Sunday 17 December 2017

Senator with an eye on the Aras

Belinda Walsh talks to David Norris about his eventful life and colourful rise to the top

FEW PEOPLE IN IRELAND could fail to recognise the mischievous, habitually smiling face of Senator David Norris. The independent politician, witty raconteur and outspoken human rights activist has been appearing on our TV screens, and in our newspapers and magazines for over 300 years. He pops up on programmes like 'Podge and Rodge,' 'Living with Lucy', ' The Panel' and is a regular guest on RTE's Art Show, ' The View'. He also hosts his own radio chat show on Sunday mornings on Newstalk 108FM.

But whether he is on the airwaves or climbing around the rails of Leinster House dressed in a toga with roses in his hair for 'Fair Trade'; Joycing it up with sexy Molly Blooms on Bloomsday; campaigning for the preservation of Georgian buildings or flying the rainbow flag for Gay Pride - this colourful and spirited senator never goes unnoticed.

He is also held in high regard in many quarters for his forward thinking and honesty and appears to be thought of affectionately by many Irish people. DAVID PATRICK BERNARD NORRIS was born in 1944 in the Belgian Congo in Africa but came to live in Ireland as a small child with his mother Aida FitzPatrick, when his father died. Along with his older brother John, the family lived in Ballsbridge and David describes with great affection the many visits they took with their mother to Greystones, over 50 years ago. 'As a child, Greystones to me, had an exotic glamour. There was the excitement of a taxi ride to the station in Dublin and the delight of travelling on the old steam train with its faded pictures of the west of Ireland.

'I also have wonderful memories of the Edwardian delights of the La Touche Hotel with its tennis and croquet lawns and the truly magnificent afternoon teas of manicured sandwiches and delicate little cakes filled with just the right amount of jam and cream.'

The young family were also regular visitors to Bray where David's great, grand-aunt Miss Stoker, a cousin of Dracula creator Bram, was the manageress of the International Hotel there. 'My memories of Bray will always be associated with the deliciously naughty pleasures of candy floss and dodgems and our visits to the International Hotel. It was a fine establishment with a significant reputation and it was most unusual for a woman in those days to have such a senior position but then the Stokers were always very good housekeepers.'

David also had two cousins Lorna and Reginald Sharpe who lived at the back of Bray Head on a large estate. His cousin Rex, as he was known, did engineering at Trinity and designed and built his own racing cars and was, for a time, chief fire officer for Co. Wicklow.

The Sharps were breeders of Airedale terrier dogs and the story goes, that when a threelegged stray Airedale wandered into their estate, Rex was so moved by the homeless dog that as a direct result of this, the 'Sharpeshill Animal Sanctuary' was built in 1990 near Rathdrum. David explains, 'My cousins had plenty of money and could afford staff and gardeners. They had a magnificent home with spectacular views over Kilruddery and out towards the Dublin and Wicklow Mountains and when Rex died, it transpired that he left every single penny of his considerable fortune to the Wicklow Branch of the RSPCA"

As a boy, David Norris went to St. Andrews College, then attended The High School and later Trinity College Dublin, where he studied English Literature and Language. He remained at TCD as a senior Lecturer in the English Department from 1968 to 1996 where his developing interest in human rights and the injustice towards gay people later drew him into politics. ' I'm a natural picture straighter. I like harmony, balance and proportion. Injustice offends my sense of balance. That's what I felt about the gay issue. Men went to jail in Ireland in those days. I wasn't at all political until then but I found that I had organisational skills and once you get involved quite selfishly to address the wrongs that you've experienced, you start to see the wrongs towards other groups. Like the travellers and the disabled and of course women who are the most peculiar minority in the country because they are mathematically the majority.' DAVID NORRIS WAS first elected to the Senate in 1977 and has been re-elected at each election since and represents the University of Dublin constituency as an independent. He spent years fighting his case for the decimalisation of homosexuality in Ireland, taking it to the European Court of Human Rights and succeeded in 1993 when this Irish law was repealed. ' The first time I ran for the Senate I was sure I would top the poll,' he laughs. 'But it took me six elections over 10 years to get it. But when I did I became the first openly gay person to be elected to public office not only in Ireland but in the entire world. At that point no-one had been elected and I mean not a single person anywhere.'

David returned to Greystones in 1972 when he bought a house in Burnaby Estate on Whitshed Road and lived there for six years with his partner of 35 years Ezra.

' We had a nice, reasonable sized house, really a glorified bungalow. I' ll always remember Mrs. Moran's fish shop where she dispensed not only freshly caught fruits of the sea like plaice and scallops and if you were lucky lobster and prawns but also very useful cooking tips. It was a charming place to live with lovely people. I became a good friend of both Ronnie and Deirdre Drew with whom I had performed in the theatre.'

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