An Irishman's Diary


ONE OF THE drawbacks that arises when a well-known person asks another well-known person to write the first well-known person’s life-story is occasional confusion in the book-reader’s mind as to which voice he’s hearing.

In Bertie Ahern’s The Autobiography, for example, we seem sometimes to hear both the ex-taoiseach and his biographer, Richard Aldous, in the same sentence. Take the former’s account of the celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1966. “When the Army fired the feu de joie from the roof of the GPO,” he recalls, “it sent a thrill right through me.” It is entirely possible that, during interviews for the book, Bertie Ahern really did describe the thing fired from the roof of the GPO as a “feu de joie”. But it’s hard to imagine. And considering that, in conversation with this newspaper the other day, he also described the giant Lehman Brothers bank as having its “testicles everywhere”, one cannot help being sceptical.

Of course I might be projecting my own ignorance here. The “feu de joie” reference went over my head initially, as the actual feu de joie went over the 14-year-old Bertie’s. I have only since discovered it is a sort of Mexican wave of gunfire used to celebrate royal birthdays, victories in war, or other happy events.

But even in The Irish Timesworld news pages, it occurs rarely. From idle curiosity, I looked the phrase up in our archives to try to gauge whether, circa 1966, it had achieved popular currency for a time, like “creepin’ Jesus” and other colourful terms that might have wormed their way into the consciousness of a Drumcondra teenager.

And surprise to say, the IT carried only two references to it in the entire 1960s. One was itself an archive feature: a report from Kilrush, Co Clare, originally published in 1863, detailing how a local “rabble” celebrated the Prince of Wales’ birthday by burning his effigy and firing a “feu de joie” through all the shop windows. The other, equally metaphorical, was from a rugby match in 1968.

I also found the phrase in an old Irishman’s Diary: which, by the way, provides a cautionary tale for editors everywhere. It concerned a man named Noel Craig who, during a globe-trotting newspaper career, had worked for the Morning Postin Hong Kong, where many of his staff – not unlike Bertie Ahern – had a troubled relationship with English.

One day, Craig sent a reporter to cover a big military funeral. But when the man returned with his first draft, it was indecipherable. So Craig rewrote it long-hand, noting inter alia that a “salute” had been fired in the dead soldier’s honour, and then left the piece with the same man to type up.

Imagine his horror next day when the paper reported that the very solemn funeral had been marked by the firing of a “feu de joie” over the grave. Investigations revealed that the reporter heard this a lot during celebrations of Queen Elizabeth’s birthday a week earlier and, assuming the phrase referred to all military salutes, decided it could only improve the story. Lucky for him, the editor did not have a spare feu de joie available in the office at the time.

IF THERE WAS a Nobel Prize for malapropisms and he hadn’t won already, Bertie Ahern would now be a shoo-in for this year’s award: allowing the Nobel committee to snub George W Bush twice in one week. But as with previous gaffes – praising Charlie Haughey for turning Temple Bar into “Dublin’s West Bank”, or refusing to play “smokes and daggers” in the Dáil – his reference to the ubiquity of Lehman Brothers’ testicles was not without sense.

Machismo was a big feature of the banking and property boom. As a certain lobbyist famously said, all you needed for success was “balls of steel and a spine or iron”. And clearly Lehman’s had a lot of balls in the air at the time of the crash. If they weren’t everywhere beforehand, they are now.

But Bertie’s latest collision with language also recalls, in a way both painful and poignant, one of the happier moments of his political career. I refer to that occasion when, during a State visit to Singapore in late 2004, he had an orchid named after him. It was arguably the high point of his 11 years in power, even if not everybody shared his happiness.

Back in the Dáil, his achievement was celebrated by a feu de joie of sarcasm. But it was with the impotence of a boom-time opposition that Enda Kenny, Joe Higgins and others reminded the taoiseach of the word orchid’s Greek origins and of its etymological relationship to sensitive male body parts with which the flower’s petals are deemed to share a resemblance.

So Mr Ahern could afford to smile indulgently while the critics predicted that the electorate would perform an “orchidectomy” on him and his government in due course.

Now those heady days, when Joe Higgins was the only really angry man in Ireland, are a distant memory. There was a brief flashback to them last week at Bertie’s book-launch, where he and his old minister for finance still sounded bullish. But that sort of thing just adds to people’s annoyance these days. Messrs Ahern, McCreevy, and the rest would be well advised to draw in their tentacles – or whatever – before something unpleasant happens.