Miriam Lord’s Week: Hallucinatory scenes give way to realpolitik in the Dáil

Drug talk and a pirate appearance soon overtaken by Soc Dems co-leaders’ exit announcement

There was a sedate start to Ash Wednesday in Leinster House with the Rev John Harris OP celebrating Mass in the private diningroom for Oireachtas members and staff.

“It’s goodbye to the sweet stuff for 40 days now,” tweeted Senator Ronán Mullen, threatening an exceptionally vicious edge to his Seanad contributions for the next six weeks or so.

Either that or he is counting down the hours until he can attack one of those creme eggs in handknitted egg-cosies that he sells for charity every Easter.

Things went downhill from there.


The media could talk about nothing but drugs after Sinn Féin’s Dessie Ellis told the Dáil the night before that cocaine use was rife in all areas of Irish society. “It’s even in Dáil Éireann.”

Then the excitement brought on by the prospect of asking random politicians “did you ever do drugs?” was overtaken at lunchtime by news of a double resignation at the top of the Social Democrats.

(That drugs wheeze ran out of steam by Thursday morning when journalists were reduced to asking Minister for Social Protection Heather Humphreys, who used to play the organ in her local Presbyterian church in Monaghan, if she wanted to fess up to any other pipe-related activities.)

The unexpected resignations of Soc Dems co-leaders Róisín Shortall and Catherine Murphy would have been the highlight of Hash Wednesday had it not been for the unexpected arrival of a fully costumed pirate in Leinster House after the dust settled on the twin departures.

With multiple votes taking place and a lot of visitors about the place, it was busy around the corridors and in the bar.

Neasa Hourigan, the Green TD for Dublin Central, hosted a constituency branch meeting on the premises, and members went on a guided tour of Leinster House afterwards. As the 20-strong group walked quietly around the old building, passersby stopped in their tracks and did a double-take when they copped a man dressed in a full pirate rig-out in the middle of them.

We hear an open-mouthed Michael McDowell almost walked into a wall.

The mysterious buccaneer weighed anchor in the Dáil bar, along with the rest of Hourigan’s guests.

The joint was already hopping as most of the Social Democrats – a large cast and crew – had decamped to the bar soon after the late afternoon announcement. It was an emotional and tiring occasion for them, with some a little more tired and emotional than others as the night wore on.

They were ensconced in an area inside the main door, while at the far end former Labour Party leaders Brendan Howlin and Alan Kelly were deep in conversation, triggered and retraumatised by Catherine and Róisín’s resignations.

Further up again was Hourigan and Green Party MEP Ciaran Cuffe. The latter had a long conversation with the pirate, who goes by the name of Sting Hammersley Hamish and lives in Dublin 7. He was able to tell him about his MEP colleagues from the Czech Republic who are members of the Pirate Party and part of the wider Greens/European Free Alliance grouping in the European Parliament.

Honest to God, you’d never believe Pat Kenny is 75. 75? There’s Bertie - 71. I’m saying nuttin.

—  A backbench TD

With his leather slouch boots, breeches, swashbuckling pattered shirt and dashing feathered hat, the pirate was the centre of attention. He spent a long time talking to Sinn Féin’s David Cullinane.

“He’s a unique chap and a really, really nice guy,” said Neasa Hourigan. “He is a free thinker.”

The pirate Sting, that is, not David Cullinane.

There was no parrot, not even a stuffed one.

Speaking of parrots, the parliamentary party meetings were still ongoing when the Dublin 7 Green Party pirate made his entrance into the Visitor’s Bar.

Fianna Fáil’s meeting was very poorly attended. We met one backbench TD on his way back into Leinster House. “Sure there was hardly anyone at the parliamentary party meeting. We were all over beyond in the Shelbourne Hotel at the launch of Bertie Ahern’s podcast thingy with Newstalk.”

This is true.

“Honest to God, you’d never believe Pat Kenny is 75. 75? There’s Bertie – 71. I’m saying nuttin’.”

The TD didn’t race off to catch the tail-end of the meeting. Instead, he rushed towards the bar because somebody texted him to come in.

“Did you hear anything about a pirate? He says the Greens have a fella in there dressed as a pirate!”

A rake of Fine Gaelers also called down for a look after their parliamentary party meeting dragged on forever. They were very pleased with the cost-of-living package unveiled during the week and they were also very pleased with media performances by Paschal Donohoe and Jennifer Carroll MacNeill in the aftermath.

Kilkenny TD John Paul Phelan, to noisy agreement, praised Donohoe for seeing off Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty during a combative Prime Time confrontation while his observation that Carroll MacNeill did such a good job against Shortall on Drivetime “that she quit today” was equally well received.

Charlie Haughey’s polished grapes

Another milestone for women in Leinster House on Friday with the news that catering powerhouse Julie Lyons has been appointed head chef, the first woman to hold the position in Oireachtas history.

Lyons has been a fixture in Kildare Street for more than 30 years and is now cooking for her eighth Taoiseach. She began working in the newly renovated Government Buildings in 1990 when then taoiseach Charlie Haughey was expanding its capacity for entertaining and fine dining.

She catered for events in his Abbeville mansion in north Co Dublin. “He used to give us £50 as a tip, which was a lot in those days, and he’d always come in to personally to hand it to us.”

She also provided meals for him when he was travelling to Inishvickillane, his private island off the coast of Kerry. However, Lyons had to prepare the food on the mainland as she was not allowed on to the island. Instead, a male chef was flown across by helicopter.

She came out with a startling revelation in a radio interview a number of years ago when Ryan Tubridy asked her about her time working for Haughey.

“He liked his grapes polished.”

It seems he was very fussy. “We would have polished the grapes anyway, but Charlie was very particular and he would actually come in to check that they were shiny.”

Over the years, Lyons has been central to all the big – and not so big – events in Leinster House, devising menus and creating dishes behind the scenes while continuing as an engaging front-of-house presence for all. She has a page to herself on the Oireachtas website.

Before getting the job of head chef in Leinster House, she was kitchen manager.

“This is one for the girls. We’re all so delighted and proud of Julie. Even through the worst of Covid, she kept the catering operation going,” said Donna Finglas, a long-time member of the restaurant team.

The Ceann Comhairle was thrilled.

“Julie has been a friend and a member of staff for many, many years and she has been superb and outstanding at her job. She’s always been an innovator and she’s done things that others wouldn’t have tried ... including polishing Mr Haughey’s grapes!

“It’s a role she should have occupied long before now because her abilities are known to all of us, not least her ability to work with other people and bring out the best in them. It’s great to see a woman in that job at long last.”

Finian has the itch

Soft old lefties that they are, former ministers in the last government Finian McGrath and John Halligan just can’t leave politics behind.

Halligan and McGrath were in Leinster House again this week, this time following a visit to the Cuban embassy where they met ambassador Bernardo Guanche Hernández. “The last gig I did as a minister was when I represented Ireland in Havana for St Patrick’s Day,” McGrath tells us.

“We are trying to lobby the Irish Government to develop relationships with Cuba because they are being hammered at the moment by the US blockade. We also discussed agriculture and education and health and disabilities because they have some excellent ideas on social care.”

It seems the pair didn’t leave the embassy empty-handed, as his excellency presented them with some very fine Cuban cigars. McGrath was none too pleased when Halligan held on to his stash, despite being a non-smoker.

Meanwhile, Fine Gael TD for Mayo Michael Ring ran into McGrath in Leinster House car park.

“I’ll tell ya one thing,” the Ringer told us afterwards. “I think he has something in his head. I have that feeling. It’s either going to be the Dáil or Europe for Finian. I can see the itch in him again!”

Election speculation

Speaking of running for election, Leinster House is gearing up for the next big one.

We hear there is a lot of talk in government circles about cutting and running to the country sooner rather than later. A rapidly approaching general election was being posited as one of the reasons that Shortall and Murphy announced their resignations as co-leaders of the Social Democrats.

“Why would we wait until after next year’s local elections when we know Sinn Féin will massively improve on their performance the last time, when the party had a nightmare. The same goes for the European elections,” said one experienced TD as the Soc Dems spoke about getting a new leader in place as soon as possible.

“Deliver a good budget at the end of this year and where’s the incentive to hang on until the benefits are forgotten? We’ll be on the trail again much sooner than you think.”

Early next year, perhaps when the weather heats up a little, is the most favoured prediction.

A striking comparison

Labour’s Ged Nash took to the plinth on Tuesday morning with colleagues Ivana Bacik and Annie Hoey to give the Labour Party’s verdict on the Government’s cost-of-living supports.

They were “as well targeted as a Darwin Nunez shot from outside the box”, declared the Drogheda-based TD for Louth.

Liverpool striker Nunez has been criticised for some erratic shooting and inconsistent performances but he was in form on Tuesday night, sliding a slick backheel into the net during The Reds Champions League first-leg tie against Real Madrid.

Clearly, Nash’s comments instilled some steel in the Uruguayan’s soul. Nunez delivered his scorching Klopp around the ear to the Labour man just four minutes into the game.

But Liverpool lost the game 5-2, so maybe Nash can still argue that the Government has lost the match.