The complex legacy of Judge Adrian Hardiman

(Unpublished April 2016)

This year saw the premature passing of Supreme Court Justice Adrian Hardiman who devoted his rhetorical gifts to crafting judgments sure to inform our laws for years to come. He combined an acute attention to detail with wistful literary flourishes suggesting gifts in a more artistic domain. It is perhaps unsurprising that he devoted spare time to scholarship on James Joyce.

It is apparent that he was animated by strong philosophical convictions; a liberal in the Continental sense, he revealed a conviction that citizens’ lives should, as far as possible, be unfettered by state interference.

This might be discerned in two ways: first, resistance to the idea that the Court should vindicate so-called socio-economic rights under the Constitution as this would violate the principle of the Separation of Powers; and secondly, especially in evidential matters, a conviction that strict rules should be applied to the behaviour of what he termed the force publique.

But unfortunately few beyond the legal professions will engage with his oeuvre. It is a general failing that judgments of the superior courts, including Hardiman’s, fall prey to what Max Weber described as ‘lawyer’s law’.

Hardiman’s critique of the excesses of the Force Publique ‘the wider legally empowered class’ was nothing short of a crusade. In his dissenting judgment in DPP v JC (2015), which reversed strict rules regarding the admissibility of unconstitutionally obtained evidence laid down in DPP v Kenny (1990), he expressed himself ‘horrified that it is proposed in the current case to make “inadvertence” a lawful excuse for State infringements of individuals’ constitutional rights.’

He decried the state’s appeal describing it in colloquial terms as asking the court to ‘first move the goalposts and then to order the match already won and lost, to replayed with new rules, written by one side and imposed on the other.’ He opined characteristically that ‘Joseph Heller’s “Catch 22” is the only authority I can think of to support the paradox which the state has advanced.’

He also drew attention to Tribunals enquiring into the conduct of An Garda Siochana which revealed illegal phone tapping, noting that ‘not one guard of any rank has been prosecuted for this’. He set store in the comments of Leo Varadkar that the Department of Justice was ‘not fit for purpose’; and those of Conor Brady the former head of GSOC that ‘you could not get into Fortress Garda’.

As a former student of history Hardiman was keenly aware that even if the current government upheld norms of constitutional justice it was crucial for the Court to make allowance for a government bent on subverting fundamental rights.

But while progressives might have cheered his approach in DPP v JC his repudiation in Sinnott v Department of Education (2001) of socio-economic rights under the Constitution was a source of disappointment.

Almost by definition judicial discretion is informed by a judge’s political or moral outlook. Adrian Hardiman as a founding member of the Progressive Democrats was associated with the classic liberal idea of reigning in the state in terms of expenditure and taxation.

In Sinnott the Supreme Court were asked inter alia to adjudicate on the legality of mandatory orders made in the High Court by Judge Peter Kelly.

Following a High Court decision of Justice Declan Costello in O’Reilly v Limerick UDC Hardiman distinguished between commutative and distributive justice, the former bearing on relations between individuals such as found in contract and tort with the latter involving the distribution of the resources of the state. In contrast to commutative justice which he considered central to the court’s function, he held, in obiter, that the exercise of the court’s jurisdiction over distributive justice was repugnant to the Separation of Powers.

Despite Justice Costello showing a willingness for distributive justice in the subsequent case of O’Brien v Wicklow District Council (1994) Hardiman nonetheless brought to bear his arguments in O’Reilly and sought to elevate them to a constitutional principle. He said that the apportionment of resources ‘would lead the Courts into the taking of decisions in areas in which they have no special qualification or experience’; and were a judge to engage in ‘designing the details of policy in individual cases or in general, and ranking some areas of policy in priority to others, they would step beyond their appointed role.’ Revealing he also alluded to generalised ‘human rights to earn a livelihood and hold property.’

But other constitutions including those of South Africa and India make provision for socio-economic rights. It would surely be remiss for a Court to deny jurisdiction on the grounds of incompetence on distributive justice – detailed financial resolutions are, after all, already executed in the family and commercial arenas – if constitutional alteration enjoined judicial oversight.

Moreover even in the present constitutional framework the paramount right to life under Article 40.3 should require the Court to make mandatory orders in circumstances that might easily arise: the judiciary would surely be forced to intercede on behalf of citizens whose level of material welfare jeopardised their lives; where the legislature fails to vindicate a right to life the Court must surely assume responsibility.

It might also be argued that the executive branch has not always shown competence in managing the resources of the state! In inferring a constitutional principle debarring adjudication on distributive justice Judge Hardiman may have left an ideological hostage.

There is another criticism that may be levelled against the late Judge which is really directed at the voluminous judgments of the superior courts that generally use arcane legal prose inaccessible to the non-legal public. This could even offend Article 34 which ordains that justice should be administered in public.

The sociologist Max Weber provided a compelling critique of the tendency for verbal gymnastics in the Common Law system of which Ireland is part. He said that with this ‘lawyer’s law … reasoning is tied to the word, the word which is turned around and around, interpreted, and stretched in order to adapt it to varying needs, and, to an extent that one has to go beyond, recourse is had to “analogies” or technical fictions’.

One might recall Pascal’s dictum apologizing for the length of a letter: ‘If I’d had more time it would have been shorter’. It would surely be appropriate if judges were obliged to provide more terse judgments for public appraisal. Though hardly the worst offender, Hardiman’s love of language did generate long judgments which could inhibit engagement from the wider public.

We might contrast the Common Law inheritance of Ireland with that which has traditionally obtained in France where law is seen as part of a general education. The eminent jurist Rene David wrote of this awareness of law as being an element normal del la culture generale. Indeed it has been said that the original French civil code owes its clarity to how the draftsman always had to ask himself whether his words would withstand the criticisms of a highly intelligent layman in the shape of Napoleon Bonaparte, unfamiliar with legal jargon.

Hardiman was one of the leading jurists of our times in Ireland, it is to be regretted that the level of legal knowledge of most citizens in the state along with a failure to reign in arcane language and textual accumulations in judgments is such that discussion of his ideas is unlikely to occur beyond the legal community.

A Lost Martyr

A Lost Martyr
(In memory of Francis Sheehy-Skeffington)
by Frank Armstrong

Ireland lost its vision in nineteen-sixteen;
Then bad poetry incarnate,
Engendered all we’ve seen,
Through a century of hate.

Kaiser Wilhem are you willing,
To take our land for a schilling?|
Ladies take your place,
Srub the dishes don’t deface.

Of Pearse we should take the piss,
McDonagh make fun of,
Even Connolly I can’t resist,
Or Joseph Mary to make a pun of.

A nation needs its heroes,
And for poets to sing their deeds,
The real martyr and our sorrows,
Francis Sheehy-Skeffington and his creeds.

A feminist from the start,
Joyce knew and held apart,
A vegetarian taboo,
And socialist who knew.

When the Rising came,
He did not seek a lasting fame,
Tried to round up a crew,
To bring order and renew.

Dear Willie Yeats, acutely,
Why did you conjoin,
That terror with a beauty
From your withered loin?

Can man escape a fate,
Not laden with hate?
Let Ireland not be the answer,
If we’re to have a chance here.

The poet sings her song,
Of the nation to which we belong;
Lilting tune from our wind,
Crashes wild as we sinned.

Hard liquor in our demise,
Such as Percy Shelley espied,
When he came to accept the blame,
All nations live with shame.

Sheehy-Skeffington was his heir,
For a country in despair,
But those men took up the gun,
And a sorry tale begun.

The Easter Rising 1916

(Published in The London Magazine, April/May 2016)

The one hundredth anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising will hardly register in most London Magazine readers’ minds, but for Irish people the anniversary prompts reflection on who we are. It occurred in the context of World War I where esprit de corp was merging the Irish experience with that of other ‘imagined communities’ in the British Isles; a term for the archipelago that makes many Irish people squirm.

Without the Rising ‘Irishness’ might have become a scarf to be worn only on match days. A form of Home Rule would in all likelihood have been granted as an enabling Bill had by then passed through Parliament. But it could have arrived without the lingering bitterness of a War of Independence when the infamous Black and Tans terrorised the population, which included burning down the house of my own great-grandfather.

It is even possible that partition of the island could have been avoided and with that the pressure cooker of sectarian division that incubated the vicious Northern Troubles (1968-1998). As a Dominion it is very unlikely that Ireland would have remained neutral during World War II or become a Republic in 1949.

Georgian Dublin might have been lost to German bombs but we may have seen less pot-holed roads and even universal healthcare. More generous Marshall Aid after World War II could have developed indigenous industry and stemmed the damning tide of emigration that saw independent Ireland’s population in continuous decline until the 1960s.

Of course that’s all counter-factual star-gazing and the idea that a peaceful resolution to the Irish Question that proved so intractable for the decades leading up to World War I is perhaps unrealistic. Moreover, an irreconcilable Irishman Other – intemperate, uncivilised and disorderly – had been in gestation since the Middle Ages.

The differences between Ireland and its neighbouring island at the start of the century were significant. Only in the majority-Protestant North East had the Industrial Revolution taken root: Dublin was a dreadfully impoverished city smaller than Belfast and most of the rest of the island was a pastoral landscape supporting few farmers and dominated by a cruelly-rigid, Victorian Catholicism.

In any event, the blood-letting of the Cromwellian invasion in the seventeenth when the population declined from about two million to approximately five hundred thousand was perhaps a wound too grievous to heal. Albeit if the Crown had risen to the challenge of feeding the peasantry during the Great Famine of the 1840s there might have been a measure of forgiveness; instead Charles Trevelyan and his officials treating it as an act of Providence that would result in a better form of subsistence. Even in the War Irish Volunteers were not trusted to put forward their own officers.

The virtual extinction of Irish as a spoken language by the end of the nineteenth century triggered a revival that extended to the emergence of a distinct Irish literature in Hiberno-English; a Renaissance that continues to astound. The great socio-economic divergence between the islands also contributed to the creative ferment as where two tectonic plates collide a profusion of novel life forms in the cracks.

More than James Joyce whose themes, local and general, identify him as a Dubliner first, a European second and an Irishman third, W.B. Yeats was the poet and chronicler of the Irish Revival. In Easter 1916, he breathed an eternal and heroic imprimatur: ‘All changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born.’

Secular nationalists have since sought to sunder the religious association with the Rising: the historian Diarmuid Ferriter suggesting recently that the date for the commemoration should be its actual anniversary on April 24th. But the significance of Easter, a passage from sacrificial death to spiritual renewal cannot be overlooked and was in the minds of the participants. With a few notable exceptions, the United Irishmen movement of the 1790s failed to implant the ideal of the Irish nation beyond Irish Catholics.

For readers who do not know what happened in Dublin on that fateful week it is worthwhile providing background. On Easter Monday two or three thousand nationalists under the command of Padraig Pearse and a few hundred socialist revolutionaries led by James Connolly occupied strategic buildings around Dublin including the General Post Office where a Proclamation was unfurled declaring ‘the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland’; and promising to guarantee: ‘religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to its citizens.

More controversially the support of ‘gallant allies in Europe’ was courted at the height of the Great War. This was not an idle aspiration: just prior to the Rising a German vessel the Aud was captured with 20,000 rifles and a number of machine guns. Another leader, the internationally-renowned diplomat Sir Roger Casement had visited the Kaiser and was captured after landing from a German submarine. The old Fenian adage; England’s Difficulty is Ireland’s Opportunity seemed applicable.

In the event the Rising did not spark a more widespread rebellion against British rule as only a few shots were fired in the rest of the country. Indeed failure seemed certain from the outset as the wider Irish Volunteers had already been advised against coming to Dublin in a controversial countermanding order.

Both sides bore considerable casualties and many innocent civilians died: when the dust settled the toll stood at under five hundred deaths. The authorities subdued the rebel-controlled strongholds with unexpected ruthlessness; that included the sailing of a gunship up the River Liffey to shell Sackville Street – now O’Connell Street – the city’s prime boulevard. One atrocity was the summary execution of the pacifist Francis Sheehy-Skeffington by a deranged Irish Guards officer. The cutting down by the Rebels of the Sherwood Forester Regiment was a feat of blood-minded cruelty.

But as every student of Irish history knows it was not the Rebellion itself that changed the course of Irish history but the aftermath. Initially at least the populace seemed to have reacted unfavourably. But fatally the British administration created martyrs, executing all the signatories of the Proclamation and battalion commanders: sixteen in all. The future Taoiseach Eamon de Valera escaped perhaps on account of being born in America. Another leader the Countess Markievicz was spared due to her gender.

It emerged that James Connolly had been shot by firing squad though confined to a wheelchair from his injuries. Padraig Pearse was executed along with his brother Willie, cruelly it seemed as the latter was not a signatory or battalion commander. Afterwards, martial law was declared and thousands interned. The mood of the country hardened against British rule and in the 1918 election the moderate Irish Parliamentary Party was wiped out and Sinn Fein, previously a fringe nationalist party, won almost all seats outside the north-east. Their elected representatives withdrew from Westminster and formed the first national parliament in Dublin since the Act of Union of 1801.

In the collective memory the Rising was a Battle of Britain, a Gettysburg address and a storming of the Bastille rolled in one. We might enquire as to why hundreds of men would assemble for near certain death. This has been criticised as a vainglorious and atavistic act of blood sacrifice.

But it needs to be situated in the general maelstrom of the Great War where thousands of young men, Irish included, were being sent to their deaths each week. The macabre events on the Western Front and beyond were echoing through the continent: as the ballad The Foggy Dew asserts: ‘Twas better to die ‘neath an Irish sky than at Suvla or Sud el Bar’.

Death being so commonplace why not die for your own nation as the rest of Europe seemed to be doing? It is instructive to read how as late as 1940 Winston Churcill would tell his cabinet: ‘If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.’ There was nothing unique or particularly chilling about Pearse or Connolly’s concept of self-sacrifice.

My personal objection to commemorating the Rising is founded on the reactionary ideology of its leader Padraig Pearse. He wrote in 1913: ‘Against Mr Yeats we personally have nothing to object. He is a mere English poet of the third or fourth rank, and as such is harmless. But when he attempts to run an “Irish Literary Theatre” it is time for him to be crushed.’

Of course Yeats was no angel, as his later fellow-travelling fascism exposes, but the artistic revival he sponsored led to the greatest flowering of Irish culture since the arrival of Christianity. Pearse was clearly the insignificant poet if you care to parse his sentimental verse, and his art calls to mind Stalin’s chilling statement that the writer is the engineer of the soul.

The following statement of Pearse’s written in 1913 has also had an unfortunate resonance through Irish history: ‘bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing, and a nation which regards it as the final horror has lost its manhood; and slavery is one of them.’ Violence was inextricably bound with his ideal of the nation.

A source of pride among Irish nationalist apologists of 1916 is that the Rising set in train a series of anti-colonial movements that diminished the British Empire; as the Foggy Dew puts it ‘And the world did gaze in deep amaze at those fearless men and few / who bore the fight that freedom’s light should shine through the foggy dew.’ There may be some truth to this sentiment but it breeds an assumption that armed rebellion represents the only way of achieving freedom.

Gandhi would soon show there were other equally effective non-violent tactics. Moreover, it was actually Sinn Fein’s idea articulated by Arthur Griffith of unilaterally setting up a national parliament that really brought independence, but this non-violent constitutional act has received nothing like the chest-thumping approval of 1916.

I have to admit to the same queasy feeling for the 1916 commemorations in Dublin as I did for the Royal marriage of Prince William in full military regalia to his bride in virginal white.

Independence was important for Ireland however mishandled it has been: too many grievances had been stored for the relationship to endure. But the tradition engendered by 1916 is an unhealthy one creating a country in thrall to a violent tradition and prompting hundreds of impressionable people to kill and to die for their nation without ever pausing to consider the frangibility of that concept.

Ireland can never be at peace if Pearse’s vision holds for each generation must renew the nation with acts of violence. That is a spectre horrible to behold and turns away from the original perspectives gained from the Irish Revival which should have informed the Irish free state with open-mindedness and creativity. Pearse’s ideas were regressive and inward-looking: a pale reflection of the chauvinistic views of the Little Englander.

One might look more sympathetically on James Connolly who identified in his writings the primary cause of Ireland’s terrible social and economic decline in the nineteenth century: the dominance of pastoral agriculture which demanded low employment to be profitable. The small urban-industrial base that an Irish socialist worked from perhaps made him feel compelled to combine with nationalists. But was it not foreseeable that his movement should be subsumed by the more powerful nationalist one? Could he not see the conservativism of Pearse’s ideology?

It is hard to imagine the Ireland of Pearse as anything more than a dark, conformist place, regressive beyond even the state that emerged. His heralded book on education: The Murder Machine reads more as an advertisement of the patriotic methodologies, if there be such. This informed the values of the school he founded St. Enda’s. A visit there, now the site of the Pearse Museum, reveals a proto-madrassa where heroic warfare is cherished above anything else. According to Roy Foster in Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland 1890-1923 by the time of the Rising the school’s ethos ‘had become more like a sect’.

The sad thing is that it is that poet of the third or fourth rank that has been a greater influence on Independent Ireland than the true poets of international renown from the early twentieth century. Ireland’s birth pangs were not pretty. We can acknowledge the significance of the 1916 Rising but look forward to this divisive and potentially dangerous event passing into obscurity.


Grace Gifford and the Abortion Debate

(Unpublished, 2016)

Written by Sean and Frank O’Meara in 1985 and sung by the Dubliners among others, listening to Grace for the first time might bring you to tears. It recalls the circumstances of the marriage between 1916 revolutionary and poet Joseph Mary Plunkett and the artist Grace Gifford in Kilmainham Jail on the eve of his execution.

Plunkett explains to Grace how love of country and comrade compelled him to rise from his sick bed and join the Rising. He reflects on its failure, but consoles himself with the momentary bliss of their romance in a churning chorus: ‘Oh Grace just hold me in your arms and let this moment linger’.

The song changes key in the last verse as Plunkett is left alone with his thoughts. Overwhelmed he closes with the lines: ‘I loved so much that I could see His Blood upon The Rose’, a reference to a religious poem written by Plunkett: ‘I see His Blood upon The Rose’.

Just as the song ends on a religious note similarly the Irish revolution developed a decidedly Catholic hue after 1916, with the leaders soon being hailed as latter-day saints. In Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland 1890-1923 Roy Foster writes: ‘Very rapidly, the language of mystical Catholicism fused with national purism in a new – or ancient – revolutionary rhetoric.’

Revealingly, inside the GPO rosaries were said communally every night and confessions heard. In the aftermath independent-minded figures such as James Connolly, Countess Markievicz and Roger Casement converted to Catholicism. This had important repercussions for the feminism, secularism and socialism that animated participants in the preceding cultural revival.

Moreover, women who had previously played prominent roles were reduced to subservience during the Rising, an ominous foretaste for their position in the independent state as both Cuman na nGaedhal (later Fine Gael) and Fianna Fail usually acceded to the wishes of the Catholic Church on moral questions.

By the early 1920s observers were already noting the ‘sombre bodyguard of priests’ surrounding de Valera as he ascended political platforms. His 1937 Constitution (and ours) commits the state to ensuring ‘that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home’.

Today the constitutional issue of most concern to many feminists and others is the prohibition against abortion on demand which leads on average to twelve women travelling to Britain every day for the procedure.

The story of Grace Gifford might prove instructive on this issue. After her fleeting marriage Grace seemed to have led a fairly lonely and impoverished existence, illustrating cartoons for fringe Republican publications. Her husband’s family refused to recognise the validity of Joseph’s will, and only in 1932 when de Valera’s government granted her a pension was she able to live in a measure of comfort.

It is possible that the animosity of the family can be traced to Grace being pregnant with a child other than the infirm Joseph’s before her marriage. She may have had an abortion.

In her private papers Joseph’s sister Geraldine reveals that ‘Various friends kept telling me that I must not let her go [to America} because if she had a child it would make a greater scandal.’

The Castle had informed her that Grace was pregnant but that Joseph was not the father. She visited Grace and found she was in bed and beside her ‘a big white chamberpot was full of the remains of an abortion etc.’

No words were passed between the two women but Geraldine consulted another visitor who agreed with what she had seen but ‘did not know if Grace had induced or not’. Geraldine also claimed that Grace and her sister had shocked the republican hero Rory O’Connor by demanding that he spend a night with them.

It is plausible that the Castle were attempting to cause a rift between Grace and the Plunkett family but there is no reason to disbelieve the account of the abortion or miscarriage. The shame of illegitimacy might have caused Grace to expose herself to the danger of an abortion.

The sex lives of the participants in the 1916 is not a subject-matter that is commonly exhumed, but the prevailing mores did not preclude extra-marital encounters. As Ireland digs deeper into the revolutionary shrine more unwelcome skeletons might emerge.

In particular there has been debate around the sexuality of the leader of the uprising Padraig Pearse. There is a prevailing view among historians that his orientation was homosexual which was obviously not alluded to for most of the state’s history.

But of grave concern is that he may have used his position as a school headmaster in St Enda’s for exploitative behaviour. There is what Roy Foster describes as ‘a disturbing implication’ in the final verses of his poem ‘Little Lad of the Tricks’ that an encounter with a student perhaps occurred. The poet addresses a ‘child of the soft red mouth’ and found that ‘there is fragrance in your kiss / That have I have not found yet / In the kisses of women.

It is said that you should avoid meeting your heroes. One wonders whether this will be the case as Ireland confronts the human frailties evident in the birth pangs of this state.

Water, Water Everywhere

(Published in the Sunday Times, 17 January, 2016)

My father tells a story of his visit to a Japanese home in the 1960s where he was given the honour of the first bath. At the end of his ablutions he casually pulled the plug to the consternations of his hosts who meant to use the water after him.

Like any civilized nation the Japanese have long hallowed the ritual of washing. In the 1920s Laurens van der Post observed that ‘in Japanese homes the bathrooms were situated in places of honour with the best view available on to gardens and into nature, and never combined with lavatories as with us, in tucked-away corners in unconsidered and ill-ventilated spaces of our buildings.’

Generating clean water for drinking and washing is the mark of an advanced civilisation. One sees this in the great aqueducts of the Romans. Sanitation measures in many cities from the 1890s helped reduced the prevalence of fatal conditions such as diarrhoea, cholera and dysentery. Creating a stable water supply is arguably the most important function of a state in a world where water supply is increasingly scarce.

It is a terrifying situation that perhaps a billion people live without access to clean water. Revealing also that 85% of the world’s water supply is used in agriculture, much of it to grow crops for animal feed. Even in developed regions such as California water is an increasingly political issue with animal agriculture implicated. Surprisingly the current flooding actually jeopardises the availability of clean water due primarily to run-off of agricultural fertilizers into our reservoirs.

Over the lifetime of the present government the single most emotive issue has been water charges. Suggestions of corruption in Irish Water have justifiably been seized on by protestors. But that does not explain the anger of the Right2Water campaign. There seems to be an assumption that our wet climate offers a near-infinite supply of clean water. On an existential level the aggression of protests might perhaps be traced to annoyance with the Irish weather!

Protestors tend to ignore the very real challenges and costs involved in bringing water to homes and businesses, as well as ecological constraints. Moreover the infrastructure in our cities needs overhauling.

Of course improvements could be realized through direct government expenditure without recourse to what many consider another indirect, stealth tax. But the advantage of imposing a metring system is that it causes people to recognise the limitation of supply. Of course equality issues arise and the company should only cut off supply in extremely rare circumstances. But it might be a mistake to offer untrammelled access to clean water simply because someone is in receipt of social welfare.

We should develop a culture where leaving a tap running comes to be regarded as equivalent to a light being left on with no one in a room, albeit the cost of water is lower than the electricity. Moreover, attention should be paid to the externalised costs of our agricultural ‘success story’ that are paid for further down the line.

In the absence of the demand from the Troika it seems unlikely that any Irish government would have introduced charges in line with European norms. Investment in water infrastructure is for the long haul and its benefit is not immediately apparent. People only start to complain when restrictions are imposed. Improving its usually invisible infrastructure is a decidedly unsexy expenditure despite its delivery being probably a government’s most important task.

As the Irish population becomes stakeholders in the water supply they might start to ask the question of why Ireland is the only country in Europe which fluoridates its water supply, especially in light of a 2012 Harvard study of Chinese districts which revealed a correlation between impaired cognitive development in children and the presence of the substance.

Even if there is countervailing evidence the potential damage is so grave that it seems unacceptable for the present situation to endure. This is particularly pressing with the low rate of breast feeding in Ireland and consequent use of diluted milk formula.

Twice-daily use of fluoridated toothpaste confers the same benefits as medicating our water supply. Perhaps more effort could be made to improve dental hygiene, including flossing of teeth, and to curbing the consumption of sucrose which damages teeth worse than sugars found in whole foods. Just as the absence of water charges is eccentric in a European context, as is the fluoridation of the supply.

Analysts anticipate that water will be the major political issue of the twenty-first century. Unfortunately Right2 Water protestors, and their party political supporters including Sinn Fein, refuse to confront the real cost of bringing water through our taps or the need for a cultural change in how we see water. That is twenty-century thinking that does not recognise ecological constraints.

Of course whole families should not be obliged to share bathwater as was the case when my father visited Japan! But we should recognise access to water as a privilege not enjoyed by a significant minority of humanity. In Ireland the challenge is to change our relationship with water as well as examine what is driving up the cost and how, equitably, this should be born. Water charges should not lead to privatisation: the supply of water requires democratic oversight.


You Can’t Dukan

(Published in the London Magazine, March 2012)

For Citizen-paparazzo, that is anyone in possession of a mobile phone, the photographic Middletons represent fair game.

Statuesque Kate is less the object of coarse desire than polite admiration. Ideal marriage material it was said. She has the prim, faintly virginal appeal we expect of an English queen, starting with the original Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I herself. The Duchess of Cambridge looks as though she would say no to a cream bun or an impetuous suitor. The sanctity of lines waist and royal seems assured.

Kate would never play away but intrigue is provided by bouncy Pippa – a tabloid dream – who projects the cheeky sex appeal relished by a culture weaned on the Carry On films. Even Puritans need a little ‘crumpet’ to munch on.

We scrutinize and will continue to scrutinize their every move: each crevice and fold of flesh will continue to be admired, deplored and imitated. Plastic surgeons now refer to the ‘Pippa butt lift’. The mind boggles.

The reason this concerns an otherwise serious contributor on matters comestible to the London Magazine is that the contents of their ladyships’ larders is in the public domain, and subject to imitation.

At the time of the Royal wedding it became public knowledge that the Middleton girls et mère adhered to the so-called Dukan Diet, a set of prescriptions ordained by a French doctor named Pierre Dukan. Cosmopolitan called it: ‘The Diet Everyone (Including Kate Middleton) is Obsessing Over’; even that venerable publication The Financial Times was recently moved to interview the rather innocuous doctor. Celebrities such as JLo (yes you are reading this in the London Magazine) and someone called Gisele are following it. His book topped the best seller list in Poland and, bizarrely, Bulgaria. Docteur Dukan possibly exerts more influence than the NHS on how consumers make dietary choices. What does he say?

Trust me I’m a French Doctor

Dukan has a dual appeal. First, as a doctor it is widely assumed that no damage will result from embracing his approach. Second, he is French and the image of that country is bound with graceful beauty and fine dining. The tantalizing promise of elegance of form and gustatory pleasure is dangled like Bridget Bardot munching a slice of gateaux before frumpy Bridget Jones.

The diet has four stages. It begins with the Attack which is a pure protein diet. More accurately, this is a pure animal protein diet as vegetable proteins, which abound in nature, are dismissed as too difficult to work out. Thus, large quantities of meat, fish, eggs and low fat dairy produce is ingested. The long term health consequences are unknown, but in the short term the body ceases to function. Significant quantities of water and two tablespoons of oatbran are advised in order to avoid serious consequences. Dukan cheerfully describes the harmful effect of the Attack phase: ‘It finds itself working like a two-speed engine, in a scooter, lawnmower or motor boat, designed to run on a mixture of pure petrol and oil but trying to run on pure petrol. It putters and then stalls, unable to use its fuel’. Unsurprisingly: ‘After two or three days on a pure protein diet hunger disappears completely’. He admits sotto voce that constipation and bad breath are by-products and that dieters should not swim in cold water or ski at altitude.

Dukan argues that this Attack phase is necessary because: ‘An overweight person who wants to lose weight needs a fast-acting diet that brings immediate results’. It as if he does not take on board his own critique of faddish diets that they have a miniscule success rate in the long term. According to an American study cited by Dukan 12% of dieters do lose weight, but only 2% succeed in keeping it off. Of course Dukan claims that his diet is different.

He even seems to be making excuses for the eventual failure of his own approach saying, quite unscientifically, that the ‘body’s biological memory retains the information regarding the maximum weight and this can never be erased’. And: ‘every time you put on weight and reach a new record number on your scales, the way your physiology adjusts means that somewhere in your brain, a sort of nostalgic memory of this maximum weight is recorded which your body will then always try to reach again’. The original sin of being overweight is never expunged it seems, once a fatty always a fatty. Do not blame good Dr. Dukan, blame that greedy shadow that lurks behind you as you take another helping.

The subsequent phases to the Diet: Cruise; Consolation; and Permanent Stabilization, have fairly consistent dietary advice, eat significant quantities of animal proteins, selected vegetables and few fruits and avoid most fats even disease-busting polyunsaturated oils. He identifies 100 favoured foods of which 72 are animal proteins.

Dukan claims that ‘it has been scientifically proved that after eight hours without good-quality protein the body has to draw upon its own muscle reserve to ensure its vital function’. This claim, for which there is no citation, suggests that we begin eating our bodies in the usual 12 hour gap between dinner and breakfast. He also contradicts himself by calling it ‘natural’ for the human ‘predator’ to catch no prey and be forced to fast for a few days.

Dukan’s diet has been slammed by the NHS and goes against all mainstream advice. The risk posed by the intake of so much animal protein could well have serious long-term consequences; the connection between regular red meat consumption especially and a range of preventable diseases is well established. The Dukan diet is not a healthy diet.

According to the Harvard Medical School Special Health Report from 2011 ‘there is not a single health diet… instead there are many patterns of eating around the world that sustain good health. They share these things in common lots of fruit [viewed as dangerous by Dukan], vegetables and wholegrains; healthy fats from fish and plant sources; and few sugars or solid fats’.

Dukan’s disingenuous and dangerous advice lumps all carbohydrates together so that sugar, a slow-acting poison, is placed in the same category as vegetables, fruits and wholegrains, many of which are also significant protein sources.

Dukan’s diet may work but only because it promotes a disciplined attitude towards food and it advocates exercise. There is definitely no silver bullet here.

Take your Time

Dukan’s book does contain smatterings of good sense. First he devotes a considerable proportion of it to recipes which might encourage more people to spend time cooking their meals which would be an advance for many. According to the Food Standards Agency, in 1980 the average meal took an hour to prepare. By 1999, it had dropped to 20 minutes. He also emphasises the crucial importance of walking which Hippocrates described as ‘man’s best medicine’. Taking lukewarm showers, refraining from hot drinks and spending time out of doors is all excellent advice for anyone wishing to loose weight.

He asserts that: ‘Nourishing yourself is not just about taking in enough calories to survive, it is also, and even more importantly, about enjoying eating as part of that process.’ Indeed, the admittedly exaggerated French Paradox (a diet high in saturated fats but with relatively low rates of heart disease) has been attributed to the length which French people take over well-prepared meals. Dukan advocates: ‘EAT SLOWLY and CONCENTRATE ON WHAT IS IN YOUR MOUTH’, and avoid eating in front of the television or while reading.’

He refers to a study which filmed two groups of women, one overweight, the other a normal weight. It was discovered that the women of normal weight chewed for twice as long as the overweight group. The connection between eating quickly and excessively was recognised by the Ancients: the word gluttony actually derives from the Latin gula meaning ‘to gulp down or swallow’.

He also recalls the advice given by a guru in a New Delhi ashram to a person who was overweight. The guru said: ‘At each meal, eat and chew as you would normally, but just when you are about to swallow push the food back in the front of your mouth and chew it for a second time. In two years you will be back to your normal weight’, and so it proved.

Thus, one way of tackling the obesity epidemic is, paradoxically, to put more focus on food by savouring it.

Ethical Considerations

At no point in the book do ethical considerations emerge. How the 72 animal foods and 28 plant foods arrive at the table is of absolutely no concern to him, all that matters is that it is lean animal protein. Environmental impact, animal welfare and the qualitative difference of organically- or biodynamically- produced food is ignored.

Inherent too is an elitism among diners, this is certainly not a diet for humanity. The expense of sustaining a pure animal protein diet for any length of time would be considerable unless the lowest quality produce is selected. Further, particular cuts are defined as worthy whereas others are proscribed. Only lean beef for example is to be eaten. The obese poor who can’t afford the Dukan diet are to be left the fatty cuts that cause heart disease it seems. Or perhaps he thinks they should be thrown away, in which case the cost of the lean meat would be even greater.

He also expresses quite ignorant views on our evolutionary history as meat-eaters, saying: ‘it is possible to live without hunting and without eating animals meals BUT by doing so we give up part of what our nature expects and we lessen the emotional effect that our body is programmed to produce when we give it what it wants’. Hindus and Buddhists argue the opposite, saying the emotional effect of meat-eating is quite damaging.

Moreover, hunting for food in the Western world is generally limited to scouring the supermarket shelves for half-price offers. The proportion of game meat in the Western diet is miniscule. Even fish is increasingly farmed which can cause serious pollution. Conventional fishing is shockingly wasteful with almost half of most catches simply discarded. Many fish species are now under threat.

Apart from French cuisine most popular culinary traditions, including Italian, Arab, Japanese and Indian are predominantly vegetarian. The appetite for animal proteins is mostly a matter of upbringing, and with over seven billion people (and rising) on the planet many living into their eighties we need to alter tastes, and fast. Our health will certainly not suffer, quite the opposite according to the Harvard Medical School Report who say: ‘there are many nutritionally valid reasons to steer towards a vegetarian diet’.

In fact our evolutionary history suggests meat is an unnecessary part of our diet. As primates with relatively long intestines our bodies are more suited to herbivorous foods. Colin Spencer says: ‘Our hominoid ancestors evolved over a period of 24 million years and, for all but one and a half million of these years, the evidence we have leaves little doubt that their diet was almost completely vegetarian except for insects and grubs.’

Our closest relative in nature is the bonobo to whom we are as close as a dog is to fox.  ‘They live in a peaceful matriarchal society, consuming a wide range of leaves and plants, where any disputes are settled by sexual favours homosexual and heterosexual in all possible permutations’ The bonobo is ‘herbivorous in the wild but in captivity, like other primates, will eat almost anything.’

Prince Charming

The Prince of Wales has campaigned for thirty years on questions relating to food. He has written: ‘I have no intention of being confronted by my grandchildren, demanding to know why on Earth we didn’t do something about the many problems that existed when we knew what was going wrong. The threat of that question, the responsibility of it, is precisely why I have gone on challenging the assumptions of our day.’

Charles has placed a big emphasis on the environmental impact of farming and his views align with the principles of Biodynamic agriculture: ‘Genuinely sustainable farming maintains the resilience of the entire ecosystem by encouraging a rich level of biodiversity in the soil, in its water supply, and in the wildlife – the birds, insects, and bees that maintain the health of the whole system. Sustainable farming also recognizes the importance to the soil of planting trees; of protecting and enhancing water-catchment systems; of mitigating, rather than adding to, climate change.’ There is a wide consensus that radically reducing meat consumption is necessary in order to achieve this sustainability.

Unfortunately, unlike the Middletons, Charles is not suited to the Digital Age. He never became the ‘People’s Prince’ Plastic surgeons don’t talk about the Charles tuck. He has been so mercilessly lampooned that his views exert little influence on the public at large.

One assumes that serious discussions occur at Royal family dinners and that Charles gives vent to his passions. Does he notice that the Middletons are ‘on Dukan’? If so is he aware of the ethical import of that diet? He must know how influential pretty ladies in the public gaze can be. I wonder would he ever be able to persuade Kate and Pippa to start espousing views on food that might take into account the environmental impact of their choices, for the sake of his grandchildren at least. The unethical and unhealthy advice of an exploitative French doctor should be disowned.


Black Point: a year in the King’s Inns

Black Point: a year in the King’s Inns

(adapted for Village Magazine, September 2012)

‘I am sure you’ll all soon be living in Regency houses after successful careers at the bar’, were some of the saccharine words that greeted our first day at the King’s Inns as the Under-Treasurer welcomed us to our new lives as fledgling barristers.

Before long we had been ushered into groups, and what followed was the excruciation of a ‘describe yourself in sixty seconds’ discussion with a partner who would then give a presentation on the essence of who you were.

The first week came straight out of the ‘Getting to know one another in Business School’ manual as students were subjected to such questions as ‘who would be your ideal dinner party guest?’ Fortunately, the nauseating artificiality of these exchanges did not deter the formation of normal relations, and even friendships, as individuals bonded through that vital human ingredient that has always been the bane of totalitarian regimes; satire.

The student body consisted of one hundred and ninety students, sub-divided into twelve groups of sixteen, and the ‘group’ formed the basic social unit of which a student became part. The ultimately chimerical threat of failure haunted any student who did not abide by the mandatory ninety per cent attendance, ensuring low absenteeism.

The Dean, a lady of unfailingly sour countenance, justified this compulsion by analogy with the medical profession. It would, apparently, be unfair on future clients for discrete areas of the law to be unknown to practitioners if they had missed out on classes. But this ignored the fact that students often turned up in a condition where learning was out of the question; either because they promptly fell asleep, or had rip-roaring hangovers, or were in the grip of a cabin-fever induced dementia. I know because I attended in all three states. Moreover, a medical student’s knowledge is tested by examination (as was the King’s Inns student – intensively) not by attendance. With the best will in the world, a person of low intellect may not remember what was said in class while the smart student may consult a textbook.

The real reason for the mandatory attendance seemed to stem from the need for the full compliment of any group to be available for the ‘Ring-Ring a Rosy’ business school games and group work.

The ‘War on Absenteeism’ led to one of the defining moments of the year; an attempt to introduce a biometric roll-call. Students were to be asked for a finger print sample to confirm their presence in class. Progressively, the distinction between student and ordinary criminal was blurred as the authorities sought to prevent the dastardly students from creating androids in their own image or enlisting suitable doppelgangers. Fortunately, the scheme was abandoned as even the unusually docile students of the King’s Inns began to rumble with discontent.

Compulsory attendance extended to dining, by far the most archaic aspect of the King’s Inn’s education; a vestige of a time when there was no formal education and students were treated to the wisdom of their elders while they ate. Students still dine in capes which give the festivities the appearance of a wizard convention. They then gather at tables to await the entry of the Benchers, members of the judiciary and grizzled barristers. The students bow before these luminaries in a show of feudal deference.

The food, which had apparently improved immeasurably, was of the distinctly canteen variety, limp and unimaginative; melt in your mouth carrots and mystery meat. The old rational of the benefit of interaction between students and practitioners is lost as, except on rare occasions, practising barristers are kept well away from the hoi poloi and given superior food as a mark of their elevated status.

The modern hybrid is a glorified piss-up where students are provided with wine that would make a salad wince. The only educational aspect of these evenings is derived from learning how to cope with quantities of cheap plonk, the euphemistically named Chilean Punta Negra (black point). Twice a year, so-called ‘grand’ night takes place where each student is given a whole bottle as opposed to the customary half. The consumption of so much cheap booz at an early hour has predictable results with many students roaring drunk by nine o’clock. On both grand nights students suffered broken bones (two broken ankles on the last occasion) there were also stories of prominent members of the judiciary being harangued by students who had fallen under the spell of the wicked brew. For anyone with a weakness for alcohol, dining provided an atmosphere not exactly conducive to sobriety.

Retribution for a lack of decorum could be swift. On one night the Chief Justice took exception to the insufficiency of the students’ bowing and the ‘privilege’ of going to the toilet was withdrawn. It should be emphasised that in the Honourable Society of the King’s Inns going to the toilet at dining is a privilege sought by way of permission from the Bench. In most walks of life, such a decree would give rise to a riot but owing to a general omerta and deference to authority no such response could be expected from the sheepish students of the King’s Inns, eager themselves to ascend to the cherished heights of the profession.

Probably the most nauseating moment of the year came after the triumph of the King’s Inns Hurling team in a competition involving about three other colleges with miniscule student numbers (while the King’s Inns team also contained practising barristers). The team were feted like astronauts. Members of the judiciary became weak kneed at the sight of these fine young men who had, apparently, single-handedly changed the prevailing perception of the institution (in the deluded estimation of the President of the High Court). These brave young men were now firmly established in the pantheon of Gaelic heroes. No longer would the institution be associated with West-Brit cricketers or pansy debaters.

The denouement came at one of the final dining nights in a rally where Nuremburg met Croke Park. The team, heroes to a man, were presented with awards with each member accorded a stirring accolade. The whole ceremony seemed to go on for hours. Leaving the hall was prohibited, so vast quantities of the Punta Negra were consumed as most people, bemused by the spectacle, sought some escape from the tedium. But the hum of speeches continued as each substitute who had turned up at every training session to bash the head off some malnourished gombeen from Newcastle West Post-Leaving Cert Institute, was accorded his due. Unsurprisingly, before long most of us had reached ‘black point’.


Inhuman Folly: The Argument for Veganism

(Published in Village Magazine, September, 2013)

David A. Nibert delivers an impassioned, well-researched and idealistic argument for why humanity should shift to a vegan, or plant-based diet in Animal Domestication & Human Violence: Domescration, Capitalism and Global Conflict (Columbia University Press, 2013). He surveys the impact of meat, dairy and egg consumption through human history and links it to some of our worst behaviour.

Nibert maintains: ‘The emergence and continued practice of capturing, controlling, and genetically manipulating other animals for human use violates the sanctity of life of the sentient beings involved’. He coins a neologism ‘domescration’, used throughout the book, arguing that ‘their minds and bodies are desecrated to facilitate their exploitation: it can be said that they have been domescrated.’

He traces an upsurge in human violence to the practice of stalking and killing animals which ‘began no earlier than ninety thousand years ago – and probably much later’, but fails to acknowledge that this was connected to the expansion of humanity into northern latitudes where edible plants were not available throughout the year, often making hunting a necessity for survival.

His basic thesis is that ‘domescration’ has generated conflict between human societies because the amount of land required for raising animals for human consumption is far greater than that required to grow crops for direct human consumption. He emphasises how ‘domescrated’ animals act as vectors for zoonotic diseases, and displace countless free-living animals.

As an abolitionist he does not envision a scenario where humans could exploit animals in symbiosis with one another and their environment.

He begins his account in 1237 at Riazan near Moscow as the Golden Horde led by Batu Khan lays the city to siege. Nibert links the cruelty of those Mongols to their treatment of animals and shows their reliance on them as weapons of war and mobile sources of food.  Conquest, in turn, was fuelled by a need for more grazing land. They terrorized Eastern Europe and China which saw its population drop from 123 million in 1200 to 65 million in 1393, laying waste to societies engaged primarily in crop cultivation. In all likelihood the Mongols introduced the bubonic plague to Europe which reduced its population by half.

The ‘Greatest Tragedy’

The effect of colonisation of the Americas on its indigenous people was described by Alfred Cosby as the ‘greatest tragedy in the history of the human species.’ Large numbers were displaced to make way for livestock from areas where they cultivated crops or hunted free-living animals; and, with few domesticated animals of their own, they were ravaged by zoonotic diseases, especially smallpox. Their numbers were reduced by two-thirds.

It would be wrong to idealize the lives of indigenous peoples in the Americas before the arrival of Europeans. But it seems the virtual absence of domesticated animals curtailed warfare: ‘archaeological evidence suggests that pre-Columian warfare was limited to small-scale raiding, sniping, and ambush’ and that ‘deaths by violence were relatively low.’

Hernán Cortes whose expedition led to the fall of the Aztec Empire in Mexico instantly foresaw the possibility of developing a cattle industry there. Livestock products, especially hides, were integral to the wealth accumulated by the conquistadores.

Nibert contrasts the colonisation of the Americas with the Spanish conquest of the Philippines which is unsuited to livestock production. He says this supports: ‘the thesis that colonisation was much more likely to involve large-scale violence when invasions involved expanding ranching operations.’

Expanding livestock numbers was also the primary motivation for the encroachment of Europeans into North America. The West was won by cowboys who cruelly displaced and often massacred large numbers from nations such as the Creek, Choctaw, Chicksaw, and Cherokee.

In North America the fates of the native population and free-roaming buffalo, vital to their way of life, were intertwined. In the early nineteenth century there were up to thirty million buffalo roaming North America, but by century’s end they had been hunted to virtual extinction to make way for livestock.

Nibert recalls the often wanton violence that accompanied their annihilation. In one account train passengers made a ‘sport’ of it: ‘As they neared a herd, passengers flung open the windows of their cars, pointed their breechloaders, and fired at random into the frightened beasts.’

With the West ‘won’ industrial slaughter houses emerged, especially in Chicago. Rudyard Kipling was horrorstruck by what he saw in the late 1880s and worried ‘about the effect of so mechanical a killing on the human soul’.

English beef

Nibert notes the important role of English capital in the expansion of livestock production into the Western plains of America in the nineteenth century.

He also explores the English colonisation of Ireland and emphasises how Irish salt beef was a critical factor in the ‘profitable sugar production in the Caribbean because it was an important source of food for enslaved labourers on Britain’s plantations’.

In Ireland the nineteenth century witnessed a shift from tillage to pasture which led to depopulation, with the Great Famine the primary catalyst. He quotes Joseph Connolly description of this in Labour in Irish History: ‘Where a hundred families had reaped a sustenance from their small farms, or by hiring out their labour to the owners of large farms, a dozen shepherds now occupied their places.’

Nibert does not discuss the Gaelic Irish mode of food production which was also heavily reliant on cattle. It might be argued that there was some symbiosis in that society between cattle and human beings with animals kept for dairy and rarely slaughtered. But cattle-raiding was endemic in medieval Ireland, and most Irish forests had been removed by the fourteenth century to make way for cattle. The shift to tillage, abetted by the potato that began in the seventeenth century allowed the population to rise exponentially. It was only a change in demand in Britain after the Napoleonic War that caused Ireland to revert to pasture in the nineteenth, a situation that endures.

Unhappy Meals

In 1916 a short order cook called J. Walter Anderson invented the first hamburger in Wichita, Kansas. This product gave a new lease of life to the livestock industry which had come under attack for the poor sanitation and barbarity of the slaughterhouses.

Companies such as White Castle, McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC stimulated a demand for meat products through the use of insidious advertising, often targeting minors. Ronald McDonald was thrust upon the children of the United States in 1966 when he made his national television debut during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade – accompanied by the “McDonald’s All-American High School Band”.

The twentieth century witnessed the continued expansion of livestock production with consequent species loss and significant implication for climate change. Surprisingly Nibert cites the conservative estimate of 19% of total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions from the UN Report Livestock’s Long Shadow from 2006 rather than the figure of 51% found by Goodland and Anhang in 2009.

The twentieth century witnessed the emergence of CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) as animals were increasingly fed on grain in cruelly enclosed spaces. Ruth Harrison observed: ‘if one person is unkind to an animal it is considered to be cruelty, but where a lot of people are unkind to animals, especially in the name of commerce, the cruelty is condoned and, once large sums of money are at stake, will be defended to the last by otherwise intelligent people.’

Aside from the obvious barbarity of putting animals in such close confinement, CAFOs are a significant risk to public health because of the enhanced risk of zoonotic diseases especially a deadly influenza virus developing there. According to Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy: ‘An influenza pandemic of even moderate impact will result in the biggest single human disaster ever – far greater than AIDS, 9/11, all wars in the 20th century, and the recent tsunami combined.’

A surfeit of livestock products is also directly implicated in the onset of chronic diseases that are beginning to shorten life expectancies in the Western world. But also indirectly as Nibert links the consumption of obesogenic sodas and meat-eating, quoting Richard Robbins: “The sugar in soft drinks serves as the perfect compliment to hamburgers and hot dogs because it possesses what nutritionists call ‘go-away’ qualities – removing the fat coating and the beef aftertaste from the mouth’

During the twentieth century expansion of livestock continued in Latin America especially Brazil where: ‘cattle pasture accounts for six times more cleared land in the Amazon than crop land; even the notorious [feed] farmers who have ploughed some 5m hectares of former rainforest cover just one-tenth of the ground taken by the beef producers.’

US aid to Latin America was often linked to the extent to which a country could satisfy its insatiable demand for livestock products. Oppressive regimes willing to convert large tracts of arable land and jungle to pasture were supported against political movements, such as the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, opposing it.

Happier Meals?

As an unwavering abolitionist Nibert argues that “new welfarism” ‘actually promotes the continued oppression of domescrated animals and the underlying global injustices’ by ‘appeasing the concerns of the more conscientious citizens, thus blunting movements for more significant social transformation.’

He claims apparently ethical animal products are only accessible to the rich, and states that if the entire population of cows raised for food in the United States were freely ranged, half the land in the country would have to be converted to pasture. Also: ‘the energy resources necessary to raise domescrated animals for local consumption is considerably more than that required to transport plant-based food long distances’.

Controversially he argues that societies that still practise hunting for food should cease doing so. This might sound like excessive interference in ‘traditional’ ways of life: the morality of this hinges on whether we should extend a right to life to other creatures where possible, and if the practice of hunting contributes to inter-human violence.

It also assumes that food will be supplied from elsewhere. Nibbert states: ‘In a more just, vegan global order, a genuine policy of “comparative advantage” could provide nutritious plant-based food and fresh water where it is needed throughout the world, including areas where many now have few alternatives to exploiting animals.’ But it would put societies such as the Innuit in northern Canada at a significant disadvantage and be impossible to enforce. However, of far greater concern is the increasing spread of the Western diet to China and other developing countries.

It is difficult to envisage how a policy of comparative advantage can ‘transcend the capitalist system’ as he advocates. Trade is essential to the realisation of widespread vegan diets and for all its faults capitalism does successfully facilitate the efficient exchange of goods.

It remains to be seen whether a more ethical capitalism emerges. Interestingly Bill Gates has been prominent in funding and advocating ‘analogue’ meat and egg products that could replace the real thing. A company like McDonald’s hardly has an ideological attachment to meat and with sufficient demand, and profit, perhaps a happier meal could be conceived.



Under Yeats’s Shadow

(Published in Village Magazine June 2015)

In Ireland literary deities hover over us like US Presidents carved into Mount Rushmore. It is a stirring thought that it isn’t philosophers, engineers, chefs, painters or even composers that summoned the Irish nation and gave us international renown, but poets. Yet conversely their looming presence barely registers; just as most contemporary Florentines scurry about unmoved by Brunelleschi’s dome, few here look to the sky in awe.

Poets build bridges of a more indeterminate kind than engineers. As W.H. Auden writes in a poem occasioned by the death of W. B. Yeats: ‘Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry. / Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still, / For poetry makes nothing happen.’

Auden goes too far with that dismissal of poetry – whatever about his contemptuous view of Ireland – correcting himself by acknowledging a few lines later: ‘it survives / a way of happening, a mouth.’ This ‘way of happening’ is in the realm of quantum uncertainty where the extraordinary occurs: coincidences beyond logic, or the ill-defined emotion generated by a sight of great aesthetic beauty. Poetry does not fit with classical renderings of reality, the routines of life and the seemingly static laws of nature are defied. It is unsurprising that poets, Yeats foremost, should dabble in the occult and mysticism, scouring every system of thought, even the eccentric, for explanations for the mysteries they encounter.

June 13th 2015 is the 150th anniversary of the birth of William Butler Yeats. Born in Sandymount on the Ballsbridge side of the DART tracks he spent much of his adult life in London, moved permanently to Ireland after the War of Independence, purchasing a former tower house Thoor Ballylee in Co. Galway where he ‘paced upon the battlements and stared’ at the birth pangs of the Irish state.

Yeats will always be identified with County Sligo, the home of many of his ancestors. Innisfree on Lough Gill, Lissadell, ‘far off Rosses’, Knocknarea and Ben Bulben under which he is buried form the mythical backdrop to his Romantic musing. The stunning landscape triggered imaginative contemplation perhaps unsurpassed in the English language: ‘Come away oh Human Child / To the waters and the wild / With a fairy hand in hand / For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.’ The enchanting surroundings engendered Yeats’ poetry but simultaneously he made that landscape poetic. When we view stunning Ben Bulben we are to some extent honouring the Songlines that brought its majesty into being. But for all his evocations of that county, in his descriptions the people are more ethereal than real, moulded in the fairy-realm of his imagination. A far cry from the gritty characters in Joyce’s Dubliners.

Like rebellious children questioning the authority of their father, most of the Irish literary pantheon have had a difficult relationship with their homeland, often preferring exile and ruminating on it from afar. Beckett went so far to write in French to escape the excesses of Irish speech. But Yeats stayed and grew embittered that the nation did not accord him the accolades he felt his due. Perhaps he aspired to a presidential role similar to that bestowed on Vaclav Havel’s when the Czechs gained their independence after the fall of the Iron Curtain. But even then he probably would have found ample material to fulminate against. Politics is the art of the possible, its grubby affairs a torment to the idealist.

Long before independence Yeats was bemoaning a Romantic Ireland dead and gone and castigating those that fumbled in their greasy till. But the lofty aspiration he had for his country were always doomed to failure, like his enduring affection for Maud Gonne which he finally consummated in later life and soon afterwards proposed to her daughter. Independent Ireland could never reach his expectations, a romantic relationship has ultimate failure encoded in its DNA.

Crucially Yeats came from the Protestant Ascendancy ‘the men of Burke and of Grattan’ and to many among the ascendant Catholic nation who inherited the independent state he had only a shallow claim to being Irish. This separation worked both ways as the poet who initially embraced and breathed life into Irish nationalism through the cultural revival and plays such as Cathleen ni Houlihan, later identified himself with an aristocracy that he saw as providing a natural leadership for a Creole nation.

Here he fought a losing battle against the enduring tradition of republicanism that rejected aristocracy and prized equality and democracy. He also contended with the powerful force of sectarianism that would not contemplate Yeats and his caste at the helm. For many hard-bitten Catholics who retained a collective memory of the privations of the Penal Laws and the Famine, independence was an opportunity to build a Catholic state for a Catholic people.

The inter-war period (1918-39) were terrible years of fear, poverty and continued conflict in Europe that foreshadowed the cataclysm of World War II. In the immediate aftermath of World War I Yeats wrote prophetically: ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed,’. In response to what he perceived as the failings of democracy he chose a reactionary Right as opposed to an egalitarian Left which, as he saw it, would brutally sweep aside an aristocratic elect and usher in a doomed era of materialism. This made Yeats sympathetic to fascism and perhaps even Nazism.

In his exploration of what the ill-defined ideology of fascism the historian Roger Eatwell writes: ‘Fascism has become a latter-day symbol of evil, like the Devil in the Middle Ages. Demonising all aspects of fascism, a founding form of Political Correctness, has its uses. But failure to take fascism seriously as a body of ideas makes it more difficult to understand how fascism could attract a remarkably diverse following in some countries.’ We might therefore talk of Fascisms, and see it in historical context: a reaction to the chaos unleashed by the Great War and the responsibility of rampant capitalism for the Great Depression as well as the shocking excesses of triumphant Marxism in Russia. To many inter-war intellectuals democracy was failing and the utilitarian philosophy of Communism did not respect the individual. Also, it should not necessarily be conflated with anti-Semitism, especially the genocidal character it assumed, which had a far longer history and was not initially a feature of Mussolini’s approach.

A recent biography of Yeats Blood Kindred: W.B. Yeats, The Life, The Death, The Politics by W.J. McCormack outlines aspects of Yeat’s fascist sympathies. He provides details of Yeats’s letter of thanks to Freidrich Krebs, Oberburgmeister of Frankfurt, acknowledging receipt of an award in 1934, his public approval of Nazi legislation depriving Jews of their property in 1938, and aspects of his anti-Semitism. McCormack concludes that Yeats was a fellow traveller: ‘on occasion. He did not travel early, and he did not travel often” but he “gave comfort to democracy’s enemies, to decency’s enemies’.

We might then justifiably criticise Yeats for that but we should judge him not on what happened subsequently but based on Europe in the 1930s where a stark choice seemed to be offered between Right and Left. Of course there were intellectuals such as George Orwell who rejected the extremes of both, and it is instructive to consider his views on Yeats which we find contained in a review of an early biography written in 1943 at the height of the war.

Orwell is surprisingly unimpressed by Yeats’s poetry, and we hear similiar anti-Irish prejudices to those found in Auden’s work. He writes that ‘one seldom comes on six consecutive lines of his verse in which there is not an archaism or an affected turn of speech’. To an extent this criticism can be attributed to that writer’s affection for sparse, attenuated language which he spells out in his essay The Politics of the English Language. His attitude is encapsulated in his evaluation of one poem that: ‘It would probably have been deadlier if it had been neater.’

Nonetheless even Orwell swoons at some poems: ‘Yeats gets away with it, and if his straining after effect is often irritating, it can also produce phrases (“the chill, footless years”, “the mackerel-crowded seas”) which suddenly overwhelm one like a girl’s face seen across a room.’

Not surprisingly, Orwell lambasts Yeats’s occult dabbling: ‘As soon as we begin to read about the so-called system we are in the middle of a hocus-pocus of Great Wheels, gyres, cycles of the moon, reincarnation, disembodied spirits, astrology and what not.’ These he links to reactionary leanings: if everything is indeed cyclical then the kind of society based on equality and democracy that Orwell prized was in some sense Sisyphean, a doomed effort. Orwell concludes that ‘Yeats’s tendency is fascist.’

For any devotee of Yeats it is difficult to confront the fairly compelling body of evidence for this tendency, but as has been stressed these sympathies came at a time when the horror of Nazism was not apparent; when Communism might have seemed more contemptuous of human life and when the few remaining democracies were in the midst of the Great Depression. Yeats was wedded to archaic notions of aristocracy and fascism appeared to fit with his prescriptions. He failed to recognise the genocidal evil that lurked there.

Moreover, he was never implicated politically in any fascist movement. In fact the political campaigns that Yeats became involved in during his lifetime: the Irish Cultural Revival in the early 1900s and the campaign to retain divorce in the 1920s were progressive in character.

We find a flawed character in W.B. Yeats, like Orwell himself who informed on his former political brethren, but one who produced poetry perhaps unsurpassed in the English language in the twentieth century. But that does not diminish his greatness. We may bask in his words without subscribing to his political views. Once a poem is written, the chord attaching it to the author is broken, and it assumes a life of its own.


The Crookedness of Irish Politics

The Crookedness of Irish Politics

(Published in Village Magazine, February, 2016)

In the 2012 documentary Dreamtime Revisited poet-philosopher John Moriarity climbs Derada Hill in his adopted home of Connemara. Observing its hinterland he remarks that all about him is crooked from the contours of the Oranmore River to the crooked coast towards the Aran Islands and the crooked horizon of the Twelve Bens. He calls this his ‘wonderful crooked world’.

Throughout much of the country a rugged, undulating landscape is familiar. And it seems to have found a reflection in a human character where straight lines are avoided: in our literature language has been distorted and remade; traditional Irish music allies bewitching interchange between minor and major keys with polyrhythmic time; in day to day exchanges a sense of humour is often prized above other qualities, including honesty. Travelling west from the Pale into wilder terrain these qualities grow more pronounced: mythos overwhelms logos in the sodden bog of collective memory.

In France terroir connotes the long-standing relationship between a people and their landscape that is said to impart distinctive flavours to the food and wine produced there. In Ireland, where gastronomy has traditionally been awarded a low priority, terrior might be observed in linguistic and musical dissonances that spring from the undulating, even chaotic, landscape. We talk about what the Dutch would do if they lived in Ireland, but perhaps they are a product of the straight lines on their sunken horizon, and the practical concern of keeping the ocean at bay.

Even the Irish weather, grudgingly benign at least until recent time, finds a reflection in the periodically sullen and infuriatingly inconsistent Irish temperament. We might all recognise its description by Samuel Beckett’s character Molloy: ‘I know it was warm again the day I left but that meant nothing in my part of the world where it seemed to be warm or cold or mild at any time of the year’. The poor quality of the built infrastructure here would be insufferable in other parts of Europe at a similar latitude that endure harsher winters.

Observed empirically, to some extent Ireland retains the political economy of a post-colonial outpost, now a tax haven. Une isle derriere une isle according to one French geographer – spared both Roman conquest and barbarian hordes – the country did not join the European mainstream. Ireland was a repository of learning and mysticism during a brief golden age, then passed into a millennium of obscurity before a shuddering encounter with an advanced civilisation of the neighbouring island.

The ensuing appropriation imposed a system of individual private property ‘from Heaven to Hell’ distinct from what had been communal arrangements under native Brehon Law. The arrival of the potato in the seventeenth century saved many from starvation during a calamitous seventeenth century and allowed exponential population growth despite severely restricted access to land. But, sui generis, Ireland is the only country in Europe, and perhaps the world, whose population was greater in the 1840s than today due to the Great Famine and its legacy.

The Irish nation is a product of the late eighteenth century when the movement of the United Irishmen failed to unite all creeds: simultaneously in 1795 the orchestrated emergence of the Orange Order and of Maynooth University that created a quasi-established Catholic Church put paid to the aspirations of Wolf Tone and his colleagues. The Old English descendants of the Normans and the native Gael coalesced inviolably to form an overwhelmingly Catholic nation.

The Normans might have tempered a native tendency towards the fast and loose, but contemporary English observers bemoaned the cultural slippage that attended the medieval wave of colonisation: as if the rivers flowing from the hilly regions inhabited by the Gael imbued the plain-dwelling Normans with their characteristics. Or perhaps it was just the unrelenting drizzle. The Protestant New English that arrived primarily in the seventeenth century descended into a familiar decadence albeit preserving a singular sectarian identity by avoiding miscegenation. Only in the north east corner, within the cultural orbit of lowland Scotland, did a distinct culture emerge.

Ireland’s dramatic landscape is not unique, but what is unique is first an isolation from and then quite sudden absorption of its substantial population (by comparison with the equally untamed Scottish Highlands for instance) into as advanced a polity as early modern England’s. John Locke encountered the banshee with predictable results. An Irishman Other has long acted as a foil to the sober, judicious Englishman and often revels in his allotted role as revolutionary misfit, bard and poet. From this we might trace a cultural tolerance of drunkenness.

The contradictions between the two cultures engendered a great cultural ferment that animated an Irish literary Renaissance that began at the end of the nineteenth century. In its wake Irishmen were awarded a remarkable four Nobel Prizes for literature, and this with James Joyce, widely regarded as the preeminent novelist of the twentieth century, missing out. Even a century later what seem parochial themes resonate beyond our shores such that an unremarkable rock band like U2 compose songs that connect with a global audience.

But translate the crookedness of the Irish character into Irish politics and what do we find? If in literature the distortion of language can be art, in politics it is artifice. Endemic corruption is one aspect, but it runs deeper. It creates a laxity whereby a politician can say one thing to one crowd and another to the next. Enda Kenny can assert Ireland’s commitment to Climate Change while almost in the same breath whisper his continued support for Irish agriculture’s expansionary and carbon-intensive ambitions.

The media hardly demur as they often engage in the same double speak. An Irish Times editorial on December 5th came with the title: ‘Rhetoric must give way to action in push for COP21 deal on climate change’. They criticise Enda Kenny’s hypocrisy but follow his example saying: ‘If that is the case we must make meaningful commitments on other fronts’.

Accounting for the absence of clear ideological demarcation between Irish political parties requires further exploration of Irish history. In the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars the United Kingdom could resume trade with the Continent making Irish grain relatively expensive and gave a comparative advantage to cattle farming. The Famine accelerated the transformation of the rural economy from labour-intensive tillage to extensive pasture where profitability required a low labour input. Population continued to decline from the 1850s through to the 1950s as emigration denuded rural Ireland especially of its youth who might have brought entrepreneurial creativity or failing that revolted.

The Land War of the 1880s, while destructive to the Protestant Ascendancy that had been at the apex of an almost feudal society since the seventeenth century, did not alter the fundamental economic structures as pastoral agriculture remained dominant. An increasingly petit-bourgeois Irish peasantry sold beef and butter and purchased, mainly imported foods and other goods, on the British imperial market. A declining population, absentee landlords, a lack of state intervention, and distance from markets explain why the Industrial Revolution only arrived in the North East. The large surplus of Irish labour migrated to Lancashire, Glasgow, New York and beyond. Without a substantial urban proletariat socialist movements had little support base.

The arrival of Sinn Fein (We Ourselves) in 1905 presented the possibility of a new kind of politics of self-reliance and re-distribution, but throughout its history and that of its progenies the national card has trumped the egalitarian. An historic opportunity presented itself at the end of World War I when Ireland became independent and a generation mainly in their thirties came to power.

But this unprecedented generational shift descended into a murderous Civil War whose source of contention was a point of doctrine, in what seems a throwback to the arcane disputations of a medieval church council: the Oath of Allegiance to the King. That ‘empty formula of words’, as it was later conceded by Eamon de Valera in another example of linguistic contortion, was the main point of contention in the Treaty debates.

Thus the political lines were drawn between, essentially, two parties that have been the dominant partner in every government since independence. Any individual ambitious to attain high political office has, except in rare, tidal, circumstances, had to work within the confines of these parties. It is not unusual that two parties should dominate the history of a state but ideological incoherence in Ireland creates a gravitational pull towards the centre ground.

Contrast this with the UK where a radical politician such as Jeremy Corbyn can survive in the broad left-wing church of a party of government such as the Labour Party. It has been argued that this political climate favours foreign investment but the absence of genuinely left-wing administrations has delayed the arrival of socialist measures found elsewhere in Europe that could have alleviated the poverty that has haunted the history of the Free State. We have not seen a government like that of the post-War Labour administration in the UK which introduced the Welfare State and the NHS.

An ideology of individual self-reliance has tended to be in the ascendant especially as Sean Lemass’s influence superseded de Valera’s peculiar brand of peasant nationalism. The triumph of individualism was epitomised by the ripping out of Dublin’s tram tracks in the 1960s to make way for the motor car. The economic planning of the 1960s under the guidance of the almost-universally lauded T.K. Whitaker amounted to a liberal rationalisation of the economy. It has reached a point where maintaining the rate of corporation tax at 12.5% in the face of criticism from European partners seems to be the most fiercely guarded part of our sovereignty, and has been agreed to by all the main parties.

The crucible of the Civil War forged political allegiances often owing more to personal loyalty than ideology. We see these tribal loyalties passed down to descendants a century later. Pádraic Pearse, the poet leader of the 1916 Rising whose rhetoric of blood sacrifice invites comparison with fascism, implanted in the body politic enduring notions of nationalist heroism. From the outset, insufficient attention was paid to dreary notions such as building infrastructure or regional development. The Sinn Fein gene pool has generated Cumann na nGaedhal (1922-35), Fianna Fail (1927-), Fine Gael (1935-), arguably Clann na Poblachta (1946-65) and the latest manifestation of Sinn Fein (1969-). Each has played musical chairs with their ideological stances: Fianna Fail swinging between protectionism and open markets; in Fine Gael a tension between the idea of a Just Society and the economic conservatism of Christian democracy. What really distinguishes one from the other is their degree of commitment to the nationalist cause. Even Fine Gael became the party of conciliatory nationalism that captured the former Unionist constituency in the South.

There is little hope that the current incarnation of Sinn Fein won’t bend their current socialist leanings to political expediency. It should be recalled that in 1969 the Provisionals split with the Officials over the former’s commitment to the nationalist cause and the latter’s attention to the workers’ struggle. The Officials became the Workers Party and then Democratic Left. Sinn Fein became the political wing of the nationalist Provisionals.

As a fundamentally nationalist party it is unsurprising that Sinn Fein should in opposition seek radical economic redistribution before being wedded to ‘economic realities’ on entering government. Certainly their record in the Northern Executive and opposition to a Property Tax in the South reveals pragmatic tendencies. That is not to say that parties in coalition should never make concessions to coalition partners, but when a movement’s core value is nationalism genuine commitment to social and economic objectives recedes.

What of the Labour Party, the only mainstream party of the Left throughout the history of the state? Before independence leaders such as James Connolly and James Larkin argued in favour of radical re-distribution in Irish society, but without a significant urban proletariat they could not muster a substantial opposition to the different hues of green. As the state has developed the party has grown unhealthily close to a ‘permanent and pensionable’ civil service and other privileged groups. Instructively, their core support is among the wealthy denizens of South Dublin.

Another problem in Irish politics is that the abstraction of the wider culture permeates the electoral system laid out under the Irish Constitution. Our PR-STV electoral system where 40 constituencies elect 158 TDs gives an opportunity to independent chieftains who jealously guard their generally rural redoubts and show scant regard for the country as a whole, let alone the wider world. Moreover, in order to compete with independents, politicians from the established parties must also seek spoils for their constituencies: again national issues fade in importance, and we muddle on.

The election of 2011 was supposed to be a watershed, but the parties originating in the Sinn Fein movement of the early twentieth century remain ascendant, and this might be even more pronounced after the next election if Labour suffers its predicted bashing.

Many countries have experienced far more brutal recent political histories: a basic decency flows from Irish people that makes living in the country tolerable, and even pleasurable, despite exasperating inefficiencies and sad inequalities. But the want of direct talking, as you usually find in conversation with a Dutch person, results in stasis and ill-equips us for long-term planning. Writing in the Irish Times (31/12/15) planning consultant Diarmuid O’Grada bemoans how the Department of Environment has been incapable of strategic planning: ‘it must be regretted that the Custom House has not been associated with evidence-based innovation since the 1980s when the minister closed down its research wing.’

Ireland confronts Climate Change with a Green Party that is on the brink of extinction. This is not entirely the fault of its well-intentioned, if conservative, leadership. Most of the population displays little support for environmental regulation. We insist on one off housing, private motor cars and pastoral agriculture, a Tragedy of the Commons that generates high energy costs and emissions. Unlike John Moriarty most of us fail to climb the mountain and see the whole picture.

Before the 2007 General Election Enda Kenny offered a form of contract to voters assuring them that if elected Fine Gael would respect undertakings he had given as a business would an agreement with another party. That this was little more than a gimmick imported from the United States was recognised as such by the electorate. But Kenny’s gambit suggested a realisation that people would welcome cast iron guarantees from a party of the original Sinn Fein gene pool with no fixed ideological position. Revealingly his centre-right party was offering measures including free health insurance for all under 16s that one would associate with a left-wing party. In the event the electorate returned Bertie Aherne as the boom grew boomier and despite a gathering storm of revelations about corrupt private dealings and multiple warnings that the economy was over-heating.

It would be a sign of Ireland’s political maturity if we elected parties with clearly delineated ideologies. It is difficult to predict what way Sinn Fein, Fianna Fail or Fine Gael will swing if elected. At least the Progressive Democrats unashamedly spelt out their liberal convictions, but that appears to have been too transparent for the Irish population. Lucinda Creighton’s Renua are seeking to inherit their mantle but lack the authority and depth of a figure like Eddie O’Malley. The newly-formed Social Democrats offer an interesting new dimension on the left as Labour flounder, but they are unlikely to be sufficiently organised before the next election to win a substantial number of seats. A personal preference, however unrealistic, would be for the next government to be a broad alliance of the left excluding Sinn Fein but including the Greens.

A simple electoral reform that could curb aspects of the Tammany Hall excesses in Irish politics would make it necessary for political parties to achieve a minimum threshold of five percent as is the case in many European countries. The likes of Lowry and Healy-Rae would hopefully disappear from the political constellation, and national politicians could start to focus more on issues affecting the whole country rather than seeking to beat the offers of local chieftains.

Any culture is in a constantly dialectical relationship with its social and physical environment. In Joyce’s Ulysses the character of Stephen Daedalus muses that: ‘History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake’, and often it seems this country is still in a form of dreamtime where actions are taken haphazardly and reactively. Thus even after the experience of the Celtic Tiger nothing meaningful has been done to curb the onset of another property bubble concentrated in Dublin.

But Irish culture has the capacity to change. Post-colonial legacies fade in time and the originality of the Irish Mind can be deployed constructively. A native crookedness can help us think laterally. Moreover, over ten percent of the population living in the state were born elsewhere, and in time they will exert more of an influence even if our archaic laws excludes non-citizens from voting in General Elections. Most of the population have also travelled widely and recognise better practice in other countries. The bursting of the Tiger Bubble did make many people re-appraise their priorities and the generation coming up are animated by global issues such as Climate Change.

1916 could be a year of renewal in Ireland when we start to think collectively and with a view to the future. Ideally an older generation of tired politicians will exit stage left, with younger and an increasing proportion of female candidates elected. Sadly it seems more likely that we will continue to react rather than plan.