THE Taoiseach seemed vexed last week when discussing his mailbag. Apparently someone took the time to tell him that his labours on the abortion issue were worthy of King Herod.
The Taoiseach was shocked at this kind of invective – but really he should have seen that coming. He is after all dealing with people who are clinging for dear life to a constitutional amendment that affords Irish women the same constitutional status as a newly generated embryo.
Such views in and of themselves suggest a disordered relationship with biblical imagery. Wide-eyed parallels are unavoidable.
The Taoiseach's tenderness contrasts badly though with his predecessors. Over the years Irish leaders have been subjected to some fairly extravagant forms of abuse.
True enough we have never produced anybody here to match the late Christopher Hitchens at full gallop – the man who said of the second President Bush in 2002 that "if his brains were made of gunpowder and they detonated, they'd barely be enough to disarrange his hair". (For me, this beats his eulogy for the Reverend Jerry Falwell by a whisker. "If someone gave him an enema," Hitchens said, "he could have been buried in a match box".)
But Irish letters have had their moments. The Taoiseach's Herod complaint may take some readers back to 1959, specifically to the day Dail Eireann convened to elect de Valera's successor as Taoiseach.
The cold transcript of the parliamentary debate gives the impression today that Dail Eireann was being asked to elect someone who schooled under James Michael Curley or Michael 'Hinky Dink' Kenna, two of the most accomplished crooks in recent American municipal history.
The Taoiseach who eventually emerged from the scrum was of course Mr Lemass, a man whose name today is a synonym for prime ministerial poise and grace.
The partisans of 1959 didn't see it that way though.
James Dillon said Lemass "injured everybody in the public life of Ireland".
The Independent TD Sean Sherwin voted against him because "it seems he has little interest in partition". (Sherwin suggested Lemass get a copy of Cavour – "the man who succeeded in uniting Italy, which at one time was divided into seven parts".)
General Mulcahy accused Lemass of being a shrill partisan, a hack even, someone lacking appreciation for the fact that Irish political principles were a lot older than 1916.
Oliver J Flanagan of Fine Gael then moved in for the kill.
Knowing that the ancient English doctrine of parliamentary privilege barred the doors of the High Court, Flanagan pulled the trigger.
Lemass was a crook, he said, "a man we must associate with failure, graft and dishonesty".
He also accused Lemass of blackmail, arguing that "only a few weeks ago, he wrote a blackmailing letter to people, company directors and others, associated with his department. He put the gun to their heads and asked them for money to fight an election."
In what must be the earliest major indictment of Charles Haughey in the Oireachtas, Flanagan went on to accuse Lemass of putting "the name of his son-in-law at the bottom of the letter, a Deputy of this House, and saying: "If you do not send the money to me, send the money to him."
This kind of Billingsgate was rough stuff, but not half as rough as what awaited Lemass's successor, Jack Lynch. Lynch's fellow Corkman, the poet Sean O Riordain, persecuted him mercilessly in his weekly Irish Times column during the Arms Trial, the introduction of internment without trial and Bloody Sunday in 1972.
Writing in aggressive, frankly lurid, Irish shortly after Lynch expressed public regret for the injuries sustained by teenage British soldiers in Belfast, O Riordain reached for the Second World War parallels.
Lynch's public statement that "there are no real invaders here" provoked a tirade. "Faighim pardún agat, Mr Prime Minister. Tá invader ionatsa agus ionamsa agus ionainn ar fad. Ach ar ndóigh oireann cuimilt bhaise do rialtaisí Vichy." ("Excuse me, Mr Prime Minister. There is an invader in you and in me and in all of us. But hand washing obviously suits Vichy-like governments.")
O Riordain would go on in later columns to compare the arraignment of the first chief-of-staff of the Provisional IRA, Sean Mac Stiofain, with the trial of Socrates.
And the worst he could say of Conor Cruise O'Brien was "Sé O Conaill, sé Redmond, sé Burke é", as if proximity to the O'Connellite tradition was a form of death in life.
The older Parnellite faction were no slouches in the invective stakes either by the way. Calling a Taoiseach Herod would have been a mere throat-clearing exercise for someone like Tim Healy.
When Parnell died in Brighton and his wife and colleagues tried to get their hands on Home Rule funds stashed in a Parisian bank, Healy attacked what he called "this alliance between the so-called Irish patriots and a proved British prostitute".
(This line got him a public horsewhipping from Parnell's nephew.)
Healy, like O Riordain, was a Corkman, and he too was a flower, fruit and heir of that county's paranoid style.
So the Taoiseach should look on the bright side.
After all, Herod was a king.