Opinion Columnists

Thursday 21 November 2019

Flying too close to the sun in pursuit of glory

Following the McCracken Tribunal revelations, Haughey's former cultural adviser, the late Anthony Cronin, wrote this article in July 1997 for the Sunday Independent

Tarnished reputation: Former Taoiseach Charles Haughey was part of a drama of Shakespearean proportions Photo: Eamonn Farrell
Tarnished reputation: Former Taoiseach Charles Haughey was part of a drama of Shakespearean proportions Photo: Eamonn Farrell

The ironies abound. Dublin Castle, the very place where the tribunal sits, is ineradicably associated with the days of Charlie Haughey's power and glory. When there is an establishing shot of the Castle Yard, with the lawyers who are now the heroes of the hour doing their little walk for the cameras, when there is a cut-away shot of Government Buildings, you are inescapably reminded of the fact that he transformed the very bricks and mortar of the State's edifices, making them the symbols of our newly resurgent pride in ourselves, the pride on which the Celtic Tiger rides.

If you stroll around Temple Bar on one of these summer evenings, or look across the river at the classically modern curved glass of the Financial Services Centre, you are again reminded of the imprint he left on our very surroundings.

Si monumentum requiris, circumspice. If you seek his monument, look about you. We will find it difficult indeed to consign Charlie Haughey to oblivion, if that is what we mean to do.

The very folie de grandeur, if that is how it should be described, that drove him to acquire and keep that north Dublin mansion, that island and that yacht to maintain the now infamous "lifestyle", also inspired much that will be with us for a long time to come.

The drama is played out with a supporting cast of the chosen apparatchik of our society, the smooth-tongued, expensively suited men - almost all of them men - who understand the rules, who are indeed experts on the rules. They are, one and all, ambitious men; but, in a strange way, not ambitious at all. And he is one of them but in a strange way, not one of them. Not merely because he apparently broke the rules and is now cast into outer darkness, but because in his complex way, he had a different vision of life and what life could become than theirs.

The ethos by which most of them live says that you can argue for anybody, arrange anybody's finances, put the best case on anybody's facts or the best look on anybody's figures if you are employed to do so; that if you possess the sort of faculties that used to be thought of as God-given, you can hire them out. You can hire out your eloquence, your logic, your very brain, putting them at the service of the higher bidder.

Few people ever question this ethos any longer. Few assert the Greek view, or the Renaissance view, or even the Romantic view, which say that it is our purpose in this brief existence to work for some other end, to try to leave something behind us which should be in some sense or other time-defying, even if it was only a memory, or a martyrdom or a speech from the dock.

Few people ever say any longer what the priesthood in their muddled way used to feel compelled to say; that life should be lived sub specie aeternitatis, not just for whatever could be got out of it by hiring out your professional services or hiring others to fumble in the greasy till for you seven days a week; but by doing or being or creating something in which true honour inhered: in the Greek sense, or the Renaissance since, or even the Romantic sense.

Few people that is except an occasional artist, a genius that Charlie Haughey understood to be different in that respect; a few savants; a few farmers, a few financially unambitious but, in one way or the another, creative people. And in his strange, complex way, Charlie Haughey himself. For, though no doubt avid for power and advantage, he was in his way ambitious in a way that most of those now concerned with his affairs are not. He had a sense of life as a sphere in which true honour, rather than mere wealth or fame, could be won. (I am aware that some readers may regard this as the irony of ironies).

But, in his strange contradictory way, Charlie Haughey was old-fashioned. His career overlapped with that of the generation who had known heroes and martyrs and who looked back on a supposedly heroic Gaelic past; to the martyrs and chieftains on whose deeds their boyhood dreams had fed. Eamon de Valera was called "the Chief" by his adherents, as Charles Stewart Parnell had been before him. Hugh O' Neill and Red Hugh O'Donnell were heroes of the schoolbooks.

Because he goes back to a time when such notions were taken seriously, Charlie wanted more from politics than politics can any longer give - and, savage irony though it be, I do not mean money. He wanted a kind of splendour, a kind of recognition, a kind of chieftaincy, chimerical of course, but at the same time mixed up in his psychology with a sense of values far beyond the comprehension of most of his present inquisitors.

Some of what this led him to was good. Some of it was a mixture of the expedient, the self-seeking and the illusory. Some of it is to his eternal - well, relatively eternal - credit. Some of it will be with us for as long a time as anybody can foresee.

But in his contradictory way he was also a modern man. He was a ground-breaker. His career is punctuated with modern, progressive measures - firsts, that in the nature of things, will always be firsts. And alas, because he was a modern man, he was too close to the men whose mysterious ways with money and with business power will bring him to Dublin Castle this coming week in vastly different circumstances from those of a few years ago.

His modernity was in keeping with the entrepreneurial tradition of Fianna Fail - the get-up-and-go party, as opposed to the respectable lawyers' party that sat opposite them. When he came into Fianna Fail Sean Lemass was the leader of that party and, even in Sean Lemass's day, its identity with the entrepreneurs it had created by its policy of encouraging native manufacturers was a source of rumour and gossip. And as the nature of the entrepreneurial enterprise changed in Ireland from manufacture to other more speculative and more dubious forms of enterprise, so did the obloquy and the dangers of the association with it. That association and the ambitions that fed on it - good and bad, laudable and deplorable - have now garbed itself in the image of Nemesis.

The closeness to the entrepreneurial element is not put forward here as an excuse for anything. Politicians should, like poets, be careful in their associations with wealth and power. The old Fianna Fail contention that the wheels would not turn unless you stayed close to them and gave them the odd push is no longer acceptable. We are talking about a Balzac character, with what now looks like a fatal flaw. The supreme irony, and the supreme pity, is that it should be someone who cared so much for honour who is now revealed in this light.

But he can perhaps take some comfort from the thought that posterity takes a more clinical, cooler and compassionate view of our faults and failings than contemporaries do. Posterity is a novelist. It has, like Balzac, a consuming interest in the totalities and contradictions of character. It is not a court in which you are judged on your single failing, be it in your passion for money or position or anything else, however deep that flaw may be. It recognises that faults of character are often inherent in achievement and weighs the balance to that extent in our favour.

Sunday Independent, July 13, 1997

Sunday Independent

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