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A deep compassion for his fellow citizens: A tribute to my friend Noel Whelan

Larry Donnelly on how the late barrister and author’s ‘abiding faith in people’ shone through his public and personal life.

Noel Whelan at work during the presidential campaign for Mary McAleese in 1997.
Noel Whelan at work during the presidential campaign for Mary McAleese in 1997.
Image: Leon Farrell/

EVERY SO OFTEN, someone comes into your life and has a major impact.  I will forever consider myself lucky that Noel Whelan came into my life, albeit for far too brief a period.  I can’t quite believe he is gone.

In 2012, the proud Wexford man – it was wonderful that he got to see his county win the Leinster hurling final at the end of last month – was in the process of organising the inaugural Kennedy Summer School in the town of New Ross. We met when he extended an invitation to me to speak at it about that year’s US presidential race.

As someone who never missed his invariably insightful column in The Irish Times and considered Noel Whelan the premier Irish political commentator, I eagerly accepted.

Noel learned the craft of politics at home, from his late father, Séamus, a long-serving county councillor. But perhaps more importantly, he gained a deep understanding of and compassion for his fellow citizens.

File Photo Noel Whelan has Died End. Noel Whelan with Elaine Bedford during a Together for Yes press conference last year. Source: Leah Farrell/

As he once wrote: “I grew up in a councillor’s home.  Our house was the first port of call for many who needed help.  Among the typical visitors I recall was a new widow seeking guidance, even before she went to talk to a solicitor.  She needed reassurance that the undertakers would wait to be paid and was given details of how to apply for the funeral grant.”

In short, like so many of us from political families, Noel saw ordinary people with real problems asking for help and he witnessed the difference that elected officials could make in their lives.

His voice demanded silence and attention

A consequent belief in the nobility of politics animated much of his professional life. And what a career it was. Owing to his manifest ability, he assumed a senior position in Fianna Fáíl at a very young age; he wrote prodigiously about campaigns, parties and elections, and his was always the voice on the radio and television in my house and countless others across the country that demanded silence and attention, such was the merit of his contributions.

At the same time, he was a formidable and skilled senior counsel. In particular, many victims of crime and their families have attested to the role he played in obtaining justice for them as a prosecutor.

Although he advised numerous politicians formally and informally, Noel really made his mark as an architect of referendum campaigns in recent years. As a strategist, he was peerless. Noel first worked to thwart the abolition of the Seanad because he saw it as an unwarranted and cynical attack on a legislative body with great (and still unrealised) potential.

Promoter of equality

A couple of years later, he stood up for marriage equality and, upon joining the campaign, recognised immediately that the personal stories of individuals denied the same standing in law as their fellow citizens because of who they loved were collectively the most persuasive argument to be made.

And promoters of equality kept making it. The jubilant scenes at Dublin Castle in May 2015 were punctuated by the image of Noel, a big and usually stoic man, overwhelmed by emotion. Subsequently, he lent his expertise to the Together for Yes group which advocated successfully for the removal of the 8th Amendment from the Constitution.

90399914_90399914 Noel Whelan with Gráinne Healy and Brian Sheehan launching Ireland Says Yes, a book about the campaign for marriage equality, in November 2015. Source: Leah Farrell/

His undefeated efforts in these three referendums were driven by what I think was an abiding faith in Ireland and in the goodness of its people. Books have been, and will continue to be, written about the momentous changes in Irish society that have been endorsed so broadly by the electorate. Noel Whelan’s part in this transformation cannot be overstated.

Generosity of spirit

His work and activism were characterised by an incredible generosity of spirit.  People frequently reached out to Noel because they held him in high esteem and were totally bowled over by his willingness to provide advice, guidance and encouragement.  I am one of them. His support, even in the form of many retweets of my columns in this space, has meant the world to me and is something I treasure.

Noel’s generosity of spirit, and a community spirit specifically, led him to found the Kennedy Summer School. Thanks to his vision, it has become a significant event on the political calendar and draws very high profile, accomplished people to New Ross every year.  I was privileged to speak at it for a number of years and now am honoured to be its co-director.

Noel never stopped pushing – we might have used other words on occasion! – the summer school team to make it bigger and better. He had a grand ambition for the Kennedy Summer School that was inextricably intertwined with an equally grand ambition for his home town. We have gone a long way toward realising it, but I know Noel would say we have a distance to go yet.

File Photo Noel Whelan has Died End. Noel Whelan delivering a political commentary in 2011. Source: Eamonn Farrell/

Life can be terribly cruel

I last saw Noel in hospital on the 1st of July. He was upbeat. We spoke about the myriad intricate details of this year’s summer school. We talked about the future. He told some yarns that he knew I, a permanent student of politics, would enjoy.

We said a happy goodbye and exchanged texts afterward. I never thought it would be the final time I’d see him in this world.  Life can be terribly cruel.

My thoughts and prayers are with his family and close friends, especially his beloved wife and son, Sinéad and Séamus, his mother, Myra, and his siblings.

May Noel Whelan rest in peace. He will be missed.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway, a political columnist with and co-director of the Kennedy Summer School.


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