Edward MacLysaght and the Senate of the Irish Free State

Senate met for first time on December 11th, 1922

On December 11th, 1922, the Senate of the Irish Free State met for the first time. It had 60 members composed, as required by the Free State constitution, “of citizens proposed on the grounds that they have done honour to the Nation by reason of useful public service or that they represent important aspects of the Nation’s life.”

Thirty were nominated by the Government, including Irishmen of distinction such as the poet William Butler Yeats, as well as leading figures from the pre-independence elite. Many of these were former unionists, some titled, indicating the government’s desire that this group would have a role in the new Ireland.

Thirty were elected by the members of the Dáil, who had themselves been elected by universal suffrage in June 1921. Among these senators was Edward MacLysaght, who had just attained the minimum age of 35.

Born near Bristol, the headquarters of a worldwide steel business of which his father Sidney Royse Lysaght was a principal, Ned, as he was known, came to Ireland in his early twenties, having been educated at Rugby and Oxford University, where he lasted only two terms. He was then installed to work a 600 acre estate called Raheen his father had bought near Tuamgraney in Clare.


Putting his unhappy early life in England behind him, Ned wanted to be a true Irishman. He joined the Gaelic League. Within a few years he was fluent in Irish, keeping a diary in that language. Having entered himself as having no religion in the 1911 census, he had himself baptised a Catholic shortly afterwards.

Through membership of the Arts Club in Dublin he made friends among the nationally minded intelligentsia. Some thought his acquired Irishness overdone. “Ned Lysaght”, a caustic acquaintance remarked, “is a butterfly who wishes to become a caterpillar.”

He was radicalised by the 1916 rebellion – “my head was against it but my heart is for it” he noted. He canvassed for de Valera, who was elected for Sinn Féin at the East Clare byelection of May 1917. It was as a person who would voice the Sinn Féin viewpoint that he was nominated that year to the unsuccessful Irish Convention.

Some employees at Raheen fought in the subsequent War of Independence. The place was raided frequently by Crown forces. Ned himself was arrested and threatened after he complained to some political eminences in London about the killing in Dublin Castle on Bloody Sunday 1920 of his closest friend Conor Clune, an accounts clerk in Raheen and a Gaelic Leaguer but never an IRA man.

Ned backed the Anglo-Irish Treaty saying “what is good enough for Mick Collins is good enough for me”. He founded and edited a monthly called An Sguab. That consolidated his nationalist credentials standing for the Senate.

In 1920 he had added Mac to his name to emphasise its Gaelic origin. It was as such that he took his seat in the Senate. Yeats greeted him as a fellow-poet on the strength of a book of light verse he had published. The two men co-operated advocating government aid to historical scholarship.

Ned made it his mission to promote Irish by speaking it in the Senate, notwithstanding that he was understood only by a handful of members. With civil war raging, he was one of a small minority to dissent on draconian legislation aimed at republicans. He urged the release of prisoners after the ceasefire. His own proposal to make holy days public holidays fell flat. He failed to be re-elected in the national poll held to fill Senate vacancies in 1925.

The rest of his life was devoted largely to scholarship. He wrote several novels in Irish. His entertaining book Irish Life in the Seventeenth Century was a pioneering work. In 1944 he was appointed Chief Herald. This led to several books on Irish surnames. Finally he became chairman of the Manuscripts Commission.

He was still in harness into his nineties attending the National Library and also producing memoirs, in which he praised the work on legislation done by the first Senate, of which he was then the sole survivor. The book was as charming as he was himself. He died in 1986, aged 98.

Claiming until his dying day that he had been born at sea, rather than admit birth in England, his life has been well described as a triumph of personal transplantation.

He was twice married. Among living descendants in Ireland are grandchildren Damaris Lysaght, the landscape artist, and Aoife MacLysaght, professor of genetics in Trinity College.