Dáil debates

Wednesday, 26 January 2005

Death of Former Member: Expressions of Sympathy.


5:00 pm

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Dublin South West, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Eileen Desmond was first elected to this House in 1965 and for the next 22 years, as Deputy, Senator, Minister and Member of the European Parliament, she served the people of Cork, Munster and Ireland with honour and distinction. For many people, she will always be remembered as one of the most outstanding women Members ever produced by these Houses. For many more, she was simply outstanding, to be counted among the most genuine, decent and able legislators and representatives of her time.

Eileen's career was all the more remarkable considering its circumstances. She was a young woman with two small children when she was widowed after ten short years of marriage in 1965. The death of her husband Dan, who had himself been a Labour Deputy and deputy leader of the party, was a terrible blow to her. Those who knew her throughout the years that followed testify that she was deservedly most proud of the fact that she raised her two daughters to be her closest friends. Through all the hard and lonely times she served in this House, especially in her early years, she relied heavily on the closeness and love of her daughters, and later her grandchildren.

Eileen was a consummate public representative, closely in touch with the people of her constituency at all times and willing to deal with even the smallest problem on a close personal basis. She lost her seat once, as a result of the re-drawing of her constituency in 1969, but regained it at the first opportunity and was never to be at serious risk again so highly regarded was she by the people of Carrigaline, Kinsale and the southern half of Cork city.

In 1979 she stood in the very first direct elections to the European Parliament and was elected as a representative for Munster. In the 1981 election, however, she chose to represent her native Cork in the general election, and after that election she was appointed Minister for Health and Social Welfare. She is remembered now as the first woman to be appointed to a senior Cabinet position since Countess Markievicz, but many thousands of unemployed people and people living on pensions will remember that her relatively short tenure in that office was marked by the highest increase in social welfare ever awarded. Although the budget of 1982 was voted down, when a Fianna Fáil Government was returned, it retained Eileen's 25% increase in the budget it brought in.

Throughout Eileen's political career, she was known for an honest, direct and yet gentle style. Her friends knew too that throughout a distinguished career she battled with illness. She was recovering from tuberculosis when her husband Dan died and she was never strong. That never, however, interfered with her determination to represent people to the absolute best of her ability. It never manifested itself in anything but good humour.

Eileen Desmond will be remembered and she will be missed. No woman has made a greater contribution to the development of the Labour movement than Eileen, and none a greater contribution to the history of our party. She will be remembered for her qualities of honesty, integrity and compassion, for the fact that she coped with personal adversity with courage and humour and for her achievements in representing people with dedication. On behalf of the Labour Party, I extend my sympathy to Honor and Paula, who have lost a mother and a close friend, and to their children, Eileen's grandchildren.

Photo of Bertie AhernBertie Ahern (Dublin Central, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

On behalf of the Fianna Fáil Party and on my own behalf, I extend my deepest sympathy to Deputy Rabbitte and the Labour Party on the death of Eileen Desmond on 7 January. Eileen was one of the earliest women to be elected to this House as a Labour Deputy. As Deputy Rabbitte said, she was one of the first women since Countess Markievicz to be a member of the Government.

The circumstances of Eileen's election to national politics 40 years ago were dramatic and historic. Her husband, Deputy Dan Desmond, had died suddenly, leaving her to care for their two young daughters, Paula and Honor. She stood in the ensuing by-election for the Labour Party and won the seat. The then Taoiseach, Seán Lemass, who led a minority Government at the time, called a general election before Eileen could take up her seat. When one thinks of the circumstances at that time — the death of Dan, leaving Eileen with two young daughters, and the by-election contest — one can imagine the trauma that ensued when she had to endure a further election campaign. At this remove, one can understand the pressure she must have faced at the time. She did as she did and went on to hold her seat in the ensuing general election.

Eileen Desmond spent some time in the Seanad, serving her party and her country, after she had lost out as a result of a boundary revision. She won a seat in the European Parliament in 1979, before returning to national politics when she was elected to represent the new Cork South-Central constituency. I remember her well as Minister for Health and Minister for Social Welfare in the coalition Government between 1981 and 1982. She was always helpful in the House. She was helpful to me at that stage when I was a fairly young and active Deputy who was trying to get things done. She always showed great courtesy and kindness.

Although 18 years have passed since Eileen Desmond left the House, I remember her well. She was always a gentle and kind person. She was a political activist throughout her adult life. She always had personal concern for those who had least and struggled through life. She helped those on the margins. She enjoyed enormous respect, as well as affection, in the wider labour movement.

I join Deputy Rabbitte and the other Members of the House in extending sympathy to Eileen's two daughters, Paula and Honor. I extend the sympathies of the Fianna Fáil Party to her family. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a hanam dílis.

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Mayo, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Eileen Desmond was a remarkable woman and a remarkable politician. She became the first woman to be appointed to a senior Cabinet position when she was appointed Minister for Health and Minister for Social Welfare in 1981. At the time of her appointment she was just the third woman in the history of the State to serve as a Cabinet Minister. As Deputy Rabbitte pointed out, her marriage to Dan Desmond ensured she was no stranger to the intricacies and general wear and tear of political life. Dan Desmond's untimely death brought Eileen Desmond to the eye of the storm. It catapulted his widow, then a mother of two young children, to the heart of national politics.

The political manoeuvrings of the minority Fianna Fáil Government of the time which led to the calling of a general election were no match for the mood or will of the people of Cork. Eileen Desmond topped the poll at the subsequent 1965 election and was appointed as the Labour Party's spokesperson on education. Undaunted by the loss of her seat in 1969, she went on to take a seat in the Seanad. Her family rallied around her at the time — her mother moved in with Eileen's young family in Carrigaline and helped to run the shop there which was not easy. When Eileen Desmond was re-elected to the Dáil in 1973, she supported the late Frank Cluskey who made her the Labour Party's spokesperson on justice. She came into her own after the 1981 general election when she was awarded the critical portfolio of health and social welfare. She announced the establishment of a national agency to tackle poverty and battled for an historically high increase of 25% in social welfare payments.

Members are aware that Eileen Desmond's poor health was very evident throughout her career in politics. She never gave up, however — her tenacity ensured she arrived in this House by stretcher for an important vote. Her personal conviction and courage shone through in spite of her poor health. The people of Cork were honoured to be represented in the Dáil by such a passionate and decent person. Eileen Desmond's daughter Paula has done well in local politics. I am sure her mother was proud when she was elected as mayor of County Cork. I am sure she was just as proud of her other daughter, Honor, who has pursued a successful career in law.

Eileen Desmond made a successful and individual mark on this House and Irish politics. I wish her peace. Her daughters and their children can be proud of a woman who was before her time in many ways. Above all, she was an extraordinary mother and grandmother.

I recall sitting on these benches in 1979 during a debate on a Fine Gael Private Members' motion which related to a nursing dispute taking place at the time. Eileen Desmond, who was sitting where Deputy Rabbitte is sitting now, made an outstanding contribution to the debate. Her speech provided balance to the strident invective of two very energetic speakers from north Dublin — the late John Boland who, as Fine Gael's spokesman on health, was sitting where I am sitting now and the then Minister for Health, Charles J. Haughey. Those who were present on that evening, including the current Taoiseach, who had longer and darker hair at that time, will recall the entrance of that charismatic figure, Dr. Hugh Byrne. The contribution he made from this side of the House on that night resulted in his expulsion from the party the following day. Eileen Desmond who was an outstanding speaker demonstrated feeling and passion when she discussed a subject that she knew so well.

On behalf of the Fine Gael Party and on my own behalf, I extend sympathy to Deputy Rabbitte and the Labour Party. I also extend sympathy to Eileen Desmond's daughters, Honor and Paula, their children and the rest of the Desmond family on the passing of Eileen who was an outstanding Irishwoman in her own right.

Photo of Mary HarneyMary Harney (Dublin Mid West, Progressive Democrats)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I would like to be associated with the words of sympathy extended to the family of the late Eileen Desmond who served as Minister for Health during my early days in this House. Although I knew her, I did not know her very well. Not only did she have fine qualities as a politician and a Minister but she was also a lovely person who was easy to befriend.

I remember the night mentioned by Deputy Kenny. As a Member of the Seanad at the time, I followed the debate from the gallery. It was clear on that occasion, when Eileen Desmond engendered such a notable reaction from many men in the House, that she was quite a formidable woman. That is further borne out when one considers that her success in a by-election in 1965 led to a general election later that year.

When one reflects on this country as it was 40 years ago, one can imagine how difficult it must have been for a woman and a mother to be a Member of this House. It must have been particularly tough for somebody who was a widow and represented a constituency as far away as Cork. It must have been incredibly difficult for her.

It is always a nice tribute to somebody to say that their daughters were their best friends. The experiences one has growing up mean that it can be hard to be one's parents' best friend. It is rare for a mother to have such a close relationship with her two daughters. That Eileen Desmond enjoyed such a friendship with her daughters speaks volumes for the kind of person she was. I extend my sympathies to her daughters, Paula and Honor, and the Labour Party.

Eileen Desmond who was first elected to this House in 1965 was a great role model for women in politics at a time when there were not many women in Leinster House. There were not many women in Leinster House from 1977 until the early 1980s when I served in the Seanad. Eileen became a Senator when she lost her seat in the Dáil, rather than giving up, and subsequently served in the European Parliament. She was the first female Minister for Health — I hope I will not be the last. I hope I can share many of the fine things Eileen Desmond brought to that portfolio such as a sense of justice and fairness. As she was Minister for Health and Minister for Social Welfare at the same time, she was in charge of two extraordinarily big Departments which must have been incredibly difficult. May she rest in peace.

Photo of Trevor SargentTrevor Sargent (Dublin North, Green Party)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Ar son an Comhaontas Glas, ba mhaith liom comhbhrón a ghuí ar mhuintir Eileen Desmond. I was saddened to hear of the death of Eileen Desmond. Our sympathies go to her daughters, Honor and Paula, and the rest of her family. I sympathise with Deputy Rabbitte and the Labour Party for having lost such an excellent colleague.

I do not doubt that Eileen Desmond's reputation preceded her. While I did not know her personally, her name was legendary. Her achievements as a proud representative of Cork and the Labour Party will live on long after her. Her unique role in Irish life as Minister for Health and Minister for Social Welfare at the same time has been mentioned. I hope she will be a role model for many other women who would like to enter the political domain.

That Eileen Desmond was formidable and had no problem taking on people whom I knew very well, such as John Boland and Charles Haughey, both residents of Dublin North, speaks volumes about her stature as a politician. She was able to stride proudly and achieve much in a male-dominated arena. I extend our deepest sympathy to her family on their sad loss, in the knowledge that her reputation and record will live on. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a hanam uasal.

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I join in the tributes to the late Eileen Desmond and extend the sympathy of the Sinn Féin Deputies to her family and her Labour Party colleagues. As has already been acknowledged by a number of speakers, she played a pioneering role as a woman in high political office. I am aware of the high regard in which she was held in her constituency and in the rest of County Cork. This, of course, was in recognition of the contribution she made in her local community and throughout County Cork and, it is important to acknowledge, to the advancement of the rights of women in Ireland. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a hanam.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

As one who comes from and who has for some time represented the constituency that Eileen Desmond represented, I want to be associated with the comments that have been made. I know her daughter Paula very well as I spent four years working with her on Cork County Council. I also know her daughter Honor, although not so well. I did not know Eileen Desmond particularly well but I am certainly well aware of the high regard with which she is held, particularly in Carrigaline, which is at the heart of Cork South-Central. Her name is known by all regardless of whether they are new to the area. Her name will continue to be associated with politics and achievement in her area and with intelligence, kindness and strength, which were her three strong attributes.

On the basis of what people have said about Eileen Desmond since her passing away, I know her name will remain dominant in Cork South-Central. On behalf of the people of Cork South-Central, I want to be associated with the expressions of sympathy to her family and to the Labour Party, which has also suffered a great loss.

Photo of Kathleen LynchKathleen Lynch (Cork North Central, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

As someone who was starting her political career as Eileen Desmond was coming to the end of hers, I note that she was not just inspirational but she encouraged young women to get involved in politics. As the Tánaiste stated, it must have been extremely difficult for her to be involved in political life 40 years ago. God knows it is difficult enough for women with young children to become involved in politics today, and it must have been nearly impossible 40 years ago.

When we used to go canvassing in the early days, Dan Desmond was a name that arose continuously at the doors. We used to hear the name Eileen Desmond in the same breath. Both were virtually legends in Cork South-Central. Young politicians still hear Eileen's name at people's doors. This does not come easily in that people do not continue to remember those who have long since removed themselves from the public arena unless it is justified. It says much about Eileen Desmond that she was involved in public life at a time when it was difficult to be so involved.

In my time in the House — God knows it has been brief but I have watched the proceedings herein with some considerable interest — this is the first time that I have heard a tribute to a female Member. That demonstrates how little we do in the Oireachtas to encourage women to enter politics. Eileen Desmond should be a role model not only for women but also for men. May she rest in peace.

Photo of Dan BoyleDan Boyle (Cork South Central, Green Party)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for giving me the opportunity to join in the votes of condolence. As a Member representing Cork South-Central, I, too, would like to be associated with the many words that have been said in honour of Eileen Desmond. On my first opportunity to vote as a citizen, which was in the election of June 1981, and before the foundation of the Green Party, I voted for her. She was a candidate in what was then the new constituency of Cork South-Central. It should also be noted that not only did she have personal difficulties as a widow bringing up a young family but she also had to cope with the fact that the constituency she represented, Mid-Cork, was quite a sprawling constituency when she was first elected. It stretched all the way from Rockchapel on the Kerry border to Crosshaven at the mouth of Cork Harbour. Although her health was not always as good as it could have been, even after her retirement from active public life she was regarded as a solid rock of support for the Labour Party and particularly for her daughter Paula, who remains very actively involved in Cork politics and who had the honour of being the first woman elected as chair of Cork County Council. Given the role Eileen Desmond played as a Deputy and Minister and her consistent support of politics at local and national levels, this House and all involved in politics and public life owe her a great debt. May she rest in peace.

Joe Sherlock (Cork East, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I join with the other speakers in expressing my sympathy to the family of the late Eileen Desmond. When I was elected to the House in 1981, she was Minister for Health and Social Welfare. The constituency of Mid-Cork was referred to. It was so known before it became the Cork North-West constituency. Although Eileen Desmond had been out of politics for some years, to this day she is held in high regard because of the work she did for the people in the Cork North-West constituency. I join the other Members in expressing sympathy to Eileen Desmond's daughters, Paula and Honor. Ar dheis láimh Dé go raibh a hanam dílis.

Dan Wallace (Cork North Central, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I, too, would like to be associated with the vote of sympathy to both the Desmond family and the Labour Party. I did not work with Eileen Desmond but I know that her contribution at local level, as a member of Cork County Council, and as a Member of Dáil Éireann, a Minister and MEP epitomised all that public life should be about. As was mentioned, her daughter Paula is continuing that great tradition. On behalf of the local authority members in Cork city and county, I wish to be associated with the vote of sympathy.

Members rose.