Twenty five years ago this week Clare made political history by electing South African-born Muslim, Dr Moosajeé Bhamjeé, as a member of Dáil Éireann. He spoke to Joe Ó Muircheartaigh about his remarkable election victory that attracted headlines around the world.
“Dr Bhamjeé, the Banner County’s Ghandi won the hearts of the people of Clare in a magical year.”
The Sunday Independent
THEY started calling his name.
A whisper at first, as the word began to snake its way around the stadium on the bush telegraph; then the roaring and chanting followed. Repeatedly.
Bhamjeé, Bhamjeé, Bhamjeé…..the chant that grew louder as more and more people began to recognise the diminutive and smiling figure that was among them. Bhamjeé, Bhamjeé, Bhamjeé that bounced off the old rusting roof above them and back into the open air outside.
It was Sunday, 29 November, 1992 — the afternoon after all the nights and early mornings before that had seen and then celebrated the success of the 45-year-old Dr Moosajeé Bhamjeé, a South African-born Muslim of Indian heritage, in getting elected to the 27th Dáil.
The afternoon after the nights and early mornings before that had seen the party move from the West County Hotel count centre to the other side of Ennis’ Rhine to Mickey Kerins’ pub in the Lifford area of town and then onto Páirc Tailteann in Navan.
Clare were famously crowned Munster football champions in 1992 and the team’s army of supporters had decamped to Páirc Tailteann for a crucial National League game against the Royal County.
And Dr Bhamjeé, who had played Gaelic Football while working in Cork in the 1980s — all the while insisting that his name be put on team lists as Muiris Mac Bhamjeé to comply with GAA rules — was there.
And in the Royal County, he was royalty.
“It was 2.29pm in Páirc Tailteann,” wrote Marty Morrissey in The Sunday Independent the following week. “Dull, overcast and wet. The Meath and Clare teams had finished their kickabout when a huge roar reverberated around the ground.
“Some of the attendance of 8,000 in the terraces and the embankments didn’t know why the supporters in the stands were clapping and cheering with such passion.
“The clouds lifted and a ray of sunshine from the east had appeared in the most unexpected shape. Armed with a Clare cap and a golf umbrella, the Banner County’s newest star had arrived.
“Dr Moosa Bhamjeé had come to see his favourite team play. His reaction had both style and panache. Arms outstretched in Pope-like fashion, head nodding occasionally, Clare cap tilted sideways, he shouted back with a wonderful Indian-Clare accent: ‘Thank you very much. Up Clare! Up Clare’.”
It was Dr Moosajeé Bhamjeé, TD, but more than that it was Dr Moosajee Bhamjeé the politician who had shattered the mould of Irish politics and made history by being the first Muslim elected to Dáil Éireann who created headlines around the world.
The last time a Clare election was international news was 75 years previously in July 1917 when Eamon de Valera was elected for the first time, while before that again there was Daniel O’Connell’s famous win of 1828 that paved the way for Catholic Emancipation the following year.
Now it was Dr Bhamjeé’s time — a very unlikely trailblazer for Irish politics around the world.
“Labour is now known all over the world after my election,” the new TD told the Labour Party faithful when he addressed a special congress in the National Concert Hall in January 1993 ahead of the decision to enter into coalition government with Fianna Fáil.
Minutes earlier Dr Bhamjeé had been introduced to his packed and rapt audience.
“Dick Spring, who can do no wrong was given an unrivalled welcome on stage,” reported Irish Press political reporter Tim Ryan, before pointing out that the party leader wasn’t the only star turn. “The only competition (to Spring) came from the increasingly popular Clare deputy, Dr Bhamjeé,” he added.
And Dr Bhamjeé didn’t disappoint. “I never had a standing ovation before,” he quipped.
Then came the humour: “You have seen me, you have heard me. I thought it was time you actually met the Indian among the cowboys”.
Then came the real significance of it all this fuss that whipped up around him: “If I was in my own country of South Africa I would still not have the vote and yet here I am in the Irish Parliament”.
Then it really hit home. Hit home how far Dr Bhamjeé had come.
THE journey started when Moosajeé Bhamjeé came to Dublin aged 18 in 1965 to study medicine in the Royal College of Surgeons — a move that from the start saw him involved in politics.
Initially it was part of the emerging Anti-Apartheid movement in Dublin — decades later it would be as a member of the Labour Party when supporting Mary Robinson’s presidential bid in 1990 and through campaigning on social issues and being involved in community groups.
“The Anti-Apartheid movement used to meet in Kadar Asmal’s hour in Fortfield Avenue in Terenure,” he recalls. “People like Conor Cruise O’Brien and Barry Desmond were involved — we were a small group, but it was very, very important.
“We protested at rugby matches when South Africa came to play Ireland — the first one I was at was in 1965 and there was another in 1970 when we marched on Lansdowne Road and had a torch lit protest outside their hotel.
“There was also a small South African study circle in Dublin with 20 or 30 in it. When protesting we couldn’t show our faces, we couldn’t let our names be published, otherwise our families would be interrogated back at home. We never gave our names to anyone. I remember when Dr Christian Barnard came from South Africa to give a lecture in the College of Surgeons in 1970 we all protested, but made sure to hide our faces.
“I remember we used to get some abuse at rugby matches, while others used to just walk past us and were ignorant of what we were protesting against. But the marches were very important. By marching we were highlighting the Apartheid regime and that regime was ultimately isolated by international community as a result.”
The isolation and discrimination of Apartheid was something that Dr Bhamjeé had grown up with in Pietermaritzburg in the Natal province. The segregation at all levels of society — in schools, in shops, everywhere.
But growing up with it didn’t make it any more palatable. “We had no voting rights and that hurt,” he recalls. “There was special parliament for Indians that was brought in by the Government, but those who participated were seen as stooges. Only one per cent of the Indian population in South Africa voted in the elections, 99 per cent boycotted them.
“When I went back to South Africa after studying it was hard to adjust because of the freedom you had in Ireland. Even at work the white doctors went to their own canteen for their tea-break — Indian and African doctors went to a different canteen. Then we’d meet after the cup of tea and do the ward rounds. We had the same qualifications, were doing the same work, but we were seen as being inferior. It was so wrong.”
Ultimately it was Dr Bhamjeé’s involvement in highlighting this wrong while living in Ireland that paved the way for his growing political activism on a range of other issues.
“When I came to Clare in 1983 I was looking for the Labour Party,” he reveals, “but I couldn’t find then It wasn’t until there was a bit of momentum in the county for Mary Robinson’s election in 1990 that I found them and got involved.
“Before that I got involved in other organisations locally like the Divorce Action Group and the Samaritans, while the Clare Schoolboys Soccer League was the main one.
“I also joined Ennis Golf Club. I never was a good golfer and never will be but I believed that there should be equality in the golf club, so I put down a motion to give equal rights to women and allow them become full members.”
That historic vote came in 1991 — a year later thousands of historic votes, all 5,113 of them, would be for Dr Bhamjeé himself as the 25 to 1 election no-hoper shook up the political world and garnered those headlines around the world.
IT was Sunday morning, 14 November, just 11 days out from the General Election and Dr Moosajeé Bhamjeé was standing in the rain outside Church of the Immaculate Conception and St. Senan in Kilkee.
It was his first morning on the campaign trail.
He was waiting for first mass to end before his parish pump politics could begin. “It was strange,” he admits 25 years on. “I’d never spoken at a gathering like that before and didn’t know what it was about.
“Standing there in the rain trying to attract people’s attention by speaking after mass as they were walking out. Most of them didn’t even stop, they just kept walking. I knew it could be demoralising, but I had to do it. Then I went to Doonbeg mass after that.”
Five days earlier Dr Bhamjeé had been selected to stand for the Labour Party after a snap election had been called on 5 November by An Taoiseach Albert Reynolds.
“It was a whirlwind,” admits Dr Bhamjeé. “I remember I was in South Africa in the summer of 1992 visiting my mother and when I came back I began telling the party that they should come up with a candidate if an election was called.
“I had one or two in mind — people like Michael Corley and Martin Lafferty, who had been involved in the party over the years. I wanted to push one of them, but the party committee were deciding not to put a candidate forward, because they didn’t think it worthwhile.
“I was disappointed because I felt there was a feeling of protest in the country. A few of us were in the bar of the Old Ground Hotel and were waiting for the committee, who were making the decision, to come back to us after their deliberations.
“It was then I said I’d put my name forward. I said ‘we have to go, we have to get the protest vote out’. After that word was sent into the committee and they accepted my offer, even though the chairman wondered privately would we even get 500 votes.
“After I was officially nominated at a meeting in the Queen’s Hotel one member of the party was told ‘from all the white people out there they had to go and choose a black man’. But I didn’t encounter any racism on the campaign — the big thing was that they couldn’t pronounce my name. They were saying things like Benji and Banshee.”
But whether it was Benji, Banshee or Bhamjeé, the word and mood for change was getting out as Labour Party stalwarts like Jo Walsh, Ollie Hickey, Hugh Nalty, John Lyons, Billy Daly and more pounded the streets of Ennis and beyond to get the vote out.
“I didn’t know how to canvas,” he admits, “but I had to learn fast. I was pushing the other people out in front to talk, but they insisted that I go forward to meet people.
“The first really good feeling I got about the election was in Cloughleigh when I was going door-to-door. A lot of the parents and their kids knew me from schoolboys soccer.
“Another was the Saturday before the election when I went into the Lifford Arms pub. I’ll never forget that. It was a big one for me. A lot of the canvassers wouldn’t go in with me — they were saying ‘it’s only a young crowd, they won’t vote at all and if they do it won’t be for you’. They were kind of afraid of meeting the young people, but I insisted on going in and I was welcomed.
“I urged them to come out and vote for me. One fella said ‘what are you going to do for me’. I shouted back ‘nothing’. I got a huge cheer — the crowd loved it and because I was being honest. I had the room and I got votes out of it. I met some of the people who were there afterwards and they said they voted for me because I was honest with them.”
Still, even with the protest vote of the Lifford Arms Saturday night drinkers in his corner, not to mind the Clare Schoolboys Soccer vote, Dr Bhamjeé was a no-hoper, so much so that party leader Dick Spring only made the briefest of visits to the county during the campaign trail.
“I don’t think Dick thought I had a chance,” says Dr Bhamjeé. “He was supposed to come to Ennis canvassing, but he didn’t make it. He only stopped over in Shannon for a couple of hours.”
But it didn’t stop Dr Bhamjeé putting £10 on himself with the bookies as the ‘Spring Tide’ made all the way to the West County Hotel count centre.
“I had never been to an election count,” he admits. “I remember I was on my way home after taking my daughter to school when I heard Caimin Jones on Clare FM saying that they were opening the boxes. As they were doing that and the first tallies started coming in the word in the West County and then on the radio was that I stood a chance. It was then that it really dawned on me. I had to go home, put on a suit and spend the whole day down at the count.
“Towards the evening time it had come down to myself and Brendan Daly. Some guy walked past me and said ‘what the bloody hell did he do for this county’. I can distinctly remember that. It was in the heat of the moment, but I wasn’t offended.
“That first night of the count going to bed the feeling was that I could win a seat. I got a call from the Labour Party office in Dublin at 2 in the morning telling me that I stood a great chance. I was annoyed – ‘what the hell are you ringing me for at this hour. I want to sleep’.”
But there wasn’t much sleep to be got as everyone wanted a piece of the new political upstart, who shook up Clare and national politics over those few days.
Tony Killeen (Fianna Fáil) topped the poll with 6,814 first preference votes, with Dónal Carey (Fine Gael) second with 6,567 and Síle de Valera (Fianna Fáil) third with 6,752, while Brendan Daly (Fianna Fáil) was fourth with 5,940.
Still, Dr Bhamjeé’s 5,113 was enough — it translated into 11.5 per cent of the first preference vote and was close enough to sitting TD Brendan Daly and far enough ahead of another sitting member Madeleine Taylor-Quinn (Fine Gael) on 4,873 to ensure that transfers in subsequent counts would carry him over the line after the eighth count.
“It was a shock when my name was read out,” he recalls. “That I was actually elected. Straight away there was a nervousness there, because I was a public representative now. It was life changing.
“Jim Kemmy had arrived from Limerick and he was kind of a mentor for me. I was lifted shoulder high but I told the boys not to throw me up in the sky. Yes there was some begrudgery, but it was the normal begrudgery that you’d have in an election — it wasn’t racism or anything like that.
“The big thing was the celebration. In the West County, at the party in Mickey Kerins’ the following night. Even the patients out in Our Lady’s Hospital lit a bonfire for my victory. It was a nice gesture from the patients and meant a lot to me.
“The news of my election made it to the Khyber Pass,” he continues, “because a doctor over there who had worked here in Ennis and followed the election informed the papers of the result.”
“It was such a dramatic event,” remembers Caimin Jones, who covered the election count for Clare FM. “A, that he got elected, but B, because of the interest there was, not just nationally but internationally.
“I remember the Clare FM sound engineer Cathal MacLysaght managed to hook up Dick Spring from a car somewhere in transit to our broadcasting position in the West County Hotel so that Dr Bhamjeé was able to speak directly to his leader. I recall his memorable phrase when I told him that Dick Spring was on the line he said: ‘We did it Dick’.”
Whether it was Benji, Banshee or Bhamjeé, the doctor had done it.
The Banner County’s Ghandi, as RTÉ commentator Marty Morrissey would christen him a few days later.