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Justine McCarthy: We should thank Charles Haughey for Ireland’s Booker Prize success

To explore the success of Irish artists without mentioning Haughey is like staging Hamlet without the prince

The news that four Irish novelists feature in this year’s Booker Prize long list has been raising high brows even higher, far and wide. Is it something in the Emerald Isle’s water that is pumping the superlative creative juices of Ireland’s writers? Sebastian Barry, Elaine Feeney, Paul Lynch and Paul Murray belong to a veritable library of authors that places Ireland at the top of the pile, per capita, for bagging the most Booker nominations since the award’s inception.

Some intellectuals seeking to identify the wellspring of this literary excellence have traced it to Ireland’s tradition of storytelling. Others have conjectured that it is nurtured by the abundance of book festivals all over the country. Nobody, however, mentions the H-word.

To explore the critical success of Irish artists without mentioning Charles J Haughey is like staging Hamlet without the prince. Love him or loathe him, it cannot be denied that the grasping politician with a penchant for spending other men’s money provided essential nutrients for the arts to flourish. We should thank the man’s Medici complex for creating its own astonishing fiction. For his self-invention as the powerful patron of a creative tribe has left an indelible mark. No Taoiseach before or after him has matched his influence on the country’s artistic life.

His introduction of the artists’ tax exemption in the 1969 Finance Act was a game changer, allowing writers, painters, composers and sculptors to put bread on the table while the lights burned in their garrets. Censorship aside, the provision helped to reverse an historical tide of Irish writers going into pecuniary exile and depriving this country of the inspirational presence of Joyce, O’Casey, Beckett, McGahern, et al. The tax shelter lured other writers from abroad too. Like moths to the flame came English playwright John Arden, the American novelist JP Donleavy and The Day of the Jackal author, Frederick Forsyth. Thus was spawned a vibrant artistic community that became physically and psychologically enmeshed in the wider community.


When Haughey became taoiseach, he equipped himself with an artistic adviser in the shape of Anthony Cronin and there followed the establishment of Aosdána, offering a subsistence stipend – the Cnuas – to its members. Serial Booker nominee Sebastian Barry – longlisted this year for his novel Old God’s Timehas recalled the £8,000-a-year grant that came with his induction to Aosdána in 1989 as “a miraculous sum of money [that] could pay the rent, which is really the thing you’re always trying to do, whether it is temporal or spiritual”.

Haughey fancied himself as an aesthete. That was his downfall. His impossibly-expensive vanity – the splurging on monogrammed silk shirts from Charvet of Paris, his ocean-going yacht, his holiday-home island, his Abbeville mansion, his champagne-accustomed mistress – proved his undoing at two tribunals, chaired by judges McCracken and Moriarty. Justifiable fury was unleashed when the tribunals revealed that he had been indulging in this paid-for sybaritic lifestyle while telling the rest of us to tighten our belts. He even chose to contest a general election in 1989 rather than pay people with haemophilia their rightful compensation for being infected with contaminated blood supplied by the State.

But Haughey was not thoroughly bad for Ireland. Concrete pillars attest to this other side of his legacy, which included the restoration of Dublin Castle and Government Buildings, the establishment of the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Kilmainham and the preservation of the Céide Fields in Mayo.

The foundations for building a creative Ireland had already been laid even before Haughey came along. The Easter Rising is often romantically portrayed as a revolution of poets. The country has produced four Nobel Prize laureates for literature. When the most recent of them, Seamus Heaney, died 10 years ago this month, amazement was expressed in international media that Ireland had gone into mourning for a poet.

These days, visitors come from abroad to sample the riches of Dublin as a Unesco city of literature, take in the Museum of Literature Ireland, fondly known as Moli, drop by the Joyce tower in Sandycove to see the setting for the first episode of Ulysses, maybe travel up to Bellaghy in Co Derry to view Heaney’s home place and over to Drumcliffe Cemetery in Co Sligo to ponder whether WB Yeats truly lies in the earth under Ben Bulben.

You might argue that our artists would have thrived even if had Haughey never reigned. The history was already rich. Language and self-expression had long been a political issue in this country. As Brian Friel remarked in his play, Translations, our language is “full of the mythologies of fantasy and hope and self-deception – a syntax opulent with tomorrows. It is our response to mud cabins and a diet of potatoes”.

Creativity is revolutionary by its nature and other territories too have emerged from periods of artistic and literary awakening. The difference is that Ireland has continued to embrace its writers, to rub shoulders with them in day-to-day living and to regard their work as an intrinsic seam in the country’s social fabric. Maybe it is easier for a small country to do that because of its intimacy, but Haughey certainly poured some sticking glue between the past and the future with his interventions.

In an interview he did after he retired from public life for a book entitled Movers & Shapers: Irish Art since 1960, Haughey said his motivation when he introduced the artists’ tax exemption was not solely monetary; that he had wanted it to say to artists “you are valued members of our community”.

“You use a glass mirror to see your face,” said George Bernard Shaw, one of Ireland’s Nobel literary quartet. “You use works of art to see your soul.”

Perhaps one of our artists will dig into that soul one of these days and make sense of our collective denial that Haughey, the richest of the tribe, a liar and a cheat, did, as he famously claimed, “the State some service”.