Ireland’s socialist icon

County View
Ireland’s socialist icon

John Healy’s

MICHAEL D Higgins was the nation’s favourite socialist, at a time when socialism was an isolated abode, and long before the current Taoiseach proclaimed himself to be the only true socialist in the Dáil.
It took a long time for the wheel to come full circle, but come full circle it eventually did. Michael D had remained loyal to the cause of social and economic justice, but many wondered aloud how such a perpetual outsider would take to life as a Cabinet Minister. Arguably, that move from outside, voicing dissent and criticism, to inside, becoming part of the mainstream, blunted Michael D’s passion and pared back the extent to which he would continue to tilt at the windmills of the establishment.
All the more welcoming then to see the publication of Michael D’s new book Causes for Concern: Irish Politics, Culture and Society. The book covers four decades of Michael D’s writings, essays, comment pieces, personal anecdotes, as well as speeches to the Dáil and the Labour Party.
Impassioned, articulate, principled and committed, Michael D never wavered from the path of socialism he had set out for himself from the beginning. His speeches are burning with the dedication of the left, and if his Dáil speeches sometimes ramble into the world of unreality, he is no less his own man for that.
Divided into five distinct sections, the book makes room for Higgins’ berating of clientelism in Ireland, the tradition of the gombeen man in Irish literature, and the studied use of political patronage both at high and low levels to curry advantage with the electorate.
But the most evocative part of the book is Michael D’s recollection of his own childhood. Born in Limerick, he and his brother were sent to live with their uncle and aunt on a small farm in Clare when he was only five years old. The tragedy of his own mother’s life, and the battle with ill health which resulted in her two children being sent away to the care of her husband’s brother and sister, make for disturbing reading.
Perhaps it was this childhood experience which channelled his life’s work into supporting the poor and the underprivileged. Perhaps it was his early observation of political clientelism at work which led him to become – for far too long – the voice of the marginalised.
Throughout his career, as politician or academic or poet, he has brought passion and imagination into  public life. His current book revisits those days of colour and excitement, when the promise of socialism kept many a heart burning, when it was easier to distinguish left from right than it is today.
Whether Michael D has more to offer remains to be seen.

WHEN it comes to roads, the people of Mayo got a surprise ally in recent weeks when journalist David McWilliams told his Sunday Business Post readers of his experience in driving from Westport to Dublin.
“Driving back to Dublin in freezing fog, on boreens with no markings, no signs, no lighting, and no verges, where the margin separating life and death is wafer thin, reminds us all of why we have to shout stop, wrote the author of The Pope’s Children.
“We have an election coming up, and we need to show the cronies who run our country that this road hell is not good enough. Our national road network is a disgrace, and driving on it is terrifying. The road from Westport to Longford is a joke. In parts it can be no wider than a suburban street, yet it hosts lorries, juggernauts and super trucks hurtling in either direction, throwing off muck and dirt. There are no signs at junctions, and the only information proffered clearly is an outdated Special Olympics host town proclamation.”
And if that’s what McWilliams thinks of the N5, what a shame he didn’t travel the N17 between Ballindine and Milltown, the N58 from Balla to Claremorris, or that tortuous journey into the hinterland from Castlebar to Belmullet.

IT would be difficult to figure out the logic by which Castlebar Town Council sometimes arrives at its decisions, unless political point-scoring comes into the equation.
The spat over the naming of the new road linking the Castle Street car park to the Barrack Bridge roundabout is a case in point. To recap: when the matter was first discussed, a proposal from Sinn Féin that the road be named after freedom fighter and author, Ernie O’Malley, met with stout resistance from the Fine Gael members of the Council.
Better, they said, to leave the matter for the public to decide. Let’s hold an opinion poll and see what the people want. But when the public stood firm behind the O’Malley proposal, the Council decided that leaving it open to the people was not such a good idea after all. And so the road was christened Barrack Bridge Road.
All well and good, then. The Council members had the right to name it anything they wanted, however botched the lead-up might have been.
But what a pity some of the learned councillors were not more familiar with the town and its monuments. At least one member from each of the main parties reasoned that there was no need to honour Ernie O’Malley since “the Council had already honoured him with a monument at the Mall, which would soon be restored to its former glory” (according to one), and “O’Malley had already been honoured with a monument” (according to the other).
If either had bothered to check, they would have found that the Mananán Mac Lir sculpture on The Mall had been erected and donated to the town by the O’Malley family in honour of their father and his love for his native town. The only involvement that the Town Council had in the monument was to drain away its fountain and fill it up with clay, to thwart the vandals.


THE “spiritual twinning’ of Knock Shrine and the Rwandan village of Kibeho will, according to Monsignor Joseph Quinn, form a union of prayer and a Marian spirituality between the two communities.
Twenty-five years ago this year, the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to three young women, where she revealed herself as “Mother of Sorrows”.
Their vision of “a river of blood, people killing their neighbours, abandoned bodies with no one to bury them” was linked to the genocide which convulsed Rwanda ten years later. In Kibeho itself, 25,000 people were massacred, while the figure for all of Rwanda was close to one million.
Now consecrated by the Vatican as a Marian Shrine, Kibeho’s twinning with Knock will, it is hoped, further the healing process in troubled Rwanda.

SOME of the most stunning photography of Mayo’s coastline is currently on display at the Clew Bay Hotel in Westport.
The work of Shay Fennelly, Kilmeena-based and Dublin-born, the photos capture much of the beauty of Clew Bay and an environment which is evolving and changing before our eyes.
Shay Fennelly’s dedication to the Mayo coastline goes back to his work as an oyster fisherman and mussel farmer. His first-hand experience of the landscape of the west led him into photojournalism after his report on mussel farming in Clew Bay was published.
Shay now runs Aqua Photo, a photo library which specialises in Ireland and its marine heritage, and where the images of Mayo take pride of place.
His broad spread of photographic experiences goes back 20 years to the 1987 book, Sailing to Leningrad, which he illustrated. The book told the story of the epic adventure of a 32-foot yacht voyage from Ireland to St Petersburg and the Baltic States before glasnost. It was the first visit of an Irish yacht to St Petersburg since the Oriona over a hundred years before.
In 1991, Shay photographed the Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race in South America. He is truly a master of his art who finds challenge and satisfaction in the opportunities presented by the Mayo coastline. There are too some excellent shots of the people of Mayo’s coastal communities, and especially those who carry on the traditional fishing occupations which are already fading away into the archives of memory.
Shay Fennelly’s exhibition runs until the end of January and is not to be missed if you care in the least about our coastline and what it means to us.

ONE can only hope that better order will prevail when the naming of new roads by Mayo County Council comes up in the near future. It is unlikely that the senior body will suffer the same paranoia over naming its roads after individuals as do the good burghers of Castlebar.
The proposal that the new Charlestown bypass be called after the legendary author and journalist, John Healy, is hardly likely to generate more opposition. The new bypass runs by the old family home of the iconic writer and fearless exponent of the rights of the west, whose No One Shouted Stop became a watershed in Irish political and social life.
In Claremorris, the proposal is to honour the great Seamus O’Malley, captain of the first ever Mayo team to win the Sam Maguire in 1936.
It’s hard to imagine Mayo County Council taking the soft option of asking the public to decide what the roads should be called and then, having got the answers, chucking them in the bin.