Tuesday 17 September 2019

Playing dumb over animals in the Dail

Fiona O'Connell

We are just about bang in the middle of a month that is associated with bangers. Though there is no shortage of headbangers, whatever the season. Frighteningly, they often end up in power. As star of the silent screen Charlie Chaplin knew well. Maybe it's no coincidence that this victim of McCarthyism, who regularly holidayed in The Ring of Kerry, had his biggest box office hit with The Great Dictator, which was released on this day in 1940.

Though add a plural, and the title could apply just as well to the debate on animal welfare that took place in Dail Eireann recently. The patron saint of this column, Saint Francis of Assisi, cared deeply about "our brother and sister creatures". So I headed to 'the big smoke' to listen to our elected representatives listen to each other.

Or so I thought. But dictation - in the sense of reading aloud, or stating a principle that must be obeyed - was closer to the reality.

Chaplin might have chuckled. Because there was no shortage of speakers fitting the definition of an actor proffered by another Hollywood legend, Marlon Brando, as "a guy who, if you ain't talking about him, ain't listening". Most of the politicians who denied the epidemic of animal cruelty in this country only stayed long enough to hear the sound of their own voice.

Though some deserved Oscars for playing dumb, particularly when it came to the immense suffering inherent in live exports. Quite a feat, when you consider all the documented evidence. But then, what happens to our cattle and sheep when they arrive on foreign shores where there is no animal welfare is not our responsibility. Especially as animals are no different from inanimate objects. As Independent TD Michael Fitzmaurice stated: "My way of life is to treat an animal, car or whatever I have with respect while I have it."

While the Healy-Rae brothers were as sure-footed as Astaire and Rogers when it came to sidestepping such trivial concerns. They clearly relished their roles as rural outsiders from a quaint Ireland of old wisdom and ways - even as they declared themselves committed advocates of industrial farming. As Michael Douglas's character discovered in Falling Down - incidentally, the Hollywood A-lister's favourite performance - feelings aren't economically viable. The Healy-Raes probably prefer Douglas's turn as Gordon 'greed is good' Gekko in Wall Street. Because if lunch is for wimps, then compassion is for losers and weirdos.

But one moment was more unsettling than all the macho bluster of these politicians breezily dismissing horrors they will never face. "What about the bird in the cage in most towns and cities around the country?" Fitzmaurice asked. "Does that amount to animal cruelty?"

Those of us in the gallery had to remain as dumb as animals. Not that it mattered. The question was rhetorical. Maybe it's no accident that The Great Dictator was Chaplin's first all-talking movie.

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