Seanad Éireann - Volume 185 - 13 December, 2006

Death of Former Member: Expressions of Sympathy.

  Ms O’Rourke: I wish to express the sympathy of the House and of our party at the very sad death of the former Senator Andy O’Brien, who served for many years in this Chamber and whom the Cathaoirleach would have known very well. His family is here today. While for them it is a sad occasion, for us it is good to get to meet those he left behind. His lovely grandchildren show the recurring theme of former Senator O’Brien’s life. He was an amazing person having been a county councillor for 44 years, which is an enormous span of service in public life. He was chairman for two years and was a member of several bodies, including the General Council of County Councils, County Cavan Vocational Education Committee and Cavan Urban District Council. He received a medal of honour from Dr. Eamon Dwyer, the then chairman of Cavan UDC, for his work beyond the call of duty for the people of Cavan. He was a former member of the North Eastern Health Board and was a keen member of the Cavan drama festival.

There were many sides to him. He was a very rounded person, who served as president of the Ulster GAA Council, which is no mean feat to have achieved. He chaired the Cavan tidy towns committee. He won the Vodafone “passion for the world around us” award, which is given to those who are very integrated within the community. He served in the 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th and 17th Seanad for the period from 1969 to 1987. He did not contest the Seanad election in 1987 and retired from public life in 1996. While in this House he served as spokesman for issues such as education, social welfare and the Gaeltacht. He is survived by his wife Mollie and seven children, Colm, Madeline, Niall, Brian, Myles, Fidelma and Malachy. He is also survived by his two sisters Rose O’Toole and Cherry Carter. I already mentioned his lovely grandchildren who are also here today.

While we often say it in this Chamber, his life was exceptionally varied and rooted in many [1326]organisations, having spent 44 years in public life. We can only imagine how many people’s lives he touched in all his work in the county council, the VEC and his work as president of the Ulster GAA Council. He touched so many lives for good and is an example to us all. While his passing is extremely sad, we should also rejoice at his lifetime of service to the country.

  Mr. B. Hayes: On behalf of my Fine Gael colleagues in the House, I wish to respond to the Leader’s generous and warm tributes to our former colleague, Mr. Andy O’Brien. He left the House in 1987 and was known to the Cathaoirleach, Senator Ross and perhaps a small number of other Members who served with him. He was an institution in Cavan politics and in our party for the best part of 60 years. During that time, he served as a distinguished member of Cavan County Council and Cavan Urban Council, and was a Member of this House for more than 18 years.

He was the key party man for Fine Gael in Cavan and the epicentre of the party in that area. Deputy Jim O’Keeffe told me about a meeting at which Mr. O’Brien’s task was to bring together the warring tribes of Cavan and Monaghan in advance of their amalgamation into a new constituency. Aware of the enmity that existed between the people of those two great counties, his first words to the gathered Fine Gael activists were that while he knew they hated each other, he asked them to work together for the next three weeks. He always showed that common sense which others in politics may only rarely possess.

It was a great privilege to be with the O’Brien family at his funeral last week, which was attended by many colleagues and others from Cavan and throughout the country. It was lovely to see the great affection in which this great man was held by his family and community. He was, first and foremost, a teacher. When he studied at the De La Salle college in Waterford, it was a hotbed of INTO activism, and he was an INTO politician in the first instance. He studied there alongside Senator Kitt’s father, Michéal Kitt; Jackie Brosnan, a distinguished INTO activist and former Senator; Henry Kenny, father of the Fine Gael leader, Deputy Kenny; and Mr. Seán Brosnan, a distinguished Fianna Fáil Deputy for many years.

He was principal of the local national school in Crubany for more than 40 years, during which time he was awarded the highest honour for academic achievement, the Carlisle and Blake award for teaching. This was a tremendous achievement and a great accolade for his standard of teaching. I had the privilege of meeting him in Crubany in recent years. His was an open house, to which any students who needed help with their studies could go. People from the area went there regularly to pay homage to the great man and to seek his advice.

[1327]As a committed GAA man, the Cathaoirleach is aware that Mr. O’Brien was a distinguished member of the Ulster Council for half a century, a fact that is recorded locally and nationally. I am sometimes asked how this man from Cavan could possibly secure votes in Cork, Kerry, Limerick and other distant places. There is no doubt his deep GAA connections helped him to navigate a successful Seanad election. The Cathaoirleach would know of this.

  Mr. Dardis: The secret is out.

  Mr. B. Hayes: It is amazing how influence within the GAA equates to influence in politics.

My party takes great pride in the service of former Senator O’Brien. For many years, he was the person who kept Fine Gael together. He reorganised the party in the late 1930s and 1940s, worked for Tom Fitzpatrick in the local constituency, and helped deliver two seats for the party in 1969 and 1973. He loved the Fine Gael Party. His decision to enter politics came from his generous nationalism. He was opposed to political parties taking upon themselves the task of flying the national flag, believing this to be a great disservice to the flag. His generous nationalism gave him the ability to reach out to people not only in Cavan but throughout the country.

On behalf of my colleagues in this House and the Fine Gael Party nationally, I express our deepest sympathy to his wife Mollie and to Colm, Niall, Brian, Myles, Malachy, Fidelma, Madeline and his extended family. Madeline, through her membership of Cavan County Council, continues the great O’Brien tradition of serving the public. Andy will be greatly missed not only in Cavan but in our party nationally. We salute his memory today.

  Mr. O’Toole: My Independent colleagues and I wish to be associated with the words of the Leader and Senator Brian Hayes. I understand Senator Ross served alongside Mr. O’Brien in the House for a short time. I knew him through his involvement in other areas, particularly his close connection with the INTO. His involvement in that organisation began when he studied at the De La Salle teacher training college in Waterford alongside one of my illustrious predecessors, former general secretary of INTO and former Senator, Jackie Brosnan. Before shaking the chalk dust from his hair, he was the quintessential village school master, in the broadest sense of that description. That his involvement went way beyond the duties of his classroom is well recorded.

At the recent meeting of the national management committee of the GAA, his great contribution to that organisation was remembered. As a genuine public representative, he was committed both to national politics and local community development. This commitment was evident in [1328]his work to cultivate Gaeilge both as a teacher and beyond, his work for the GAA in developing cultural activities in his area, and his efforts to develop drama, which depends so much on people like him. He has the distinction of receiving the Carlisle and Blake award, an extraordinary honour that was given to only one or two teachers per year. I hope his family still have the commemorative medallion, which is an important piece of memorabilia.

He began as a class teacher, became a school principal and went on to become a national politician whose involvement in his locality represented all that was good and culturally sound in Irish life. This is something that is well worth remembering. His family can take great pride in his achievements and bask in the reflected glory of his contribution to public life at both local and national level. We offer our condolences to them. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

  Ms O’Meara: On behalf of my Labour Party colleagues, I extend my condolences to his family on the sad loss of Mr. Andy O’Brien. I add my voice to the tributes paid to him by Senators O’Rourke, Brian Hayes and O’Toole. I did not know Mr. O’Brien but I understand my colleague, Senator Ryan, who cannot be here today, shared this august space with him. I wish to pay tribute to a long life that was well lived in the service of the people of his county and the country as a whole. It is notable that Andy O’Brien’s lifetime spanned that of modern Ireland. He was born in 1915, before the Easter Rising, and lived into the new century. He was one of the generation which built this State in the spirit, as Senator Brian Hayes said, of generous Nationalism. It was not in a strictly party political sense but in a sense of knowing as a teacher, public representative, a member of the Cavan drama festival and other State agencies. That generous Nationalism is the kind of contribution that has made us the State we are now.

On behalf of the Labour Party I thank the O’Brien family for Andy’s contribution to the life of the House, his county and the country. He lived a full life and enjoyed himself greatly. From what others have said, he was a great man to be around. Given that he was a teacher, he had a generosity of spirit. It is clear from the presence of his family members in the Distinguished Visitors Gallery that he was greatly loved. He was also greatly loved in his community and this House. While his passing is sad, especially at this time of year, his memory will continue and he has left a great contribution not only for his family and county but for this nation. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

  Mr. Dardis: I am delighted on behalf of the Progressive Democrats to join the other groups in paying tribute to Andy O’Brien and to extend our sympathy to his wife, extended family and his Fine Gael colleagues. His many achievements [1329]have been well documented by previous speakers. The thread that links these remarkable achievements was a life of unparalleled service to his community, county, province and State. It is obvious that his contribution at national level was rooted in his community and county. There is a message there for many of us in that it is important to keep those links close and reflect them when we serve the people. I was taken by his involvement in the drama festival in Cavan. I think it was Disraeli who said that all politics was acting. Perhaps there is a link between the Cavan drama festival and Andy O’Brien’s political life. He deserves all the tributes paid to him. Go ndéine Dia trócaire ar a anam.

  Mr. O’Brien: I join in the tributes paid to the late Andy O’Brien who I knew for the past 30 years. I always enjoyed his company when I met him at different conferences, football matches and other events in Cavan. His passing is a great loss. He enjoyed a long life. His wife and family will miss him most. He was a wonderful support to the Fine Gael Party. There is no question he was a Cavan man first and last which the Cathaoirleach knows only too well through GAA circles. As a Monaghan man, I knew it too. Many a good story was told by Andy about the rivalry between Cavan and Monaghan, both in politics and the GAA. He enjoyed being a member of the vocational education committee, Cavan County Council for 44 years and the Seanad for 18 years. His was a wonderful life and he was a wonderful man. To his family, on my behalf and that of Fianna Fáil, I extend our deepest sympathy. May he rest in peace.

  Mr. Wilson: I join other speakers in paying tribute to the late, great Andrew J. O’Brien, a man I regarded as a friend. Senator Brian Hayes said that the O’Brien’s house in Crubany was an open house where many people went to pay homage to the great man and his wife, a great woman, and to get advice. I was one who made that trip on many occasions to get advice.

Andy O’Brien was known for many stories but there is one I wish to recount. It contains undiplomatic language and I hope the Cathaoirleach will allow me some latitude. Andy O’Brien’s son-in-law, Terry Argue, a well-known insurance broker and auctioneer in Cavan, told me a story of when he was president of the insurance brokers’ association. He invited Andy to address a gathering of the association in Cavan. Andy started off his speech by his characteristic clearing of his throat. He then looked down at the assembled group and said, “Individually, you are all, I am sure, fine gentlemen. Collectively, you are a shower of bastards.”

(Interruptions).

  Mr. Wilson: He then proceeded to entertain the gathering for 45 minutes.

[1330]Andy O’Brien was an elected public representative for more than 44 years. He was a public representative until the day he died. He was an honest, hard-working and funny man. He was a founder member of the Cavan drama festival, former president of the Ulster council of the GAA and, until his death, president of County Cavan GAA. He was affectionately known to everyone as “The Master”. He was principal of Crubany national school for more than 40 years. He was highly regarded by the Cavan community and further afield.

When we paid tribute to the late Tom Fitzpatrick, I pointed out that we Cavan people do not like the Monaghan people and they hate us. Andy was very familiar with that too. I had the honour of proposing him for the Vodafone “passion for the world around us” award. The photograph of him receiving the award, which I will treasure for ever, is on my sitting room wall.

To his family, Colm, Niall, Fidelma, Malachy, Brian, Myles, Madeline, and his wife, Mollie, I express my deepest sympathy. I know Mollie will continue the tradition of the open house in Crubany. I extend my sympathies to the Fine Gael Party. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

  Dr. M. Hayes: Ba mhaith liom focal pearsanta a rá. Bheadh Andy O’Brien molta dá mbeinn im’ thost. Bhíomar le chéile ar Chomhairle Uladh beagnach 60 bliain ó shin. Bhí ard-mheas agam air mar fhear macánta. Fear ann féin ab ea é. Dhein sé a chion féin ar son na gcluichí, ar son an Chabháin agus ar son na tíre.

11 o’clock

Speaking after Senators Wilson and O’Brien, I hope Members do not see this as an attempt at an Ulster coup d’état. I sat with Andy O’Brien almost 60 years ago as a member of the Ulster Council of the GAA. He came from Cavan, which had won almost 40 Ulster championships, while I was from a county of football nobodies at the time. He was most kind to me and showed me the ropes. You, a Chathaoirligh, know better than anybody how convoluted the ropes of GAA politics are.

He was a many sided man. The great thing about him was that when GAA matters got boring he would talk about drama or teaching. He was a great man and great company. He made a great contribution to Irish life and he should be a role model. He remained firmly earthed in the soil of Cavan and never lost touch with his roots. He was as highly thought of in County Down as in County Cavan. I extend my sympathy and respect for him to his family.

  Mr. P. Burke: As Leas-Chathaoirleach, I wish to be associated with the expressions of sympathy for the late Andy O’Brien. I first got to know Andy O’Brien in 1981 when he was on one of his trips for the Seanad. I could never decide whether he was a politician or a GAA representative but I presume he fulfilled both roles equally well, as [1331]you, a Chathaoirligh, have done on many occasions.

I remember Andy O’Brien fondly. He had two distinctive attributes. One was his distinctive cough, which was mentioned by Senator Wilson. One could hear him before one would see or meet him. His other attribute was that he wrote beautiful letters. In all the years I received correspondence from him, I never received a typed letter. His letters were always hand written in beautiful writing and good English. As Leas-Chathaoirleach, I extend my sympathy to his wife Mollie and his family, most of whom are here today.

  An Cathaoirleach: I wish to be associated with the tributes to the late Andy O’Brien. He was a Member of this House from 1969 to 1987. He had the unusual distinction of being elected to Seanad Éireann on three different panels, which is a record that is unlikely to be equalled. He was elected on the agricultural, administrative and labour panels.

His political career has been well enunciated in the tributes but it was through his work in the GAA that I knew him best. He was a former president of the Ulster Council and served on the Ulster Council. At the time of his death he was president of the Cavan county GAA board. He was an avid fan of Cavan football and one of his proudest moments was probably when Cavan won the All-Ireland in 1947 in Gaelic Park, New York.

Aside from politics, he had many varied interests. He had a love of all things Irish, particularly history and culture. He regularly mourned the demise of Irish rural customs and traditions. He was an excellent conversationalist, witty and entertaining. He was never happier than when sitting with a group and telling political anecdotes and jokes. I had the honour of serving with the late Senator O’Brien in this House. He was a thorough gentleman. Of course, we had the GAA in common when talking. He was highly respected, most humorous and had a wide circle of friends across the political spectrum.

I extend my sympathy to his wife Mollie and his sons and daughters, especially Madeline who is continuing the political tradition of the O’Brien family in the Fine Gael Party.

Members rose.