Cowen fills our need for strong father figure


Cowen is the first since Lemass to offer the old sort of fatherhood, the sober, teaching kind

IT GOES without saying that the Taoiseach’s speech was not “unscripted”. The idea that this is why it caught the national imagination amounts to such a ridiculous reduction that, to paraphrase Cowen, I wonder if we deserved the speech in the first place.

This was, for reasons that have not yet been stated, a turning-point speech. What it touched in us is so fundamental, and so unmentionable, that it has taken me a week to understand exactly what.

Most commentaries, including the favourable ones, treated it like an act in a talent competition, giving marks for “passion” and “conviction”, praising its “spontaneity” and so forth. But when you steady yourself and study it line by line, the speech was not especially brilliant in any of the ways that have been suggested. Cowen’s delivery was not especially passionate. His thoughts were not off-the-cuff, but carefully knitted together. This was, in fact, one of the most carefully crafted political speeches of recent times.

This is observation, not criticism, but about 95 per cent was standard, pedestrian stuff: some flannel about the entrepreneurial spirit, a lot of guff about social partnership, a couple of sideswipes at those who voted against the Lisbon Treaty.

The speech was almost over when it got interesting, and then not in any oratorical sense. There were really only two or three memorable passages: the bit about us not deserving the Celtic Tiger unless we do what is necessary now; that tortured metaphor about wallowing in turbulent waters; and the de Niroesque passage that began: “So, okay. We’re in this.” There was no good news and very little in the way of obvious hope. The keynote themes had to do with sacrifice and effort. “We have had our fun, now we had to roll our sleeves up.” But – deeper still – “everything will be fine. If...” Let us name it. The strength of the speech lay in its understanding of an archetypal need in both the human psyche and in the soul of society, one of the most fundamental human needs of all.

Brian Cowen’s deeper themes that night were postponement and reassurance, the great themes of fatherhood. What he was doing, very simply, was announcing himself as father of the public realm.

For four decades, we have had leaders who played at being fathers, McDonalds dads who, married to what Robert Bly called the “multi-breasted State”, begged us to like them and let us do what we liked.

Lemass was the last taoiseach who offered the old kind of fatherhood, the sober, teaching kind who said No more often than Yes and never spoke until he had the final answer.

Then it went downhill. Jack Lynch, with his hurling past and mellifluous accent, was more of a visiting uncle who patted your head and dipped into his pocket for a half crown. Haughey made the right noises but his rakish air undermined everything. We didn’t know where he got to at night and spent long evenings waiting for the rattle of his key in the latch.

With Garret it was back to uncles, this time of the kind you think you’d like to swop for your father – until the first moment of crisis. We loved his absent-mindedness and the way his hair seemed to burst out of his head much as the words burst out of his mouth, but we didn’t take him all that seriously. He never demanded much or tried to put us straight. He was a nice man who doubled the deficit in his efforts to stay in our affections.

As though understanding his own implausibility as father-figure, Haughey, on returning in 1987, gave us someone who remains in our psyche as the most recent imprint of the sober, guiding father. Ray MacSharry stepped into the shoes that Haughey could not fill to lead us out of the most serious domestic crisis since independence. With his slightly stern air and what Olivia O’Leary called his “Translyvanian good looks”, he conveyed the right blend of reassurance and reserve. He didn’t mince his words and, though we whimpered a little in our hairshirts, made us feel safe.

With Albert, it was back to uncles, the kind who smile and talk too much. John Bruton was a kind of stepfather figure who never really got his feet under the table. We didn’t take him seriously and in the end he disappeared.

Bertie was the kind of older brother father-figure you sometimes get if your father disappears or dies young, but who himself has never had a chance to grow up. He treated us as equals, pandered to our whims and only occasionally lost the rag. His indulgence dovetailed with the times. We grew up feckless and selfish, but it felt good.

Now, the party’s over, we need a different kind of father. Coming to grips with this has been Brian Cowen’s problem these past eight months. At first he tried to continue in the Bertie mould, but every instinct – his and ours – told everyone this was wrong. Now, yes, he has found his mojo: his daddy mojo. We have waited and waited, and now our father has come home.