities and the Recognition of Irish Sign Language for the Deaf Community Bill 2013.
Augustine Martin (1935-1995)
Augustine Martin was an academic, critic and a writer.
He was a Senator for the National University of Ireland constituency from 1973 to 1981. As a Senator, he campaigned against the consensus of the era of demolishing Georgian buildings in Dublin City and campaigned for preservation of Wood Quay.
He spoke on a variety of topics but took a particular interest in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, co-sponsoring a motion to debate the “impasse” in 1978. In his closing remarks on the motion, he called for a draft constitution for a united Ireland “concentrating on human rights which would be guaranteed for all in the event of an agreed united Ireland some time in the future".
Horace Plunkett (1854-1932)
Horace Plunkett was the son of the 16th baron of Dunsany.
In 1899 he established the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction for Ireland. He was a founding President of the Irish Agricultural Organization Society, promoting modernisation of agriculture, organised technological education and co-operation.
He was nominated to the First Seanad in 1922, serving until 1923. During his time in the Seanad, he spoke on his belief that agriculture would be the main force for rebuilding Ireland after the War of Independence and the Civil War.
Thomas (TK) Whitaker (1916-2017)
Thomas (TK) Whitaker was a public servant and economist.
As secretary to the Department of Finance, his 1958 paper ‘Economic Development’ informed the First Programme for Economic Expansion.
He consistently highlighted the deterioration of Ireland’s public finances, arguing against what he saw as public spending spiralling out of control and advocated informing the public on the state of the economy. Nominated to the Seanad by the Taoiseach, he served from 1977 to 1982.
By his own description, his cautionary approach was viewed as “undermining public confidence” by some of his fellow Senators.
Jane (Jennie) Wyse Power (1858-1941)
Jane (Jennie) Wyse Power was a member of the Dublin Women’s Suffrage Association and in 1900 co-founded Inghinidhe na hÉireann.
She served on the executive of Sinn Féin and was a founder of Cumann na mBan.
She was a member of the Seanad from 1922 to 1936.
She was nominated to the First Seanad in 1922. Together with Edith Costello, she convinced the Seanad to reject the Civil Service Regulation Bill 1925, which confined women to lower grades within the civil service and argued against the Conditions of Employment Bill 1935 which restricted the ability of women to take up work in certain industries.
Nuala Fennell (1935-2009)
Nuala Fennell was the first chair of Irish Women’s Aid in 1975 and an executive member of the Irish Council for the Status of Women.
She campaigned for the right to divorce during the 1986 referendum and is considered a leading women’s rights campaigner.
She was a member of the Seanad from 1987 to 1989 representing Fine Gael, first as a Taoiseach’s nominee and subsequently as a member on the Labour Panel.
As a Senator she supported the Prohibition of Incitement to Racial, Religious or National Hatred Bill 1988 and served on the Joint Committee on Women’s Rights.
Garrett Fitzgerald (1926-2011)
Garrett Fitzgerald was a Fine Gael politician and economist who started his career as a Senator on the Industrial and Commercial panel from 1965 to 1969. He went on to serve twice as Taoiseach and as Minister for Foreign Affairs.
He advocated for liberalisation of Irish society although the referendum to introduce divorce he initiated as Taoiseach in 1986 failed.
During his time in the Seanad, he spoke frequently and at length on debates on the economy, campaigned for Ireland to join the EEC and argued against tax allowances which he declared “the subsidy to better-off section of the community indicates the extent to which we are dominated by the middle-class thinking in this respect, to the exclusion of any proper social approach to these matters”.
Eileen Ellen (Edith) Costello (1870-1962)
Eileen Ellen (Edith) Costello was an Irish language enthusiast, political activist and a member of the Seanad from 1922 to 1934.
She argued against the 1927 Juries Bill which sought to exclude women from serving on juries.
She strongly opposed the Civil Service Regulation (Amendment) Bill 1925 which sought to limit women to the lower-level civil service positions.
In her contribution to the debate, she quoted the Constitution of the Irish Free State and its promise of privileges and obligations of citizenship “without distinction of sex”.
Billy Fox (1939-1974)
Billy Fox was a Fine Gael politician from Monaghan who served as a Senator on the Cultural and Educational Panel from 1973 to 1974.
Despite his Protestant background, he was outspoken on his strongly Republican views. He was shot dead by IRA gunmen in 1974 while serving as a Senator.
Mary Robinson (1944-)
Mary Robinson is an advocate for gender equality, climate justice campaigner and a former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
She campaigned on a wide range of liberal issues, including the right of women to sit on juries and the then requirement that all women, upon marriage, resign from the civil service.
She was a University of Dublin Senator between 1969 and 1989.
She spoke against the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, which placed a ban on abortion in the Constitution in the 1983 referendum. In 1973, 1974 and 1978 she introduced Family Planning Bills which sought to provide a legal right to contraception.
She was the first woman to be elected President of Ireland, serving from 1990 to 1997.
Gordon Wilson (1927-1995)
Gordon Wilson was born in Manorhamilton, County Leitrim.
After the death of his daughter, Marie, in an IRA bomb blast in Enniskillen in 1987, he became a peace campaigner.
Nominated to the Seanad by the Taoiseach in 1993, he died while in office in 1995.
He advocated for the still-contentious proposal that there should be engagement with paramilitaries and those involved in violent campaigns for the sake of peace.
During his time in the Seanad, he spoke on Northern Ireland on many occasions, always passionately pleading for peace from all sides of the conflict: “If we get peace then the death of Marie Wilson becomes a little more worthwhile”.
Seán Moylan (1889-1957)
Seán Moylan was an IRA officer and politician.
He opposed the Treaty and campaigned against the partition of Ireland. He served in the Seanad from 1957 until his sudden death while in office, later that year.
Éamon de Valera appointed him from the Seanad to be Minister for Agriculture after he had lost his Dáil seat in 1957; the second ever Senator to serve as a cabinet minister. Due to his strong interest in his ministerial brief, his contributions in the Seanad highlighted improvements achieved and needed in rural Ireland and agriculture.
Feargal Quinn (1936-2019)
Feargal Quinn was a businessman and founder of Superquinn.
He was elected to the Seanad as an independent member on the National University of Ireland panel, serving from 1993 to 2016.
He sponsored the greatest number of Private Members’ Bills (PMBs) put forward by a Senator during his service.
Countess of Desart, Ellen Odette Cuffe (1857-1933)
Ellen Odette Cuffe was born into the Jewish Bischoffsheim family in London.
She became the first woman in Ireland to be awarded Freedom of the City due to her involvement in local businesses in Kilkenny.
Despite her active participation in businesses and public life, she campaigned against women’s suffrage and voted in favour of the Civil Service Regulation (Amendment) Bill 1925 which sought to confine women to lower grades of the civil service.
During her time in the Seanad, she argued against outlawing divorce which she saw as a liberty guaranteed by the Constitution to the minority of non-Catholics. She was a member of the Seanad until her death in 1933.
Eamon De Buitléar (1930-2013)
Eamon De Buitléar was a filmmaker, environmentalist, and author.
He was nominated to the Seanad in 1987 and served until the end of the 18th Seanad in 1989 as an independent Senator.
As well as promoting the Irish language, De Buitléar’s main contribution was persistently arguing for a variety of nature conservation measures in all aspects of government policy.
During a debate on Fisheries (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 1987 he stated: “Every Minister is going to hate me because I will keep on chipping away with my hammer and chisel until the system begins to understand that we have a country which is nothing short of a jewel and we do not really understand what we have and what we stand to lose”.
David P. B. Norris (1944-)
David P. B. Norris is a lecturer in English and a Joycean scholar, human rights activist, and a politician. He was a candidate for President of Ireland in the October 2011 election.
He has been an independent University of Dublin Senator since 1987.
He has introduced and co-sponsored 32 Private Members’ Bills and campaigned widely on human rights issues.
He introduced a Civil Partnership Bill as a Private Members’ Bill in the Seanad in 2004 before civil partnership was legalised in Ireland in 2010. His case in European Court of Justice forced change in Irish law to decriminalise homosexuality in 1993.
Michael D. Higgins (1941-)
Michael D. Higgins is the ninth President of Ireland. He is a Labour Party politician, a human rights advocate, poet and academic.
He was first nominated by the Taoiseach to Seanad Éireann in 1973 for one term and served again as National University of Ireland panel member from 1983 to 1987.
As a Senator he co-sponsored the Illegitimate Children (Maintenance and Succession) Bill in 1974 to abolish the concept of illegitimacy of children from Irish law and campaigned against the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution.
Owen Lancelot Sheehy Skeffington (1909-1970)
Owen Lancelot Sheehy Skeffington was known for promoting human rights, including opposing apartheid, speaking against paramilitary groups, fighting for secularism in Irish schools, and helping set up the Humanist Association of Ireland.
He tabled a motion and raised adjournment debates to end corporal punishment in Irish schools during his time in the Seanad. The use of corporal punishment would not be abolished until the 1980s.
He was an independent member on the University of Dublin panel from 1954 to 1961 and again from 1965 to 1970.
Noel C. Browne (1915-1997)
Noel C. Browne was a politician and physician who served as a Senator from 1973 to 1977.
During his Seanad career he spoke in favour of Mary Robinson’s controversial Family Planning Bill 1973 to provide for the use of contraceptives in Ireland.
Browne supported a motion on the status of women in the workplace and promoted the division of Church and State. Browne caused controversy by advocating for “therapeutic abortion”, legalising homosexuality and divorce as a means of achieving a “pluralist state” inclusive of all religions.
Catherine McGuinness (1934-)
Catherine McGuinness is a retired judge of the Circuit Court, Justice of the High Court and Supreme Court of Ireland and children’s and human rights activist.
She spoke in favour of introducing divorce during a debate on marital breakdown in 1983, far in advance of its introduction into law after the 1995 referendum.
She was a member of the Seanad on the University of Dublin panel from 1979 to 1987.
She was a prominent campaigner against the introduction of the 8th amendment and tabled a motion to reject the Second reading of the bill initiating the 1983 referendum.
Brid Rogers (1935-)
Brid Rogers is a former politician who was appointed to the Seanad by the Taoiseach and served from 1983 to 1987.
She was prominent in Northern Ireland politics from the civil rights movement until 2002. She was a founding member of the SDLP, becoming the first woman to chair a political party in 1978.
In the Seanad, she consistently highlighted the situation in Northern Ireland. She spoke against the 8th amendment and advocated for liberalising legislation on contraceptives despite defining her views as pro-life, arguing that “it is not for the legislators to make laws which attempt to force people to abide by the moral standards of any particular Church”.
Margaret Mary Pearse (1878-1968)
Margaret Mary Pearse played a key role in setting up St Enda’s school with her brothers Patrick and Willie, two of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising.
The school used both English and Irish in teaching, while Irish was used as the main language outside of classes.
She was a member of the Seanad from 1938 to 1968. She passionately argued against cuts in funding for the Irish language in schools in 1949: “I am afraid all this is having a bad effect on the ordinary people, who begin to think that Irish does not matter”.
Despite admitting that her Irish was barely conversational, she consistently debated for more visibility and funding for the language which she saw as a fundamental part of national identity.
Seamus Mallon (1936-2020)
Seamus Mallon was an SDLP politician, Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland and a prominent peace campaigner.
He was appointed by the Taoiseach to the Seanad in 1982, serving until a general election was called later that year.
He advocated and promoted all-island thinking in all aspects of business and politics.
William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)
William Butler Yeats was a poet and a dramatist. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923.
He was an outspoken critic of the law which outlawed divorce in Ireland, arguing that such law would alienate Irish Protestants and create a barrier between the South and the North.
He was a member of the Seanad from 1922 to 1928.
During his time in the Seanad, he was a frequent contributor to debates, ranging from tabling a motion on returning paintings from the Hugh Lane collection from England back to Ireland to objecting to the use of Irish language in parliamentary proceedings: “Would I be in order in moving as an amendment that the prayer be read in Irish as soon as the majority of the members of the Seanad know Irish?”
Douglas Hyde (1860-1949)
Douglas Hyde was the co-founder and first president of the Gaelic League, the national movement for the revival of the Irish language.
He became a member of the First Seanad in 1925 in a by-election. Later that year he voted for a procedural motion to allow a debate on divorce in the Seanad. This led to a campaign to discredit him and other Protestant Senators and he lost his seat in the 1925 general election.