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Joseph O'Connor: The Irish economy: a New Year story of an age-old fiddle

NEW Year's Eve was coming to Troikaland. Picture, if you will, the tiny village in windswept Connemara, where a competition is planned to ascertain who is the greatest fiddler (stringed variety, not politician) in the country.

The time of the epic contest arrives; it is naturally a cold, stormy night of the folkloristic variety.

Picture them, dear reader, the simple-hearted Gaelic villagers as they leave their humble homes and ghost estates and inadequately built apartment blocks to crowd into the village inn, Happy Bertie's Dugout Bar and Lounge (Cash Only). Observe the tense looks, the gnawing on the fingernails, as they anxiously await what is coming.

'Tick tock,' says the grandfather clock. Outside, in the night, the tempest is wailing. Just before 10, the sound of hooves is heard. The ancient prophecy of the Book of Rubber Bandit has been fulfilled. Verily, there is a horse outside. A moment later and the door of the bar is flung open. A faint whiff of sulphur seems to colour the air, as in from the swirling snow stalks the first contestant.

The cruelly handsome stranger is wearing a beautiful tuxedo, hand-tailored shoes, a cloak of raven black. Out of a case finished in finest leather he gently lifts his magnificent instrument. A rare Stradivarius. Look at the sheen. But alas! When he plays it, his music is rubbish.

Just as the clock is striking 11, into the premises strides competitor number two.

Swathed in robes of ermine and peacock feathers is this prince of the jigs, perfumed with rare spices from the mystic aisle of Woolworth's post-Christmas bargain section. Inside the expensive and neatly pressed silken garments, the skin is bedusted with a handful of the mammy's talc.

And as for his fiddle? Would you stop and don't be talking. His instrument is the most beautiful ever seen in this world -- hewn from the wood of the One True Cross, encrusted with diamonds and glittering rubies, each of its four strings woven by fairies on magical looms in the ancient forests of Healy-Rae. But oh! When he plays it, he too is rubbish.

But hark. The clock announceth midnight. Will no soul come to claim the prize?

As the final stroke is dolefully tolled, the last contender staggers half-dead from the blizzard. He is the Irish Economy, in human form.

His pitiful rags are sodden and torn. His miserable bum is hanging out of his trousers, powerfully reminiscent of two eggs in a hankie. His poor, broken excuse for a fiddle is held together with Sellotape, chewing gum, and bits of old twine. Any bit of extra he ever owned has been helpfully removed from him by the thoughtful government. But it's all for his own good, as they're never done telling him. If they didn't make him poor, he'd lose the run of himself completely. It's hard to understand. But there it is. It's not for him to reason why. He has been ordered to tighten his belt, and he would, if he could afford a belt.

He has been taxed to within an inch of his very life. Stealth Tax, Wealth Tax, Poverty Tax, Water Tax, Breathing tax, Fuel Tax, Bicycle Tax, Walking Tax, Looking at Leo Varadkar in a Slightly Funny Way Tax. And yet -- when he takes up the bent old bow and commences to play, a truly extraordinary thing happens.

Unearthly silence descends on the crowd. The villagers gape in utter astonishment. The economists scratch their heads. Who would have thought it? He's a lot more bloody rubbish than the first two were.

And if any of the Government's team of well-paid advisors is reading: Happy New Year. May your resolutions be wise.

In the meantime, thank you for the music.

Joseph O'Connor's Wednesday radio diary is broadcast on 'Drivetime with Mary Wilson'

Sunday Independent