Friday, December 31, 2010

A year of terrifying hallucinations

Over the past 12 months, the unimaginable became the new reality. 

We began the year with a banking crisis and ended it with our entire public culture on the brink of bankruptcy

IF A PHRASE can sum up Ireland in 2010, it is the title of Alan Moloney’s brilliant online political comic: Wheel Spinning, Hamster Dead . 

The wheel of events was turning ever faster, as one unprecedented occurrence followed another. Things spun so dizzily out of control that time seemed to speed up into a blur.

Last January already seems a very long way away: things that were still unimaginable back then have not just come to pass, but have been accepted as the new normality.

But if we were to go further and compress the year into a single word, it would have to be something weird and exotic. 

The Tibetan Buddhist term “bardo” comes to mind. It is the state of being stuck between two earthly lives, one existence over, the other not yet begun. In this state, apparently, the soul is subject to great depression and terrifying hallucinations.

We lived in bardoland. 

To borrow a phrase from Antonio Gramsci, “the old was dying but the new could not yet be born”. 

A whole public culture – political, administrative, moral – had lost the last vestiges of its capacity to command credibility or respect. The desire for something to take its place, however powerfully felt, had not yet taken any clear form.

These two notions – a sense of time being speeded up and a sense of being stuck in doldrums of depression – are, of course, contradictory. 

But so was Ireland itself. 

The contradiction might be explained by the relationship of most Irish people to the idea of living in historic times. 2010 was undoubtedly a historic year, one of the most significant since the foundation of the State. 

But it felt, not that we were making history, but that history was happening to us.

There have been three periods in the last century when Ireland could be said to have mattered on the international stage. 

The struggle for independence was one – it resonated throughout the still-vast British empire. 

The period from 1995 to 2007 was another – the co-incidence of the peace process and the Celtic Tiger made it look like Ireland was providing a model to be emulated in other conflicts and other economies.

And the third period in which Ireland transcended its natural position as a small and marginal place is the one we are living through now. 

This time, however, the significance is entirely negative. 

It may be a bit of leap to look at Bertie Ahern’s humble base of operations, St Luke’s in Drumcondra, and imagine a blue plaque on the side: “From this house began the sequence of events that led to the collapse of the European Union in 2012”. 

But the notion is not entirely whimsical. 

In 2008 and 2009, we learned the consequences of petty Irish gombeen politics for Ireland. 

In 2010, we learned that they have consequences for Europe. 

It is not quite the kind of global significance our patriots dreamed of.

The idea that Ireland could unravel the euro and hence threaten the EU itself might, rather perversely, have given the Government some real bargaining power: save us or we bring the house down. 

Unfortunately, by the time the crisis came to the boil, the State itself seemed to have lost the will to live. 

The spectacle of the Two Stooges (Dermot Ahern and Noel Dempsey, who both later declared their intention to shuffle off the stage) telling the world that rumours of a bailout were a “fiction” merely confirmed the impression of utter haplessness.

Under the care of the Two Brians, Ireland felt like a patient who went into hospital for a hip replacement and ended up needing a heart transplant. 

The Government had an uncannily cack-handed ability to make bad situations worse, transforming a banking crisis into a sovereign-debt crisis and a sovereign-debt crisis into a genuine crisis of Irish democracy. 

What began with Seanie and Fingers and Bertie and Charlie ended up with Ajai Chopra and Olli Rehn. 

What began with delusions of grandeur ended up with humiliation and powerlessness. 

The fall was in direct proportion to the overweening pride.

There was something weirdly symbolic about the way the Irish passport itself made the news: the revelation that Israeli intelligence had used forged Irish passports in carrying out a murder, the long queues at the passport office in March and the 40,000 backlog of applicants. 

If a passport is a symbol of sovereignty, ours were becoming symbols of fraud and failure.

This was also the year when the absurdities of Irish politics ceased to be entertaining. Everywhere one looked, there were instances of an entire political culture in chaos. 

George Lee’s decision to walk away from the 27,000 people who had voted for him in the Dublin South by election. 

The botched coup against Enda Kenny in which no one even pretended that any ideas were at stake, and the main concern seemed to be the divvying up of the spoils of a victory that was assumed to be inevitable. 

Willie O’Dea’s resignation after he urged a journalist to ask an opponent whether “the brothel is still closed”.

Trevor Sargent, long seen as the epitome of the political idealist, resigning because, like a classic clientilist hack, he had urged gardaí to drop a case against a constituent. 

Ivor Callely’s astonishing powers of bilocation and defiant brazenness. 

And, of course, Brian Cowen’s invention of a new euphemism (“hoarse and congested”). 

In previous years, many of these stories would have added to the gaiety of the nation. 

This year, they added to the nation’s very public implosion.

In the wider culture, too, there were reminders that all heroes have clay feet. 

Gerry Ryan’s death in April produced genuine grief and loss and heartfelt tributes to his brilliance as a broadcaster. His inquest in December revealed the man behind the public façade – anxious, indebted, stressed-out, leaning on alcohol and cocaine to get him through the week – to be in an unhappy way even closer to his listeners than most of them can ever have imagined.

One of the few people everybody seemed to agree is a saint, a gentleman and a national treasure is Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh – and he was leaving us with that saddest of thoughts: you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

The depth of the malaise was revealed nowhere more clearly than in the public attitude to the intervention of the IMF and European Union. 

If, a decade ago, anyone had suggested that a substantial part of the population would be glad to see a Brussels-based Finn and a Washington-based Indian take charge of “independent” Ireland, the assumption would have been that magic mushrooms were doing their worst. 

There was in fact a sense of relief (enhanced by the contrast between our ministers’ fleets of black chauffeur-driven limos and Mr Chopra’s ability to hail taxis and, astonishingly, actually walk on the ground). 

It was cruelly illusory – the bailout had very little to do with saving Ireland and everything to do with saving the euro and European banks. 

But the desire to see the Bogeyman as Santa Claus did reveal the depth of Irish people’s contempt for their own institutions.

The ease with which the Republic was surrendered pointed, perhaps, to a widespread belief that it did not really exist. 

And this belief was not just about money.

If we looked beyond the fiscal humiliation for a source of collective pride in our republic, it was not easy to find.

How well, for example, had the State lived up to the first two priorities set by the democratic programme of the First Dáil in 1919? 

The first was “to make provision for the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of the children”.

The reverberations from the Murphy report into the abuse of children by Catholic priests in the Dublin archdiocese continued to sound throughout the year, coming to the surface again in the horrific story of Tony Walsh and those who repeatedly let him loose on children.

We learned that an extra 27,000 children were pitched into consistent poverty in 2009 – a number that is likely to have risen sharply in 2010.

Children make up 26 per cent of the population but 42 per cent of those are in consistent poverty.

The names of Tracey Fay and Daniel McAnaspie emerged from the obscurity of anonymous abandonment. 

The revelation in April that at least 37 children had died in State care since 2000, seemed shocking.

But it got much worse, as the figure was revised upwards to 188 and then to 199. 

Not only had these children died while being minded by the HSE (109 of them from “unnatural causes”) but the State seemed incapable of even enumerating them. 

Not only were they not names, they were hardly even numbers. 

The collapse of Ireland’s performance in the literacy of 15-year-olds (from fifth to 17th place in the OECD) told a similar story.

And the second duty of the Republic, according to the democratic programme? 

To develop a “sympathetic native scheme for the care of the Nation’s aged and infirm”.  

Prime Time’s reports on Alzheimer’s care (in May) and on the lack of standards for home care of the elderly (in December) raised uncomfortable questions about the degree to which those promises had been kept.

All of this served to underline the degree to which the political project that had emerged from the early 20th century – the creation of a successful republic whose fate would forever be in its own hands – had run its course.

The State that was the concrete expression of that project had lost the capacity to command the trust and confidence of its citizens.

Its credit (both financial and moral) had been gambled on the banks. 

In 2010, it became amply clear that the gambler was compulsive and desperate, upping the stakes again and again in an attempt to recoup past losses.

If there was any upside to this spectacle, it was the loss of all illusions.

Sport and pop culture – the usual outlets for escapism – didn’t help very much as we watched the World Cup we were not at and The X-Factor final that Mary Byrne didn’t make. 

It was striking that, unlike in the 1980s, even religious visions didn’t provide much consolation. 

Joe Coleman had his moments, with his claims of personal messages from the Virgin Mary at Knock Shrine, but it was a passing phenomenon. 

The intervention we looked for was not divine.

It came from quiet men with briefcases rather than from supernatural forces.

And it was not the answer to our prayers.

There is something to be said for disillusion, however. 

This time, Romantic Ireland really is dead and gone, and given where our grand delusions got us, that may not be a bad thing.

We will go into a new year, blinking in the harsh light of reality but knowing that we have little choice but to begin again.