Miriam Lord: Gas light, relics and rare parliamentary action in the Mansion House
Dáil maintains that time honoured tradition with lively centenary celebration
The joint session of the Dáil and Seanad was scheduled to begin after The Quality had left. It wouldn’t do to make a show of themselves in front of the President of Ireland on such a historic day for the nation.
But once Michael D had spoken briefly for half an hour and the declarations and reflections were out of the way, the Ceann Comhairle was free to belt his silver bell and let loose today’s TDs for a lively parliamentary session marking the centenary of the first meeting of Dáil Éireann.
As a special concession (because they didn’t actually exist on the day), members of Seanad Éireann were also invited to join in so they won’t be complaining for the next 100 years about being left out.
Those compelling black-and-white photographs of that first day back in 1919 had us spoiled, still pulsating with energy, excitement and danger down all the decades. And the crowd scenes are amazing – inside and out, people pressed against the gates, blocking Dawson Street, or spilling over the balcony in the Mansion House above the packed rows on the floor.
Oireachtas staff worked hard to transform the Round Room, where that First Dáil met, to lend an early 20th-century atmosphere to the surroundings. It looked great. There can’t be a bolt of blue velvet left in the country because the entire balcony, much of the walls and the Ceann Comhairle’s platform were lavishly draped with heavy, gold-fringed swags.
It complemented the St Patrick’s blue (Ireland’s national colour) of the carpet. The lighting mimicked gas light and some relics of the Dáil’s past, if not quite from the opening era, added to the period feel.
Former taoisigh in attendance included Enda Kenny (still a TD), Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen – who was escorted by former senator Donie Cassidy. Former tánaiste and Labour leader Eamon Gilmore was seated between former ceann comhairle Rory O’Hanlon and Mary Coughlan, who served as tánaiste between 2008 and 2011. One of her colleagues from that administration, John O’Donoghue, sat nearby.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar led the current crop of party leaders, TDs and Senators. Seating was in line with the current Dáil arrangement – Leo Varadkar and the Government party and supporting cast to the Ceann Comhairle’s left and the Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin heading the Opposition ranks on Seán Ó Fearghaíl’s right.
As this was a joint sitting, added authenticity was conveyed by the empty seats, but fewer than normal. The ceremonial stuff began back up at Leinster House where the gathering of the politicians for the traditional taking of the selfies kicked off on the plinth for the purposes of tweeting that they were all leaving Leinster House to take more selfies in the Mansion House which they would tweet in due course.
Sinn Féin arrived in force, with their Northern Assembly and Westminster respresentatives in tow. This was lovely, as their MLAs haven’t seen parliamentary action in two years since their chamber was suspended. It offered them a day out and a refresher course in parliamentary participation. And it was a nice novelty too for the MPs, who have never darkened the door of the Commons. Unlike the members of the other parties, Mary Lou and her colleagues arrived en masse, and right at the same time as the British ambassador.
Meanwhile, inside, her predecessor Gerry Adams enjoyed a brief chinwag with Drew Harris, the Garda Commissioner who used to be deputy chief constable of the PSNI.
Micheál Martin’s front bench was conspicuous by their dark navy suits.
“Fair play to them, they’re keeping up with tradition. They didn’t have a woman in the front row 100 years ago either,” sniggered a passing Fine Gael Senator.
As the crowd filed in and the diplomats and EU representatives took their places in the rows behind the parliamentarians, along with former and retired members of Oireachtas staff, one observer looked down on the scene with a particularly keen eye.
On the balcony, with his easel and oils, was Mick O’Dea, the renowned portrait painter and former president of the Royal Hibernian Academy. He has been commissioned by the Office of Public Works to do a painting of the Dáil 100 sitting.
“I’m going to make a colour study for starters,” he explained. “I want to capture the gathering and the atmosphere as it exists now.”
He was plotting out the composition and the stage setting, every so often putting down his brush to take a photograph from the balcony of the scene below. This was authentic. Mick wouldn’t normally work with oil on canvas at this early stage, “but [Sir John] Lavery always did an oil sketch when he was covering events like this”.
Beside the two tables and chairs on the platform – one for the Ceann Comhairle and the other for the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad, Denis O’Donovan, there was a green button-back leather seat awaiting the arrival of President Higgins, and a magnificent golden harp.
When harpist Aisling Ennis plucked the first chords, it was a signal that the ceremony was about to go live on television. This put an end to the orgy of selfies among the politicians. Michael D bustled up the blue carpet to great applause and, above on the balcony, a brass quintet and percussionist from the Army band struck up the presidential salute.
The Ceann Comhairle made the opening speech which was followed by a video montage of significant moments from the last 100 years of the Dáil. A woman from the film unit darted from the wings and began dabbing a powder puff on the Ceann Comhairle’s face. At least they didn’t have to contend with that back in 1919.
Then Michael D delivered a thoughtful and thought-provoking address. It was around about the same time that UK prime minister Theresa May was in front of a baying House of Common. The contrast between this respectful celebration of 100 years of unbroken parliamentary democracy here and the shambles in London was not lost on the Dublin audience.
The moving 1919 Declaration of Independence was read aloud by actors Áine Ní Laoghaire and Donncha Crowley and the First Dáil’s galvanising Message to the Free Nations of the World was read by former TDs in a video montage.
Finally, the 2019 sitting commenced. It was an hour into proceedings and you could see the politicians were getting a little fidgety. There followed 10 speeches from the Taoiseach, leader of the Opposition, party leaders and group leaders.
In a departure from Dáil practice, the speakers didn’t ramble over their allotted time. At the end of it all, the speakers of both Houses signed a Centenary Declaration and presented it to Anna Powell and Alex Gorman from Comhairle na nÓg, representing national child and youth councils.
Following a final speech from the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad, the Ceann Comhairle declared the joint sitting adjourned and the band played the National Anthem.
Just a few minutes past the 5.30 finishing time, O’Dea’s canvas was safely bolted into a wooden frame on the easel. The politicians and the rest of the invited audience retired to a drinks reception next door in Fire restaurant before heading to a State reception back in the Round Room. Dawson Street remained closed to traffic until 11pm. Because they’re worth it.
Normal service resumes in Leinster House today.