I recall Brendan Halligan saying at the time that the one good thing about Charles Haughey’s ascent to Taoiseach was that it would help polarise Irish politics. It didn’t. I recall too that Frank Cluskey regarded him as a test instrument; if there was any doubt about a policy but Charles Haughey disliked it, very likely it was the correct thing to do. I was relatively young then and, finding Charles Haughey ridiculous, I struggled to understand his appeal. Later it occurred to me that he was mad. (If you doubt this, find a picture of him before his mansion with his horse.) Of course the realisation that he was mad was of little value in trying to understand his appeal. That understanding took years and another similar Taoiseach in Bertie Ahern.
The key to understanding the phenomenon of a Taoiseach who is without political values and claims to be neither left nor right is the preoccupation with aristocracy and leadership of the nation*. The main virtue of the RTE TV drama series, “Charlie”, is that it makes this plain. The importance of the drama right now is that the Irish attitude to national leadership has not changed. Ireland’s history, and the view of politics accepted by the majority and reinforced by journalists has led to this point.
The leader is required to deliver a modicum of self-respect to a nation held down by outsiders and their cronies within. These cronies – “the establishment” – characteristically exhibit foreign traits and “betray” the “people”. The leader is required to be kindly and to have a common touch, delivering to some people and some communities, while offering hope of a delivery to each one. When Charlie wants Ireland to “dine at the top table”, he epitomises national abasement.
Charles sought to be the chieftain of the Irish nation. Today the model remains one of ruler and ruled with “ordinary people” or sometimes “ordinary working people” seeking relief, reassuring promises, favours, and gifts from their chieftain or aristocracy. Lately the would-be chieftains strike their version of the traditional anti-establishment pose by deriding “the political class”. The term offers a distant whiff of Marxism while ensuring that the concept of class is never explored. Then they get on with precisely what FF and Charlie inherited from their SF origins: they insinuate themselves into communities, take up causes and make representations. They have it appear that nothing can be “delivered” without pressure and that they are best at pressurising. It is a depressingly long way from citizens discussing and deciding on the direction of their republic. The whinging cry now, as in the 70s and 80s, is for leadership.
The state’s founding myth continues to figure in selecting leaders. In 1916 Ireland had The Easter Rising (Irish: Éirí** Amach na Cásca). The cultural base to that was a harking back to mythical Irish chieftains. The cruelly executed signatories to the Easter Proclamation*** became lost leaders, revered for representing the nation. The drama, Charlie, showed that by the early 80s an invitation – in familiar “rebel song” format – to Arise and Follow Charlie (It featured the line, “Hail the leader, hail the man”. Jesus wept!) was still compelling.**** Today we have calls for new leaders and new parties to come and save the people who have been “betrayed” by leaders who ignore the “principles”, dreams and aspirations of 1916. (There is even a nationalist group styling itself “Éirigí”.) The tradition of rebellion in Ireland is essentially nationalist, a desire to be ruled by “our own”. Though Irish nationalists – in common with British opponents of monarchy – like to call themselves “republican”, their use of the term drains it of its participative meaning.
In the first episode of the TV drama, as Charlie called the race together under his emerging leadership, he stood before an enormous picture of Pádraig Pearse. With the 2016 centenary approaching the trick is being reworked time and again.
Many found the TV drama difficult to follow or disliked the reliance on actors who featured in the crime series, Love Hate. More importantly, the drama was criticised for its stereotypes and gormless script. However, the real subjects of the drama (Charles Haughey and co.) performed for the most part as stereotypes who spoke rubbish which voters found agreeable. Moreover, the drama speaks to Ireland’s present predicament as citizens seek new saviours.
* Conor Cruise O’Brien wrote that Mr Haughey “was an aristocrat in the proper sense of the word: not a nobleman or even a gentleman, but one who believed in the right of the best people to rule, and that he himself was the best of the best people”. – quoted in Dermot Ferriter’s The Transformation of Ireland 1900 – 2000 pg.561
*** The text of the 1916 proclamation: http://www.iol.ie/~dluby/proclaim.htm
**** Donie Cassidy teamed with Dublin folk singer Pete St. John to co-write ‘Charlie’s Song’ (better known as ‘Arise and Follow Charlie’).