Patriarchal impulse decided Áras race


Tired of ‘mothering’, we wanted a man in the Áras

IN WAYS, our public discussions are remarkably restricted where it comes to pursuing comprehension of political events. One difficulty is that political analysis tends to restrict itself to classifying under narrowly focused political or ideological headings: the parties, “Independents”, “left wing”, etc. Another is that subterranean but strictly policed rules of engagement place less orthodox modes of exploration out of bounds.

Political correctness and other unwritten strictures debar the possibility of deeper understandings concerning the state of the collective psyche and the archetypal yearnings that impinge on collective representation of individual democratic choices.

Democratic leadership, in addition to its political dimension, tracks a deeper archetype: that of parenthood. The qualities we seek in our leaders derive from an unfathomable, inherited need to be parented at the level of nation. If you apply this idea to the recent presidential election, you notice patterns that have been overlooked this past week. After 21 years of “mothering”, we appeared keen – although this remained unsayable – to put a man back in the Áras.

Perhaps this was down to our undergoing a crisis unprecedented within living memory, suggesting that, in moments of uncertainty, we don’t cling to nurse but glance anxiously around for dad.

Early in the campaign, this desire remained obscured, but as things progressed, the front-runners emerged as representations of different types of male strength, climaxing in an epic struggle between the athlete-cum-manager and the teacher-father: Seán Gallagher as latter-day hunter-gatherer versus Michael D’s embodiment of the elder guru – Keith Wood wrestling John Scotus Eriugena.

We desire that our fathers be wise yet genial, dependable and restrained, strongly empathetic but frank, prudent but unafraid, stoical but unfanatical, tough yet patient, thoughtful but not incontinent of speech. Our grumbles notwithstanding, we feel safer with leaders who quietly require that we postpone gratification and commit ourselves to sacrifice for our own long-term good. These are the father values erased from our surface culture by 40 years of aggressive feminist agitation.

That the two female candidates ended up bottom of the table has been noted but in a timid, unfocused way that elided its significance. Anyone who thought another woman candidate would ipso facto be a shoo-in had not looked closely at either Mary Robinson or Mary McAleese, both of whom were not so much exceptional women as exceptional at being women in a public world ordered to male responses. Both exhibited that quality of emotional restraint that is among the male qualities feminism has most energetically sought to disparage – as well as rich baritones with which to advertise their possession of it. You had to listen to just 10 seconds of Mary Davis and Dana to divine that neither of them enjoyed similar capacities.

In terms of public achievements, David Norris and Martin McGuinness ticked several of the father boxes. However, each in turn broke the spell by virtue of poor responses in the face of criticism, resorting to most unfatherly modes of riposte: a plaintive boastfulness in the case of Norris and, on McGuinness’s part, a baffled and – once, infamously – unchivalrous rage in reacting to the insubordination he encountered.

Both men came across as adhering too closely to recognisable “Irish father” stereotypes. Gay Mitchell, too, was too shrill and ornery to be a reassuring father figure, and besides was too closely identified with the main ruling party to convince us that he could be a truly independent parent to the nation. In February, we had elected Enda as the best available patriarchal option. But – while extending him respect and affection – withheld total trust until we could observe him in action. His subsequent performance had been commendable but not entirely convincing, so we subconsciously remained on the lookout for a figure to counterbalance the Taoiseach’s weaknesses for populism and easy sanctimony.

Seán Gallagher was largely a projected image, but an effective one: the strong, silent type who looked like he might be good in a scrum. His body language was uncompromisingly masculine, but in a way that seemed unaffected, even unconscious. Lined up behind a table with the other candidates, he would reach across his opponents for the water jug with a certainty that said more than a thousand speeches urging a renewal of national self-confidence.

Until the final couple of days, he remained matter of fact, calm under pressure, uncomplaining, quietly disdainful of bitching and recrimination. His message of hope and positivity, combined with a slightly fanciful idea of the presidency as a means of regenerating the economy, managed at once to elevate him above politics while suggesting that as president he could shoulder-charge the system into a different direction. He ran for the presidency as though he was running for government, and almost made it over the line.

But when the Dragon’s father-mask slipped, Michael D became our default choice, the thoughtful, teaching father, the kind whom his offspring respect and adore but also tease on account of half the time not having a clue what he’s on about. We will roll our eyes to heaven a fair bit between now and 2018, but, behind the enjoyment of his eccentricities, will also listen carefully to this father-president who we intuit knows us better than we know ourselves.

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