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Changing Times - The Allenwood Conversations Logo


Mary McAleese and Mary Kennedy

A former President of Ireland, a broadcasting icon and an array of guests with an incredible story to tell.

Produced by Enda Grace at Dundara Television and Media.

Seán Ó Fearghaíl at Dundara Television & Media

Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl

Seán Ó Fearghaíl is an Irish Fianna Fáil politician who has served as the Ceann Comhairle of Dáil Éireann since March 2016.

Here we have a very open and frank chat with Mary and Mary about a range of subjects including:

The economic crash

Israel and Irelands position

What he would love to change

The homeless crisis

The changing face of politics

Immigration in Ireland

Will he take his Dáil seat after the next election?

His recent cancer battle

His relationship with Micheal Martin

Welcoming Joe Biden to Dáil Éireann

Seán Ó Fearghaíl Transcription

Seán Ó Fearghaíl (teaser): Well, we blooming well deserve to be embarrassed by the homeless problem. I mean, it's, it's, it's, it's shocking. It really is shocking. And I don't, I mean, we're the last country on earth that should have a problem with immigrants.

Mary Kennedy: Well, Mary, here we are again. And our guest today is a person who's played and who continues to play a significant role in Irish politics and public life.

And that's something that you'd kind of be familiar with. Yes,

Mary McAleese: yes. And this is a man that I know, um, and have huge respect for, An Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl you'll not meet anybody. Um, and I mean, anybody in a conversation where you mention [00:01:00] Sean's name and the words that'll come back to you, it doesn't matter who it is, will say, Sean's a gentleman.

Absolutely. And he is. Um, and don't be getting embarrassed there, Sean, now, but it's true. Um, you've been, you've been the gentleman really, of the Irish political landscape for quite a while. Um, known for your dedication to parliamentary reform, known for fostering and insisting on respectful, uh, debate, you know, in the Dáil and that's an important, it's an

Mary Kennedy: important

Mary McAleese: witness, isn't

Mary Kennedy: it?

It certainly is. Yeah. And I have to say, I'm looking forward to hearing from Sean about his journey, his life and perspectives on the changing political climate. Um, you know, and, and also the, the role of the Ceann Comhairle, I have to say, I always love watching, uh, the, the calmness of the Ceann Comhairle, you know, sometimes in some rowdy circumstances.

Or the, or the

Mary McAleese: calm that he can bring with a look. It's a big welcome that we give you here. It's a pleasure to have you [00:02:00] here. You're so welcome to Allenwood, but you know Allenwood well because you're a Kildare man and this is your constituency, right?

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: I'm just marvelling as I came up this evening how, uh, Allenwood has changed.

It's become quite a vibrant little village. Oh, ever since we came here, it's the true area. Yes, yes, we've

Mary McAleese: changed it. You certainly have attracted the people because

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: we were looking at the phenomenon of the number of housing estates around the area. Isn't that extraordinary? It didn't exist when I was It's here initially as a, as a local councillor, but look, it's a great, great pleasure to be here with the two of you.

Um, it's an extraordinary pleasure. Um, I'm amazed at the introduction. I can say if you talk to a few people around Kildare, I don't know that they'd necessarily describe me as a gentleman. And when it comes to the whole business of CAM, my wife often says to me at home, you know, you, you use up all your patience at work.

And when you come home, you don't demonstrate the same level of patience that maybe you do at [00:03:00] work. So I'm very conscious.

Mary McAleese: that you're, that a look or a word from you will calm things at home or stop things at home. Oh, no, it never did. And it never,

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: it never would. And, uh, I remember Mary, when our kids were small, uh, one thing we, we tried to do religiously was have a family dinner or supper on a Sunday where everyone would gather her grandparents and the kids and Mary Claire and myself around the table.

But if, if a debate started about something. You know, and it was something to do with the family, uh, and I offered my top and say any worth on that. One of the kids would invariably, uh, uh, chip in and say, dad, stay out of it. You know nothing about it because you're never here.

Mary Kennedy: Oh, right. And who have you got in family, Sean?


Seán Ó Fearghaíl: uh, I've three daughters, Aoife, who's 28, Caoimhe, who's 27 and Nessa, who's 21. And are

Mary Kennedy: they all at home? Um, uh,

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: it seems like they're never going to leave home. But, um, my, my, um, my eldest daughter has just moved into a [00:04:00] house on the, on the farm with her partner. Um, my second daughter is home at weekends, but works, uh, with, uh, as a finance officer with an IT company, uh, in Dublin.

And my son. Uh, is, uh, about to embark on a master's program in education in Maynooth. So he's at home. And my youngest daughter is doing, uh, art in the College of Art and Design in Limerick. So she's home most weekends and during holidays and what have you.

Mary Kennedy: And you're farming as well?

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: We have a farm. My, my wife and my son look after the farm, uh, most of the time.

Mary McAleese: What kind of farm? What kind of farming? Uh,

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: uh, suckler, suckler cow, uh, we've been focusing for the last number of years on the French breed of Aubrac cattle. They're supposed to be docile, but in reality, they're not. My son, who is interested in farming, has now begun to build up a small herd of purebred obracs, and there may be a future for him in that.

He wants to be a teacher. He'll not make a great living out of [00:05:00] 100 acres now. My grandfather, incidentally, left that farm to me. When I was 10 years old, when he died in 1970. And, uh, I look back on that and wonder, was that a blessing? I'm very grateful to him for it, obviously. But it kind of preordained then the direction I too, wasn't it, if you had a carry with you?

I mean, it was

Mary McAleese: a boat you had to tow.

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: That's why I've said to my kids, you know, are any of you interested in this farm? Would any of you like, uh, like to have it? And I thought initially, Either of my two older daughters would, and while they're, they're, they're good on the farm and they'll come out and they'll muck in, uh, they'll help you castrate or dehorn or calve a cow, or even recently we were doing a Caesarean section.

And I noticed my daughter, uh, um, arm deep in the poor old animal with the vet. Um, trying to get the calf out. So, so they're very good like that, but, uh, they don't see a career for themselves in, [00:06:00] in agriculture. Farming is in

Mary Kennedy: your blood, isn't it? You grew up on the farm.

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: Oh, I grew up, my, my father was a cattle dealer.

Did you grow up on that farm? No, I grew up, my, my father and mother married in 1959. And my mother had a house and two acres of land. In 1963, uh, together, they bought a s an old land commission farm, uh, a few miles down the road from where we, uh, now live. Uh, it had 21 acres, uh, and a small house, and I remember they bought it with without a mortgage.

When you think about that today, uh, it was some achievement. And then in 1970, when my grandfather died, we moved to what was always the, uh, the home farm. But in those days too, there were hefty debt duties to be paid. And, uh, the taxation was pretty hard, I think, on my father because I suppose in a way he got a slap in the face when he found that he got, he was left by his [00:07:00] father a life interest in the farm, but it was passed on instead.

But you got the whole thing. Yeah, yeah. So

Mary Kennedy: how did you end up in politics then? Surely you would have gone the farming route fully. Did you ever think of that kind of career?

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: I know, I never planned to go into, to, to politics as such. And actually politics was. Almost taboo in our house because my mother, uh, was, um, a traditional Labour Party voter.

Uh, you know, uh, uh, the working man, the bread and butter kind of issues. My father came from a mixed marriage household where his mother was, um, pro treaty. Uh, his father was a De Valera. Uh, and Fianna Fáil's supporter, so really, you know, it was kind of an unhappy political mix.

Mary Kennedy: My mother and father were like that, and they used to, they supported different parties, and my father, just to goad my mother every time there was an election, he'd say, no point in us going down, we're just cancelling each other out.[00:08:00]

She said, people died so that we could have this vote.

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: No, well, I suppose then what I found was I wasn't any good at sport. I don't know if I have dyspraxia, but I was certainly no good at kicking a football, but I was the sort of guy in school who'd organize the bus to go to the match or for the class night out or for the Debs ball or whatever was going on.

So that sort of organizational thing appealed to me. I was kind of good at it. I became involved in youth clubs, locally, local community organizations. And from that, I was eventually invited to join Fianna Fáil. And because of my interest in the Irish language, which I'd Had from the age of 14 to 15 and interested in the national question, I kind of felt that, you know, fall was the natural fit.

Yeah, it was natural

Mary McAleese: home for me. Did it cause any problems in the house with your mom and dad?

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: No, but they'd be most adamant that if anybody came into the house and politics, uh, started, uh, to be [00:09:00] debated, that I wasn't to start beating the party political drum and offending or annoying any of the neighbours.

My, my parents were discreet. Uh, people who had their own mind but didn't, wouldn't deliberately offend or upset anyone. So, so they had a very calm approach to life in general. I suppose they've passed that on to me. That

Mary McAleese: served you well. We were just talking before you came in there about the number of times you stood for election and didn't win.

Over, over a very relatively long period of time, how did you keep, why didn't you just give up? And you didn't give up. I mean, you kept going until you won.

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: Well, uh, I suppose, uh, tenacity is an important part of, of my makeup. I, I think looking back at that, I, I became a counselor at, uh, at 25 in 1985. And, um, that, I love that, and I love the work that went with it, and I found then that the 87 [00:10:00] election came around very quickly, and I got a telephone call saying that, uh, C.

J. Highey wanted me to be added to the Fianna Fáil ticket, at the time, and I thought about it, And I said, God, I might never get this opportunity again. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I would have been better to wait and to mature and, and, and to take time to, to build a base. But I became a candidate in 87, 87 led to 89, 89 led to 92, and 92 led to 97.

You ran

Mary McAleese: in all of them and weren't successful in the Yeah, I was increasing

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: the vote, I suppose. I then got a call. In 2000 this time, Bertie Hearn wanted me to contest a Senate by election. The late Patty McGowan, Senator from different and County Donal had died. He'd been, um, a senator on the agricultural panel and there was a vacancy as well on the labor panel.

And Jim Glennon, uh, the former Rugby [00:11:00] International and myself were nominated by Fiona Fall. And the interesting thing about that by election was we were in government with the PDs, and the PDs had in Senator John Dardis a candidate in Kilvera South, so they didn't really want me. Uh, getting into the Senate, so the PDs voted for Jim Glennon because he was in Dublin North where there was no PD presence, but they voted against me, something that was a bit disconcerting, uh, at the time, but sure, I won anyway.

And, um, having been elected to the Senate in 2000, went on then to, um, take second place on the ticket in. 2002 and to head the pole in 2007 to survive 2011, which was pretty traumatic.

Mary McAleese: That was a great, clear out altogether, wasn't it? Mm uh

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: you know what? That period between 2007, 2008 and 2011 was probably the most difficult period in my life because.

It [00:12:00] was extraordinary in the way in which the recession or the collapse in the economy impacted on families. And one of the things I pride myself on is being very close to my constituents and having an open house and people would come and go and you saw the devastating effect that it had. But I also felt on a personal level, a number of people who actually resented you almost felt that, you know, you visited this.

I remember one friend of mine saying to me, a fellow who had ventured out into the property market of his own accord and bought a number of apartments, you told me we were going to have a soft landing. I said, I did tell you that, but obviously I was wrong, but an awful lot of other people were wrong as well.

But during that period, 20, 28, 2008 to 2011. It wasn't unusual to walk down the street and see people coming towards you that you knew, but they crossed to the other side. It wasn't unusual to go to [00:13:00] mass and find that when you came out, people wouldn't stop to talk to you. And Sean, how does that affect

Mary Kennedy: you?

Because as a human being, you know, you've got feelings, you've got concerns.

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: Oh, that cuts to the core. It, it, it. It was heartbreaking. But you know what? The reality of that recession was heartbreaking for so many people. So I asked, look, I had a job. I was able to pay the mortgage. So bad for me that I felt bad about it.

But there were a lot of people losing their homes that lost their jobs. Their family were immigrating. So, You know, okay, I felt sorry for myself, but at far less reason to be sorry for myself than a lot of other, other people had.

Mary Kennedy: Difficult for your family as well though.

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: Yeah. Oh, the, the hate mail. Yeah.

That was something. And that, that came in. Did you get much of that? There was a lot of calls to the house and I'd go into the office in the morning. I'd say, you know, what's on the hate mail system, uh, this morning, you know, what are they, what, what, what am I being blamed for today? So [00:14:00] that went on. Up to the time of the election, and then the election came and Fianna Fáil were virtually wiped out and I became Fianna Fáil Whip, effectively opposition chief whip.

And the 19 of us who were there, the late Brian Lennon, Lord be good to him, um, we were, we were really suffering from post traumatic stress and we continued to suffer

Mary McAleese: that way. All your colleagues were gone. They

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: were gone. And these were people

Mary McAleese: who were hugely experienced politicians too. They were. I

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: mean, I recall sitting with Neil Martin as his whip and You know, trying to discuss what's the future going to involve, how are we going to, how are we going to build back?

You know, what, what form is this party of ours going to take? What are we, what are we going to try and communicate to people? How are we going to rebrand and, and kind of restore? Did you

Mary McAleese: believe it was doable then? Oh yeah. You did? Yeah. You believed that?

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: I absolutely believed that. And in fairness to me, Hal Martin, he was incredibly committed to that.

Yeah. Absolutely. And, um, incredibly [00:15:00] hardworking individual. I wouldn't agree with him on everything, but I certainly always respected incredible work ethic that the man has, you know. It must have

Mary McAleese: been very hard to muster that kind of optimism though. Looking at the collapse all around you.

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: Yeah, but do you know what?

We live in a land of opportunity. Whatever you might say about Ireland, that's why I'm so depressed when I hear people talking about our young people are leaving, or the country is. Defining fault with our country. We live in a wonderful country where any young person, I say this to young people in schools that I visit, you know what, the only thing that limits you in this country of ours is your own imagination or your own ambition.

You can achieve just about anything you want if you set your mind to it. And like that, no more than with a, with a political party. If, if you got the fundamentals, right. Uh, if you got the communication of those fundamentals, uh, right, then you could [00:16:00] rebuild. And that's what has happened, I think, uh, in recent years.

Mary Kennedy: I'm thinking of those difficult times, Sean, and, uh, you know, you have a hard day at work. You cope with it. You go home. Your children were quite small at the time, weren't they?

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: Yeah. During, during that period. Um, I know some of the kids, um, some of the older girls got a certain amount of hassle in school.

Um, you know, um, how did they take the sarcastic remarks and stuff? I'll tell you what they did. They didn't tell us. And they kept it to themselves. And only when that period had passed would they tell you around the dinner table, well, such and such a thing happened. Such and such a teacher said something or students said something or whatever, you know.

Um, so, you know, they were resourceful in their own way. I think they saw that. Their mother and I was under a lot of pressure and they didn't want to. add anything to it. We don't see

Mary Kennedy: that you see from the outside. You know, we see you as [00:17:00] public representatives and, um, you know, uh, having your difficult times.

When you actually hear stories like that about around the dinner table, it, it is quite telling. And, and, you know, the, the, the tenacity, as you say, and the, The decision to keep going in that situation when it's difficult for your family, that takes a lot of courage.

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: It does. And that's one of the reasons, I mean, people ask me, do any of my kids want to go into politics?

And thank God, none of them do. The funny thing about this is, I have put a lot of effort over the last couple of years into Trying to, um, advance the idea of a more diverse and representative parliament. And, uh, that involves having a lot more young people involved. So I would encourage young people to get involved.

But given my own experience, I wouldn't be encouraging my own kids. And they show no

Mary McAleese: interest so far, do they?

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: I think they've had their fill of politics, uh, over the years. Now, whether You know, as they mature, [00:18:00] whether they fit, yeah, and, and I think they all have a sense of the importance of service. So, but, but they may well find other ways to, to, to provide.

So how do you,

Mary Kennedy: how do you persuade young people to get involved? That's your mission.

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: I, I think there are always going to be young people out there with ambition, with, with a, with, with objectives, with ideals. And that's what we want in politics. One, people who have ideas and ideals, um, not narcissists who kind of get the kick outta seeing their, their face on a poster.

Or doing a TV or a radio program or even a podcast. You know, we want, we want more and more people, uh, with, with, with ideas. And I think they'll always be there. And I think it's a question then of persuading them and facilitating them. I think parties, parties need to look outside themselves. They need to be [00:19:00] more welcoming.

And, um, I think when you see the growth in, say, the, the, um, independence, In all the opinion polls of late, that reflects, I think, rather badly on the political parties because it suggests that the political parties are not offering avenues to these people to come forward and offer their talents or offer their ideas to a certain extent.

And I think we see that in the United States, we've seen it in, uh, in Britain, older political parties become complacent. They begin to think that they have a right. Well, nobody's a right to be in power. Nobody's a right to be elected. It all has to be earned and won. Political parties need to be able to reinvent on an ongoing basis.

And the Ireland that we live in today is radically different, radically different even from the Ireland Uh, pre COVID.

Mary McAleese: Correct, even a decade ago. Yeah, exactly. Even five years ago, you're right. I

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: [00:20:00] mean, we need to open up to the change. We need to embrace the positive aspects of those, of those changes. We need to identify those areas that are maybe not positive and need to be worked on, uh, to turn them to positivity.

But, but we need new people to do that. And, uh, you know, I, I often give the example that, um, I sit in the chair in Ensor House and I look down and I see lots of people like myself that are old men, older, grayer guys, you know, uh, but you walk down to Grafton street and you look at the, the, the pedestrians there and you see a completely different world.

And until we get to a point that the people you see on Grafton street, are reflected in the membership of the Dáil, and indeed the membership of county councils around the country, and the membership of the European Parliament, as well. You're not really going to have the sort of representative body that the public are entitled to have.

Mary McAleese: What are the changes that you're looking at? That worry you at the moment. I mean, obviously social [00:21:00] media must really have changed your life big time and the life of all politicians big time. Um, but, but what, what are the big changes that, that, what are the ones that worry you?

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: I do know from my engagement with members that the abuse that is targeted at members, female members principally, but not exclusively.

Um, it's just frightening and it's, it's. Look, we were always subject to criticism. We deserve a lot of the criticism we get. We draw a lot of that criticism on ourselves because of our But this is off the Richter scale now. Oh, this is absolutely off the Richter scale and it's not And there's no protection.

No. We have a system in place now for the last two years whereby, um One of the social media companies would come into Len Strauss every three or four months and do a clinic, if you like, where they'll talk to, uh, members of the Oireachtas and their staff and advise them on how to deal with problems and, and so on.

But it, it, what, what we [00:22:00] see in social media though, reflects a nastiness that exists in society that I was never aware of existing. Um,

Mary Kennedy: We see it on the streets as well, don't we?

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: We do, but I mean, I think we need to get to the bottom of that. Why is that there? Why, why is there this resentment, anti establishment,

Mary McAleese: um, It's not of

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: anger.

Mary McAleese: It seems to be fueled by a kind of, Righteous or, or not anger.

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: Yeah, but very often when you talk, I found with some of these people that send the most awful stuff, that when you actually respond to them, and I respond to practically everybody, um, some of them will come back and, you know, be quite rational in what they have to say.

Um, somebody wrote to me recently giving out about the Middle East. And, uh, I, I responded including, uh, copies of statements I'd made and they came back and apologized. For, [00:23:00] uh, what they had said and said that they maybe should think a little bit more in the future before they spoke. But, but, but that doesn't deal with that nasty insidious sort of undercurrent.

It's directed at politicians. And

Mary Kennedy: it gathers momentum, doesn't it, as people

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: practice it? It does. And it's finding expression now through the focus on immigrants. And I don't, I mean, we're the last country on earth that should have a problem.

Mary Kennedy: Given our history of immigration.

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: Given how this country achieved some of the wealth that we have today, on foot of remittances sent by Irish people that went all over the world.

I have a simple philosophy in terms of the whole issue of immigration. And it's this, we are at full employment. We're a wealthy country. We need to do a lot more about equal distribution. In order to [00:24:00] do that, we need to keep the wealth we have and build more. The developing world needs an opportunity to develop.

I think we need to have legal pathways for countries to send workers. to the developing world. Bernie Sanders was interviewed on RT recently and he was talking about the housing crisis in the USA and he was talking about one of their biggest problems being lack of workforce. Lack of workforce, exactly.

Skilled workforce. I've travelled through much of Europe and the refrain everywhere is, we don't have workers. Well, let's have a pathway for the people from the developing countries to send the workforce here We can develop our wealth and hopefully redistribute it in a, in a, in a fair way, they can send their remittances back to the places from whence they came and strengthen their core in, in that way, provided of course, we don't take from developing countries, uh, their skills, professionals, their [00:25:00] doctors, their nurses,

Mary McAleese: like we have done.


Seán Ó Fearghaíl: And I mean, sure, look. I mean, God knows I've been in hospital quite a bit over the last couple of years. What would happen to our hospitals if our migrant workers were here? Close the doors. What would happen to our nursing homes? Close the doors. Look at the nursing homes and the number of Filipino staff that are working in them.

I think 20 percent of the HSE nurses are of Indian origin. They're superb.

Mary McAleese: Absolutely. So we need

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: these

Mary McAleese: people. We could not survive without them. Absolutely not.

Mary Kennedy: And it's so nice to have intercultural and intergenerational relationships, isn't it? And communications and connections.

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: I think we can be brought back to a certain extent to where we came from.

I mean, you take Indian families. That whole intergenerational thing, as it is with the Filipinos, is so strong. The grandparents, the parents, and the children living in close contact with each other, which is something we're beginning to lose here, I'm afraid.

Mary McAleese: But you know, they're [00:26:00] doing the same thing that our people did that you've just described.

I don't know how many Filipino couples I have met in here in Ireland who have left behind their children in the Philippines, live here very frugally, very frugally. And their whole reason for being here is that the next generation back home will flourish. It buys a piece of land, it builds a house, it pays for the education of their children.

You know, we should, we should be cherishing these people, really. Absolutely. And be very grateful that we are the country that we are, to be able to host them and make decent lives for them.

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: So from any, even from a purely selfish point of view, Ireland can only benefit. By inward migration, provided it's properly managed.

Mary McAleese: Correct.

Changing Times, the Alan Wood Conversations. Proudly [00:27:00] sponsored by Kildare County Council.

Mary Kennedy: Sean. A sense of community and a sense of service have really been the, the, the, at the essence of your work for so many years. And now as Count Corlea, as chair person, um, of the, the Dáil, you know, you're, you're, I suppose, a bit removed from that, aren't you?

You've to be impartial and keep everybody in order and, and you do it in the most lovely way. There's always a smile on your face as you're telling somebody to sit down and

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: Quiet.

Mary McAleese: Shut

Mary Kennedy: up.

Mary McAleese: We're not exactly using that language.

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: Just on the community thing, I, I've tried to remain involved in the community because I think it's only when you continue to be involved in community that you can see the impact of what's happening on, at, at national level on people on the ground.

So I, I remain involved in the boards of schools and things like that. And I do my clinics, uh, through my constituency offices. But, but the, [00:28:00] the job of Count Corla, um, There's three aspects to it. There's chairing it all, which is an incredible honor. And there's chairing the multiplicity of internal committees, um, that meet incessantly.

And the meetings go on for ages. Then there's the business side of things. I chair the House of the Oireachtas Commission, which is responsible for managing the Oireachtas complex, the Dáil in the Seannaid, the buildings, the plant and machinery. More importantly, the personnel, 1, 200 people, have their base in Leinster House.

And then the budget. Budget's about 160 million per annum. Uh, the clerk of the doll is the accounting officer and I chair of the commission that is respons responsible. People might not realize you

Mary McAleese: have that realm of, they just think that you're there to keep them quiet. .

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: Um, well, you're there. You're, yeah.

You're there to make sure that the book is properly spent. Mm-Hmm. And that insofar as as possible, that there is value for money. And [00:29:00] then the third aspect of it is what I call parliamentary diplomacy.

Mary McAleese: Exactly. I remember mentioning that before.

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: Yeah, it's where you're, you're dealing with, I suppose, first and foremost, uh, the ambassadors who deal with parliament through the Ceann Comhairle, or the Caith Iarleach at the Seamhain, um, and then incoming, uh, political, uh, uh, delegations where you, you meet them on an ongoing basis and you engage with them on issues of mutual, uh, interest.

I could have two or three such meetings per week, maybe more some weeks. Um, in terms of meeting a delegation from another country, what normally happens, what always happens is I get a detailed brief a day or two in advance from the department of foreign affairs that seeks to address. All the issues that are likely to come up in that discussion, uh, whether it's from China to the USA to, uh, Nepal to wherever.

And I have to say about the Department [00:30:00] of Foreign Affairs in the eight and a half years that I've been in the job, I have never got a briefing that did not cover absolutely everything that arose at a meeting fair. They are extraordinarily efficient and effective in how they do their job, and likewise, when I've traveled, I've found the overwhelming majority of diplomats.

that we have sent abroad are the most extraordinary people. They are superb. They do such great work to promote Mother Ireland.

Mary Kennedy: Sean, this is probably a rhetorical question, given the workload that you've described as Ceann Comhairle and as TD. What do you like to do in your In inverted commas, spare time, you have hobbies.

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: Well, my wife says I'm a hobby farmer, so, uh, I, I, I, I love the farm. I love the farm. I love gardening. Who doesn't? I, I, I do, I do. My wife bought me a greenhouse two years ago, and that's been put to put to great use. [00:31:00] Um, what have you got? Flowers or veg? Oh, I have peppers and cucumbers and tomatoes. Wow. And various.

So impressed. Seedlings. Impressed. Can I tell you a funny story? Tell us. Go on. I, in the first year I had it, I grew cos Oh, I heard They p and then I, then I put them outside and not never having had cor jets before and not having grown, grown up in a house where they were. uh, readily available. I suddenly discovered one day that, my God, there was a whole host of huge courgettes under the leaves.

So I gathered these up and I was coming in to the back of the house with these courgettes in my arm. And I called one of my daughters and said, Aoife, Aoife, come here quick. I want you to take a photograph of me with my courgettes. And she said, Dad, what do you want this for? She said, I, I, I said, I want it for my Facebook.

And I, she said, Oh no, dad, you can't put up a picture on Facebook saying, look at me and my massive courgettes. [00:32:00]

Mary McAleese: So you didn't do that then? I didn't do it. You took the advice. I took

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: the bit of wily female advice.

Mary Kennedy: And do you like flowers as well? Like, do you like ornamental

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: stuff? Yeah. We've, we've roses and that sort of stuff.

What did you do with all

Mary McAleese: the courgettes though? Did you turn them into stews and things?

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: Uh, my wife, my wife is a super cook and she made great, great use of them. And the family got loads of them and neighbors and work colleagues and what have you. But, um, I know there's something, there's something really therapeutic about sitting in the garden or kneeling and I can't kneel now because I have two artificial knees, but sitting in the garden, I get near a hands down in, in the, in the dirt and communing.

We really are communing with nature. And it's the same if I go out to fields in the morning to see. To see the Stalker just walking through the Cattleland. Checking that they're okay and watching them. Makes you grounded, doesn't it? It

Mary McAleese: does, yeah. I love it. Go back to those knees for a minute. You've had [00:33:00] operations on both knees now?

Have you had both knees replaced?

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: I've had both knees replaced, yeah. And

Mary McAleese: different times?

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: Three months between the two operations.

Mary McAleese: Tell us about the period leading up to that, because that doesn't sound like a time you'd be walking through the fields now. Oh,

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: well, look, um, I'd had arthritis for several years.

And I'd got to the stage where I was on sticks. If I was going out for a pint with the lads, I could only go to a pub where I could sit. If I went to a funeral, I couldn't queue to sympathize with the bereaved. And then I was referred to a consultant and he said, well, let's try these, um, injections into your knee.

And, uh, uh, my God, when you're being approached with this huge syringe and a huge needle, and they're about to inject you and you say, Oh my God, why did I decide I was going to do this? But I found that I, I got three, uh, separate sets of injections after which I had the surgery.

Mary McAleese: And has it changed your life?[00:34:00]

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: Ah, yeah. Yeah. I mean, I'm, I'm pretty, pretty mobile. I still have arthritis in my back.

Mary Kennedy: I know you've spoken about men not being great about, you know, um, fessing up about health problems.

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: Yeah. Well, because I have a cardiac problem, I, I have regular blood tests and, uh, just under two years ago, uh, my PSA level, uh, in a routine blood test was shown to be elevated and my GP called me in and said, look, I'm concerned about this, I'm going to refer you.

So I was referred. That's to do

Mary McAleese: with prostate, right? Yeah.

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: Yeah. Okay. Yeah. I was referred to Professor Stephen Connolly and, um, he did various tests and examinations and biopsies and it was found that I had significant cancer in the, in the prostate and, um, the recommendation was for radical, uh, surgery to remove the prostate.

And I was back with him last week and he said he doesn't want to see me for a year. [00:35:00] Now that a year and a half on that the, the cancer is. Is gone. No, it can come back. Or you could get it somewhere else, but thank God it was removed before it had metastasized or spread out. Did you have to get,

Mary McAleese: you had the surgery obviously which is fairly significant in its own right, but um, did you have to have the chemo or any of that stuff afterwards?


Seán Ó Fearghaíl: no, I didn't have, I didn't need either chemo or um, radiation treatment. That was a relief wasn't it? Oh, it was a, it was a huge relief because I was dreading the thought of that.

Mary Kennedy: Why do you think it is that men are still so reluctant to talk about their health?

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: There's a certain amount of bravado involved in that and kind of, you know, I'm, I'm kind of a he man, I'm not going to admit to any weakness.

And, and there's a certain amount of self delusion also involved. Well, I don't know, Won't, won't, won't, won't hurt me. But when it, when it happened to me, I said, well, okay, how am I going to handle this? Because I'm going to be missing for the doll for a number of weeks. And, um, given [00:36:00] the sort of rumor machine that goes on in that place, that they were going to have me dead, I'd say by, by, by week two.

So I decided, well, I better, I better explain. And I did. What I was kind of chuffed about afterwards was the number of people who came up to me and said, you know what, we'd never really thought about that before, but we've, I've got off and I've had a PSA and, um, I found it's, it's clear or one or two people came and told me, well, I have a bit of a problem, but I'm in the early stages, but at least, do you know what, if only one person read about it, went away and had a test and, and, and saved themselves, The trauma.

There you go. To be able to,

Mary McAleese: to be able to do that, that's a, that's a good intervention in our life.

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: I mean, women are great at talking about their, their, their problems, no matter what it might be. Uh, but we need to wise up and, and, um, realize that men's health, uh, can be a, is a part of reality. We have problems that we need to, we need to deal with them and we need to act sooner rather than, than later.

Mary McAleese: That's for sure. [00:37:00] You're, I think that was great work. Thank you. It was great work and difficult to do because, you know, none of us really want to expose that part of life really so openly to others.

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: No, no.

Mary Kennedy: You know what strikes me listening to you, Sean, um, you've got a great growth and a great, um, just sense of.

Ireland and being Irish, but you have a hugely outward looking perspective on life and looking outside the country at different cultures and different countries.

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: Yeah, well, I mean, I think that that that's the way our, I mean, because there are 72 million people worldwide that claim affinity with this country.

We have to be outward looking. We're a people. The Irish people want to learn. You're going to learn from other people's experiences, from travel, from meeting.

Mary Kennedy: You're a great advocate for us. Oh, well, look,

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: I believe that a lot of these things are transferable. If something will [00:38:00] work in the United States, it may work in Ireland, or a variation of that particular initiative may work here.

And the same is true for many, many other countries. We've, we've come a long way and we need to, we need to remember where we came from and we need to use that to inform ourselves as, as we, as we go along and not, not lose the run of ourselves, you know, either.

Mary McAleese: Because we are embarrassed by the bad things, you know, the, the, the homelessness and the, aren't we?

I mean, we're embarrassed that we, and we, because this is not what we want to be.

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: Well, we blue and well deserve to be embarrassed by the homeless problem. There's no doubt about that. I mean, it's, it's, it's, it's shocking. It really is shocking and, and again, this is linked to workforce in, in, in large measure.

When you recall that in 2007, the year before the crash, we built 93, 000 houses, the, the, the experts were telling us the soft landing [00:39:00] was going to involve reducing that to maybe 45, 50, 000 houses. And the employer employees. No longer building houses would be off doing infrastructural work and obviously that didn't come to pass and now we're struggling to build 35, 000 houses.

And in large measure that's because we don't have the workforce. And okay, we've put an emphasis now directly. On apprenticeships, vocational skills, because I think in one way, we'd lost the run of ourselves. Everybody wanted to have a degree. Everyone wanted to have masters. Nobody wanted their son or their daughter to be working on a building site.

And yet. There are, there's honourable, decent, well remunerated work to be had in those particular areas, and we need to get back to that. And as I say, we need people to come to That takes time to

Mary McAleese: build up again though, doesn't it? Oh, it certainly does.

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: And we need to be attracting back lots of those young people who left to work in Canada or to work in Australia.

And, uh, you know, we need to put additional effort [00:40:00] into that.

Mary McAleese: How do you feel about the, the, the most recent political response to, to the Gaza situation, the recognition of the state of Palestine?

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: I think government was quite right to move to recognize the state. I think what Netanyahu and his government is doing is appalling.

I think it represents utter depravity. Uh, I'm deeply disappointed that the United States continues to provide some sucker, uh, to Netanyahu's government. Because I do believe they have the power to exert far greater influence than their enemies. Exerting a present at the same time I've had two experiences in the last number of months.

I was at Auschwitz Birkenau for the 79th anniversary of, uh, the liberation and, um, I was invited there [00:41:00] by the European Jewish association. It gave me an understanding that I didn't have previously of what it is that. Impacts, really impacts, uh, the Jewish thinking on issues around Israel and, um, brought me to the point of view that, that, that the Jewish people internationally having suffered so many pogroms and then that mass industrialized scheme of

Mary McAleese: murder,

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: murder, and brutality.

I mean, you stand there and look at it and realize that on this platform. Tens of thousands of people were brought here and brutally murdered. Oh my God. It it's a Would you ever

Mary McAleese: get over it? Do you see,

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: I I I don't think you could in a generation two generations. No, you couldn't. You couldn't. You couldn't.

You couldn't. You couldn't. And that's why I think we need, we need, I I, I was invited then three weeks ago to speak at the installation [00:42:00] of the new chief Rabbi in the synagogue in, uh, , which was an incredible honor. Um, but it brought home to me again. The need for us, while absolutely being supportive of the Palestinian people, and absolutely determined to see the likes of Hamas closed down and obliterated, that we must respect the Jewish people.

That there's a difference between the Jewish people and the Israeli people and the Netanyahu government and the defense forces. And we have just 2, 000 Jewish people living on this island. I think at the height of their strength in this country, it was maybe about 5, 000. So we've never had very many, but we've always seen the Jewish people as an integral part of Irish society.

I think their president, I mean, his grandfather,

Mary McAleese: born and raised here, born in Belfast, raised in Dublin. You know, um, the connections are so strong. It must hurt when you [00:43:00] hear Ireland sometimes described then. By current Israeli personnel, senior personnel as anti Semitic. Oh,

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: that, that infuriates me. And even I talked about being in Krakow and Birkenau and Auschwitz.

Um, one of my small team that was there with me, uh, over lunch. Uh, heard people remarking, Oh, there's an Irish delegation here, what are they doing here? They're no friends of the Jewish people. And you know, I took pleasure in being able to say that is not the case and there is such a difference between anti Semitism, uh, and criticism, justifiable criticism of the actions of the Israeli government.

Um, and, uh, you know, What's particularly dastardly, I think, is that they use this anti Semitism thing as a shield to hide behind. [00:44:00] Don't dare, don't dare criticize us, or you are an anti Semite. which I don't think most Irish people are. I, I've dealt with several, um, Israeli ambassadors in Ireland since I've taken over this particular job, and they come to a person with the view that Ireland is not a friend of, of Israel, uh, that this business of antisemitism is, uh, is a reality.

And, uh, I've tried again and again to say to them, the political response to Palestine is based on the public response. The public response is based on Irish people's experience serving with the defence forces abroad, and people who travel to the Holy Land and have seen first hand the sort of situation.

that exist and that at the heart of it all is the building of the settlements. I mean, to me, that is the most egregious. And the ignoring of the UN. Absolutely, but the idea that you could talk about peace while [00:45:00] at the same time continuously forcing the Palestinians off their land and building more and more of these settlements.

And you know what, Ambassador after ambassador would give you hogwash by way of an explanation as to why the settlements were justified. And quite clearly, they're not justified and they can't be justified. And they should, they should have stopped many years ago, um, and in whatever solution is arrived at.

It'll certainly have to be a factor of the past. The sad thing for me

Mary McAleese: is looking at an organization, an utterly evil organization like Hamas, designated by the European Union, quite rightly, as a terrorist organization. Having lived through Northern Ireland and the troubles and the kind of things that provoke young people to join paramilitary organizations.

The big worry I have looking at that is that, that everything that Netanyahu has done, [00:46:00] um, is a recruiting agency for Hamas or their, whoever comes after Hamas, don't you think? Oh,

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: absolutely. Mary, Mary Clare and I, We sit at home in the evening and we watch the nine o'clock news and you see those little children with their wonderful brown eyes and the tears flowing as they mourn their mother or their father or their siblings or their grandparents.


Mary McAleese: years, twenty years down the road.

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: They won't need to be radicalised. In five years time one wonders what will those children be like and that's why peace must be rested. From the crisis that exists now, because if it doesn't, the situation will, as a result of the traumatization of those children, be immeasurably worse into the future.

And we also need to wise up to the fact that Netanyahu is doing unspeakable damage to the state of Israel. and to the Jewish people generally. He is, as you say, exactly, while protecting his own political career. He's not

Mary McAleese: securing the future, that's for sure. But he's not alone either. I mean, there

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: are other appalling individuals, I think, in that, [00:47:00] uh, in that government that need to be stopped.

Mary Kennedy: When you think about your, your life and your country, is there anything, Sean, that, um, you would like to change either for yourself or just generally?

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: Yeah, I, I, I think I'd like to see our country playing a greater role in combating world hunger, uh, because I, I, I, I think that it, it, it, it's, it's so hard to accept in the modern age when there is so much wealth in the world.

That infants and adults are dying by the minute from starvation when we have the resources in our world, not alone to feed them, but to feed them very well and to allow them participate in society. But for political reasons, geopolitical reasons, uh, they're, they're not regarded as, as important or important enough.

And while Ireland has a very proud record [00:48:00] of, uh, working, uh, with, uh, in with developing countries, missionary work initially and practical development aid now, uh, I think we could probably do far more, uh, and certainly the world could do far more. So I'd like to see us maybe becoming a champion, uh, for the, the desperately poor.

Mary Kennedy: It's true what you say though. Everywhere you go in the developing world, you will always find Irish people. Yes,

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: we, we, we have some of the most wonderful people who have devoted their lives. Initially they were religious, but now they're, they're secular individuals who have just committed their, their lives.

Uh, to, to, to helping others. But, but it is, I, I, I find that the, the advertisements on TV so disconcerting that, that you're sitting in a comfortable home and you're having beamed in in front of you the [00:49:00] images of people in war torn, um, drought ridden countries, you know, not surviving. Now, I mean, Ireland, Ireland is good, as we've said, Irish people have played a role, but I think we could, we could do, do far more.

Um, I'd like to see us really elevating, we're noted peacekeepers and peace promoters. I'd like to see us elevating our development aid work to at least that same standard of prominence internationally.

Mary Kennedy: Sean, before we finish, um, can we just say that as Ceann Córlea, uh, I feel particularly that you have a lovely, calm presence, um, and that you are, um, very statesman like.

And I'm particularly impressed every time we have, um, uh, a visiting Dignitary, be his [00:50:00] president. You're a fabulous speech maker. You're lovely. You write such lovely words.

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: Thank you. I wish I could claim sole credit for that. But I mean, I have a great small team working in the office with me. And, uh, but you have to deliver most of these things are elaborate, uh, efforts.

So I, I, you know, I get great, great assistance, but I mean, it's an incredible honor to have been there for the visit of Joe Biden or to have been there for, uh, beaming in. Um, Vladimir Zelinsky. I know. That was extraordinary too. That was a big, big

Mary Kennedy: event. There are important moments though in the, in the story of the, the Dáil.

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: They are, and I've been anxious to open up the door as much as possible.

Mary Kennedy: There are lovely human moments in those speeches as well, though. I loved the reference, uh, when Joe Biden was there to, um, the, the new baby. That was lovely. And also, um, asking his advice on how to get a full house every [00:51:00] Thursday.

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: Yeah, well, Thursday evenings, the numbers can be quite small in the place. And he loves people. That's the thing that stands out about him and his crew, you could see they were pulling their hair out because every opportunity that he had to speak with someone, he availed of that opportunity. A bit like yourself, Mary, when you were, uh, in, in that office, I can remember you've been on a visit to Kildare and you're disappearing when we were in some school somewhere and you'd gone into the kitchen to talk to the staff and shake hands and, uh, chat with them.

But Biden is like that as well. He has to. He has that great human touch. He's the

Mary McAleese: people person. He for sure is.

Mary Kennedy: You're, uh, 64. Is that what you said? Yes. Um, are you thinking about retirement?

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: Um, Yeah. Yeah, well, I mean, I'm going to be finishing up in the office of the Ciancórla, uh, come the, come the next election.

Uh, and I suppose the decision I have to make then is, [00:52:00] uh, if I'm still in office when the election is called, um, the constitution gives me a right to return. I've already chosen that I would return to Kildare South because, but I could have chosen Leash, Offaly, or North Kildare because they were all part of the last Kildare constituency.

So I've selected Kildare South. So the question is, Will I or will I not, um,

Mary Kennedy: take the walkover? In what way are you thinking? Well,

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: if my health remains good, uh, and I, I can continue to work, I think I'll probably You're still young. Continue, continue on, but, um, it, it would, it would free me up to do other stuff in the community, to return to a lot of the stuff that I enjoyed doing in the, uh, in, in the past.

But, um, you know, whether still in politics or outside of politics, I, you know, I would have to be active. I couldn't envisage getting up in the morning and being content to just go out and herd the cattle and root around the garden. Pick the courgettes, that's not going to happen. Yeah, [00:53:00] I love people and I love working with people, so I'd love to keep doing that.


Mary Kennedy: heard you describe politics as an addiction once.

Seán Ó Fearghaíl: Yeah, it is. It's um, that's what it's been like for me. I probably got the addiction too early and I couldn't escape from it. But at the same time, do you know what? I, I've great respect for people in life who can step off the particular merry go round that they're on and do something else.

I, I've great regard for people who can, who can do that. Having got on this merry go round at 25 years of age, I've never been able to step off. Maybe it is an addiction, so? I'm heading towards 40, 40 years. Uh, so, you know, I, I, uh, I, I, uh, I would encourage my kids and others, you know, to, to, not to be reluctant to change, to try something new.

Mary Kennedy: And with that, we come to the end of [00:54:00] another episode of Changing Times from here in Allenwood. A big thank you to our researcher, Anne Marie Staunton. Likewise,

Mary McAleese: thank you to our producer, Enda Grace. And also a big thank you to Kildare County Council for their continued support and their continued sponsorship of our podcast.

Mary Kennedy: Just a little reminder to please subscribe to Changing Times. And you know what? Tell your friends as well. Till next time

Mary McAleese: from beautiful Allenwood in County Kildare. Bye for now.

Changing Times, the Allenwood Conversations. Proudly sponsored by Kildare County Council.


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