The little known story of the origins of the Green Party
From the archive: Christopher Fettes advocated for vegetarianism, a basic wage, and against pollution
Christopher Fettes, received a roll of honour during the Green Party annual convention in Waterford in 2010. File Photograp: Dara Mac Dónaill
As the so-called Green Wave brought new and returning Green Party politicians to power during the local and European elections, the Greens are certainly experiencing a renewed interest at this time of a great climate crisis.
But while most of us know the origin stories of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Labour and Sinn Féin, Green Party roots are rarely dug up. The party was founded by an Englishman, Christopher Fettes, who was born in Kent in 1937, studied English and French at Trinity College Dublin, and was a teacher for nearly 40 years at Saint Columba’s College in Dublin.
Fettes, an Esperanto-speaking JRR Tolkien fan, had an early appearance in The Irish Times as chairman of the Irish Association of National Health, in a small notice published on January 22nd, 1969 about an upcoming public meeting titled “Sugar… a Bitter Sweet?”
The real, only and true vegetarians, are known as vegans, pronounced vague-an
A letter about sound pollution in February 1970 saw Fettes donning a different cap, as convener of the Council Against Pollution. The letter raised concerns about sound pollution emitted by Concorde jets, “The extreme unpleasantness of the boom has rightly already been stressed in your columns,” Fettes wrote, “might one also suggest that your readers imagine the effect such an explosion could have on a delicate operation, or on the tomato crop when a slight error in Concorde’s course shatters every glasshouse north of Dublin?” Another letter in 1971 was about the value of organic farming, and how fertilisers were destroying microflora.
“Vegetarians come in three kinds,” an article by Lucile Redmond began in the newspaper on April 15th, 1978, “the ones who eat dead fish but not mammals, the real extremos who eat no animal products whatever, and the ones who eat products of the earth and dairy products.” Redmond offered an early insight into how veganism was perceived in 1970s Ireland, “The real, only and true vegetarians, are known as vegans, pronounced vague-an. These are the original nut-cutleters.”
Fettes popped up in this article too, “There are no figures for the number of vegetarians in Ireland, since most of them are ragged individuals who wouldn’t be seen dead on a plate in a society or association of any sort,” Redmond wrote, “Christoper Fettes of St Colomba’s College, Rathfarnham, runs the Vegetarian Society of Ireland.”
You can’t swing a yam without hitting a plant-based menu in Dublin these days, but back then the scene wasn’t as fertile. Redmond listed the latest veggie openings, Munchies on Bolton Street, The Golden Dawn on Crow Street, and the Supernatural Tearooms on Harcourt Street. Supply depots for “lentils etc.” were also listed; Greenacres’ (it’s previous home as half of the Good Karma restaurant had recently burned down) sister shop, South King Street Greenacres “keeps on trucking with a fine selection of grains, pulses, fresh, beautiful bread, fresh vegetables in season, pottery, chopsticks, spices, pomanders, lavender sachets, candles, woodcarvings, ginseng and the like.”
Nature’s Grace on Gardiner Street “run by devotees of Sun Myung Moon,” was also cited, as was Health and Herbal on Suffolk Street. “The likelihood seems to be that Westerners will be eating a diet which is much less meaty in the future,” Redmond ended the article, prophetically, “The farmers, meanwhile, will eat their hearts out.”
By November 1982, the Ecology Party had set out its stall, with Fettes as the chairman. Willy Clingan reported on their entry into electoral politics, “The Ecology Party introduced its seven election candidates at quite the nicest and most endearingly honest press conference of the whole campaign. The one reporter present was sat down with tea, sandwiches and cake while the chairman opened proceedings by acknowledging cheerfully that the party did not expect to have anyone actually elected.”
Twenty supporters attended the press conference at, where else, Buswells Hotel. By 1985, the Ecology Party was the Green Alliance, with 38 candidates running in the local elections, half of them women. One candidate, Marcus Counihan, was elected in Kilkenny. The previous year, Fettes won 5,200 first preferences as a European candidate in Dublin.
In June 1988, Fettes wrote another letter to The Irish Times, advocating for basic income, a concept now known as universal basic income or UBI. More than 30 years later, this is the main issue Andrew Yang is running his Democratic party nomination campaign on in the US.
In 1989, the Green Party as they were now known, found themselves unexpectedly with their first ever TD in Dáil Eireann, Roger Garland. At that time, Garland was one of three people in the original founding group of the Ecology Party, along with Marie Mullarney and Fettes, who had both stayed on as party activists. In the 1992 election, Garland lost his seat in Dublin South to Liz O’Donnell of the PDs.
Mary Maher profiled Garland in the newspaper in June 1989, writing that Garland “accepts readily that many voters opted for his party because there didn’t seem to be anything to criticise about it… ‘We haven’t done anything on anybody yet. But I suppose we will.’”