Monday 20 November 2017

Review: Was it for This? Why Ireland Lost the Plot by John Waters

Transworld, €14.99

John Drennan

John Drennan

Oscar Wilde wrote in The Portrait of Dorian Grey that there "is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written''. It is on many levels a bit of a stretch from Wilde to Waters but on reading the latter's Was it for This? Why Ireland Lost the Plot, the quote kept on returning to mind.







The reason may be that John Waters is not an easy child to love. It is not just that, like those dodgy foreign soccer players who go down at the slightest touch, there is a suspicion he embraces martyrdom too easily. With his millenarian belief in family, faith, fathers and fatherland, Waters is also a black swan who swims outside the 'all friends working together' culture of the Irish media where RTE and the Irish Times work hand in glove to exercise their none-too-subtle Kulturkampf.

But, to paraphrase Wilde, the key criteria of any book is not the nature of the author but whether it is at least interesting and if you are prepared to engage in some intellectual leg-work Was it for This? is a fine, and occasionally brave, analysis of how we got to the land of 'we are where we are'. And, more important still, it contains some suggestions as to how we might get out of it.

In spite of a somewhat dour reputation, Waters is a warmly eloquent and occasionally witty writer, once he leaves out the Hegelian philosophers. From the start he correctly diagnoses that Ireland is "stuck in a frozen moment" where the "project of modernization has failed". It is a challenging thesis, but, the attack by Waters on the factors behind the death of the Independence won by us for Pearse after "a few opportunistic speculators ... cleaned us out" is convincing.

In a thoughtful text, Waters diagnoses our central problem as a "lack of self-belief, indeed a self-hatred" that created a "profound inferiority complex" which means we have always relied on others to look after us, be they the EU or American multi-nationals.

This, he says, has created a state that has failed to the extent that "if Ireland were to rely on what it is capable of generating within itself by its own efforts and initiative, its people would be starving".

Was it For This?, thankfully is not just about economics. It also examines how our national conversation has become 'unthinking' because during prosperity "we didn't have to think much; and during its aftermath since 2008 we have become incoherent with rage".

Sadly, we suspect that when it comes to what Waters terms Ireland's 'crisis of hope', we will be waiting some time for our unimaginative elite to realise the key task it faces is how to restore in the human heart "the quality of hope, desire, faith, confidence and determination".

Contrary to its author's reputation, Was it for This? is not all darkness and dolour. The author's description of his own Tiger follies, such as his Fawlty Towers-style adventure in the Spanish property market and his An Idiot Abroad-style experience in upmarket shoe shops, offers some light relief, while the comparison of the RTE liberal ethic as something running "virulently on, like a genetically modified weed" is only one of a number of delightfully tart observations.

Somewhat less light, or convincing, is his solution to the issues faced by a state where it is "difficult to say where we are now, or indeed if we are anywhere worth naming". But, in concert with his searing critique of the damage wrought on the national psyche by our ongoing love affair with alcohol, his prescription is worth considering.

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