A blast from the past: Bertie Ahern’s Irish legacy

Bertie Ahern’s blend of endearing naivety and wily opportunism is representative of a peculiarly Irish mindset, which has dominated the body politic for at least the last decade.

Bertie Ahern is grinning up at me with scrunched up nose and open-topped shirt. I find him perched comfortably at the top of page 70 of the July 4 edition of the Irish News of the World, where he has conceded that “there are questions to be answered and issues to be resolved” and that “all of the players should realise that it is time to hold their hands up and then move on.” In his capacity as sports columnist for the aforementioned publication, he is of course referring to England’s dismal performance in the world cup. His blend of endearing naivety and wily opportunism is representative of a peculiarly Irish mindset, which has dominated the body politic for at least the last decade.

As its most successful exponent, Bertie Ahern stood smiling over the country throughout its period of extraordinary prosperity and glided to a swift resignation conveniently in advance of its crippling economic demise. At the launch of his autobiography last year, he told David Frost that accusations that he had received bribes from property developers were unfounded and based on nothing more than that ‘one guy said that the other fellow told him he did’. A polished Cleggeron he may not be, but his colloquial circumlocution renders him a similarly slick smooth – speaker.

The Irish gift of the gab is not just about sliding through the nets though. Our eager benevolence and uncomplicated approachability represent the ideal of a mobilised community spirit. When Joe Duffy spoke recently to a woman living in the west of Ireland who confessed to feeling lonely and depressed in her surroundings, within minutes calls flooded in from strangers offering chats over cups of tea and spare rooms in Dublin, where she was on a housing waiting list. With similar vehemence, homeless charities have launched an impressive campaign against the demolition of empty houses in the outskirts, suggesting instead that they be made available to shelter the homeless.

I was born an invincible Celtic tiger cub and have developed lately into a scavenging graduate, competing to take on unpaid work so that some day a philanthropist will discover an archive of my eclectic and unpublished scribblings and plead with me if they may not immortalise them in serialisation – at any price. Like Ireland’s dream of winning the world cup, it is a goal worth striving towards in the strangely reassuring certainty that it will never be achieved. It is this paradoxical conviction of both success and failure, which makes possible the symbiotic relationship between self-deprecation and delusion, which has contributed to Ireland’s staggering economic rise and fall.

Bertie Ahern’s curious decision to keep his money under his mattress rather than in a bank account is the mark of both madman and genius, each masquerading as the quietly quotidian everyman, drinking still as Taoiseach in his local pub and insisting on going to Mass every week in spite of his cohabiting relationship with a woman not his wife. Paradox and irony thrive in a culture where emotion is self-consciously privileged over intellect. When Ireland rejected the Lisbon treaty, it did so with an impish ‘let’s see what happens’ attitude. The ‘No’ vote was not an indictment of Europe, but rather a concentrated attempt to get on the government’s nerves. After all, they had burst our bubble. Having wedged ourselves between Scylla and Charybdis, we grinned and voted ourselves out second-time round, much to the annoyance of the UKIP.

In a televised debate about head shops, it was claimed by a frustrated liberal that Ireland is a country where laws are set “not by experts but by Joe Duffy”. Indeed, when our former Taoiseach concludes as sports expert from the pages of a tabloid that “no one person should be made to be the scapegoat for what was a collective failure” one can only smile at the audacious success of his opportunism and shake one’s head at the grave irony of his accompanying naivety.

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On books, buyers and balloons

It’s a wet and windy Saturday afternoon. The Spanish protestors gathered at the Spire have painted balloons with slogans forecasting a Revolution. Moore Street is quiet but for a vendor who’s shouting “umbrellas aunl’ a foiva” again and again and again. Inside the Ilac centre, broadband salesmen and the pumping beats from cheap clothes stores are competing for shoppers’ attention. A little boy pressed into a communion suit is dragging his parents into Game. Then, as you go up the stairs and the automatic gate pulls you in: silence.

Seated at one of the desks is a man who has taken off his brown leather watch and propped it up against an empty bottle of peach ice tea. If you are close enough, you can hear the swish of his highlighter pen over a paragraph about marketing strategy. The air is musty and the carpet tattered. A security guard moves suddenly and the keys attached to his belt jingle to the background hum of a hoover, which has just come on.

The faces are either young and foreign or Irish and old. There’s a special table reserved for the elderly and at it spindly fingers are crinkling the pages of newspapers. Blu-tac-ed to one of the shelves is a laminated poster, which reads “Books can help”. There’s a single title lying on that shelf. It’s called When Parents separate- helping your children cope.

A girl drops a pile of books on the counter and asks whether she can return them. The librarian, a lady with a wispy brown bun and rosy cheeks looks carefully at the screen: “Now, I have to tell you, there’s a bit of a fine on your account”. The girl’s eyes flash briefly, “ Yeah, I paid that in Pearse Street last Monday..” The lady’s nose scrunches up a little. “Em.. These are the titles we have here as overdue: With My Lazy Eye, The Colloquial Guide to Arabic and Homecoming. Is that right?” “That’s right”, the girl replies. “But I paid €4.50 for those in Pearse. It’s all cleared on my online account.” The lady pauses. ”hmm”, she says. Her lips curl into a smile. “Alright, I’ll take you at your word”. “Thanks”, the girl mutters awkwardly. “I wouldn’t l..”

The stench of a tweed suit comes and goes. For a split second, it’s silent again. Then the bounce of a book spine as it’s returned to the shelf: Closing time. Outside, it’s cleared up. Yer man is selling fake Adidas tracksuit tops now. The protestors are gone from the Spire but there’s a single black balloon bopping about in the breeze.

Do you mean what you say?

Remember Senator John McCain? He- that -promoted -Sarah Palin -to -Vice- Presidential- candidate? And daughter Bristol to equivalent reality TV stardom?
Well, I’m happy to say that this month marks the two- year anniversary of his inclusion in my Undergraduate essay of the title The Field of Pragmatics is concerned with how people manage to mean more than their words seem to say. Discuss how they do this, with reference to Grice’s maxims.
It was a dull essay, believe me, but Senator JMC managed to spice things up about 1500 words in.
You see, one day in 2008, when JMC was on his campaign trail, an elderly lady supporter petitioned him for a quick word about his no-hoper opponent, Barack Obama. She told JMC proudly that she had “read about him”. JMC nodded in sympathy. By God, hadn’t he had to do his own reading up on that guy. It was the lady’s next utterance that scored the inclusion in my essay. She asked simply; “he’s an Arab?”, to which McCain- swiftly removing the microphone from under her- replied “no, he’s a decent family man … and citizen”.
The whole interchange was a delight to me. It justified the discipline of pragmatics as the study of meaning beyond words and made clear to me that language is as much about what’s not said as what is. Of course, the obvious implication in this interchange is that being an Arab and a decent family man are mutually exclusive. Were this to have been made explicit however, JMC would have been immediately asked to answer to accusations of racism. As his response was veiled in an (arguably irrelevant) compliment to Obama’s family values and citizenship (oh, the irony!) however, he faced no such charges.

Paul Grice was a linguist with a mission. He wanted to create a taxonomy of the unspoken rules that govern the kind of communication that generates meaning beyond words. You can read all about his maxims here but in short, he believed that successful communication relies on adherence to a few basic rules: tell me what’s true, tell me what’s relevant, don’t flood me with information, be polite. So, when I ask you whether you like my new haircut and you tell me that you think long hair really suited me, I can assume, based on the maxims of relevance and clarity, that you are politely answering “no”.

Saying what you mean is so rare that shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm exploit it as a particular kind of comedic art. Sugar-coating our utterances and beating about the bush are so ingrained in our psyche that they have come to represent what we consider civil society to entail. An insidious underbelly is revealed however when we consider the larger-scale effects of such rigid use of linguistic decoration. As recently as last week, the White House claimed that Bin Laden was killed “after a fire-fight”. What emerged later however, was that he couldn’t in fact have had any part in the fire-fight, since he wasn’t armed. When we hear the term “firefight” it’s fair to assume that both parties (now there’s an incongruous word) exchange fire, isn’t it?

Things don’t seem to go so well for those who do say what they mean though. Poor Old Gordon Brown had a terrible time during his campaign trail last year when he called a lady a “bigoted woman”. Even though she was.

At the end of King Lear, Edgar reminds us to “speak what we feel, not what we ought to say”. Respect to Mr Brown for favouring William Shakespeare over Alistair Campbell.

My Juvenilia and The Opening Line That Wasn’t

I was 16 and practically the same but for a hideous mane of long, straggly brown hair with orange highlights. I had just finished struggling through The Satanic Verses. I’d taken it to Germany where I spent many a journey on slow trains, puff-puff-puffing their way through the Bavarian countryside, with the battered book on my knee, trying to make sense of it all. Bizarrely-named angels, and evil and the Muslims didn’t like it: it went something like that. Still though, I used torn up bits of receipts from purchases of Puffreiss Schokolade in Müller to mark interesting passages, which I later transcribed into a notebook, in case I ever decided to emulate Rushdie’s descriptive style, which I must have assumed would be a piece of cake.

My literary aspirations began early in life; in fact they were very much present before I could read and write. At the age of three, I was inspired by numerous attempted break-ins to our home to compose my first work of non-fiction, which I titled “The Book of Burglars”. It was a no-nonsense guide to local criminals, which I penned with help from the local Gardaí, who had shown me an enormous, hard-bound book with an austere brown cover full of photographs of known criminals in the Rathmines area. I illustrated the book interpretively and filled its pages with line after line of elaborate pencil swirls, which I supposed represented the words I was imagining writing. In hindsight, it was rather a reasonable conclusion to draw, given that I had witnessed countless adults sign their name with a scribble that bore no resemblance to the letters of the alphabet of which I had by then become cognisant.

When I subsequently added literacy to my repertoire, I concentrated my efforts on the story of Spook, a castle-dwelling ghost-child, who gets separated from his parents only to be re-united with them at a banquet, where he enjoys (what in my 6-year-old eyes was) the ultimate consolation prize after an agonising ordeal: a drink of 7Up.

As I turned nine and became politically aware, (where such consciousness has since departed is anybody’s guess) my literary efforts were directed to a novella on the subject of the war in Kosovo. Alina’s Story told the tale of a girl and her family struggling to come to terms with the effects of ethnic cleansing in her village. It was written as part of a class project and my older sister of 13 kindly agreed to be my editor. Her decisions and re-writings may have been difficult to reconcile with my original vision, but I was convinced of her sagacity and the finished work is testament to her editorial skill.

Alina's Story, First Edition

When I turned 16, my hairstyle and literary interests took a new direction. I became immersed in the realm of the hypothetical and was in no small part inspired by Rushdie to create an unintelligible literary landscape of my own. It was my solipsistic phase, you see. I considered the predominant preoccupations of my life: self-loathing and the feeling of inadequacy and decided, delightedly that I would transmute these singular insights into a mytho-historical landscape. I imagined a people and land far away from mine and outside of the inconvenience of an established historical timeframe. These people lived in a country that looked precisely how I had pictured Rushdie’s India to be. They had inherited self-loathing, which was rooted somewhere in a bitter historical event (possibly a world war) which had generated, across generations, a learned guilt. I wrote 26 words of that epic work. I have lost the original to a large mainframe Pakard Bell computer but I had enough foresight to commit the 26-word opening line to memory. Here I admit it, for the first time to public view. It went like this:

The self-hatred of the Rahadan race was not ancient, but had existed long enough for the Purkhan family of four generations not to know anything else.

That line concluded my Juvenilia. Little did I know then to what my literary aspirations would amount: a paltry offering of my miscellaneous adventures to the blogosphere. Should have stayed in the genre of mythic-realism. Glad the orange highlights grew out though.