A Week in Politics

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Monday, 5 September

The fine summer weather is well and truly gone this week. Outside as I write these lines it’s wet and windy and there’s thunder and lightning, and we’re set to have these conditions tomorrow and Wednesday too.

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Tuesday, 6 September

Liz Truss has won the Tory Party leadership contest (it’s been obvious for some time she would do so) — 56% of the votes cast to 44% for Sunak, which is closer than expected because it was predicted she’d win 60% to 40% if not more handsomely — and so today she becomes Britain’s 56th prime minister (Sir Robert Walpole in the 1720s & 30s counted as the first). This morning Boris Johnson flies to Scotland to hand over the premier’s baton to HMQ at Balmoral — who at 96 is having mobility problems and courtiers feel it would be unwise to send her down to London to do all this stuff at Buck House, so Johnson and Truss have to fly to Aberdeenshire and do their genuflecting up there (Truss and Johnson will be travelling up and back separately, apparently) — and, half an hour after Johnson bows his fat ass out the door, HMQ will invite the 47-year-old Mary Elizabeth Truss to form a government.

Liz Truss arriving at Balmoral this morning.

Fintan O’Toole published the following in the Irish Times which is on the button so far as I’m concerned.

Liz Truss will make Johnson seem a political genius, May a mistress of empathy, Cameron a beacon of sincerity

Tory Party has chosen, not to wake up to the increasingly grim realities of contemporary Britain, but to double down on game of ‘let’s pretend’

The ageing WB Yeats complained in ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ that his soul, stuck in his increasingly decrepit body, was “fastened to a dying animal”. With the absurd accession of Liz Truss to 10 Downing Street, it increasingly feels like Ireland too is tethered to a moribund creature.

In a healthy or happy democracy, Truss doesn’t get to be prime minister, even in her own fantasies. She is Theresa May without the seriousness and Boris Johnson without the charisma — a combination of ingredients scraped by a mad chef from the bottom of a very deep barrel.

With her, the Tory Party has chosen, not to wake up to the increasingly grim realities of contemporary Britain, but to double down on the game of “let’s pretend”.

With Johnson, it was “let’s pretend it’s 1940 and he’s Winston Churchill”. With Truss, it’s “let’s pretend it’s 1980 and she’s Margaret Thatcher”. With both, it is let’s pretend that Britain’s problems were caused by the EU and that the British bulldog has now been let off the leash, ready to romp through the sunlit uplands of a new golden age.

You only have to pretend this hard when you’re avoiding something big. What’s being evaded here is decline.

In thinking about Britain’s slow decline, the usual point of comparison is with, say, the rise of China. But a much better comparator is much closer to home — the little country just across the Irish Sea.

Ireland, God knows, has very serious problems, most of them rooted in its peculiar combination of hyperdevelopment and underdevelopment. But it’s doing better than Britain is.

Twenty five years ago, Ireland was poorer, more corrupt and more in thrall to reactionary nationalism than Britain was. Now, on all three counts, the reality is reversed.

The true measure of decline or advance for a country is the standard of living of ordinary people. For centuries, Irish people emigrated to Britain because the standard of living was better there.

It’s not any more. There’s been a dramatic decline in the growth of median household incomes in the UK this century.

The Tories came back into power in 2010. Over the course of this unbroken period of rule, typical household incomes in Britain have risen more slowly than those in only two other western European countries: Greece and Cyprus.

Thus, while Truss, and the cult to which she now adheres with the zeal of a convert, tell a story in which Britain has been held back by the EU, the truth is that almost every other EU country did much better than Britain — Ireland included.

Typical incomes rose by 34 per cent in France and 27 per cent in Germany between 2007 and 2018. In Britain they fell by two per cent.

And, from our point of view, the remarkable fact is that typical incomes of ordinary people in Ireland are now six per cent higher than they are in Britain. It’s hard to overstate the historic nature of this reversal.

It’s not just economics, though. At the start of this century, if you were told there would be a pandemic that required governments to spend vast amounts of money on procurement, you would have said that the Brits will probably spend the money honestly while the Irish would see much of it diverted into shady deals and the enrichment of cronies.

Yet the evidence is that this actually worked the other around. Ireland is not an isle of saints, but it looks, objectively, much less politically corrupt than Britain now is.

Finally, Ireland is now less mad than Britain. It is less prone to the head-staggers of reactionary nationalism. Who could imagine an Irish government doing something so pointlessly cruel as flying asylum seekers off to Rwanda?

For an old-fashioned English patriot with an old-fashioned English habit of looking down on Ireland as a strange and backward place, these comparisons ought to alarming. Whatever about falling behind the Germans, being surpassed by the benighted Irish ought to be rather shaming.

But acknowledging that would require a reckoning with the legacy of a Tory party that is maniacally pressing Control+Alt+Delete by changing its leaders with the seasons. Its one remaining trick seems to be that of making each new one so bad that the previous disaster is cast, retrospectively, in a more sympathetic light.

Truss will certainly achieve this. She will make Johnson seem a political genius, May a mistress of empathy, David Cameron a beacon of sincerity.

These are morbid symptoms. Truss is the embodied death wish of a faction that has lost the will to live as a real party of government.

She is the ‘My Lovely Horse’ of Father Ted, the ‘Springtime for Hitler’ of The Producers — designed for failure. The Tory press will sing ‘My Lovely Liz’ and ‘Springtime for Truss’ with unironic gusto, but the illusion will be as transparent as it will be short-lived.

We in Ireland, tied whether we like it or not to the fate of our neighbouring polity, must hope that this death-rattle does not go on too much longer. Perhaps Truss’s accession is a last rite, a ghost dance for a desperate tribe. Perhaps, after her, there will be a deluge of reckonings with reality.

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Thursday, 8 September

Queen Elizabeth died today. She died in the afternoon, apparently, but the announcement of her death didn’t come until about 6:30 in the evening, nevertheless it was obvious the end had come for the 96-year-old — the longest serving monarch in British history — whether the announcement came this evening, tonight or tomorrow or the day after.

At around lunchtime the Palace put out a statement saying that doctors were concerned for the queen’s health and while she was comfortable she was under ongoing medical supervision (something along such lines anyhow), but, while the statement itself was bland and matter of fact, decoded by people in the know it was clear she’d had a stroke and was in a coma or something of the like (although no one spoke in such terms, not even media talking heads), especially when combined with the fact that the authorities at Balmoral put up the House of Windsor’s version of the bat signal and Charles, Anne, Andrew, Edward, William and Harry abandoned whatever they were at and hot-footed it to Balmoral.

Two days after its formation, Liz Truss’ government was in the process of announcing its £100 billion package of measures to help people deal with the coming energy crisis in the Commons at the time and you could see by the way MPs were checking their phones and conferring with one another that something serious had happened. Then Nadhim Zahawi, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, came into the chamber and sat down beside the PM and handing her a note whispered in her ear and you could tell from her face and from their subsequent interaction that something of significance was afoot (it was a little like George Bush being told that the Twin Towers were under attack in September 2001).

A little while later, speaking for the whole House, Speaker Lindsay Hoyle, interrupted proceedings to make a ‘our thoughts and prayers’ statement. Had it been that the queen twisted her ankle or puked up her breakfast or anything of the sort there would have been no such interruption during so momentous a proceeding — a newly formed government announcing £100 billion of unplanned spending in its first week in office — so the Speaker intervening in this way meant that in one form or another he and the PM were being told more than we were being told — it was probable that the queen was either at death’s door or already dead. (Apparently in official circles the code for this foreseeable event was ‘London Bridge is down’.)

On Tuesday morning HMQ accepted Boris Johnson’s resignation and appointed Liz Truss to replace him, making Truss her 15th prime minister — Churchill, Eden, Macmillan, Douglas-Hume, Wilson, Heath, Callaghan, Thatcher, Major, Blair, Brown, Cameron, May, Johnson and now Truss). In the press release photo put out to accompany this story on Tuesday the back of one of the queen’s hands appeared to be almost completely blackened.

Liz Truss did her genuflection in a drawing room with a roaring fire in the background and but even at a distance I remember being struck by the blackness of the back of one of the queen’s hands. She — HMQ — was upright for the meeting (or at least she was upright for the photo) but held a walking stick in her left hand, her right out-stretched for the handshake with Truss.

The queen was born in 1926, so same generation as my father and Lily. Her father died in February 1952 (same time as my maternal grandfather died, which may go some way to explaining the rather strong identification Mum had with the queen, not that she was a royalist of course but she appeared to have a clear personal connection with this queen such that I wonder whether the fact that they both lost their fathers at around the same time had anything to do with it?). Coronation, June 1953. 70 years a queen — even though the coronation wasn’t until the following year, she became queen immediately on the death of her father.

She married Philip, a prince of Greece and Denmark, in 1947; her husband of 73 years died 18 months ago, in April 2021.

Charles was born in 1948. Charles is to become King Charles III (royals often take another name upon ascending to the throne — Elizabeth’s uncle, for example, Edward VIII, the guy who abdicated, was David, and before he became king Edward VII was Albert, or more familiarly ‘Bertie’, and before she became queen the person we know as Queen Victoria was known as Alexandrina; popes also take reign names, for example the present Pope Francis’ name before becoming pope was Jorge, Jorge Mario Bergoglio) and so following ‘the Second Elizabethan Age’ (a Churchillian coinage) a Carolean episode.

The BBC have gone completely loopy, all day today and all of this evening on every channel, wall-to-wall the queen and how much we love her and how much the world admired her and will mourn her passing. All way over the top! For most of today they didn’t have enough news to fill a 10-minute broadcast but they went on and on and on and on repeating the same inane clichés over and over again, hour after hour, reading out the messages on cards left by nutters outside the gates of royal palaces (it seems to me the BBC is attempting to gin up a hullabaloo like we had for Diana in ’97 — the long-reigning monarch going head to head with the upstart princess in a celebrity death match-up to see which of them can be mourned more, totally tasteless, as it seems to me, unseemly, tabloidesque).

It looks like we’re going to have up to two weeks of this! Jesus, Lord, have mercy! Funeral arrangements have not been finalized as yet but it looks like it’ll be next weekend at the earliest so we’re going to have 10 or 12 days of it at the very least.

I recognise that it’s a significant chapter-ending in the British story (the second Elizabethan reign shepherding the country from the tailend of Empire to a shorn-of-Empire state — quite a tricky transition to pilot one’s way through, many a regime has come a cropper attempting the like — and then into and out of the European Union), and personally I thought the queen did a good job — she performed that role as well as it could be performed, probably a 9 or 9.5 out of 10 for me — but to commandeer every channel on radio and television for hagiographical purposes like this is like being in some totalitarian state. Yes, it’s a big deal, and yes, Radio 4 and the World Service should go for it in serious ways (and maybe have Radio 3 do mournful music and celebratory stuff too — celebrating the queen’s life and long reign), but not every fucking channel (all day every day)! It’s too much. Have one or two channels do so so that those who want to can tune into it (god bless) but not everyone wants that stuff 24/7.

And certainly not two whole weeks of it! If she was buried next Tuesday or Wednesday (or even later next week) it would be fine, I could understand the whole of this weekend and the most of next week being given over to it, but two whole weekends sandwiching a full week of it is just too much of that stodgy British pudding. And I feel sure many Britons will feel similarly.

And it may even be that they don’t bury her next weekend either! They might take it into yet another Monday-to-Friday. So it may even be two whole weeks plus two long weekends!

The Brits love this sort of guff and they’re going to flog this old warhorse until it’s a soupy bloody mush, an unwholesome mush looking like chopped liver that’s been left out in the sun and rain for two weeks. Lying in state, military drill solemn parading, funeral bells, rituals to do with flags and emblems, world leaders gathering (Biden, Obama and George Bush [but not Trump is my guess], Macron, Ursula von der Leyen, Olaf Scholz, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, India, Pakistan and troupes up out of Africa, the Japanese royals and of course the Spaniards and all the other royal houses of Europe), the full works, it’ll be a cultural event as big as the Olympics — as big as the Olympics but with a lot less time to plan it. Although it’s been obvious for some time that this was on the horizon so there must be some planning done (all year I’ve been dreading that she’d die while Boris Johnson was PM, he would have relished it so much, now he’s just another former PM, a disgraced one at that).

Liz Truss’ big give-away day totally blanketed by this and all that will now follow on. The stuff her government announced yesterday is difficult to price because it’ll depend on how events unfold going forward but most analysts say it’ll cost £100 billion, at a minimum, maybe as much as $150bn, and maybe even more than that. (Just to have a sense of things, I believe all of the pandemic-related spending in the UK totalled at something just over £200bn.) Imagine coming into office as a fiscal conservative and in your first week in office forking out that amount of money (plus she’s committed to another £30bn in tax cuts for the all too wealthy). And then to have it all blanketed like this so that not only do you spend a train load of cash almost on Day One but you don’t even get the newspaper headlines and PR benefit of it in terms of a honeymoon start-off for your premiership.

I’ll give Truss credit for one thing, however, and that’s the way she managed PMQs on Wednesday. Only 24 hours in the job and stand there and take questions from all quarters on who knows what topic is impressive, she was much better at it than I would have guessed. And, fair play to her, she actually addressed the questions asked for the most part; Johnson invariably pivoted away from the question and went on the attack. So it was refreshing to hear and see someone listen to the question and make some sort of decent attempt at addressing the issue. I don’t like her, obviously, but I thought PMQs went well for her (which is even more impressive because, as I say, I’m prejudiced against her, a hostile witness). I only tuned into PMQs to watch her get a kicking but I was disappointed.

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Saturday, 10 September

Fintan O’Toole in the Irish Times today:

Britain is becoming ungovernable and Truss will not last long: Liz Truss knows that Brexit cannot solve Britain’s problems. That will make her an even bigger phony.

Ten years ago, Liz Truss and four other young Conservative MPs (among them Truss’s new chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng) published a book called Britannia Unchained. It is a manifesto for a renewal of full-blooded Thatcherism: cut taxes, regulation and public spending, control the deficit, bring back “hard work”.

The document is notorious for its contempt for ordinary British people: “Once they enter the workplace, the British are among the worst idlers in the world.” An Irish person who said that would be accused, quite rightly, of Anglophobia.

But, returning to this jeremiad now, the most interesting thing about it is actually what it does not say. For what it does not suggest, either explicitly or implicitly, is that what poor Britannia needs to be “unchained” from is the European Union.

Truss was writing just four years before the Brexit referendum. She is now, of course, an arch-Brexiteer.

Future historians will surely look in this book for the ideological roots of the English revolution of 2016. They will be disappointed and baffled — there’s nothing there.

The EU is simply not an issue. There’s a glancing complaint that “Britain is increasingly isolated from the European Union, and distant from . . . America”.

But the only real comment on Britain’s place in the EU is one very brief passage that in fact dismisses the idea that Brussels is the problem: “[Britain] retains enough independence from Europe to not get dragged down by a broken single currency, or an out-of-date social democratic model”.

It’s important to understand this: the people who are now governing Britain never believed in what is now Britain’s governing myth: that their nation’s greatness was being occluded by its unnatural incarceration in the EU. They may, in some respects, be quite stupid — but they were never quite that stupid.

What was at stake for Truss and Kwarteng and the others in 2012 was the question of blame. Whose fault was it that Britain was in decline?

To their credit, their essential answer was: we ourselves. They declined to make the EU what England (according to Wolfe Tone) had been for Ireland: “the never-failing source of all our evils”.

The diagnosis of those ills was wrong-headed — productivity has nothing to do with a mythic “work ethic” and everything to do with education, skills and technology. The cures were neoliberal quackery.

But at least it could be said for Truss and Kwarteng that they were trying to understand British problems without scapegoating foreigners, immigrants or Brussels bureaucrats. The chains they believed Britain had to lose were forged of home-made steel.

In this, Truss is a very worthy successor to Boris Johnson. Johnson never believed the Brexit story either — he just realised that he could hitch a ride on a rocket ship fuelled by English nationalism and fantasies of liberation.

And this, then, makes it a hat-trick. Since the Brexit referendum of 2016, Britain has had three leaders: the Remainer Theresa May, the cynical opportunist Johnson and now the zealous convert Truss.

None of them really, truly believed that Britain was being oppressed and held back by the EU. But each of them, in order to attain power, has had to enact that pretence.

This is why Britain is becoming ungovernable, why May and Johnson lasted three years each and Truss will most probably not hold on even that long. It is not possible to sustain a polity in which there is such a vast gap between the obvious problems and the alleged solution.

Perhaps the most interesting question about British politics since 2016 is why no true believer in Brexit has actually become prime minister. It is, in this, unique among revolutions — in any other I can think of, the new regime that replaces the old one is made up of those who genuinely thought the revolution was a good idea.

This time, in their leadership contest, the members of the Conservative Party in fact had one of those. Rishi Sunak was a sincere Brexiteer who adopted the cause at a time when it was by no means obvious that doing so would be good for his career. The party rejected him.

So why is this, apparently, a cause that can be led only by those who don’t really believe in it? Perhaps for the same reason that religions really like converts and reformed sinners — they reinforce the faith by showing that even those who once stood outside it cannot now stand against it.

The consequence, though, is an inescapable phoniness. If Brexit Britain were led by Britons who really believe in Brexit, there would at least have to be some attempt to make it work, to do what revolutionaries must do and accommodate the ideals of the revolution to the real world.

What we have with Truss, though, is the continuing necessity to treat Brexit as a performance. It has not, to put it very mildly, solved any of Britain’s big problems. But, instead of making pragmatism more likely, this truth makes it almost impossible.

This is the problem for Ireland. We ought by now to be in the post-revolutionary period when Brexit is a settled fact and everyone is trying to knuckle down to the expediencies of damage limitation — especially in relation to Northern Ireland.

But the very insincerity of Truss’s attachment to the project has the paradoxical effect of making it all the more necessary for her to enact her role as its champion and defender.

Her dilemma, as things fall apart very rapidly around her, will be the old one: who to blame. Having been in government for eight years herself, the answer can’t be “us” any more. What was possible in a neo-Thatcherite manifesto a decade ago is not possible now.

For the blame game on the right of British politics will now always be played on the Brexit field: why is Brexit not working? Why are we not in the golden age already?

Truss knows the answer damn well: because Brexit was never a solution, merely, at best, a distraction from the real problems. But the more she knows that, the less likely it is that she will say it.

So why isn’t Brexit working? Ah, the answer to that question takes us back to the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone.

Ordinary political logic would dictate that Truss should quickly negotiate with Brussels a package of measures to deal with the practical problems of the Northern Ireland protocol. Get that off the table and move on to the much more urgent questions that her electorate actually cares about.

But we’re not in Kansas anymore. The grimmer things get for Truss, the more desperate she will be for distractions: culture wars, enemies of the people, the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish, the EU. She does know better — but that will make it all the worse.

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One thing O’Toole doesn’t say in his piece is that two of the other authors of Britannia Unchained were Dominic Raab and Priti Patel, what a quartet! The Bucks Fizz of Tory politics.

Left to right: Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour Party, former prime ministers Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Boris Johnson, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, Speaker of the Commons, and then more former prime ministers, David Cameron, Theresa May and Sir John Major, Privy Councilors at the Accession Council whereat King Charles III was formally proclaimed king (interesting constitutional tidbit: technically the British cabinet is but a sub-committee of the Privy Council).

O’Toole writes of the UK’s ungovernability at the minute, consider this: in the past 6 years the UK has had 4 prime ministers (and if Truss loses the next election — and I feel sure she will — then it’ll be 5 PMs in the space of 8 years, that’s five administrations in less than a decade, which is an Italian rate of churn).

And in the past 8 years the UK has had six Foreign Secretaries (now it’s James Cleverly, before that it was Truss, before her Dominic Rabb, before Rabb Jeremy Hunt, before Hunt Boris Johnson and before Johnson it was Philip Hammond), blink and you might miss one. And of course Foreign Office work is all about establishing and building relationships. At this stage you’d almost need to check your watch before saying who’s in charge at the FO. (And in addition to the turnover of ministers, because these Brexiteers are not conservatives, they’re radicals, maybe even revolutionary radicals, they have the radical’s distrust of the civil service and other aspects of what they see as the ‘deep state’ so we’ve seen senior administrative personnel in the Cabinet Office, the Foreign Office, the Home Office and the Treasury unceremoniously cleared out, and in many other departments too I shouldn’t wonder, replacing them with people being promoted for their politics rather than their abilities, or worse being promoted for their willingness to do anything the authorities may want.)

At this stage we’ve now had six Chancellors in the space of 6 years! — Kwasi Kwarteng is the latest instalment, before him for a few weeks we had Nadhim Zahawi, then Rishi Sunak, then Sajid Javid, then Philip Hammond and before that George Osborne.

This is what an unstable polity looks like. The state is spinning itself into a tizzy.

And this is before one even begins to think about the quality and the track record of some of these characters: Boris Johnson, for instance, a total and obvious liar, a preposterous proposition for PM, a politics-as-entertainment act, and by all accounts some of Nadhim Zahawi’s business dealings wouldn’t bear stern scrutiny (his first mentor in politics and public life was Jeffrey Archer, for goodness sakes). And Priti Patel is a well-suspect character too in my view; wasn’t she dismissed from a position she held a few years back because of some out-of-bounds dealings she had with some Israelis? And that Rwanda business is a total disgrace. I’d love to see an investigative group do an examination into who’s been backing her, who does she really represent? And then of course there’s Johnson and the Lebedevs (and who knows what other suspect characters). If you zoom out a little from what’s happening and look at things with a wider frame it’s alarming, I think. Shambolic, mendacious and dishonest.

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Sunday, 11 September

Billy Bragg put a nice piece about the death of the monarch up on Facebook:

It is reputedly the longest train journey in Germany – from Munich to Hamburg via Leipzig and Berlin, over seven hours travel time. That’s where I found myself on Thursday as news came through that the Queen’s doctors were ‘concerned about her health’. I was in Germany to give a couple of talks about my most recent book ‘The Three Dimensions of Freedom’ which had originally been planned for 2020. As I was explaining to my travelling companion from my Munich based publisher that the Queen had been becoming visibly frail for some time, I saw a screenshot of Huw Edwards, the BBC newscaster, wearing a black tie.

“I think we have to assume the Queen is already dead” I told my German friend. It seemed unthinkable to me that the BBC would go into mourning by mistake. The outrage that would descend on the corporation should they be seen to jump the gun on such a sensitive issue would be more damaging than any of the scandals that have beset them over the past decade.

It would be several more hours until I saw confirmation of her death, while travelling to the event in a taxi. It was interesting to be in a foreign country when the news broke. People seemed genuinely surprised, unaware that the Queen’s health recently been in decline. The taxi driver, a middle aged man, was visibly moved and spoke about how he felt when his father had died a year after the death of his mother. When I mentioned the news to the audience, there was an audible gasp of shock. Later, in my hotel room, I found that a number of German tv channels were covering the news live.

The Queen clearly meant something to these people, beyond her being the head of state of a neighbouring country.

Personally, I’ve never had strong feelings about the monarchy and the cosmetic role they play in our constitution. My concerns have always been about the way the powers which were once the sole preserve of the monarch have been conferred onto the prime minister, allowing the holder of that office to declare war and sign treaties without recourse to parliamentary debate. Hopefully the ascension of Charles III will initiate a debate about the role of the monarchy in a modern democracy, perhaps helping to kick start reforms such as the abolition of the House of Lords and a written constitution.

Having said that, I do want to take a moment to reflect on the passing of a person who has played a role in our national life over the past seven decades that is unrivalled in its significance. The importance of the Queen as a figurehead was made clear to me in 2007 when I saw a news report of the dedication of the Armed Forces Memorial, remembering those who lost their lives in conflicts since the Second World War. Watching the Queen walk along a line of ex-service personnel who had fought in every war from Korea to Afghanistan, I was struck by the thought that there is no one in British public life whose presence at an event could be equally meaningful to an 80 year old veteran as well as one in their 20s.

Obviously this is a product of the record-breaking longevity of her reign. Very few of us alive today can recall anyone else sitting on the British throne. That fact alone is what makes the notion of a King Charles III so strange and unfamiliar.

As a child, I had a great aunt who lived around the corner from us. Aunt Hannah was born in 1887 and lived in an upstairs flat that was lit by gaslight. She cooked on a coal-fired range and had neither tv nor telephone. Her only real concession to modernity was the fact that she would walk the two streets to our house to watch Sunday Night at the London Palladium. Like the Queen, she represented a living link with the past, a sense that all the things that had happened in her life could be summoned into the room by her memories. She died in 1972. By the time Elizabeth II was crowned, Aunt Hannah had lived through the reigns of six different monarchs in her 66 years. I’ve managed to rack up almost as many years without witnessing a single coronation.

For people around my age, there is another dimension that gives this moment in our history a poignancy that defies the rational concerns about crown and constitution.

Like the Queen, my parents were born in the 1920s and their formative years were shaped by the Second World War. Her father, George VI, had been Emperor of India and as a child had sat on the knee of Queen Victoria. Yet Elizabeth II represented a break with the Victorian idea of monarchy and empire. Her coronation in 1953 held the promise of a new beginning, of a world without colonies where the state supported each citizen from the cradle to the grave.

My parents were married that same year and, as part of that Elizabethan cohort, they aged along with the Queen, the great markers in their lives falling in the same span of years. They were in uniform together, they met their partners together, had children and later grandchildren together. With both my parents gone, the Queen endured as a reminder of who they were and who they became. She was their last representative, still visible in the life of our nation.

So when they bury her next week, I too will mourn – not so much for the passing of a monarch, but for the passing of a generation.

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Borgen: what is lost inwardly must be gained outwardly

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“Nearly all men can stand adversity, if you want to test a man’s character, give him power” (Abraham Lincoln), epigraph for S3E10 of Borgen, an episode titled ‘The Election’

‘Borgen’ means castle, ‘The Castle’, it’s a stand-in for Christiansborg — Christiansborg Palace in Copenhagen — which is a complex like Dublin Castle if the Oireachtas, the prime minister’s office and the Supreme Court were all housed in Dublin Castle.

In fact, Christiansborg also has a royal apartments section — a suite of rooms used for state occasions (receiving ambassadors, appointing prime ministers and so forth) — so that Christiansborg would be like Dublin Castle if Dublin Castle housed our parliamentary chambers, the Taoiseach’s office, the Supreme Court and all that’s out at Áras an Uachtaráin.

The Borgen drama series (the 4 seasons of which are on Netflix) portrays how Birgitte Nyborg Christensen — leader of a small centrist party in Denmark — becomes the country’s first female prime minister, Birgette played by the impressive Sidse Babett Knudsen.

“There is little difference between obstacle and opportunity. The wise are able to turn both to their advantage” (Machiavelli), epigraph for S4E2 of Borgen, an episode titled ‘The Lesser of Two Evils’

The first season was broadcast in Denmark in the autumn of 2010 (before Denmark elected its first female prime minister), the second season in the autumn of 2011, and the third series began showing on Danish television in January 2013.

Borgen attracted overseas interest fairly quickly, the BBC showing a subtitled version of the first series on BBC Four in January 2012, for instance, the second series in January 2013, and the third series in November 2013, all of which got good viewing figures.

And, before it became available globally on Netflix, Borgen had been broadcast in almost all European countries as well as in Canada, the United States, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Korea.

“It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare, it is because we do not dare that they are difficult.” (Seneca), epigraph for S4E8 of Borgen, an episode titled ‘Mother of the Sea’

Long hiatus until the fourth series, announced in April 2020, a partnership between DR — the Danish public service broadcaster that made and broadcast the first three seasons — and the streaming giant Netflix, the 8 episodes of Season 4 made available on Netflix in June 2022 (the first 3 seasons available on Netflix since 2020).

Aside from Birgitte Nyborg, other main characters in the series include Bent Sejrø, government colleague and Birgitte’s political mentor, Kasper Juul, a spin-doctor, Katrine Fønsmark, a political reporter and presenter of a politics show on TV1, Torben Friis, her boss — news and current affairs editor for TV1 — and Michael Laugesen, Labour Party leader and afterwards editor of a tabloid newspaper (The Ekspres), a resentful and resourceful enemy of Birgette’s.

Then there’s Birgette’s home-life which, in tandem with the intrigue and powerplays at Christiansborg, is the other main element of the story-arc, her husband, Phillip Christiansen, a business school lecturer, and their children, Laura and Magnus. These young actors — the actors playing Laura and Magnus — especially good.

“A prince never lacks legitimate reason to break his promise” (Machiavelli), epigraph for S1E10 of Borgen, an episode titled ‘The First Tuesday in October’

Phillip and Birgitte are both capable — a power couple like Tony and Cherrie Blair, say, or the Clintons, or the Obamas, whereby either one could have been the leading character on the national stage — but the agreement they’ve come to is to take it in turns, first she takes the passenger seat vis-a-viz his business career, and then he occupies the passenger-seat while she attempts to make headway as a new party leader — a party akin to the Liberal Democrats in the UK, say, or the Social Democrats in Ireland.

In episode one (Season 1) it appears the Moderates are set to do no better than they’ve always done in the coming election so that — like say Tim Farron or Jo Swinson’s leadership of the Lib Dems in the UK — Birgitte’s election as leader has not moved the needle at all. Therefore, after the election, she plans to resign the leadership and return to supporting Phillip and his career-building because he’s a corporate high-flier and he’s only teaching in a business school so as to serve as house-husband and child-minder while Birgitte gives it her all as a fresh-faced party leader at Christiansborg.

But then hop-step-and-jump, unexpectedly Birgitte ends up prime minister in a coalition government. In a dust-up live on television the leader of the Labour Party — Michael Laugesen — knocks out the leader of the Conservative Party, but in so doing Laugesen also destroys his own chance of becoming prime minister, so Birgette is left standing tall after the two spurred cocks destroy one another.

“Much that passes as idealism is disguised love of power” (Bertrand Russell), epigraph for S2E5 of Borgen, an episode titled ‘Plant a Tree’

The main storyline throughout the series is the way Birgitte grows as a politician, becoming better and better at politics until it completely takes over her life — she sacrifices everything to it, her will to power becomes all-consuming — and in doing so she becomes precisely the kind of total politician she set out to be an alternative to.

That’s the essence of it but it’s so wonderfully done — wonderfully scripted and paced and performed — especially the break-up of the marriage but also the impact of it all on the children. We the viewers fall in love with Birgitte in the first season but by the final season it’s clear the person we’ve fallen in love with and cheered on through so many episodes has become a power monster.

The story arc is similar to that in The Godfather: at the beginning of The Godfather a young Michael Corleone tells his girlfriend, Kay, a little about the reality of the Corleone family business, after which he says “That’s my family, Kay, not me.”

However, after a series of ‘but then’ happenings, fate takes over and Michael ends up running the Corleone family business which at the outset he sought to stand aloof from, defining himself by way of his disassociation from it. ‘Fate and character take over’ I ought to have said because, as the old Godfather himself often says, ‘Each man has but one destiny, fortunate is he who realises it’.

Turns out Michael has a genius for the Corleone line of work — this is what he was born to do — so that under his stewardship the Corleone family becomes more powerful than ever they were in Vito’s time — the unspoken part in Vito’s piece of wisdom about each man having but one destiny is that character is destiny, they’re two sides of the same coin.

“Every battle is won before it’s ever fought” (Sun Tzu), epigraph for S4E6 of Borgen, an episode titled ‘Power in Denmark’

I don’t know whether Borgen’s makers intended this, but to my eye anyhow in Season 4 of Borgen Birgitte ends up looking strikingly like Michael Corleone at the end of Godfather II, sitting there looking at the grey, wind-ruffled lake, browned leaves scurrying on autumnal gusts swirling all around him, all-powerful but all alone, overwhelmed with sadness but unable to accept that he’s done wrong given the circumstances. It’s a tragedy.

Similarly, in the first episode (of Season 1) of Borgen, three days before the general election we see Birgitte taking time out to attend a kids’ birthday party (because she promised she’d do so), we see her turning down an opportunity to play dirty to gain political advantage, and we see her choosing not to sacrifice principle in return for her pick of cabinet posts after the election, but by Season 4 she’s done a complete 180 in respect of all such like: she’s become a monster version of the thing she set out to oppose all those years before.

Perfectly poised between the unrealistic optimism of The West Wing and the utter cynicism of House of Cards, Borgen is a fabulous piece of work which I heartily recommend.

Memorial for Lily

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In August 2020, aged 94, aunt Lily died. She was the last of my father’s family. It wasn’t Covid, it was old age, just general wear and tear.

Mentally and physically Lily enjoyed reasonably good health right up to the end. Six months before there was a birthday party organised for her (for her 94th) — afternoon tea in a function room in the nursing home — and she was full there for it, clearly enjoying the gathering, performatively opening gifts and graciously thanking the gift-givers.

Aunt Lily pictured on the left, bridesmaid at her sister’s wedding in 1969? 1970?

I went to the birthday party — which was before we had confirmed cases of coronavirus on this island — however, because of the pandemic, I didn’t attend the funeral.

In lieu of which I was asked to write a few words for the funeral service — which was at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Enniskeane, Co. Cork — and I wrote the following (see below).

I turned my back on this blog between 2017 and 2021, so I didn’t make a post of this at the time, however, now that I’m active again, to mark the anniversary, I’ve decided to publish it.

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Elizabeth (Lily) O’Donovan, 1926-2020

Of the children born in Ahilnane in the 1920s and 30s, Lily — Elizabeth — is the last to pass away, these being the children of Patrick O’Donovan of Ahilnane and Mary Kingston of Drinagh East, colloquially Sonny and Minnie.

Sonny and Minnie were married in Carrigfadda church in 1919. Their first-born, Kathleen and Denis, were born when the treaty that ended the War of Independence was agreed and enacted. Then came the twins, William and Ellen, born in 1924, Lily in 1926 and, finally, Mary in 1932.

Sonny and Minnie died in the 1970s.

Ellen — Nelly — died in infancy. William, Denis and Kathleen were laid to rest in the closing decades of the last century.

We buried Mary earlier this year, in April.

And now, in this harvest time of year, we lay to rest the last of these Free State children.

Though she had not seen the light of dawn there for half a century and more, my cousin Margaret tells me that up to and including the last of her days Lily dreamed of Ahilnane, vividly, and sometimes felt herself out of place in not being ‘at home’ — home for her being looking south over Fort Robert and Carrigmore into the fertile river valley below; home was the Mash and the Meadow beyond it, the field by Crowleys and the field where the geese were kept, the Break, the Grove, the haggard and hayshed, Minnie’s potted geraniums by the window, Thou Shalt Not on the wall and apple-tree blossoms in May.

Margaret says she thinks this terribly sad, but I don’t think so. I think it wonderful to be so rooted, to feel that there’s somewhere that’s forever home, a place where you rightly belong, a place that no passage of time, nor any subsequent experience, can erase or compete with.

In this world there are people from somewhere and there are people from nowhere. Lily — Elizabeth — O’Donovan, daughter of Patrick and Mary O’Donovan of Ahilnane, was from here, this place, this parish, where she was christened and schooled and confirmed in her faith.

And now she’s laid to rest here, with her father and mother, a brother and sister and aunts and uncles. May she rest in peace.

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Three Days in July

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I haven’t posted anything for a while now, not since that daytrip to Clear Island piece I did at the beginning of June.

I’ve decided to publish an extract from my diary, three extracts, in fact: diary entries for Tuesday, 5 July 2022, Wednesday, 6 July 2022, and Thursday, 7 July 2022, entries that chronicle the final collapse of Bollox Johnson’s premiership.

I don’t know why I didn’t think of doing this at the time (3 weeks ago), however part of the explanation would have to do with the fact that I feel one wouldn’t write in quite the same way if one had half an eye on publishing the output. As they are, this is just me speaking to myself (and maybe also to a number of individuals in generations yet unborn), and, as I think can be detected, often I’m writing as the events are playing out in real time on a screen in front of me, so that what follows are not composed pieces — if anything they ought to be regarded as notes for a composed piece as yet unconceived.

Tuesday, 5 July

Looks like the endgame for Boris Johnson. I mean the end of the endgame because we’ve been in the endgame for months now. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, and Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, have resigned from Cabinet this evening (just after 6pm). No way he survives this. Those two going will start an avalanche of resignations because now the future is with someone else (indeed, it’s quite likely to be Sajid Javid as Rich Boy Rishi still has that Green Card & non-dom status stink about him, and anyway he simply looks too young, too keen, too oleaginous and too corporatey), sticking with Johnson is a career millstone at this stage, especially now that these kinds of characters are jumping ship.

The final straw came with a farrago of lies about who knew what when to do with former deputy chief whip Chris Pincher. Pincher is gay but seems to be in denial about it (or at least he has some other mudball of issues with respect to his sexuality) such that he gets drunk and attempts to fondle people without their consent or with forced consent (other men, young men usually, ambitious young men keen to better their standing in the party), his key line being the cheesy (and creepy) “You’ll go far in the Party [if you suck me off]” — the part in square brackets unspoken but clearly intended and understood — which comes just before he unties his bathrobe in front of one of his targets or plunges his hand down into someone’s shirt-front or trousers. As Boris Johnson himself has said — according to Dominic Cummings in a Substack post at the weekend — ‘Pincher by name and Pincher nature’.

Johnson’s is also supposed to have said of Pincher “He’s handsy” the unstated part here being “just accept it” which is nearly as creepy in my view.

One night last week Pincher got seriously drunk at the Carlton Club (a Conservative private members club) and got handsy. Not sure how many were actually subjected to his unwelcome attentions that evening but at least two people lodged complaints about his behaviour which apparently was particularly egregious (whether the complaints were to the club authorities or to the whips office is not clear to me as yet).

In any event, next day Pincher wrote to the PM saying ‘I drank far too much last night, prime minister, and said and did things I oughtn’t to have, and, rather than drag the government into this mess, I’m resigning as deputy chief whip, effective immediately.’ (I’m paraphrasing.)

Not wanting another by-election in a safe Tory seat (Tamworth in Staffordshire) Johnson accepted the resignation and the Downing Street operation attempted to throw a wet blanket over the whole story: the Conservative whip would be withdrawn from Pincher while the whole business is investigated (i.e., looking into the two complaints made about Pincher’s behaviour at the Carlton Club), so, until that investigation is concluded, we cannot say anything more under this heading. That’s all. Good night and goodbye.

The usual playbook play: we must wait for the Sue Gray report, or until the police have concluded their investigations, or until the Privileges Committee has concluded its work, or until the PM’s ethics advisor has submitted his report, or an independent judge or who or what ever the case may be, all of which are shunt-it-into-the-long-grass plays and in the meantime hope the news cycle moves on.

However in following days lots of other stories came out about Pincher — stuff from the recent past and from further back — leading to two additional complaints about his behaviour in the Palace of Westminster estate, which has its own procedures to do with such issues (procedures not so easily influenced by government agents, i.e., more like an HR department getting involved because nowadays these things are taken seriously, at least more seriously than in previous decades).

Turns out the guy is a notorious sex pest — notorious in the Westminster-Whitehall-St James’s Park districts anyhow — so much so he was even assigned a ‘minder’ to make sure he didn’t drink too much or get up to any of his usual carry on when he has drink taken.

So, naturally, given all the #MeToo stuff in recent years, questions start about why, if someone is like this (which is no longer acceptable behaviour in any workplace, nor anywhere else), Johnson appointed him to the whips office, which is one of the places one goes if one has an issue with someone like Pincher.

And, of course, as you’d expect from this regime at this stage, in the days following it was just one lie and/or misleading statement after another. They just couldn’t come clean and nip this thing in the bud at the outset. There’s been 6 or 7 different storylines already. All fucking lies and everyone knew they were lying from the get-go. And each of the lies unravelled within hours, or, if not more or less immediately, then certainly within a news cycle or two.

First the line was the PM was not aware of any allegations relating to Creepy Pincher when he appointed him to the whips office, then this changed to the PM not aware of any specific charge against Pincher at the time he appointed him, and then finally the line was that the PM was not aware of any serious specific charge. However in no time at all this [latter] was undone by the senior civil servant at the Foreign Office when Johnson was Foreign Secretary (Simon McDonald) because there was a departmental complaint about Pincher back then who at that time was a junior minister at the FO. A complaint which (upon investigation and adjudication) was upheld.

Simon McDonald, the FO mandarin, says Johnson was certainly briefed about Pincher at that time because he spoke to the person who briefed him. Something like this would always come across a permanent secretary’s desk, Lord McDonald said, because civil servants making accusations against a minister is sensitive stuff and will always be dealt with at the highest levels. (McDonald is retired from the FO now and, ennobled, has a seat in the House of Lords.)

Now, today, the new line is ‘O yes, Lord McDonald has jogged the PM’s memory so that now the PM does recall that briefing, however the fact of that briefing slipped his mind at the time he appointed Pincher to the whips office.’

It’s just pathetic. Everyone in parliament was openly laughing at the absurdity of these weak-ass lies each of which has come asunder like 2-dollar suitcase, and now we’re expected to accept line #6 (or #7 or whatever it is at this stage) is, finally, the truth of the matter. People no more believe storyline #6 or #7 than they did the first version a week ago. All 6 or 7 lines we’ve been subjected to these past 5 or 6 days have been either lies, a half-truths or attempts to deflect or mislead, and everyone knows this. Everyone in Westminster knows that everyone in Westminster knows about Creepy Pincher.

This is exactly what we had all through ‘Partygate’ too.

Johnson appointed Pincher to the whips office first and foremost because Pincher is loyal to Johnson, and second to that Johnson didn’t think any of these stories about Pincher were worth a pint of piss because after all there are plenty of similar stories about Johnson himself (particularly to do with his time at The Spectator where the carry on was notorious: several people have testified that Johnson himself was quite likely to drop the hand at a Spectator luncheon and have an exploratory feel if he fancied some young one — although in Johnson’s case it wasn’t boys and men, it was posh girls, particularly ambitious young ones seeking a junior opening in the uplands of the Tory media landscape), so that Johnson clearly felt that all such stuff is a good man’s failing — why shouldn’t a leading magazine editor or a cabinet minister have the pick of the young fillies in his stable. Perks of the office, dear boy. This is what it is to be a baron in his domain, droit du seigneur.

The difference now (as opposed to earlier in the year with the Partygate saga) is that 140 of Johnson’s backbench MPs have voted no confidence in him, and there must be another 50 or 60 who wanted to do so but couldn’t bring themselves to do so but very well may do so now following the events of the last few weeks when it’s perfectly clear to everyone that Johnson’s time is up.

And then there’s the by-election losses in Wakefield and in rural Devon. And maybe soon in Tamworth too because it’s also emerged today that complaints have been made to the police about Pincher’s behaviour in the past (to the Metropolitan Police and to the police in Staffordshire), although no charges ever ensued.

But most of all the mood in the country has turned against Johnson in a way he cannot recover from, I believe. People may well still want a Conservative government but they certainly do not want Johnson as PM any longer. He is — as was widely chorused at the time — wholly unsuited to such an office. We saw what he was like in a major office of state already when he was at the Foreign Office, where he was regarded as to total catastrophe, incompetent, chaotic, ludicrous and corrupt — at least he wanted to be corrupt, seeking to get his then girlfriend appointed to an FO position and so forth; and that’s before we get to his Lebedev connections and other unsavourinesses.

And if you listen to the vox pop stuff reporters are filing it’s clear these are Conservative voters speaking; indeed, often they’ve voted Conservative and plan to do so in the future again but at this stage they’ve had enough of Johnson and this government and of all the lies and sleaze and sexual assault stories. Johnson appears to be incapable of getting out of his own way — he’s his own worst enemy: both this Pincher business and the Partygate stuff could have been killed stone dead at the outset with candour and honesty and transparency, and good leadership, frankly, however it seems Johnson is incapable of these.

PMQs tomorrow will be worth watching, which may well be followed by resignation statements by Sunak and Javid, which Johnson will have to sit through, at least that’s the custom; if he attempts to scurry out after PMQs he’ll be deemed a coward, he’ll be jeered all the way into the weekend. Famously Mrs Thatcher had to sit and endure Geoffrey Howe’s devastating resignation statement (by tradition resignation statements are listened to respectfully): The time has come for others to consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long.

Then at 3pm he’s scheduled to appear before the Liaison Committee, which is a committee made up of all the chairs of all the Select Committees, the one committee that can summon a PM (other committees can summon him/her too, technically, but the like can be batted away, but not the Liaison Committee which is a collection of the most senior and respected and powerful parliamentarians; to snub the Liaison Committee is to snub parliament which Johnson cannot afford to do right now when he’s fighting to retain the confidence of the House).

At any time this would be a serious day for a PM but, given the circumstances, this is a nightmare schedule for this prime minister. A day of non-stop scrutiny by some of his most determined and able enemies. The Liaison Committee could well grill him for up to two hours. No doubt Downing Street will attempt to guillotine proceedings by scheduling a meet & greet for the King of Ruritania at 4:30 or some such.

And then there’s the possibility that Labour may propose a vote of No Confidence (no confidence in the PM specifically, not in the government because of course they want Conservatives to vote for the motion, or at least abstain).

This is a risky play because the like can backfire and may actually cause Conservatives to rally round their leader. Rebel Conservatives need to come to Labour and say if you propose the No Confidence motion we’ll vote for it (or at least abstain).

If a PM loses a vote of confidence in the Commons s/he simply has to step down. This is more than mere custom or convention, this is one of those things where it would not be up the PM as to whether s/he goes or stays. In such a situation the monarch would ask for the PM’s resignation if one was not forthcoming (just as the monarch asks someone to form a government once it’s clear that that person can command a majority in the House).

It would be a big thing for Conservative MPs to bring down their own government by voting with the opposition parties in support of a no confidence motion, however if it comes to it (if Johnson and his people leave them with no other avenue) they will do so, is my guess, because (firstly) if they don’t move against this guy they’re heading off a cliff (at least a mutiny and electing a new captain gives them a fighting chance because the next election need not be for another two years: 2024 I think it has to be — they were elected at the end of 2019, so 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023, 2024, so presumably they could run all the way to the fall of 2024 but most likely they’ll go to the country in May or June of 2024, unless of course the new PM goes to the country asap so that s/he has his/her own mandate), and, secondly, because this PM has clearly lost the confidence of the House and it is simply illegitimate (and, ultimately, impossible) to attempt to continue to govern without genuinely commanding the confidence of the House.

And, thirdly, he’s lost the confidence of the country.

Right now most of the blame is attaching to Johnson personally (also perhaps to the small supportive coterie surrounding him) so that if he goes quite a few of the present difficulties will go with him. However if they don’t get rid of him now they’ll be complicit, they’ll be blamed for not getting rid of him.

It’ll be bad for them whichever way it goes at this stage, I suspect, however it’ll be worse if he clings onto power.

I don’t think he will manage to cling on, I think enough of his backbenchers are now determined that he go, and determined in a way that means they will not stop now until he’s gone. The Rubicon has been crossed. They will now use any means necessary to achieve what they’ve set their will to achieving.

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Wednesday, 6 July

Johnson has appointed Stephen Barclay as the new Health Secretary (Barclay was appointed Johnson’s chief of staff only a few months ago — Downing Street chief of staff #3, I think) and Nadhim Zahawi as Chancellor of the Exchequer (hitherto Zahawi served as Education minister).

Moving fast to replace those who’ve departed limits the damage to the government.

All the other Cabinet members are sticking with BoJo, it seems. There’s been a few junior ministers resign and several parliamentary private secretaries (the lowest rank in government service). Not sure of the numbers, 12 or 15 altogether at a guess (18 by lunchtime, in fact, 9 of whom are junior ministers).

Newspapers front pages make for dreadful viewing for the PM this morning, something we know he takes seriously, indeed, according to the testimony of many who have worked in Downing Street, he takes what the papers say more seriously than anything else, especially the Telegraph, the Mail and the Express:

Johnson on the Brink (The Times)

Johnson hanging by a thread as Sunak and Javid walk out (Telegraph)

Johnson on the brink as ministers quit (FT)

PM on the brink as Sunak and Javid quit (Guardian)

Boris Fights On (Express)

Going Going Gone? (Metro)

Endgame (i)

Last Chance Saloon (The Sun)

Finally… (The Mirror)

Curtains for Bozo (The Star)

Can even Boris the Greased Piglet wriggle out of this? (Daily Mail)*

*’Greased Piglet’ is a reference to something David Cameron is supposed to have said about Johnson’s ability to escape out of the tightest of strangleholds.

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Boris Johnson on his feet at PMQs (Prime Minister’s Questions) in the Commons

PMQs dreadful for the PM. He was in bullish form (and he even managed to laugh at several of the humorous digs at his expense) but I think you could actually see power and authority draining away from him.

Firstly, it was embarrassingly obvious that his backbenchers were not giving him the usual rugby club stand support which BoJo’s performances in particular need (characters such as John Major and Mrs May didn’t need this type of support especially, but Johnson’s persona is all about performing when at least half the room supports him, enthusiastically supportive too) — today it was like watching a 2nd or 3rd rate sitcom without the canned laughter. There was one moment in particular where he finished with a bravura flourish (listing all the things this government has done and is doing and will do) a flourish that really needed cheering at the end of it, but there was no response at all. Crickets. It was embarrassing.

Keir Starmer was good. He began by asking a question which was anchored to a couple of direct quotes by one of the young men assaulted at the Carlton Club by Creepy Pincher and the question that followed was ‘Why did the PM appoint such a person to government office?’

All that came back was bluster and attempted deflection.

Leader of the Opposition, Keir Starmer, grilling the PM at PMQs, as seen on my laptop

Another good moment was when Starmer quoted one of the whips who the young man (one of the Carlton Club assault victims) took his complaint to. She asked him if he was gay. Which he is as it happens but the point is that by asking such a question the whip is implying that there may have been something about this young man that drew the attentions of the sex pest in the first place. It’s the equivalent of asking a woman who is raped in the park whether she was wearing a miniskirt and a see-through top on the night in question, i.e., the victim’s behaviour or way of dressing or lifestyle or way of walking is partly to blame for what happened. Starmer invited the PM to condemn this whip and her implicit attitude.

More bluster and deflection (and no condemnation of the whip).

Another line Starmer took was to say that when he was a prosecutor he prosecuted many rape cases and aside from being familiar with all these patterns of actions and attitudes (i.e., the stuff referred to in the foregoing) one thing is clear to anyone who has ever been close to such material is that rape and sexual assault are not about sex or sexual desire, they’re primarily about power, power over victims and the victims’ powerlessness: so my question is this, prime minister: knowing that Pincher was a sex pest and a predator, why did you put this man in a position of power?

It was one of the best performances by Starmer at PMQs I’ve seen. He had a good couple of lines towards the end too about the members of the Cabinet standing by this disgraced and discredited prime minister, characterizing their rush to tweet their support for the PM yesterday in the wake of Sunak and Javid’s resignations as ‘the charge of the lightweight brigade’. He landed the line perfectly making the whole House laugh, including (to his credit) Johnson himself.

But Johnson would have been steeled for Starmer’s questions. I think some of the backbencher questions which followed were even more damaging, including one from the Conservative benches who asked if there were any circumstances in which the PM would consider resigning? It was a stinging question but Johnson attempted to take it at face value and spluttered out some type of answer to it, but the point of the question was not the answer it elicited but rather simply the asking of it, embodying as it did sarcasm, disrespect, contempt and reproof.

And then there was Javid’s resignation statement (Sunak choosing not to make one, apparently). It was good, although in my view it was as much the first statement of a leadership campaign as it was a resignation statement, but, in the circumstances, that’s inevitable seeing as his resignation was the first action of his leadership campaign.

For me the most effective bit was when he said that at the start of the ‘Partygate’ business 6 months ago he was assured by one of the most senior members of Johnson’s Downing Street team as it was then constituted* that there had been no parties in Downing Street during lockdown and no rules were broken. We now know from Sue Gray’s report that this was a 12- or 14-fold lie. Javid said that he accepted what he was told at that time as truth and went out on media rounds and repeated and propagated these lies. The point being that it’s not just Johnson who is a discredited liar, he makes everyone around him lie, everyone who serves him. He corrupts all around him.

*First there was the Dominic Cummings regime in Downing Street. Then there was the one that came after that, which was dismissed earlier this year when the present regime was put in place for reset number 2. So now we’re on our third Downing Street regime. As Javid said in his statement today there’s only so many times you can press the reset button before you conclude that the device needs replacing.

Javid ended with a call to his former colleagues in Cabinet to reflect on what all this is doing to not just the party (the Tory brand) but to the whole project of political conservativism.

As I said earlier this morning, Johnson had to sit in silence among his frontbenchers and listen to this. As soon as it was over he scurried out of the chamber with about half the House jeering his exit and catcalling, many calling out “Bye, Boris!” and laughing.

The guy’s done. It’s over. It’s a humiliating end to a wretched, cynical, lie-filled, corrupt premiership.

And when people look back on this regime — on the end of it — it’ll be chalked down to three Ps: Pincher, Partygate and the [Owen] Patterson affair.

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Thursday, 7 July

This morning’s newspaper headlines:

Johnson fights for his life (The Times)

Mortally wounded PM defies Cabinet demands that he quit (Telegraph)

Johnson rocked by Cabinet revolt (FT)

Boris stares down the mutiny (Mail)

You’ll have to dip your hands in blood to get rid of me (Sun)

Desperate, deluded PM clings to power (Guardian)

Back me or face political oblivion (Express)

Get Exit Done! (Metro)

A day of chaos and humiliation yesterday, a day that is proof positive that Johnson is utterly shameless. 46 resignations as I write, resignations either from government positions or step-downs by Conservative Party officers. Yesterday evening deputations of Cabinet colleges went into Downing Street to tell the PM the game was up and rather than see the deputations as deputations (i.e., meeting them as groups) he met with them one-on-one in his office in an attempt to intimidate and cow them. Grant Chapps, the transport secretary — in the past one of BJ’s main campaign managers and supporters — Nadhim Zahawi, his new-minted chancellor, even the diehard Brexiteer and Johnsonite Priti Patel, all telling him that for the sake of the of the country, for the sake of the party, for the sake of his own reputation and legacy he needed to reconcile himself with the need to pack up, fuck off and begin the next chapter of his life’s story.

However there was also a pro-Johnson Cabinet delegation led by Rees-Mogg (the member for West Caricature) and the even more absurd Nadine Dorries urging him to stay and fight, to whom, of course, the PM listened eagerly for this is exactly the type of porridge and jelly he likes best. His instinct is for fighting the fight. He’s spent almost his whole life attempting to achieve this office and he’s damned if he’s going to relinquish it without bare-knuckle fighting any and all-comers seeking to take the First Lord of the Treasury mantle from him.

Another 20 or so government people resigned yesterday afternoon and evening, including another Cabinet member, Simon Hart, the Secretary of State for Wales.

According to one report (a report which has been published in several outlets) a whips office head count has determined that in a vote of confidence the PM could reliably count on the support of just 65 of his parliamentary colleagues.

He has so clearly lost the confidence of the House. It is actually shaping up to be a bit of a constitutional crisis because he’s refusing to go even though go he must, however, as one of the newspaper headlines above puts it, to get rid of him his enemies are going to need to redden their hands with his blood. They are either going to have to vote with the opposition parties in a No Confidence vote (which in tribal Toryland will be long remembered) or they’re going to need to change the rules of the 1922 Committee and vote no confidence in him as a party. And if that — the latter — happens Johnson would still have the play of asking the queen for a dissolution of parliament available to him and he says he’s prepared to go to the country to hold onto his job.

He says he received 14 million votes 30 months ago and that those votes were for him personally for the most part and that that massive mandate trumps anything voted for in the parliamentary party or in Cabinet. He says he’ll ask the queen to dissolve parliament and make it a Parliament versus the People campaign.

He wouldn’t win such an election, of course, but the threat lies in the fact that the Tory party would be decimated (such a campaign at such a time, with all the vicious things people have said about one another in recent weeks, a time of war in Europe, during a cost of living crisis, and an economic crisis in the wake of Brexit and Covid and all the rest of it), so he’s really saying ‘Back me or I’ll bring the whole temple down on top of all of us’.

What this [from Johnson] is is a Trumpian power play. He is openly defying all the conventions of the British governmental system. And this is wholly in-character because this is how he’s got to where he’s got to — this is how he prospered in school and university, this is how he built his career as a newspaper and media guy, this is how and why he succeeded in achieving the London mayoralty and after that won the Brexit campaign and wound up Foreign Secretary (where he then shafted another Conservative prime minster having previously shafted Cameron in 2016).

And as PM he defied conventions too, which worked well for a while — he got Brexit done (well, he got it done well enough to win an election campaign on the strength of the slogan), albeit he defied the Supreme Court in so doing, and he won the 2019 election (illegally proroguing parliament along the way and lying to the queen about what was happening), and he was one of the leading men on the world stage for about two/two and a half years — but these very same characteristics are also what undone him in the end.

Now effectively he’s saying ‘Fuck the constitution, I’m going nowhere; I’ll burn the place down before I give way’ — ‘I’m determined to be king even if only king of the ashes.’

However, unlike Trump, there’s going to be no armed turnout in Whitehall and Parliament Square to give menace to his bluster. He really has lost the country and his doing what he’s doing now only serves to highlight and underline how wholly suitable he is for such high office in the first place.

The whole British constitution depends on the ‘good chap’ notion of governing. Johnson highlights how vulnerable the whole system is, a system that depends on privately educated Oxbridge fellows whose main aim after office is to go back up to Oxford or Cambridge and serve as master at one of the colleges (or as chancellor of the university maybe, or vice-chancellor), or maybe be chairman of British Museum, or chairman of the BBC board of governors or chair of the Bank of England, that sort of thing. Those days are long gone. Cameron, Blair, Johnson and so on expect to live off a trust fund wealth worth tens of millions for the remainder of their lives, living international jet-set lives with five or six dwellings in 3 or 4 countries (places in New York, Switzerland, London and the Cotswolds, say, and maybe a place on a Caribbean island too, or somewhere near Nice or in Tuscany). The antique Erskine May type system cannot cope with such voracious expectations.

In any event, what Johnson is attempting to do won’t work, I don’t think, because it’s clear to the whole country that we don’t have a functioning government right now. He’s in office but not in power. Another half a dozen government resignations already this morning, and, no doubt, more to follow later this morning and later today. (The number of resignations is over 50 already and it’s not clear there are 50 people available who have confidence in him to fill the empty places.) There are ministries with no ministerial staff remaining and several with only one or two, people who are staying put just to hold the fort. A bill that was supposed to progress in parliament this morning has been pulled because there are no ministers left in the department to pilot it through the proceedings.

Things are such that if Johnson went to the queen and asked for a dissolution of parliament she might well be advised to refuse the request (it is in her constitutional power so to do as per the so-called ‘Lascelles Principles’ — the monarch can refuse to dissolve parliament if the existing Parliament is still “vital, viable, and capable of doing its job”, if a general election would be “detrimental to the national economy”, and, if the sovereign could “rely on finding another prime minister who could govern for a reasonable period with a working majority in the House of Commons”). And rather than dissolve parliament — which in the circumstances would be to meddle in politics because, effectively, she’d be a pawn in a Johnson intra-party power play — she would take advice on who she could ask to attempt to form an alternative government. There’s plenty precedent for the like — Stanley Baldwin wanted a dissolution in the 1920s, for example, but it was not granted and the king asked Ramsay MacDonald to form a government, which he did, a national coalition government.

It would be different if it was a matter of policy (particularly something in the 2019 election manifesto), or a budget, then the PM would have a much stronger case for a dissolution (although it would still be in the queen’s gift, technically, but by convention a PM would get his/her way if it was an issue of the budget or something s/he was elected to deliver) but this present situation is not about policy or supply, it’s about character and personality and integrity and governing style. It’s about lies and partying in Downing Street and lying about partying in Downing Street and then lying about lying about partying in Downing Street, and it’s about debauchery and various forms of corruption (remember Lord Geidt — Johnson’s advisor on ethics, the second such advisor in the space of 30 months, the first guy Sir Alex Allen also resigning and walking away — is the former private secretary to the Queen, she knows Geidt, and if a good man like Geidt feels he has to step away from association with Johnson then that’s all the recommendation she needs).

She would not grant a dissolution. The 1922 Committee would change the party rules and stage another no confidence vote in a trice (if it needed to) and the Conservative Party would have a new leader before the end of the month and that person would be asked to form a government.

She might even ask someone else to attempt to form a government in the interim, Dominic Rabb possibly seeing as he is deputy prime minister.

So all this ‘Big Dog’ stuff from Johnson is just bluster. He’s lost the confidence of his Cabinet, of his party, and of parliament and the country, and he has no more cards to play. He’s gotto go and that’s the end of it.

+++

At about 9am this morning the word came that Piggy Johnson has agreed to go. He’s stepping down as Conservative Party leader with immediate effect, however he will continue on as PM until a new CP leader is elected.

The CP will have 6 or 8 candidates standing which the parliamentary party will vote on and the top two will go to the whole party membership (c. 100,000 people apparently) doing hustings before the membership up and down the shires of Toryworld.

Stage one will take a week, maybe two (it’ll be done before the summer recess which is two weeks from now, Thursday, 21 July). Stage two (the countrywide hustings for the membership) 4 or 5 weeks. Ought to have a new leader by the beginning of September (the Tory party conference is at the beginning of October this year but I imagine the new leader will need to be in place before then, give him/her time to read their way up to speed and select a new Cabinet and select and fashion a few new policies for display and then the new Cabinet and leadership [and new policy menu] will have their official launch at the conference whereat they will be standing ovated).

Boris Johnson took over as PM on 23 July 2019, so he’s going to have been PM for 3 years at least. Mrs May was PM for 3 years and 11 days. Gordon Brown for 2 years 318 days. James Callaghan 3 years and 29 days. Neville Chamberlain 2 years 248 days (as it happens, today Johnson has been PM for 2 years and 248 days — he saw himself as a big beast like Churchill but in fact he’ll be alongside the more minor prime ministerial figures, Chamberlain, Callaghan, May and Brown, a blonde bombshell among the lesser prime minsters).

Fuck him, he’s a rotten character and he’s been a disaster as PM (he’s a strong campaigner — and certainly an excellent self-promoter — but no serious person would argue that he’s someone suited to governing, as indeed so many effective and magnetic insurgents aren’t). I’ve no sympathy for him.

+++

Apparently the thing that finally brought Johnson’s posh-boy sullen resistance to an end is the fact that it wasn’t just me seeing what he was attempting to do as Trumpian, it was widely spoken of as something akin to Trump’s last stand in December 2020 and January 2021, and it was either pointed out to him or it dawned on him that to go full Trump in the last Act would be to destroy his reputation, and, just as importantly his post-office earnings potential: book deals, appearance fees, special envoy gigs, lecturer and fellowships, invites to White House events and to other A-list places… that if he didn’t cop-the-fuck on and pull in his beak and accept the reality of the situation, he could ruin what might still be a brilliant and lucrative post-office career.

+++

Good political obit on Johnson in The Guardian (Thursday, 7 July 2022) by Jonathan Freedland which is bang on in my opinion (good photos accompanying this article too): https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2022/jul/07/toxic-spell-broken-boris-johnson-trips-over-own-lies: ‘His toxic spell is broken: Johnson trips over his own lies’

+++

And this by Rafael Behr, also in The Guardian (Tuesday, 19 July 2022), also good, I think, a reflection on the aftermath of the putsch: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/jul/19/boris-johnson-curse-prime-minister-tory-leader?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other: ‘A bitter, unrepentant Boris Johnson will be a curse on the next prime minister’

Day-tripping: Clear Island

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Went to Cape Clear (Oileán Chléire) yesterday. Ferry boat from Baltimore mid-morning. Good weather. Walked one of the coastal walkways — the Red Loop walkway. Picnicked on a hillside looking south towards the northwest corner of Spain. An Siopa Beag afterwards while waiting to board the ferryboat back to Baltimore in the afternoon. Back in town by 6 pm. Lovely day.

Following are a selection of photos.

We Don’t Know Ourselves

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I’ve been reading Fintan O’Toole’s We Don’t Know Ourselves (Head of Zeus, 2021), it’s a tome, over 600 pages, including 46 pages of back-matter, it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.

I began reading it Easter Week and one of the reasons I’ve been at it so long is I’ve not wanted it to end, hence I’ve been rationing it so this excellent reading experience continues as long as possible.

Also I’ve been taking notes as I go along — resulting in over 30 pages of text, noting sections of interest and excellence (indexing the book for myself, effectively), stuff that’s striking or impactful for one reason or another, copying out quotable bits. And I’ve backtracked a number of occasions to reread chapters (or sections thereof), rereading them in light of the way later developments are portrayed.

And at several points what O’Toole has written has sparked off reminiscences and reflections about my own life & times, my own experience of family, schooling, emigrating in the 1980s, coming home again in the midst of the Celtic Tiger boom, then the collapse of all that and the hangover and austere recovery afterwards.

From early on I knew I would write something reflecting on this important work (I knew from the first sitting, in fact, at which time I read 8 of the book’s 43 chapters, which is to say, everything up to the end of ‘Our Boys’, the chapter on the Christian Brothers*), a milestone reflection on the modernization of Ireland project initiated by T.K. Whitaker and Seán Lemass in the late 1950s and early 60s (Whitaker was a civil servant in the Department of Finance — Secretary of the department — and Lemass the Republic’s Taoiseach [prime minster] from 1959 to 1966).

*Before going up to UCD (where he read English and Philosophy), O’Toole was educated at Scoil Íosagáin and Coláiste Chaoimhín in Crumlin, CBS foundations.

*

Writing in the Times Literary Supplement (17 December 2021) John Banville describes it as a masterpiece: ‘O’Toole’, Banville writes, ‘is Ireland’s pre-eminent public intellectual. He has written a score of books, ranging in subject matter from the beef trade, the life of the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and the birth and sudden death of the Celtic Tiger, to, most recently, the fiasco that was and remains Brexit. We Don’t Know Ourselves is surely his masterpiece: a long, detailed and beautifully executed study of the more or less sad state of Ireland from the year of the author’s birth, 1958, to the present.’

This from Banville in what is a well-considered, essay-style review, one that engages with the central theme of the work — this business of Irish doubleness — most especially simultaneously knowing and not knowing stuff (Banville’s TLS piece is titled ‘Everybody knew’) — knowing and not knowing about paedophile priests, knowing and not knowing about what went on in industrial schools and mother and baby homes, knowing and not knowing about attempted arms importation in the Arms Crisis of 1970, knowing and not knowing about widespread tax evasion with bogus non-resident bank accounts and other tax-dodging schemes, knowing and not knowing about Haughey, knowing and not knowing about Apple’s tax swindle (and all the other corporate sweetheart deals there are too — there’s even a tax-avoiding three-card-trick known as the ‘Double Irish’), knowing and not knowing that the Celtic Tiger boom was a motorway pile-up sure to happen, knowing and not knowing that people were accessing birth control services even when these things were strictly verboten, which was grand with the authorities so long as you knew the access codes — the language game, the signifiers — and didn’t talk about it or draw attention to the fact.

Banville follows the section quoted above with this: ‘That O’Toole ends on a cautiously upbeat note is remarkable, given the accounts of wilful blindness, political chicanery, moral duplicity, heedless cruelty, untrammelled corruption and sheer lunacy that course through this book.’

Author and Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole whose output also appears regularly in The Guardian, The New York Times and The New York Review of Books

One of the first things a reader will be struck by is the way O’Toole has little mini-stories or preludes at the beginning of chapters, so, for example, chapter 2, ‘1959: Modern Family’ (pp. 44-52), begins with an account of an attempt by his parents to escape the Crumlin housing estate they were born into and destined to reproduce in by moving into a flat in leafy Monkstown eight miles east, near Dublin Bay, only to have to forego their hoity-toity aspirations to return to Crumlin to care for his maternal grandfather when the grandmother dies (Fintan was born while they were living in this Monkstown flat).

O’Toole goes directly from talking about his own family’s little Crumlin-Monkstown-Crumlin mini-drama to do with the conflict between the magazine and silver screen ideal of the modern nuclear family and the entailed reality in smelly auld Ireland to talking about John B. Keane’s Sive.

When Sive was first produced it was regarded as a scalding critique of the prevailing culture in Ireland in the 1950s, and it was a huge bottom-up success.

Usually in Ireland when you hear of crowd trouble in or around theatres it’s a conservative/reactionary audience denouncing or protesting a radical or progressive production (Sean O’Casey’s plays or Synge’s Playboy of the Western World two well-known examples), however on this occasion — St Patrick’s night, 1959 — there was trouble in and around and outside the Playhouse Theatre in Limerick which had to do with people wanting to get in to see the play, not obstruct its performance or shut it down.

‘Hundreds who travelled long distances from the neighbouring counties of Kerry, Clare and Limerick found they could not get into an already packed theatre and there were ‘scenes of pushing and general chaos at the entrance.’ Inside, the production of a play by a young man who ran a small pub in the north Kerry town of Listowel, John B. Keane’s Sive, was drowned out not by boos and catcalls, but by ‘bursts of spontaneous applause and cheering.’ Even before it began [the audience] ‘sat and stood in tense expectancy.’ (p. 46)

Keane’s play had been contemptuously rejected by the Abbey, the national theatre, the manuscript he sent them returned without even with so much as a Thanks-but-No-thanks rejection slip, no word or note or mark of any kind at all, just sent back down to Listowel where it came from. (Keane had written the play at night in the pub after closing-time, writing all through the night — most of the nights anyhow. It took him two weeks to complete a first draft, writing with pencil in a tuppenny-ha’penny school copy book.)

The local amateur drama group in Listowel put on a production of the play and it was a success. Afterwards they took it on the Am Dram festival circuit and enjoyed repeated successes there too, going all the way to the All-Ireland Amateur Drama Finals that year and winning the top award.

For the rest of 1959 Sive was the play everyone wanted to see, not just in Kerry and Limerick — or in Munster — all across the country. Even in Dublin.

And then O’Toole writes: ‘What was being summoned up by this savage incantation’ — the sounds and rhythms and language of the play, and the west-world accents of the players — ‘was what my own parents, in their own much less dramatic way were experiencing that year: a deep anxiety about how marriage and the family were supposed to work. Keane’s play is about a woman, Mena, who is in her early forties and runs a small farm with her husband. What she wants is a nuclear family. But she can’t have one. Not only is she childless, but the household is occupied by her husband’s mother and by his niece, Sive, born out of wedlock and orphaned. At the prompting of a matchmaker, Mena sells Sive to a wealthy but elderly farmer. [Horrified at the prospect] Sive runs away [but at night, in black bog-water, she drowns]. The play ends with two nomadic Travellers, the play’s moral chorus, singing a dirge over her body.’ (p. 48)

And then O’Toole  says: ‘The most obvious thing about this plot is that it seems utterly medieval. It could be a folktale or a ballad. […] But it is equally obvious that Irish people in 1959 did not think about Sive as being ancient and exotic. They responded to it as social realism. Which, albeit in an epically exaggerated way, it was. The basic story was not fanciful, even in 1950s Ireland. [In fact] Keane had been inspired by an incident in his own pub.’ (pp. 48-9)

This was not the version of marriage Irish people were seeing in the American movies to which they flocked. ‘Modernity meant falling in love, courting, getting married and starting a household with Daddy, Mammy and the kids — not with old grandmothers and orphaned girls. What [people were] seeing in Sive was both a ferocious denunciation of the old idea of the family and a haunting demonstration that it could not be escaped.’ (p. 49)

From there O’Toole opens things out further again to talk about expectations in general in the 1950s, and the position of women with respect to the institutions of marriage and family in particular.

The 1961 census showed that of the 374,971 dwellings in rural Ireland, 281,058 (nearly 75 per cent) got their water from a ‘well, fountain, pump’ or other non-piped source. ‘Just 45,585 (12 per cent) of the homes had the use of a hot-water tap. What this meant was a huge amount of drudgery. It was children and especially women who carried the buckets up and back, up and back. Reports of women having to haul buckets of water for two miles to and from a pump or well were commonplace.’ (p. 61)

[…] This was ‘the wrong kind of timelessness,’ O’Toole continues, ‘a way of life that was intolerably unaltered over many centuries. But women could change it — by leaving the countryside for Dublin, for England or for the U.S. James Dean wrote in the Irish Press in 1960 that ‘The womenfolk have been carrying water in pails and buckets from the well or from the spring for many hundreds of years. And the net result, when we come to look at the human account sheet over the period, is that there are progressively fewer women who stay in the country. The inescapable deduction is that perhaps they don’t really enjoy spending their lives being mere drawers of water […] when the application of a little money, intelligence and the force of gravity could put water in a tap in their own kitchen sink.’

‘Water was a sexual issue. It affected marriages. The bitterly ironic phrase ‘Love, Honour and Carry Water’, parodying the wedding vows to love, honour and obey, was used as an advertising slogan by a supplier of water pumps in the early 1960s.’ (p. 62)

Fintan O’Toole, aged 10, fronting a collage of images of Irish life from the latter half of the 20th century

As I say, these chapter-openings are excellent, usually going from something personal or local onwards and upwards to things bigger and/or broader, often seamlessly moving from one to the other. Chapter 6, ‘The Dreamy Movement of the Stairs’ (pp. 93-104), for example, is about President John F. Kennedy’s homecoming visit to Ireland in June 1963. Here’s how it opens:

‘After Mass in Saint Bernadette’s on Sundays we would cross the road to Jim O’Keeffe’s shop to buy sweets. Mr O’Keeffe was a monument to good feeding: broad-beamed, moon-faced, double-chinned, glowing red with humour and self-satisfaction. He was called Jim by the adults and Mr O’Keeffe by us, but in public life he was J.J. O’Keeffe, a stalwart of the conservative Fine Gael party on Dublin Corporation. In 1963, he was elected Lord Mayor of Dublin and got to do two very exciting things. The one that interested me most was that on 25 March 1963 he ‘inaugurated’, in Roches department store on Henry Street, the first escalator in Ireland, imported from Germany. ‘The Lord Mayor cut the ribbon’, the Evening Herald reported, ‘silent motors began to purr somewhere, and the dreamy movement of the stairs began.’ The Irish Press referred to our own portly Mr O’Keeffe as ‘the first man to make the ascent’, as if he were Edmund Hillary and [the first floor of] Roches Stores Everest.

‘I remember it because, like every other kid in Dublin, we went into Roches Stores to try it out. There were actually two escalators, one from the basement to the ground floor and the other from there to the first floor. They were magic carpets of modernity. Even the word was new and shiny: we never imagined a need for such a verb, for such a motion: to escalate. We levitated like fakirs. The effortlessness had the thrill of sin. Everything had to be worked for. Duty was all. But this was a free ride. You just did nothing. You glided upwards like a gull catching a thermal. […]

‘The second most exhilarating moment in Mr O’Keeffe’s year was that a short while after he made that glorious first ascent, he was in the Oval Office with John Fitzgerald Kennedy. There he is on 2 May, his big bum perched on the side of a sofa in his old-fashioned black three-piece suit, his big hands on his big knees, beaming jovially at the young man in the rocking chair [to] his left. JFK might be from another century. His suit is two-piece, sable grey, slim cut. His shirt is a cool pale blue, his tie narrow and divided by diagonals of gold and blue and scarlet, his cufflinks shooting out perfectly from his jacket sleeve. The two men are like illustrative figures from a cartoon: old world and new, dullness and glamour.’ (pp. 93-4)

L to R: Thomas Kiernan, Irish ambassador to the United States, J.J. O’Keeffe, lord mayor of Dublin, and John F. Kennedy, 35th president of the United States, in the Oval Office, May 1963

And, as I say, from there O’Toole goes on to portray Kennedy’s ‘homecoming’: a descendant of impoverished, Famine-era emigrants returning as the most powerful man in the world, and, additionally, one of the most fashionable and handsomest, all the weird semantics of that — the uber-cool Kennedys in donkey-braying, turf-smelling, shit-in-field Ireland.

But pause to note the cleverness of having J.J. O’Keeffe ascending the escalator before we see him seated next to JFK on the page following. Fabulous. Especially in light of the fact that the whole story — and particularly this block of the story — is about our national aspiration to escalate upwards towards the first floor and upper levels of 20th century modernity.

O’Toole’s beginnings are first class but his endings are just as peachy. In this chapter, for instance, the bottom of the down escalator is JFK getting shot and killed in Dallas in November of that year, however before that there’s a wonderful de-escalation for the ‘elite of Ireland’s Society’: ‘the social highlight of the [Kennedy] visit was the garden party at de Valera’s official residence, Áras an Uachtaráin, the former Vice-Regal Lodge in Phoenix Park. [Among the] 1,500 guests were ‘several heads of corporations and State bodies, members of the judiciary and assorted government types, along with their wives’.

‘The day before the garden party, Ida Grehan reported in the Irish Times that ‘a leading Dublin milliner told me she hasn’t a hat left. She brought back a big collection from London… and everything from thirty shillings to thirty guineas has walked out the door!’ […] ‘The leading Dublin-based couturier Ib Jorgensen and his team [were] ‘working round the clock’, while Miss Doran’s salon on Dawson Street which had been ‘dressing the best people for quite a number of decades’ — wives of government ministers, the diplomatic corps and the hierarchy of medicine, law and commerce — had ‘scoured the salons of London, Paris, Nice [and] Switzerland’ for outfits for the great and the good of early 1960s Ireland.

‘By the end of the garden party, much of the lavish millinery was in disarray. The weather did not collude in the pretence that Dublin was Paris. The lawn was ‘miserably wet and stiletto heels sunk deep’. The ‘constant echoing refrain from women all around was on the lines of “I could sit down and cry”’. Bare arms were covered in goose pimples from the chilly breeze. Perhaps this anguish contributed to what happened when Kennedy and de Valera emerged from the house, ‘something near to mob hysteria… suggestive of the adulation of a film or pop star’.

Irish Times reporter Tom McCaughren witnessed the scene: ‘There was pandemonium on the lawns… as a crushing, pushing crowd of guests literally mobbed President Kennedy… In the middle of the melee an obviously distraught Mr de Valera motioned the crowd back with his hand and appealed, “Move back, move back, please!” His appeal to the crowd to keep back fell on deaf ears.’

‘The police commissioner Daniel Costigan and members of the Special Branch and of Kennedy’s bodyguard tried to push the people back but they were overwhelmed. ‘Toes were trampled on, high heels sank into the lawn, shoes were lost, beautiful hats were crumpled, guests fell over chairs… One woman roared “Jack, Jack, shake my hand”. When he did, she turned away, adjusted her hat, and expressed her utter satisfaction to her friends and to others on whom she had trampled.’ (pp. 102-3)

[…] ‘The debacle of the garden party raised again the old spectres — were we civilized at all? An anonymous report in the Sligo Champion a few days later said the garden party had ‘turned into a demonstration of uncouth bad manners, ignorance and bad breeding… men in top hats and swallow-tailed coats and their women in their expensive finery pushed, scrambled and actually came to blows in their efforts to mob the guest of the nation as if they were a collection of aborigines… the elite of Ireland’s Society behaved like a collection of ignorant Hottentots’. (p. 103)

ooo0ooo

There are so many fine examples of these wonderfully composed beginnings and endings I could present several more — scores more — but for reasons of space I mustn’t, however, before moving on, I do want to give special mention to the chapter on the 50th anniversary commemoration of 1916’s Easter Rising in 1966 — ‘The GPO Trouser Suit’, pp. 132-52 — a chapter that begins and ends with explosions: first, the destruction of Nelson’s Pillar on O’Connell Street in March 1966 (pp. 132-33) and then closing with the demolition of MacDonagh Tower (in June 2005), the last of the seven 15-storey tower-blocks in the housing project disaster zone that was Ard Glas, Ballymun, the seven 1960s tower blocks named after seven of the men executed following the 1916 Rising (pp. 151-52).

Aside from wonderful chapter beginnings and endings there are also some outstanding entrances and exits.

This is how we first meet a particularly significant personage in O’Toole’s story:

‘On a cold, bright Friday morning in the middle of January 1968, I was walking up Clogher Road to Saint Bernadette’s […] It was still early, perhaps about eight o’clock. Almost no one was around. Just before the church, walled off behind high trees, was the handsome house of the parish priest. Parked outside it on the road was a grand Humber Pullman limousine, its stately curves thrusting out like the prow of an ocean liner in front of the high cab that recalled the elegant coach of a nineteenth-century aristocrat. The metal body shone so brightly it seemed to be generating its own luminosity from some secret source of power.

‘As I approached the Humber, I could see a man in a grey uniform kneeling on the cold footpath and leaning in toward its interior. I thought he must be fixing something that had broken. But when I was almost at the car, I could see two dainty feet poking out from the side of the passenger compartment. The chauffeur was polishing the shoes that encased them. The man wearing them was the Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid. I hugged the inside of the footpath and walked quickly and quietly on. I did not think either of them had seen me. I scurried on to the church to get ready for the performance of my lifetime: serving a high, solemn requiem Latin Mass for the man who was the voice of God in Dublin.’ (p. 158)

This is the opening to chapter 11: ‘1968: Requiem’, pp. 158-73.

Archbishop John Charles McQuaid in his princely pomp

McQuaid was in Crumlin to lead a funeral mass for the parish priest, Fr Joseph O’Connor, ‘a stocky, grumpy, thick-browed Corkman.’ The old PP ‘seemed ancient,’ to the 10-year-old O’Toole, ‘though he was only seventy. He was cantankerous: he threw a girl I knew out of Confession because she had come from another diocese and they said the Act of Contrition slightly differently there. We stayed out of his way as much as we could. We were not sorry he died. But John Charles McQuaid was — O’Connor was an old friend of his. The news that he was coming to celebrate the Requiem Mass was, to us, exactly like hearing that a king is to visit his remote subjects.’ (p. 162)

O’Toole was agog at the archbishop’s ‘regal bearing, his unforced assumption that he was in control of all he surveyed. Being in his presence was like being a page at the palace of a great potentate, suddenly called into the presence of power. I had never seen before, and have never seen since, a man so utterly in command. […]

‘When the Mass was over, we went back into our room in the sacristy. We were glowing and buzzing like actors after a triumphant performance. Then we fell silent as John Charles came in. He had changed out of his vestments and was wearing instead a red-trimmed black cassock with a scarlet pellegrina over his shoulders and breast. He was a small man, and his ears stuck out under his biretta, but his monarchical presence was undiminished. He raised his right arm gently to the height of his own waist, palm down, so that I could see the amethyst in the Borgia ring presented to him on his elevation to the episcopacy by the Irish medical profession and said to have been worn by medieval popes.

‘I genuflected as we had been taught to do, my right knee on the floor, the left heel tilted slightly forward, and brushed the precious stone with my lips. When I stood up again, he put his hand on my cheek. His touch felt soft, like a girl’s. His eyes were deep and dark and they were lit with flickers of interest and curiosity. His smile made the worry-lines under them crinkle and seemed to indicate something much more than graciousness — a familial intimacy. As he patted my hair, I felt thoroughly known, not just because the most important man in the public world was asking me my name and how good I was at school, but because he somehow seemed not to have to ask.

‘I felt, in that moment, the intense pleasure of certainty. It was the assurance of an external form that stretched in space from Crumlin to Rome and in time from now to eternity. The Requiem Mass had been solemn but it did not make me feel sad — on the contrary, there was an exhilaration in being up there in front of the altar, centre stage in a drama that always had, and always would, play its way out word for word, gesture for gesture, in saecula saeculorum. I had touched the infinite.’ [in saecula saeculorum: unto the ages of ages, or for all eternity]

‘I felt encompassed. I never felt this before or since.

‘But there was also a more intimate kind of certainty now in the sacristy with McQuaid’s sprightly eyes on my face and his hand on my cheek. It felt as though he knew everything about me and that this was a wonderful thing because what he could see when he looked into my soul was goodness. I was a good boy and now the man who, for me, embodied God on earth, was letting me know that a perpetual light was shining on this truth. I need have no anxiety about falling away from this state of grace — McQuaid’s brown eyes had fixed it forever in their warm and intense gaze.’ (pp. 163-4)

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One of the best chapters in the book, I think, is chapter 13 — ‘The Killer Chord’, pp. 183-95 — which is about the composer Seán Ó Riada. I won’t spoil it by reproducing it here but Ó Riada’s entrance is another really great one, especially in conjunction with what comes afterwards in the little pebble-dashed church of Saint Gobnait’s in Cúil Aodha.

Indeed this whole chapter (alongside the one on the commemoration of the 1916 Rising in 1966 — chapter 9) could serve synecdochally (i.e., a part that stands for or represents the whole).

Along with Ó Riada’s nationalism came anti-modernity: ‘Ó Riada, like many Irish intellectuals and artists, wanted to both reject commercial modernity and enjoy its fruits. He fantasized about building a large hotel on the banks of the Sullane, with an airport beside it to bring tourists into the area to hunt and fish — and listen to his music and that of local singers. That, presumably, would also have ‘sold’ the old Ireland he loved. The easy opposition of good tradition to bad modernity was a refuge from reality, not a way of living.’ (pp. 187-88)

Composer Seán Ó Riada (1931-71)

And the following paragraph is in many ways a quote that could stand for the whole work too: ‘Neither though, was Ó Riada a phoney. His respect for the oral and musical cultures of rural Ireland was genuinely deep, and, as I experienced that morning, he gave that culture a moving sense of its own dignity. But he was trying somehow to answer a question that was at the heart of the dilemma of modernity: did Ireland have to be destroyed in order to be saved? Whitaker and Lemass had set out to shake the country out of its isolation and self-regard. But was it merely going to end up as an Americanized, homogenized dependency, stripped of its cultural distinctiveness and national independence?’ (p. 188)

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This post is already much longer than envisioned when I began it, however I do want to conclude it in the way intended which is to bookend the above by mentioning one or two of the equally good exits.

These exits come after chapter upon chapter of — as Banville puts it in his TLS review — ‘wilful blindness, political chicanery, moral duplicity, heedless cruelty, untrammelled corruption and sheer lunacy’: unspeakable and unpardonably vicious bombings, reprisal shootings by the British authorities themselves or by one of their Loyalist surrogates, terrorizing IRA disappearances and punishment beatings, dirty protests and hunger strikes, the incoming of heroin and other heinous addictions, economic collapse and the return of mass unemployment and mass emigration (accompanied by mass-hysteria) in the 1980s.

Particular mention must be given to the chapters to do with the early 1980s — chapters 21 to 26 — which was a FUBAR time, and, unless you lived through it, it’s difficult to fully credit, I imagine; indeed, if anything O’Toole low-balls the madness because what something like this doesn’t get across (because the sequential chapters deal with one thing at a time) is the way all that fucked-up-ness was happening at the same time, at least it felt like it was all happening at the same time: ‘Mighty craic [and] Loads of frolics,’ as the songster puts it, ‘Pioneers and alcoholics,’

‘PLAC, SPUC and the FCA,
Free Nicky Kelly and the IRA.
Hairy chests and milk-white thighs,
And mickey-dodgers in disguise.
McGraths, O’Briens, Pippins, Coxs,
Massage parlours in horse boxes.’

Special credit to the ‘No Blue Hills’ chapter too (pp. 290-303) which is a chapter about the heroin epidemic in Dublin, another chapter that has a memorable prelude.

Following are a couple of great lines from this excellent chapter:

‘A culture obsessed with danger and purity turned out to be completely unguarded. The Dunnes found it astonishingly easy to create a market for [the] heroin [they imported]’ (p. 294).

‘For many of those kids, this is what globalization looked like. The heroin that ended up in their veins had flooded into western Europe through networks established after the Iranian revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. World events crystallized themselves into a white powder [bubbling] on a spoon. Here was proof that Ireland was now truly connected, fully integrated into global trading networks.’ (p. 295)

The chapters on the 1970s outstanding too, particularly the ballrooms and bungalows chapter, chapter 19 — ‘Bungalow Bliss’, pp. 262-74 — and the following one on the pope’s visit — ‘Bona Fides’, pp. 275-89.

And there’s a crucial paragraph in the ‘Class Act’ chapter (chapter 18) I want to reproduce because it’s absolutely bang-on but also because this paragraph goes to the core of the Haughey story, which O’Toole gets into full stride with in chapter 22 — ‘A Beggar on Horseback’, pp. 304-17:

‘In some ways, the situation in Independent Ireland was not unlike that among the nomenklatura of the communist bloc. Because those with power had acquired it out of the dispossession of an old establishment, they were able to see power and privilege as something by definition belonging to the old enemy and to remain blind to their own position as the new establishment in Ireland. The revolutionary movement slowly worked its way into the nooks and crannies of embedded advantage, but retained the sense of itself as a representative of the victimized and the oppressed and therefore as being itself still excluded by ‘the establishment.’ Underneath the carapace of egalitarianism, Irish society was rigorous in its policing of boundaries between farmers and farm labourers, between ‘gutties’ and ‘good families.’ Judges, for example, openly remitted sentences for criminals who had committed serious crimes on the grounds that the miscreant came from ‘a good family.’ (pp. 258-59)

And I must reproduce a couple of paragraphs from that first main chapter on Haughey too — ‘A Beggar on Horseback’, pp. 304-17. By this stage Haughey has appeared at several points in earlier chapters but this is the first chapter fully focused on him:

‘If you were a normal well-adjusted person, this hardly mattered’ [the fact that stupidly arriviste magazines like Creation no longer gushed about your fondues — as Creation did about a steak-fondue dinner party at the Haugheys in 1963 — because as more money came into the state and the middle class got larger, a ministerial salary, though more than enough for a comfortable life, was not enough to place you at the top of the social hierarchy] ‘You could get your kicks from the prestige of office. You could even flatter your own ego by believing some of your own rhetoric about public service […]’

‘But if you were shallow and insecure enough to measure your worth by the enormity of your expenditure and the conspicuousness of your consumption, you had a real problem. You had to go higher. And the only real notion of what an upper class might look like was the memory of the very class that de Valera and Lemass and all the other revolutionaries had destroyed, the old Protestant land-owning Ascendancy. It is a great historical joke that just as Catholic nationalist Ireland was coming into its own, it is haunted by Haughey’s attempts to become an Ascendency squire. It is the revenge of the landlord class. They lost their power. The lost the land. The IRA burned them out. But they left behind a particular image of wealth. The Big House. The horses. The exotic holiday home in the rugged West. How amusing it would have seemed to them that one day the Catholic state would be run primarily for the purpose of allowing its Taoiseach to ape the old gentry by becoming, literally, a beggar on horseback.’ (pp. 307-8)

Fianna Fáil leader Charles Haughey at home in Abbeville, north County Dublin, 1982

And the other bit of Haughey set-up stuff I want to present is the following, from chapter 30 (‘Conduct Unbecoming’, pp. 405-15):

‘[Haughey’s] attempt to fuse religion and politics was made clear in a 1981 speech to the party’s fiftieth annual conference, in which he defined the reason ‘we adhere to Fianna Fáil’ as the fact that ‘it represents not this pressure group or that sectional interest, this class or that Creed but because in the broad sweep of its membership and their faith and devotion to their country there resides what one can call the “Spirit of the Nation”’. In this credo, social class, conflicting economic interests and the real divisions of society gave way to the religious virtues of faith, devotion and spirit. Politics ceased to be politics and became a secular version of religion. And just as there was one true church, there could only be one true party — ‘the only party with a truly national vision.’ Just as the Holy Spirit spoke with one voice through the pope, so must the Spirit of the Nation speak through the Boss: una voce, una duce.

‘Haughey was, in his own imagery, the embodiment of Ireland, the fulfilment of both time and space. He evoked ‘a long history’ that was coming to its desired end under his leadership — the Irish past as a long march towards Abbeville. What was true of time was true of space — a sundered Ireland was brought together in his own person. He cultivated the image of a man ‘from’ each of Ireland’s four provinces, born in Connacht of Ulster parentage, living in Leinster and inhabiting his very own island in Munster. ‘Look at the dilemma I’m in,’ he tells his family over breakfast discussing the All-Ireland football final semi-finals in the [1980s Channel 4] film Charlie Haughey’s Ireland. ‘Of the four teams in it, three of them are Dublin, Kerry and Mayo. I was born in Mayo, I live in Dublin, and then I have my holidays in Kerry.’ Shortly afterwards we see him in Swatragh, Co. Derry, in the fourth province of Ulster: ‘As a child, I used to spend my holidays here.’ Thus he evokes the image of the dismembered country made whole, the divisions between country and city, West and East, North and South healed in the mystical body of Charlie.’ (pp. 412-13)

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But in the 1990s it all begins to come apart for the drovers of this Catholic-Nationalist-modernization project (which sought to retain the ballast and carapace of the pre-modern world while accessing the convenience and prosperity of the modern), beginning with Mary Robinson’s against-the-odds triumph over Fianna Fáil’s Brian Lenihan in the 1990 presidential election. (A really good chapter too, chapter 31, ‘Mature Recollection’, pp. 416-30.)

Aside from paedophile priests raping vulnerable children with impunity (see especially the ‘Little Plumb’ chapter — chapter 14, pp. 196-215 — but see also pp. 165-8 and pp. 401-4) you also had more run-of-the-mill abusers of clerical office, Fr Michael Cleary, fathering children off his housekeeper and forcing her to give them up for adoption, for example, and, even more famously, Bishop Eamonn Casey, who sought to fill Annie Murphy with the love and fear of God.

Eamonn Casey, bishop of Galway, doing bishopy stuff

Annie Murphy was an Irish-American woman who came to Ireland in 1973 to recover from a broken marriage. Her father, a surgeon in Connecticut, asked his friend Bishop Eamonn Casey to look out for her. Casey saw after her alright, checking in on her several nights a week, in fact.

When Murphy got pregnant, Casey urged her to ‘attach herself to God, not to the baby she was carrying. Giving the child up for adoption, he urged, would be ‘an unselfish act’ that ‘would cast from me all evils’. After Peter was born in the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin in July 1974, Casey was disturbed to find that she kept him in a cradle at the foot of her bed. He spoke to her in a voice ‘low and stern’, warning her again about the dangers of ‘attachment’. He told her that Peter was not her child, but a child of God’s. Murphy and Peter were placed in a home run by nuns where Casey ‘cajoled, laughed and finally started to bully me, waving adoption papers in my face, slapping his hands down on the table. He called in one of the head nuns — then they started on me [in tandem]: “What right had I to keep this child I had born out of wedlock in sin?”’ (p. 434)

The whole story finally came out in 1992. Shamed, Casey resigned his bishopric and fled the country, travelling incognito, first to a convent in San Antonio, Texas, and afterwards to do missionary work in rural El Salvador.

In 1992 when the Irish Times broke the story they ran it principally as a story about false accounting: Casey paid out a settlement to Annie Murphy ($117,000 for the boy’s college fund) and he did so out of diocesan funds, putting it down as something else entirely (a loan). But as O’Toole cleverly works it the story becomes a story about ‘false accounting’ in another sense too, i.e., the lies and grotesque hypocrisy of these corrupt and corrupting priests and bishops. Even as late as the 1990s there was a sense that — just as with Haughey’s sexual hypocrisy (Haughey being someone who trumpeted family values in the town square while the whole country knew he was carrying on with another man’s wife) — you just couldn’t go there with respect to sex, it was too below the belt, but financial impropriety was fair game, that was less discomfiting. Thereafter trailered to the financial impropriety story was the rest of it which got followed-up on and fleshed-out collaterally.

‘On the second day of its revelations, the Irish Times published a big photograph of [Annie Murphy] on its front page and there was a sharp intake of breath. She looked like trouble. She was beautiful. She had bold lipstick and glinting earrings and lush dark hair. But the shock was in her gaze. She had huge dark eyes and they were fixed on the viewer with unblinking assurance. There was in them neither repentance nor supplication. She wasn’t mortified and she wasn’t looking for sympathy. In that gaze was something looking fiercely looking back at us — not just the history of shame but also of exile. She was the return of everything that had been repressed in the intertwined experiences of mass emigration and holy Ireland.’ (p. 435)

Annie Murphy with her son, Peter

A year later Murphy published a memoir and, promoting the book, appeared on the Late Late Show where Gay Byrne effectively put her on trial on national television (the audience was packed with Casey’s friends & supporters). ‘It was the Kerry Babies all over again, the woman was to blame, even though Casey had all the power when their relationship started. She was, throughout, calm, dignified, unabashed’, O’Toole writes. ‘At the end, Byrne said to Murphy that her son Peter would be ‘not doing too badly’ if he turned out to be half the man his father was. Murphy said, ‘I’m not so bad, Mr Byrne, not so bad myself as you’d like to think’ [and with that she] stood up and walked off [the set]. That was it exactly. We were not so bad ourselves and we never would be again. It was an exit line, not just for her, but for the entire era in which Irish people were made to feel that not so bad could never be good enough.’ (p. 439)

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And then, finally, there’s Haughey’s exit (chapter 34 ‘True Confessions’, pp. 451-63):

In July 1997, Haughey is called into Dublin Castle to give testimony to the tribunal looking into corrupt payments to politicians. O’Toole was there to witness it.

Five years previously Haughey had been in the same place giving testimony in the Beef tribunal and at that time he was supremely confident in his untouchability, barely bothering to attempt to hide his contempt for these upstart low-life barristers who thought they could trap him with their silly little lawyerly stratagems — him — Charles J. Haughey — someone who’d come through the Arms Trial, who’d come back from the lonesomest wilderness to oust mother-hen Lynch and take his place in the Taoiseach’s office, someone who’d been president of the Council of Europe, for goodness sakes, an emperor stag who’d leapt over every trap that had ever been dug for him (and there’d been quite a few over the years)! ‘I wonder’, Haughey said at one point (languidly and contemptuously) ‘what we’re all doing here.’

He told bare-faced lies in his testimony to that tribunal, or else claimed to not remember the precise details, daring the hired help to have the wherewithal to undo or outmanoeuvre him. He bluffed and dodged and escaped yet again.

But that was then. (O’Toole was in the audience at Dublin Castle then too.) A lot had transpired in the intervening years:

‘Five years later, watching him again in the same place, facing lawyers’ questions, he was a hollow man. Now that he’d been snared, he seemed to shrink into the vast gap between his image and his reality. A man whose love of abstract grandiloquence did not preclude petty, self-serving, bare-faced lies. A man who almost wept when talking of his devotion to the institutions of the state and then thought little of treating a tribunal of inquiry established by parliament with contempt by attempting to flatly deny the truth. A man of infinite pride without sufficient self-respect to keep himself from becoming a kept man. A self-proclaimed patriot whose spiritual home was in the [British protectorate of the] Cayman Islands. A lover of his country who could treat it as a Banana Republic. A leader who called for sacrifices from the people but was not prepared to sacrifice a tittle of the trimmings of wealth and luxury to the cause of preserving the dignity of the state he professed to serve. A man who in his Channel 4 film had declared himself ‘perhaps a little sentimental, even romantic in my loyalties to people’ yet was happy to sneer at one ‘unstable’ friend who had given him a small fortune [Ben Dunne] and to steal from [Brian Lenihan’s] medical fund.’ (pp. 462-63)

[…] ‘This very diminishment undercut the sense of revelation, the hoped-for feeling for long-hidden truths being divulged at last. There was nothing much, after all, to reveal. It had really been not much of a con job — anyone who wanted to know, knew all along the essence, if not the detail, of the truth. It had all been a case of the Tinkerbell effect. Haughey had been kept in existence by the belief of his audience. That drug of wilful self-delusion had simply worn off and the Haughey of myth vanished.’ (p. 463)

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A final few words in conclusion — only a couple of observations because this post is massively outsized as it is.

Firstly, I think the final quarter of the book falls away a little, certainly by comparison with the super-high-flying preceding three-quarters. Not even the final quarter, in fairness, the final 15 or 20%. After the end of Haughey and the chapters on the Good Friday Agreement the rest is epilogue. The 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s are the best of it, as it seems to me, and the 1990s too seeing as this is the decade of denouements.

*

That said, there are some good nuggets in these closing chapters too. The whole Celtic Tiger thing was as mental an episode in Ireland’s story as the early 1980s were FUBAR, it’s just that looking back at the 1970s and 80s the snow-globe has settled now such that we can clearly see the trees and the wood, whereas perhaps we’re still too close to the 2000s to essay the salient features of these episodes so coherently. Here I’m referring to the Celtic Tiger madness, obviously, but also to the heinous hangover and five- or six-year clean-up operation following on from it, which involved the state having to submit its budgets (for approval) to the so-called ‘Troika’ that bailed us out of what was sovereign bankruptcy — the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission — the state on probation, effectively, Irish government bonds regarded as ‘junk’ in capital markets around the world, and, consanguineously, the country’s leadership downgraded to junk status too — an estimation shared by onlookers at home and abroad — shambolic drunkards, self-dealing gobshites and ludicrous incompetents flailing around like crabs in a bucket.

Secondly, given the narrative O’Toole presents, I feel it a valid criticism to say that there ought to have been a chapter (or a section of a chapter) on Jack Charlton and his Republic of Ireland teams of the 1980s and 90s, Charlton being an Englishman who the Irish genuinely embraced — Haughey declaring him ‘an honorary Irishman’ at Dublin airport upon their return from the Euros in Germany in 1988 where they defeated England 1-0, finishing above them in the first-round group — coaching a side made up almost entirely of exiles or the sons of exiles: there were almost as many British accents in those Charlton changing rooms as Irish — Mark Lawrenson, Mick McCarthy, Chris Hughton, Andy Townsend, Jason McAteer, Ray Houghton, John Aldridge, Tony Cascarino &c.

(And a quality English side it was in those years too, it ought to be said: Peter Shilton in goal, Tony Adams, Viv Anderson and Mark Wright at the back, and then John Barnes, Bryan Robson, Glen Hoddle, Chris Waddle, Peter Beardsley and Gary Lineker midfield and further forward.)

Altogether, Charlton’s Republic of Ireland played England four times never losing to them. And — in competitive fixtures — securing victories not only over the Auld Enemy but also v Portugal and World Cup winners Italy as well as respectably holding our own against the Soviet Union and that wonderful Dutch side that included Frank Rijkaard, Ronald Koeman, Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten, a side that went on to win the 1988 Euros tournament (defeating the Soviet Union in the final). It was a turning point for us, I feel, an evolution in our sense of ourselves: for reasons unknown we ceased to be afraid of our own shadow, of going up against sides traditionally better than us and seriously taking them on, which is to say, taking ourselves seriously so we had a chance to compete. The Euros in Germany in 1988 was the first time the Republic of Ireland qualified for the finals of any major tournament and two years after we were playing in a World Cup quarter-final in Rome.

In fact, in an effort to represent the nation’s gratitude for the wonderful ten years he presided over, after he finished as national coach in 1996 Charlton was granted citizenship of the Republic of Ireland (actual citizenship as opposed to Haughey’s honorary guff), a proposal brought to Cabinet by Dick Spring, who, in the Jack Charlton: The Irish Years film, observes that when a young fellow growing up in Kerry there was but one soccer club in the county, whereas by the time of that film — published in 2005 so, presumably, recorded in 2004/05 — there were 76, Spring attributing a large measure of this to the heydays of the Charlton era.

Nowadays with Andy Farrell, Stuart Lancaster, Graham Rowntree and so on we hardly second glance the like but back then it was something, and it’s something that ought to have been addressed in a work such as this, I feel — that it’s been sidestepped looks odd. (In fairness, O’Toole does mention Charlton en passant, on p. 509, mentioning him and his British-born players along with the likes of Shane McGowan and The Pogues, the playwright Martin McDonagh, and Michael Flatley and Jean Butler — of Riverdance fame — in a think-piece section on the exiled Irish and their descendants come home again from the 1990s onwards, but I feel the phenomenon merits more than a clause in a multi-clause sentence in a paragraph at the end of a chapter.)

And, unbelievably, Father Ted not mentioned at all. One would think Father Ted speaks more directly to the cultural evolution O’Toole is attempting to essay than, say, Riverdance (or anything else Flatley-related).

However I don’t want to end on a critical note, that wouldn’t be right or fair at all because, as I say, O’Toole’s We Don’t Know Ourselves is one of the best books I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.

One of the oddest things about it (for me) is that there’s little in it I didn’t know already — little bits of background and colour here and there, to be sure, but nothing substantial — yet the way stuff we all know is so brilliantly arranged and re-presented, it’s sort of like looking at an oils portrait — a portrait by Lucien Freud, say — by which I mean, it’s not a realist likeness at all (as in an attempt to achieve a photographic likeness), no, it’s certainly impressionistic and by its very nature subjective — after all it’s ‘A Personal History of Ireland since 1958’ — nevertheless, it’s as true a likeness as ever I’ve encountered (or even imagined).

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The closing words ought to go to O’Toole himself. Following are a handful of closing paragraphs from that final section, the 5th and final Act.

‘In 2014, my mother died. I went back to Saint Bernadette’s, the church where I had served Mass for John Charles McQuaid, to help arrange the funeral. It was a cold spring. The priest, who was looking after the parish on his own, explained apologetically that he could no longer afford to turn on the heating in the church. His congregations were, in any case, too small to justify the expense. Emptied of its throngs, the place now seemed eerily cavernous. You could see your breath in the chilly air. Voices echoed off the soaring vaults. The permanent place that had replaced the temporary shed-like structure where my mother had married my father was now itself now overtaken by time, stranded in a future that was, when I served Mass there, unimaginable. It was a factory of faith that had now become part of Ireland’s religious rustbelt, a temple of a lost culture whose meaning was, to those who inhabited its hinterland, increasingly obscure.’ (p. 551)

‘In the general election of February 2011, Fianna Fáil was destroyed. It suffered by far the biggest defeat for any outgoing government since the formation of the state. It lost more than half its vote and its number of [parliamentary] seats dropped from seventy-one to twenty-one. This was a big moment. One half of the alliance that had dominated Ireland since the 1930s, the institutional Catholic Church, was already on its knees, now the other half was brought to the same level. And it was clear that neither of them would ever return to their old positions of dominance, either jointly or individually. The system had been broken. Or, more accurately, it had broken itself by mocking the faith its adherents had placed in it. The church corrupted its own holiness. [And, having magnified a banking crisis into a sovereign debt crisis, the] nationalist party could not even maintain the sovereignty of the nation. These were breaches that could never be repaired.’ (p. 557)

‘The great gamble of 1958 — that economic transformation would sustain rather than destroy the existing system — had seemed, over the subsequent decades, a winning bet. The hegemony formed by the fusion of nationalism with Catholicism had not merely weathered the great shift from rural to urban, agricultural to industrial, protected space to hectic corridor of global capital. It had not merely withstood the challenge of the Troubles, it had seemed to thrive. It did so because it had successfully imported development. It found a way to keep economic transformation separate from the process of indigenous, organic change. Two things — the great wave of investment and technology coming from America and the functioning of politics and power within Ireland — could, it appeared, coexist without disturbing each other.’ (p. 563-4)

‘It is just about imaginable that this separation could have gone on indefinitely. Yet that would have requires three things not to happen. The church would have needed not to destroy itself from within by unleashing and facilitating so much viciousness against women and children. The system of patronage and power perfected by Fianna Fáil would have needed not to tip over into outright kleptocracy […]. And Irish nationalism would have had to sustain its romance of martyrdom purely as a matter of sentiment and aspiration, to not become so brutally real that it had to be faced and painfully rethought.

‘But all of these things did happen.’ (p. 565)

A feather bed for Northern Ireland

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‘Unitarianism is a feather bed to catch a falling Christian’, Charles Darwin’s father used to say when joshing his Wedgwood in-laws for what more orthodox Anglicans regarded as a drift towards secularism.

Rejecting the Trinitarian conception of God, Unitarianism is characterized by an emphasis on truth-seeking born of human experience, not by means of allegiance to creeds or doctrines.

Viewed by the orthodox, Unitarianism was so low-church as to hardly register as church-life at all.

I thought of this little fragment from my Darwin days over weekend as the Northern Irish election results filled out.

In the past few days most news outlets have led with the fact that an Irish Nationalist party is now the largest party in Northern Ireland’s parliament for the first time since the statelet was carved out and established a century ago (which was carved out and established for the express purpose of creating a Unionist-dominated statelet) — which, in fairness, is noteworthy, no question — but that’s not the key development at all it seems to me.

Sinn Fein now has 27 seats in the (90-seat) Assembly, the same number as it had in the outgoing Assembly, which is to say, it’s not that Sinn Fein have gained in these elections — after all their share of first preference votes increased by just 1.1% — it’s more that their main rivals, the Democratic Unionist Party in particular, lost some of what they held: the DUP now occupy 25 seats, down 3, their share of first preference votes down 6.7% — most of which migrated over to the Monster Raving TUV who took 7.6% of first preferences, up 5.1%.

Also, if the first preference votes for Unionist parties and for Nationalist (or Nationalist-leaning parties) are totalled up, it’s more or less honours even, so it’s not like there’s been a Nationalist surge and we’re on the way to a United Ireland. (In any event, I don’t believe there’s a majority north or south of the border for the kind of United Ireland envisaged by Sinn Fein and their supporters. No one I know is keen to have that Six Counties mess incorporated into our polity down here; we’ve plenty we’re struggling to cope with as it is, thanks all the same.†)

What’s happening is that what used to be the unified Unionist community is splintered, splitting between the hardline Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the even harder-line Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) and then — moving towards the centre of the political spectrum — the more liberal-minded Unionists represented by the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP).

Sinn Fein meanwhile marshalled its existing support most effectively, even siphoning support away from the softer-nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), which lost 4 Assembly seats in this cycle, downgrading the party to 5th place in the party-rankings in terms of bums-on-seats (down from 3rd place in the outgoing Assembly), coming behind Sinn Fein with 27 seats, the DUP with 25 seats, the cross-community Alliance Party with 17 seats (up 9), the UUP with 9 seats (down 1) and, as I say, in 5th place, the SDLP with 8 seats.

(After which it’s just also-rans: 2 independents, one TUV guy and one representative of the leftist People Before Profit group.)

The thing to focus on, it seems to me, is the performance of the non-aligned Alliance Party, which is non-aligned in terms of being pro-Union (i.e., the United Kingdom) on one hand or pro-unification-of-Ireland (north & south) on the other.

Pictured with Alliance Party leader Naomi Long (centre) are newly elected Alliance MLAs Kate Nicholl (left) and Paula Bradshaw (right).

Identifying yourself primarily in terms of this divide is literally and figuratively divisive, so what they seek to do — as one might expect from an ‘Alliance’ party — is bring people together, getting them to focus on what they agree on, and wide-berth the siren call of wedge issues and the tanglers and vendors thereof. (Sinn Fein, the DUP and the Monster Raving TUV need animosity, they thrive on tension, suspicion and division, it’s what they sow, hoe, harvest and take to market.)

The Alliance Party draws support from both sides of the main cultural and political divide in Northern Ireland. The key thing is the way younger people along with other flourishing groups (the affluent, aspirational and trans-national, for example) no longer turn out for fife and drum assemblies.

In the returns for the Census conducted at the turn of the century (2001) 14% of Northern Irish people declined to identify as either ‘Protestant’ or ‘Roman Catholic’; in the returns a decade later this group increased to 17%; and in the next lot of returns this non-binary/anti-binary group is expected to be north of 20%, might even be as high as 25%, we’ll see when preliminary returns are made public later this year.

As I’m seeing it anyhow it’s the herds grazing on this more liberal central plain that are the real winners here, and in this centre I’m seeing not just the Alliance but also the SDLP and the UUP.

The Ulster Unionist Party is a Unionist party, obviously, but it’s a brand of Unionism that doesn’t seem belligerent in my view (not to say ‘hateful’), something well-communicated in the following UUP party political broadcast, which (as I see it anyhow) is all about diversity and inclusion (as opposed to the self-serving duplicity and divisiveness I associate with the DUP, for instance):

Together the Alliance Party, the SDLP and the UUP make up a block of 34 seats in the Assembly, it’s these middle ground people that need to be encouraged, enabled and supported.

The mandatory coalition of Unionists and Nationalists has got to be done away with — the mandatory coalition of the largest Unionist party and the largest Nationalist party to form the core of an Executive — all it seems to do is encourage extremist posturing: we’ve had an Executive in place for just two of the past six years, first because Sinn Fein wouldn’t participate because of the ‘Cash for Ash’ thing, and now the DUP has thrown it’s toys out of the pram and is screaming up a storm because of the Irish Protocol provisions of the Brexit agreement, the present form of Brexit being something foisted upon us by the DUP in the first place because DUP support for the more hardline forms of Brexit prevented all attempts at moderation. The reasonable people — the non-nutters, the men and women of good will — ought to be given the opportunity to attempt to form an Executive.  

The Alliance Party may well be seen as a feather bed to cushion the fall of bits of frieze falling from Unionist and Nationalist monoliths, but, how bad? Wanna to know what the alternatives are?

† What might be interesting (something I could get behind) — although I’ve never heard anyone propose this, let alone advocate for it — is a union of Ireland and Scotland (USI). I’m talking about a loose federation here, made up of an independent Scotland, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, something which might be made to grandfather Scotland’s reentry into the European Union if it votes to leave the United Kingdom — after all West Germany brought East Germany into the European Union on the nod — it would offer the Republic an opportunity to carry out some much-needed refurbishments to it’s rambling and aging estate, and, hopefully, it would mean Northern Irish Unionists wouldn’t feel like they’re being forced into something they don’t want to be part of (i.e., an intolerably triumphalist Nationalist United Ireland). Scotland and Ireland have much in common in terms of geography, economics, history, culture and so forth, and much they could cooperate on for mutual benefit. It would be a partnership of equals in the way the union with England never was and never will be.

It’s worth discussing anyhow, I feel, but never is it, at least not that I’ve seen or heard.

UPDATE: Since writing the foregoing my attention has been drawn to a July 2016 article by Fintan O’Toole in the Irish Times, a think-piece titled ‘Three-state union my be the answer to Brexit’

Welcome to SCINI. There is no good name for the Atlantic archipelago we inhabit: These Islands seems to be about the best we can manage without causing offence to someone or other. But, as Theresa May was reminded on her visit to Belfast yesterday, the shape of These Islands is shifting. The people of three of the five parts (Scotland, Northern Ireland and Ireland) now see their relations with the rest of the world in one way while those of the other two (England and Wales) see them very differently.

The new division is, of course, created by Brexit, and it forces the three parts of These Islands that wish to remain in the European Union to think very radically about how they relate to each other. To think, that is, about a new union – of Scotland, Ireland and Northern Ireland: SCINI.

This is crazy talk, but sometimes history forces us all to think urgently about ideas that were previously the exclusive property of cranks. The idea of SCINI runs up against one of the basic principles of the international order since 1945 – that existing borders and states must be accepted as having arrived at their final point of evolution. It also disturbs the nationalist ideal that states are “natural” expressions of ancient nationhood.

But of course states are neither natural nor fixed. They are human inventions, imagined into existence and subject to all the dark and light forces of history.

These Islands are a prime example of this fluidity. At various points in our common history, we have been parcelled up in many different ways. An English-dominated United Kingdom may be the one that looms largest in the current imagination, but there have been, on the archipelago, borders between the Roman empire and barbarians, multiple English kingdoms, Scandinavian colonies, Irish kingdoms that included large parts of Scotland, Irish colonies in Wales, Anglo-Norman lordships that stretched to France, and so on.

And shifts can happen quickly. In the upheavals of a century ago, two entities that had never been previously envisaged or desired – a 26-county Ireland and a six-county Northern Ireland – emerged quite suddenly.

Most interestingly in the current context, the dominant part of These Islands, England, has (to its great credit) conceded that the political architecture of the archipelago is radically open-ended. It did this in the Belfast Agreement, which accepts that Northern Ireland’s membership of the United Kingdom is contingent and purely voluntary. And it did the same for Scotland when David Cameron accepted that the results of the referendum on Scottish independence would be binding on the UK as a whole.

With these concessions, the UK itself became an avowedly contingent entity, subject to the wishes of democratic majorities in two of its constituent parts. This is enormously important because it means change can be peaceful and consensual – a privilege that history seldom offers.

So the current political shape of These Islands carries an asterisk: terms and conditions apply. The most important of these conditions is consent. And for all May’s admirable emollience, the question of consent is unavoidable and implacable. Leaving the European Union is not a detail of policy – it is a seismic and historic shift in political identity. The people of Scotland and Northern Ireland do not and will not consent to that shift. And the people of the Republic were not, of course, asked to consent to changes that affect them so profoundly.

We know on this part of the archipelago what lack of consent to political structures looks like. We know how bad and bitter its consequences may be. Northern Protestants did not, on the whole, consent to Irish Independence – and that was enough to wreck the dream of an Irish Republic.

And Northern Catholics did not, on the whole, consent to being placed in a sectarian statelet with an inbuilt Protestant majority. These problems of consent have never gone away, even though the Belfast Agreement made real progress in thinking about how to contain them.

Will lack of consent to being taken out of the EU have the same kind of power to reshape the identities of Scotland and Northern Ireland? That depends on how bad the fallout from Brexit gets. If it’s very bad indeed, resistance to it could well become the defining question for Scotland, Northern Ireland and, by extension, for the Republic. That common interest is what would make the unthinkable not just thinkable but enormously attractive.

SCINI may be the only long-term solution to Northern Ireland’s problem of double identity – the “British” part of that identity has always been much more Scottish than English. It may also be Scotland’s only way to stay in the EU. And it may be the Republic’s only way to avoid the reimposition of an internal border on the island.

SCINI would not, of course, be an old-fashioned unitary state. It would have to be accompanied by radical thinking about what it means to be a democracy in the 21st century, one that might even reconnect with the great Scottish traditions of republican thought that so profoundly influenced the United Irishmen. For that alone, we need to think ourselves SCINI.

May Day

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May Day, something that, for so many reasons, has so much resonance. The calendar first of summer maybe but I don’t want to move into summer yet, I want to stay in springtime, to me everything still looks and feels so spring-like.

This week extraordinarily gorgeous. It rained all day Tuesday, for about 8 hours of it anyhow — sun up these days at about 6 am and sinking down again at about 9 pm. I think it started raining about lunchtime on Tuesday and it rained for the whole of the rest of the day, really heavy for stretches of it. I went down to check the front gates before going to bed and it had just stopped at that time. A Bangor slate coloured day you wouldn’t turn a fox out into.

Monday was sunny but it was one of those days that was winding itself up for a full day’s downpour. I remember marvelling at the shivering leaves on the Magnolia tree Monday afternoon; the day wasn’t windy but that sort of rain-coming non-windy shiver was in the atmosphere and all the leaves on all the trees had something of it going on, anticipating the downpour to come, presumably. They were looking forward to it, not dreading it (the feeling wasn’t fearful, it was excitement), because it’s been dry, so dry that for weeks now I’ve had to spend about an hour each day bucketing water to stuff, and not just potted things, every rooted thing parched, dried-out crusted lips pleading for a drop of something. Not that I mind doing so, I may add, it’s not chore-like, it’s lovely work, and it’s good for me to care for stuff, I get as much from the giving as the shrubs and plants do from the getting.

Then, after Tuesday’s rain, Wednesday morning was Garden of Eden like as it seemed to me. I was rendered almost breathless by the incredibly delicate perfection of it all, everything sparkling with rainwater and the most innocent dawn light illuminating it all. I cannot now recall what it was that took me out into the grounds at that early hour — certainly I didn’t go ‘I bet the everything will look lovely this morning…’ and then go out to see how it measured up to my expectation. No, that I went out at that early hour was an accident, or incidental perhaps I should say, because I remember being surprised by it, arrested by the magnificence of it, and I remember staying out there meditatively walking by the banks and beds and under fresh-leaved, still-dripping trees — every square foot of the place drenched, refreshed and exquisite looking, even the brambley bits which normally really annoy & offend me — and, at one point, thinking ‘Who in their right mind would walk away from all this to go indoors to a writing desk (or to anything else for that matter)?’ It was one of those timeless little stretches when the self just melts away altogether and for a little while you are the eyes of the godhead itself, or at least it feels something like this.

And then — who knows why (certainly not me anyhow) — one starts up thinking again, thinking ‘Isn’t this fabulous. Who in their right mind would walk away from all this to go to a writing desk?’ and with that the shy godhead type bit dissolves and you’re just yourself again admiring your garden, your dwelling, your handiwork, which is to say, you become self-conscious again. It’s as though for a brief little while the self takes a deep dive in the ‘This is Water’ water, so to say, and for that little while it’s just another creature swimming along in the first light of day, but then needing air it surfaces again — becoming a floater again — and so as a consequence you’re alone again, yourself a bit of an invading bramble in the grounds of someone else’s temple, carrying on from one day to the next for no good reason. However the afterglow of the experience remains with you for a while, happily, indeed I can feel a little of it still, two and a half days on.

Today, yesterday & Wednesday all gorgeous days weather-wise. It’s a bit cold for the time of year I suppose — about 12 to 14 in the afternoons and only 2 or 3 degrees at its coldest in the night — but in fact it doesn’t feel that cold, it’s nice for working in that’s for sure.

Extract from Even as We Grieved: Journal of a Plague Year (pp. 47-8), part of diary entry for 1 May 2020.

For more, visit the Even as We Grieved page on this blog. Even as We Grieved is about the Coronavirus Crisis — particularly from an Irish point of view — however it’s about other things too: 2020 and 2021 were Big History years: the pandemic, the planet suffering vast swathes of wildfire along with (simultaneously & near by) unprecedented flooding, Trump and the political & cultural crisis in the United States, Brexit and the fragmentation of the UK, and, in this country, FF, FG & the Greens getting together to form a coalition government… Interesting times:

(By the bye, I’ve published several extracts from Even as We Grieved on this blog so far, for a full display of which go to ‘Subject Categories’ on sidebar and click on ‘Even as We Grieved’ — this link not to be confused with the italicized hyperlink above, which takes you to a page on Even as We Grieved, whereas this, the unitalicized hyperlink, takes you to several posts, selected extracts from the book.)

Ukrainians come unto Skibbereen

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The following is an audio file of this blog-post, me reading my own blog-post, my first time ever recording one of my own posts so perhaps you’ll be kind enough to allow a little latitude viz-a-vis the recording and audio-editing quality (particularly as compared to standard radio output & high class podcast productions), considering I’m a total novice at this.

I met the rector in the grounds just before the weekend and he told me that the Eldon Hotel has been filled with Ukrainian refugees, 30 or 40 of them I think he said.

They arrived Wednesday, I believe, a bus-load of them.

Indeed it’s noticeable too, which is to say, all over the weekend there’s been a clusters of Ukrainian looking ones knocking about the town. Mostly teenagers, it seems to me, a few adults also but to my eye anyhow it looks to be circa five to one teenagers to adults — exploring the town they find themselves landed in, as you can imagine.

On Thursday evening I went down to check the gates and saw what appeared to me to be a mother and father and teenage daughter go past the crescent-shaped church gateway, I feel fairly sure they were Ukrainians, the tell for me being that absolutely everything appeared interesting and comment-worthy to them, every person, every building, every gateway, every passing vehicle.

They seemed happy, the young girl in particular, excited in a positive sort of way. And to my way of seeing the father seemed to be at least ‘not unhappy looking’ too, finding everything in our town of interest including (in this instance) this bloke about the same age as himself walking towards him down this curved, stone-walled avenue. His interest in who I might be causing him to glance up at the Goodman arch to see if it offered anything that might furnish an indication as to who or what this fellow might be.

I could see him (or at least I thought I could see him) attempting to decode my clothing — dark-chocolate coloured wax jacket, tweed cap, trousers the colour of Boston Ivy in late September and brown suede Chelsea boots — just as I was doing with respect to him and what he was wearing — blue quilted Gillet, tan-coloured polo-neck pullover, black jogging bottoms (Dunnes Stores type stuff), all reasonably good quality in the sense of not being total charity shop gear but, on the other hand, just not right either, somehow not his, and simply not well-co-ordinated in terms of colours, fabrics or messaging.

He was not a holiday-maker (in my estimation) — at least not the kinds of holiday-makers we get in these parts at this time of year — and certainly he was not local, nor any sort of Irish, nor any class of Briton, nor was he French or Belgian or Dutch or German, he was an east European of some variety I felt sure, but not beat-down looking, dulled and depressed by several Irish winters and fag-end employment opportunities, as I say, they seemed new-come, excited, fizzing with hope & expectation. And relief too, I sensed.

I imagine that even though they’re in the Eldon Hotel — which by definition is temporary accommodation — nevertheless being in Skibbereen represents finally having landed somewhere, which is to say, no longer in transit, no longer being ‘processed’, Skibbereen is where they’ll be for the next few months at least.

Some of them will find work here — working in hotels and restaurants and on building sites and on farms and in fish-processing facilities, or sorting through our rubbish perhaps — several of those teenage girls will have Skibbereen & district boyfriends before the August Bank Holiday Weekend, and I guess that at least some of these guests of the nation — 5 or 10 percent of them maybe — will remain and settle down here, marrying perhaps, or at least getting pregnant and getting housed in the normal way that young mothers get housed in our match, patch & mend systems, and some of them will find steady jobs with employers they like and trust, calving and milking cows on farms somewhere between here, Bantry, Dunmanway and Rosscarbery, painting and decorating, block-laying, hairdressing, working in Fields’ or in Aldi’s… settling here like the Poles and Baltic States people who’ve come here over the past 20 years, enough of whom exist in this area to keep that Polish shop on Bridge Street in business (which must be of 10 or 12 years standing at this stage).

By the bye, I don’t mean to suggest that all such people will be doing ass-wipe stuff at the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid because I know plenty Poles and Baltic States people doing either well or beginning to do well in what we classify as middle class areas of activity, entrepreneurs, artists, computer people, cogs performing supervisory roles in catering and retail and manufacturing and logistical systems. Most of the like are still in rented accommodation, to be sure, but so far as I can see they’ll make it in terms of the housing ziggurat too, eventually, many of them already driving better vehicles than anything I’ve ever been able to afford, that’s for sure. Which is to say, several of these Ukrainians will be skilled and credentialed, and in some cases even highly skilled, skills that’ll be in demand once they get themselves sorted such that they know the difference between Beamish and Murphy’s, hockey and hurling, Donovans and O’Donovans, Togher in Cork and Togher in West Cork and all the rest of it.

The Eldon Hotel, Bridge Street, Skibbereen

Apparently the situation in the sorting hub in Clonakilty has been a bit of a chaotic mess with people attempting to get PPS numbers and medical cards and their social welfare money coming through for them in the post office up in Portloaise while they’ve been shunted down to a community centre in Clonakilty and so on. In fairness, it must be an administrative nightmare, attempting to process people who don’t even use a recognisable alphabet so far as our systems are concerned — this is what ‘Ireland’ looks like in Ukrainian ‘Ірландії’ so where would you be going with your application forms and your telephone helplines, most of which aren’t even helpful when you speak Hiberno-English and you have a clear sense of what you want and what you’re entitled to, not even to think about what it would be like if you come at them with some bastardized Byzantine gobbledegook.

A friend of mine is in hospital at the minute with a malfunctioning liver and earlier this week he told me that the hospital authorities put someone into the ward before his Covid-test results were processed and, it turned out, the new guy had tested positive for the virus, chaos and meltdown and inter-departmental recrimination ensuing with the result that my friend and 8 or 9 other patients have been in full scale lockdown ever since. And about dozen hospital staff are now out of commission on account of this cornhole cock-up, self-isolating at home, leaving the liver and giblets ward out of bounds as far as the rest of the hospital is concerned. The point being that here in Ireland systems routinely malfunction even at the best of times — a nightmare mix of Kafkaesque bureaucratic blancmange mixed with rural Irish absurdity and yera-fuck-it slovenliness not at all unusual in most people’s experience of life on this island — so what’s it going to be like if (in the space of 6 weeks) you cascade 40,000 refugees into the mix as well and all while the national leadership is up at banks of microphones talking up what a First World country like the Republic of Ireland can do and is doing for our less fortunate and benighted European brethren. (I genuinely do have sympathy for the authorities and administrators, by the bye, the whole situation must be monstrously challenging; also everyone, from Micheál Martin on down, is attempting to do the right thing, I feel, and I sincerely applaud them for it. So I don’t mean to mock too much, nevertheless, I’m just saying, think Father Ted hybridized with Dostoevsky and Hunter S. Thompson with a LSD-marinated cherry on top for garnish and I bet you won’t be too far off what a fair number of these displaced Ukrainians must be experiencing right now.)

This, I imagine, is why there was a palpable air of relief about the people I saw down at the gates on Thursday evening: the Eldon Hotel might not be ideal but no question it’s a darn sight better than living out of your suitcase and sleeping in camp-beds in a community centre in Portlaoise or some place.

And Dear Old Skibbereen might well look outlandishly odd in lots of ways to someone out of a tower block apartment in Karkiv or Mariupol, but in fairness it’s not too bad a place to land either, is it, out on Ireland’s Atlantic seaboard, air which is probably the cleanest in all of Europe, no direct sight of the sea itself but a clear sense that that blue-green briny behemoth is within walking distance — a prince of an ocean that wouldn’t even be seen talking to a piss pool like the Black Sea.

Skibbereen is the kind of place you can get your head round reasonably quickly in terms of where the shops are, and the post office, and the churches, and the toilets, and the parks, and the sports grounds, and the schools, and the social welfare office, and the medical centre and the pharmacies; in places such as Skibbereen one can become unconfused fairly quickly, stabilized — cease feeling tossed hither & yon like a piece of garbage in a storm — get yourself oriented, upstanding again, to some extent anyhow.

We hope so.

And we welcome them. I hope they come to think well of us.

The Near Death of Boris Johnson

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Another extract from Even as We Grieved: Journal of a Plague Year, my diaries for 2020 and the first half of 2021 — four (briefish) entries from April 2020 when Boris Johnson tested positive for the virus and for a week or ten days was so seriously ill he was not only hospitalized but wheeled over into intensive care.

Sunday, 5 April [2020]

Lead news out of Britain is that Boris Johnson has been taken to hospital because of his coronavirus infection! He’s been ill with it for 10 days now and although they keep telling us his symptoms are mild and he’s still running the government, albeit isolated in his Downing Street flat, clearly things are more serious than the Downing Street spokespeople have been portraying. They say he’s gone into hospital for ‘tests’ but there are reports this evening that he’s gone in because he’s struggling to breathe. Probably a mix of the two. Despite what the Downing Street spokespeople have been spinning BJ really does look ill — he’s posted several self-recorded smartphone videos during his confinement and in each he’s looked worse than in the one before.

Nothing could underscore the extent to which this is a deadly pandemic more than if the PM were to cop it! Which is to say, this is something that is of concern not only to old people in old peoples’ homes but to people of all ages, and you can die of it even when you can afford the best medical treatment London has to offer.

Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, also diagnosed with Covid, appears to be fully recovered and is back at work.

By the way, Keir Starmer elected Labour Party leader in the UK; a good choice, he’s not charismatic but he looks the part and of course he’s capable (i.e., he could really do the job — be PM — Corbyn never looked the part). Hopefully he’ll bring Yvette Cooper, Hilary Benn, Ed Miliband & Co back to the front bench and we’ll begin to have a credible looking alternative cabinet on the opposition benches again after the dispiriting clown-show of the past few years: Diane Abbott, Home Secretary, John Macdonald, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Emily Thornbury, Foreign Secretary and then, topping them all, Jeremy Corbyn prime minister, for fuck sake, it’s like a sitcom pitch!

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (right) with his media guy Seumas Milne looking prime ministerial (in a dystopian fucking nightmare)

And the Labour Party in Ireland has a new leader too, 44-year-old Alan Kelly, replacing Brendan Howlin, the greyest figure imaginable, over the past 4 years almost totally invisible. And it was even worse when he did make an appearance, made you think he’d do better remaining off-stage.

Monday, 6 April [2020]

Boris Johnson is to spend a second night in hospital in London (St Thomas’), however Downing Street still maintain there’s nothing to see here so move along, folks: the PM is still getting his red boxes, they say, he’s still fully briefed, and he’s still fully in command of the ship of state; however, unless they’re telling the truth they’re going to make themselves look silly and untrustworthy. Apparently BJ has been attempting to do a Churchill — working his way through his ministerial boxes while still in bed — but he’d be better off if he quit his playacting and took his situation seriously; indeed, had he taken the situation seriously he’d have had a much better chance of not getting infected in the first place — apparently he went shaking hands with Covid patients in some hospital back in March! Fucking langer.

Bollox Johnson, prime minster of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

Tuesday, 7 April [2020]

Boris Johnson moved into Intensive Care yesterday evening. Told you; you don’t go into hospital unless the situation is serious, and you sure don’t go to an ICU unless things are serious, really serious, life & death serious. Even so, it’s still a bit of a shocker. According to reports he’s stable, he’s been given supplemental oxygen but is not on a ventilator. However Downing Street have now got themselves into a situation where no one believes a word they say. What they say is just noise. Some reports saying a bed was first prepared for him last Thursday, therefore while the Downing Street press office were still telling us he had only mild symptoms and he was working fully up in the flat, steering the ship of state, clearly his doctors were saying ‘Prime Minister, we think you ought to go into hospital.’

Wednesday, 8 April [2020]

Over 1,800 Covid-related deaths in the US yesterday! 731 in New York alone, which has now surpassed Italy for the number of confirmed cases — NY 138,836 to Italy’s 135,586. NY now has 5,489 dead (and counting).

France passed the 10,000 dead mark yesterday.

Boris Johnson still in ICU, no change they tell us, but like I said yesterday no one puts much store by what the Downing Street press office say on this subject anymore, instead we’ll wait until the prime minister comes out of the hospital — which is to say, in what type of vehicle he leaves the hospital.

In Ireland police have been given extraordinary powers for the next 4 days (the new powers they’ve been given are time-limited), from now until Easter Sunday (but apparently they can be renewed again for other holiday weekends), designed to prevent people flooding out to holiday homes and holiday hotspots undermining the lockdown. Powers are so extensive that apparently it caused a split in Cabinet, not that the powers are too great especially but they’re so great that if wrongly used it may result in undermining the strong sense of social solidarity rather than bolstering it.

One of the tabloid newspapers has a great headline today: ‘Get Out Yer Backs And Tan.’ Irish editions of British tabloids often try to do what the originals do so very well — ‘Shoots You, Sir’ / ‘Lawn Order’ / ‘Elf and Safety’ and so on — however so far as I know they’ve never hit the heights of what the Brits do in this respect — to me always seeming like lame wannabes by comparison — but this one is right up there with the best in the genre. Fair play. I’m sorry not to be able to credit the newspaper concerned, I heard of it in the ‘It Says in the Papers’ section of Morning Ireland this morning.

938 deaths announced in the UK today! Highest daily death total yet in the UK.

UK now has over 7,000 dead, however, based on National Statistics Office numbers — as opposed to the Department for Health figures — a report on Channel 4 News yesterday evening said that official figure could be doubled because UK still not fully counting deaths in old people’s homes and in the community more widely: that 7,000 figure is mostly just hospital deaths.

The numbers are all over the place all over the place, apparently, every country counting up differently so that all these numbers we’re seeing are the product of self-reporting, hence some of the incredible numbers you see for different countries (India, China and Russia to name but three).

Over the weekend I heard a report from Ecuador on the BBC World Service and the reporter said that there were bodies on the streets in the capital (a report on Newsday early in the morning). The health system has completely collapsed there, the hospitals having closed their doors because they’re full to capacity, way more than capacity — every corridor and alcove filled with people on trollies and in wheelchairs &c. People turning up at the hospitals with sick relatives and leaving them there, where of course they perish in short order.

Grim scenes in Ecuador (in the paragraph above I say the report was a report from Ecuador’s capital, however since then I’ve learned that the report was out of Guayaquil, not Quito)

And downtown the reporter said people are putting their dead out with the rubbish on the sidewalk. The report had an interview with the city’s mayor who was both pleading for assistance and also keen to communicate that the corpses on the streets were not her responsibility — the binmen, of course, do not take the bodies. A fucking horror show. And yet if you look at the number of Covid-related deaths for Ecuador it’s only 220, they claim, and only 3,995 confirmed cases.

Extracts from Even as We Grieved: Journal of a Plague Year, my diaries for March 2020 to May 2021 — diary entries for Sunday, 5 April 2020, Monday, 6 April 2020, Tuesday, 7 April 2020, and Wednesday, 8 April 2020; the entries appear on pp. 37-40.

For more, visit the Even as We Grieved page on this blog. Even as We Grieved is about the Coronavirus Crisis (particularly from an Irish point of view), however it’s about other things too: 2020 and 2021 were Big History years: the pandemic, the planet suffering vast swathes of wildfire along with (simultaneously & near by) unprecedented flooding, Trump and the political and cultural crisis in the United States, Brexit and the fragmentation of the UK, and, in this country, FF, FG & the Greens getting together to form a coalition government . . . interesting times:

(By the bye — a final word — I’ve published several extracts from Even as We Grieved on this blog so far, for a full display of which go to ‘Subject Categories’ on sidebar and click on ‘Even as We Grieved’ — this link not to be confused with the italicized link above, which takes you to a page on Even as We Grieved, whereas this, the unitalicized form, takes you to several posts, selected extracts.)