As you’re probably well aware, Charles J Haughey, former Taoiseach of Ireland died yesterday.
After thinking that a panting Charlie Bird telling Ryan Tubridy the news, followed by a “News At One” at 11 would be a spotty day of radio – some very good, some very bad, I thought of the Sacred Heart, open hearths and TK red lemonade.
I had nearly forgotten about my childhood visits with my father to a retired farm labourer of my grandfather’s. We used to visit Billy and May every so often, bringing Mikado biscuits and a packet of Golden Virginia tobacco – because that was what my grandfather used to bring them when visiting after Billy retired.
They lived in a 2 room cottage perched atop a steep hill – the kind that you’ve to go in first to get your car up, with a rusty green pump across the road for water. There was always a few fat hens running around and the whitewash gleamed in contrast to the green gates and the red half door.
My sister and I would hide behind my father, half hoping we wouldn’t have to go in while secretly wishing for the Mikado biscuits – which we wouldn’t get at home.
Billy and May still had the open fire and used it for their cooking. While they had electricity, they had no fridge, no main light bulb – there were 2 lamps at both sides of the room. So the main room was relatively dark, lighted mainly from the sunshine outside. The room was always smoky and smelt of damp turf and something else I never quite figured out – probably the thatched roof.
Despite the hospitality, the Mikado biscuits, the warm and barely fizzy TK red lemonade, I never really felt comfortable.
For on one side of the room was the picture of the Sacred Heart, lit by the 3rd electrical item in the room, a flickering orangey red bulb illuminating the compassionate stare of the Sacred Heart as He kept a merciful eye on the house and its occupants. In the relative darkness, the Sacred Heart, who also thanks to my granny, hung more discreetly in my home kitchen, took on a whole new orange neon appearance – one that was not too settling.
On the other side of the room, exactly in parallel with the Sacred Heart, Charlie stared down on this bucolic scene. Thankfully his picture wasn’t lit up with a red bulb, but his place in that home as a political saviour was as important as the spiritual saviour he looked over at.
To Billy and Mae, Charlie Haughey represented something. His picture meant something to them, so much so it was the only other face that adorned their walls.
Charlie Haughey on the other hand, means very little to me. Every time we visited we were warned not to repeat anything my father or grandfather had said about him, none of it complimentary, their Blueshirt roots ensuring no charity for the man. So Charlie Haughey represented a barely irresistible temptation to blurt out something atrocious about the hero of an elderly childless couple, someone I was brought up to believe as being the sort of person you didn’t admire and definitely didn’t vote for.
I’m not sure exactly what Charlie represented to a farm labourer and his wife, whose life circulated between their vegetable garden, the wireless, Mass on a Saturday evening and a trip to town on Thursday for the Mart and groceries. I don’t if it was free ESB or the television licence they didn’t need, or his republicanism, his Parisian fashion, his charisma or economic acumen that attracted them and kept them loyal. I never had a chance to ask.
It’s too easy to divide a man’s legacy into neatly consigned black and white boxes – none of us live our lives in such elegant moral starkness. I simply do not have the historical appreciation for what he did and am too young to remember him in any meaningful way as a politician – I was 9 in 1992 when he resigned – I don’t know what quite to think of him.
But this outpouring of commentary, no doubt practised in front of many a retired politico’s bathroom mirror for the inevitable day of his passing, reinforced one thing for me.
As a nation, we lack a clearly defined sense of right and wrong. Sure we know how to act decently and honestly, but unfortunately have sometimes tended to stop morality at the sexual. But we all have a keen sense of the trick, the shortcut, the not-so-legal way out of things – and while many of us no doubt have the moral strength to resist the temptations that Haughey succumbed to, there is a part of us that cheers on the gangster, the man who took the risk and won - until he was caught out. And that part of us mourns the man and the politician that was the Boss – a patriotic, energetic servant of the people who willingly took was given to him, be it love, loathing, loyalty, controversy or cash.