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Minority Voices, Major Changes: An Exhibition

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.

Image of Mark Daly

Cathaoirleach's welcome

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. 

Image of Kathleen Clarke

Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

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.

Image of Labhrás Ó Murchú

Courtesy of Labhrás Ó Murchú

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.

Image of Augustine Martin

Courtesy of RTÉ Archives

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.

Image of Horace Plunkett

Courtesy of National Library of Ireland

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.


Image of Thomas (TK) Whitaker

Courtesy of Aengus McMahon & the Whitaker Institute

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. 

Image of Jane (Jennie) Wyse Power

Courtesy of Kilmainham Gaol Museum KMGLM 2015.0673

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.

Image of Nuala Fennel

Courtesy of the Clare Champion

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. 

Image of Garrett Fitzgerald

Courtesy of European Communities, 1975

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.

Image of Eileen Ellen (Edith) Costello

Courtesy of Bibliothèque Nationale de France

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.

Image of Billy Fox

Courtesy of RTÉ Archives

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. 

Image of Mary Robinson

Courtesy of Mary Robinson

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.

Image of Gordon Wilson

Courtesy of Boston College

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.

Image of Seán Moylan

Courtesy of Wikimedia Public Domain

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. 

Image of Feargal Quinn

Courtesy of the Houses of the Oireachtas

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.

Image of Countess of Desart, Ellen Odette Cuffe

Courtesy of Kilkenny County Library

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. 

Image of Eamon De Buitléar

Courtesy of Aengus McMahon/NUI Galway

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.

“The laws under which I have lived out my 46 years of life are the exact and direct parallel of the Penal Laws which discriminated against Roman Catholics in this country, to the shame of the then Government.”
Senator Davis Norris / European Court of Human Rights Judgment
Image of Senator David Norris

Courtesy of the Houses of the Oireachtas

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.

Image of Michael D. Higgins

Courtesy of Áras anUachtaráin

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.

Image of Owen Lancelot Sheehy Skeffington

Courtesy of National Library of Ireland

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.

Image of Senator Noel Brown

Courtesy of Yellow Asylum Films

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. 

Image of Catherine McGuinness

Courtesy of NUI

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.

Image of Brid Rogers

Courtesy of Mal McCann/Irish News

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. 

Image of Margaret Mary Pearse

Courtesy of Pearse Museum

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.


Image of Seamus Mallon

Courtesy of Mal McCann/Irish News

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. 

Image of William Butler Yeats

Courtesy of National Library of Ireland

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.

Image of Douglas Hyde

Courtesy of Áras anUachtaráin

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.

Many of the biographies on this page have been adapted from entries in the Dictionary of Irish Biography under CC 4.0.