Wit and warmth: The secret weapons of Irish debaters
The first Irish Times Debate took place 60 years ago. Former student debaters look back
The Irish Times debate semi-final at UCD in 1966.
It was January 1960. Seán Lemass had recently taken over from de Valera. The arrival of television was just around the corner. The Catholic Church’s vice-like grip on morality would soon be challenged. A monochrome State was on the cusp of modernity.
It was against this backdrop that the Irish Times Debate was born. For students, the chance to have their voice heard in public debate over burning issues of the day felt both thrilling and liberating.
“There was a real sense of change and modernisation in the air,” says writer and former debate winner Gerry Stembridge.
“The debate was part of that climate and marked a shift towards listening to the voices of young people. It was very forward-thinking of whoever decided to start it.”
Generations of public figures have since cut their oratorical teeth in what is Ireland’s longest-running university debating competition. It has been an early proving ground for many who have gone onto to forge distinguished careers in law, medicine, theatre, media and politics.
Former winners and finalists include presidents, past and present (Michael D Higgins and Mary Robinson), politicians (Eamonn McCann, Mary Harney, Brian Lenihan and Rónán Mullen), broadcasters (Henry Kelly, Derek Davis and Marian Finucane), senior civil servants and judges (Adrian Hardiman, Frank Clarke and Donal O’Donnell, to name a few).
Sixty years on, it is still going strong. And in an era of Twitter soundbytes and echo chambers, debating enthusiasts say there has never been a greater need to challenge entrenched views and learn how to disagree, agreeably.
Charles Lysaght, a lawyer and historian, was a member of the very first Irish Times Debate winning team in 1960.
While some college debating societies like UCD’s Literary & Historical society (L&H) were like a “bear-pit”, he recalls The Irish Times Debate was more receptive – but no less intimidating. The element of display and entertainment was still important.
“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,” he recalls.
He also recalls the thrill of seeing his name in the newspaper and hearing the winning speeches broadcast on Raidió Éireann.
Neville Keery, representing Trinity’s College Historical Society (“the Hist”), won best individual speakers in the 1960 final.
He recalls feeling nervous as he looked up at the tiered auditorium, wondering where the next point of information or heckle might come from.
“It was a terrific experience and very competitive – there were some really excellent debaters” recalls Keery, who went on to become a senator and senior European Commission official.
While the audience was fairly restrained that night, it wasn’t always the case.
“In some cases, an audience could count down a speaker, just like a referee does with a boxer: ‘One, two three…’ Very few would survive if they got to ten,” he says.
He recalls using various techniques to keep the audience onside.
One was to alternate his tone from loud and combative to quiet and thoughtful. Another involved clutching his notes and waving them about furiously to make a point.
“I plead guilty to that – it tended to get people’s attention which wasn’t always easy in a competition with time-limited speeches.”
The audience has always been important to The Irish Times Debate and additional spice has been added by long-standing and simmering rivalries between academic institutions, especially UCD and Trinity.
Trinity’s Hist tops the league table of team winners (15), followed by UCD’s L&H (12), King’s Inns (eight), UCC’s Philisoph (six), Trinity Phil (four) and UCD Lawsoc and Queen’s University Belfast (three).
Each year about 150 teams of two take part in the competition, which is whittled down to a grand final with four teams and four individuals. The format is that an equal number of teams propose and oppose a motion, with a team member on either side speaking alternately for seven minutes each.
In addition to the prestige, the winners enjoy a remarkable prize; an all-expenses-paid three-week debating tour of the United States.
Decades on, the performances of some individual students are still spoken about in near reverential terms.
UCD law student Conor Gearty was one of those to make a big impression in the late 1970s, winning the Mace two years in a row with different teammates (after that, Mace organisers banned winners from re-entering). Gearty is now professor of human rights law at the London School of Economics.
Some also went on to become world student debating champions, such as Damian Crawford, who won the Irish Times tournament in 1983 with his UCG team mate Eoin O Maolain. He won “Worlds” in Canada in 1985 for the King’s Inns with Shane Murphy who narrowly missed out on winning the Irish Times title for UCD the previous year. Brian Hassett, who won The Irish Times Debate that year, went on to win Worlds in New York in 1986 with fellow UCC student Siobhan Lankford.
The broadcaster Henry Kelly – who won the Irish Times individual speaker award in 1968 – says the competition fulfilled a crucial role: it was the only forum for “intelligent conversation and social gathering outside student politics and rugger buggers”.
He recalls being impressed by a student by the name of Mary T W Bourke in the mid-1960s. She went on to be President Mary Robinson.
“She was the best speaker that I personally ever saw in the Literary and Historical Society at UCD,” Kelly recalls. “She held the L&H silent for seven glorious, stimulating, witty minutes.”
This, he says, was particularly impressive because “she was a girl and usually girls would endure cries of ‘show us your knickers’ from the rear of the hall.”
If there has been a challenge with the debate, it has been female under-representation – though it has been improving in more recent times.
Robinson was a finalist but didn’t win in the mid-1960s. In fact, the first female individual winner was Marian Finuance in 1971, while the first woman to feature in a winning team was Maeve Collins, part of the King’s Inns team in 1989 and now Ireland’s deputy permanent representative to the EU.
During the first 50 years, the competition had only 11 female winners; in the past 10 years, it has had nine.
Collins feels the competition – and student debating societies generally – mirrored the paucity of woman in public life due to structural biases and cultural barriers.
“There was a lot of verbal aggression towards women competitors which would, I hope, be completely unacceptable nowadays. Things are somewhat better now but progress has been shockingly, unacceptably slow,” says Collins.
“Debating rewards risk-taking and being outrageous – and this can appeal to men,” says Tully. ”Clíodhna Ní Chéileachair [winner of The Irish Times Debate in 2016] helped me to realise that I deserved to be there. For men, consciousness can help: be aware of making space for women and reaching out to them, rather than simply and automatically taking the men who respond strongest or first.”
While a great many have gone on to flourish in the legal world, future doctors, writers, teachers and scientists have all tested their talents of persuasion in the competition.
Future journalist and People Before Profit politician Eamonn McCann won in 1965 with, uncharacteristically, an argument against socialism.
He was on the same team as Cian O’hEigeartaigh, a future author and TV producer, and David McConnell, who went on to become a professor of genetics and chancellor of Trinity College Dublin.
For comedian and TV presenter Dara O Briain, college debating is where he realised he was a performer – and not a scientist, “It changed my life completely,” he says. “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,” he says.
For those who flourished in the white heat of debating competitions, most acknowledge that meticulous preparation is key. If you can pass off devastating one-liners as spontaneous pieces of genius, all the better.
President Michael D Higgins confides that he would rest on the afternoon of a debate to make sure he was in the right frame of mind. Looking the part was also important.
“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,” he says.
Eamonn McCann, however, seems to be a rare exception to the rule. “In 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,” he says. “Everything that I said was in reaction to what others had said, and I managed to get through it.”
A new dimension to the competition was added in 1980 when a three-week debating tour of US campuses became part of the prize for the winners.
It was the brainchild of US professor Garry Holbrook, a top debating coach professor emeritus at Metropolitan State College in Colorado, who came to Trinity on sabbatical.
He said he was inspired by the quality of debate here; even debates at Oxford and Cambridge in the UK did not impress him as much. While US debaters tend to rely on rapid-fire delivery of statistics and facts, he said they lacked the audience connection and “blarney” of Irish debaters.
Brent Northup, professor of communications at Carroll College in Montana and founder of Pax Rhetorica: Words Across Borders, a non-profit dedicated to global dialogue, has since taken over responsibility for organising the US tour.
Whoever wins this year’s debate will find themselves taking part in a three-week tour which criss-crosses the US with visits to Nashville, Los Angeles and Chicago, where they will do battle with debating teams across the country.
“The Irish debaters have keen analytic minds blended with distinctive wit – which is more than humour. It’s a warm regard for the audience and wanting to speak with them, not at them,” says Northup.
“That makes for a deadly combination in debate rounds. American debaters tend to be more legalistic and less rhetorical than the Irish. We are a bit more boring, and that contributes to being a bit less persuasive.”
These days, some grumble that college debating doesn’t attract the crowds it used to. The golden age, some say, were the heady days of the 1960s when Patrick Cosgrave and Anthony Clare stood head and shoulders over student debaters across the UK and Ireland, winning both the Irish Times competition and the Observer Mace.
Others say some of the greats were not always the winners; simply making it to the finals has always been a formidable achievement. Mary Harney, Mary Robinson, Mary Hanafin and many others are among the list of high-profile finalists still talked about.
But, then, maybe there’s an element of rose-tinted spectacles about the old day.
After all, as Eugene McCague – a member of 1980 winning team and now chair of Arthur Cox – admits, the quality was so poor that year that adjudicators opted not to award a second team prize.
“[Christina Murphy, an adjudicator] later confided in me that, if she had had her way, there wouldn’t have been a first prize either,” laughs McCague.
And so the debate goes on. The heckling may not be quite as raucous as it used to be. Debaters are, some say, a little more solemn these days. Regardless, anyone who experiences The Irish Times Debate at its best can still find soaring and spell-binding performances.
Aisling Tully takes part regularly in national, European and world debating championships. She says standards in Ireland are still extremely high, and a new generation is carrying the torch.
“There’s an incredible atmosphere at The Irish Times Debate final. It’s an incredible feeling to speak and make people feel and react to your words. I got so much in return from debating,” she says,.
Debating, says Charles Lysaght, one of the very first winners all those years ago in 1960, has always been a vital skill. The ability to construct a well-ordered argument and express it with clarity will remain important long into the future.
“I still remember our teacher [Joe Veale] quoting Isocrates, the Greek: “The right word is a sure sign of the clear mind”.
Additional reporting by Peter McGuire