Wednesday 17 July 2019

He loved a Merc and a Margaux - which made Charlie my mother's darling

Charles Haughey
Charles Haughey
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

My late mother would have been delighted to learn that Charles J Haughey loved big, posh cars - such as a Mercedes - as has just been revealed through the state archives. She was an ardent supporter of Mr Haughey in the 1970s and 1980s, and I believe she would often send him the odd fiver from her modest widow's pension. And if he spent the contribution on Charvet shirts, which maybe he did, then she would have approved of it even more.

Indeed, darling Ma - who sometimes judged more by style than substance - disapproved of Garret FitzGerald, widely regarded as Garrett the Good, because he wouldn't have known a Charvet shirt if it walked up and bit him. Ma thought Garret lacked style ambition. "Hasn't he lived in the same house all his life?" she once said. Charlie, by contrast, had bettered himself by acquiring a grand mansion in Howth. Charlie had a portrait painted of himself sitting on a horse, as good as the Anglo-Irish gentry any day of the week - even if 'twas rumoured that he was not the most skilled of equestrians.

The world is divided between roundheads and cavaliers - those who are "right, but repulsive", and those who are "wrong, but romantic". The puritans who uphold the rule of law and strive to enforce public virtue: and the more laid-back who can stand a little corruption every now and again so long as it brings gaiety to the nation - and a bit of joy and glamour into our lives.

Charlie Haughey was, most definitely, a cavalier, and that's exactly what Ma - and many of his other admirers - liked about him. The roundheads may blather about his not being upright in all his dealings: funny business with banks, shadowy stuff over the Arms Trial, and a few other sleight-of-hand moments in his career, with which we will no doubt be regaled in the forthcoming biopic of his life. But it was the style of the man that appealed, such as the story that he got the bus stops moved so that some little old lady pensioner could be nearer to public transport. Many other anecdotes testify to how he favoured little old ladies who adored him.

His enlightened patronage of the arts and appreciation of writers was a solace to those, like my darling Ma, who thought there was too much coarseness in the world, and not enough refinement and culture. If Charlie ever used a swear-word it would be among menfolk, as in the famous - perhaps apocryphal - case of the young guard stopping Charlie and a couple of his pals driving down O'Connell Street the wrong way after a night's carousing. "Did you not see the arrows, Minister?" he said. "Arrows? We didn't even see the f****** Indians!" came the reply.

Yes, before political correctness was invented, Charlie was politically incorrect.

Mother didn't even disapprove of the rumours that Charlie had a mistress. Although, in the old Continental style, she would have preferred that a mistress be a mysterious and discreet woman rather than a public figure who blabbed all on TV, but then that was what the world was coming to.

Considering my mother's political judgement, one of my sons - then an adolescent - once said: "This is why women shouldn't be given the vote. They like a politician for reasons of style."

I, of course, disagree. Did not some great French sage say: "Le style - c'est l'homme"? And although Mr Haughey's politics were not always admirable, there was something human and even shrewd about my mother's instinctive attraction to the "Duce", to reference to PJ Mara's renowned allusion. Above all, there was something that spoke to the historical collective memory of the Irish people.

And it's something ancestral which, strangely enough, Charles J Haughey shared with - of all people - Mary Robinson. When Charlie acquired Kinsealy, drank Montrachet, and sat on his hunter, he was vindicating the collective Irish unconscious in a parallel version of "the risen people". This was not "the risen people" of wild rebellion, but the "risen people" who were now as good as their lords and masters had once been - who could be as grand, as stylish, as upper-class as any belted earl who had gained land and estates from selling out at the Act of Union, or who had exchanged an ancient chieftain's role for an endowment by a Tudor monarch.

Charlie was proof that the "risen people" had arrived. And so, in a different way, was Mary Robinson - the very embodiment of the "Catholic gentry" who showed the world that we were no longer the wild Irish so unfavourably portrayed by cartoons in 'Punch' and the hostile London 'Times'.

My mother's generation - born before World War I - has now passed away and the folk memory which propelled their hunger for style, confidence and even upper-class taste in leaders has perhaps faded. She had been born into a Galway family where old people could remember the Famine, not only the lesser famines of the 1870s and 1880s, but the Great Famine of the 1840s, too. Eamon de Valera represented austerity and sacrifice, but Charlie brought panache, elan and glamour. And, for the vicarious pleasure he gave in that regard, I do not retrospectively begrudge him the Mercedes cars, the Charvet shirts or the wine cellar stuffed with Chateau Margaux.

Twitter: @MaryKenny4

Irish Independent

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