‘Believing his penis to be haunted, he streamlined his factories and made a billion’

Patrick Freyne: I get why people want to be a bit rich: poverty sucks. But why Rich-List rich?

In the olden days young people would gather together once a week and watch Top of the Pops to see how their favourite popstars were faring. Nowadays we've replaced popstars with money magnates and today's teens watch shows like Ireland's Rich List 2021 (Monday, RTÉ1) cheering on their favourite billionaires as they move up and down the money charts. Everyone loves a list like this, though revolutionary socialists, in fairness, tend to compile them for totally different reasons.

I think about the richest people I know – Enya, one of the Jedwards, Judge from Wanderly Wagon, the ghost of Charles J Haughey, the nefarious British and Bosco – and I smack my lips in anticipation even though a cookery element has not yet been introduced.

Ireland's Rich List 2021 is hosted by affable Richard Curran, whom we meet on the grounds of a stately home over which he presides dressed in a nice suit. He doesn't wear a monocle and top hat while chomping a cigar, which I feel is missing a trick, but I appreciate the general effort.

Curran is a relative pauper. Like the rest of us he can more typically be found wearing a barrel and braces while stealing delicious pies from the windowsills of trusting 1930s housewives. All of his possessions can be carried in a bindle and when he opens his wallet a fly flies out. This is basically what everyone on this rich list sees when they look at the rest of us.

Watching this programme reinforces the fact that everything has a price. I can see you’re getting defensive. “Surely some things are priceless beyond measure,” you say. “Like the smile of a child or a beautiful sunset.”

Having watched this show, let me say: WRONG! Nice sunsets can be created by firing thermonuclear warheads into the sun and the smile of a child is worth exactly €47.50.

This is a programme about people who dare to dream and their dreams involve supply chains, bar charts, golf and pictures of themselves shaking hands with other identical people in suits in newspapers. They are winning the game of life, at least on points, and most but not all of them are men. It reminds me of when I was, for a time, the biggest boy in sixth class. Yes, another name for this programme could be The Biggest Boys in Sixth Class. “And now for our next Big Boy!” I imagine Curran saying. “He truly is the Biggest Boy.”

Drab suits

The Big Boys who appear in this episode are, for the most part, anonymous, publicity-shy recluses in drab suits who have made their fortunes by scaling up conventional businesses without even once purchasing a pet leopard or inviting Drake to a party.

There are no Elon Musks here, naming their children after randomised email passwords, fighting with strangers on the internet and wanting to be launched into space for the laugh.

The one colourful exception is Dermot Desmond, who has a flashy nickname: "The Kaiser". He is called this because he has a big moustache. This is, in the context of Irish riches, the action of a crazed nonconformist. If I was as rich as him I'd go the whole hog and wear one of those pointy 19th century Prussian helmets, leather boots and a load of medals.

This isn’t to say that Ireland’s Biggest Boys aren’t deeply unusual in their way. The very rich are, as far I can see, hoarders like those on the TV show Hoarders: Buried Alive. They mightn’t be hoarding old pizza boxes, junk mail or bird skeletons. Instead they are unnecessarily stockpiling money, loads of money, more money than they could ever need.

Perhaps it has always been thus. Perhaps in times past a caveperson sat atop a mouldering mound of mammoth meat while a hungry hominid in a furry tie praised their business acumen. Nonetheless, I feel the word “billionaire” should be treated less like an economic designation these days and more like a diagnosis.

Look, I get why people want to be a bit rich. To paraphrase Karl Marx: being poor really, really sucks. A desire for riches is really a desire for security, a reduced state of anxiety and nice things. But I feel like if this existential fear of the future and lust for stuff isn't staved off by, I don't know, the first ten million, then there's some fascinating psychology at play.

Philosophers

Ireland's Rich List is filled with input from some of Ireland's best financial journalists, painstakingly explaining how the various tycoons made their money (nobody says: "class interests, sparse regulation and artificially manufactured scarcity"). But I'd also love some contributions from philosophers, psychologists and, possibly, mystics about why these people want the money.

As the contributors outline the ingenious ways in which each person on the list squeezed additional millions from their existing millions or lost a few paltry millions from their existing billion, I find myself repeatedly saying: "Yeah, but why though?"

I crave additional insight, narrative context, sentences like “so to compensate for never truly feeling loved, he purchased a chain of haberdasheries” or “powerless in the face of death and terrified by the void, he brought his waffle company to the stock market for an IPO” or “believing his penis to be haunted as the old fortune-teller had predicted, he streamlined all of his fidget spinner factories and made a billion”.

Let me add here that all the aforementioned examples are fictional billionaires invented for the purposes of illustration and the billionaire that you legally represent is fantastic and doing everything for the right reasons. He is the Biggest Boy of all.

Wealth creation

On the same night, Channel 4 aired Kathy Burke's Money Talks, in which the very likeable Burke visits rich people to learn about their lives (next week's episode is about people who are struggling). This programme does set out to ask the "why?" question but the answers are woolly. Many of the subjects are just notionally "rich" because they're influencers selling a myth of wealth creation in defiance of widespread downward mobility.

The programme-makers forgo deeper analysis, preferring to lean on Burke’s charm and her own lived experience of both poverty and relative wealth. It’s an interesting prism through which to look at these things but it isn’t enough. We don’t get any real sense of what constitutes wealth or the economic chaos that leads people to crave wealth, and Burke is too kind-hearted to ask hard questions.

Also, most of the people here are impoverished, relative to the people in the previously discussed programme who have mislaid bigger fortunes in the back of taxis. I suppose it does give me a strange sense of pride as an Irishman that we have so many Big Boys, even if I’d like to tax them into being smaller boys (mere millionaires). For their own good, like.