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The political alien too posh for Irish politics





An Irish citizen, The Marquess Conyngham, was told in 1985 that he wasn't a welcome addition to Irish life. Who? At that stage, the Marquess was one of the trendiest figures in Ireland, and an icon of the international pop and rock world. He still is.

He's the man more commonly known as Lord Henry Mount Charles, which has never been his correct title. But we like getting titles wrong in Ireland: it proves how democratic we are. Unfortunately we're not democratic enough to believe titled citizens should be fully included in national life - we like our eminent figures to have been born without a shirt to their backs and to have dragged themselves up by their bootlaces, even if the dragging has been decidedly shady and hasn't been accompanied by much of a grounding in ethical behaviour in public life.

We happily bestow on such people the right to behave like arrogant pigs, while dismissing courtesy displayed by well-bred people as condescension. We're also not too keen on intellect in public life: at best we regard it as pathetically naive, at worst it's 'coming the toff'.

Henry Mount Charles, as he is still known - rock concert promoter extraordinaire and owner of Slane Castle, the Irish monument and stately home which is now safe for the future thanks to his cool outlook on life and remarkable business acumen - was interviewed by John Murray on RTE Radio on Monday. The topic in the main was his recovery (hopefully complete) from lung cancer.

Very little attention was paid to the horror and terror the disease brings to someone's life, most commentators picking up on his throwaway remark that he felt "pretty suicidal" while going through chemotherapy, with depression rather than cancer being the currently fashionable pre-occupation in Ireland

Equally, little attention has been paid to another remark made by the Marquess (yes, I'm being deliberately provocative) about an event in 1985 when he was the Earl of Mount Charles. (He succeeded his father as Marquess in 2009.) Excited by the prospect of a new political party being founded based on integrity in public life, he went to see the founding member who would be its first leader: Desmond O'Malley, a man of proven principle.

The young Earl was interested in standing as a candidate in the forthcoming election. But it was made clear to him that an embryonic party in Irish politics like the Progressive Democrats could not take a chance on a titled candidate with a privileged upbringing and an English (and US) education. Bad for the democratic image - so much for cherishing the children of the nation equally. A nationally famous and enormously popular figure, especially with young people, was not wanted on voyage.

The Conynghams have lived in Ireland since the early 17th century and have lived at Slane since 1701. That's not Irish? So who's the snob, the Earl of Mount Charles or the Irish electorate?

Some years later, Mary Harney as leader of the Progressive Democrats approached Henry Conyngham, Earl of Mount Charles, to stand for the PDs - not surprisingly, he turned her down flat. But I'll bet he did it politely. (He has since stood, respectably if not successfully, for Fine Gael.)

Jonathan Irwin, the extraordinary, driven achiever who founded the Jack and Jill Foundation which advocates on behalf of handicapped children, is on record as having wanted, through rage at our lack of services, to stand for public office. But he knew that as an old Etonian, and with the accent associated with such a privileged education, he hadn't a prayer. Not like, say, a GAA star who may bring nothing to the political table other than his fame. (Jonathan Irwin didn't say that, but I'll say it for him.)

And thinking about our ridiculous, elitist reverse snobbery, I recall a daytime television programme and a discussion on the Irish politician for whom I have and had the most profound contempt as standing for everything dishonourable in public life. It was Charles Haughey, the man responsible for hounding Des O'Malley out of Fianna Fail, presumably because the Limerick man's integrity made him a rather uncomfortable bedfellow. On that programme I think the phrase I used was that I had always considered Haughey a ruthless vulgarian, a bully, and damn close to criminal in his behaviour.

Another participant reared up and roared at me it was I "and (my) entire class" which had "done for" a great Irishman. Somewhat amused, as the daughter of an accountant and granddaughter of a (very) junior clerk in the Post Office on one side, and a country jeweller on the other, I asked Haughey's champion what class he thought I sprang from? I didn't get an answer.

And I also remember making a speech at a public dinner a few years ago about coming to terms with our history. The Earl of Rosse, another Irish aristocrat who has made a considerable contribution to public life, happened to be sitting beside me. I suggested that the day we accepted men like Brendan Rosse as being as good an Irishman as anyone called Bruton, Ahern or O'Malley would be the day we indeed came to terms with our history. The applause was extremely muted. Sadly, I think it still would be.

Sunday Independent