Tag: Irish culture

The Politics of Puzzling Hair

Donald Trump’s campaign started off as an Apprentice sequel. A bit of car crash television that viewers watch to enjoy a good laugh and then end up emotionally involved.  Then it veered and swerved wildly into attacking the mother of an American soldier killed in Afghanistan then onto sexual assault. As his R-rated campaign has turned from reality television into a slasher film, complete with racial slurs and stereotypes, it has become apparent that Trump could use a few politicking lessons from the wily gombeen men of Irish politics.

Who would have thought that the Healy-Rae political dynasty  would make a U.S. presidential candidate look backwards and provincial for his lack of policy platform, general knowledge and eloquence?

Jackie & Michael Healy-Rae’s stupid hats & hatless Danny Healy-Rae
Who also would have thought that a presidential candidate would share a penchant for puzzling hair and bad hats with the original gombeen man, Jackie Healy-Rae?

Trump’s stupid hat
On the surface there are no similarities between the Irish political dynasty of the Healy-Raes in County Kerry and empire of Donald Trump, but under the cap is a different story. Political watchers will be surprised to learn they share more than just spectacular comb-overs.

If you’re not familiar with today’s Irish politics you may not know the infamous political dynasty that is the Healy-Rae family of Kilgarvan, Co. Kerry.  The term political dynasty conjures up images of tanned Kennedy’s romping on rolling lawns of their Hyannis compound in tennis whites. Think rumpled suit jackets, mucky shoes, paddy caps and heavy machinery and you have an accurate mental image.

Modern Irish politics has many gombeen characters (remember Bertie Ahern, the Taoiseach who was so calculatedly pedestrian that he avoided bribe accusations by claiming he didn’t even have a bank account. He slithered right out of the spotlight after his Celtic Tiger came crashing down and bankrupt Irish banks and taxpayers)

Gombeen is one of those great Irish words adapted from the Irish language but embedded with cultural meaning that makes it difficult to directly define. The Irish word ‘gaimbín’ is a noun meaning interest as in the actual interest charged on a loan. It then became used to define a money-lender and then specifically a shop-keeper or business man who sold gods and food to the poor on credit and charged crippling interest rates.

In general, it refers to shady ‘wheeler-dealer’ type of business men who accepts bribes or looking to make a quick buck at someone else’s expense.

It’s now generally used to describe politicians and businessmen involved in self-serving activities, and more specifically Irish politicians involved in Daly-style vote getting in exchange for pursuing personal favors for constituents. Gombeen men skillfully make insider deals while convincing their supporters that they are actually outsiders, like them, and hence more straight talking and capable of representing the common man’s interests.

The concept is really that despite being wealthy because of your political connections (Healy-Rae and Trump wealth is of course relative) and having no skills, experience or knowledge of public policy or government, you are the more trustworthy candidate because you are a regular Joe-sop just trying to look out for the other honest Joe-sops that no one in Dublin (or Washington) gives a shite about it because they are too sophisticated and corrupt to care about the rest of us. Regular Joe-sops are always honest when it comes to elections.

So while gombeen men make it seem easy to convince voters that they are more trustworthy than the usual politicians, Trump has shown us all that it takes a considerable (and possible uniquely Irish) skill set to maintain the line between straight-talking and ranting without alienating the media and less extreme voters.

Trump began his campaign in gombeen style with virtually no policy interests and lots of controversial ‘straight talking’ air time. Although he was technically a party nominee, he never really felt like a member of any party. He has no policy platform based on facts, plans or experience. Statements about terrorists, immigrants and plans to build a wall on the U.S. – Mexican border with Mexican funding are as far removed from public policy as Danny Healy-Rae’s claims that global warming is not real or Michael’s claims that the Gardaí should dole out drink-driving permits to rural pub drinkers because drink-driving is a made-up problem in Ireland (the Healy-Raes own a rural pub).

Many Irish politicians and commentators have argued that Healy-Rae style politics is damaging to the national interest by ultimately blocking policy decisions that might benefit the Ireland as a whole in favor of local interests. Their ‘local’ interest is to expand their voter base in Kerry and translate this into increased local and national offices. To be fair to them, most international political commentators now argue that Trump style politics is damaging to the U.S. national interests for far worse reasons!

Of course he had a different schtick than the Healy Raes because he’s not hiding his wealth but we have to factor in the cultural differences here. Trump’s number one asset in the U.S. is that he’s rich but his boastful wealth would be a hindrance in political life in Ireland and would it make it impossible for voters to buy the “I’m one of the guys the locker room” talk and trust him (especially while suffering from the Celtic-Tiger champagne hangover).

Trump has now left the likable gombeen track and is completely off-roading in uncharted political wilderness in the U.S. He made some crucial mistakes when he went from calculated ignorance to galvanizing hate and bullying. Gombeens have to carefully calculate how controversial their outrageous publicity seeking statements are in order to maximize press coverage and unmanaged non politician image but rather a regular honest man who just says what’s on his mind. Danny Healy-Rae has received international coverage for outrageous and incorrect statements about climate change being a hoax which he claims is proved by the story of Noah’s Ark (Please look this up, it’s brilliant) and Michael Healy-Rae put forward a motion to make drunk driving legal in certain circumstances where old men and rural pubs are involved (for example their own pub in South Kerry).

Trump has lost the art of being controversial and straight talking by being hateful towards groups that are generally seen as easy targets by a bully.  Gombeen men make ignorant comments, but they save their ire for the smug politicians and elite of the Pale in Dublin and certainly know better than to bully vulnerable groups like those pesky people with disabilities and victims of sexual assault.  How unfair that the media and public tend to take their side!

Trump is shockingly less calculated then the Healy-Rae boys with his late-night tweets, rants and general buffoonery. The Healy-Raes don’t even have a real office – they hold clinics in a pub and their public relations management puts him to shame. Maybe he and his professional political advisers and strategists (assuming he hasn’t had them all beheaded or locked in a tower by now) could use a trip to Kilgarvan in order to see how you win elections without addressing any real policy issues.  A few pints and easy singles slices might just be what this election needs to turn things around.

The Wran is here!

Photo source: www.dinglephoto.com
Photo source: http://www.dinglephoto.com
After the peace and quiet of Christmas day, when the only outing is Mass and the main activity is eating, St. Stephen’s day shakes the quiet off and rouses the village from their turkey stupor.  Visitors are in for a treat when a loud group of musicians and dancer’s dressed up in wild masks and colorful motley clothes pound into your house, play music, dance and then shake a bag at you looking for money.  The Wren (pronounced Wran) is a brilliantly mad Irish Christmas tradition here in West Kerry where groups of men originally hunted a wren bird, and then paraded it from house to house in a straw cage or else killed it and nailed the body to a tall pole they carried. The origins are not totally clear but probably pagan as the Wren bird was associated with treachery.  Money was collected and then used to host local  dance where the bachelor wren boys would hope to meet a wife.  The Wren has died out in most parts of Ireland but had been revived in some parts as a parade or in pubs.  Dingle has a large parade and has made it an attraction for people from around the county and Ireland for a big party.

The tradition remains largely the same around here (minus the dead bird and wife hunting) and the Wren still goes from house to house early in the day and then moves to the two pubs before heading up to the village around six for what turns into a rowdy night out.  While most of the money goes to a local charity, there is still a Wren Ball before New Year’s which when I first was here for Christmas was in the old derelict school-house.  The school has since been commandeered by one of our neighbors and bordered up so the mayhem is confined to one of the two  local pubs.

Although a little confusing and hard to explain for a two-year old, the kids love trying to identify their friends and neighbors in masks and join in the afternoon revelries in the pub.

The traditional Wren Song (I’ve never heard this but it could still be sung by some Wrens)

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze,
although he was little his honour was great,
Jump up me lads and give him a treat (pronounced ‘trate’)

Up with the kettle and down with the pan,
And give us a penny to bury the wren (pronounced ‘wran’)

Are there any mad Christmas traditions where you are in the world?


Who’s ready for Junior Infants? Part 1

I spent a normal amount of time  worrying about whether my son was ready for school last year.  Normal for me rests somewhere between the average Irish and average American parent’s time spent analyzing the quality and effectiveness of their parental choices with Irish parents being self-assured (regardless of track record) and American’s obsessing over every detail of every medical, educational, recreational and superficial choice (purchase).

You can start school in Ireland at four.  Most children are almost five or five but there are no requirements, assessments or standards for school readiness.  The first two years are the infant classes, Junior and Senior and these classes usually finish an hour earlier than the rest of the school at two o’clock.

Irish parents are basically reasonable.  There’s not a ton of obsessing over their decisions or their very special children which require very different considerations than every other child that starts school. There isn’t one child in my son’s class who could read or write before school and I never heard anyone discuss this in the summer months. The school was mainly concerned that we sent in ‘indoor shoes’ to save the carpets and labeled all their Twistables.  There isn’t much worry around school here which makes the children relaxed about it but it makes an American mom automatically suspicious.   Where are the forms?? What about the dietary restrictions??

There is one primary school in the village, one teacher per class and this teacher usually has two classes and the whole process of enrolling involves completing two basic forms in the spring.  The pre-school teachers give the school a list of names, arrange a visit for the children in the spring and the primary school invites parents to a meeting one night. There is no excess information given or asked to or from parents. Many of the parent’s attended the school, have other children in the school and if not, have extended family members in the school so everyone knows how everything works. Except when you don’t and then you have to wait until someone mentions there’s no school tomorrow at the bus stop.

I have recently looked at the New Student Registration packet for the elementary school in Maine my son will attend.  There are eight different forms for parents to complete.  My favorite is the Kindergarten Parent Questionnaire.  The questions are reasonable but very American.  I couldn’t help laughing at the consternation for the school principal and parents if these questions were thrown into the mix at my son’s primary school in Ireland. The assumption that your child and your expectations can or will be met by any service that caters for everyone is uniquely American. This information overload and attempt to instill an illusion of choice or control over situations where in fact you’re not in control, is inherent in the questions below:

Please describe your expectation or any concerns you have regarding your child’s transition to
kindergarten. Do you anticipate any separation difficulty, peer conflicts or behavior issues?

This year in kindergarten I would like for my child to …….(goals you have)

Are there any specific social, emotional or behavioral concerns, which may affect your child’s school experience? (For example, family changes or recent losses)

Is there anything else you would like to share about your child? (Daily routines, likes or dislikes)

(This just seems like trouble to me – Johnny doesn’t got to sleep until 11 pm so it’s very hard to wake him up in the morning and I don’t like him to start the day upset so he might be a little late some days.  He won’t eat breakfast so he’ll have to have a fruit salad at his desk in school.  He doesn’t like to share anything blue.  He gets sluggish if he eats and dairy or wheat.  He needs to be reminded every thirty minutes to drink from his filtered water bottle and this means he sometimes has trouble making it to the bathroom but he’ll be fine with frequent reminders and help.)

The American part of me would have welcomed this form because of the thought that the teachers and school administration would get to know my lovely son better, and hence, be better prepared to take care of him.  The Irish part of me thinks it’s pointless. Unless my child has true special needs (not an intolerance to gluten or dislike of the word ‘no’), their and my individual expectations and concerns can not be deal with in a school setting with a hundred other kindergarteners and frankly, my goal is that my son will be able to get along happily in the mainstream of life. Boring I know but the alternative scares me.

How do Irish parents in America find the whole starting school experience?

My son as it turns out was very ready for school (which tends to happen despite my analysis or fretting).  More ready than I was to be a parent of a school-boy…to be continued.