An Irishman's Diary


I FINALLY got around to reading that Vanity Fairarticle about Ireland over the weekend, and a chastening experience it was. Author Michael Lewis deploys much wit and – of necessity – broad brushstrokes to explain to an American readership how the Irish blew the biggest boom in their history. But his central thesis, at least as I interpret it, is that we’re all complete eejits.

If it’s any consolation, his verdict might have been even less flattering had he been writing now, during the election campaign. Instead, he did his research before Christmas. So one of the few sticks he did not have to beat us with was the thing that used to give Bertie Ahern such nightmares about Ireland’s image abroad: our archaic electoral system.

Readers may recall how, back in October 2006, Bertie first expressed mortification in the Dáil about our persistence with “stupid oul’ pencils”, instead of e-voting machines. This was making us an international “laughing stock” he said.

And in April 2007, one of several occasions when he returned to the subject, his shame was even deeper. That time, he spoke about his “embarrassment” at seeing France – a country of 60 million – produce election results inside two hours. “With any luck”, he added witheringly, our pencil-based system would make the outcome of the 2007 elections known “within five days”.

I sometimes think his government was fatally distracted during that crucial period by Bertie’s anti-graphite obsession. But in any case, the terrible day has now come when we are indeed a global laughing stock. And, as I say, if there’s an upside to our national bankruptcy, it’s that at least those smartarses from Vanity Fairdidn’t notice the pencils.

You can be sure Lewis would have mentioned them if he had, because some of his broadest and most colourful brushstrokes were inspired by a visit to the Dáil.

In fact, hard as it is to argue with most of his article, some people have accused him of occasionally sacrificing journalistic veritéfor a bit of Paddywhackery, as when he suggests: “The first thing you notice when you watch the Irish Parliament at work is that the politicians say everything twice, once in English and once in Gaelic.”

Or, later, when he explains (attributing the story to his guide) that the glass partition around the Dáil’s public gallery was installed to prevent TDs making Tarzan-like entrances into the chamber below when late for votes. Here’s his second-hand account: “Some years ago an Irish politician came late, after the doors had been locked. He ran up to the visitors’ gallery, jumped down from it into the press gallery, 10 feet below, and from there rappelled down the wall to the floor. They allowed the vote, but put up the glass barrier. . , This, [the guide] claims, is very Irish.”

YES, THE STORY sounds rather unlikely. But faith and begorrah, I can vouch for its broad accuracy, because I was in the press gallery myself on that dramatic day. It was many decades ago, very early in my career, when I was parliamentary correspondent for the now sadly defunct Ballydehob Bugle.

If I remember correctly, the TD who made history with his dramatic entrance was an independent for Mid-Galway, Fechin O’Flaherty (also now defunct). On the day it happened, the government was facing a no-confidence motion, with numbers tight.

O’Flaherty was expected to vote with the Opposition. So in the immortal fashion, he was invited by agents unknown to a long lunch.

As a result, I believe he had no intention of attending the vote, having forgotten all about it. In fact, a phrase widely reported at the time (and also alluded to by Vanity Fair)may have been based on a cultural misunderstanding. In certain parts of Ireland, even now, the word “out” is used after an adjective as a kind-of adverbial intensifier, eg: “he’s decent out”, or “that one’s wild out”, etc.

Thus I suspect reports that O’Flaherty had been “locked out” on the afternoon in question may have referred only to his physical condition, rather than Dáil vote protocol.

Either way, the plot to exclude him would have worked had he not run into an old friend from the country, who was curious to see the inside of Leinster House. So O’Flaherty brought him in and up to the public gallery. Where, like farmers at a mart, they watched proceedings below while leaning over the (then still unprotected) gallery wall.

Alas, the severely inebriated TD leaned too far and went crashing down into the press gallery below, on top of a startled political correspondent from the Cork Examiner. Somehow the TD landed on his feet, hence the later suggestions that he had jumped deliberately. But to say he then “rappelled” the remaining distance into the chamber is not quite correct.

It so happened that the Examiner’s pol corr was a veteran of the War of Independence and still suffered flash-backs. Reacting to what he thought was an enemy ambush, he grabbed the nearest weapon – his trusty shillelagh – and with a shout of “Ye dirty Black and Tan!”, whacked the hapless TD so hard that he fell over another wall and down onto the Dáil floor.

He was later transported semi-conscious through the voting lobby by jubilant anti-government TDs, who thought that, in carrying him, they were carrying the day. But as luck would have it, in falling from the press gallery, O’Flaherty had accidentally flattened the Opposition finance spokesman, who had since been rushed to hospital.

An opportunistic government refused a pair and survived by the Ceann Comhairle’s casting vote. The glass partition was installed a few days later.