A brief history of Ireland in 33 great delusions
The falsehoods, euphemisms and face-saving ruses that helped make us what we are
Margaret Thatcher told Peter Mandelson “you can’t trust the Irish; they’re all liars”. That was a bit harsh, maybe. But we’re certainly not above the occasional moment of selective amnesia or delusion of grandeur. Here are 33 of our most defining deceptions, white lies, fibs, falsehoods, scams, oxymorons, euphemisms, lies of omission, face-saving ruses, famous last words, and our most enduring collective fantasies about ourselves.
1. “We are living way beyond our means”
“I wish to talk to you this evening about the state of the nation’s affairs and the picture I have to paint is not, unfortunately, a very cheerful one,” the newly elected taoiseach, Charlie Haughey, declared during a 10-minute State of the Nation address in January 1980. The double standards of the taoiseach, who was lecturing the people on tightening their belts while tucking a Charvet shirt into his own, over a bulge acquired from one too many fine meals in Le Coq Hardi, would only come to light much later.
2. “Sex never came to Ireland until Telifís Éireann went on the air.”
It was Fine Gael TD Oliver J Flanagan who put into words in 1966 the most beloved Irish fantasy of all: sex didn’t exist in Ireland, at least not until Gay Byrne came along, with his phalanx of unmarried mothers and people using words like “naked” on live television.
3. Tony Cascarino’s Irish granddad
Footballer Tony Cascarino made 88 appearances for the Republic of Ireland, despite having been turned down for an Irish passport in 1985. He would later say that he genuinely believed – at first – that he was eligible because of his maternal grandfather, Michael O’Malley, was from Westport. In fact, he discovered later that O’Malley was not his mother’s biological father.
4. “Soft day, thank God”
The expression for the collective delusion that things could always be worse when, from a meteorological perspective, it’s hard to imagine how.
5. “The people they regarded as their parents were not in fact their birth parents”
One of the darkest, institutionalised deceptions of Irish life were the unknown number of babies given away in secret and illegal adoptions over many decades. Tusla, the child and family agency, recently contacted 126 people adopted through St Patrick’s Guild to inform them their births were incorrectly registered – as Minister for Children Katherine Zappone put it, “the people they regarded as their parents were not in fact their birth parents”. This may just be the tip of the iceberg.
6. “It wasn’t fashionable to be using the peann luaidhe anymore”
They cost the State €55 million. They were eventually sold, a decade later, for €70,000. The notion that e-voting machines represented the shiny new future of Irish democracy was one of the more expensive fantasies foisted on the Irish public, prompting then finance minister Michael Noonan’s joke about pencils having gone out of fashion. Too soon, Michael, too soon.
7. Wayward girls
Wayward girls. Silly, stupid girls. Fallen women. Where would we have been without the euphemisms that allowed us to cling to the deception that nice girls, settled girls, good girls, bright girls, Catholic girls, didn’t have sex outside marriage? Because the girls who became the fallen women were not nice girls to begin with, it was acceptable to lock them up, force them into unpaid labour, and remove their babies from them.
8. “Bijou pad in need of a new owner’s flair and imagination”
Nobody, not even Irish people in the throes of losing the run of themselves, would pay half a million big ones for a damp one-bed with dirty protest wallpaper, mould in the bathroom, signs of subsidence and stunning views of the communal bins. A bijou pad in need of a new owner’s flair and imagination, though; where do we sign?
9. “Keep Ireland abortion-free”
The notion that there was no abortion in Ireland before the referendum to repeal the Eighth was one of our most convenient, cynical and long-running deceptions. An estimated 11 Irish women travelled to England every day to access abortion services, with more travelling to Scotland and the Netherlands. Then there are the unknown numbers of Irish women who order abortion pills online, and the 10 to 30 legal abortions performed in the Republic of Ireland annually, in circumstances where the woman’s life is threatened by her pregnancy.
10. “Don’t make me get the wooden spoon”
No Irish childhood would be complete without the spectre of the omnipresent, all-conquering wooden spoon, a weapon allegedly more powerful than Voldemort’s wand or Donald Trump’s Twitter. Nobody knew what would happen if your mother ever actually had to use the wooden spoon, because nobody has ever survived to tell the tale.
11. “I don’t want to get a belt of a crozier”
The crozier was the equivalent of the wooden spoon for fully-grown politicians. When Archbishop John Charles McQuaid took a stand against Noel Browne’s 1950 Mother and Child Scheme on the grounds that it was “opposed to Catholic social thinking”, the fallout put paid to the fantasy that the government of the Republic enjoyed even notional independence from the bishops. Browne tried in vain to recruit the support of his cabinet colleagues, but a reluctant Seán MacEoin replied that he didn’t want “a belt of a crozier”. The Irish Times reacted to Browne’s subsequent resignation by commenting that “the Roman Catholic Church would seem to be the effective government of this country”.
12. The Sweep
The Sweep – the Irish Hospitals Sweepstake, a lottery linked to a horse race – was a beloved Irish institution for more than half a century, credited with rebuilding the entire hospital system, and racking up cultural references from Cole Porter to Breaking Bad. It all came crashing down when a 1973 investigation by journalist Joe MacAnthony found Irish hospitals were getting less than 10 per cent of the value of the tickets, the sweep was running up huge unrecorded expenses, tickets were being sold at inflated prices overseas, and the competition was rigged so that the leading shareholders won their own prizes – and the whole deception was unfolding under the nose of the State. “In their handling of the Sweep, successive Irish government sent out a clear message that the rule of law is not paramount. This culture persists in Ireland,” wrote Michael Clifford and Shane Coleman in Scandal Nation.
13. “The Eircom shares windfall”
1999 was the year that we first bought into the communal delusion that we would all one day be rich enough to afford our own kitchen island or apartment in Bulgaria. Following months of hype, half a million Irish people forked out €3.90 a share when the newly-renamed Eircom went public in July 1999. The government cleared €6 billion overnight and the share price hit a high of €4.77. But it didn’t last: by September, it was apparent that those Bulgarian boltholes were not to be. There was no intentional deception involved, just a collective fantasy of ourselves as a nation of overnight millionaires that, once it had taken hold, proved hard to shake off.
14. “Hello divorce, bye bye Daddy”
During the 1995 divorce referendum, the dire predictions of the No side invoked visions of men lining up at dawn outside the Four Courts, suitcases in one hand, and fancy women in the other. Two decades on, Ireland has the lowest divorce rate in the EU.
15. “Light touch regulation”
The devastating act of self-deception that insisted Irish banks had such a strong survival instinct that only “light touch regulation” was required.
16. “We all partied”
In a Prime Time interview in November 2011, Brian Lenihan Jnr said he accepted responsibility as a member of the government “for what happened, but let’s be fair about it, we all partied”. Right so. And who was handing out the tax-efficient six packs and replacing the kegs of cheap credit?
17. “Sound economic fundamentals”
Even as late as May 2008, the ESRI was still caught up in the Celtic tiger fantasy, blindly insisting the fundamentals of the economy were “sound”. “The Irish economy is resilient,” a report published that year stated. Over the following months, Lehman Brothers collapsed, Anglo Irish bank had to be nationalised, Nama was formed and we had to be bailed out by the IMF.
18. The Angelus
For one minute at midday, and again at 6pm, the entire nation comes together as one to stop what they’re doing – peeling vegetables, cutting hedges or, er, sand sculpting – and gaze dreamily into the middle distance as the bongs ring out on RTÉ and we all indulge the collective illusion that nothing has changed: there’s still no sex in Ireland, we still win the Eurovision every year, and Eircom shares remain a great investment. The new Angelus was supposed to make it “conducive to prayer or reflection for people of all faiths and none”, but it requires quite a suspension of disbelief to see the bongs as anything other than a twice-daily reminder that “this is still a Catholic country”.
“Notions” can refer to any act that implies you think you’re not an entirely useless, worthless, unremarkable, unlovable waste of space. It can range from drinking pink gin to having an outdoor hot tub to calling your child after a character in Game of Thrones. To be accused of having notions is to be accused of delusions of grandeur, but it’s a delusion itself, a manifestation of a post-colonial inferiority complex that has no place in modern Ireland. Except during episodes of Room to Improve, when it’s entirely valid.
20. “Up every tree in north Dublin”
Bertie Ahern famously said in the summer of 1997 that he “had been up every tree in north Dublin” chasing allegations of planning corruption, and had found nothing. The subsequent planning tribunal ran from 1997 to 2012 and excavated nearly 30 years of corruption, lies and tax evasion – casting a cold light on how business was conducted by the most powerful people in the State and how deep-seated the extent of public denial of corruption was.
21. “On mature recollection”
Brian Lenihan snr was caught being economical with the truth during the 1990 presidential election, after he denied having contacted President Hillery during a constitutional crisis in 1982. When a tape emerged of Lenihan admitting to journalist Jim Duffy that he had indeed contacted Hillery, he was forced into a humiliating climbdown, and the eminently useful phrase “on mature recollection” entered the national lexicon.
22. Miley and Fidelma
If there was no sex in Ireland until the Late Late Show, there was also no infidelity until Miley and Fidelma’s fumbled act of deception in the hayshed in Glenroe in 1997.
23. “It is very difficult to exaggerate exactly how dumbfounded I was”
These were the words of attorney general Patrick Connolly when asked to describe how he felt to discover that his friend – not just his friend, but the man languishing at that very moment in Connolly’s Dalkey apartment, Malcolm Macarthur – was wanted for armed robbery and double murder. Macarthur bludgeoned Bridie Gargan, a 27-year-old nurse, to death as she was sunbathing in the Phoenix Park on July 22nd 1982. Days later, he shot dead farmer Donal Dunne. After a massive manhunt, Macarthur was eventually found in the home of Connolly – who was so astounded, he decided to proceed with plans to take a holiday in the States.
24. “We’ll just go for the one”
Going for the one is shorthand for “Please note that I’m not going out with the intention of getting completely rat-arsed, ossified, langered, stocious, legless, paralytic, baloobas, off-my-face and out-of-my-bin drunk, and no responsibility will be taken in the event that I do”.
25. “Nasal congestion”
A little-known form of allergic rhinitis suffered by politicians who just went for the one, and then have to get up early to do an interview on Morning Ireland.
26. Irish dancing
The main and most immediately identifiable feature of Irish dancing is that the top half of the body doesn’t move at all. There are various theories for this: the Catholic Church disapproved of arms moving, as it was seen as too sensual, or the English banned dancing altogether, and the stiff upper body was designed to fool passing constables who happened to glance through windows when a session was under way. Only the Irish could turn deception into a new form of dance.
27. Dummy teams in GAA
In the 1990s, Clare hurling manager Ger Loughnane became famous for a ruse to confuse his rivals. He would announce the starting 15 team on Thursday. Come 3.30pm on Sunday, there’d be two or three or more changes, giving him a tactical advantage over opposing teams. The practice of announcing dummy teams “annoys the living daylights out of me now as a pundit”, Loughnane recently admitted.
28. Gay Future
The racehorse Gay Future was at the centre of an audacious betting scam pulled off by a syndicate headed by Irish builder Tony Murphy in 1974. During inspections at his stables, trainer Antony Collins substituted a lacklustre imposter for the real Gay Future, raising the betting odds on offer to 10/1. On race day, the real Irish-trained horse replaced the imposter in an M6 lay-by, won the race, and a syndicate headed by Murphy and Collins raked in £250,000. An investigation by Scotland Yard ended up in the UK high court, where Murphy was convicted of fraud against bookmakers, fined £1,000 and given a suspended sentence. At the 40th anniversary of the scam in 2014, Collins said he had no regrets. “Jousting with the bookmakers isn’t like playing croquet on the vicar’s lawn. I’ve done worse in my life.”
29. Most oppressed people ever
Queen’s University professor of economic history Liam Kennedy coined the term “MOPE (most oppressed people ever)” to characterise Ireland’s enduring attachment to the vision of itself as a victim of history. This deeply seductive notion has had some illustrious proponents along the way, from Charles Stewart Parnell’s “the most miserable country on earth”, to Daniel O’Connell’s brag of “misery and destitution unequalled on the face of the globe”. And yet, as Kennedy points out, the claims of an ethnic trauma of unrivalled scale and intensity just don’t stack up. Yes, we’ve suffered famine, conflict, unrest, economic hardship, persecution, eviction and mass emigration, but “to see the Irish experience as an exemplar of misery and oppression among European peoples . . . is simply an expression of ignorance in relation to the histories of other nations”, he writes.
30. “By her life within the home, woman gives to the state a support without which the common good cannot be achieved”
Article 41.2 of the Constitution gives formal expression to the archaic fantasy of the ideal family as “daidi ag obair agus mamai sa chistin”. In reality, 64.1 per cent of Irish women work outside the home, and the number of women looking after family fell by 36 per cent in the 20 years to 2017, to 417,300, while more than 10,000 men are stay-at-home parents. Meanwhile, the article ignores the reality of same-sex parents and single-parent households. A referendum to decodify this particular delusion is due to be held this year or next.
31. CervicalCheck controversy
The CervicalCheck screening controversy came to light this year, after Limerick woman Vicky Phelan settled a High Court action for €2.5 million against a US lab following an incorrect smear result in 2011. The result said her smear, which was taken under the CervicalCheck programme, was clear, but she was diagnosed three years later with cervical cancer. The missed smear was discovered in 2014, but – crucially – the information was withheld from Phelan, who did not learn about it until she came across a reference in her own file in 2017. It later emerged that a total of 221 women with cervical cancer were not initially told about subsequent audits that showed past smears were misread.
32. “I don’t know what a tracker mortgage is”
Actually, the public knew perfectly well what a tracker mortgage was. It was the banks who were confused, handing them out left, right and centre during the boom, and then later – when they suddenly didn’t look like quite such a great deal – wrongly denying more than 30,000 customers their legal right to one.
33. “The best small country in the world”
It’s two years since Enda Kenny’s self-imposed deadline to make Ireland “the best small country in the world to do business . . . raise a family [and] grow old with dignity and respect” came and went, and even his most ardent supporters would have to concede that children living in hotels and old people dying on trolleys in A&E do not stack up to “the best”.