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Fintan O’Toole: The Oireachtas golf event broke webs of mutuality that bind Irish society

We must not allow controversy destroy social capital that has kept us going

I’ve spent most of the last two months in a small village in County Clare. All around, there are leaflets offering help to anyone who needs it: to shop for basic supplies, to collect prescriptions, “maybe just to talk, especially for those in isolation”, even to walk your dog for you. Almost all of this is provided by a voluntary network of clubs and community organisations, from Lisdoonvarna Community Council to Ballyvaughan GAA, from Burren United FC to North Clare IFA. I presume something similar – and equally marvellous – exists in most communities in Ireland.

There's a name for this, though not one I particularly like: social capital (why does everything of value have to be imagined as if it were money?). It was popularised by the Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam in his 2001 book Bowling Alone.

Mutual trust

Fifteen years ago, social capital was all the rage in mainstream Irish politics, as the big idea to fill the hole where Catholic nationalism had been. Back then, Fianna Fáil’s social antennae were still working and they picked up an unease: the Celtic Tiger was roaring away, but did the hyper-capitalist form of “prosperity” it engendered come at the expense of the sense of connection, of mutual obligation and trust that makes communal life meaningful?

And then the Celtic Tiger was shot and its head was mounted on the wall of the rogues' gallery of terrible Irish mistakes

In September 2005, Putnam was invited to address a Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meeting in Co Cavan. Bertie Ahern, then at the height of his powers, claimed that although Bill Clinton and Tony Blair had embraced Putnam's ideas, he himself had been way ahead of them. The then taoiseach expressed the kind of resentment that a muso feels when the cult band he's been listening to for ages suddenly breaks through and starts playing stadiums: "I'm glad to say we were in talking to him before either of them, since the early 1990s. I linked into him when he was doing research for Bowling Alone."


Not to be left out, Enda Kenny revealed that he too had read Bowling Alone but suggested that he didn't really need to because he knew all about social capital already: "I don't know why a party that always says it is closest to the grassroots had to bring over Robert Putnam to tell them."

Anyhow, social capital was the happening thing and everyone knew it was threatened by feral capitalism and we were going to do the divil and all to save it – Bertie even set up a Taskforce on Active Citizenship. And then the Celtic Tiger was shot and its head was mounted on the wall of the rogues’ gallery of terrible Irish mistakes. Reading Bowling Alone became one of those best-forgotten things it had been fashionable to do when we thought we were rich, like buying an apartment in the Cape Verde islands off the plans. Feck your social capital, I’ve a troika outside, so close the rural post offices.


Then a strange thing happened. A pandemic came along and it turned out that we weren’t bowling alone after all. Sometimes, on a rare breathless morning, when the sunlight is reflected off the dew, we see the gossamer film of cobwebs connecting, with fragile filaments, one thing to another. The virus has cast that same light on our world, illuminating the thin, infinitely delicate threads of association we do not see until they are threatened or broken. They are the strands of interdependence and interconnection.

This is the one consolation of this miserable time. People care. They imagine other people’s lives. They watch out for their vulnerabilities: food, medicine, company. They accept obligations without being asked. They think of what needs to be done and do it.

A real sense of community survived the Celtic Tiger. It survived being turned into a hollow political fad

This is why the Oireachtas Golf Society’s outing to Clifden last week is such a violation. It’s not just that it broke the rules that the rest of us have to abide by, often very painfully. It broke something deeper than law and regulation: those delicate, often invisible, webs of mutuality that hold Irish society together, especially in bad times.

The excuse is that they were thoughtless, not malign. These smart, successful people – many of them so smart and successful that they have actually been directly involved in making the rules – didn’t think about what they were doing. But there are times when thoughtlessness is indistinguishable from malignity, and this is one of them. What is holding us together, what is getting us through this thing, is thought, consciousness, awareness of ourselves in relation to others. Not thinking is a form of narcissism, a privilege exercised at the expense of the community. It is putting social capital into your own pocket and throwing it up on the bar counter for another round.

But, for all the anger at this betrayal, we can’t surrender to cynicism. A real sense of community survived the Celtic Tiger. It survived being turned into a hollow political fad. It survived austerity. Reports of its death have turned out to be greatly exaggerated. It has stayed alive, not because of the political system, but in spite of it. Those who have shown such contempt for it should be left to golf alone, away from public life and from the deeper life of mutual care that must go on without them.