An arcane, half-secret, semi-privileged closed shop it might be called, but Seanad Éireann has long held its own attraction for those who hankered after a career in public life. And it was a chamber which, over the years, hosted a high level of representatives from Mayo, perhaps reflecting the level of public interest in politics in our own county.
In any event, the fact that five of the outgoing Seanad – Paddy Burke, Rose Conway-Walsh, John O’Mahony, Michelle Mulherin and Dr Keith Swanick – are from Mayo confirms that we can punch above our weight when it comes to membership of the Upper House.
Indeed, it has ever been so since the inception of the revamped Seanad in 1938, with Mayo having a higher than average representation in the second chamber. For many, the Seanad was the bridge into (or, in some cases, out of) the more-desired destination of the Dáil. For others, it was a recognition of achievement in their chosen professions, an opportunity to put their wisdom and experience at the service of the State.
The oldest and longest-serving-ever Mayo Senator was Tom Ruane of Ballina, who served from 1938 to 1965, and whose Mayo colleagues in the original Senate were John Eddie McEllin of Balla, and Maurice Moore of Moorehall.
Among those who served in the Senate but who also went on to Dáil Éireann were former Minister, Paddy O’Toole, Jim Higgins, and west-coast neighbours, Myles Staunton and Martin J O’Toole. There were also Belmullet’s Joe Lenehan, and Martin Finn, father of current Mayo County Councillor, Richard Finn. Earlier again, there had been the colourful senior counsel, PJ Lindsay of Erris (‘I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, I am an unrepentant Blueshirt’); Bernard Commons, on the rising wave of popularity for Clann na Talmhain, and Dick Walshe of Balla.
Several Mayo senators made valiant but vain efforts to secure election to Dáil Éireann, among them Frank Chambers, Patrick Durcan, Ernie Caffrey of Ballina, Jack Garrett of Crossmolina, and Dalgan Lyons, a fine orator and legislator from Ballyhaunis.
Another highly esteemed member of the Seanad was Seán T Ruane of Kiltimagh, principal teacher at Craggagh NS. He was elected, in all, on five consecutive occasions to the Seanad, a testimony to his Sinn Féin activism in Dublin and Mayo during the War of Independence.
Mayo’s representation in the Seanad was further bolstered by members whose political ambitions were confined to the Upper House, most notably the young Castlebar barrister, Ben O’Quigley from Blackfort, whose death at a young age cut short a promising legal career. TP Flanagan, Mayo County Engineer, also served for three terms in the Seanad following his retirement, while Mayo numbers were also boosted by the presence of Mary Robinson, elected on the Universities’ panel.
But no Seanad career better reflects the ironic twists of Irish politics than that of the aforementioned Maurice Moore. A senior figure in the Volunteers, Moore had been appointed to the first Senate by Wm T Cosgrave on the foundation of the state in 1922. It was an appointment which cost the family their imposing home at Moorehall, burned to the ground on February 1, 1923, by ‘irregulars’, because of the perception that the senator was pro-treaty.
Moore, however, proved something of a thorn in the side of the new administration. The wheel came full circle 15 years later, in 1938, when Eamon de Valera, now head of a Fianna Fáil government, appointed party member Maurice Moore to the Seanad, where he served for six years.