Opinion Kevin Myers

Sunday 15 December 2019

Kevin Myers: A society that lies about itself is doomed to exile and decay

The revelations about the corruption in Irish life in the Nineties and Noughties are devastating. But by now, we must surely be aware that dishonesty in this country was endemic. Architects, broadcasters, columnists, designers, entrepreneurs, farmers, et cetera: all, save zero, succumbed to the allure of easy money. Irish people, we now know beyond all doubt, are intrinsically corrupt.

But are they more corrupt than other people? That depends on your definition of corruption. If failure to keep your word is the start-line of corruption, then answer this question: even at the height of this recession, if you booked a plumber for 9am on Tuesday, which nationality is least likely to be on time -- Irish, English, Norwegian, German, Italian, Spanish, Greek, Danish, Czech or Italian?

You've probably put the Irish in the top two of no-shows. And that's based on bitter personal experience. Being late in Irish life is still regarded as being colourful and eccentric, whereas it is in fact the shirt-sleeve in the whirring agricultural-machinery of dishonesty: for if you are prepared to steal other people's time, and therefore part of their lives, how long before you also relieve them of their savings? Later-comers are merely making a statement about their ethical cosmos. Do not then be surprised by anything else that they do.

Yes, so dishonesty in Ireland is as common as grass, which -- apart from rain -- is of course our primary commodity. Merely to contemplate grass and rain leads to troubling questions about the Irish people. For though the Irish always revered cattle with an almost Hispanic or Minoan passion, what precisely did we do with the by-products? All the Mediterranean countries created an entire economic culture around beef-rearing: cuisine, cheeses and leatherwork. But not Ireland. There are no traditional "Irish beef dishes": hence the inverted commas. There are no traditional Irish cheeses, for the Milleens and the Cashel Blue only emerged from the 1970s onwards.

Most amazingly, there is no indigenous leather industry: yet leather is one of the great wealth-multipliers of the hoofed herd, from the tannery to shoes, belts, jerkins, coats and furniture. It was an almost free raw product, with which (unlike the Italians, the French, the Spanish, the Greeks) the Irish did absolutely nothing.

The easy, lazy explanation of this is landlordism, as if the peasants of Spain or France were not grievously oppressed by their local aristocracy: indeed, so meagre was the diet of such peasants that they were reduced to eating snails and frogs. Not merely did Irish peasants not deign to eat such vermin, they often enough refused to eat the citizenry of the rivers and the shellfish of the sea. What rural tradition is there in Ireland of eating pike or eel or carp? Why were shellfish almost taboo? Name, please, some traditional Irish ways of preparing mussels. Even today, what really distinguishes the official menu at the great banquet at the Galway Oyster Festival is the complete absence of oysters: an omission which only a clinical psychiatrist could explain.

No, this is not an agreeable list of deficiencies; but we need to be reminded of our failings. This is not self-loathing: quite the reverse. Knowledge is wealth. Deceit is poverty. The community that lies about itself is doomed to exile and decay. The idle man who admits his weaknesses has taken the first steps towards wealth. And there's a loyal companion to the traditional Irish inertia: the self-pitying whinge, which is what we can hear throughout the media now. Poor us: ruined again!

Take a trip to post-war Italy -- the real meaning of ruin. People were literally starving to death in Naples. Millions of homes were wrecked, 5,000 bridges were down, 135 million trees and vines obliterated, 60pc of all railway locomotives, 50pc of all good wagons and 90pc of all lorries destroyed, with over 1,000 merchantmen sunk.

What happened next? Well, Fiat, Gaggia and DeLonghi -- amongst others -- decided to start again. In conditions that were far, far worse than those in Ireland today, they began to build the great motor and appliance industries that are now amongst the best in the world. What sublime optimism: in 1948, to make a shiny Gaggia coffee-maker in the bombed-out wastelands of Milan!

Look; we are not ruined. We've just taken some very hard knocks. It's time to know who we are. The traditional lassitude that once led us to export raw cow-hides (and thereby enable others to become wealthy) has in its more recent manifestations allowed our banks to squander both our existing and future capital.

But did the Italian fascists not use the mountebank traditions of their country to ruin it? And did the Italian people not steel themselves post-war to make good the catastrophic losses caused by bad leadership?

We need good leadership now, to be sure, but what we need most of all is self-knowledge. We need to venerate civic values, such as personal punctuality, regard for others and professional self-respect. These are the vital virtues of a tradesman -- and a country's renewal always, always, always starts with the plumber who turns up on time.

kmyers@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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