Favourites Society Tradition

The Tragedy of False Confidence — Allowing Ourselves To Be Wrong

Confidence is a great attribute in a person and in a nation.  It makes people and nations stronger because it allows them to accept their own fallibility, and drives them to develop plans taking account of the possibility that they might be wrong.  In confident countries, there’s no shame in being wrong.  Error is a sign of original thinking and mistakes are proof that people are trying out new ideas that might turn out to work or might not.  In successful societies, risk-taking is encouraged because that’s what leads to advances, and when things go wrong, nobody is blamed.  That’s the chance you take when you push the boat out.

That’s what a mature society is all about.

Years ago, I was fortunate enough to spend several weeks in Scandinavia on work-related matters.  Every day involved presentations by local officials or business people who, in the main, spoke far better English than the group of which I was a part, and I learned many useful lessons from these talks.  Being human, I retain very little of the precise details now, at so many years’ remove, apart from one thing.  A single word.

I went the whole way to Denmark and Sweden to come back with one single word, and yet, despite what you might think, this word made the whole trip worthwhile.

The word was “possibility”.

Everywhere we went, people were talking about possibilities, and it was always in the context of acknowledging that they might be wrong.  I was amazed with the contrast between us and these Scandinavians who lived in small countries just like our own.  Our crowd made a plan and stuck to it no matter what, but the reasonable Scandinavians had a completely different approach, grounded in the acceptance that people are people and might easily be wrong.  Over and over again, I heard the same thing as they explained what they did: —

We design it in such a way that if it does not work out, we have the possibility to do this instead.  And if this also does not work, we have the posssibility to do this.

Possibility.  Constantly, the word possibility.  It came to embody the concept of confidence and  I began to realise that these people were not hung up on their own importance.  They felt comfortable admitting that they might turn out to be wrong, unlike us, and their humility was the ultimate statement of self-confidence.  It stood in severe contrast to the society I came from.

We Irish are not a confident people.  We make a good effort at pretending to be so, but it never quite comes off, although up to a point, we’re able to put on a facade.  When times are good, we can be brash.  Put us in a uniform or give us a position of power and we can become arrogant bullies.  Give us some sort of celebrity status and we can be the worst poseurs the world has ever seen.   Give us a bit of success and we can lecture the world — just look at Bono if you don’t believe me.  But we just don’t seem to possess the quiet confidence of other nations.

Instead, we seem to admire the vulgar, the flashy and the loud.  Why are we so impressed by people who happened to make a little money from their businesses?  Ireland, after all, is a country where the  Sunday newspaper society pages are filled with photos of the leathery old wives of cardboard-box makers who caught their accents off a sun-bed.

I don’t understand why this is, but it offers a clue to our current economic difficulties.  We lack assertiveness and a sense of belief because at heart we don’t yet believe in ourselves as a nation.  In September 2008, a somewhat lumpen Irish prime minister, Brian Cowen, caved in to the demands of the banking elite during a midnight meeting.  Cowen assented to the unprecedented guarantee that led directly to the current economic disaster and he did so almost on his own, committing the Irish state to enormous costs, staggering sums, without calling a cabinet meeting, because he believed the empty threats of the bank bosses.  It’s not entirely clear that he had the constitutional right to make these decisions in the absence of his cabinet, but certainly, in years to come,  Cowen’s capitulation to the financial elite will be seen as the most flaccid response in history to political lobbying, with an entire nation becoming hostage to the wishes of four or five private companies.

Cowen’s collapse could easily be read as assent to a  coup d’etat, with the support of a finance minister obsessed by his own place in history.

Contrast that with Iceland’s refusal to fund the losses of their privately-owned banks.  Look at the quiet confidence with which Icelandic people came out on the streets in peaceful solidarity and look at the current situation, where Iceland is on the path to economic recovery while its former prime minister is facing prosecution.

We Irish don’t do assertiveness on that scale.  We don’t have that sort of quiet, incandescent Icelandic fury, as we’ve demonstrated by our acceptance of recent outrages, and this in itself is a measure of our confidence.  A society that tolerates as much corporate malfeasance as we did has no self-confidence.

Advertising can be a useful barometer of society, of its hopes and aspirations, of what it thinks it is, of where it hopes to go, and if you asked me to choose one particular ad that summed up the pretentious nonsense that defined the Celtic Tiger era, it would have to be the one on radio where the guy comes home and says Mmmmm.  Ciabatta!

I don’t know what the ad was for.  All I remember is thinking how cringe-inducing it was in a country where most people grew up on bread in all its shapes and forms.  Why did an advertiser think that one particular kind of bread was worth mentioning just because it had an Italian name?  The message it sent to me was simple enough.  This ad had been conceived by some character in an agency who was unconsciously betraying his own insecurity through the words of the actors.

Mmmmm.  Ciabatta.  Foreign is good.

We are not a self-assured people and, as with all such societies, we substitute braggadocio for confidence.  We want to be somebody else.  Our radio presenters speak with American accents.  Our children talk like Yogi Bear.  Most of us no longer use our own language, though we blame others for that abandonment.

Isn’t it about time that we started to adopt new, successful strategies for moving forward?

We need to start instilling critical thinking in our society, self-confidence and assertiveness.   Most of all, we need to introduce the great strength and flexibility of accepting our own falliblity.

This is the new movement in modern business thinking, the idea and revelation that people are people, fallible, unpredictable and prone to all manner of mistakes.  Future successful business will be built on this principle, but more importantly, if Ireland is to pull itself back from the precipice, this is the same principle we must apply to government and to public administration.  Ireland must reinvent itself, and so must the public service in a way that values original thinking, because by its very nature, original thinking relies on error to be successful.

That’s not the model we worked  on for generations.   Instead, we preferred to pretend that nothing could go wrong despite the evidence in front of our eyes, but we no longer have that luxury after September 2008.  Nevertheless, let’s not despair.  The collapse might have been calamitous but catharsis carries its own benefits, and therefore, even though the economic collapse has brought all sorts of hardship, it might also offer the opportunity to rethink the way we do things.  This is a chance to become strong by embracing our ability to be wrong.



All BTR posts on Reinventing Ireland


Disconnection from the State

An acquaintance whose career is in psychiatry once provided a useful working definition of a deranged person : someone holding fixed false beliefs who is impervious to reason.

Looking at the actions of our leaders since 2008, in particular their decision to beggar the country in order to protect criminal conspiracies that could only loosely be called banks, I think there’s no escaping the conclusion that they are, by this definition, insane.

We were led by madmen, and the madmen were led by an idiot.  Furthermore, when the idiot jumped ship and went to live in a cupboard, the madmen began to display other worrying signs, including clear evidence of a severe personality disorder.  Brian Lenihan, after all, announced to a stunned nation that he wasn’t simply robbing the citizens in order to pay the gambling debts of billionaires.  His budget of 2009 was, in his own staggeringly self-important words,  nothing less than a call to patriotic action.

Lenihan made two fundamental misjudgements with that statement.  The first was the assumption that anyone listening had the slightest respect for him personally, and the second was that propping up a bunch of crooks had anything to do with patriotism, but yet perhaps we can’t blame Lenihan entirely, and I’ll explain why in a minute.

The patriotic action gaffe was, in my opinion, a manifestation of narcissistic personality disorder, which is characterised, according to the standard definition, by a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and a lack of empathy.  Lenihan’s ludicrous call to patriotic action echoed, in a pathetic Irish-backwater way, the absurd, if apocryphal, statement attributed to Louis XIV: L’État, c’est moi. In a sad echo of the Sun King, who could forget Lenihan’s subsequent squirm-inducing moment when he reminded us that he had spoken to Christine Lagarde, the French finance minister, In French? French, of all things, as if we thought they might have conversed in Urdu, or Serbo-Croat.

Even if we only had this to rely on, I think Lenihan’s behaviour conforms very well to the definition of narcissistic personality disorder.  His need for admiration is as pathetic as it is obvious, and his grandiosity is beyond question.  After all, what else would you call it when a man commits €460 billion on behalf of such a tiny country, expects the rest of Europe to believe he can back up this bluster with action and then calls what he has just done the cheapest bailout in the world?

Even that very phrase, the cheapest bailout in the world, carries within it an ignorant, small-town arrogance that presumes everyone else in the world was too stupid to come up with the smart-aleck stroke he had just pulled, when in reality, everyone else in the world knew it was bullshit.  And now that everyone else in the world has called Lenihan’s half-witted bluff, we, the Irish taxpayers, are called on to pay the price for the likes of Quinn, Fitzpatrick and Fingers Fingleton.

I’ll leave it to the crucified taxpayers to decide whether they think the man possesses any empathy.

How did we get to this?

I think the entire country is disconnected.

Lenihan himself was raised in an atmosphere of stroke-pulling.  Bred in the bone.  His father was a consummate chancer, liar and Fianna Fáil apparatchik.  Some readers will be old enough to recall his cringe-making moment on the Late Late Show when he invited the audience to chuckle at his hilarious story of how he intimidated a policeman who had the cheek to raid a pub he was drinking in after hours.

Will you have a drink or will you have a transfer? he claimed to have said, and the whole crowd, including the dreadful Gay Byrne, yukked.  One law for Brian Senior and his crooked cronies.   Another law for the rest of us.  I still don’t understand why the audience laughed instead of taking off their shoes and flinging them at the self-satisfied old liar.

Was there any hope for Brian Junior when raised in the hothouse of distortion that was the Lenihan clan?  I don’t think so.  His father and grandfather were both members of our parliament, as were his aunt and his brother.  Like all the Lenihans, he was raised to believe that he had an entitlement to get his hands on the levers of power, and of course, with a sense of entitlement comes arrogance.

There are many kinds of disconnection.  The Lenihans are disconnected from the reality of our country by their position, their privilege and their money, but I’d like to say one thing now.  This is not solely about Brian Lenihan.  He simply happens to be the public face of a much deeper problem in our society, a problem I touched on before, which goes to the very heart of what exactly constitutes the Irish State.

It seems to me that Lenihan and his kind are the ones who ended up with all the loot after the civil war.  And when I say his kind, I also refer to the people who occupied the other side of that divide.  It seems to me that these two groups were never really fighting about principles at all, but about position, influence, money, property.  Ownership and oligarchy, in fact.  From what figures I can muster, the distribution of wealth in Ireland is what one might expect of a third-world country, with a disproportionate concentration in the hands of a very small few.

Right from the foundation of the state, the small people did not matter.   Emigration and TB were the friends of the rich, invaluable for thinning out the irritating underclasses who otherwise would have to be fed and housed.

Those who did not take the emigrant boat or succumb to tuberculosis, settled into the sub-standard public housing estates grudgingly supplied by the State.  Many worked and struggled to improve their lot, and that of their children, but some began a long journey into the alienation and nihilism that today produces random street violence, gun crime and what is anaemically referred to as anti-social behaviour.

Why?  Could it be that the poor don’t see any connection between their lives and the country at large?

Yes, it could.  When you spend a lifetime being condescended to by petty officials, jumping when some doctor snaps his fingers at you, worrying, staving off the money-lender, it’s hard to have a sense of civic pride.  A sense of belonging to a State that has never shown you any respect.

I’ll agree that the political correctness of the 90s produced a mendicant class that feels entitled to be given whatever it demands, but that mentality didn’t come from thin air.  It was bred through generations of low-grade skirmishes between poorly-fed, poorly-educated people, and the slightly-better-fed but still poorly educated people who looked down their noses at the underclass as they pushed their dole money through the hatch once a week.

Of course, there was a different underclass as well, wasn’t there?  An underclass far more demanding than any tracksuited, hoop-ear-ringed chain-smoking teenaged mother shouting at an official in the dole office.

I’m talking about the underclass that had three Range Rovers in the drive.  The underclass that had the prime minister’s mobile phone number handy, and in a bizarre symmetry, this underclass was just as disconnected from the State.  As we have seen in the last couple of years, this underclass cared as little for Lenihan’s call to patriotic action as did some  sixteen-year-old single mother in a Health Board flat with junkies shooting up in the stairwell.

I’m talking about not only the property developers who did so well from McCreevy’s little boom, but also those who inherited the State when it was founded out of blood.  The doctors and the lawyers who for generations knew that they could grow rich by charging the poor large fees that would leave their children hungry.

That’s the legacy of our Freedom Fighters in 1921.  Not some idyll of comfort and safety, but a harsh reality that our people would pay through the nose to keep the cosseted elite in continuing luxury.  Unlike the UK which we left, there was never a comprehensive national health service.  Never an independent school system.  Never a proper public transport system. We kept the abusive industrial schools open long after the Brits shut them down.

And now, finally, we’re left with the one sector of society who believed in Ireland.  The middle ground.   These are the people who ultimately are being forced to pay for the dishonesty, criminality, greed and incompetence of the very wealthy.

The poor never saw themselves as part of this nation, apart from some absurd Celtic Twilight fantasy dreamed up by the wealthy and peddled by the  Wolfe Tones to keep them compliant.  The wealthy never saw themselves as part of the nation either, but simply believed they deserved to live off it in opulence.

This weekend, people in Limerick will be taking part in a run to raise funds for the Mid-West cancer unit.  Why?  Because the government has no money for anything except the banks.  Only today, we learn that all our insurance premiums will be taxed to pay for Seán Quinn’s greed.

People no longer pay their taxes willingly because they feel the money is going to an immoral end.  And if the middle ground has also lost faith in State, what’s left?

If the one remaining section of society that used to believe no longer has faith, the game is up.  We no longer have a country, if we ever did, and if it wasn’t all an illusion since 1921.



The Real Ireland

Reinventing Ireland

The Non-Fighting Irish

Time for Change

Let Ireland Grow Up

Time For A New Electoral System

Ireland Needs Vision and Focus

Queen’s visit

New Easter Rising

What Has Independence Given Us?

Education Favourites Logic

Critical thinking

One of the most useful suggestions to come out of the thread on reinventing Ireland was the notion of teaching critical thinking in schools, a form of thinking that can dissect a problem and expose the heart of it.

It might seem like an obvious idea, but to my mind, it’s one of the most radical proposals I have ever seen.


Because in this country, rational questioning thought is seen as something dangerous, something almost subversive, something to be suppressed.  You can see it at work in a very superficial way when the waiter asks Irish people how their meal was.  No matter how gum-festeringly foul the grub, and no matter that the entire table is swimming in a pool of vomit, Irish people will smile and nod and tell the waiter that it was Fine.  Fine thanks.   Here, have a big bastard of a tip.

If you have kids you’ll be familiar with this.  Your child asks you to help with some maths problem, so you look at it, and your mind goes click-click-click and you try to guide the child through the logical steps to the solution.

No good.  It doesn’t matter that you arrived at the right answer.  It’s not the way the teacher does it.

That drives me bonkers, but it says more about the system than it does about the teacher.  It speaks of a method that fears innovative, logical thinking and rewards learning by rote.  Cookery-book mathematics instead of insight and effective problem-solving.   The teacher is irrelevant, a product of the same numbing, unimaginative process that is now trying to blunt the intelligence of your child.  What hope have we?

Of course, it’s not confined to mathematics, but I have always said this is one of the most subversive subjects that can be taught in school, because mathematics is nothing more than a process of abstracting  the essential points from a problem and representing them in symbolic form so that they can be examined logically.  There can be no better training of the critical mind if the teaching is done properly.

From the very beginning, our school system is based on authority instead of collaboration. In the very best of our primary schools, teachers and parents are partners, but in the majority, you’re forced to address some barely-post-adolescent junior teacher as Miss this or Mister that, even if you’d treat them as raw youths anywhere but in their classroom where they have the opportunity to victimise your child should you challenge them.

It doesn’t stop there.  For generation upon generation, Irish people were force-fed a diet of facile, childish, religious nonsense, and encouraged to be passive.  Not to question.  Never to challenge the authority of clergy, or of anyone else in an official office, and of course that’s how we ended up with the horrors of the industrial schools, and the abusive clergy in every parish throughout the land, raping our children.  Nobody dared to ask hard questions.

Why?  Because that sort of thinking has been systematically beaten out of our psyche over hundreds of years.

For all our undeserved reputation as story-tellers, we Irish can barely string two sentences together when asked to stand up in front of an audience.  We mumble, we mutter and we stare at our shoes. Look at our national parliament, where nobody dare speak without reading from a sheet of paper. So much for spontaneity.

Speaking is another form of thinking.  It’s a way of shaping ideas, turning them, considering them from all angles, kneading them and moulding them until we fuly understand what it was we intended to express.  Without words, abstract thinking is difficult.  I remember years ago reading some clever old fellow who said that words are the very stuff of thought, and I think he was right.

In this country, we need to encourage  our children to speak fluently, but we don’t, perhaps because we’re not much good at it ourselves.  When we manage it at all, we produce plastic horrors like the Billie Barry kids, instead of natural, unaffected, confident speakers.  I’ve often wondered if this is a hangover from our sense of inferiority in colonial days.  Are we afraid to speak, without adopting the fake accents heard in certain parts of the capital for the last three or four generations?  This is the same post-colonial malaise that right now, as I write, paralyses Brian Lenihan, sitting opposite his IMF betters and acquiescing to all their demands.  Somewhere deep in the Irish psyche is the belief that a foreigner always knows best.

Pomposity is a curse on the Irish people.  The inability to admit we were wrong.

Brian Lenihan is a classic example of Irish pomposity, much like his bumptious, posturing father, and I believe that a component of his current stupidity has to do with a fear of admitting he made a mistake.

Years ago, I visited various Scandinavian countries, and I was very impressed with their language.  Possibilities.  If this doesn’t work, we design it so that we have the possibility to …

They always had a plan B and a plan C.  They had no problem confirming that humans are fallible, and they planned accordingly, unlike our people, who devise a method of working and stick with it even when it has patently failed.  And that’s the difference between Scandinavia and Ireland.

How do we change all this?

When so many of our emigrants returned after the flight of the 80s, they had seen how other countries do things, and they had seen how other people live.  They made a difference to the real economic prosperity of the 90s before our country became defiled by Bertienomics.   But those in charge of our country, such as Bertie Ahern and Charlie McCreevy, were narrow, limited, ignorant men, with little experience of anything outside their little parishes, and unless we tackle that problem, we’re going nowhere.

Ironically, such small intellects as Ahern, McCreevy and the rest of the FF politicians, are products of exactly the same stultifying educational structure that has hamstrung the country in every way.

We need to break this pattern, but it isn’t enough to start teaching infants to think independently.   We need to break the habits in ourselves of sloppy thinking, of failing to ask hard questions, and of passive-aggressive resentment instead of open, honest, genuine challenge to the kind of certainties people would force on us.

Certainties such as we now hear day in and day out about what would happen if we told the  IMF to take a jump for itself.

In many posts here, I’ve reiterated the same thing.  There’s only one kind of thinking: the scientific kind, where you look at the evidence and see if it stacks up. Everything else is just waffle, supposition, prejudice or lies.

If you don’t believe me, folks I give you Brian Lenihan.


Previously: Scientific method

Favourites Society

Re-inventing Ireland. Time to grow up.

Even though the country is on the brink of an abyss, perhaps this is also a time to look at the opportunities.

I think we need to change not only our politics, but our entire society, beginning with ourselves.

It seems to me that our society and our political system have now proven themselves utterly incapable of delivering the sort of leadership or management needed for Ireland to survive in the modern world.  We need to find new ways of electing leaders with a global vision, instead of the glorified county councillors we currently return to our national parliament.  To my way of thinking, that means we need to reform the system we use now : the single transferable vote in multi-seater constituencies, because it gives rise to the worst sort of blinkered political clientelism.  It gave the world Willie O Dea and Jackie Healy-Rae.

We need ministers with ability, knowledge and skill.  At present, the people who head our multi-billion departments are selected from a tiny pool of about 80 people, most of whom have no expertise in anything except talking nonsense and backstabbing political opponents.  Every minister in the history of this state has tried to bestow largesse on his local constituency without regard to the greater good of the country and this is simply not acceptable any more, if it ever was acceptable.  I think we need a way of co-opting high-quality people into a working cabinet — people who aren’t hamstrung by local parish-pump concerns and who aren’t beholden to anyone. To put it another way, I think our government departments need capable chief executives.

After the lies of the past week, it’s obvious that we must shake off our age-old tradition of never telling the truth.  Our people don’t believe the government, and the world at large, with good reason, doesn’t believe any of us.  I think we need a new vision, and a different way of seeing ourselves in the world.  We need to take responsibility and we need to grow up because the party is well and truly over.  We need to learn lessons from the Scandinavians, the Dutch and the Germans who are utterly baffled by our behaviour.  Let’s stop being infantile once and for all.

We need to build accountability from the ground up, and we need to foster a culture of complete intolerance for stroke-pulling in every aspect of our lives.  Our small-minded venal attitude to personal honesty feeds into a culture at government level of trying to get the most out of our neighbours while giving back as little as possible.

We need to abandon the passivity that has been drilled into us for generations through our church-dominated schools system and start to act like grown adults.  We need to turn our backs on these false authority figures from whom we have been taking orders since the foundation of this state.

We need to walk away from the cloying, grá-mo-chroí, saccharine image we created of lovable rogues and start to act like solid adults instead of always looking for a fool’s pardon, so that maybe eventually our neighbours will start to develop some respect for us.  Enough shamrock shit.

It won’t be easy.  Thinking for yourself is never easy, but I don’t believe we have any other option, and maybe finally, when we grow up, we’ll deserve the key of the door that the adults foolishly gave us before we were ready for it.

If we can take on these challenges and others like them, I think we might emerge a better country from the experience.  I’d welcome people’s suggestions on this, but let me offer a small health warning.  If anyone is thinking of sending in the usual complaints, with no positive suggestions, those comments will simply be deleted.  I’m not in the mood for people venting about this.   I want to hear genuine, practical suggestions, not demands for retribution.

While such sentiments might satisfy an atavistic urge for revenge, they won’t solve anything, and though I must admit that I’d like to see certain people strung up on lamp-posts, the reality is that we do not need mob rule.   We need logic.  Therefore, the best we can hope for in that regard is a Truth Commission where people who created this catastrophe finally confront their role.

Much though it irks me to say it, along with imagination to bring us out of this mess, we also need forgiveness, unless we want our country to go through another century of dysfunctional, paralysing bitterness similar to that caused by the Civil War.


UPDATE  A reader brought this to my attention.  2nd Republic.  Worth visiting.

Favourites Society

Ireland Needs Vision and Focus

A post I wrote last week seems to have struck a chord, judging by the reaction to it.  In The Non-fighting Irish I was trying to articulate a sense of how meekly we accept whatever injustice or scam is inficted on us by church, state and business.  I wondered where this docility came from and suggested how we might move on.

It seems to me that the Catholic church is guilty of more than just abusing our children.  I think it abused our souls, though isn’t alone in this crime, being ably aided and abetted by the self-interested legal and medical professions.

By force-feeding the Irish a diet of pious absolutes from the time of Cardinal Paul Cullen onwards, I think they blunted the critical faculties of an entire nation.  Perhaps as a reaction to the Irish Shoah —  the Great Famine —  an authoritarian Catholic church set about gaining a grip on the previously hedonistic and irresponsible Irish, strangling the last vestiges of gaiety and free thinking from the population.

They took over sporting activities.  They imposed a new style of music and dance on the children, a cold robotic style filled with their  hatred for the human body that has today become a parody of itself.  They filled the countryside with the droning of their Rosary mantra, and created an occult pantheon of demigods to be feared and worshipped, led by the Virgin Mary.  They required people to believe the most facile nonsense and those who refused were shunned.  They whipped up anti-Protestant and anti-Jewish sentiment at every opportunity, and most important of all, they grasped control of the primary schools from a British government only too willing to accept their assistance.

When these clerical absolutes were combined with simplistic nationalist sloganeering, I think a toxic mix emerged.  It was the primeval soup from which our national prototype crawled, grew legs and walked the land in all its infantile certainty.

Some will remember the Arch-confraternity in this very town, Limerick.  A Catholic movement that held almost every Catholic Limerickman in its grip and whose meetings were reminiscent of the Nuremberg rallies.  These meetings were lectured by fire-and-brimstone Redemptorists, whose thundering sermons were liberally and seductively sprinkled with the stirring rhetoric of the action novel, which was the only form of literature available at the time, thanks to a puritanical, and Catholic-driven censorship regime.

I recall my own father, a literate and curious man, confined to a diet of trash westerns, murder mysteries and war novels, thanks to successive governments of every political shade that didn’t trust their people to think for themselves.  The authors banned in those days, not a million years ago, included Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, DH Lawrence, Brendan Behan, Aldous Huxley and Honoré de Balzac.

The list of Irish authors banned in the 30s and 40s is so distinguished that it reads like an anthology of the best of Irish writing: Samuel Beckett, George Bernard Shaw, Sean O’Casey, Liam O’Flaherty, Sean Ó Faolain, Frank O’Connor, Francis Stuart, Austin Clarke, George Moore, Kate O’Brien, Norah Hoult, Oliver St John Gogarty, Maura Laverty, and Walter Macken.  Ó Faoláin is said to have called himself the leader of the banned.

The country, under the dark puritanism of the clergy, became a cold place for independent thought, and an even colder place for anyone with red blood in their veins, because if there was one crime worse than thinking freely, it was to be sexually active.

This is a country in which, until recently, clerics were held in such regard that nobody — not even our police force — believed them capable of a crime.

This is a country in which celibate, sexually-dysfunctional clerics felt entitled to lecture grown women about inserting thermometers to check their fertility, and felt entitled to terrify schoolchildren into believing sex was a dirty and shameful thing.  As Woody Allen once remarked when asked if he thought sex was dirty: Only if you’re doing it right.

This is a country in which the same clerics constantly sought to influence the law of the land in relation to family law and sexual relations between consenting adults.  It reached its most absurd and obscene when the cloistered order of Poor Clares were marched out en masse to vote down a constitutional amendment permitting divorce.

That was not in 1886.

It was in 1986, the year Elvis Costello released two albums: King of America and Blood and Chololate that included the aching I want You.  The Pet Shop Boys released Please and REM unveiled Life’s Rich Pageant.  Paul Simon released Graceland that year, Talking Heads told True Stories and Jennifer Warnes gave the world the sublime Famous Blue Raincoat.  Movies that year included Top Gun, Aliens, Platoon and The Fly.

But in Ireland, silent nuns were preventing divorce.  Be afraid.  Be very afraid.

This is the country in which a prime minister voted against the party of which he was the leader, in deference to the sexual strictures inposed by the same clerics and that didn’t happen in the 19th century either.  It happened in 1974.  Brian Ferry, Frank Zappa, David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, Tom Waits and Fleetwood Mac were in the charts.

Liam Cosgrave crossed the floor of the chamber to vote down his own government’s bill,  confining the importation and selling of contraceptives to licensed persons and making it an offence for unmarried people to buy them.  It was a most conservative measure, forced on the government by the McGee supreme court case, and even at that, their knees buckled in the face of ecclesiastical displeasure.

Cosgrave’s actions happened in a country that dared to call itself a republic, and they show how an intelligent, educated man could yet bring himself to bend the knee in a childish deferential display of submission to the men with the rings.

At this remove, such behaviour seems insane, but that’s how it was, and today, in 2010, some government ministers are just as much in thrall to the  church as Cosgrave was in 1974.  After all, we still have a constitution which was in large part dictated by the Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid.  Not too many years back, Michael Woods and Bertie Ahern meekly handed over €1.27 billion of our money to bail out the religious orders after their mass rapes and beatings were revealed.

What’s perhaps worse is this: the Catholic church hijacked morality and ethics in this society, and held them as a monopoly, stifling all rational humanistic tendencies in the people.  Consequently, now that the people have lost all respect for them, a void has been created.  Instead of an internal, self-generated ethic, we had an imposed artificial structure, and consequently, society is now left with no frame of reference for what is right or wrong.

Whatever about blind obedience to the instructions of the Catholic church, there’s a more insidious consequence, which is the training of generation upon generation to accept arrant nonsense with a straight face and without question.

Hence we have an entire nation institutionalised, and ready to accept not only the fairytales of the priests, but also the nonsense of the bankers and property developers who promised endless prosperity.  Or the nonsense of a government in the pockets of the wealthy, telling them that billions of public money must be pumped into the same banks to save the vested interests from their own criminality.  Or the nonsense of a heavily-funded health service that simply doesn’t work, because it’s geared towards making rich consultants even richer at the expense of poor people.  Or the empty, meaningless sloganeering of A Nation Once Again, the monster that ate and spat out so many victims.  Or the fact that the same crooks who fuelled the economic disaster have been re-employed and now work for NAMA at a healthy profit.  Or the recent salary increases for the people who run the cancerous Anglo-Irish Bank.

Where do we go from here?

Why not begin with something very simple, but symbolic of a new start?  Why not turn our backs on the old, failed, inward-looking ways by removing the meaningless titles from our two main, failed political parties.  Let there be no more Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael.  Let them adopt titles that reflect what they believe in, and if they have no beliefs, let them be disbanded and gone from our parliament.  Let them make way for new thinking, and let us once and for all bury their outdated, Civil-war, priest-ridden deference and collusion with authoritarianism.

Back in the Eighties there was something called the New Ireland Forum, set up by Garrett Fitzgerald to examine ways of giving stability and peace to Ireland, north and south.

It seems to me that we need another New Ireland Forum, but with a different focus.  We are in the middle of a war without bullets, potentially more destructive than either the civil war or the Northern Ireland conflict, and this war has been triggered by the treason of the banks, the property developers and certain corrupt government ministers.  It threatens to destroy this country if we don’t wake up.

No guns will win the new war, though I greatly fear there will be blood on the streets whether we like it or not.  The only thing that will save us from annihilation is a new way of thinking, and the most important part of that is to finally shake off our pathological deference to all things authoritarian, whether priest or politician, doctor, lawyer or bureaucrat.

We need to learn that we are not children and that we do not need to be treated like children.  We need to stop looking to the hollow men of politics and church for our ideas and instead start to look inside ourselves.

We need to trust our own hearts for once and begin to heal the soul of the nation that has been so badly damaged by the self-serving priests,  politicians and pampered elites who have held this country by the throat for too long.

Forget about looking for a strong leader.  That way engenders demagogues and rabble rousing opportunists.

The place we’ll find a new vision and a new focus is inside ourselves, but first we must face up to the reality of how childish and docile we have been , how much it has cost us as a nation, and how much it will cost our children.

Then we can begin to grow up and order our affairs for ourselves.

Favourites Society

The Non-Fighting Irish

I wonder where the Fighting Irish live, because they certainly don’t live in Ireland.

No matter how corrupt our politicians’ behaviour, we don’t protest in the streets  like the Greeks.  Instead, we re-elect them.

When bankers, crooked property developers and cosy deals with political parties destroy our economy, we don’t set up barricades and burn government offices like the French.  Instead, we pay the extra taxes required to bail them out.

When priests rape our children we don’t burn their churches.  Instead we pay their legal bills.

When petty officials close our  food shops and craft butchers due to over-zealous enforcement of regulations, we don’t ignore their interference like everyone else in Europe.  Instead, we quietly close our doors and shuffle away.

We don’t even complain in restaurants.

We are the meekest people in Europe, and the closest we ever get to fighting back is when we indulge in immature, passive-aggressive sulking.

The last couple of weeks have revealed profound things about our nature, all interconnected.

The Tallaght hospital debacle, the Seán Brady outcry and the farce of the health inspector trying to close down a garage for having a topless calendar on the wall are all part of a uniquely Irish phenomenon.

It seems to me that since the foundation of the State, and perhaps as far back as the Famine, there has been a determined effort to infantilise the entire population, to suppress people’s ability to think critically and to replace that ability with facile, childish certainties.

Expertise is not valued in this country.  Knowledge and craft are not held in high esteem.  For generations, our schools have operated an apartheid system, guiding the more academically gifted children towards theoretical subjects, and the less gifted towards hard, practical pursuits like woodwork, metalwork.

We don’t value practical skills.  We prefer prefer flashy, superficial spin-merchants, and we promote them to positions of power, which is why the health service is now run by people with no knowledge of anything at all except passing interviews.

People with deep knowledge of practical matters make us uncomfortable and that’s why we don’t like to have such people in management positions.  They might expose our own shortcomings.  It’s far safer to surround ourselves with people who know nothing but who do a great interview, who speak the jargon and know how to spin out a meeting till lunch-time.

And when we send out inspectors, we fill them with cook-book certainties to be imposed without deviation, closing good restaurants for having small kitchens, threatening to put a mechanic on the dole for having a nudie calendar on his wall, or prosecuting an islander for harvesting seaweed as his people have done for thousands of years.

In the HSE, just as in every other aspect of Irish society, there are no real managers.  There are only administrators, the Dog-Licence people, and eventually such people come to believe their own fantasies.  They come to believe that can do the job, and then they start to make decisions that ought to be made by people with genuine skills and knowledge.

Thus we had the appalling spectacle of 97 terrified women herded together to be informed whether or not they had breast cancer.  This decision was made not by a clinician but by an idiot administrator, for administrative convenience.

Thus we had the thousands of unopened referral letters.  This decision was made by an unqualified, idiot administrator in order to keep the waiting lists artificially short.

Thus we had the thousands of unread X-rays.  This was because an idiot administrator decided to save money by not employing enough radiologists.

You see, the obverse of infantilism is bullying.  Where you create an infantile, uncritical population, you also create a breeding ground for the overbearing, domineering, cleric, lawyer, official and medical consultant.

The attitude of our senior doctors to their patients is one of condescension and a sense of entitlement.  Any consultant in Britain would be appalled at the arrogance and greed of his counterpart in Ireland.  The attitudes displayed by this elite have been stamped out in Britain and the rest of Europe generations ago, and in any case were never as extreme as they are here.

Britain closed its industrial schools in the 20s, while, thanks to the war of independence, ours remained in operation for another four decades, as this country became a closed, introverted Catholic Albania.  Independence was no blessing for the children incarcerated in these institutions as they endured the trademark Irish authoritarian heartlessness bred by infantilism.

I say infantilism in relation to the abusers as much as the abused but not because I think it absolves them of anything.  It’s simply that these abusers have been subjected to the same facile certainties as the rest of society and have all their lives been discouraged from critical, mature, adult thinking.

Seán Brady, a man of influence within his sphere, and also outside it due the infantile deference of successive Irish administrations, was yet unable to exercise normal human discretion when presented with the details of a priest raping children.  Instead of acting like a man, he reverted to the passive, obedient seminarian ingrained with the need to protect his church at all costs.

And here we have the paradox, because the bully, the cynic and the manipulator is also the product of the infantilising process.

Our appalling government is packed with people who have no skills at anything at all, and yet who have facilitated the worst abuses in living memory.  They’re arrogant, overbearing and aggressive.  Their leader is well known for his combative character.  And yet, this same leader cowered and mumbled and sought to justify, when questioned on the refusal of the Papal Nuncio to meet a Dáil committee about the Murphy abuse report.

That’s because these people are us.  They’ve been subjected to the same brainwashing as everyone else, so that in the end we’re all children.

Don’t  forget, it’s only a few short years since divorce, contraception and homosexuality were legalised.  Can you imagine any other country obsessing about such things the way we did?  We still haven’t had the guts to codify our constitutional provisions on abortion.  Only recently we passed a law making it a crime to offend somebody’s beliefs.

We bowed down to a multinational energy company and gave them our gas for nothing.

We still haven’t been paid back by the religious institutions for the compensation we paid out on their behalf.

Not one of our bankers is facing jail.

We run an iniquitous two-tier health system where the wealthy have nothing to fear, the poor have everything to dread and the medical elite have it all to gain.

What is the way forward?

Here’s a  suggestion.  Let’s promote independent thinking.  Let’s teach our children to think for themselves, dispassionately and logically.  Let’s kick the churches out of our schools, with their sexual obsessions and their power-lust, and let’s provide our children with proper formation —  a grounding that doesn’t equate morality with sex, but becomes outraged at injustice and inequity.

Let’s kick the medical cliques out of our public hospitals and let them earn their crust the honest way.

Let’s replace all the dreadful non-managing administrators in the public sector with practical people who actually know something about something.

Let’s abolish the dreadful single transferable vote system that elects so many self-serving half-wits to our parliament.

Let’s teach our children that no man in a gown or a white coat or a cassock is better than them.

Let’s teach not only our children, but also ourselves, that we’re capable of better than the side-of-the-mouth stroke-pulling we’ve become so used to.

Let’s show a bit of pride for a change, let’s grow up and let’s get angry.


Also on Bock

The dog-licence people
Breast cancer scandal
Bishops can sack a teacher
Over-Zealous Enforcement of Regulations in Ireland
What has independence given us?
Why do clergy control schools?
The heart of darkness
Remove Topless Calendars Or We’ll Close Your Business, Says Health and Safety Authority
The Sisters of Mercy
Bertie Ahern