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The one question every parent hopes is never asked

THE other day, my 10-year-old son asked me the question that every parent, no matter how modern, slightly fears.

Don't get me wrong, I was glad it was me that he came to, rather than garnering his impressions from sniggering conversations at the back of the bike shed. But you don't want to be giving them wrong ideas about this extremely important subject, or making them feel it's dirty or sinful.

"Dad?" he wanted to know. "How do you start a bank?"

I took a deep breath and prepared myself to be honest.

"Like, how does a bank actually work?" he continued. "Do you work very hard and earn a whole load of money and then set up your bank with a few of your friends and then loan out the money you earned to people who need to buy a house and charge them, like, a small amount for helping them?"

I smiled with parental patience -- God bless the child's innocence -- and explained that banking was a lot more complicated than that. What a senior Irish banker did was highly skilled and technical. He didn't actually make anything, or produce anything, or manufacture anything useful. No, that was for less talented people. He borrowed money he didn't own from other people who didn't own it and lent it out to people who couldn't afford to pay it back, but the really skilled part came when the bank went belly up in the water and he made the rest of us pay for his incompetence and greed.

This was called 'The Free Market', apparently. And with a government like ours that would always buy him out of trouble, the banker took no risks whatsoever and could do anything he wanted. Yes, the Irish Government would remind you of the ancient biblical saying: it is in giving that we receive sod all.

"Oh Dad, you're such a joker," my son laughed delightedly. "Even a kid knows that couldn't happen in real life."

"Ha ha ha," I replied.

"And does the lady or man behind the counter who hands the money out to the customers get to take it home if they need it?" he wanted to know. No, I explained, that would be dishonest. These days, what the bank teller got to take home was a redundancy notice, while the boss got to take home a yacht.

My child gave me the look of someone refusing to take the bait. "Be serious, Dad," he sighed.

"Okay," I admitted. "It isn't always a yacht. It's sometimes a house in the Seychelles."

"But who actually owns the bank?"

"We do," I said.

"You and me own a bank, Dad?"

"Several," I replied.

"Awesome," he said. "I didn't know we owned a bank."

"It came as a surprise to me, too," I smiled bleakly.

"So the money in the bank, that's ours?" he said.

"Yes."

"All of it?"

"Yep. Every red cent."

"So, we can go into the bank any time we want and be like, 'give me some money'?"

"Not exactly."

"Huh?"

"The money in the bank is ours but we're not allowed to have it."

"Why not, Dad?"

"The bank needs it for important things."

"Like what?"

"Like paying the multi-million bonuses of people who work there and taking house-owners to court."

"They take house-owners to court?"

"Sometimes, son, yes. If the house-owners can't afford to pay their loans."

"But Dad, the house-owners gave them the money they're using to take house-owners to court."

At this point, I did what any modern, caring father does when faced with a complicated question. "Ask your mother," I told him.

But there was one last thing he wanted to know. "Dad, what's a bank holiday?"

"That's what we're having on Monday."

As though the banks hadn't done enough to Irish society, we have holidays named after them. How weird and inappropriate is that? Could these Mondays not be renamed 'Thieving, Inept, Corruption Holiday'? I mean, let's call a spade an instrument of leverage.

For the citizens of the Republic of Ireland to have 'a bank holiday' is a little like the citizens of Vesuvius having a 'let's get drowned in molten lava and die' holiday on several Mondays of the year. Bank holiday. You have to ask yourself how such a phrase is still in usage. Yoking together a pleasant term such as 'holiday' with a word like 'bank' is like having an annual 'Puppy Murder Day' or a 'Flower Destruction Weekend'.

"By the way, Dad?", my son asked me later. "What's sex?" I said it was a lot simpler than economics.

Joseph O'Connor's Wednesday radio diary is broadcast on RTE One's 'Drivetime with Mary Wilson'. His bestselling novel 'Ghost Light' is published by Vintage

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