Poet Theo Dorgan, who dazzled last year on The Eleventh Hour, was interviewed by Charlie Bird (sitting in for Marian Finucane) on RTE R1 on Saturday about the Quinns, Bertie, Ireland and the role of the poet. And genuinely illuminating the chat proved.
It followed an interview with Fr Brian D’Arcy about his public support of Sean Quinn.
Charlie Bird: “What do you think of the whole controversy surrounding the rally in Ballyconnell last Sunday.”
Theo Dorgan: “I think probably media study classes of the future will listen to that interview with Brian Darcy as the most extraordinary example of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds that I’ve heard in years. I find it very difficult to follow him in his equivalence of a march for victims of abuse in Dublin and a march in support of a man who took the 5,000 jobs he created – for which he is to be praised – and gambled them on the property market and lost and now feels sorry for himself. I can’t see why Brian couldn’t offer pastoral care in a personal capacity to the Quinns if they’re feeling distressed.
But quite honestly the courts of the land found that €500 million of money, owed not to Anglo but to the Irish Bank Recovery [sic] Corporation, the IBRC – our money, money we need for schools, hospitals, guards, road repairs, all of those things that make a civil society – the Quinns have decided it’s not our money, it’s theirs, in defiance of the courts, and any public figure who supports them in that is standing against the rule of law.”
Bird: “But he makes the argument…”
Dorgan: “It’s got nothing to do with compassion, this is to do with the law.”
Bird: “But let me just… He makes the argument that he was there basically as his pastoral duty and also as a friend, somebody from the area.”
Dorgan: “I’m quite sure that he’s – and he’s clearly a genuine man I just think that he’s morally very confused. You can offer pastoral care to a person… I have friends who’ve broken the law. I don’t condone their breaking the law. I will not publicly support them in their continued defiance of the law. Whatever compassion I feel for them on a personal basis, is a personal thing, and I do feel compassion, and I am aware that Brian Darcy has been in the Maze and Portlaoise, and I know people who have had great personal comfort from his human heart. In this case he made a political decision to take a public political stance in defence of a man who is defying the courts of the land. And that, I think, is a distinction he needs to reflect on, and I think in time, I think in time, because he is an honest man, I think he will come to see that there is a very important distinction.”
Bird: “OK, before – just one last question before I go on to talk about your own sort of career: Is there not the, you know, here is something, what happened in Ballyconnell last Sunday is it not maybe, you know, I don’t want to call it the urban rural divide but, you know, people in an area rooted in the soil, rooted in the earth, they want to be seen to support their own. And it could happen down in Cork, it could happen in Kerry, it could happen in any other part of the country.”
Dorgan: “I had this conversation with a friend in Ballinamore 48 hours ago. They were making the case saying ‘why are they coming after our Sean?’ My question was, well, if he was the fourth or fifth person to be prosecuted for owing money to the state, would it make a difference? And when exactly does the rule of law apply? It either does or it doesn’t. I mean, you know, a lot of people who know me will think this is a curious position for me to be taking, because you know there are many things on which I disagree with the state and would be prepared to break the law as an act of civil disobedience. But squirrelling away money, that is so badly needed, because a gamble failed.
I’ll tell you what I think. I think that Sean Quinn did an extraordinary thing in his area, in opening his quarries and opening the Slieve Russell and that – albeit that all his truck drivers were on piece work I’m told, and they drove seven days a week to make a living. But he took those livelihoods, that he had helped build up, and he felt he had the right to put all of those livelihoods on the line in a gamble that failed. So it’s not Anglo Irish took those jobs away, it’s not the IBRC or the Irish taxpayer, it’s not the High Court. Sean Quinn took those jobs and put them on the line and lost.
Now, people are hurting, they’re hurting desperately in that area. They’ve had to struggle with the reconciliation of a dying war; they’ve very few employment opportunities; they see, immediately in front of them, ‘we had jobs and they’re gone’. I think they’re blaming the wrong people.”
Bird: “You seem very rooted in everything to do with education, chance, opportunity. I mean I know you were talking to students in UCC – was it back in 2010? – and you’d been there was it ten years earlier? When you were back with them in 2001 or 2000, what were you telling those students at that time about the Ireland of 2000?”
Dorgan: “I said what an awful lot of people were saying and it wasn’t being reported that they were saying it, people in all walks of life: that we were heading for the rocks, that we had abandoned the idea of a republic as all of us together, and we had unleashed the forces of every man and every woman for themselves, that we were sailing exactly for the situation we found ourselves in. And I was abused roundly for saying it – I was one of those people, in effect, that Bertie Ahern invited to commit suicide.”
Bird: “You actually interviewed Bertie Ahern on Lyric [in The Invisible Thread series].”
Dorgan: “I never laid a glove on him. I mean, the only time he was animated was when he was talking about the Bantry Blues. His father used to play football with the Bantry Blues. I was fascinated, and I’m still fascinated, by how disconnected from reality the man seems to be.”
Bird: “But at the time – can I be blunt? – at the time, you know, if I had met you in 2001 or 2002, and I’d asked you, ‘what do you think of Bertie Ahern?’, what would you have said?”
Dorgan: “I would have said…”
Bird: “Would you have been in awe of him like everybody?”
Dorgan. “No, absolutely not, no. Never. Never. See, I come out of a different tradition. My first question of any politician is ‘where do you stand with the poor?’ And Bertie didn’t stand with the poor, for all the glad-handing populism. His politics, his party, his worldview was all ‘help the rich get rich and maybe some of it will trickle down’. My question, always, is: ‘where do you stand with the poor? Do you understand the poor? Do you know poor people?’
I remember that series well. I asked Ruairi Quinn did he, as leader of the Labour Party, did he know anybody who worked in a factory? And Ruairi is a very honest man. He said no, straight away, no. I thought that was a very strange thing. The leader of the Labour Party didn’t actually know somebody who worked in a factory. So it’s always my question. I was never, never taken in by Ahern, or by any of those smooth…”
Bird: “But do you think, because in a way Fr Brian Darcy mentioned it there. He says you know, maybe a lot of people in the media, commentators, all sorts of people, that everybody was caught up in the glow of the Celtic Tiger and there wasn’t enough scrutiny of the Anglo Irish Banks and of all the other institutions which have now let us down?”
Dorgan: “We’re heading into choppy waters here now Charlie. I hope the sails are battened down. No, I don’t think everybody was. I’ll tell you what I think has happened. I think in 1922, for reasons of urgency, we took on the apparatus of the former colonial state. We took on the civil service, we took on the same corpus of civil and criminal law, we took on the manners and mores of the civil service, and we modelled the state – because there was nothing else to model it on – on the former state. And I think we never revisited that since. The 1937 constitution was a patchwork job, really, and it reflects the mores of the time.
But what we’ve seen – and it’s happened mostly in my lifetime – is the emergence of a state class: professional politicians who own the process of politics. And journalists and commentators and bankers and lawyers and businesspeople.”
Bird: “Are you saying we’re all in cahoots together?”
Dorgan: No, no, it’s nothing as – it’s not as simple as that, and in a way it’s very simple. It’s a common language. It’s a language of power, of insiderness, of first-name references and so on and so on. And gradually the state has drifted away from the people. We’re now in a position where, for instance, we could legitimately (if pathetically) in 2014 add another into the so-called decade of celebrations, and celebrate the eventual achievement of home rule. To my way of thinking, you know, we are drifting towards home rule. The Republic as a sovereign entity is over; the idea that the republic is a logical proposition about equity and justice as between all of us, has long been driven out as naive and unsophisticated by the state class. Our economy, even out internal economic decisions will be determined from Brussels and Berlin. So in effect…”
Bird: “And what do you think about that?”
Dorgan: “I think it’s a great tragedy and it’s a great loss. I think that the… And in a way.”
Bird: “But they are bailing out – people would say they’re bailing us out. If we didn’t have Brussels, if we didn’t have the IMF…”
Dorgan: “Listen, they’re not bailing us out because they love us, or because they feel sorry for us. The entire, interlinked European monetary system is threatened and if any link goes… You know, you can’t just live in the stern of a boat or the bow of a boat. If the bow is leaking, the stern is going to go down. It’s pure, enlightened self-interest on the part of the ECB and the Commission to hold Ireland on board so that the whole lot doesn’t go down.
There’s an economist called Delanty [Gerard Delanty, Professor of Sociology, University of Sussex] – very interesting man, professor of politics in Sussex I think – and he did a very interesting study about four years ago, and he said if you take the entire value of fish stocks extracted from the Irish box, that 200-mile Irish box that was created in ’73, that the total value extracted from what would otherwise have been Irish territorial waters exceeds the total amount of grants received under CAP and under everything else. So I don’t know where we ever got this idea, that was promulgated by politicians, that we were somehow the grateful recipients of EU largesse. Why on earth would they? Why on earth would a senator from Bavaria think, ‘Ach, the poor farmers in Connemara, sure will we throw them a few bob?’ That’s absurd.
I think we began – when we stopped thinking of how do we arrange this society maximally for everybody, I think we began to lose the run of ourselves. I’ll give you a perfect metaphor for it if you like: the difference between our hospitals and our hospices. Now, my partner’s father died a year and a half ago in St Francis hospice in Raheny, and I am still in awe of the humanity, the civility, the respect, the kindness that was shown to him. When he went in, the care workers came to talk to him. Then when we came to visit him they sat down and talked with us. Then they talked with the nurses who came and talked to Larry. Then the nurses and the care workers discussed with the doctor what care programme he needed. And between them they told the administration what was needed in this particular case. And it works flawlessly. Contrast that with an aunt who died in a hospital – I won’t even say where – who was basically put into a system where managers, invisible managers, somewhere up the line were saying ‘ we need so many beds free on such and such a date’, and the whole care programme, so-called, is being managed from the top down. You have two models and by and large we choose the wrong one.”
Bird: “But Theo you know that people say that once you get into the general hospital system, whatever about the difficulty of getting there, but when you actually get into it, again, like the hospice, the nurses, the doctors, they really do incredible work.”
Dorgan: “But Charlie you’re making my point for me: a rationally devised society would be a republic, a rationally devised health service would be managed from the bottom up, by the primary caregivers, the nurses and doctors, the ones who actually heal people, instead of – we’ve imported this kind of MBA mindset, the idea that one management style or strategy fits all. We had it in the arts for a while. We had centralised diktats coming out of Merrion Square. If there’s one thing I am proud of, in my whole parallel life as an arts manager, I spent five years on the Arts Council, and we restored the idea of the autonomy of the individual artist and the individual arts organisation to dig where you stand, in the old Buddhist proverb. You have to do what you know how to do best.”
Bird: “Do you mind me asking are you a religious person or a spiritual person or both?”
Dorgan: “I’m certainly not a religious person. I don’t have the discipline or the belief, simply the belief, to offer allegiance to…”
Bird: “Do you struggle with that?”
Dorgan: “No. I don’t. I stopped being a Catholic at the age of 14. The Christian Brothers’ way of being Christians was a great incentive to think out what Christianity meant to me. I don’t have a hard and fixed position on it. I think that one of the things agnostics and atheists – I consider myself agnostic because I simply don’t know – one of the things we should think more about is respecting the truth of belief for a lot of people. Just because you can’t believe it doesn’t mean that you should disrespect other people who do. But I simply find myself unable to believe.”
Bird: “Can I ask you about the role of the poet…?”
Dorgan: “That’s the simplest question. The role of the poet is to make poems. The role of the musician is to make music. And to make what you can as best you can. If there’s a function for the post, as opposed to a role, I think it’s to try to keep language clear. One of the reasons we are in such a mess in this country is – and it’s right across the western world – is our words have become emptied of meaning. I can’t remember the last time a politician said: ‘I cannot in honour stand by what I did’.”