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The Last High King and his Faithful Bard June 20, 2006

Posted by smiffy in Irish Politics.

Long time fans of the True Voice of the Irish Psyche, John Waters, will remember a brief period in the mid-1990s, before he took up arms against the oppressive feminist tyranny we clearly all tremble under, where he trotted out half-arsed, poorly-understood misrepresentations of post-colonial theory every week, as a way of understanding the legacy of the Famine.

Well, it looks like the unread copy of Black Skin, White Masks has been dusted down and wheeled out in ‘defence’ (if you call a bizarre, nonsensical rant a ‘defence’) of the legacy of Haughey in yesterday’s Irish Times (sub required).

At least the previous Haughey piece we looked at tried to make some sort of case, albeit a spurious one. Waters, however, sticks with his tried-and-trusted faux-mystical tripe which, like the worst kind of New Age hack, he seems to think is an adequate substitute for boring old facts and arguments supported by evidence.

He wheels out the same old clichés we’ve had barked at us ad nauseam over the past week. “Everyone hated Charlie Haughey except the people” (no, everyone hated Haughey including vast chunks of the people, even the always useful to the budding reactionary ‘plain people of Ireland’). He had an “empathy with the people” (no, he was a populist with a barely disguised contempt for lives of ‘ordinary’ people). He was the one who made us all rich (no, he was around at the time when the economic policies which contributed, in part, to the current boom were initiated – with the cooperation of a Fine Gael party in opposition which acted, with the Tallaght Partnership, in a way unimaginable to someone as self-serving and power-mad as Haughey).

However, at least those others who come out with these kind of apologetics tend to at least acknowledge some kind of wrong-doing on Haughey’s part, even if it’s just the inevitable consequence of a ‘tragic flaw’ in his character.

Not John Waters. On the contrary, for Waters (via his wikipedia-like understanding of Franz Fanon), Haughey’s greed, corruption and ostentatious lifestyle are what made him great. He didn’t live in a huge mansion in North Dublin, or acquire his own, private, island and squander his wealth on overpriced shirts and overpriced dinners for himself, you understand.

No, no: he was doing it for you:

He sought to subvert the delusions of post-colonial Ireland, to manipulate the iconography of wealth and power so as to deliver himself and us to our potential.

You see, by being a rather comical anachronism (assuming the mantle of Ascendancy lord at a time when the Ascendancy had all but disappeared, and those who remained in the Big Houses, were impotent reminders of a bygone age) he was somehow undermining that image. One wonders if Haughey himself was aware that he was the living embodiment of subversive irony, or if he was just fond of being very, very rich.

Waters continues:

He stole Ireland back from the elite who had stolen it for themselves – by aping their pretences and self-importance and exposing the inadequacy of their charades; by creating a new drama of elitism: spectacular, attainable and democratic. (…)He showed us a way we might live, by living it himself.

Even more bizarrely, he claims:

He refused to settle for less than his own due, so refusing on behalf of the dispossessed; the men of no property; the women of less property; and the citizens who wouldn't have minded their telephones being tapped if, back in the grey and wireless reality of early-1980s Ireland, they'd had telephones worth tapping. To the people of flawed pedigree, Charles Haughey said: anything is possible, poverty is not natural, and you do not have to accept your place.

Aren’t you grateful? Apparently, he was leading by example, like the Marxist who travels first-class to remind people that, come the revolution, we all will. He was, in Waters words, “the Fat Chieftain who promised to make his people as plump as himself”.

Except, of course, that he wasn’t. This kind of argument only makes sense if Haughey was, in any sense, a self-made man rather than the grasping, insatiable crook he was in reality. He was able to live the lifestyle he did only because he was bankrolled by his rich friends, and because he was a tax-evader, a point which Waters conveniently elides with an oblique reference to Haughey’s ‘methodology’ in acquiring all this wealth. If Haughey was genuinely trying to show people how they too could aspire to a lifestyle like his, he could at least have been a little more forthcoming in revealing the source of his wealth when asked.

Not only, however, does Waters refuse to admit that Haughey ever did anything wrong, he seems to argue that Haughey, by virtue of his greatness, exists outside this kind of petty ‘morality’.

Being perhaps unable to achieve release from the cocoon of post-colonial illogic, you will "point out" that he was himself the prime beneficiary of his own dramatisation. This was unavoidable and therefore morally unexceptionable. There was no other way of demonstrating the possibilities.

The ‘dramatisation’ Waters refers to being, of course, the acquisition of massive wealth. He goes on:

His fingerprints are all over the transformation of Ireland, but the explanation is too complex and amazing for easy acceptance. Before he came, we were poor: now we grow rich. Before he came, there were hovels, now a housing boom. Before he came, there were dirt tracks, now motorways and flyovers. Before he came, we were afraid to speak in whispers; now we proclaim our worth to the world.


To deal with such a legacy by counting "good" and "bad" and weighing the difference is simple-minded and pointless. At its best, politics steers closer to magic than logic. To calculate the impact of Charles Haughey, we must add positives to negatives, hate to love, to know the sum of what he inspired and what he overcame to make the impossible banal.

This is nonsense, of course, but it’s dangerous nonsense as well. It exemplifies the kind of mysticisation and aestheticisation of politics beloved of fascism, where the lives and destinies of individuals are subsumed into the destiny of the Nation or the People (as a collective) conveniently embodied in this single great man (and, let’s face it, it’s always a man); the great man who doesn't have to live under the same laws nor is subject to the same moral standards as the rest of us.

It feeds on the myth of the establishment, where the Taoiseach, Tanaiste, the government, the owners of the media and millionaire businessmen like Michael O’Leary are all plucky underdogs and where Fintan O’Toole and Ivana Bacik really run the country.

It’s an unhealthy and profoundly anti-democratic worldview which serves to keep people docile, complacent and unquestioning and where an essentially conservative agenda can be presented as a radical.

Pretty typical John Waters, all in all.


1. WorldbyStorm - June 20, 2006

As you had predicted previously he used the word ‘chieftain’.

There’s something to be said for a magical realism in cinema and literature, but in what purports to be a political or social affairs column it’s over the top.

Water’s was entirely contradictory and gifted Haughey et al, with the necessity to live our lives for us, better effectively than we could live them.

I’ve always liked John Waters columns, even while disagreeing with some of what he says, but this was elitist and nonsensical. Never a good mix…


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