Where the sharpest pit their wits


Generations of public figures have cut their oratorical teeth competing in The Irish TimesDebate, which tonight celebrates 50 years in existence. KATE HOLMQUISTjogs the memories of some of its past winners

SINCE 1960, generations of speakers have honed their skills in “the bear pit” of the Irish TimesDebate. This year, 284 students have competed in teams of two for one of 12 coveted places at tonight’s event at the Helix at Dublin City University, chaired by David Trimble.

Among the debaters whose own parents also competed in the Irish TimesDebate will be Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin, speaking for TCD’s “Hist” (Historical Society), whose father won in 1983 for NUI Galway, and Aengus O Corrain, speaking for TCD’s “Phil” (Philosophical Society), son of Donnacha O Corrain, who won for University College Cork in 1967.

“The Facebook generation is as interested in debating as ever,” says this year’s convenor, 26-year-old Frank Kennedy, now studying at King’s Inns to become a barrister.

There has been no better space than the “intense experience” of the Irish TimesDebate in which to learn to articulate and communicate concepts, says barrister Bernard Dunleavy, who won in 1994 with comedian and TV presenter Dara Ó Briain and barrister Marcus Dowling. Dunleavy even met his wife, Catherine Flanagan, on the debate circuit, while Dowling was best man at the wedding.

Dunleavy is one of dozens of barristers, senior counsels, circuit and supreme court judges who dominate the winners’ list, having cut their rhetorical teeth in the heated atmospheres of UCD’s Literary and Historical Society (LH) and TCD’s Hist, where Brian Lenihan, now Minister for Finance, was a committee member and Mary Harney was the first woman auditor.

These two rival societies, who have each won the debates an equal number of times, will dominate tonight’s contest, but in the individual category there will also be debaters from NUI Galway, Trinity Phil, King’s Inns and, for the first time, Griffith College.

Many of the contestants will be aiming for law careers. “I’m not sure it made any difference either way to my career, but it was great fun,” says John O’Donnell, barrister, poet and 1979 winner. He recalls being amazed by the oratorical power of Conor Gearty (winner in 1978 and 1979, now director of the Centre for the Study of Human Rights at the London School of Economics) and Donal O’Donnell, (1978 winner) now a high court judge, as well as Rory Brady, the former attorney general.

“It was all about the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd, the rivalries as well as the friendships of all those pimply and opinionated people in ill-fitting suits with earnest faces,” O’Donnell says.

Future doctors, teachers, writers and scientists have also tested their talents of persuasion in the contest. Future journalist Eamonn McCann won in 1965 with, uncharacteristically, an argument against socialism, on the same team as Cian Ó hÉigeartaigh, now a TV producer, and David McConnell, now professor of genetics at TCD and chairman of The Irish TimesTrust .

The first woman to win the competition, in 1971, was RTÉ broadcaster Marian Finucane. Of 150 winners in 50 years, only 11 have been women, though there have been some notable female finalists, such as the Tánaiste, Mary Harney, former president Mary Robinson and the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Mary Hanafin.

Bernard Dunleavy’s prize for his 1994 win was a US debating tour of Colorado, New Mexico and Oklahoma, an experience that had such an impact on him that he has since returned to New Mexico many times.

“The tour opened a whole new world to me,” he says.

As the Irish TimesDebate celebrates its 50th anniversary, the subsequent US tour – which all winners are invited to go on – is also marking its 30th. “I love coming back to Ireland because it’s an exploding endorphin of conversation,” says Gary Holbrook, founder of the US tour, a top debating coach and now professor emeritus at Metropolitan State College in Colorado. He began organising the US tour in 1980 with former Irish Timesduty editor and education editor Christina Murphy, former Irish Timesjournalist Maev-Ann Wren and LH veteran Eugene McCague.

In Dublin for this week’s celebrations, Holbrook says that he was first inspired to bring Irish debaters to the US by the astounding quality of debate at Trinity College Dublin, where he taught in 1979 while on sabbatical. Even debates at Oxford and Cambridge in the UK did not impress him as much.

US debaters, who rely on the rapid-fire delivery of statistics and facts, and who these days even employ their laptops, don’t connect with audiences the way the Irish can with their “blarney”, according to Holbrook.

For a new generation, the coordinator of the coveted US tour is Brent Northup, professor of communication at Carroll College in Helena, Montana, where he teaches journalism and ethics and coaches the debate team.

“We worked hard to make this tour delightful,” he says.

Whoever wins the Irish TimesDebate tonight will find themselves in Texas on Thursday, March 18th, as guests of the NPDA. The subsequent series of debates is scheduled to take in a ski trip in Colorado, a visit to Manhattan, a detour to Niagara Falls and a starring role in the prestigious American debate tournament, World Style. The tour ends with a debate at the University of Miami and, just as importantly, the beach.

US coach Debbie Seltzer, as she prepares her team to face the Irish, comments: “Historically speaking, the duty of the NPDA debaters at the Irish debates is to get their asses kicked, and to do so gracefully and honourably.”



1970 winner with Donal O’Riain (managing director, Ecocem) and the late Neal Clarke

“It was quite a big deal at the time. Participants presented the same palpitating ambitions,” says Hardiman, who recalls debating with Gerald Barry of RTÉ and Declan O’Donovan, Irish ambassador to Poland, among others. “I recall someone commenting at the time: ‘Those guys don’t have blood in their veins, they have liquid ambition.’ It was an intense experience.”

Hardiman won the individual debating award and, with Gerald Barry, went on to the Observer Mace competition, where the chairman of the judges was Lord Denning. “I spoke first and Gerry second, but Gerry was so enthusiastic that Lord Denning said the UCD team, while being by far the best, had exceeded the time limit so much that it couldn’t be considered. We had such a good time it didn’t matter.”

Among those who impressed Hardiman at UCD’s “LH” were the late Anthony Clare (1963 winner), who became a psychiatrist and media star, and Charles Lysaght (1960 winner), “a towering figure”.



1981 winner with Charlie Meenan SC and Seán Moran,Irish Times GAA correspondent

Coming to UCD from a Christian Brothers school in Limerick, Stembridge found debating to be “open to everyone” rather than exclusive and rarefied, though he did do “a bit of secret study of the Dublin 4 animals” which would later reveal itself in RTÉ Radio 1’s Scrap Saturday. The debating world was inclusive, particularly for rural students new to Dublin who were drawn to the Friday night debates when going home for the weekend was too expensive. “The great thing about the Irish Timesdebate as a competition is that there was always room for humour,” says Stembridge. “It was considered an important part of the performance that the audience be alive and interested.”



1980 winner with Brian Havel, DePaul Law School, Chicago

“It probably did help my career. It should be helpful in any business to marshal arguments. The whole debating experience gave me self-confidence in dealing with people. It was quite a prestigious thing at the time,” says McCague.

Coors brewing company sponsored the first US tour in 1980, which meant that “limitless” crates of beer were delivered to every college where the Irish Timesdebaters appeared. Then aged 21, McCague found it “wonderful” to be a “minor celebrity” on local TV and radio in the Midwest, as debaters visited nine colleges from Wyoming to Texas to Washington DC.

“We had a bit of blarney and humour – that was the thing we had going for us,” he says.



First woman auditor, in 1976-77, of TCD’s Historical Society and runner-up in theIrish Times debate

“Debating gave me confidence. It taught me to think on my feet and to marshal my thoughts. It teaches you not to give up and not to be bested. It’s helped me navigate through life,” says Harney. If not for Sr Paul, at the Presentation Sisters, Clondalkin, who pushed her into debating, her political career would not have happened, she adds. It was through debating that Harney came to the attention of former taoiseach Jack Lynch.

From her early 20s, debating taught Harney to form views on current affairs, such as the conflicts in Palestine-Israel and Northern Ireland, “issues that would have confused people of that age”. Debating taught her to see the other person’s point of view. “It has helped in my attitude to Northern Ireland, to know that there are two different perspectives and both are legitimate,” she says. “I also learned that you have to use humour to bring an audience with you. If you can be witty and entertaining, it helps with the after-dinner speeches when, as Minister, you’re last at 10.30pm or 11pm.”

Why have there been so few female winners of Irish Times debates? When it comes to decision-making positions in the trade unions, politics and government, there’s still an absence of women, Harney points out.

“Young women can find it intimidating. They’re shy about their appearance, and a lot of women are not confident in that space of being challenged,” she says.



1979 winner with John O’Donnell, barrister

“It was the biggest kick of my life,” says Biggar of winning the contest. Seven of his family have worked in the Department of Foreign Affairs, his father Frank was an ambassador, his uncle was Conor Cruise O’Brien, and his godfather was the poet, Val Iremonger. Travelling was in his blood, and he always wanted to be either a barrister or to work in the department. Both wishes were granted and he believes that winning the Irish Timesdebate had “tremendous value”.

What has it meant in my life? In the Department of Foreign Affairs I made a lot of speeches to the UN, the European Union, the OECD . . . It was an invaluable asset to bring to a diplomatic career.”



1969 winner with Brendan Keenan, journalist

“It was a good outlet for mouthy attention- seekers,” says Davis. “I was chronically shy until I started debating at age 15. An enlightened priest at my boarding school got me into debating and I learned that there are two heady drugs: applause and the crack cocaine of laughter.” Debating was ideal preparation for a media career because it required steady nerves – you can shown any emotion except fear. The speaker who shows fear is blood in the water. It was a very important life lesson.”



1981 winner with Charlie Meenan SC and Gerard Stembridge

“Debating is about being able to argue a point passionately, whether you believe it or not,” says Moran. “You have to marshal what evidence is there, and be as persuasive as possible. Law students have been disproportionately involved, while individuals such as geneticist David McConnell stand out, particularly because he debated at the prestigious Observer Mace awards two years running. For students who want careers in media, debating is useful because it involves getting on top of an area that you don’t know, then making it comprehensible to an audience.”



1965 and 1966 winner and winner ofObserver Mace Award

“We were very young, we took ourselves very seriously and we imagined that we would change the world . . . I think debating did as much for me as my studies in genetics,” says McConnell, who belonged to TCD’s Hist, “It encouraged us to think on an unlimited range of topics, to take a wider interest in things and it really made you see all sides of every story.”

While attending lectures on “arcane subjects such as genetics”, the “real heart” of his education was the debating scene, which was cosmopolitan and like “belonging to a winning football team”.

McConnell formed lifelong friendships with Cian Ó hÉigeartaigh, Michael D Higgins and psychiatrist Anthony Clare, and saw Brian Lenihan, Mary Harney, David O’Sullivan and others hone skills that would be essential to their future careers. Saturday night debates in Earlsfort Terrace were packed and at UCD they were not as polite as at TCD. “It was a real personal challenge,” he says.

The Irish TimesDebate takes place tonight at the Helix, DCU, 7.30pm, admission free. The motion is This house believes that Ireland owes a debt of gratitude to Fianna Fáil 1926-2010