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Government floored by the generation that knows all about hard times

A SATIRICAL comedy called The Mouse that Roared, starring Peter Sellars, was produced many years ago, but in the past week the Government has seen a normally well-mannered and decorous demographic roaring its rage at its mean-spirited, almost contemptuous, attitude to the first generation born into a newly-liberated Free State.

That generation, the youngest of which would have been born in l938, knows what it means to be submissive, having grown up at a time when the authoritarian rule of church and state controlled every aspect of life.

It surely must have shocked the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Health, all four of whom have their political lineage in Fianna Fáil, that those of an older and less privileged generation had the gall to transform themselves from the anticipated meekness and mildness into vengeful Valkyries and their male counterparts, Zimmerframes or not.

Put a human face on that generation born in the years between 1922 and 1938, and those still alive who preceded them. They are the survivors of almost penitential, regimes which curtailed their childhood potential because of successive governments’ inability to provide anything more than primary education free of charge. A great deal of young talent was lost to our country when children as young as 12 had to finish their education prematurely because of family circumstances.

Even if a family had the wherewithal to pay for a child’s education at second-level, the Primary certificate exam had to be passed in maths, English and Irish before entry to secondary school was assured.

The ‘survivor generation’ had many more hurdles, the most threatening being the tubercular disease that ravaged the country when they were growing up and which was not seriously tackled until Dr Noel Browne became Minister of Health in the late 1940s.

The children who escaped the physical destruction caused by TB would not have escaped its psychic consequences if a family member or friend developed the disease, often with fatal results.

The graveyard in Ballyvourney in Co Cork bears testament in stone to the number of untimely deaths in the l940s. Whether these can be attributed to what can now be regarded as a virtual plague I don’t know, but it’s probable.

Now we might look at the 1950s, the decade in which many of those venting their feelings outside the Dáil, reached adolescence. I think records show that half-a-million people, young and fit enough to work, emigrated to England during those years.

When singer Christy Hennessy died recently I read that he’d worked as a labourer in London at the age of 15. This, then, is the generation that Finance Minister Lenihan exhorts to “patriotic action”, which makes you wonder how isolated from reality pampered politicians can be.

Although some of the survivors may have found work in Ireland, the opportunities were severely limited and the feeling of loss pervaded communities as those who had emigrated left friends, parents and siblings behind in an era when phones were a luxury and air travel was prohibitively expensive.

What’s more, in a misogynistic country such as Ireland was, a woman had to retire from State employment once she married.

I wonder how Tánaiste Mary Coughlan had the effrontery to inform the Dáil of the hugely wealthy septuagenarians — higher civil servants, High Court judges, property tycoons and medical consultants — using a medical card without ever reflecting on the negligible number of women in those exalted occupations. We should have more women in the Dáil not because of gender or family connections, but because they are truly patriotic and are accomplished enough to give a speech without relying on speechwriters for which the taxpayer is charged.

If you look at a televised session of the British parliament, it’s obvious that MPs, by and large, can speak fluently on a topic without notes while the Tánaiste could hardly put two sentences together last Wednesday, prior to the vote, without looking down at her notes and giving viewers the pleasure of gazing at her hair-parting.

Ms Harney seemed reluctant to explain herself at all and her barely-suppressed anger, when questioned by the media, was obvious. Her replies were, as they always tend to be, robotic.

This Government has shown itself to be inept, cowardly and even laughable. It’s been brought to heel by a generation not noted for whingeing or self-indulgence, a generation brought up in frugality, at best, and now being asked to show their patriotism once more, even as their grandchildren are being crammed into overcrowded classrooms and there was an attempt to impose a 1% levy on the most low-paid workers in the land.

The survivor generation knows all about levies, particularly those who were PAYE workers in the l980s, in the ‘tighten your belts’ heyday of Charles Haughey. A youth employment levy was taken to facilitate Fás in its training programme and AIB had to be bailed out too when its deal with Irish Life went badly wrong, necessitating another levy. The tribunals of recent years have been unduly costly, but they have opened the eyes of the survivor generation to the way the non-elites have been suckered over and over again. The horse and greyhound industries emerged from Minister Lenihan’s budget completely unscathed, which must have met with the approval of Minister Gormley who enjoyed a photo-op some time ago releasing wild eagles in Killarney National Park, but was reluctant to show himself to the TV cameras in the past week.

However, Green Party TD Ciarán Cuffe was ‘released’, after the furore over the medical cards took on profound political significance, to explain that the Greens had been fighting with might and with main to do/not do... whatever.

Mr Cuffe must think the general population outside his rarified circle in cloud-cuckooland is made up of imbeciles. In the standing ovation from the Government benches at the conclusion of Minister Lenihan’s budget speech, ministers Gormley and Ryan clapped and smiled not only politely but with an enthusiasm that would have put ‘Independent’ Jackie Healy-Rae to shame. When some of the utterly out-of-touch politicians are given their walking papers at the next election, they should consider other occupations which would be more in line with their particular aptitudes.

Circus contortionists are unlikely to be as generously remunerated as TDs (not to mention ministers) but there’s always the substantial pension to cushion them against the humiliations of old age.

Some might be carrying too much weight for physical agility, although consultancies of various kinds are usually available. This particular breed — genus politicus — is rarely put out to grass or put down as happens to horses no longer able to stay the course.

Maureen O’Donnell

Haig Gardens

Boreenmanna Road



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