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a full and frank exchange

Rough and tumble: Here are 7 times Irish politics got physical

Let’s have it then, Deputy…

WE OFTEN HEAR about the “cut and thrust” of Irish politics these days.

Tough talk across the floor of the Dáil, politicians slagging each other over the airwaves, and the odd confrontation in the streets between the voters and the voted-in.

But what about when things go way beyond that? Like one councillor’s “frenzied” attack on a high-profile former minister, or when a subtle dig about a TD’s sex life led to a not very subtle dig, in the restaurant of the Dáil. invites you to step outside for a moment, and look back through 7 occasions when Irish politics got physical.

I’ll blow your f***in’ head off!’

coughlan Limerick East TD Stevie Coughlan, in 1970 WillowNiamh / RTE/YouTube WillowNiamh / RTE/YouTube / RTE/YouTube

We start with perhaps the fiercest, most bitter local, fraternal political rivalry of them all: Lipper and Coughlan.

The 1970s was an interesting time for Limerick politics, featuring as it did a host of controversial, larger than life characters like Jim Kemmy, Des O’Malley, and of course, Stevie Coughlan.

As a Clann na Poblachta member, Coughlan was mayor of Limerick during the 1950s, and ran twice for the Limerick East Dáil seat in 1954 and 1957.

After switching to the Labour party, he was finally elected in 1961, but became a divisive and troublesome figure within the party for his parish pump politics, fervent, conservative Catholicism and occasional anti-semitism.

In 1973, he nominated party colleague, and former CIE train driver and League of Ireland footballer Mick Lipper, as mayor of Limerick.

Within a few years, however, the mentor and protégé were sworn enemies, culminating in the 1977 general election, when Lipper, as an independent Labour candidate, took Coughlan’s seat, and effectively ended the older man’s political career.

Their friendship never recovered, and on March 12 1981, things got nasty.

lipperfamily Michael Lipper (C) with his wife Peggy and daughter Sandra, in 1973 Limerick Leader, courtesy of Limerick City Library. Limerick Leader, courtesy of Limerick City Library.

Both Coughlan and Lipper happened to be at the Mid-Western Health Board offices in Limerick that day, helping friends apply for a medical card, the Irish Times reported.

The District Court in Limerick heard that the two men clashed in the hallway on their way out, and Deputy Lipper shouted: “I’ll blow your f***in’ head off if I can prove what you’re saying about me.”

According to 70-year-old Coughlan, the 49-year-old then clenched his fist, gritted his teeth, and punched him in the chest three times.

Lipper denied this, sweetly telling Coughlan’s solicitor: “I have these hands for blessing myself and eating my food, and I pray for Mr Coughlan each day.”

In the end, Justice Kelleher dismissed Coughlan’s case, saying “it was the business of politicians, occasionally, to get involved in over-robust language.”

Bloody Mary

harneypaint Niall Carson / PA Niall Carson / PA / PA

Tánaiste Joan Burton infamously had eggs pelted at her during last November’s Jobstown protests, and throwing objects at politicians has been something of a favourite tactic of protesters in recent years.

In 2012, they threw eggs at a car transporting Eamon Gilmore and Frances Fitzgerald, and in November 2010, Éirigí councillor Louise Minihan sprayed red paint from a bottle on to then Health Minister Mary Harney in Cherry Orchard, in a protest over health cuts.

After refusing to pay a court-ordered fine, Minihan spent a week in Mountjoy.

‘Using gratuitous violence is not leadership’

FIANNA FAIL TD SEAN DOHERTY Former Fianna Fáil Justice Minister Seán Doherty Photocall Ireland Photocall Ireland

Local political rivalries can be notoriously vicious, but they are rarely violent.

That changed in Roscommon in 1998, when an informal gathering of the Tarmonbarry Development Association sent one county councillor over the edge.

On 23 January that year, there was a covert meeting over sandwiches and tea at the home of local shopkeeper Fergal McGuinness, the Irish Independent reported at the time.

In attendance were McGuinness, former Justice Minister and then Fianna Fáil TD Seán Doherty, and Fianna Fáil Seanad Chairman Brian Mullooly.

Local publican and Fianna Fáil County Councillor Tom Crosby, who had, the court heard, been frustrated for years in his political ambitions, heard about the secret meeting from his wife, and enlisted the help of one his barmen in hunting down the location.

tomcrosby Tom Crosby, who lost his seat on Roscommon County Council in 2014. Mike Croghan Mike Croghan

When he saw a car with a chauffeur sitting outside McGuinness’s home, he allegedly barged in the door and flew into a rage, calling Mullooly a “bastard” and a “fucker.”

As Doherty, the controversial one-time Haughey ally, attempted to leave, the spurned councillor “lunged at him,” elbowing him in the back and punching him in the back of the head.

Doherty himself told the District Court: “It was very frenzied, he was very violent. It was impossible to understand what he was saying.”

Judge William Earley gave Crosby a suspended two-week sentence for what he called an “outrageous assault”, and fined him £500, adding: “Mr Crosby, if he wants to be a leader, has to show leadership. Using gratuitous violence is not leadership.”

A punch in the mouth in the Dáil restaurant

Fine Gael TD Oliver Flanagan Fine Gael TD Oliver Flanagan, attacked by another deputy in the Dáil restaurant in 1952. Eamonn Farrell / Photocall Ireland Eamonn Farrell / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

During the Order of Business one day in January 1952, Fine Gael TD Oliver Flanagan (the father of current Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie) made a stray remark that wasn’t even noticed at the time by Leas Ceann Comhairle Cormac Breslin.


It might seem like nothing, but Flanagan was making a subtle reference to rumours circulating at the time about the alleged romantic dalliances of Independent/Fianna Fáil deputy Jack Flynn.

The Kerry South TD wasn’t in the chamber at the time, but got wind of the comments, and set about restoring his honour later that evening.

Here’s what happened, according to John A Costello, then leader of the opposition:

Deputy O. Flanagan was in the restaurant talking to another Deputy, Deputy Dillon, when a member of the Fianna Fáil Party, Deputy Flynn, came behind him, caught hold of him, turned him round, used a very offensive and obnoxious expression and struck him violently in the mouth, alleging that he had during the debate spoken about him, Deputy Flynn.
He also assaulted an usher, one of the servants of the House, and was guilty of extremely offensive conduct. He also made offensive references to another Deputy, Deputy Collins.

In the end, the two men were hauled before the Committee on Procedures and Privileges, and both found to be in contempt of the House.

(H/T Politics in Kerry)

‘Come outside and object to me now’

Tigh Laighean 06 Neal1960 Neal1960

It’s April 1947, and an impassioned debate about the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, has escalated into a full-blown row, with Taoiseach Eamon deValera fending off attacks from Fine Gael TDs led by James Dillon and Richard Mulcahy.

Fianna Fáil’s Louth deputy Michael Joseph “Joe” Kennedy steps in to defend the Chief Justice against remarks by his constituency rival, Fine Gael TD James “Juker” Coburn, and all hell breaks loose.

Coburn: …You cannot tell us anything about respect for the law. I respected the law when he and the Taoiseach were destroying this country and violating the law.
Leas Ceann Comhairle (Eamon O’Neill FG): The Deputy might leave that out.
Coburn: We will not, when these taunts are thrown across the floor. I will meet them here or outside, rough or ready, and rough and tumble, too— anyway they like it. If the Chief Justice makes little of himself, we have the right to criticise him here, and I say that the Chief Justice has been made a tool of, consciously or unconsciously.
Kennedy: The Deputy should not be allowed to get away with that remark.
Coburn: If you object to me, you can come outside and do so. I will oblige you now. Come outside and object to me now—come on.
Kennedy: I am ready to go outside.

The pair aren’t heard from again in the debate because, well, they really did take it outside, as described by the Ceann Comhairle Frank Fahy:


‘Get off that man or I’ll kill every one of you’

jimgibbons Jim Gibbons TD (L) and being attacked by Haughey supporters in Leinster House, 1982. RTÉ / Youtube RTÉ / Youtube / Youtube

The war between Fianna Fáil factions during the leadership of Charles Haughey is the stuff of legends, and much of it featured in the recent RTÉ drama series ‘Charlie.’

Perhaps the most spectacular episode of violence among Irish politicians, however, came late on the night of 6 October 1982, after a long, intense meeting of Fianna Fáil TDs, in which Haughey retained control of the party, in the face of an internal heave.

Des O’Malley described the incident in his 2014 memoir ‘Conduct Unbecoming‘:

There was a menacing mood after the result was confirmed…Many Haughey supporters had spent the day drinking in the Dáil bar…[Jim Gibbons] was hit and knocked to the ground by a group who surrounded him inside Leinster House. The situation was nasty.
Some of this mob followed Gibbons out of the building, and as he was getting into his car – still within the environs of Leinster House – they attacked him again.
Having knocked him to the ground they proceeded to kick him in the chest and stomach. A friend of Gibbons eventually frightened them away. A few days later Gibbons suffered a heart attack. He was never in good health afterwards.

Martin O’Donoghue, another anti-Haughey member of the Fianna Fáil ‘Club of 22′, later claimed that Gibbons was saved by a friend wielding no less than a sword, who threatened the pro-Haughey group, warning: “Get off that man or I’ll kill every one of you.”

‘Defamatory insinuations on my national record’

moylan Fianna Fáil Minister and ex-IRA Commandant Seán Moylan. Aubane Historical Society Aubane Historical Society

There was something in the water at Leinster House in 1952, apparently, with further bouts of fisticuffs coming just a few months after Coburn and Kennedy “obliged” each other outside the Dáil chamber.

In July, during a debate about agriculture estimates of all things, Fine Gael TD Seán Collins ended up throwing a barb at Fianna Fáil deputy Mark Killilea, implying he had shirked his military duties in the past (“You shot your toe off on the eve of a pension.”)

As the Oireachtas record notes, “At this stage, Deputy Killilea crossed the floor of the house.”

A scuffle appears to have ensued, with Killilea being forced to leave the chamber. But that was far from the end of the issue.

The following evening, his party colleague and Minister for Education Seán Moylan took it upon himself to exact retribution on his behalf, assaulting Collins “in the precincts of the House.”

Killilea issued a formal apology for “forgetting [himself]” and explained that he had acted “under extreme provocation by way of defamatory insinuations of my national record.”

Moylan, who had been an IRA Commandant in the War of Independence, offered an interesting insight into the scars that remained under the surface, just a few decades after the foundation of the State.

Many years ago I left behind me the desire and the capacity for violence. I have never indulged in violence without due and urgent cause.
My action last evening was prompted by the deep resentment I felt at a reflection cast upon the character of a comrade who had been associated with me and was wounded in the struggle for our nation’s independence.

There were apologies all round, and Collins and Moylan agreed to “resume the friendship we once had.”

For a while, anyway.

Read: 6 of the dirtiest insults thrown across the floors of the Dáil and Seanad>

Did Des O’Malley really stop a row by wielding Saddam’s sword around the Dáil?>

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