Tuesday 20 August 2019

Jody Corcoran: 'The story of two parties and a nation through the prism of one family's life'

There are many reasons why we should also be grateful to Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, writes Jody Corcoran

Harry Boland, Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera, founders of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail. Photo: Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection
Harry Boland, Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera, founders of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail. Photo: Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection

In somewhat wistful mood, the time has come to challenge the narrative that the two great political parties of the State deserve their downfall, if not from grace, then from what was once a very great height indeed.

Undoubtedly, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael no longer command the levels of support they did in the several decades after the Civil War, but the decline has been slow - in my view, has been arrested - and in time, I believe, both parties can be restored somewhere close to where they stood only a few years ago.

In other words, I believe the decline is not terminal, and also that this is not a bad thing. It is a good thing, in fact.

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Dr Noel Browne
Dr Noel Browne

However, I do not intend to dwell on the whys and wherefores of that, but to wonder aloud at the view that both parties deserve everything they get in terms of criticism, sometimes bordering on the extreme. Through the prism of my family's life story, I conclude that they do not.

As I say, this view is brought on by a wistful mood provoked last week by two personal events: the completion of the Leaving Certificate by my youngest son and the admission to a nursing home of my mother, who is succumbing to the final ravages of dementia.

Within their lifespans, extended a little, is the foundation of the State and the move from one century, or millennium, to another. In political terms, those years have been dominated by Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and the Catholic Church.

It is fair to say that the Church is in decline, a spiral out of which it might never emerge, but I do not believe the same to be true of either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael. If anything, these two parties are currently giving a masterclass in how to adapt and evolve and move with the times and, in doing so, they will continue to make themselves relevant in the century ahead.

I should say at this stage that my mother is Fianna Fail. She has voted for that party all of her life. The opposite is the case for my father. He has been Fine Gael, as has been his family, stretching back to the administrative periods of Cumann na nGaedheal between 1923 and 1932 and what we might refer to as the 'land question' in post-independence Ireland, or at some point on the same theme while Fine Gael was in office in the first half of the last century.

As you can imagine, all of this made for interesting political debates in our household.

With a nod to the philosophical idea of solipsism, or the view that the only thing you know for certain is yourself, let me take you on a journey further into the past in an attempt to bolster the central argument of this article.

One of the great resources of this State is the Central Statistics Office and National Archives. Some time ago, the 1911 census was posted online. A search of what was then King's County reveals a household of eight living in a townland known as Brackagh near what is now Walsh Island in Co Offaly.

And within that household was my paternal grandfather, his name misspelt Mathew, then aged 21, the second eldest of six, two boys and four girls, aged 16 to 27. It is interesting to note the names, particularly the girls, Rosanna, Teresa, Maggie and Brigid, names which no longer exist within the extended family.

The 1926 census has not yet been published online, but when it is it will reveal that only Matt survived. The others perished, or so the family story goes, from tuberculosis, the silent terror which claimed so many lives in Ireland from the 1870s to the 1970s.

At this point, of course, I should add the Labour Party to Fianna Fail and Fine Gael in paying due recognition of the roles played by them and, I suppose, by the smaller, more radical parties which have existed throughout the history of this State.

The current apparent fragmentation of politics or political parties is not a new phenomenon.

Dr Noel Browne, the Minister for Health who effectively eradicated TB, had a varied political history: Clann na Poblachta (resigned), Fianna Fail (expelled), National Progressive Democrats (co-founder), Labour Party (resigned) and the Socialist Labour Party (co-founder).

Although he survived, my grandfather had also contracted TB, which greatly weakened his heart and he died in his 50s - aged 57, I think - six years older than I am now. We never met.

Upon his death, my father and his older brother had no option but to withdraw from school and join the workforce of the then fledgling Bord na Mona, established in 1946 under the management of Todd Andrews, father of all of the Andrews and grandfather of Dublin's recently elected MEP, Barry Andrews.

The intention here is not to absolve Fianna Fail and Fine Gael of the many great shames of the nation over the past 100 years, up to the present, which is the disgrace of homelessness, children reared in hotel rooms unable to properly develop and the continuance of persistent poverty, but to point out that we have been at this point before and have successfully managed our way through to varying degrees. Perhaps we need somebody with the zeal of Noel Browne to now step forward again.

The intention is to point out that experience of poverty is not unknown to me, although I can scarcely recall it. For the first three years of my life there was no running water in our home, for the first six no bathroom indoors. My mother fetched water by the bucketful from a parish pump a mile's walk away, four children in tow, before a well was sunk closer to home.

Neither my parents received a secondary education. All of their children did. That was progress. My three are currently attending, or will attend, third level and are preparing to stake out their place within our new, modern society, and I am very proud of them all.

That is progress too, or at least a long way from the deaths of five children in a damp thatched cottage on the periphery of a bog a mere 100 years ago.

As she settles into her new surroundings this weekend, I should point out that neither has my mother's life been one of misery. Indeed, she had quite the few glamorous years as an au pair in New York before she returned to Ireland.

She cared for children in a Fifth Avenue apartment, their parents prominent in the film industry and media.

As part of that family - I kid you not - she had the opportunity to sing Galway Bay for John F Kennedy, whom she adored, before he was president; took a dislike to Tony Curtis, whom she found to be rude to the kitchen staff; danced with Gene Kelly and attended the opening of a Broadway show with Eddie Fisher during one of his breaks from Elizabeth Taylor.

My mother was, and still is, a very beautiful woman. Indeed, the famous Page Six gossip column of the New York Post speculated as to the identity of the "mystery brunette" with Fisher that evening and, she used to laugh, wondered as to the identity of the mystery brunette's hairdresser. It was her sister, Kathleen.

Anyway, the point of this somewhat wistful journey into the past is to say that the country has come a long way under Fianna Fail and Fine Gael (and Labour and Noel Browne) and that it will go a long way again into the next 100 years.

And occasionally, we should take some time out to duly recognise that.

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