My debating days: By Michael D Higgins, Mary Harney, Dara Ó Briain and more

Debating taught me ‘to think quickly and speak slowly in unpredictable situations’

Michael D Higgins
President of Ireland
Finalist for 1966 individual award

I have clear recollections of a wonderful debating year when Michael Farrell and Eamon McCann represented Queen's, Patrick Cosgrave and Anthony Clare represented UCD. The Hist was represented by David McConnell and Cian O hEigheartaigh. The Elizabethan Society was represented by Hiliary Reynolds and Melissa Stanford.

UCC was represented by Eoghan Harris. Can I be forgiven for not remembering some of the other people involved?

I was auditor of the Literary and Debating Society of the University College Galway 1965-66. Gearóid Ó Thuataigh and I regularly represented the university in inter-university debates. Another partner was Michael O’Connor.

Hiring a dress suit was a big event at the time, particularly if you were going to be debating against opponents who gave the impression that they dressed formally for dinner every evening. I do recall Gearóid and I getting to speak in Scotland and England. We were the victims of a very unfair decision in the semi-final of a competition for which I have forgotten the name.


The UCG debates took place on a Thursday night with attendances never less than 300. They were wonderful events, not only because of the speakers and the topics for debate, but for the brilliant eccentricity of the hecklers. I often had to rest on Thursday afternoon to be prepared for the performance. Wonderful days!

Mary Harney 
Former tánaiste and leader of Progressive Democrats 
Finalist 1977, TCD Hist 

I was quite a shy child and I found that debating really built up my confidence. It also helped me understand different points of view and boosted my capacity for critical thinking. Listening was  also crucial, especially in a competitive debate where you had to respond.

In those days during debates in Trinity and The Irish Times debates, we were interrupted a lot more. Students were less polite. So, you needed to be confident in dealing with a point of order. It was all good training for a career in politics. It helped form my political perspective. In fact, I ended up in politics as a result of meeting Jack Lynch, who ended up nominating me to the Seanad.

In some ways, I’m still shy socially, but I have the capacity to get up and speak and think on my feet, and I put that down to debating.

Dara Ó Briain
Comedian and TV presenter
Member of 1994 winning team with Marcus Dowling

I think winning it should have been an impressive line on my CV, but I have literally never had to present a CV for any job in my life. More generally, college debating was where I realised I was a performer, not a scientist, and it changed my life completely. I didn't realise the sheer adrenaline rush of getting a laugh from a crowd until I did debating in college; and I've basically been chasing that high ever since. So I suppose that was the "benefit": a form of drug addiction. Thanks, The Irish Times.

My abiding memory of the final? Honestly, it was the nerves. The final was held in the big lecture hall in UCG, and I had spoken once there before, in an inter-varsity debate the year previous, and had died roaring. I was also the second last speaker, so it was a long wait in mounting fear. I remember little of the speech, other than a joke about Bertie Ahern doing ecstasy, which got a big laugh and settled the nerves.

As far as I remember the motion we debated was “that this House believes the private lives of politicians are no concern of the public” or something close to that. We were on the proposing side, and argued that we the public could make no claim on the private lives of politicians, if they agreed to make no legislation with regard to ours; but drawn out for 14 minutes.

We were particularly happy to win an Irish Times debate that argued against the Irish Times’s freedoms to publish.

Maeve Collins
Ireland's deputy permanent representative to the EU
Team winner, 1989

Taking part in the debate benefited me in many ways. I made life-long friends. I learned to think quickly and speak slowly in unpredictable situations. I learned that there are at least two sides to every proposition. And I learned you can't win them all.

I won the team prize in 1989 with my college friend Patrick Twomey, for the King's Inns. The individual winner was Julian Clare, friend and now also my colleague. We debated the motion "That British justice for the Irish is a flawed process"… or something like that, in a very charged and packed auditorium.

My experience in the civil service is that inclusive debate, argument and reflection is indispensable to good decision making and sound policy development.

Douglas Clarke SC
Individual speaker winner, 1996

My abiding memory of the 1996 final is of being asked afterwards whether I could go on the winners' debating tour of the US.

I was approaching the end of my year as Auditor of the Hist and, prior to that moment, had mentally allocated having a couple of uninterrupted weeks to prepare for my final exams in Trinity.

There was, however, only one answer to that question for a student more accustomed to travelling to and from the West of Ireland: the opportunity to participate in a once-in-a-lifetime debating tour of the US with visits to Houston, Austin, Galveston and San Antonio in Texas, St. Louis in Missouri, Portland in Oregon, Seattle in Washington, Anchorage in Alaska and New York necessitated a refinement of exam preparations.

The experiences that ensued with my friends and subsequent colleagues Paul Anthony McDermott and Helen Boyle – including visiting the NASA Space Centre and the Alamo, climbing the St Louis Arch and the Seattle Space Needle and exploring waterfalls in Oregon and glaciers in Alaska – far exceeded anything we could have anticipated.

In an article entitled “Postcards from the edge” which the Irish Times published in 1996, Paul encapsulated many memories of the trip with his customary eloquence and wit. Those memories have become all the more precious of late in the light of Paul’s recent untimely passing, a truly immense loss to his beloved family, his friends, the legal profession and the country.

Helen Boyle
Circuit Court judge
Team winner, 1996

My abiding memory of the competition is being in a sled pulled by huskies, racing along a trail in Alaska, with my teammate, the late Paul Anthony McDermott and Douglas Clarke, the individual winner that year.

The debate tour for the winners in 1996 went to Texas, Oregon and Alaska. Alaskan radio had announced that the Irish National Debate team was flying in and a lady who had a champion husky racing team rang in to offer us a chance to go husky racing!

The late Paul Anthony McDermott and I won the team competition for the King’s Inns in 1996. We were both thrilled to have our name on the Demosthenes trophy. I went to UCC and he went to UCD and we hadn’t debated together as a team before that year – in fact I don’t think we had ever spoken to each other before someone suggested that we would make a good debating team! We used to prepare for our debates in the Globe Bar – plan team lines, prepare arguments and anticipate what the other teams might say. I went there on the morning of Paul’s funeral to remember him and the very happy year that we spent competing as a team in the Irish Times Debate.

I hadn't debated in school and only took it up when I got to UCC. Brendan Lenihan and Don O'Sullivan won the team competition for UCC Philosoph when I was in first year and we all went to Galway to cheer them on.

I would encourage everyone to debate – I made lifelong friendships and had a great time travelling to other universities to compete.

Donnell Deeny
Retired member of the Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland
Team winner 1971 and 1972; and individual prize 1972

The whole point of debating is that you can't choose your side. It is an intellectual training in making an argument even though your heart mightn't be in it — so– it's a good preparation for lawyers, public relations specialists and perhaps politicians.

I competed but didn't win in 1970, and reached the final with Jim Hamilton, who went on to become the Director of Public Prosecutions. Shane Ross, who went on to become minister for transport, was on another team.

In 1971, I won with Greg Murphy, a red-bearded socialist who, at the time, worked as a subeditor with the Irish Press and used his money to buy three-piece pinstripe suits. When we won, Conor Cruise O'Brien chaired the debate and Henry Kelly was one of the judges. The motion was that "politics is an honourable profession" but I can't recall what side I was allocated. The late Marian Finucane was the individual winner, and her victory was very well-deserved.

I went on to become a barrister for 29 years, before becoming a high court judge and serving on the Northern Ireland court of appeal. I'm now enjoying my recent retirement.

Gerry Stembridge
Writer, actor and director
Team winner, 1981

I was auditor of UCD's L&H debating society in 1980. Back then, debates were usually in Theatre M of the arts block; today, they're in a purpose-built debating chamber in the student centre. I liked having the debates in lecture theatres because there was a sense that we, the students, were taking over, and I think that shaped the events. I loved the feeling of the audience bearing down on you and the pressure that brought.

Memories haze over time, but the final or semi-final was, I think, in Theatre M and the motion was about Northern Ireland. I remember the buzz of the crowd and, before the debate proper got underway, the laughter during the warm-up.

Getting involved in UCD’s student life definitely shaped my career [as a writer, director and actor]. I also joined DramSoc and, through debating and acting, I realised that I liked being in front of a crowd, learning what made them respond and how they listen, and figuring out ways of using words to create compelling images.

The introduction of free secondary education in 1966 meant that, by the late 70s, more people – and not just those from the wealthiest backgrounds – were going on to third-level. This created space for voices that had not been heard before and there was a much broader social mix taking part in college debates. We shaped the debates differently, and they shaped us too.

Henry Kelly
Broadcaster and journalist
Individual speaker winner, 1968

If debating taught me anything, it was how to think on your feet. But it also taught me how to absorb some of the most withering put-downs of all time.

I was in UCD in the mid-1960s. Before becoming auditor of the L&H debating society (1967-68), I was records secretary, and while this was ostensibly to read out the minutes, it was really to show off and to make people laugh.

In 1968, when I won the individual prize in The Irish Times debate, Dermot Gleeson – who went on to become Attorney General of Ireland – was on the winning team.

Dermot was definitely one of the better debaters, although we didn’t actually take it seriously. For us, it was all hilarious nonsense, and we had such fun.

When I took over as auditor, the writer Ulick O’Connor had been banned for life as a speaker by three successive auditors. I overturned the ban and Ulick came and enthralled everyone with the most brilliant speech.

It got more serious when we asked the Russian embassy to provide us with a speaker for a debate on whether communism was our best hope. A few days after that request, we got a call from the Soviet embassy in London to accept the invitation.

All hell broke loose. Who did we think we were, inviting communists to speak on campus? There was concern from both Special Branch and the Department of Foreign Affairs. Some said it shouldn’t go ahead at all. But the Russian speaker turned out to be one of the most engaging guests we’d had, and demand for seats at the event was so high that we had to restrict entry to members only.

Another standout speaker was Hugh Foot [the British colonial administrator and father of Paul Foote, the campaigning journalist]. When he came to the L&H, he was Britain's permanent representative to the United Nations, and after he spoke for us, he went over to RTÉ to appear on the Late Late Show.

When I think back on my time there, we delighted in engaging with the audience, but what really stands out are the friendships I made. While I might not see them from one end of the year to another, I’ve kept many of those friends.

Charles Lysaght
Lawyer and historian
Member of 1960 winning team

I was 18 at the time. I had attended Gonzaga College in Ranelagh, which was a bit of an egghead school: it was more intellectual than sporty. Fr Joe Veale had started a debating society. There was a great emphasis on expressing yourself clearly, having ordered arguments and rhetoric.

I went on to UCD and studied part-time King’s Inns. The L&H (Literary and Historical Society) was a bear-pit. You would be constantly interrupted. The Irish Times Debate was different: it was receptive and lively. To do well, you had to prepare well, be fairly fluent and seem as if you were speaking spontaneously. It was also important to refer to other speeches and take on points of information.

The motion we debated was that ‘this house regrets the divergence of the sciences from the humanities in the modern university”. I recall we were very lucky ... There were other excellent contributions. But it was a great thrill to win it. The four best speeches were broadcast on Radio Éireann.

Debating served me very well. I went on to Cambridge where I was president of Cambridge Union (I defeated Vince Cable). It taught you how to express yourself clearly and make ordered arguments. No wonder so many of us ended up in law or politics.

Seán Moran
Irish Times GAA correspondent
Member of 1981 winning team

I was part of a winning team with Charles Meenan [now a judge] and Gerry Stembridge [author and theatre director]. I wouldn't have characterised myself as a great performer. I remember Gerry was very good at getting on top of a crowd. Others were really quick-witted when it came to dealing with heckles. I tended to be more focused on my argument, and dismantling others'. Once you were confident you had a good argument and were well-prepared, it would go well.

Looking back, I’m struck by the crowds that attended the events. I think it’s much harder to get those numbers at events on campus now.

I think the ability to take facts and build an argument around them is of use in any walk of life. Lots of debaters gravitated towards law, of course, but it helped me in journalism is helping to articulate what you want to say as persuasively as possible.

Eamonn McCann
Politician and campaigner
Individual speaker award, 1965

It was decades before the internet, and things tended to be a bit more face-to-face. University debating societies were much more central to student life. The Irish Times competition was really an extension of that. It's hard to appreciate now the level of rivalry that existed between Trinity, UCD and Queens. It was, I suppose, as sharp-edged in some respects as a sporting contest which made it all the more enjoyable.

I recall sitting with a teammate a couple of days before a round in the debate and we were going over arguments – taking it very seriously indeed.

One of my memories was that I was in the final, the year that I won the individual competition, I did it with no preparation because I was on my own. I had no notes prepared and I did it off the top of my head. I think that, in the end, is why I won it because I didn’t have a set speech. Everything that I said was in reaction to what others had said and I managed to get through it. I remember Pronsias Mac Aonghusa was the chair of the judges. He more or less said that I won not because I was a brilliant debater or that I had the best arguments but that I did it off the top of my head – and that’s basically how I got the award.

I have no doubt that the debates certainly didn’t do me any harm. Student debates – then as now – can be fairly raucous affairs. They were not hyenas – but at the same time the raucous heckling and jeering were the order of the day and if you were in any way shaken by that or if you were in any way shy you wouldn’t survive it. I always enjoyed speaking in public – maybe it’s because I‘m just a loudmouth!

David McConnell
Professor of genetics at the Smurfit Institute, TCD
Team winner, 1965, TCD Hist

Ireland in the early 1960s was a strange place, with one or two islets of internationalism, of which The Irish Times was the most important.  The debating competition was the most culturally diverse quasi-political arena in Ireland, one of the few places where the Southerners (of any age) discussed anything meaningful with Northerners, where religious and social problems were vigorously challenged, and as a bonus, where Irish students met the English [who provided one third of the students at Trinity].

There was hope for progress in Ireland and the Western world [EEC 1957; Pope John XXIII; John Kennedy; Harold Macmillan’s “Winds of Change” 1960; Seán Lemass meeting Terence O’Neill 1965].  The Soviet Union controlled half of Eurasia and nuclear war was a real threat (as it still is), but at least the challenges to western secular democracy seemed to be contained and containable.

Everything was up for debate.  I forget the motions that we discussed in the Irish Times but I know that the Hist voted in favour of abortion in 1963 – The Irish Times would not have gone so far as to offer that motion – and we disapproved of the place of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland – ditto; we decided that the Easter Rising had not been betrayed, and yet we said that Emmet’s epitaph should not be written;  we regretted the fall of Krushchev, and we said that the US should not get out of Vietnam.

We did not revere the British Empire, but we could not go so far as voting for Fianna Fail.  Lucky for me as a neophyte geneticist, we said we would not lock scientists out of their laboratories.  The votes do not matter but the motions do.

Competing with students from Galway, Cork, Belfast and our neighbours at the L and H in Dublin, broadened my experiences in ways that could not otherwise have been fulfilled – remember that in those days of the religious apartheid imposed by The Ban, Trinity had almost no undergraduate connections with the other universities except in sport (and even those were constrained).

Debating with Cian Ó hÉigeartaigh in Galway against Michael D Higgins, Seán Ó hUiginn and Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh put me on a roller coaster ride to finding my country and to the conviction that we had to move on.

Recalling the words of Thomas Davis to the Hist in 1840, debating helped to remedy the defects of my university education.