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Review: History: Lord Of The Files edited by Michael Mulreaney and Denis O'Brien


Absent all day:
Brendan Behan
didn’t live up to
the job spec for
a lighthouse

Absent all day: Brendan Behan didn’t live up to the job spec for a lighthouse painter

Absent all day: Brendan Behan didn’t live up to the job spec for a lighthouse painter

Given that it has been editorial open season on the public service for some time now, along with Europe, it seems, the source of all our ills, it was to be expected that at some stage the empire would strike back.

This it does through the Institute of Public Administration in Lord Of The Files -- a miscellany of memoir, comment and caricature reflecting the complexity of the public service in both jurisdictions on the island, before and after Independence.

Whether the best response is a 600-page anthology is an open question. Cynics might regard it as an example of the bureaucratic practice of deluging a new minister with information, dumping every available file on his desk at once. That would be unfair.

This book is a mine of information and comment, not to be ploughed through systematically, but dipped into and sampled, and like all good anthologies, open to surprise at what is there and disappointment at what is not.

Like the slogan of a now suppressed British tabloid, "all human life is there".

Despite the title, it pushes the envelope of the public service far beyond the filers of documents and the pen-pushers, beyond the mandarins and the Sir Humphreys to admit a large and engaging cast of characters.

They are ordinary people (some very extraordinary people) doing ordinary jobs (sometimes in unusual circumstances). The great captains appear fleetingly like Whitaker, Leydon and Boland, but this is a book populated by foot-soldiers and sergeants, the front line of a vast army of public servants, serving the nation, providing the framework for civilised living and making life tolerable for the weakest and most vulnerable in society.

So we have firefighters recovering the bodies of infants from burning tenements or racing through the night to quench fires in blitzed Belfast, or a district nurse tossed in a curragh on the wild Atlantic on the way to deliver a baby on the Aran Islands, or policemen, North and South, facing bombs and bullets on and off duty, or soldiers in the Congo or peacekeeping in Lebanon -- and many more.

An unlikely recruit, in the employ of the Commissioners of Irish Lights, is Brendan Behan, engaged to paint St John's Point lighthouse in Co Down, but reported as "the worst specimen I have encountered in 30 years. . . absent from his work all day yesterday and not returning until 1.25am. No work carried out yesterday. . . his attitude one of careless indifference."

They don't know how lucky they were -- it could all have been so much worse.

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Also crowding the stage as an unlikely extra is the hangman Albert Pierrepoint, engaged by the Free State government for a job no Irishman will do, and which he describes in grisly detail.

An even more bizarre hangman incident involves AP Waterfield, a senior officer in Dublin Castle, haggling with the hangman to secure a reduction in the fee for executing six men at the same time, with a discount of £10 a time after the first hanging.

Incidentally Waterfield's son served as principal finance officer in the Northern Ireland Office under Direct Rule, which may account for some of the odd practices in the prisons there.

There are echoes of current controversies in the substitution of the last rose of summer for the national anthem at a rugby match in Paris, while Sean Murphy's description of his journey from Paris to Bordeaux ahead of the invading Germans ranks with the graphic account of the same flight in Suite Francaise.

The ineffable Myles na gCopaleen, in 1953, provided a scheme for contracting out civil service functions which would serve Minister Brendan Howlin better as a programme for government than anything in the Croke Park Agreement: "I know a man in Anglesea Street who would run the Department of Agriculture on a shoestring and show a profit. Let me down to the Law Library with a whistle and I'll rustle you up a team of judges who'll do a nine to six day for twenty quid and no questions asked."

We can all be grateful to John Garvin who protected Myles, and Philip Monaghan who shielded Sean O Riordan (and to the poor sods who did the work they neglected). It may not have done much for planning or tax collection, but they contributed immeasurably to the cultural capital of the nation.

Not that that would have pleased the bean-counters who seek to manage everything in terms of output. The people in this book would not have been concerned with bench-marking or bonuses. There is a public service ethos, a culture of responding to crisis and real need while, perhaps, being casual at other times.

These men and women were not in it for the money, but out of a sense of service, and that should not be undervalued.

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