As we apparently stand on the cusp of a new era in Irish life and a new kind of politics, John Drennan's new book Cute Hoors and Pious Protesters suggests that however much we may talk about change, some things endure.
Finishing Drennan's book, even though the final section concerns hope for the future, one can't but conclude that human nature, the unique character of this little race of ours, and the type of people who run for politics in Ireland, will conspire to assure that the more things change in Leinster House, the more they will stay the same.
As political correspondents go, Drennan, who works for this newspaper, is a curious beast. He is in the Leinster House bubble, but very much not of it. While there can be a tendency for those who cover events in Leinster House to go somewhat native, Drennan seems to manage to work down there day in and day out without becoming one of the lads. There is fierce intelligence and fierce independence at work here. No one avoids his gimlet eye, and he brings to the whole bizarre ecosystem of the Dail a unique perspective, that of the insider who remains resolutely outside. You will also be glad to hear that he wears the intelligence and the independence lightly so while there is profundity on every page this book romps along nicely.
This book is subtitled Traits and Characteristics of Irish Politicians, and, as that suggests, Drennan approaches his subject as would an anthropologist or, more correctly, maybe a zoologist. You can almost picture him sitting in the bush watching his unsuspecting prey. While the book is rammed full of colourful individuals and gossipy insights, the various short, punchy essays here are never mere profiles but always an attempt to get at the deeper truths about our system and what it reveals about ourselves. As Drennan says in his mission statement at the outset, our politicans are both of and yet not of us. He refers elsewhere to the "quasi-facistic dualilty of the relationship between FF and the volk which meant that if we condemned them we were finding ourselves guilty." So while Drennan doesn't pull his punches, he isn't needlessly harsh either, recognising that our politicians didn't occur in isolation and that to some extent this sophisticated electorate gets the politicians it deserves.
So this is more than a book about politics, it is a look at the very nature of who we are, viewed through the prism of those whom we choose to represent us. And this is presented through a series of always entertaining and often devastating insights, from the apparently superficial (One of the most surprising features about Brian Cowen, Drennan says, is how small the man is. "If one looks at those Ard Fheis speeches, he resembles some gargantuan apocalyptic figure. But when seen in the flesh he is actually a small butty little fellow. Of course, he is running to fat but the detail is in the delicacy of those alabaster hands, which look more as if they belong to a pianist than a claymore-wielding slayer of political enemies") to the disturbing and deep: like how the Irish are innately suspicious of talkative politicians.
Indeed it is often in the superficial little details that other pol corrs might not
notice, or deem worthy of reporting, that Drennan gets closest to the truth. The image of Enda Kenny taking "priestly sips" from a pint at a function down the country probably says a lot about why many people can't warm to Kenny. But neither can you read this without questioning why we would condemn a man, or not trust him, because he doesn't lorry back beer.
The book is full of all these small, human issues, that have nothing to do with policy or all the other reasons we pretend to vote for people. For example, what other political book in the last while has dealt with the fact that women found Bertie very sexy in a way that men just couldn't see? "Some," says Drennan, "simply wanted to love him in a mothering way. Others looked into those cold calculating eyes and wanted the status of being the one to turn him."
It helps too that Drennan, like Enda Kenny, has been out there for years pounding the pavements building up his stock of eyewitness experiences. So, for example, while anyone can give you the standard theory of why Michael Noonan's election campaign when he was attempting to become Taoiseach was such a disaster, Drennan can give you the real insights, which involve Noonan strolling dreamily by rivers. Similarly, Drennan gets to the heart of our strange relationship with John Bruton, pointing out that like all awkwardly built men, he was terribly accident prone but that ultimately his biggest problem was that he looked like a cloistered child of privilege who had known nothing of the hardships of life.
Unlike many political books, Cute Hoors is full of heart and humanity. While things are changing so quickly in Irish politics, it is difficult to write a book that is bang up to date. And given that so many of the current incumbents of Leinster House will be gone by next weekend, it is tempting to think that a book like this, at this time, could be little more than a snapshot of an era that is fast disappearing. But Drennan avoids this by using the stories in this book to illustrate greater truths about Irish politics and about ourselves.
These short, snappy pieces are wonderfully written, funny, wise and full of warmth. And while the gentle ribbing of satire runs right through the book, Drennan is never cynical. While it must be tempting for someone in his position to lose all faith in politicians, Drennan manages to keep an air of gentle indulgence, almost affection, towards his prey. Maybe because he realises that if we condemn them, we are finding ourselves guilty.