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Diarmaid Ferriter: Radio reveals what a strange country this is

Kevin Myers, Brian Cowen and fairy forts – my holiday listening was a revelation

There were quare things going on when I was away, a reminder of what a strange little country this can be. Abandoning emails and television, I allowed myself on my vacation in Ireland the indulgence of radio between downpours and heard Kevin Myers apologising on RTÉ radio for his offensive column.

Coincidentally, I had just finished one of my holiday books, Myers’s wonderful memoir A Single Headstrong Heart, which, in outlining the formation of his character and personality, contains all you need to know about why he evolved into the kind of columnist he did.

Myers was afflicted from an early age with what he calls “my intemperate righteousness”. He was able on the last page of his memoir to eloquently identify the corrosive effect of smug uprightness: “a toxic thing, this righteousness, for it authorises the boundless ecstasies of the lynch mob, it sandstones the eager steel of the guillotine, and it steadies the hand of the gunman in the shadows”. I did not feel anger at Myers, only sadness at the misuse of a serious gift.

I have no doubt Cowen is a decent man, but his ineptitude did huge damage

I'm not sure I felt anger at Brian Cowen, either, or just more sadness, but I was certainly cross with Maurice Manning, the chancellor of the National University of Ireland, whose defence of the granting of an honorary doctorate to Cowen was unconvincing and contradictory.


Manning had a swipe at those who objected to the decision, labelling them “judge and executioner” and then proceeded to be a judge himself, telling us Cowen deserved the award. All that might have been wrong, he suggested, was the timing.

What does that mean? Would it have been better to wait for another few years because the Irish have such short memories? And what does leadership mean? I have no doubt Cowen is a decent man who entered public service at the age of 24 and had a strong sense of such service throughout his career, but his ineptitude did huge damage.

It has been widely asserted that he was desperately unlucky in the way events, nationally and internationally, unfolded. History would suggest otherwise: that difficulties and crises can bring out the best in a genuinely able leader. One only has to consider the case of Seán Lemass, who took over the leadership of Fianna Fáil at the end of a difficult decade in 1959. Within six years, he had established himself as one of the most effective leaders in the history of the State.

Ironically, it was the abilities and inspiration of Lemass that Cowen invoked when he took over the leadership of his party in 2008. Manning suggested that Cowen’s lecture after receiving his doctorate will provide useful material for historians of the Cowen era, but those researching real doctorates in the future will, I suspect, be well-placed to distinguish between reality and propaganda.

The gender pay gap

I listened, too, as Willie O'Reilly, RTÉ's group commercial director, failed to explain why news anchors Sharon Ní Bheoláin and Bryan Dobson are not paid the same money for doing the same job.

Indeed, I listened to plenty of other discussions on the radio about gender inequality, only to hear, a few days later, much drivel about the ladies at the Galway Races who were parading themselves, mart-like, around Ballybrit in search of the best-dressed title. Of course Fr Ted came to my mind, and why wouldn't he? Lovely girls, they were, by all accounts.

The North's politicians are failing their constituents, but at least they can eat gin-and-tonic sausages

I also had to endure the DUP hectoring about all sorts, including the idea that an assertive Irish Government is dragging Anglo-Irish relations back to the 1970s. There are echoes of the 1970s but not in the way the DUP thinks; back then the British government was a "slow learner" when it came to Northern Ireland; this time it is a "slow learner" about the implications of Brexit; in both cases it was sometimes necessary for the Irish government to speak a few home truths.

The DUP is also going to lose the argument over gay marriage, just as the attempt by Ian Paisley to "Save Ulster from Sodomy" failed in the 1970s. Activist Jeff Dudgeon took up the challenge that decade over discrimination against homosexuals in Northern Ireland and was vindicated by the European Court of Human Rights, representing a rare defeat for Paisley as, in the words of Dudgeon, "the pink hand slapped him in the face".

My holiday radio listening did not end there; I was also able to discover that while Northern Ireland’s politicians are wilfully failing to lead their constituents, homosexual and heterosexual, at least they can eat gin-and-tonic flavour sausages, courtesy of a butcher in Co Down.

Last of the holiday revelations as communicated by the trusty wireless was that the fairies in Co Kerry are responsible for a dip in a road that had been repaired. Or so maintains Danny Healy Rae.

Next year I’m going abroad.