Notes from a banana republic
REVIEW: Feckers: 50 People Who Fecked Up IrelandBy John Waters
John Waters delivers mini sermons that are sweet and sour, mischievous and humane, insightful and provocative, thoughtful and infuriating, often all at the same time
ON FIRST SIGHT, with its humorous title, cover and blurb – “It’s time to name and shame the great, the good, and the gobshites” – this looks like yet another of those awful fecking books that are written in a hurry for the Christmas market. John Waters, however, is far too clever and contrary to oblige. Instead he dons the robes of high priest and delivers 50 mini sermons that are sweet and sour, mischievous and humane, insightful and provocative, thoughtful and infuriating, often all at the same time. He has recycled and reworked many of the issues and themes that have dominated his columns and other writings over the years, including his majestic book Jiving at the Crossroads, first published in 1991, and moulded them into a treatise on the origins of our contemporary bankrupt banana republic.
As Waters sees it, many of our problems stem from a self-hatred inculcated by British colonisation and a repugnance and mistrust of everything indigenous that followed independence. The spiritual and psychological freedom desired by the first on his roll-call of feckers, Patrick Pearse, was lost after he and his fellow rebels were executed and “denied posterity the intelligence they might have brought to the independence project”. That project was also undermined by booze; his list includes Arthur Guinness, who began a process through which the non-drinker was “barred from the collective soul of Ireland”, while myths developed around the likes of Brendan Behan to the effect that “drinking and literature go hand in hand”.
Ben Dunne snr is also singled out; by bringing cheap clothes to Ireland he apparently gave women a new power over men, who were now prevented from buying their own clothes, which destroyed their confidence. This sermon, one of a number dripping with sexism – later, we are told Bishop Eamon Casey “knocked up” his “American squeeze” – allows Waters to indulge in one of his pet hates, feminism, and he laments that an Irish woman is not like an Italian woman who is not “afraid of anyone knowing that she is interested in pleasing her man”.
He has plenty of other targets, including Gay Byrne (those who celebrate the success of The Late Late Showare, he contends, celebrating the success of their own particular agendas), and the “truly brilliant” Garret FitzGerald, who was also “a disastrous politician” who made us “wary of talkers and thinkers” in politics.
In writing about the music of Shane MacGowan, Waters loses all sense of literary discipline: “It was at once a celebration and a refusal, a kick and a kiss. It was a soundtrack for the neurosis born of the post-Independence failure of Irish culture to find a way of jump starting itself – but also, for the same reasons, a living, leaping, soaring blurt of the spirit that had become suppressed. It was a deconstruction of something recognisable as having been put together in slightly the wrong way . . .” Enough!
In contrast, there are some masterful portraits, written in prose to savour. He writes perceptively about John McGahern and the manner in which he hung his father out to dry in his celebrated Memoir; Conor Cruise O’Brien, who was “unable to see other than the dark side of his own people”; and Des O’Malley, “the kind who threatens to pull down the establishment so the establishment will move over and invite him to join it”. Gerry Adams is castigated for his stomach-turning high moral tone about wrongdoing while refusing to admit to IRA membership. In one of his funniest contributions, Waters laments the decision of Mike Murphy to leave RTÉ because of the humour and broadcasting skills he took with him, much to the detriment of the national mood.
Inevitably, Mary Robinson is attacked – “her words attained a new level of unwomanly malevolence” – while justifiable and well-aimed missiles are hurled at Louis Walsh for crimes against music and at the cowardly, anonymous and mean-spirited Irish bloggers, characterised as Paddy O’Blog. Another one of his preoccupations is the media, as it became “the highest court of the land”. There is thoughtful reflection on the innovative Sunday World in the 1970s and its publisher, Gerry McGuinness, before it embraced a British tabloid culture.
There are also plenty of digs at the perceived political correctness of The Irish Times and the campaign by Frank McDonald, the newspaper’s Environment Editor, against one-off housing – they were not the problem, he legitimately maintains: badly planned housing estates were. Owen Keegan, head of traffic with Dublin Corporation, also gets a kicking for overseeing the introduction of car clamping, a “monstrous insult to public liberty”. The book also contains excellent critiques of the ill- conceived attempt by media-skills advisers to strip Enda Kenny of his natural, irreverent and humorous self, and the unfortunate limitations of the Taoiseach, Brian Cowen.
In undertaking this project Waters clearly decided to be a complete fecker himself, but that is not necessarily a bad thing; as he observes, the word “fecker” retains an element of regard – “someone who may exhaust the patience but not entirely the affection” – which is actually a very fair description of the author. He is keen to challenge “the analysis being peddled on a daily basis by ideologues with axes to grind”, but he has no shortage of personal axes to grind; indeed, on occasions he is so frenzied in grinding them that he drowns in his own verbiage and pop psychology. But he also manages to make sharply focused assessments of our failures of self-understanding and the historic patterns that have shaped contemporary society.
Bitchy asides abound, and his abject fear of assertive women is pathetic, but this is a book to be read; Waters writes well and with originality about false forms of freedom and our psychological, spiritual and cultural ailments.
Diarmaid Ferriter is professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin