Ruth Buchanan’s Playback programme on RTE radio included excerpts from a parody of Liveline; impressionists played the parts of Joe Duffy, Joan Burton, Bob Geldof and Vincent Browne, each contending with the others about who could claim to be most miserable about the state of the country.
The parody was a reminder of the satire of Flann O’Brien. Flann O’Brien was cruel in his satirising of those who saw living in poverty as being the true way of being Irish. In The Poor Mouth, published in 1941, he writes lines that would have slipped easily into the Monty Python Four Yorkshiremen sketch some thirty years later.
He possessed the very best poverty, hunger and distress also. He was generous and open-handed and he never possessed the smallest object which he did not share with the neighbours; nevertheless, I can never remember him during my time possessing the least thing, even the quantity of little potatoes needful to keep body and soul joined together. In Corkadoragha, where every human being was sunk in poverty, we always regarded him as a recipient of alms and compassion. The gentlemen from Dublin who came in motors to inspect the paupers praised him for his Gaelic poverty and stated that they never saw anyone who appeared so truly Gaelic. One of the gentlemen broke a little bottle of water which Sitric had, because, said he, it spoiled the effect. There was no one in Ireland comparable to O’Sanassa in the excellence of his poverty; the amount of famine which was delineated in his person. He had neither pig nor cup nor any household goods. In the depths of winter I often saw him on the hillside fighting and competing with a stray dog, both contending for a narrow hard bone and the same snorting and angry barking issuing from them both. He had no cabin either, nor any acquaintance with shelter or kitchen heat. He had excavated a hole with his two hands in the middle of the countryside and over its mouth he had placed old sacks and branches of trees as well as any useful object that might provide shelter against the water which came down on the countryside every night.
Like most satire, O’Brien’s work found a readership because it contained within it a grain of truth. There is a penchant amongst some in Ireland for taking, if not delight, at least a little satisfaction in being miserable and having a constant source for complaint.
Government ministers now talk in sombre voices, as if a pretence of gravitas would conceal that the blame lies not with the people they are addressing, but the financiers. Appealing to the tendency of some to find satisfaction in complaining is a way of escaping the need to face responsibility for actions. It’s time that the interviewers reminded our ministers that O’Brien is long dead; that playing the poor mouth is not an excuse; and asked what they are going to do to ensure justice for those who are now bearing the costs of the greed and arrogance of a small group.