Miriam Lord: ‘Father of the Seanad’ comes out of the covers

David Norris (77) honoured for his work as human rights campaigner and doughty defender of Dublin’s building heritage

David Norris was kept under wraps in Michael McDowell’s office for the past few months, silent in the corner like a little budgerigar with a cloth thrown over his cage.

He was finally removed on Wednesday morning and taken to the Private Dining Room in Leinster House where a small crowd, along with some excited photographers, gathered to watch the Ceann Comhairle whipping off Norris’s velvet drape.

Senator Rónán Mullen hovered anxiously in the background. This was all his doing.

The portrait artist was late. Tea and biscuits were produced.


“Vitas bravis, Ars longa,” cried Rónán, although we thought it a bit early in the day for the hot food to come out.

Most of the crowd laughed in polite bafflement, apart from the likes of Michael McDowell, a senior counsel, and the new Provost of Trinity College, Linda Doyle. They smiled knowingly.

Rónán loves the bit of Latin. “Life is short but art takes time,” was the general gist of what he said. Close your eyes and you could have been in the Vatican.

Senator Norris, who holds the record for continuous service in the Seanad at 34 years, was about to be presented with a new portrait of himself to mark his contribution to Irish social and political life. It was commissioned by his colleagues in the Seanad Independent Group. He beetled in and took a seat next to the covered easel as guests waited for artist William Nathans to arrive.

“You’ve been in my room for the last few months,” McDowell told Norris.

The Ceann Comhairle was all ears. “Covered or uncovered?”

“We kept him covered,” came the reply.

“Welcome to this beautiful occasion,” began Rónán, kicking off the speeches with a list of thanks, singling out David’s long-time parliamentary assistant, Miriam Smith, for special mention.

She watched the unveiling with tears in her eyes. “Not a cross word between us in 26 years,” she said afterwards.

Senator Mullen also welcomed the recently elected Linda Doyle, the first woman Provost of Trinity College. Norris has been returned to the Upper House by Trinity graduates in every election since 1987.

Different viewpoints

Mullen observed that the political process brings together people with different viewpoints on a range of issues. “David, I’m probably not taking any liberty if I say that could be said of you and I,” he chortled with giddy understatement.

“But we always remain good friends,” replied Norris. (The audience’s knowing laughter indicated that relations may have somewhat been strained at times, not least during the civil partnership debates in the Seanad and during the marriage equality campaign.)

Rónán recalled David was always hugely popular with visitors he brought into Leinster House, but there was one exception: a woman who had been on the missions for 40 years and didn’t know who he was.

“Proving, I suppose, that perhaps you could say there was no David Norris before the Late Late Show.”

Perplexed guests wondered if this was a reference to the ancient but still cherished remark from the late Oliver J Flanagan TD who stated there was no sex in Ireland until Teilifís Éireann came along.

Peers’ honour

The Ceann Comhairle noted that the honour bestowed upon Norris was all the more deserved because it was from his peers who hold him in such high regard.

Seán Ó Fearghaíl remembered his own two years – “I was only passing through” – in the Upper House.

“For many, the Seanad is considered a cynical holding pen, a departure gate in advance of greater things. On the other side, shell-shocked veterans are diplomatically wheelbarrowed into the chamber to soothe their political wounds after a long political career cut short by the good citizens of their constituencies.”

Placing himself in the former camp and vowing never to become a member of the latter, Ó Fearghaíl identified Norris as part of that other group “who are Senators through and through”, conducting important political business effectively, professionally and courteously.

“He remains a man of honour, of conscience, of wit, of huge intelligence and of deep humanity.”

Ó Fearghaíl outlined the veteran Senator’s distinguished track record as a gay rights champion, international human rights campaigner and doughty defender of Dublin’s building heritage.

“At a time when Dublin seems to have returned to destroying landmarks to create yet more hotels, voices like David’s must continue to be heard.”

While the 77-year-old Father of the House has suffered serious illnesses in recent years – he had a liver transplant seven years ago and has spoken about his latest encounter with cancer – “this is not a valedictory event”, stressed the Ceann Comhairle.

“We are not bidding farewell to you, quite the contrary, we are marking 34 years of service… We recognise your singular contribution to Irish democracy.”

‘Perfect sitter’

Artist Will Nathans described his subject as “a perfect sitter in that he remained completely still and he respected the process of the artist’s work”.

The big question now was where the portrait would hang in Leinster House, said Seanad Cathaoirleach and chairman of the newly formed Oireachtas Arts and Portraits Committee, Mark Daly. If the embodiment of the Seanad was about minority voices for major change, then Norris had been that minority voice, Daly observed.

Fine Gael’s Regina Doherty, the leader of the Seanad, was also called upon to speak.

“Oh, how very kind!” exclaimed David.

She proceeded to remind everyone of the time when “David Norris made me a little bit famous by telling the world I was speaking through my you-know-what”.

“I think it probably wasn’t the first time and it certainly wasn’t the last,” she told Norris. “You are an absolute legend, you really, really are.”

During a debate on the proposed abolition of the Seanad, he loudly objected to having to listen to “The Regina Monologues” from someone who wasn’t “a wet week” in the Seanad and “talking through her f****.”

Unveilling complete, the guest of honour confessed it would be “a real honour” to see his portrait hanging in Leinster House. Another one, this time by Jim Harkin, was recently unveiled in Trinity College and is now hanging in the Provost’s House.

“Well, I suppose I can say that I’m well hung,” trilled Norris.

He had been waiting all morning to say that.

With everyone else expecting him to say it.

“It was only a matter of when,” sighed Mullen.