I’m a smoker, though I don’t smoke a lot (I should add my doctor says that’s like saying I’m almost a virgin. So let’s say I’m closer to a virgin than a whore). These days being a smoker, as you probably know, is like being an outlaw in the Wild West, in other words, a social outcast, living dangerously, even foolishly some would say, and usually exposed to the elements.
You might think this would depress us persistent smokers into giving up, especially if you add in all the medical knowledge and sickening warnings on the packets, and maybe that was the intention of the law and the self-righteous Minister for Health at the time it was passed, but in Ireland there is a peculiarly intense instinct for community that undermines that possibility. As we smokers huddle outside beneath the inadequate protection allowed by the law, pelted by the raging wind and rain of South West Kerry in a winter storm, we bond like brothers in arms.
It is not our shared habit that causes this bonding. That is just the coincidence that places us together for the duration of a ciggy or two. It is about everything under the sun, which is the extent of an Irish conversation when people find themselves brought together in any sort of group, however temporary it might be, though the conversation usually begins with the weather. There’s an assumed engagement in Irish society, and if that leads sometimes to violence and conflict, it more often leads to camaraderie. It’s a powerful force, this Irish sense of community, and mostly for good.
But not always. There’s a good story that for me epitomised the singular attitude of Irish society to what is known everywhere else as corruption but here is called something nicer, as maybe Looking after our own, Being community minded, “Knowing the right man”, or some such forgiving phrase. A local councillor in a coastal town was interviewed on the radio after being reprimanded for not standing aside from the planning committee when they were considering a tender for a new harbour from a company of which he was a director. I should add that his company got the job. He couldn’t understand why anyone would object to his “doing the best for the community and the company.” Where was the conflict?
Nowadays more than likely he’d get short shrift from most if not all of the public but back then I dare say many would have agreed with him. There is a nationally famous company director here, once one of the richest men in the country, who gambled on bank shares and lost all of his fortune and then some, who to this day can rely on public support and demonstrations against any effort to prosecute him, because the companies he set up and eventually destroyed by his gambling with their capital, employed a lot of people and he was, by all accounts, a model employer. He was good for the community and that overrides all other considerations.
It’s not really that this lack of judgement infuriates me so much as it perplexes me, coming, as I do, from the UK, where Community is a word that usually comes before “Charges” and little else. In fact, I generally admire this quality of Irish society, as I have said before and will probably say again in this blog. It is charming and attractive.
But it is also a great opportunity for anyone wishing to exploit it, and there was a time we called The Celtic Tiger when a lot of people did just that.