Former tánaiste recalls how she was refused entry to all-male club

Mary Harney: ‘When I enquired if it was because I was a woman I was told no, it was because I wasn’t a man’

A series of portraits celebrating some of the most prominent members of Trinity College Dublin’s College Historical Society, known as the “Hist”, were unveiled on Friday as part of the student debating society’s 250th anniversary celebrations.

The five portraits painted by Irish artist Mick O'Dea feature Trinity graduates Conor Cruise O'Brien, Frederick Boland, Owen Sheehy Skeffington, Mary Harney and Jaja Wachuku, Nigeria's first foreign minister.

Speaking at the event on Friday, former tánaiste and leader of the Progressive Democrats Dr Harney recalled how on becoming the first female auditor of the society in 1976, she was refused entry into the all-male university graduate club.

"I applied for membership and it was refused. When I enquired if it was because I was a woman I was told no, it was because I wasn't a man. And look how Ireland has changed since, it's quite incredible."


Dr Harney paid tribute to her fellow former “Hist” members who were posthumously remembered in the four other portraits commissioned for the 250th celebrations, particularly the late politician and diplomat Conor Cruise O’Brien.

“He was always prepared to say the unpopular thing and I’m always a fan of people not being afraid to say what they think and believe and to defend their position,” she said.

Dr Harney concluded that she hoped her painting could serve as an inspiration for students arriving into university who might be “slightly intimidated, maybe shy like I was and feeling a little bit out of place because nobody in my family had ever gone to university before”.

‘Very shy’

She recalled the impact debating had on her college and subsequent political life.

“When I came to Trinity in 1972 I was a very shy girl from rural county Dublin,” she said. “The Hist taught me how to hone debating skills, how to think on my feet, how to challenge arguments and to understand different perspectives.

“I hope that it will inspire those young women and young men to get involved in debating, to challenge what’s being said and to learn to respect difference.”

Nigeria's ambassador to Ireland, Dr Uzoma Emenike, paid tribute to her country's first foreign minister Dr Jaja Wachuku, whose portrait now hangs in the historical society's conversation room.

Dr Wachuku, a silver medallist in the "Hist" debating competition who attended Trinity in the 1940s, also went on to become Nigeria's first permanent representative to the United Nations, said Dr Emenike.

“A lawyer, a politician, a diplomat, a humanitarian, a pan-Africanist and above everything a man that made sure in his daily life that he built bridges nationally and internationally,” she said, adding that his inclusion among the portraits “says a lot about the Irish-Nigerian relationship”.

“It keeps moving from strength to strength. Our relationship with Ireland has been further solidified with this recognition.”

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak is an Irish Times reporter and cohost of the In the News podcast