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Con Houlihan: How we went off the rails

This time 100 years ago our country was still a colony, but it had strong representation in the Westminster parliament that proved very effective.

However, the poor were still very poor. If you see pictures of Dublin's streets in that age, you will notice that nearly all the small boys wear headgear but that many of them are barefoot. Their mothers could afford caps but they couldn't afford shoes.

The rural poor were little better off. Most of the men worked for farmers and were little more than slaves. The other men worked with the county councils on the road or in the quarries and were poorly paid and had no holidays and no "wet time". This meant that if it rained and the men had to go home, there was no remuneration. Most of the girls left school after Confirmation.

Now in theory they were strong and perfect Christians, but most of them had to do household work combined with work on the land at times. They were badly paid and if any of them became pregnant, they got the blame. Readers of Thomas Hardy need little telling about this: the rural poor in our neighbouring island were no better off; indeed they were worse off, because if a girl broke her contract and went missing she could be arrested and imprisoned.

On the political scene you could see an improvement about 100 years ago. Daniel O'Connell had shown the importance of constitutional agitation. Thomas Davis, who is now almost forgotten, was a great philosopher who preached common sense and should be remembered if only for the stress he laid on the importance of the Gaelic language.

Charles Stewart Parnell led the Irish party in parliament and was mainly responsible for achieving the ownership of the land -- a step forward that had seemed no more than a fantasy at the beginning of the century.

The conditions of the workers in the city were bad, but there was hope for improvement: three men entered the scene, Tom Johnson, James Larkin and James Connolly. Johnson and Larkin had no claim whatever to be Irish. If Connolly had a claim, it was very marginal. Thomas Davis, incidentally, was as Welsh as the leek and probably more so.

All this shows the complexity of Irish history. Then there is the case of Patrick Pearse, a man whose father was English. He, probably more than anybody else, changed the course of modern Irish history. He had been an ardent advocate of Home Rule but was the prime mover in the Rising of 1916.

Some people deemed that this was a great thing and it is annually commemorated but it led to the so-called War of Independence. This in turn led to the Civil War that really began about 1922, a year of murderous insanity.

The truce of 1921 had seemed to bring peace. Home Rule had more or less been achieved. Michael Collins saw the Treaty as a stepping stone but there were other men who didn't perceive it that way.

Liam Lynch, perhaps the most influential of the anti-Treaty leaders, wasn't content to fight a guerilla war: he spoke of bringing in artillery from Germany and the United States and waging a "real war". Humphrey Murphy was, if possible, perhaps even more so, living in a fantasy world. He said that every town where the IRA had a garrison would be defended to the last drop, even if it meant that some of the inhabitants would die of hunger. This madness seemed to have abated when Eamon de Valera ordered the IRA to lay down their arms. That was in April 1923.

The anti-Treaty forces lost the so-called Civil War but they won the peace. They got into power about 79 years ago and with a few brief intervals have been in power since. They have been so long in office that small children growing up think of them as the permanent champions and think of Fine Gael and Labour and other small parties as no more than sparring partners.

And so if you are casting a cold eye on the fruits of native government, what can you see? At present the State is in debt so much that the mind cannot grasp it. All you can do is ask yourself how did this debt accumulate and why. There is an answer there somewhere and some individuals can be held responsible but of course they won't.

It all reminds me of a story about an English nobleman who one night had the task of putting a small boy to bed. The two recited the familiar prayer:

Now I lay me down to sleep.

I pray the Lord my soul to keep.

And if I die before I wake,

I pray the Lord my soul to take.

The little boy wasn't content with this and he said: "What about our prime minister and all his friends? Will not they guard me?" His father said: "My son, if you knew the kind of people our government are, you wouldn't sleep the night."

What are the fruits of native government? We will talk about the more obvious. The British left us a rail system that was the envy of the rest of Europe. If you ever see a map of that system in the old days, you will find it hard to hold back the tears. The system penetrated almost every nook and several crannies in the country. What remains is a skeleton. Even my own town, a centre of a prosperous area, has no feasible public transport. Our railway has been torn up and the bus system is not practical.

Not alone were railways closed down: the tracks were torn up; valuable capital was destroyed -- all governments were at fault for this. This was done in the belief that the railway was past tense. The roads would take over. We know what has happened. The roads are overcrowded and travelling by rail is a penance -- so much for foresight.

Like the small boy in the story, if we really knew how bad our government is, we mightn't sleep the night.

Fogra: Best wishes go to one of my favourite people, Packie Bonner. He will have no difficulty in getting a better job


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