SUDDENLY, Dáil Eireann’s ‘rogues gallery’ – that special section of our parliament whose walls are lined with portraits of former Taoisigh and Cinn Comhairle – is in the news.
Fine Gael’s Seán Barrett, the controversial former ceann comhairle, has jumped the queue for the right to be hung in Leinster House; not with the big lads such as WT Cosgrave, Little Liam Cosgrave, Dev, John A Costello, Squire Hockey, Jack Lynch, Sir Garret and the Longford Slasher, but on the wallspace allocated to former chairmen of Dáil Eireann.
A great honour indeed, considering that Barrett is still a sitting TD and somewhat celebrated as that cranky geezer who prompted a Fianna Fail-Sinn Féin walk out during his term of office. The reason was his refusal to allow a debate on the establishment of an inquiry into allegations of Garda malpractice.
And, while some people might consider such an unfortunate occurrence to be a serious blot on his escutcheon, another section of society – that of Ireland’s soldiers and Haulbowline matelots – will forever hold a soft spot in their hearts for him. During his tenure as Minister for Defence, he dealt with 9,000 army deafness compensation claims (Irish Army numbers at the time amounted to 8,500 men and women).
Thankfully he showed such a keen appreciation of the reasons for hearing impairment in the Defence Forces – close proximity to loud bangs – that he encouraged the State to dole out a mind-blowing €381 million in compo!
Barrett’s resolution of the legal battle went down in history as an outstanding achievement of skill and ingenuity, surpassing any strategy concocted by military leaders such as Nelson, Napoleon and Genghis Khan!
So, who better to have his portrait given pride of place among the hot shots, beauties and beasts than the illustrious politico? Indeed preliminary drawings already have been made of Mr Barrett’s noble cranium.
No sign of Brian
Problem is there’s a gap on the wall, which is the space reserved for the country’s much-loved former leader, Brian ‘Biffo’ Cowen. As a former Taoiseach, he too has the right to be suspended from a peg, but for five years the Department of the Taoiseach (Enda’s) refuses to commission an oil painting of him.
Tradition has it that portraits of recent taoisigh are displayed soon after they resign as TDs. For instance, a painting of Don Berto was hung near the main stairs in the autumn of 2011, within months of his announcement that he would not contest that year’s general election.
But in regard to poor ole Biffo, the Tullamore man continues to be perceived as a political leper, still carrying the can for Don Berto and still held responsible for everything bad that happened between 2008 and the present day. Hence no discerning study-in-oils of that particular Man of Destiny!
Cynics suggest that Enda Kenny’s intransigence might have something to do with the fact that Brian Cowen was the FF Taoiseach from 2008-2011 and that, with the assistance of flunkies such as Micheál Martin, Batto Keeffe and Willie O’Dea, he oversaw the worst of Ireland’s financial and banking meltdown, crushing austerity, national humiliation and disproportionate, one-sided economic hardship.
Salt in wound
It all becomes rather unsavoury when people suggest that, if Cowen wants a painting of himself, he should pay for it himself. The snag is that traditionally the plain people of Ireland always stumped up for the vanity project – between €12,000 and €15,000 (frame extra) – and what political eegit would want to change such a lovely custom?
To rub salt in the wound, Kenny has already approved a State sponsored €14,000 portrait (frame extra) of President Michael D Higgins, even though he is still in office. It will be displayed in Leinster House until he leaves and then hung in Aras an Uachtaráin.
Oddly enough, respect for the relics of auld dacency, such as having a spitting image of oneself in a public place, is not just the preserve of swollen-headed politicos.
Academics also go in for it. In University College Cork, the commissioning of portraits of former presidents is designed to enhance the reputation of Cork’s most prestigious educational centre. It’s a point brought home to students in UCC’s Aula Maxima where Goldsmith’s lines come to mind should they contemplate the glowering portraits of former big cheeses: ‘And still they gazed and still the wonder grew that one small head could carry all he knew!’ That sort of thing.
The Cork Institute of Technology – the ‘Reege’ – honours its administrative celebrities in a similar way, as was the case regarding a president and a former governing body chairman.
According to CIT, once news broke of their portraits, ‘vile rumours and malicious falsehoods that were intended to damage the good name of the Institute, its governors, and staff’ circulated madly through the city
Although the two portraits cost a modest €20,000, (frames extra at €2,214), allegations were made that the two men had travelled abroad to sit for the paintings at the college’s expense. It was an outrageous lie. They had gone no further than the artist’s studio in Dublin.
All of which raises this question: why do people of ‘capernosity and function’ (Brendan Behan’s terminology) go to the trouble and considerable public expense of having their portraits painted? Wouldn’t a good ‘selfie’ serve the same purpose?
After all, there are only two styles of portrait painting, the serious and the smirk, whereas a mobile phone can get you a bucket load of facial reactions for a few cents.
To do with status
And, is not the snapper of a good ’selfie’ as much a specialist in human physiognomy as any portrait painter, and just as capable of summoning profound emotions and expressions from his subjects?
It’s a complex argument that is best teased out in Dinty’s on a Friday night, but one thing is certain: commissioning an oil painting of oneself has all to do with status.
Could the reason why our politicos want painted images of themselves enshrined in Leinster House have something to do with the origins of the building? As the onetime home of the Dukes of Leinster, and as a former palace, is it not the most appropriate place to put headshots of Establishment politicos who consider their political careers to be the embodiment of exceptional social rank and lots of free money? Just like the ‘Dooks’ of Leinster!
But wait a sec! Few would deny that the sight of excessive self-display among our national politicians tends to induce in most people a predisposition to vomit. After all, opulence at the expense of ordinary people is one thing but the fact that some of the subjects who endorse pictorial showcasing are so ugly that the portraits hang themselves! And that’s the real point at issue!