‘GOSH!’ we exclaimed, surprised that the Irish Property Owners Association should utter such a withering riposte to a comment made by one of Dame Inda’s closest pals, Mr John Halligan, an outstanding scholar and Minister of State for Education and Skills.
At the heart of the matter was Mr Halligan’s description of Irish landlords. It was remarkable for its bravura and intense depth of feeling! He called them ‘bastards’!
Needless to say, landlords considered the taboo word to be deeply offensive. His opinion of landlords was made even more odious because of the subtle innuendo that landlords were a motley gang of disreputable social types who would be better off in jail. An association that represented landlords strenuously objected.
But, whatever about the Minister’s use of what society considers a type of low language that is not in accord with accepted social proprieties, the bookish knowledge that he displayed was impressive. It echoed Shakespeare who popularised ‘bastard’ as a particular unit of language in his play ‘King Lear’ and who made a definitive statement on whether or not ‘bastard’ was an indecent word.
Think of Edmund, the illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester, whose stirring defence of bastards is one of the joys of the Queen’s English, and which all spotty adolescents have to learn by heart if they have any hope of getting a D in the Pass Leaving Cert. It goes like this:
Why bastard? Wherefore base?
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true,
As honest madam’s issue? Why brand they us
With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?
Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take
More composition and fierce quality
Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed,
Go to th’creating a whole tribe of fops
Got ‘tween asleep and wake? Well then,
Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land.
... Fine word - ‘legitimate’! Edmund the base
Shall top th’legitimate. I grow; I prosper.
Now, gods, stand up for bastards!
So, when Mr Halligan dramatically expressed anger at landlords ‘upping the rent on good people’ and that he hoped the ‘bastards’ would face jail, the young people of Ireland cheered. Shakespeare was being brought to life in a most extraordinary fashion!
Of course, Shakespeare’s Edmund may not be the nicest of people, but the same can be said of some politicians and landlords. Edmund is an arrogant land grabber, ruthless, evil and a nasty bit of goods from the beginning of the play to the end.
Yet, on a personal level, he’s strangely likeable, even though socially he’d have been perceived as ‘a complete bastard,’ similar to the ‘inglourious basterds’ in Quentin Tarantino’s film!
Perhaps in today’s world Edmund would have been a sort of BOFH or ‘Bastard Operator from Hell’. In recent computer fiction, BOFH is a rogue system administrator, who takes out his anger on fools that ask him to solve their computer problems (‘Sorry sir. Your laptop has ceased to be and it’s pub o’clock opening’).
But, whatever about Minister Halligan’s application of Renaissance English to a delicate matter – that of characterising landlords as a contemptible group born on the wrong side of the blanket – the property owners took the politico to task in a cogent and convincing way for his offensive comments.
Launching a ‘blistering attack,’ the Irish Property Owners Association (IPOA) accused Halligan of ‘offensive and undignified remarks that bordered on incitement to hatred.’ In a statement to this newspaper, the landlord group advised the Minister of State to ‘seriously consider his Government position, given his crucial role in Irish education.’
The IPOA chairman, Stephen Faughnan, went on to say that Halligan’s comments were ‘despicable, filthy and foul mouthed’ and did not represent ‘the crucial role played by the providers of good quality accommodation to over 700,000 people.’
Mr Faughnan said that Minister Halligan’s ‘jail the bastards’ remark was published online and in other outlets. Even stronger language using a string of ‘Anglo-Saxon expletives’ followed it.
According to The Journal.ie, Minister Halligan was angry that ‘landlord speculators were driving people into homelessness ... if I could bring in legislation to goddam jail them, I would, for doing it. I would jail the bastards.’
He continued: ‘We allowed developers and speculators to wreck the country and we still have developers and speculators wrecking the f...... country, upping rent, outrageously upping f......rent.’
The landlords association had a point. Halligan used the f-word twice in one sentence, which prompts this scribe to suggest that he has been reading too many naughty words in ‘King Lear.’ He might consider carbolic soap as a verbal mouthwash.
But, of course, Halligan is not alone in his use of unparliamentary language. In spite of the fact that the Dáil maintains a document, ‘Salient Rulings of the Chair,’ which covers behaviour in and out of the House by TDs, it is largely ignored.
Ceann Comhairle Seán Barrett, for instance, in November 2012 accused TDs of being like ‘gurriers shouting on a street at each other.’ In 2009 Greenie Paul Gogarty apologised in advance before shouting ‘f*** you’ at an opposition chief whip.
Last January, then Foreign Minister, Charlie Flanagan, faced calls to step down after appearing to brand Sinn Féin as c***s in an angry Twitter exchange.
Former Environment Minister Alan Kelly told Mattie McGrath to f*** off, although he insisted he didn’t remember making the claim. He apologised just in case. Even Taoiseach Brian Cowen was caught uttering the f-word in the Dáil.
Hangin’ ’em out!
Of course, it’s open to question if ‘bastard’ offends in a similar way to the Anglo-Saxon f-word. ‘Bastard’ has more nuanced cultural resonances with regard to society and to life in general than the obscene f-word.
It tests the differences in attitudes to illegitimacy, particularly in societies where illegitimacy carries little stigma, which is a point the anthropologist Malinowski excellently makes.
Indeed, many moons ago, this scribbler, having read nothing but Malinowski in his First Year at the Uneee (as one does), was dismissed as a nutter by the professor of English, BG McCarthy (terrifying author of ‘The Whip Hand’ and ‘The Female Pen’) for having dared suggest that in a primitive and savage society like UCC’s, bastardy was central to understanding practically everything on her Eng Lit course!
Oh, and the b-word is not unknown to the publication ‘Waterford Whispers’: In a clarification of the term ‘hung Dáil,’ the writer explains that he understood the phrase as ‘dragging every TD onto the streets and hanging them from the nearest lamppost.’ He was most disappointed to learn that such was not the case, even though he took a half-day off work to buy a brand new rope in the expectation that those ‘robbing, lying bastards were finally getting what they deserved’!