Miriam Lord: Fossil fuel gets whole new meaning as Senators meet
National Museum’s ceramics room perfect place for members to let off unscented gas
The Seanad’s first sitting in the Ceramics Room of the National Museum. “It is good to have a rendition of the American president in one of the cherubs,” said Michael McDowell. Photograph: Maxwell
To mark the Seanad’s relocation to swanky temporary lodgings in the National Museum, the Cathaoirleach made a chilling declaration.
“I am going to allow everyone to speak,” announced Denis O’Donovan, surveying the waving forest of hands before him.
And he did.
And they did.
Seventy minutes and the most bewildering range of topics later, we understood why such an elaborate ducting system has been installed in the new chamber. The reason was touched upon by Sinn Féin’s Rose Conway-Walsh when she highlighted fears about “unscented gas” in the energy supply system in Mayo.
That’s of nothing compared to the industrial production of gas in the Upper House: unscented, but not silent. Without those fat pipes and highly sophisticated ventilation the entire place would go up in flames if somebody struck a match.
Given the location and its collection of artefacts and well-preserved exhibits, it gives fossil fuel a whole new meaning.
But well done to the hard-working and talented men and women from Leinster House, the National Museum and the Office of Public Works for doing such a magnificent job in renovating the old Ceramics Room so that it is fit to display the nation’s treasured Senators in all their glory.
The dizzyingly high wooden-beamed ceiling has enough space for the unscented gas, and if the soothing painted grey walls on the way in are not in that ubiquitous heritage shade known as “elephant breath”, they should be.
The former purpose of the room has not been ignored. Impressive plaster casts on the back wall depict “Nymphs from the Fontaine des Innocents”. From a 16th-century original, they will be corrupted after the Seanad spends at least 18 months on the premises. There are also some lovely 17th-century Dutch delftware tiles for the relics of old decency (they’re a cut above those gurriers in the Dáil) to admire.
But the stunning Majolica tilework around the doors and pediments above them are what really catch the eye. They feature panels of fat little cherubs, and Chicago based Senator Billy Lawless was first to mention them.
He was one of many colleagues who congratulated the teams who worked on renovating the room.
“I got a shock when I walked in here,” said Billy. “I thought I was in the US Senate for a moment when I looked up and saw the ceramics, and I thought I was looking at baby Trump. Look at it over there.”
Everyone looked up.
“There’s a marked resemblance,” marvelled the Cathaoirleach.
“Once you see the resemblance, it’s hard to escape,” said Billy.
He’s right. One of the pudgy infants has a shock of yellow hair billowing off to one side.
Michael McDowell saw it too.
“I also want to echo what Senator Billy Lawless said today. It is good to have a rendition of the American president in one of the cherubs at the end of the chamber. It proves conclusively that he does not own a bathrobe or does not use a bathrobe very often.”
Perhaps the Seanad has discovered a new decorative style – Trump l’oeil.
Catherine Noone decided to use the cherubs to draw attention to the subject she wanted to raise, which is the low rate of VAT on sunbeds compared to the much higher rate charged on sunscreen.
“The same cherub to which Senator McDowell refers is clearly a regular user of sunbeds,” she began, to the general puzzlement of her colleagues. The little imp on the frieze had porcelain white skin. Trump is orange.
“No, no” insisted Catherine as they loudly disagreed. “We all know who he’s talking about.”
Meanwhile, Marie Louise O’Donnell was one of a number of Senators who hoped that the quality of argument and behaviour during their time in the museum would rise to match the splendour of their new location.
That seems unlikely. Senators have just vacated similarly exquisite surroundings – the actual Seanad chamber is in the Duke of Leinster’s ballroom, closed now for refurbishment – and the intelligence and refinement of that lovely room didn’t rub off much on them.
But what did David Norris, and him the Upper Chamber’s foremost relic of old decency, think?
He was very taken by the decorative panels around the door cases and complimented the Office of Public Works on their effort in making the room fit for purpose in such sympathetic fashion. He remembered the “sorry state” it was in before the work began.
“However, I do not quite share the ecstasies of my colleagues about the beauty of this place,” he opined.
“It seems to me that it is a frigid Victorian barn and the sooner we are out of it, the better.”
A little ungenerous, perhaps, but he has a point. They might have to give ear trumpets and opera glasses to visitors.
The room is too big and it is very difficult to hear what people are saying.
Terry Leyden and Gerry Craughwell were missing, abroad on Oireachtas business. When they return those ventilation units will have to deal with double the amount of hot air, although the museum will have two more relics to add to the collection.
It was the Seanad’s first day back after the long break. So there were lots of things for them to talk about besides themselves.
There was a round of applause for Maura Hopkins, who got married during the summer. And speeches of congratulation for Paddy Burke, the former cathaoirleach, who was a member of the team from Castlebar Golf Club which won a major national competition at the weekend – the Jimmy Bruen Foursomes Shield.
“An absolutely massive achievement,” emoted Paddy’s countywoman, Michelle Mulherin. Apparently 400 teams took part and the team “beat off stiff competition.”
Subjects raised included property tax, unscented gas, defibrillators in schools, inhalers in schools, medals for army veterans, homelessness, LGBT rights in Poland, the right of Catalans to self-determination, waiting times for driving tests, Seanad reform, access to pubic transport for disabled people, direct provision, breastfeeding, commercial rates, a diabetes screening day in the Oireachtas, Post Offices, clocked cars, rights for sex workers, mental health services, new facilities in UCC, an Irish language act for Northern Ireland, WB Yeats, the committee examining the eighth amendment, votes for the diaspora, bus services in Cavan and the All-Ireland football final.
And everyone thanked the museum for the use of the hall.
How could the Dáil compete with that?
They had a Brexit debate in the Dáil after tea. The power failed in Leinster House just as it finished. TDs hoped it wasn’t a metaphor for the lights going out all over Europe.
The Senators remained undimmed.