Saturday 24 August 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'There's nothing new about over the top gangland funerals, Archbishop'

If funerals are to be dignified rites rather than showy celebrations, it should apply to all, not just gangsters, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

FLASHING THE CASH: A fleet of limousines follow the funeral cortege of murdered gangland feud victim David Byrne who was shot dead at the Regency Hotel
FLASHING THE CASH: A fleet of limousines follow the funeral cortege of murdered gangland feud victim David Byrne who was shot dead at the Regency Hotel

Eilis O'Hanlon

The priest who conducted the funeral Mass for Jordan Davis, the young man shot dead in Dublin as part of the latest gangland feud, deserves praise for using his homily to denounce, in the strongest terms, the "evil" of drugs.

"Drugs don't make you king," Fr Leo Philomin told the congregation at the Church of Our Lady Immaculate in Darndale. "Drugs make you into a corpse... I urge you to stop living the aimless kind of life. To not let your sense of right and wrong be dulled."

There is something incongruous, though, about the Archbishop of Dublin's insistence that those who "hold direct responsibility in this traffic of evil... will no longer be allowed to exploit religious services in the Archdiocese of Dublin to enhance their image." His message was clear: "No more show funerals."

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Minds instantly turned to the funerals of other feud victims, who have been buried in gold-plated coffins wearing Rolex watches, or accompanied on their final journey by fleets of stretch limousines.

These spectacles are grotesque, as the money which is made from dealing in drugs is put on ostentatious display, with the icons of religiosity as a backdrop; and not just in Ireland.

Cities in America ravaged by gun violence have also seen an upsurge of funerals characterised by an excess of "bling", as friends of the deceased toss wads of cash into the open casket, or order identical designer outfits for themselves and the corpse.

But while the Archbishop has every right to feel aggrieved, hasn't the church itself encouraged this trend for years now by allowing sacraments, from weddings to christenings and Confirmations, to become tacky extravaganzas rather than the dignified ceremonies they're meant to be? Bit by bit, they have given in to market demands, as if they were any other business; but if the customer is king, then that surely applies whether the deceased was a pillar of the community, or a criminal parasite on it.

The Requiem Mass is there for everybody. If it's wrong to use funerals to celebrate earthly wealth, and the church needs, as Archbishop Martin said, to enforce a movement "back to the simplicity of what a Christian funeral is", the injunction must apply equally to all; it shouldn't matter how that wealth has been acquired.

The form of the funeral merely reflects the person being remembered. High ranking politicians crave all the trappings of a sombre State funeral; paramilitaries want to be sent to their eternal rest by men in balaclavas firing shots over the coffin. It just depends how you want to be remembered, or how the families of the dead cope with their loss or find consolation. Funerals have long been used as markers of social status.

There's a certain snobbery about these complaints. The working classes have always loved a bit of glamour. George Orwell, commenting on the tendency of those down the pecking order in the North of England to prefer chips and sugar to brown bread and raw carrots, said it was their way of taking some small pleasure from an otherwise miserable existence.

Blown up on a grander scale, it can be seen that these funerals are not just a deep-rooted tick of gangland culture, though they're that too, they're also attempts to derive some romance and gratification from an otherwise short, nasty, brutish life.

It's nothing new. Historians of the Victorian era have noted how many people had more money spent on them dead than they did when they were alive, while Charles Dickens, writing in Martin Chuzzlewit, has one character list all the luxuries a lucky corpse can enjoy if his family has the means to pay for it, from carriages with four horses to every vehicle, to ostrich plumes and velvet, and "any number of walking attendants" with brass-topped canes.

Eventually the Victorians wised up and went for more dignified ceremonies, but nothing ever really changes, it just goes in cycles. The church ought to understand that. It's the kitschiest institution on earth, and some of its ceremonies make an Elton John concert look tasteful.

But it's still true that, while there's a place for ostentation, there are also times when dignity should prevail, and funerals are one of them. Gangs are using them to make a statement, and anyone who gets drawn in can't help becoming part of the message, which in turn contributes to the power of people who Marx identified as a parasitical underclass of "thieves and criminals of all kinds, living on the refuse of society".

Communists considered such people among the most reactionary classes in society, while also believing that the criminal class would vanish once socialism was victorious. It sounds optimistic, but at least it's a plan. Destroy capitalism, and Bob's your uncle.

The current Government's best plan for consigning the criminal class to oblivion is to send along Senator Catherine Noone to a meeting of concerned locals in Coolock, alongside the Justice Minister as he announced extra resources for the area following the recent spate of murders.

Cynics suggested that the real reason she'd been brought along to the meeting, when local representatives of other parties had not even been invited, was to boost her profile in the constituency in advance of the next general election.

Noone is set to stand as Richard Bruton's running mate in Dublin Bay North, which just happens to include Coolock.

From a party management point of view, it makes sense. She was eliminated after the second count in Dublin West in 2016, and was even short of a quota when elected to Dublin City Council in 2009, while Dublin Bay North itself is so tightly contested that it's been dubbed the "group of death".

Clearly she needs all the help she can get. She strenuously denies any base motives, and insists: "I will apologise to no one for doing my job."

Which does sound admirably feisty, until one considers whether being deputy leader of the Seanad, a position to which she was appointed by the Taoiseach in 2016, really counts as a job? She was hardly carried aloft into the upper house of the Oireachtas on a wave of popular support.

When she stood last time for a seat on the Industrial and Commercial Panel, she only got 53 first preference votes out of a total electorate of 1,124 TDs, Senators and councillors, finally being elected by reaching the 112 quota on the 26th count.

That's the way the Constitution arranges these matters, and, having been presented with no option to reform the Seanad in a referendum, the people decided to stick with the status quo rather than outright abolish it; but it's hardly a shining example of popular democracy.

Still we're forced to listen when senators speak because, having scraped in on the squeakiest of margins, they suddenly acquire what were once called "notions".

In the past, Noone has used her position to urge a restriction on the number of times ice cream vans can play jingles - to combat childhood obesity, don't you know - as well as to suggest that the legal drinking age be increased and alcohol advertising banned.

Ambitious, go-getting politicians need to keep their names in the headlines. Coming up with a gimmick a day is one way to do it. Noone herself admitted that her presence in Coolock was down to her own initiative, saying: "I sought to go along to the meeting with the minister when he intended to go to the area, because it's the area I am trying to represent." There were 20 candidates vying for seats in the constituency in 2016, who would presumably have jumped at the same chance to attend the meeting.

She just happened to be in a position to make it happen.

Catherine Noone did an effective job as chairperson of the Oireachtas committee on the Eighth Amendment, and has a very snazzy website, but there is something ludicrous about contemporary politics which this opportunistic little story exposes. Politicians increasingly seem to be falling for their own PR campaigns.

They landed on their feet. They made the system work to their advantage. That doesn't give them the right to lord it over us in perpetuity. Who are these people? Where do they come from? Why are they all so desperate to tell us what to do? And why, more importantly, do we keep listening politely to them, instead of telling them to lay off with the relentless poking of their noses into everyone's business?

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