There is something both surreal and entirely apt about the way, thirty-odd years ago, Irish history happened in liminal spaces in American hotels. The lobby of the Grand Hyatt in New York and a balcony of the Grand Cypress in Orlando are the ground zeros for the detonations that toppled the twin towers of Church and State. They should have blue plaques: conservative Ireland died here.
The Grand Hyatt was where, in August 1991, Annie Murphy had a secret recording made of her last meeting with her former lover, the Catholic Bishop of Galway Eamonn Casey. The hidden camcorder captured mostly the back of Casey’s bald head but got one crucial shot of Casey kissing Murphy. And at one point, the camera was jolted and caught for a moment their son Peter hiding behind a pillar, a ghostly embodiment of all the secret children of Catholic Ireland.
That tape was never released but it was a vital piece of the evidence that convinced the brilliant Irish Times journalist Conor O’Clery to pursue the story. The rest really is history: Casey’s fall from grace shattered the enchanted glass of Holy Mother Church.
It was just six months later that Ben Dunne, who sadly died last week in Dubai, suffered an attack of cocaine-fuelled psychosis on the balcony of the $1,200-a-night suite 1708 in the Grand Cypress in Florida. Perhaps out of a lifetime’s habit, he had purchased the drug in wholesale quantities – at least 40 grammes. He ended up, as the sex worker who was with him recalled, “like some crazed King Kong”.
In a coincidence that would never wash in fiction, U2 were also staying on the 17th floor of the Grand Cypress. When the sex worker went down to the lobby to alert the security manager that “a man from Ireland had gone mad” up there, he assumed that this was just another episode of rock star antics.
In this implausible movie – a luridly over-the-top drama that was actually a documentary – a second sex worker that Dunne had called arrived at the hotel to see an ambulance and three police cars pulling up in front of it. She was even more taken aback when Bono walked past her. In one of the great lines of Irish history, up there with “the fools, the fools, they have left us our Fenian dead”, she recalled that “I’ve always been a fan but this hardly seemed the time to introduce myself”.
Even weirder is that U2 were at the time rehearsing for the opening of their Zoo TV tour. One of its features was a video confession booth where fans could look into the camera and tell it their most intimate secrets. Some of these would then be streamed during the concert.
Ben Dunne’s most intimate secret was that he had given nearly £2 million to the sometime taoiseach Charles Haughey, while also paying a senior Fine Gael figure, Michael Lowry, hundreds of thousands of pounds, some of it through offshore bank accounts. After he was tied to two poles and carried from the hotel on the shoulders of two policemen, like a big beast being taken home from the hunt, Dunne’s family would oust him from control of their retail empire.
From affidavits sworn in subsequent legal actions, Cliff Taylor eventually discovered not just the payments to Haughey but the bank at the centre of the criminal tax evasion scheme through which they were routed. This was the elaborate Ansbacher Cayman scam that Haughey and his rich cronies, including a director of the Central Bank, used to launder their money and kept it away from the Revenue Commissioners. These men were so patriotic that they did not want holy Ireland and its then empty exchequer to be touched by their own filthy lucre. They washed it in the waters of the Caribbean.
Thus, the fallout from these two detonations in American hotels drifted over the Atlantic and settled on Ireland. It was radioactive, not just for Church and State but for the fusion of institutional religion and cod-patriotic nationalism that formed the ruling culture of the Republic. Casey’s fall – and the Church’s hopeless reaction to it – opened up the space into which much darker revelations of abuse and cover-up would flow. The revelation of Haughey’s corruption was the beginning of the end of Fianna Fáil’s long hegemony as the party of power.
Yet this was history as chaos theory. A coke-fuelled businessman flapping his arms on a balcony in Orlando causes a hurricane in Irish politics. A kiss in a lobby in New York becomes quite a smacker for the religious culture that had shaped the life of the State.
Both stories developed as they did because of excellent journalism. But they had their origins in moments of strangeness enacted in distant and disconnected spaces. We needed the surreal to reveal the real. To get to crucial facts about ourselves we had to pass through the looking glass of stranger-than-fiction.
This was because the systems of denial were so potent. The church had elaborate ways of dealing with what it called “clerical errors” – the children of priests were born in secret and the mothers were browbeaten into giving them up for adoption. Parts of the State – including the Revenue – knew about the Ansbacher schemes but something always seemed to get in their eyes when they looked too closely. Almost everyone – especially the leadership of Fianna Fáil – knew that Haughey had to be a kleptocrat but also did not want to know.
It’s not fair on Ben Dunne that he will be remembered for a breakdown that ultimately broke down some of the doors into that world of hypocrisy. His worst weekend will always be his time in the pitiless sun of Irish history.
Yet this is the way that our history worked – it took one man’s psychotic episode to begin to bring a country to its senses. Without meaning to, Dunne confessed some very big things in the video booth and those revelations streamed live into the Zoo TV of our collective consciousness.