Visiting the grave of Saint Nicholas on Christmas Eve

 

nast-santa

Santa Claus by Thomas Nast (1881)

Today I visited the grave of Santa Claus.

The first thing to say, of course, is that Santa Claus does not – and cannot – have a grave, because Santa Claus cannot die and Santa Claus never will die. Santa is – as every child knows – a magical being, given life and strength by the power of belief.

Santa lives in the North Pole and once a year, at Christmas time, he sails the night sky in an enchanted sleigh towed by his flying reindeer. The most famous of those, of course, is Rudolf, whose shiny red nose has saved the day more than once. This Christmas night, and every Christmas night, Santa will visit every child in the world and he will do so as long as children believe in him.

I always wonder, though, if Santa gets a little tingle when he stops to deliver presents to the children of Thomastown in County Kilkenny. Maybe he takes a wistful look over toward Jerpoint Park, to the ruined Church of Saint Nicholas. After all, that’s where he’s buried.

Before Santa became Santa, he was a human being named Nicholas, a very long time ago. He was born, more than one thousand and seven hundred years ago, on the 15th of March in the year 270 in what is now southern Turkey.

Nicholas was the son of wealthy Christian parents and he was a very religious child. When he was very young, his parents died in an epidemic and his uncle, who was the local bishop and also called Nicholas, took him in and raised him. In time, Nicholas was ordained a priest and years later he too became a bishop. He became renowned for his generosity and his secret gift-giving.

Interestingly, he attended the First Council of Nicaea in 325, which was convened by the Roman Emperor Constantine, and which would set in stone what would become universally accepted as the details of the story of Jesus Christ.

Legend has it that Nicholas – who believed that Jesus was co-eternal with God the Father (meaning Jesus existed with God and as God since the beginning of time) and was thus as divine as God – became so angry at the heretic Arius – who contended that Jesus was created by God and thus less divine – that Nicholas punched him in the face. Later years obviously mellowed Santa…

(Other details were added to the story of Jesus at Constantine’s insistence.

According to the English writer Alan Moore, Rome was “a city divided by different theological factions, the largest and noisiest probably being the early Christian zealots. Then there was the cult of Mithras, which was smaller but which included the bulk of the Roman Military. Finally there was the cult of Sol Invictus, the Undefeated Sun, which was relatively small but very popular amongst the merchant class.

“Constantine’s posse came up with a composite religion to unite Rome: Christianity would incorporate large chunks of Mithraism, including the stuff about being born in a cave surrounded by shepherds and animals on the 25th of December, and would make concessions to the cult of Sol Invictus, the Undefeated Sun, by sticking a big Sun-symbol behind the messiah’s head in all the publicity hand-outs. This is politics.”)

During his lifetime, tales of Nicholas’ great kindness spread and with them rumours and tall tales of miracles he had performed. It was said he saved three young women from shame by giving their impoverished father dowries, which Nicholas may have thrown down the chimney.

He was said to have saved Myra from a famine in 311 by performing a loaves-and-fishes miracle with a ship cargo of wheat.

He was even rumoured to have resurrected three murdered children.

Being human, Nicholas eventually got old and – at what would have been at the time the incredibly old age of 73 – he died on the 6th of December in the year 343.

But that was only the beginning.

His tomb became a popular place of pilgrimage but – and this gets gruesome, so adults look away – in 1087 Italian sailors seized half of St Nicholas’ skeleton and brought it to Bari where those remains lay today in two churches, one Catholic and one Orthodox Christian. Venetian sailors later claimed the remaining fragments of the skeleton and brought them to Venice, where the church of St Nicholas was built.

 

tomb-of-saint-nicholas

The Tombstone of Saint Nicholas, Newtown Jerpoint, Co Kilkenny

However, there is another legend about Saint Nicholas.

It is said that two 12th century crusaders brought the remains of Saint Nicholas as far away from danger as they could, to Ireland, effectively taking him to what was then the ends of the Earth.

It is believed that the remains of Saint Nicholas were buried at the Church of Saint Nicholas in what is now the lost town of Newtown Jerpoint, two miles from Thomastown in Co Kilkenny. The grave’s stone slab is carved with the image of a cleric with the head of a knight behind either shoulder, said to be the two crusaders.

It is a historical fact that Norman knights took part in the Crusades and the Normans in Kilkenny were well-known as collectors of religious relics.

Who really knows?

What’s important is that in death, Nicholas became bigger than a man, bigger even than a saint.

Nicholas became a story.

And everyone knows that stories get stronger every time they’re told. And if it’s a really simple story, a really powerful story, like a story about a man who secretly gives gifts and wants nothing in return, well, a story like that can become magical.

The story of Nicholas grew as it spread, gaining power as it went. In Europe, it bumped into Martin Luther’s legend of the Christkind – a magical version of the Baby Jesus who gives gifts to children – and absorbed it.  In Britain, it met the story of Father Christmas (think Charles Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Present) and absorbed that too. In the Netherlands and Belgium, Saint Nicholas became Sinterklaas, where he’s celebrated still.

By the time the story reached the New World, Sinterklaas was Americanized to Santa Claus and in 1823, the publication of “A Visit From St Nicholas” (“‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse”) gave new impetus to the legend.

In 1863, the cartoonist Thomas Nast drew Santa as a portly, white-bearded gentleman giving toys to children and the picture was almost complete. The North Pole, the elves, Rudolf, Mrs Claus and all the other details grew from there.

Contrary to persistent urban myths, Santa wore red and white long before Coca-Cola portrayed him in those colours. In fact, Santa as we know him, in his white-trimmed red suit and cap, appeared on the cover of “Puck” magazine in the first years of the 20th century.

puck-santa

Given life by the power of belief, Santa Claus has come to be the embodiment of Christmas for millions of children around the world, a magical being of great joy and kindness.

Even as he races around the world to reach every child this Christmas night, when Santa comes to KiIkenny, perhaps he will find the time to stop at the ruined Church of Saint Nicholas to pay his respects to the man he was before he became Santa.

Happy Christmas.

Donal O’Keeffe

One year on, it’s clear Ireland’s Marriage Equality referendum was about a lot more than marriage

Marref“There is no equivalency between marriage and sodomy and those who seek to make them equal are only codding themselves and others.”

So began a letter to The Avondhu in March 2015. The writer – a regular “family values” correspondent whose ultra-conservative Catholic views would make a board meeting of the Iona Institute  look like Sunday brunch at the Playboy Mansion – was scandalised at the then-imminent marriage equality referendum.

God was quickly brought in to back up her argument because, presumably, there’s little the Almighty can’t be rolled out to justify. “God is not mocked,” she wrote. “We need only to see the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to know that God will not tolerate homosexual behaviour.”

“Since it is a grave sin, we cannot support sodomy under any circumstance… In Ireland for the past twenty years, in particular, we have been drip fed the homosexual lifestyle.”

TV soaps, apparently, have been to the forefront, “softening up the nation with their carefully crafted  scripts so that our acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle, that which is so opposed to God’s laws, has taken a ‘soft grip’ on the minds of the people”.

(At the time, I asked the human rights campaigner and leading member of Yes Equality Colm O’Gorman if “the homosexual lifestyle” mainly involves, as I’ve long suspected, liking Abba. “Pretty much,” he replied, drily. “That and really, really nice shoes”.)

The Avondhu’s correspondent, however, warned “any opposition to the ‘gay lifestyle’ will earn us the term(s) homophobic, intolerant, ignorant and old fashioned. While many may be bullied into silence, Christians are called to witness to Christ and to speak the truth, uncomfortable though it may be….

“We could never have envisioned that in 2015, Ireland would be asked to vote sodomy into the Irish Constitution and be deluded into calling it marriage.” The correspondent saw this as part of an agenda she called “The new ‘Human Rights’”.

It really is a fantastic screed and it breaks my heart not to re-produce it in full. (Sodomy is mentioned three times – and five times in a follow-up letter – leading me to conclude that some people really do seem to spend a lot of time thinking about sex.) It is indeed, as the author said, “homophobic, intolerant, ignorant and old fashioned”. It is also deeply offensive, not just to anyone who is gay, or to anyone who has gay family and gay friends, but also to anyone who just wants to live in a republic of equals and an Ireland of warmth and kindness.

It is also, in hindsight, a lot more honest than much of the dog-whistle stuff about children peddled by the No campaign. The letter spurred some —

Please read on in my column in The Avondhu

Column: Welcome to the Oval Office, President Trump

TrumpI had a sandwich and a coffee in the Amber service station in Fermoy a few weeks ago. At the table next to me was a group of children, eating chips and enjoying the lack of adult supervision. Four boys and two girls. I’d say the oldest of them was ten. I paid no heed till I realised that they were discussing politics.

“Guys!” said a boy who had until this point been throwing ketchup sachets at one of the girls, “Imagine if Donald Trump actually won!”

“Oh my God, Donald Trump is such a racist!” replied the girl.

“If Donald Trump wins it will be The End Of The World,” said the other girl with grim certainty.

“Um,” said a boy who was stacking his chips one on top of the other in a lattice formation, “You know Donald Trump won’t be the actual president of Ireland, ‘cause that’s like President Higgins’ job?”

(From the murmur of approval which greeted this remark, I suspect Michael D would get a warm reception from Fermoy’s under-ten community, should ever he stop into Amber for a feed of chips.)

“If Donald Trump gets to be The President Of America,” said the little girl, keen to return to the apocalypse, “That’s like he’s The President Of The World!”

“Oh my God that would be SO horrible!” said the boy stacking chips. “Donald Trump is like the Worst Person Ever!”

Beside them, I thought, given we have such clued-in children, then at the least the future of this country is in safe hands.

Mind you, they wrapped up their discussion by having a competition to see who could eat the most sugar, so perhaps their political insight should be judged accordingly.

Personally, I don’t know if President Donald Trump will be The End Of The World but I do think there’s a terrifying possibility that not alone will he be the Republican candidate, I think (and the bookies say I’m wrong) there’s a good chance he might well become US president.

I get rocks thrown at me every time I say this, but I think Hillary Rodham Clinton is a godawful candidate. Every time she points at an imaginary person in the audience, I hear a voice saying “Welcome to the Oval Office, President Trump”.

Clinton is the very epitome of the political establishment against which Trump has built his seemingly-unstoppable insurgency campaign. It’s hard to avoid the suspicion —

Please read on in my column in The Avondhu

What might rape culture look like in Ireland?

Things that cause rape

The Oxford English Dictionary defines rape culture as “A society… whose prevailing social attitudes have the effect of normalising or trivialising sexual assault and abuse”. Wikipedia adds: “Behaviours commonly associated… include victim blaming, sexual objectification, trivialising rape, denial of widespread rape, refusing to acknowledge the harm caused by some forms of sexual violence, or some combination of these.”

December 2009:

“I just wanted to support him, just let him know he was not alone,” said Father Sean Sheehy, then-parish priest of Castlegregory, Co Kerry, after he joined a group of up to fifty people as they queued in Tralee Circuit Criminal Court to shake hands with Danny Foley.

Foley (35) had just been convicted of sexually assaulting a young woman a year earlier. Foley – then employed as a bouncer – had met his victim (then 22) at a Listowel nightclub and bought her a drink. After drinking it, she became incapacitated. (Later, she remembered trying to stop Foley from removing her clothing.)

Gardai found her in an alleyway, beside a skip, naked from the waist down, semi-conscious and covered in cuts and bruises. Foley was crouching over her. Foley told the Guards, “I came around here for a slash and I saw yer wan lying on the ground.”

CCTV footage showed Foley carrying her to the alleyway, so he changed his story, saying that she took off her trousers and asked for sex.

The jury convicted him. In his sentencing remarks, Judge Donagh McDonagh said Foley’s allegations about mutual sexual acts were designed “to add insult to injury” and “to demean and denigrate her further in the eyes of the jury and the public”.

Foley got a seven year sentence with the last two years suspended. (This being Ireland, he was out in three and a half years.)

Father Sheehy said “it seemed to me an extremely harsh sentence”. He went on national radio to extol Danny Foley’s decency.

Of Foley’s victim, Father Sheehy said: I don’t want to make any judgment on her at all, but obviously the whole situation must have been embarrassing, for the police to happen upon them and what-notShe’s the mother of a young child as well and, you know, that in itself doesn’t look great.”

Please read on in The Avondhu

 

O Lord, give us a fresh election but not just yet #GE16Part2

54 days since the election, it seems clear that, for some, the real focus is on the next election, writes Donal O’Keeffe  

You’d want to be brave to comment on the ongoing discussions to form a government, seeing as the story twists and turns on a daily basis, but 54 days – and counting – since the election, one thing at least is clear: for some in Dáil Éireann, the last election isn’t half as important as the next.

It looks – at the time of writing – like the talking will go on well past the (presumably) scheduled next failure to elect a Taoiseach. With the Labour Party suddenly talking about talking about going back into coalition – and whither the Greens and SocDems? – it looks like this uncertainty could stretch out for weeks more.

Latest polling suggests an immediate election would only yield another hung Dáil (and cost €40 million we don’t have). The Independents might well suffer if the electorate thinks again about electing a hodge-podge of sole traders, what’s left of Labour can’t be too confident either and Sinn Fein and Fianna Fáil would rather wait. O Lord give us a fresh election, seems the prevailing opinion in political circles, but not just yet.

Please read on…

Nobody wins unless everybody wins – Why Springsteen’s championing LGBT rights is no surprise

o-BRUCE-SPRINGSTEEN-570.jpg“Some things are more important than a rock show and this fight against prejudice and bigotry — which is happening as I write — is one of them.” 

So wrote Bruce Springsteen last week, explaining his decision to cancel his concert in Greensboro, North Carolina. 

North Carolina had just passed House Bill 2, which – as Springsteen noted – “the media are referring to as ‘the bathroom law’. HB2 – known officially as the Public Facilities Privacy and Security – dictates which bathrooms transgender people are permitted to use.

“To my mind, it’s an attempt by people who cannot stand the progress our country has made in recognising the human rights of all of our citizens to overturn that progress…”

Those of us who know him would expect nothing less from Bruce Springsteen.

After all, this is the man who, four years ago, told the world of his decades-long battle with depression. I genuinely believe he did so for no other reason than to help de-stigmatise something which afflicts millions of people.

My #GE16 opinion column: For the want of a vote, the election was lost

The game of “what if” is as old as humanity and we all know from an early age how the smallest of things can have the most profound of effects.

“For the want of a nail, the kingdom was lost” goes the old proverb, “For want of a shoe the horse was lost; For want of a horse the battle was lost; For the failure of battle the kingdom was lost – All for the want of a horse-shoe nail.”

As we close in on what politicians like to call “the only poll that counts”, we are beset on all sides by opinion polls and they all seem to point in broadly the same direction. Micheál Martin is having a good campaign – shame he doesn’t have a party; Enda is defying the lowest expectations in the history of politics – just about; Gerry Adams is proving he has a foot of clay on either side of the border; support for the independents is up and Labour is facing extinction.

If the polls are right, we can expect a hung Dáil. We could be looking at Fine Gael propped up by a hodge-podge of independents, or Enda Kenny’s nightmare scenario of a Fianna Fáil/Sinn Fein coalition or even a grand coalition of the two civil war parties – Fianna Gael.

At the time of writing – just before the final TV debate – it’s impossible to predict a game-changer in such a tight campaign.

Perhaps Joan Burton will find her voice and remind Labour’s critics that they did some good in office, too. Perhaps those who were never prouder of their country than they were on the day we voted for marriage equality will remember that it wouldn’t have happened without the Labour Party.

In the first TV debate of this campaign, Micheál Martin goaded Gerry Adams to such a degree that Adams snapped “Would you ever fff… go away and catch yourself on.” Perhaps Micheál will irritate him the rest of the way and this time Gerry won’t go with the second phrase to pop into his head.

Perhaps Enda will manage to actually top the astonishingly smug smile he gave on Sunday when he was asked if he stood over calling some of his own constituents “All Ireland champion whingers”. He did stand over it, he said. Some of them wouldn’t know sunshine on a sunny day. By the next morning, he said he had meant people from Fianna Fáil.

Sometimes, in the age of opinion polls, it seems there’s hardly even a point to voting. It’s important to remember, though, that opinion polls are only snapshots and in politics – as in every walk of life – the smallest thing can change everything.

It’s also worth remembering that at the start of the week of the 2011 presidential campaign, all of the opinion polls suggested only one likely outcome: President Sean Gallagher. Then, in the heat of a live television debate, Pat Kenny read out what appeared to be a tweet from Sinn Fein, claiming to be about to produce a smoking gun on donations to Gallagher. Rattled, Gallagher stumbled badly.

At the time, Ken Curtin (nowadays a candidate for the Social Democrats) tweeted it was an ambush worthy of General Tom Barry himself.

Next morning, Gallagher went on RTÉ Radio 1, flailing all around him, and got into a row with businesswoman Glenna Lynch (coincidentally, also a Social Democrat candidate these days). Things went from bad to worse for Gallagher and, by the end of the week, Michael D. Higgins was given the largest mandate in the history of the State and elected the 9th President of Ireland.

In the game of “what if”, perhaps there’s a world where an RTÉ researcher paused for a second and thought twice about passing the so-called “fake tweet” to Pat Kenny. For the want of a tweet in that world, perhaps President Sean Gallagher is doing a perfectly good job in the Áras (even if some of us did raise an eyebrow at his pre-election “pro-business” intervention).

No matter what the polls say, a day is a long time in politics and it would be a fool who would rule out what Harold Macmillan called “Events, dear boy”.

The smallest of things can change everything. For the want of a nail, the kingdom was lost. For the want of a vote, the election could be lost.

That vote is still in your hands.

Donal O’Keeffe

Evening Echo column: Is voting more important than the Leaving Cert? #GE16

Two days before the deadline to register to vote, my eldest nephew took off his headphones and looked up from his pre-Leaving revision for a quick chat. He turned 18 last month, a clever, decent and clued-in young man, and I thought he’d be delighted to have his say in our democracy.

Not so much. He’d gone to the Garda Station but they were out of forms. No problem, I said, I’ll send you the links. He seemed less than enthused, so I said voting is a big deal for any Irish citizen. “Is it, though?” he asked. “I think I’d probably be better off concentrating on my exams.

“Anyway, who could I vote for? What relevance do they have to my life?”

I suggested education, healthcare, social protection and any number of other ways in which politics impacts directly upon the lives of young people, but I was crestfallen to see someone so bright disengaged from the workings of our political system.

He asked me how many candidates come to the job via – as he put it – “nepotism” and I replied, long-windedly, that while we tend to think of political dynasties as a uniquely Irish phenomenon, dynasties occur in every democracy and, anyway, parties select candidates they think most likely to get elected and it’s then up to the electorate who represents them. To be honest, I could see I wasn’t impressing him and – frankly – I wasn’t impressing myself either.

I asked him if he or his friends ever talk about politics and he said that – apart from last year’s Marriage Equality referendum – they tend to have more important things to think about.

“I mean,” he said, “You don’t go out with your friends and discuss politics, do you? Does anybody?”

Feeling very old, I avoided that question but asked whether he has any friends who are members of political parties. That earned the withering response “If they were, they wouldn’t be my friends”.

I asked whether any particular figure in politics strikes him as note-worthy. “No,” was his blunt response. “They’re all either embarrassments, like Wallace and Ming or else they’re like the worst kind of teacher imaginable. Teachers you’d laugh at. Like Enda.

“Why can’t we have proper leaders, like Obama? Instead, we get Enda. Look at him! Such a teacher!”

I pointed out that he actually gets on very well with his teachers and – as it happens – President Obama is a teacher himself, a professor of law.

Which I thought was a very clever point. “Whatever,” my nephew said a smile, “Look, I don’t mean to be rude, but I’ve exams in the morning.” The headphones went back on.

This isn’t a “Why-Oh-Why?” about The Youth Of Today With Their Hair And The Music. I’m biased, but my nephew is a lovely young man. He’s a lot smarter than me and he’s someone in whose hands Ireland should be very safe. So why isn’t he exercised about this election? Why – if he’s right – do he and his contemporaries find politics so boring and irrelevant?

Are our kids failing our democracy or are we failing them?

I couldn’t help but think of my nephew last weekend, when I snuck into Enda Kenny’s dreary private address to the Fermoy FG faithful. It was an interminable yarn about all the American CEOs Enda has dazzled with Ireland’s recovery and his own homespun wisdom. He also terrorised Fermoy’s breathless Blueshirts with visions of the Sinn Fein/Fianna Fáil zombie apocalypse which will follow a hung Dáil.

“I want ye to go out there,” Enda told them. “Go out there and knock on the door *nok nok nok* and say ‘Mary or John or Paddy or whatever your name is, we can’t afford to lave the country down’. (Long pause.)

“Go raibh mile maith agaibh!!” (Rapturous applause.)

All I could think was “Like a muinteoir trying vainly to channel a revivalist preacher”.

(By way of a postscript, maybe my nephew is wrong. His cousin is eleven and thinks it’s the gravest injustice of all time that he has no say in how his country is run. I reckon at least one of them has the makings of a future Taoiseach.)

Originally published in The Evening Echo 23rd February 2016.

Donal O’Keeffe

Tweeting from behind the lines of Endapalooza: Fermoy #GE16

I got a much-needed laugh on Friday night when I live-tweeted from inside Enda Kenny’s private address to the Fermoy Fine Gael faithful.

The troops were already on high alert since a local member of the Anti-Prosperity Alliance, standing inside the door of the Grand Hotel – “Aren’t you a fine-looking young man” – had refused to shake the Taoiseach’s hand.

Enda’s address was pretty dreary stuff, to be honest. Like listening to a muinteoir trying to channel a revivalist preacher. Much talk of this big company boss and that multinational CEO and the other financial big shot, all of whom had been very impressed by Ireland’s recovery and by Enda’s Chance the Gardener homespun wisdom.

“Let’s keep the recovery going” was repeated ad nauseam and the local candidates (Tom “Lapgate” Barry, Dave Stanton (although Enda called him “Staunton”) and Noel McCarthy were namechecked eight hundred and ninety-six times over the course of a speech that was about as much fun as Mass. The only good bit was when Enda terrorised the local Blue-rinse Brigade with hair-raising warnings of the Sinn Féin/Fianna Fáil zombie apocalypse which will follow a hung Dáil.

Enda’s looking well, I have to say. I hadn’t met him in ten years and his hair is now an even more grand natural colour than it was when I accidentally went on the tear with him in the Ginger Man the night Shane McEntee was elected. I’m as grey as a badger. An Taoiseach is two decades older than me and hasn’t a single grey hair on his head. Maybe he’s born with it.

(I tweeted a few bits and pieces. Harmless enough stuff. In one, earlier, tweet I said that though Enda had bought the first pint that night ten years ago, I was planning on telling him it was definitely his round now.)

Tom Lapgate sat looking desolate beside his parachuted-in ex-Labour rival Noellie Mac. I haven’t seen Tom look so uncomfortable since, well, the day after Lapgate, when poor Tom was hounded mercilessly by The Dublin Media for trying to bring a bit of much-needed levity to the Protection of Life in Pregnancy debate by innocently pawing Áine Collins TD.

MInd you, Noellie didn’t look too happy either. He seemed pale and ill-at-ease, like a man only waiting for someone to ask him why he spent the last five years criticising his Labour Party colleagues for not standing up more to the Blueshirts as they enacted their Tory pauper-culling agenda and then, first sniff of a Dáil seat, he took the Queen’s shilling. Also, I guess the big farmers and stout shopkeepers who vote FG wouldn’t be Noellie’s natural constituency and maybe this was the first time he’s been alone in a room with them.

Anyway, an aeon into his speech, Enda finally wrapped things up by offering the breathless crowd his canvassing advice: “I want ye to go out there. Go out there and knock on the door *nok nok nok* and say ‘Mary or John or Paddy or whatever your name is, we can’t afford to lave the country down’. (Long pause.)

“Go raibh mile maith agaibh!” (Rapturous applause.)

Apparently, downstairs, my tweets were sending Enda’s handlers into a tizzy that “radicals” had infiltrated the meeting. By the time a burly lad in a very expensive suit tracked me down, the Dear Leader had already been bundled down the stairs and away on the Big Blue Bus.

Endapalooza

The big guy in the suit glared at me and said “Teas and coffees are through here, Sir, but I’ll be sure to tell the Taoiseach that it’s his round.

Sir.”

Donal O’Keeffe

Evening Echo Opinion: When it comes to election promises, listen to Phillo – Don’t believe a word

Phillo.jpg“Don’t believe a word

For words are only spoken

Your heart is like a promise

Made to be broken.

So sang Philip Parris Lynott, dead these last thirty years. He’d have been 66 now. I can imagine Phillo, older, maybe wiser, advising us as the 2016 General Election kicks off: “Don’t believe a word. Not a word of this is true.”

Cynic that I am, I’d be inclined to agree. Personally, I feel you’ll have no-one but yourself to blame if you believe a word out of any politician’s mouth between here and Friday the 26th of February.

The competing pitches will likely be “Stability versus chaos” and “A fairer recovery”. In other words, “We made the tough decisions but if you re-elect us we won’t do it again” versus “No, vote for us, we have easy answers”.

Between here and polling day, you will be inundated with promises. Promises are the life blood of election campaigns and they’ll fill the airwaves and eat up all the – sigh – fiscal space too.

Promises are made, the saying goes, to be broken, but they have a horrible habit of coming back to haunt those who make them. In the dying days of the last election, the Labour Party – panicked at the prospect of a Fine Gael over-all majority – released their “Every Little Hurts” poster. A play on the Tesco advert, it listed the worst excesses likely to be enacted by Fine Gael unless Labour was in coalition to restrain the harshest of the Blueshirts’ Tory, pauper-culling instincts.

Every little hurtsSure enough, just like Fianna Fáil’s infamous 1987 “Health cuts hurt the old, the sick and the handicapped” poster – health cuts Fianna Fáil in government later introduced – Labour in coalition became part of the government which enacted every one of the cuts Labour had predicted an unrestrained Fine Gael would carry out. Promises, promises.

It could be argued the “Tesco ad” worked; certainly Fine Gael was denied an over-all majority. Former Labour leader and one-time putative candidate for Taoiseach, Eamon Gilmore said recently he had paid “very little attention” to the advert, something for which he said he had paid “a very high price later”.

Still, as Gilmore’s fellow former Labour leader, Pat Rabbitte, said, “Isn’t that what you tend to do during an election?”

Of course, what tends to be forgotten or ignored about Rabbitte’s remark is that it was made in the context of a “The Week In Politics” debate about Labour not adding a “Terms and Conditions Apply” clause to their promises (specifically stating that all political pledges are subject to the prevailing economic climate). “You didn’t go into all that detail before the election, you kept it simple,” accused RTÉ’s Seán O’Rourke, which was met with the “Isn’t that what you tend to do–?” reply.

No matter, the damage was done and – online at least – Rabbitte’s comment has stuck to Labour’s neck like Coleridge’s albatross. Then again, you could fill the GPO in 1916 with people on Twitter pretending to be disaffected former Labour voters who wouldn’t be fans of Sinn Féin themselves but who’ll be giving the Shinners a grudging vote this time out.

Although the Taoiseach launched this election on Twitter, it remains to be seen how much – or how little – social media will actually affect it. Perhaps the more sedate Facebook will be where online difference (if any) is made, as friends or at least acquaintances have polite discussions or even respectful arguments, while Twitter continues its downward spiral into personal abuse and – ultimately – irrelevance.

As usual, it’ll be on the doorsteps and airwaves that candidates will have the most impact and it’ll be there the promises will come thick, fast and made to be broken.

Mind you, as Irish Examiner columnist Michael Clifford points out, while broken promises can be bad for political parties, sometimes kept promises (like Fianna Fáil’s 1977 giveaway manifesto) can be disastrous for the country.

So, then, promises you’ll likely hear between now and the 26th. Fix the HSE? Free GP care (again)? Tax cuts? End the USC? A living wage? Fix childcare? End homelessness? #RepealThe8th? Hold back the floods?

No coalition with this crowd, that shower or the other?

Forget it. For all the promises, all the slogans and all the guff you’ll hear between now and the election, only two words matter: “79 seats”.

Since the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2011 reduced the number of TDs to 158 – and taking the Ceann Comhairle out of the equation – 79 seats is the number needed for a majority.

The barrister and pundit Noel Whelan recalls being in Fianna Fáil headquarters as the 1989 election results came in and the previously unthinkable became suddenly thinkable.

Outgoing Taoiseach Charlie Haughey had firmly ruled out coalition but, writing down every possible combination of parties and/or independents that added-up to a majority, the then-party accountant Seán Fleming realised “If those are the numbers, any of (these combinations) is possible”. Ultimately, the price of power for Fianna Fáil was abandoning its core principle and going into coalition, and going into coalition with the hated Progressive Democrats.

Terms and conditions apply to all promises and you’d want to be very naïve indeed to trust that any party will – post election – rule out a deal if the numbers add up.

79 seats. Everything else is just marketing.

Listen to Phillo. “Don’t believe a word.”

Originally published as an op-ed in the Evening Echo 11th February 2016

Donal O’Keeffe