Diarmaid Ferriter: 20 ‘mandatory not compulsory’ things in Ireland

The line about the Public Services Card is part of a grand Irish tradition

Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty caused commotion during the week with her contention that the public services card is "mandatory but not compulsory". We should not be too surprised; Doherty's paradox reflects a deep-rooted Irish tradition. Indeed, it is possible to compile a short history of modern Ireland in 20 things that have been mandatory but not compulsory.

1 Voting for Fianna Fáil. This was applicable until 2011, on the grounds that it was a national movement rather than a political party. As political scientist Peter Mair wrote in 2004, Fianna Fáil's electoral record until then, securing an average of 45 per cent of the vote over 24 general elections was "virtually without equal across the western democratic universe".

Attending Mass. This, too, applied until relatively recently; one survey found the weekly Mass attendance rate among Irish Catholics at 85 per cent in 1990. That did not necessarily connote deep faith; novelist John McGahern wrote of the reaction of a neighbour to the assertion he did not go to Mass because, as an unbeliever, he would feel a hypocrite: "But, sure, none of us believe ... We go to see all the other hypocrites."

Talking about the weather. This has always affected both natives and visitors. German writer and Nobel laureate Heinrich Böll first visited Ireland in 1954 and what struck him most was the weather: "The rain here is absolute, magnificent, and frightening. To call this rain bad weather is as inappropriate as to call scorching sunshine fine weather."


Disregarding punctuality. Michael Collins led the way on this. On January 16th, 1922, on arriving at Dublin Castle following the symbolic handover of the seat of British power in Ireland to the provisional government, Collins was reportedly told by the British viceroy, Lord Fitzalan, he was seven minutes late, to which he is said to have replied: "We've been waiting over 700 years. You can have the seven minutes."

Convening tribunals, commissions of inquiry and investigations, only to ignore the findings. In November 1947 Oliver J Flanagan accused senior Fianna Fáil members of proposing the sale of Locke's distillery in Kilbeggan to foreigners, in alleged contravention of the law. These charges led to a tribunal of inquiry, which, as well as accusing him of lying, found "not a scintilla of evidence" to support his claims, which were made "with a degree of recklessness amounting to complete irresponsibility". Nonetheless, he stood as an independent candidate in the 1948 general election and secured the highest number of first preferences in the country.

Obsessing about property and owning it. Home Ownership Rates in Ireland averaged 74.5 per cent from 2003 until 2015, reduced to 70 per cent in 2015, but well ahead of Germany at 52 per cent.

Filling out census returns honestly. According to the 2016 census, the total number of people who answered "yes" as to being able to speak Irish was 1,761,420.

Insisting defeat is not really defeat. Apparently, you'll never beat the Irish. Just ask Conor McGregor.

Sending children to schools under the patronage of the Irish Catholic Church. Pluralism in Irish education is a very abstract concept.

10 Getting burned when the sun comes out. Ireland has the 14th-highest rate of skin cancer in the world.

11 Giving Irish children English names. James was the most popular name for newborn boys last year, with Emily the most common for new baby girls. Poor old Seán languished in fifth place.

12 Selective temperance. There was a time when the pledge was all the rage, but a particularly Irish form of it. In the early 19th century, nationalist icon Daniel O'Connell lauded the heroics of Fr Mathew, a temperance crusader, but personally imbibed, supposedly for medicinal reasons.

13 The pub. As early as 1925 writer George Russell insisted "It is merely absurd that a country struggling desperately to find its feet should attempt to maintain in proportion to its population twice as many licensed houses as England and three times as many as Scotland".

14 Comparing other tragedies unfavourably to our own. In his book Unhappy the Land: The Most Oppressed People Ever, the Irish historian Liam Kennedy suggests this syndrome is based on "only limited reference to evidence-based research".

15 Emigration. Historian David Fitzpatrick described Irish emigration in the 19th century as "a massive, relentless, and efficiently managed national enterprise". Between 1801 and 1921, eight million permanently left. In the 1950s, another half a million emigrated.

16 Speaking at great speed. In 2008 researchers at UCC found Irish speakers of English had the fastest speech rate among the dialects of English previously researched.

17 The Late Late Show. Last night saw the beginning of its 56th season, but who is counting?

18 Eating meat: Irish consumption of beef last year was 18.6kg per capita, way ahead of the world average of 6.4kg per capita.

19 Decrying Brexit.

20 Insisting things are "grand" when they are often clearly not.