After controversy over an artistic attack on the Taoiseach, Peter Molloy wonders why Ireland seems to have forgotten the refined art of political satire.
At the beginning of the 18th century, the modest proposal of an Anglo-Irish cleric caused ructions that rippled across the Irish Sea. Throughout the latter half of the 1980s, and on into the ‘90s, a motley collection of latex-faced puppets perplexed the denizens of Westminster’s corridors of power. And just last month, a nude painting of a portly, middle-aged public servant led to what by Irish standards represented a small-scale national scandal. Welcome to the power exercised by satire.
Writing in 1729, Church of Ireland Dean and Gulliver’s Travels author, Jonathon Swift wickedly spiked contemporary Irish problems of over-population and poverty by suggesting in the anonymous A Modest Proposal that the island’s natives could raise their young for export as food products.
Much later, ITV’s Spitting Image joyfully lampooned a decade’s worth of the UK’s political movers and shakers. From 1984 to 1996, the programme utilised a range of voice actors and rubber puppets to satirically put the wind up a wide range of British and world leaders and celebrities.
A measure of its success came with the fact that Spitting Image’s caricatures sometimes overtook the real-life personas of its targets. Most notably, then Labour deputy-leader Roy Hattersley become inextricably associated with his portrayal on the show as a spitting, speech-impaired buffoon.
The majority of those politicians who felt the wrath of Spitting Image in its heyday, though, were pragmatic enough to recognise that an increase in public profile, however slanted, could only be a positive thing.
When teacher, Conor Casby succeed in hanging deeply unflattering portraits of current Taoiseach Brain Cowen in two Dublin art galleries last month, the response was considerably less charitable. Within a matter of days, the prankster found himself at the wrong end of an interview table in Pearse Street Garda Station, facing potential charges of offending decency, incitement to hatred, and criminal damage. The heavy handed response to the saga has already merited unflattering media coverage from as far afield as Canada and the United States.
“A nude painting of a portly, middle-aged public servant led to what by Irish standards represented a small-scale national scandal.”
Cowen is far from the first prominent Irish politician to take umbrage over a particularly stinging turn of phrase or caricature. Infamously, in 1976 then-President Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh resigned after being described by Minister for Defence Paddy Donegan as a “thundering disgrace”.
Given that the overwhelming majority of modern Irish political parties owe their origins at one distance or another to revolutionary types with a preference for the revolver over the ballot, just why is it that the contemporary successors of those individuals seem so unable to deal with the slings and arrows of public life?
To be absolutely fair to offended politicos, perhaps the answer stems from a simple lack of experience. After all, the satire landscape in Ireland is less than thriving. The national broadcaster, inadvertently one of the main players in last month’s dispute after a forelock-tugging apology for its news coverage of the affair, cannot fairly claim to be the home of any satirical heavyweights.
A generation ago, at the height of Ireland’s last embrace by recession, RTÉ was able to boast Scrap Saturday, a comedy ensemble which mercilessly put Charles Haughey’s government to the satirical knife every week. Had he never later gone on to don the clerical collar as Father Ted, UCD graduate Dermot Morgan’s legacy would unquestionably have been shaped by his gravel-voiced Haughey impersonation on the programme.
Move forward through the Montrose archives, however, and little to match the precocious cheek of Scrap Saturday has subsequently graced the airwaves. The closest any Irish broadcaster at all has subsequently come was the moribund Bull Island, again on RTÉ, a vehicle which appeared to confuse amateurish, drag-artist like impersonations of its targets with actual biting wit.
With objectivity, it is somewhat disingenuous to contrast Casby’s portraits with some of the greats of political satire. As trivially amusing as they may be, paintings of a nude Cowen complete with puerile accessories like toilet roll and underpants won’t go down in history as noteworthy examples of wit, and certainly have little profound to say about the nation’s current dire straits.
Be that as it may though, the episode has still shed an unfavourable light on a significant sense of humour failure by some of the country’s elected leaders. It can only be hoped that the good grace necessary to crack a smile won’t have deserted any future Irish targets of the satirical spotlight.