Oireachtas records show that the phrase ‘airy fairy’ has been used up to 314 times in the Dail, in the Seanad, and during committees previously, during debates and hearings.
As evidenced by a search on Oireachtas.ie, the official transcript of the Houses, the phrase has been used as far back as Oireachtas records began.
The phrase has been used by members from most of the political parties and from both sides of the political spectrum – without any accusations of homophobia being levelled. Sinn Féin TD, Patricia Ryan, used the phrase last year, for example, when discussing climate action saying: “We need real steps that will make a difference, not airy-fairy aspirational stuff that means nothing”. Enda Kenny, the Fine Gael TD who led the party prior to Leo Varadkar, also used the term without anyone raising an eyebrow.
On Tuesday, Kerry Independent TD Healy-Rae used the phrase in a heated exchange with Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, which led to a row about ‘homophobia’ that the Kerry TD has argued is being used in a cynical way.
In the Dáil, Mr Healy-Rae said: “When I hear some of the nonsense the Tánaiste comes out with, my goodness, he is no man to look down his nose at me as if I am something he stood up on top of. The funny thing about it is that I would not dare to look down my nose at the Tánaiste or anyone else because I do not do that, but maybe he does because he is a bit of a big shot.
“Like I say, off with you with the airy fairies and see how far it will get you. But you can be sure of one thing, it is not a nice thing to look down your nose at me and say what you said to me a while ago. Not nice.”
At this point, the Tánaiste took offence, as he quickly got to his feet and replied: “And it is not nice what you said to me either, Deputy, just there, quite frankly. Reflect on it and think about it. Just think about what you said. Think about what you said.
“Reflect on it, think about it and come back here tomorrow or the next day and take it back, if you want to.”
However, Deputy Healy-Rae later told Joe Duffy and Radio Kerry that he had nothing to apologise for: “I can’t apologise because I’ve nothing to apologise for. Away with the fairies or away with the airy fairies is a term I use an awful lot,” he said.
Referring to the Tánaiste, he said: “I think it’s very unfair, he knows in his heart and soul yesterday as did everybody else that was there, everybody that knows me knows I would not in any shape or fashion use what is a person’s personal life.”
He hit out at Joe Duffy’s efforts too saying: “And the funny thing about it is, Joe, you know that I didn’t.”
Writing today, Gript’s John McGuirk pointed out that the definition of Healy-Rae’s accusation is clear and unambiguous even if the phrasing may seem odd: “Off with you with the people with vague, unrealistic, and impractical ideas”.
“It’s not a clumsy use of the phrase; if it was the first time I ever used it, it would be a different story, but I have used it continuously,” Healy-Rae also told Liveline’s. He added: “Anytime I’ve ever used it, I’ve used it to describe something that I would consider to be nonsensical.”
Notably, during Liveline, no mention was made that the phrase has in fact been used hundreds of times since Oireachtas records began – with a long-list of TDs using the phrase in exactly the same context as Healy-Rae.
PHRASE REPEATEDLY USED BY IRISH POLITICIANS
Most recently, the phrase was used by Healy-Rae himself in a Dáil debate on the Planning and Development, Heritage and Broadcasting Bill on the 12th March. In that debate, he used the phrase in relation to farming.
“Farming to a calendar does not work, and those who think it is possible to do so do not know what they are talking about. It may look good written down and sound fine and airy-fairy, but practically, it has no common sense,” Healy-Rae said.
While Healy-Rae has employed the phrase on repeated occasions, others have also used it.
It has also been employed as a phrase of criticism in various Committees. For instance, in May 2021, during a Joint Committee debate on key issues affecting the traveller community, the phrase was also used. In a discussion specifically on traveller employment and labour market participation, researcher Niall Crowley from St. Stephen’s Green Trust used the phrase without issue. He said that support was needed for the Traveller community in the public sector, stating: “The public sector is usually not airy-fairy in any way. It is specifically focused on action in terms of the employment function of public bodies as well as the service provision function.”
During a Dáil debate in 2012, Taoiseach at the time, Enda Kenny, used the phrase in an exchange with Deputy Richard Boyd-Barrett and others.
“I will be interested to hear what the Deputy has to say about what can be done realistically and not his airy-fairy economics that suddenly one can go home and say this is all sorted out,” Kenny said.
Reminiscent of Healy-Rae’s comments this week, Deputy Joe Higgins retorted: “It is the Taoiseach who is airy-fairy.”
Discussing transport infrastructure provision during a Dáil debate in the summer of 2016, Deputy Shane Ross also used the phrase. Defending the government’s approach to providing more cycleways, he said: “It is a multifaceted approach – it is not an airy-fairy approach – within the restrictions that exist.”
In 2017, the phrase was once again used, this time by Deputy Shane Cassells, who blasted “airy-fairy ideology” during a Dáil debate on national planning framework. Deputy Carol Nolan also employed the phrase in another Dáil debate in 2019. On the topic of electricity generation, she told the Dáil: “On the retrofitting, as pointed out by one of the union representatives these jobs are not guaranteed. What we are hearing here is airy-fairy stuff. We need solid commitments, including in respect of funding.”
Also, that year, the phrase was used by Deputy Clare Daly when discussing the Civil Liability Bill. She said:” I do not accept what the Minister of State is saying to the effect that what we have put forward is some airy-fairy, unsubstantiated thing that could not be calculated. It is the opposite.”
Records show that the phrase has been used as far back as 1953, and in every decade since then. In a Dáil Éireann debate in 1953, then-Tánaiste, Labour Party politician William Norton as he blasted then-Taoiseach Éamon de Valera for his handling of Irish unemployment.
“The Taoiseach made a lengthy speech this evening but there was no indication in it of Government policy, except airy-fairy generalities, expecting something to happen someday which would enable us to live happily forever in this motherland of ours,” he said.
Other politicians to use the phrase in recent years include Deputy Danny Healy-Rae, Deputy Denis Naughten and Deputy Jim O’Keeffe, none of whom have been accused of homophobia for using it.
Following Liveline on Tuesday, during which broadcaster Joe Duffy grilled Healy-Rae about his record on gay rights, many jumped to the Kerry TD’s defence on social media.
Sports writer Ewan MacKenna described it as a “common term in parts of rural Ireland” while another user wrote: “As a gay man I’m mortified that they are trying to make out that ‘airy fairy’ in this context is a homophobic slur”.
Airy fairy isn't homophobic. It's a common term in parts of rural Ireland. It has a specific definition that in no way relates to sexuality. If we can't use words as per definition due to perceived offence, literally every word can be claimed as offensive and no one can speak.
— Ewan MacKenna (@EwanMacKenna) March 23, 2022
Is Leo Varadkar airy-fairy? Absolutely, you just can’t argue with the true meaning of the word. pic.twitter.com/DCWu9r1u1u
— Tweed Cap (@CapTweed) March 23, 2022
As a gay man I’m mortified that they are trying to make out that ‘airy fairy’ in this context is a homophobic slur. People weaponising homophobia make life much more difficult for LGBTQI+ peoples daily lives. #liveline
— Dublin Rental Watch (@DubRentWatch) March 23, 2022
There is no part of what Healy Rae said that was homophobic and #AiryFairy is a very common Irishism and Varadkar is typical of somebody playing a victim of offence that was never given. https://t.co/f07Yc7XRnJ
— Niall Boylan (@Niall_Boylan) March 23, 2022