Writer and barrister Noel Whelan dies aged 50 after short illness

President and Taoiseach lead tributes to a ‘driving force of same sex marriage campaign’

Political writer and barrister Noel Whelan who died on Wednesday. Photograph: The Irish Times

Political writer and barrister Noel Whelan who died on Wednesday. Photograph: The Irish Times

 

The President and Taoiseach have led tributes to Noel Whelan, the political commentator and barrister who died on Wednesday night after a short illness. He was aged 50.

An Irish Times columnist, author and a former advisor for Fianna Fáil, Mr Whelan ran for the party as a general election candidate for the Dublin South East constituency in 1997.

He was also heavily involved in recent referendum campaigns to save the Seanad, introduce same-sex marriage and abolish the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.

Mr Whelan was married to Sinéad McSweeney, vice president of public policy and communications for Twitter in Europe and a former head of communications for both the PSNI and An Garda Síochána. They have a son, Séamus.

“We are devastated and heartbroken to lose Noel so suddenly,” his wife tweeted on Thursday afternoon in response to tributes on the social media platform.

Noel Whelan with his wife, Sinead McSweeney, pictured following a ceremony in the Supreme Court last year after he was called to the inner bar. Photograph: Collins Courts
Noel Whelan with his wife, Sinead McSweeney, pictured following a ceremony in the Supreme Court last year after he was called to the inner bar. Photograph: Collins Courts
Noel Whelan with his son, Séamus (9) pictured following a ceremony in the Supreme Court last year after he was called to the inner bar. Photograph: Collins Courts
Noel Whelan with his son, Séamus (9) pictured following a ceremony in the Supreme Court last year after he was called to the inner bar. Photograph: Collins Courts

“It isn’t possible to reply to each message right now but know that we are strengthened and sustained by the tributes and kindness. He was our rock and is now our North Star. May he rest in peace.”

Mr Whelan took silk in 2018, becoming a senior counsel after practising as a barrister for 19 years in Dublin, Wexford and Waterford.

He grew up in a family of 12 and was raised in a small rural post office in Ballycullane in Co Wexford. Mr Whelan ruled himself out of the presidential race last year after deciding not to mount a campaign if President Michael D Higgins stood again.

The President was among those to express his condolences to Mr Whelan’s family and friends.

“Propelled by his social justice values, Noel was not only a commentator but a driving force in some of the most important political campaigns of recent times.”

Mr Higgins said Mr Whelan had founded the successful Kennedy Summer School which continues to make a “lasting contribution to our collective understanding of Irish-American history and relations.”

The Editor of The Irish Times Paul O’Neill said Mr Whelan wrote fondly of his fascination with politics being rooted in his childhood in Co Wexford where his father Séamus was a Fianna Fáil councillor.

“That gave him an early understanding of and respect for politicians. Combining this with acute analytical skills and an insatiable appetite for detail, he was a formidable observer, commentator and a hugely valued columnist with The Irish Times. On behalf of his many friends and colleagues in The Irish Times, I extend my sympathy to Sinéad, Séamus and his family,” Mr O’Neill said.

The then taoiseach Bertie Ahern (right) and Dermot Bolger (left) at the launch of Noel Whelan’s book, The Tallyman’s Campaign Handbook Election 2007. Photograph: The Irish Times
The then taoiseach Bertie Ahern (right) and Dermot Bolger (left) at the launch of Noel Whelan’s book, The Tallyman’s Campaign Handbook Election 2007. Photograph: The Irish Times

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin also extended his condolences and those of the Fianna Fáil party to Noel’s wife and son, extended family and many friends.

“Noel was a man with a sharp intellect who was born into a Fianna Fáil family.

“His father was a Fianna Fáil Councillor as is his brother Michael in County Wexford. Noel was steeped in local, national and international politics from a very young age.”

Mr Martin said Mr Whelan worked in Fianna Fáil headquarters in the early 1990s. “From there he learned to be a great political pundit who wrote many books on election results and an extensive book on our party through the decades.”

“Noel loved writing his weekly articles with the Irish Times and was never afraid of tackling controversial issues or criticising positions of any political party. He had a wide circle of friends across the political divide and was very well respected and admired.”

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said Ireland had “lost a friend”.

“We come from different party backgrounds but I feel this morning like Ireland has lost a friend,” wrote the Taoiseach. “Such a sharp intellect. So articulate and effective on marriage equality.”

Pictured in 2011 at the launch of his book, Fianna Fail: A Biography of the Party, is author Noel Whelan (right) with Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin. Photograph: The Irish Times
Pictured in 2011 at the launch of his book, Fianna Fail: A Biography of the Party, is author Noel Whelan (right) with Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin. Photograph: The Irish Times

Micheál P O’Higgins, chairman of the Council of the Bar of Ireland, described Mr Whelan as a “highly respected and popular member” who was widely known for his generosity among colleagues, clients and his many friends.

Mr O’Higgins, who had known Mr Whelan since his college days, said it was clear from early on that he had “star quality and was a gifted communicator”.

“Noel sometimes came across as a shy person, but in conversation his warmth and humour, and sense of mischief, would shine through,” he said. “Never one to hurl from the ditch, Noel never shied away from standing up for what he thought was right - in the courtroom, in the political trenches or when campaigning for social change. Ireland is the better for that today, in so many ways.”

The removal of Mr Whelan’s remains will take place on Saturday morning to the Church of the Holy Name, Beechwood Avenue, Ranelagh arriving for funeral mass at noon. He will be buried at Ballycullane Cemetery, New Ross, Co Wexford at 5pm.