Mick Clifford: A critical look at Ireland past and present

Mick Clifford: A critical look at Ireland past and present

Charles Haughey: He wanted extraordinary wealth, but he also wanted a life in politics, serving, as he saw it, the people. His ultimate tragedy was that he thought he could have both and get away with it. Picture: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie

THREE books published in the last year provide major insights into the evolution of this country, two of which have huge resonance moving into the new year. One was about the birth of the State, another concerned the life of one of the major figures to dominate public life, and the third was a glance at where we are now.

Diarmuid Ferriter’s tome on the civil war, Between Two Hells, is a comprehensive study of the conflict that arose from the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921. It is an arresting read, filled with brave and principled individuals, but overlain with horrendous tragedy and the bitter fall-out from the conflict.

Exactly a century ago, an impassioned debate was taking place in the fledging Dáil over whether or not to accept the Treaty or go back to war. While the Dáil divide was relatively even — 64 in favour versus 57 against — the subsequent election demonstrated a major wish for peace.

The people voted for the first time in a free state on June 16, 1922, and the result was that pro-Treaty Sinn Féin won 58 seats, anti-Treatyites won 36, but the Labour party, which supported the Treaty, got 17 seats. Thus, the pro-Treaty seats were more than double those of the TDs who opposed.

There was a clear wish from the public to get about building an independent state.

That didn’t happen.


Ferriter tracks in great detail the descent into war, of which the shelling of the Four Courts by the pro-Treaty forces was the real turning point. What followed was 12 months in which both sides descended into a form of savagery.

The outcome was inevitable but, before it was arrived at, the prospect of building a bright new shining state was pummelled into the ground.

Ferriter is particularly good on tracking the aftermath of the war, where legions who had fought through the revolutionary period were effectively cast aside, often on to the margins, despite their service. Others just left or put their head down and tried to dispel the disillusion that settled over a conservative, Church-run State.

Ferriter mentions the writer Seán Ó Faoláin, who had played a minor role in the War of Independence and Civil War. Ó Faoláin “chose at age seventy-six to define the post-civil war climate as a cold shower raining on war revolutionary unity. The revolution was ‘one of the most ecstatic periods of my life, during which all moral problems vanished in the fire of patriotism… during those heavenly years I dreamed of liberty, equality, fraternity.’”

Marking the Civil War

As we now know, the divisions persisted, albeit in a superficial form, at a political level until recent years. Over the coming 18 months, the Civil War will have to be remembered, and it can only be hoped that it will be done in a sensitive and appropriate manner.

One of the men cast aside in the new State was Johnny Haughey from Derry, who had fought in both conflicts, the latter on the side of the Free State.

Johnny had been a Collins man and it was the Big Fella’s leadership as much as anything else that determined which side he was on during the Civil War.

Johnny and his wife, Sarah, eventually settled in Artane on Dublin’s northside, where they raised their seven children, including Cathal, or, as he would come to be known to the world, Charlie.

Professor Gary Murphy of Dublin City University has written the definitive biography of Charlie Haughey, a figure who bestrode Irish public life for four decades. What emerges from this tome is a man who was highly intelligent and had oodles of self-confidence.

Charlie sailed through his second and third-level education, set up a successful accountancy practice in his 20s and stepped on to the lower rungs of a political career that would bring him all the way to the top.

His career in politics tracked the elevation of the State from a poor, conservative, agrarian backwater into a wealthy first-world country throwing off the shackles of the past.

Then there was the other Charlie, the man behind closed doors. Murphy contemplated the two Haugheys just after Charlie had reached the summit in December 1979, when he was elected leader of Fianna Fáil.

“When the revelations about his financial and private lives became public two decades later, he was widely reviled as a byword for hypocrisy… The great advantage the public Haughey held was that he was able to keep the private Haughey out of his decision-making on public policy. The private Haughey would, however, go on to haunt the public Haughey in the aftermath of the Taoiseach years, when his secret life was revealed.”

It is the case that there was very little of substance uncovered in various inquiries to link favours for some of the millions of pounds that Haughey received from business interests throughout his career. However, the damage he did to politics was enormous

Murphy brings detail, balance and insight into an extraordinary life that had a major impact on the State in the second half of the last century.

What emerges is a man whose ability could have rendered him fabulously wealthy — like his contemporary Tony O’Reilly — but that wasn’t enough. He wanted extraordinary wealth, but he also wanted a life in politics, serving, as he saw it, the people.

Haughey’s ultimate tragedy is that he thought he could have both and get away with it.


How would Haughey have performed in the driving seat during the current crisis? We can speculate, but it is those who have been charged with steering the ship of the State who come under the microscope in Richard Chambers book on the pandemic in Ireland, A State of Emergency.

The book is an impressive account of recent history, covering the pandemic from the corridors of power to the corridors of hospitals and nursing homes, where the cruel results of the virus were writ large.

Chambers writes sensitively where required, and with neutrality when recounting major decisions and those who made them.

Unfortunately, the story of his book is continuing as the country hunkers down to fight the latest phase.

One nugget of wisdom in the book comes from immunologist Luke O’Neill, who has been consistent and drama-free during this crisis.

“For Luke O’Neill, Ireland was among the countries slow to act unless the scientific data was brought to a copper-fastened consensus,” Chambers writes, before quoting the scientist.

“You need strong leadership to say the evidence is there and strong enough to take action. Ireland waited too long until other people jumped on these things first.”

Masks? Ventilation? Antigen testing?

It’s a lesson that, hopefully, the medical and political establishment will take on board as the fight goes on.

Happy New Year, and stay safe out there.

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