Look; I've been living in Ireland longer than most Irish people have been alive, but sometimes -- no, often -- I think I understand the country no more than I did the day I arrived at Mrs Higgins's boarding house at the back of the Stella Cinema, Rathmines.
How is it possible that we are importing doctors from all over the world, even though we have given free college education to all medical students for the past 16 years? Irish medical schools for decades provided doctors for native needs, plus the US, Canadian, Australian and British medical systems, as well as the Royal Army Medical Corps. That was when people had to pay for medical education, as my father did in the College of Surgeons: yet poor backward peasant Ireland still kept much of the English-speaking world supplied with doctors. Now we can't even keep our own hospitals staffed. We are wholly dependent on doctors from the developing world to maintain what we laughingly call a medical service, even as we preen and posture and pose about the money we are giving to the very countries from which we are luring doctors. How? Why?
Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital seems to have been put on this earth solely to establish a statistical balance for the miracles at the other Lourdes: one giveth, and the other all too often taketh away, in a sort of medical expression of Newton's laws of physics. How is it that no one is in jail for the horrors that have occurred in that hospital? Because it's Ireland: that, apparently, is an answer.
We have pro-rata the largest, best-paid medical service in the EU, and the longest queues with the worst service. The HSE employs 120,000 people, every one of whom averages over two weeks of sick leave annually, and one in five of whom is a manager. Four years ago, a representative of the medical consultants described a proposed basic annual salary of ¿250,000 as 'Mickey Mouse money'. Instead of being instantly lynched, that arrogant buffoon is still alive. And now we learn that over 30 doctors are earning around ¿100,000 EXTRA in overtime -- but only by putting in 100-hour weeks. We wouldn't let scaffolders or lorry drivers work those hours: so why are we allowing doctors -- who are merely toiling over those frail things called human beings -- work such long hours? Haven't a clue.
And there is the moral smugness, which reached plutonium levels of critical mass during the Celtic Tiger, but still pervades and underpins most of our national conversations, especially on RTE. This enables us to wag our finger at Israel and the USA for their failures, even though we tolerated a neo-fascist terrorist army in our midst for 30 years. We never ask what is it about our national culture that allowed violence to become so normal and acceptable, though it was unique in Western Europe. Instead, it is put down to being 'Irish', a sort of self-explanatory condition that intrinsically permits a departure from all the norms of decency and integrity.
So, not merely did the most corrupt and villainous Irish politician of the 20th Century, Charles Haughey, get a state funeral, but the judge who in essence had allowed him to spend his life in comfort in Kinsealy, free from all threat of jail, Kevin Haugh, was in due course himself accorded the obsequies appropriate to a John Philpot Curran. We erected a statue to Constance Markievitz in the very park where she had murdered an unarmed policeman, Michael Lahiffe, exulting beside his dying form, 'I shot him, I shot him'. This is quite beyond any explanation that I can give, or indeed anyone can, without departing into the peculiar moral world inhabited by the representative of the Irish hospital consultants, or Charles Haughey, or our tribunals, or our inept, bungling yet utterly shameless civil servants who are able to take early retirement with half-million golden handshakes and index-linked pensions of ¿130,000 for life.
Ah, but we're so artistic and literary! No we're not. Name me one living writer, born and educated in independent Ireland, who is genuinely celebrated and respected beyond these shores. Just one, please, who is known in Texas and Los Angeles, in the way that Cormac McCarthy or Tom Stoppard or Tom Wolfe are known here. And name me one creative writer, just one, who served as a scorching moral witness to our Troubles while they were at their height. One, please; just one. There isn't one, is there? Moreover, the sad truth is that all the really great writers of the past fled: only Swift stayed, raged futilely, and then went mad.
Corruption doesn't actually kill, but suffocating silence certainly does. The silence that accompanied Haughey's career. The silence that made widespread child abuse by Catholic priests. The silence on anything difficult, such as that which followed the revelation in this space that Uganda, the primary recipient of our foreign aid, is spending hundreds of millions on a squadron of Mach 2 fighter-bombers, while our own Air Corps has a few helicopters and a couple of propeller-driven trainers. Silence: the sound of Ireland at its most deadly.