Politics and shattered heroes - the Irish people’s genetic wisdom

Illustration by Cathy Bartholomew
I'm chuckling as I write this because in my inbox this morning there was a heartwarming message from a friend enclosing a truly iconic echo of the presidential election.

It was an exact copy of the ballot paper which we all marked last week when exercising our choices except there was an icon on the copy where the candidate's photograph appeared on the original. I laughed out loud.

Mary Davis was represented by a red dress. It was her campaign uniform and poster dress. (I'd say she will never wear red again!).

Poor Sean Gallagher, who fell at the last fence when leading because of his back-handed response on TV to charges of collecting funds for Fianna Fail, was a brown envelope bulging with cash!  Winner Michael D. Higgins was a happy leprechaun!

Fine Gael's Gay Mitchell, whose campaign never ignited and whose performance was so poor he did not even qualify for campaign expenses, is seen as a wet fish. Martin McGuinness is a blackly frightening balaclava!

Joycean scholar David Norris is a boater hat and a pair of spectacles. And Dana is a crucifix!  There are great wits out there.

I was in Galway at the weekend visiting the grandchildren, and it is fair to say that the whole city was wearing that bleary kind of smile that comes with a celebration hangover. Genuine pleasure everywhere that Michael D made it in the end.

He is a man who has always been popular even among the ranks of his political opponents, and he will be a very safe pair of hands in the Aras.

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In one pub I heard a rousing rendition in the evening of the local Sawdoctors song from about a decade ago which includes the line, "Michael D., Michael D., up on his bike-eld," praising his cycling skills through the City of the Tribes. That ballad now will be widely heard for the next couple of years at least.

It is a remarkable truth, too, that Michael D., in his political life with Labor, lost as many cliffhanger general elections as he won. He knows what it is like to lose and was impressive in his tributes to the defeated candidates, notably to Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness who came close enough at the finish. Stirring times for Sinn Fein generally.

The people have a genetic wisdom. It was interesting the way they reacted to the two referenda which ran with the election.

One was a suggested constitutional amendment that would allow the government to control the salary structure for judges. It passed easily.

The second amendment, though, would have had the effect of handing more power to the politicians in relation to investigations into matters of public concern. The people said no and the government did not like that at all.  But it was the right decision nonetheless.

At a different level altogether, I was deeply shocked at the bar in the Honk last night when very serious allegations were made against the character of a famous Corkman I've admired all my life.

Just like Michael D., he has long been celebrated in a famous ballad. It was even recorded by the Clancy Brothers in their prime and was one of their big early hits.

You probably know the chorus of this tribute to a hero:
"For rambling for roving, for football or sporting, or drinking black porter as fast as you fill."

In all your days roving you'll find none more jovial, than the Muskerry sportsman, the bould Thady Quill!"

The other verses of the ballad hail the bold Thady as being a handsome giant of a man gifted with all the manly virtues, a man for the craic at all times.

He was a great Casanova, fancied by all the women of Munster, played football  and especially hurling for his native Cork, being especially brilliant in an All-Ireland final against Tipperary, and was altogether a man of heroic dimensions.

But it was in the aftermath of a singsong featuring a rousing rendition of his ballad that the wisest man among us, a sage who is never wrong, said, "Lads I have to tell ye that Quill was only a bit of an amadan (fool) around rural Cork about a century ago. He was more than a bit of an eegit in all fairness.

“He was not the sharpest tool in the box by any means. He couldn't hurl or play football to save his life even though he was a big fellow. It was well-known that he could not hold his drink. Two pints and he was on his ear for God's sake.

“He had not one penny to rub against another for the most of his life. He was only a laborer and cattle jobber for the local farmers when he could get work at all. He slept rough in haysheds a lot of the time, and when it came to women he would blush and run a mile in the other direction if one of them even came into the room.

“Signs on that he lived and died a bachelor. Not the sharpest tool in the box, I say, because he worked a hard week one time for a farmer who fancied himself as a poet and a lampooner. That farmer did not give him a shilling at the end of the week, but the poem or song instead and poor Quill was so dense he was delighted with it. Those are the facts.”

I do not disagree with this sage so I shut my mouth at the bar, though feeling shattered.

But when I came home shortly afterwards I deployed the services of Google against the allegations, and dammit it looks like the sage one was correct again.

The sharp-witted poetic farmer who wrote the song is even named as a Johnny Gleeson.  It's all there in black and bloody white.

One of my favorite heroes has been toppled forever. One of my party-piece ballads has been stricken from the list.

This is the month of the Dead in Ireland and poor Thady Quill is now added to the list.
It's a tough old world out there.

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