Who is a complete Aisling, then?
The photograph above this article was the launching pad for a piece[i] in The Irish Times magazine of Saturday, 29 January by regular columnist, Emer McLysaght, on which I want to reflect today.
Before getting into the meat of things, I should declare my “priors”.
I am not yet losing my hair and have no grandchildren on my knee, but I am 64, well down the back nine of life’s course, almost certainly out of touch with the zeitgeist of young people still some way short of the ninth hole.
My social media presence is shallow. I dabble a bit on twitter and have a largely dormant Facebook account. I don’t have an Instagram account and Tik Tok is something I associate only with clocks. Mouldy old email is still my staple mode of digital communication, along with this blog.
I hold no brief for Leo Vardkar (indeed, last week’s blog was unambiguously critical of him) or Fine Gael. I am a transactional voter. In the last general election, the Greens and an Independent got my first and second preference votes.
Ms. McLysaght and Sarah Breen are authors of the very successful Complete Aisling books and fair play to them for that. I started one of them but gave up after a few pages. That’s not a criticism. It just wasn’t my wavelength.
So, on to Ms. McLysaght’s column.
She does give us some mildly amusing observations about the photograph.
Last week Varadkar shared a birthday with his partner Matt Barrett, and added to his grim aesthetic by posting a selfie of the pair sharing a Battenberg cake. You know, one of the small ones you’d get alongside the French Fancies in your local convenience store with a best-before date of 2029 and the density of turf. The whole scene screamed “final year student” and came complete with one half of the table covered with the detritus of life, a backpack (complete with tag, possibly a birthday present for the men who have everything?) within arm’s reach and an air of “light the candle again there for the photo”.
It’s not the first time Varadkar has posted unironically austere food photos. He was slagged to high heaven over a tiny, transparent crepe he shared on Twitter to mark Pancake Tuesday a few years back. “Last treat before the Lenten fast begins,” he tweeted, “Looking forward to an uber healthy 40 days”. If the pancake was his idea of a treat than I’d hate to see what leaner times look like for him.
It puzzles me why anybody posts pictures of their domestic life for all the world to see. Is it outsize ego or outsize neediness? Almost as unfathomable is why anybody else would be bothered to look at them.
Certainly, this picture does look odd to me. Do you know anyone who celebrates their birthday with Battenberg cake? The smile on the Tánaiste’s face looks a bit rigid. Not even a glass of water in sight, never mind a champagne flute (Department of Foreign Affairs to note, please). Does this scene look genuinely “natural” or contrived to look like that? Are postings like this intended to make Mr. Varadkar more likeable to the public and, if so, does this one achieve that result? Authenticity is like sincerity. If you can fake it, you’ve got it made. But, it’s not that easy to fabricate.
Ms. McLysaght’s perspective might have been more interesting though if she had given examples of public figures whose social media output establishes them as more “in touch” with the people than we might otherwise think them to be. I have encountered very little social media stuff by people in the public eye that isn’t performative and curated, to promote an image rather than reveal a truth.
Anyway, whether we like the output or not, Mr. Varadkar is entitled to post whatever he likes within the law, and other people are equally entitled to interpret his posts as they like. Public figures who parade their personal lives above the parapet of privacy are fair game for the kind of slagging Ms. Lysaght gives this posting.
If she had drawn the line there, all would have been fine and dandy. But her attack goes deeper and sharper. Here are the column’s opening sentences.
In less than 12 months Leo Varadkar will be Taoiseach once again. As part of the rotating rotisserie chicken deal with Micheál Martin he’ll begin his second term this December, taking his place among the leaders of world and rubbing shoulders with the most powerful people on the planet. Maybe he’ll even invite some of them around to his lovely new house, push whatever shite is on the dining table to one side and take an intolerably grim photo of their lamb chops in whatever the opposite of mood lighting is and post it on Instagram.
Leo Varadkar will never be a man of the people — except maybe the people who get up at the same time as him — and his personal social media presence is evidence of that.
Further into the article:
He and Barrett just spent their first Christmas together in their new house in Dublin 8 — the posh end. Previously, Varadkar lived in a flat in Castleknock for over 15 years and while the new house is all fresh paint and natural light, the old place with the leather kitchen chairs and matching placemats will haunt me for decades…
… it felt haunted by builders eating breakfast rolls and had windows that looked prone to extreme condensation.
Living in such a dwelling myself, I maintain rigorous monitoring of the damp back wall and have been known to stock up on those little water absorption tubs in Dealz. I can only imagine that Leo was on the same beat in his Castleknock pad. You couldn’t have one of his nice suits getting mouldy!
And she finishes with a succession of jabs.
…the soon-to-be-again leader of the country has more to worry about than what his house looks like when he lives in a home fit for a king in a country crippled by a housing crisis. I just worry that Leo thinks that the Battenberg, the mismatched cacophony of pint glasses that surely inhabits the kitchen presses, the austere pancakes, are very “I’m just like you” when in fact they have the country scratching its head and wondering what he spends all his money on. It’s not birthday cakes anyway.
I am afraid I can’t resist pulling up the columnist on one smart-ass point. The “rotating rotisserie chicken” image just doesn’t work because, obviously, Mr. Martin and Mr. Varadkar are “rotating” in the sense of alternating rather than turning. But then I am pretty confident that the author’s desire was not to describe the arrangement accurately but to sneer at it as tawdry.
What point is Ms. McLysaght making? Does she believe that Mr. Varadkar should have stayed in his Castleknock apartment forever in sympathy with people like her who, I am guessing, don’t have the option of trading upwards, yet at any rate? I haven’t lived in Dublin for a while but I am familiar enough with it to know that even the so-called “posh end” of Dublin 8 is in the ha’penny place for poshness compared to Dublin 4 and Dublin 6. Ballsbridge, Donnybrook, Ranelagh and Rathmines, even a few places on the city’s north side, not to mention the Amalfi coast of Monkstown, Dalkey and Killiney are all a cut above the hinterland of the South Circular Road. How many people spend any time at all wondering what Mr. Varadkar spends “all” his money on? The “country” is surely scratching its head at the suggestion that it is overly bothered.
To borrow a word, Ms. McLysaght uses twice in her piece, this miserable “shite” is nothing more than a diatribe of verbal diarrhoea; personal animus towards Mr. Vardkar. It’s an uneasy mix of clunky sarcasm and raw resentment, the latter laced with more than a dash of self-pity maybe. Why can he escape to a palace when I’m still stuck in a hovel?
Ms. McLysaght is entitled to hold any view she likes of the Tánaiste and the column may well express her honest opinion. But that is, at best, a thin explanation, rather than a justification for its publication by the newspaper. Entitlement to free speech does not in itself imply an obligation on any media organ to publish what she says, especially a newspaper with lingering claims to seriousness. There must be some standards of relevance, originality and authority.
We know already that the constituency of people who detest Mr. Varadkar passionately extends well beyond the sewers of Twitter where it is frequently expressed with similar visceral contempt. There is no scarcity value in proclaiming that the Tánaiste “will never be a man of the people”. But that view is only interesting to the extent it is supported by plausible and granular insight, something a bit more sophisticated than some subjectively interpreted “evidence” from his social media output.
A quality newspaper should be a vehicle for the expression of thought rather than the indulgence of prejudice. After all, it is only a short shuffle from somebody not being a man of the people to their being an enemy of the people with all that designation implies.