Appointment in Samarra (based on a short story by Somerset Maugham) is a novel by the great Irish-American writer John O’Hara, and its central motif is the inexorable certainties of fate. In its preface, a servant meets the figure of Death in the great souk of Baghdad. When Death sees him, she makes a fearsome grimace. The servant hurries home and tells his master of this fearful portent that clearly indicates that Death is about to claim him. The master duly gives the servant permission to flee to the safety of Samarra. The master then goes into the Baghdad market, seeking the figure of Death. He finds her skulking in the shadows and asks why she threatened his servant. “I made no threat,” she whispered. “I was astonished to see him in Baghdad. For I have an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”
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Ireland is rather like that servant, but now stuck in a serial nightmare in which it constantly revisits Samarra, but each time for an outwardly different reason. And with the arrival of the coronavirus across the world, another journey to the same ruinous destiny beckons, just as Ireland emerges from the ruination resulting from the last time it kept that appointment. Thirteen years ago, it was the collapse of the US banking system that revealed that Ireland’s banks were not merely run by criminal lunatics, but also that the Irish state was in cahoots with them. The inspector of banks was promptly allowed to retire early, given a pension top-up and a golden handshake, known in other jurisdictions as “hush money”, and apart from a couple of extravagantly venal executives, no one was jailed.
The bail-out of the Irish banks of that time required the Irish taxpayer to reimburse the German and French banks for their vast losses gambling on the insanely speculative Irish property market. This was like the staff of a casino standing outside its exit and using their own savings to recompense the unlucky members of Gamblers Anonymous as they leave. Why did this happen? Because what is commonly called the Troika—the European Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund; what George W. Bush might have called the Axis of Evil—insisted that this be the quid pro quo for the rescue of the Irish economy. The Troika would probably have insisted on Belgium paying reparations to Germany for having the temerity to resist the invasion in 1914.
In the dozen years since the bail-out, the galley slave known as the Irish taxpayer—surely the most long-suffering yet nonetheless resilient citizen in the EU—has painfully rebuilt the Irish economy, and by January of this year, the Irish state was once again importing workers and showing a healthy balance sheet. But that was actually rather like the imperturbable appearance of the swan, swimming along elegantly while beneath the surface its feet are paddling like crazy. The bail-out had left the population of galley slaves with debts to the world to the value of €42,500 for each man, woman and child. The Irish people have by furious paddling managed to service the interest on that debt. And then came the coronavirus, the latest figure of doom to assail the Irish people.
These journeys to Samarra have been regular events in Irish life. The country has spent the past decade “celebrating” the events of a century ago, when revolutionaries essentially hijacked the state and sent it into a purely volitional spiral of isolationist destruction which lasted the best part of twenty years. Obviously, Ireland had no control over the arrival of Hitler on the world scene, but it was clearly an act of unprovoked idiocy for both the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) de Valera and President Hyde to don their morning suits and go to the German legation and offer their condolences upon the Führer’s death in 1945. Thus followed ten years exclusion from the UN at the insistence of an incredulous USSR.
Ireland finally abandoned its disastrous forty-year program of economic and cultural isolationism in 1959, but ten years later, Irish government ministers stole exchequer money to help fund the formation of the Provisional IRA. This organisation then embarked upon a quarter of a century of war against both the Northern Ireland state and the British government that cost 4000 lives and countless billions of pounds. The primary conspirator here was the Minister for Finance, Charles Haughey, who subsequently became Taoiseach and in 2006 was given a state funeral. In the meantime, he bullied banks and business into “lending” him money, though a loan to Haughey was the equivalent of complying with that emailed request from that nice gentleman who tells you he is trapped in Lagos airport and would you please send him your bank details.
And so these little pilgrimages to Samarra (there have been many others) have continued in a weird cycle of self-destruction and then recovery, followed by triumph, to be followed by yet more self-destruction, with the weary taxpayers once again getting behind the oars, while once again the slave-master cracks his whip over their heads. Occasionally, the taxpayers have gone slightly mad, as they did again earlier this year, and nearly elected a Sinn Fein government; yes, government by the very people that started a long war which achieved nothing except create a mountain of misery and a sea of debt, and gave jobs to a generation of grave diggers. The consequence of the high Sinn Fein vote is that Ireland is being governed by an interim administration still led by the inept Taoiseach who called the disastrous election, the vain and vapid Leo Varadkar. He cannot form a government, cannot form an opposition, cannot do anything other than try to make political bricks from a collection of warring parties that are all chisel and chalk, cheese and cheese-mites. What is most likely to happen is that there will finally be a deal between Ireland’s two main historic parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. These two have dominated the state since fighting a civil war in 1922-23, which Fine Gael’s ancestors won after capturing and executing some eighty of their opponents.
That slaughter somehow or other set the moral code for the Ireland that emerged over the coming decades. Outright theft or incompetence by the mighty, even in plain sight, is seldom if ever punished in Ireland, rather as if this were a cold wet Sicily and omerta were spelt with an apostrophe. Half a dozen TDs (MPs) would in other jurisdictions be probably (and deservedly) hanging by their thumbs from dripping dungeon walls for embezzlement, fraud and corruption, and in a couple of cases in the recent past, murder. It is as if a strangely compulsive moral imprecision runs through Irish life, mirroring the geographical kind that drove the servant to flee Baghdad. This has expressed itself through spectacular and even addictive levels of state ineptitude, for which no one’s career is damaged and no one is imprisoned.
A few years ago, civil servants ordered a printer for Dail Eireann, the Irish parliament, at a cost of €800,000. But nobody had measured the doors through which it would have to be carried or the size of the room in which it would be housed. It was too large for both, so it was warehoused for a year at a cost of €2000 a week. Finally, builders knocked a few holes here and there and the Dail finally got its new printer, but now at a cost of €1.8 million, or a cost overrun of 150 per cent, and not invisibly, in some remote location, but right in the heart of government. Consequences for the civil servants responsible? Probably promotion.
But that was a deal-of-a-lifetime affair compared to the twenty-four-carat scandal of the projected National Children’s Hospital in the centre of Dublin, now in the pipeline for fifteen years, or twice the time the Americans took to put Neil Armstrong’s footprint on the moon. Its original all-in cost from start to finish was €650 million. This had escalated to €800 million in 2014. Included in the bill for last year was €11 million on “consultancy fees” and another €1 million on “public relations”. Nero had comparable bills after Rome burnt. Its projected cost is now €2 billion, with its completion date far over the horizon, making it probably the most expensive hospital project in the world. One of its many glorious features is that it will not be creating a single bed more than the existing capacity for sick children in hospitals in Dublin today. Moreover, no one really doubts that another billion or so will be added to the costs before the first patient is admitted, which will probably happen about the time when Malawi puts a giraffe into orbit. And if sick children can be treated like that, what hope for society generally?
Yet another curious feature of Irish life is that even though most people are profoundly aware of its Venezuelan levels of over-spending, along with its Colombian level of political probity in which almost every politician runs an expenses fiddle, there is an almost obsessive degree of self-preening, especially in comparison to Britain. This became extraordinarily evident during the Brexit campaign, when the Irish media and politicians loudly compared how virtuously European the Irish were compared to the xenophobic, small-minded, racist, chauvinist, jingoistic (add your own pejorative adjective of choice) British.
So what exactly were (and are) the charms of the EU for Ireland? This question gets even harder to answer when one remembers that the British were amongst the first country in the world to offer financial aid when the Irish economy collapsed. But even this act was presented in the Irish media as an example of British usurious predacity, with the headlines proclaiming what interest the British would be charging, as if this was some new and fiendish way of London choosing to add to Ireland’s pain. On the other hand, it would be politically impossible for Ireland to follow the British through the EU exit door. Departure from the EU can only come with the EU’s collapse—an event that was symbolically presaged in recent weeks as various EU member states re-erected national borders, and Germany even forbade exports of vital breathing equipment to Italy’s choking, dying thousands.
The differing responses to the coronavirus in Britain and Ireland reveal quite differing political cultures: the British have generally been more libertarian and informal, the Irish more inclined towards lockdown and government by decree. These differences have been hailed by the Irish media as proof of how superior the Irish methods are to the British. That Britain is a vastly more complex society usually escapes Irish attention, though it has at least seven conurbations containing over a million people, while Ireland has just one, before we even consider Greater London with its ten million inhabitants.
Which brings us to another (perhaps surprising) characteristic of the Irish: their docility. Generally speaking, despite the popular stereotype of rebellious Irish individualism, the Irish have tended to obey their masters, whether it was the Catholic Church in the old days, or the secular PC church of today, with its slavish devotion to the EU, feminism, pseudo-egalitarianism and all the fraudulent banalities of multiculturalism. The Irish media and political establishment have bought into the PC agenda hook, line and sinker, just as they had earlier bought the RC one. For it is not PC or RC which is the real Irish religion so much as the unadorned C of conformism.
Which largely explains why Ireland so obediently went into lockdown in March. When near-draconian measures were introduced early in April to reinforce the shutdown, involving the closure of all public areas such as parks and beaches, the Dail did not even divide: it was legislation by acclamation. Not even the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor produced such unanimity in the US Senate. The police, An Garda Siochana—“the guardians of safety”—are now entitled to stop any citizen and ask what he or she is doing more than two kilometres away from home. Unsatisfactory answers could lead to a €2000 fine or six months imprisonment, powers which even the Cuban politburo might envy. Of course, that this is all for the common good is precisely what a Castro or a Chavez or any communist worth his Siberian salt would have argued. But there is no dissent here, just a great deal of pleasure that the Irish appear to be better behaved than the English. That, rather than the “British” is the real comparison that the Irish prefer to make, despite the fact that over the past two centuries, the main place of exile in the world for the Irish has been England, and even today it is home to 800,000 Irish-born people. What does that tell you about these regular journeys to Samarra?
In one regard, the Irish are thinking and worrying just like people across the world: What is going to happen to our economies at the end of all this, and how many jobs in small business will have been lost for all time? And have bookshops, cinemas and pubs now met their Armageddon as Amazon, Netflix and wine-at-home take their place? Or is the reverse likely to happen? Will people erupt giddily from the prisons of their flats and tiny houses and flock to places of mass resort where they can freely swap bacteria, viruses, sweat and spit? For the moment, no one can say.
What we can say with reasonable certainty is that whoever triumphs in that future marketplace, Ireland will sooner or later wander off to that other market, the souk in Baghdad, where it will again meet a familiar face, and thereafter will resume an equally familiar cycle, as it once more flees from safety to make yet another appointment in Samarra.
Kevin Myers lives in Ireland. Among his books is the memoir Watching the Door: Cheating Death in 1970s Belfast. His previous Dublin Letter, on the recent Irish election, appeared in the March issue