Tras Honan obituary: A ‘natural politician’ and first female cathaoirleach of the Seanad

Known for her ‘old-school blunt and direct analysis of the state of the nation’, her love of people and as a role model for younger female politicians

Born January 4th, 1930

Died November 25th, 2023

Tras Honan, who has died aged 93, was the first female cathaoirleach of the Seanad and the first woman to be elected to Ennis Urban District Council. She also made history with her sister Carrie Acheson when they served in the Oireachtas at the same time, Carrie as a TD and Tras as a senator.

She was inextricably linked with politics from the moment she was born. Her father, Matt Barlow, fought in the War of Independence with the Third Tipperary Brigade, and she was christened Treasa, after one of the brigade leaders, Seán Treacy.


Her father’s work as an engineer took him, and later his young family, all over Ireland, as he worked on projects such as the Pigeon House in Dublin, Ardnacrusha, and the Carlow and Thurles sugar factories. When Tras was just 12, her mother, Caroline, died, leaving seven children behind.

After she left school, Tras began working in the hotel trade in Waterford before moving to Ennis to take up a job in Carmody’s hotel. Éamon de Valera was a regular visitor and she spoke about the impression he made on her when she met him for the first time. But it was Clare man Derry Honan who left an even greater impression – so much so that she married him. As well as rearing their two children, TV and Ann, she took over the running of his family pub when Derry got involved in politics. He was a senator, as was his father, TV Honan.

Charlie Haughey laughed when I told him she was waiting to twist his arm. In two minutes Tras won his support and she went on to get elected and play a blinder in the role

—  Solas chairman Seán Aylward

She was one of the founders of Ennis and District Soroptimists, and the club’s campaigning work was instrumental in the opening of St Clare’s and St Anne’s schools for children with special needs. This gave her a taste for activism, so it was no surprise when she won a seat on the administrative panel of Seanad Éireann in 1977.

She retained her interest in local politics and was the first woman elected to Ennis Urban District Council in 1979. She sat on the council until 1994, holding the positions of chairwoman, and vice-chairwoman during that time.

Her career as a senator ended when she lost her seat in the 1993 elections. During that time she was twice elected cathaoirleach, in 1982 and 1987 and she was leas-chathaoirleach in the intervening period.

After her death, Solas chairman Seán Aylward recalled how he was private secretary to then taoiseach Charlie Haughey in 1982 when “a woman senator I had never heard of rocked up to our office in Leinster House asking to see CJH”. She wanted his support to be elected cathaoirleach. “Charlie laughed when I told him she was waiting to twist his arm. In two minutes Tras won his support and she went on to get elected and play a blinder in the role,” he wrote on social media.

Aylward regularly bumped into her on the train, and they liked to use the journeys to set the world to rights. “Tras’s old-school, blunt and direct analysis of the state of the nation always had the entire train carriage hanging on every word,” he said.

Unlike some senators, Tras Honan never wanted to use the Seanad as a launching pad for the Dáil. “She used to say that her place was in the Seanad,” her former colleague Senator Victor Boyhan noted in the House after her death. “She put every ounce of her energy into this House.” He remembered her as a “feisty, determined, pragmatic, driven and focused politician” and said she was a leading role model for young women in politics.

Her son TV said the word “formidable” was often used about her, but she was also a natural politician. “She really liked people, and people liked her. It was what she was born to do.” While she was a diehard Fianna Fáil member, he said she had many cross-party friendships with people such as Labour’s Dick Spring, Fine Gael’s Paddy Cooney and Independent senator David Norris.

Tributes were paid to her from across the political spectrum after her death. Her former Seanad colleague Katharine Bulbulia of Fine Gael said she was privileged to witness “a consummate politician who brought great humanity, dignity and grace to deliberations”. Gormer minister for justice Nora Owen said she always admired her, despite their different political persuasions. “I remember reappointing her to a Prison Board because of her great work on the board for the previous five years,” she said.

The loss of her Seanad seat in 1993 was a blow but she was not idle for long. She was appointed to the board of CIÉ in 1994 and served there for nine years, acting as deputy chairwoman for most of that time. She was on the board of Bus Éireann for almost 15 years and threw herself into the plans for the construction of the new bus station in Waterford. She also served on the board of Iarnród Éireann.

A tribute on behalf of the CIÉ board said she was noted for her focus on the interests of the customer and “championed investment in stronger bus and rail services, with a particular focus on regional connectivity”.

It also noted that she was very popular among customer-facing staff in the transport operating companies, “known by name by countless bus and rail colleagues, and keen to understand their perspective on the opportunities and challenges in delivering public transport”.

The death of her husband in 1986 led to her relocation to Waterford to be closer to her grandchildren. Inevitably, she got involved in community projects there and joined the boards of management for local schools. She began to wind down from public work in her mid-1970s but never lost her passion for politics.

She returned to Leinster House last year for an event celebrating the centenary of Seanad Éireann and the role of women in it. “We brought an old lady up in the car with us,” recalled her son, TV. “But as soon as she got in the gates of Leinster House, she just went into Tras mode again. It was amazing, absolutely transformational.”

The ceremony included the unveiling of an artwork depicting female senators over the past 100 years. She is the central figure in the collage of photographs, which now hangs in Leinster House. Tánaiste Micheál Martin said she was a trailblazer for her time, a consummate and natural politician who was in politics “for all the right and noble reasons: to strive to improve the lives of people and their communities”.

Many of the tributes paid to her recalled her style and elegance. Her trademark string of pearls was brought to the altar during her funeral, along with one of her shawls. She supported Irish designers and shared her love of hats with her sister, Carrie, who died in January and was also known for her style when she held forth at the tannoy in her role of continuity announcer at the National Ploughing Championships.

Tras Honan was predeceased by her husband, Derry. She is survived by her son, TV; daughter, Ann; brother, Aidan; sister, Claire (Fogarty); her grandchildren; and great-grandchildren.