Revolutions have many things in common. One is the efforts revolutionaries make, once they have consolidated power, to ensure their version of change becomes the official narrative. This, as often as not, leads to one-dimensional, self-serving history. Writers, painters, film-makers, poets and songwriters — journalists too — all contribute to that process. Most do so with integrity and enthusiasm but not all are examples of scrupulous disinterest.
The painter Seán Keating, who was born in Limerick 130 years ago last month, contributed to the first draft of our post-revolutionary history. He did so with enthusiasm and real, unquestionable belief. His brooding, certain but yet uncertain Men of the South, which hangs at Cork’s Crawford Gallery, is an early contribution to that process. He painted it during a Civil War ceasefire and later went on to record the inspiring industrialisation of the new State.
His paintings of the building of the ESB’s great hydro schemes remain seminal. He painted ordinary workers as visionary Stakhanovs happy to lift the great weight of the future on their shoulders. They were determined to make revolution real, to make it a transformation to lift all boats.
They, by the terms of their day, achieved that noble ambition. It is not too hard then to imagine Keating’s disappointment, the workers’ and planners too, if they knew that their hard-won hydro schemes contribute a paltry 2.3% of our gross electricity needs today. Wind has taken their place and surges towards the 30% mark. The hydro schemes are hardly relevant.
But then that is history and technology unfolding as it always does. The hydro schemes seem symbolic of how a good proportion of semi-State or State agency culture seems informed by yesterday’s worldview; maybe not views as old as Keating’s paintings, but reminiscent rather than relevant.
The examples are myriad. Bord Bia promotes unsustainable food production as if no-one has noticed. RTÉ’s travails are rooted in long-gone privilege. Bord Iascaigh Mhara promotes forms of aquaculture — especially salmon farming — rejected elsewhere. Coillte, though like all these agencies it does many other things, seems determined to carpet this island with Sitka spruce.
Just this week an ESB subsidiary was fined €5m and a rolling daily penalty of €15,000 because EU planning obligations were ignored. Bord na gCon seems a bottomless money pit, though it promotes an activity that has lost popular support. The EPA and the National Parks and Wildlife Service publish one dispiriting record of failure after the other because we won’t mend our ways. Our police are, rightly or wrongly, seen as utterly resistant to change.
Is it time, or is it even possible to produce an over-arching mission statement for these agencies, one that reflects today’s realities rather than the commercial obligations imposed on predecessors by poverty and vulnerability? That would be an unsettling but very worthwhile exercise. It might help restore faith in these agencies and help them seem less like representatives of sectional interests and more like guardians of the common good, the transformative kind honoured all those years ago by Seán Keating.