Friday, April 11, 2014

In Defence of John Waters

First published in the Western People on Monday.

Martin Callinan’s was not the only high-profile exit from Irish public life in recent weeks. After twenty-three as a columnist with the Irish Times, John Waters is moving on.

Why should we care? We should care because Waters has been one of very few voices in the national media to reflect rural concerns, to speak in a recognisably rural voice and to stubbornly refuse to fit in. That stubbornness has cost him and whether he was right to take some of the stands he did is a broader question. But when at his best John Waters wrote about concerns that were addressed nowhere else in the media, and for that his absence should be mourned.

If he never wrote anything before or since, John Waters should be remembered in Irish letters for his 1991 book, Jiving at the Crossroads. Books that accurately describe the Irish rural experience are by no means common. John McGahern is the most talented novelist to write about rural Ireland, but there is no denying that McGahern’s work is unrelentingly bleak, and maybe McGahern is missing some shading there. Now, in the 21st Century, Dónal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart is a source of true joy to those who like to see the Ireland they know in the novel form.

In prose, Waters’ great forefather and inspiration was a man who wrote in these very pages, Charlestown’s John Healy. Jiving at the Crossroads has a chapter devoted to Healy, and Healy’s efforts two generations ago to remind the Dublin political establishment that actual people lived in the west of Ireland, and that Connacht wasn’t just some sort of wasteland of bog and snipe grass.

Jiving at the Crossroads is John Waters’ homage to John Healy. The book’s opening is a perfect description of what it was like to be young in rural Ireland in the 1980s. Seán Doherty had just been appointed Minister for Justice, and was being hailed as a conquering hero on his return to his home town.

Waters was not part of the reception committee. He and his friend watched the homecoming from a van in the distance, while listening to Bruce Springsteen singing Darkness on the Edge of Town on the van’s stereo.

And that’s it. That’s being young in rural Ireland in a nutshell. Looking at things going on that you want to escape from, while Springsteen sings on the radio about the land to which you want to escape, about the dream of riding out tonight to case the Promised Land, as The Boss himself put it.

And then, as the book’s narrative moves through the 1980s, Waters realises what we all realise, one way or another. Home might not be the Emerald City in the magical land of Oz, but not many places are. And for all the faults home has, there are a surprising number of places that are worse.

And that’s Waters’ narrative. The struggle to escape from home. The escape, and the realisation that the place into which he wanted to escape never really existed. And then, the struggle to return home, and to match the two parts of the story, where someone is from and where someone is going, into a coherent whole.

Through it all Waters’ personal story is mixed with the national story of the early Haughey years. But the national politics thread of the book isn’t about the specificity of Haughey and that time. It’s about the generality of Irish politics, the sharp divide between rural and urban (meaning Dublin only, by the way) concerns, and the fact that Irish politics is reported in a way that does not reflect how it’s talked about on the ground.

It’s always a source of disquiet for the Dublin establishment when it’s challenged on its bias and Dublin-centrism. But that the bias exists there is no doubt.

When Brian Cowen was elected Taoiseach, Derek Davis remarked on the radio that the Dublin media never understood Albert Reynolds and neither would they understand Cowen. How true that turned out to be.

When Albert Reynolds was Taoiseach, an Irish Times columnist sneered that “running a country isn’t like running a dance-hall in Rooskey.” Another Irish Times columnist described Brian Cowen’s Tullamore homecoming as being like “a country wedding.”

Reader, do you get the feeling sometimes that there are people who can’t quite believe that a Mayoman is Taoiseach? It’s not paranoia. Enda Kenny’s Irish has been criticised by people who do not themselves speak Irish. This, surely, is the ultimate instance of the Dublin media monkey eating its own tail.

Waters was the man who called the Dublin-centric media out. It was Waters who pointed out that building a bullet train from Sligo to Dublin would do wonders for the North-West, but a bullet train would never be built because there was more money in rezoning land in Lucan. It was Waters who fought a lonely battle for fathers’ rights. It was Waters who was the long-haired prophet, crying in the wilderness that the Emperors have no clothes.

Did Waters ever put his foot in it? Yes, he surely did. Waters wrote columns and took positions that were hard to understand – a one-man crusade against parking charges in Dún Laoghaire, an extraordinary paean to a model who died of a drug overdose. But then, which of us are perfect? Which of us has never backed the wrong horse, or loved the wrong thing?

Has Waters’ latest row proved his last? Who knows? Waters has certainly become a hate figure for some people who disagree with some of his views and the current standard of Irish debate seems to prefer attacking the advocate rather than the argument. That’s someone else’s fight. What this column is sure of is that rural Ireland needs a loud, clear and articulate voice, and that John Waters’ was that voice for more than twenty years. Who now will speak for the West in his absence?