Is public debating a fate worse than death?

Public speaking is many people’s worst nightmare, but fear won’t stop the teens of Team Ireland from going for it at the World Schools Debating Championships in Bangkok

Representing Ireland in Bangkok next month are Sam Browne, Christopher Costigan, Niamh Ryan, Daniel Gilligan and Matthew Collins. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Representing Ireland in Bangkok next month are Sam Browne, Christopher Costigan, Niamh Ryan, Daniel Gilligan and Matthew Collins. Photograph: Aidan Crawley


Not all young debaters morph into table-thumping, supercilious hecklers once they get behind the lectern. A survey last year found that more than half of people are more scared of public speaking than they are of death. But what if the poor phobics knew their listeners and opponents would always be courteous and respectful?

“Firm, but courteous and respectful” happens to be the guiding force for the five smart secondary school students set to represent Team Ireland at the 2014 World Schools Debating Championships in Bangkok, Thailand, next month.

Not all teams are as keen on this line, it’s fair to say. The Irish team’s coaches, Derek Lande (30) and Ross McGuire (28), describe some national counterparts “scoffing and tutting loudly during the competition in order to throw the debaters off”.

“It’s just a matter of explaining politely why they [the opposing team] are wrong on everything,” explains Aodhán Peelo, a three-time debater at the championships who went to Castleknock Community College and is now studying law and philosophy at UCD. Like all the other adults, he is giving up his weekend to help the new breed.

The emphasis on respect and using “nice English that people will understand” is specific to this competition.

The Irish team – four boys and a girl aged 16-19 – with their smarts, easy manner and courtesy, are a reminder of why the Irish have a reputation for punching above their weight in international political and diplomatic circles.

Since these championships were first held in 1988, Ireland – which began competing in Bermuda in 1996 – is one of only eight countries to have won the competition.

The team’s existence is dependent on the voluntary effort of a small network of people. Schools, teachers and parents play a major role. But it is the alumni, most not yet 30, who generously donate their time, expertise and even money and coach these students into world-class contention.

And so, at 10am on a miserable, drizzly Saturday morning, the team, led by McGuire (who was on Team Ireland in Peru in 2003) and Lande (who has been involved with the team since 2011) gathers at Trinity College Dublin for one of 20 weekend training sessions.


Meet Team Ireland

Sam Browne of Presentation Brothers College, Cork; and Matthew Collins and his former classmate Christopher Costigan of St Conleth’s College sat their Leaving Cert in June. Niamh Ryan from Loreto College, St Stephen’s Green, and Daniel Gilligan from St Conleth’s, both 16, recently finished transition year.

Is it difficult to balance study with training? “It sounds weird but it’s a kind of break from the Leaving Cert, which is all learning off by heart,” says Collins. “And it actually complements subjects like English and history,” says Costigan.

On hand to help is Peelo’s former team-mate Hannah Beresford, who was on the team for two years as a student at Loreto Secondary School, Fermoy.

“It’s very hard to leave all this behind once you’re in it,” says Beresford, now studying law and politics in Trinity.

McGuire hands out complex-looking Excel spreadsheets, detailing the types of motions (“This house believes that states should enshrine legally actionable socio-economic rights,” anyone?) likely to arise. Students then get an hour alone to prepare their case.

Today they are proposing the motion that “this house should provide no support to minority languages”. Their opposition are the older alumni.

They lose (as decided by themselves). Browne remarks that apart from it being “extraordinarily tiring”, losing is the worst part of competing.

Daniel Gilligan, whose favourite topics include rights, morality and choice, and who is also excelling at French debating, gives a teenage shrug. “The only way to get better at debating is to just do it.”

And who better to do it with than with the likes of Lande, who was chief adjudicator at the World University Debating Championships in 2006. “Get better at faking it,” he says. “It’s an issue of confidence, so bring in all the game-face cliches, as awkward and silly as it might feel.”

Debating isn’t just about thinking on your feet or getting one over on the opposition. If everyone could acquire just a few of the life skills on display during the students’ speeches, it could banish the need for expensive interview and presentation coaching in later life, never mind that niggling public-speaking phobia.

It’s a mystery why organised public debating hasn’t become more widely practised among such a garrulous race of people, especially when you consider that Ireland is the birthplace of some of the oldest, largest and most active debating societies in the world.

The College Historical Society (The Hist) and the Dublin University Philosophical Society (The Phil) at Trinity are big factors in the decision by Browne, Collins and Costigan to make Trinity their first choice on their CAO forms.

Several former world schools championships competitors have gone on to be prominent members of UCC’s Philosophical Society; UCD’s Literary and Historical Society; and the NUIG’s Literary and Debating Society. But Ireland has no national debating association responsible for this particular tournament, unlike other countries.

McGuire says that the Department of Education has been “extremely generous” in its funding of the team over the years, but its contribution only covers the cost of participating. Often the coaches can end up investing “close to €1,000” on events such as team dinners, and they estimate their involvement adds up to about 40 days of free time.

So why do it? Simple. “You know how much of an impact it had on your own life and you want others to have that same incredible experience,” says McGuire. “It’s not just the debating. It opens your life up to new possibilities, new people, experiences, opportunities and ideas. The friends, the chance to represent your country: it’s an experience unlike anything else. And it comes at one of the most formative times of your life. In a time [of their lives] that an awful lot of people find very difficult, World Schools comes at just the right time.”

As Team Ireland heads off after practice, too exhausted to do anything other than “go home and crash out on the couch”, Beresford smiles maternally at them: “They don’t know it yet but they’re going to become really great friends.”

The World School Debating Championships take place in Bangkok, Thailand, August 5-15. The Irish team’s email address is

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