By Jock O'Connell
It's well enough into December to begin taking stock of 2007. So I'd like to report on what will most almost certainly stand as my most peculiar accomplishment of the past twelve months - namely, making the acquaintance of not one but two Prime Ministers of Ireland.
Officially, they carry the title Taoiseach, an Irish term I'm told is pronounced tee-shock. The plural is Taoisigh, and I frankly have no clue as to how that should come out of an English-speaking mouth. In any case, my first Taoiseach of the year was John Bruton. He had held the job from December 1994 until June 1997, when his Fine Gael party was ousted in a general election by Fianna Fail, led by Ireland's current Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. More on him later.
After a stint as leader of the opposition, Bruton left Irish politics in favor of a seat in the European Parliament. In the fullness of time, he became the European Union's ambassador to the United States. Early this summer he came to Sacramento on an official visit, during which the exasperatingly right-wing California Chamber of Commerce hosted a dinner in his honor. Fortunately, the dictates of protocol obliged the Chamber to invite a few of the capital's more conspicuous Irish-Americans (generally of the left-wing persuasion) to mingle with the lifeless stalwarts who customarily turn up at Chamber events. That's why I -- someone who over the years had notoriously used op-ed commentaries to transform into a minor art form the pleasure of irritating the Chamber's leadership -- came to be chatting with the ambassador during a pre-dinner cocktail reception. Of course, I was mindful that the Chamber's hired goons were standing close at hand, eager to toss out any Paddys who might create a disturbance, raise a voice to song, or merely commit the sin of imbibing too much of the Chamber's precious liquor. Still, I was there and had even done a little homework prior to arriving at the Chamber's dining room on the 14th floor of an office tower overlooking the state capitol building. And so it was that, second whiskey of the evening in hand, I seized the occasion to inform Ambassador Bruton that not only had he and I been born in the same year but that we were both educated by the Jesuits. (He was a graduate of Clongowes, the Jesuit secondary school in Dublin James Joyce had once attended.)
I half-feared that he might reply with the sort of "that's very nice, Mr. O'Connell, now go stand over there in the corner and be quite still" kind of remark an abstemious headmaster might make. But no. Instead, he seemed genuinely relieved to find someone else who had come through the Jesuit experience standing before him instead of yet another born-again worthy from the Chamber whining about the value of the euro.
"Really. And where, may I ask, were you schooled by the Jesuits," he asked.
"A Jesuit high school in Maine and a Jesuit college in Massachusetts."
"Ah, so you're from New England. You know, I've long been fascinated with the role the Irish have played in the politics of Boston."
"Well, in that case, you may be interested to know that one of my high school teachers was a Jesuit named Francis X. Curley."
"Any relation to James Michael by any chance?"
"Father and son."
Following a brief discussion of how Mayor Curley and his ilk despised the Kennedys (and vice-versa), Bruton offered to add my name to a list (which I do not for a moment imagine to be particularly exclusive) of people with whom he shares his thoughts on the issues of US-EU relations via a weekly email. Figuring there was nothing to be served in denying the request of someone who was just about then crossing the threshold of 60, I acceded and soon after began receiving his weekly memos.
One that arrived in late August began with an apology for a three-week lapse in his correspondence. He explained that he and his wife Finella had been off on holiday -- a week spent visiting friends and relatives in the west of Ireland and then two weeks of vacation in southwestern France. Since Patty and I were then in the midst of planning a trip that would take us to the same regions in September, I emailed Bruton to ask if he had any specific recommendations on what to see or do in that lower left-hand corner of France. (Other than, of course, the wine, cheese, cassoulet, fois gras and Armagnac things for which that part of France is justly celebrated.) He wrote back the next day, recommending Esperaza, a town south of Carcassonne in the foothills of the Pyrenees where they had enjoyed a delightful stay. I immediately google-earthed the town and determined that it well-suited our provisional itinerary. I also learned it had once been the chapeau capital of France, but that was back when men wore hats and not baseball caps. A few clicks later and we had reservations for a couple of nights at La Maison du Chapelier ( http://www.esperazabedandbreakfast.com/). So in the third week of September, Patty and I spent a couple of days exploring the town and a surrounding countryside strewn with the ruins of altogether too much medieval religious strife. This, after all, was a region that had been on the front lines of not only the Christian effort to contain the Moors in Spain but also that small matter of the Albigensian Crusaders successful suppression of the Cathar heretics. The latter conflict, waged between erstwhile followers of Christ, was naturally fought with that special ferocity reserved for intramural disputes over the proper path to salvation. God save us from well-armed zealots.
But I digress, as a sixty year-old story-teller is apt to do, or so I'm told. The tale of the two Taoisigh now continues through this excerpt from an email I sent to Ambassador Bruton shortly after Patty and I returned home to California at the very end of September.
While in Esperaza, I bought a postcard, addressed it to you in Washington and scribbled a message to the effect of how much we had enjoyed the town and the surrounding countryside. My sincere intention was to mail the card from France. But I had not counted on the remarkable tendency of French post offices to be closed during precisely the same hours I was most apt to entertain the notion of buying a stamp. So it was that the card remained in my jacket pocket for the next several days. And so it was that it eventually found itself briefly in the hands of Bertie Ahern.
Our route home from southwestern France took us through Dublin, where we stayed for a couple of days at a B&B in Drumcondra before flying back to California. The owner had advised us that the best meals in the neighborhood could be had at Fagan's pub just down the road. So there were were, sitting up at the bar having our dinner and sipping our drinks when I suddenly spied the Taoiseach himself standing not more than a few paces away, having a pint with a woman and a couple of men whom I took to be aides rather than security guards. What an opportunity, I thought.
With the postcard in one hand and a pen in the other, I walked over to Mr. Ahern.
"Excuse me, Prime Minister, but I am an American, and I have here a postcard I'm sending to an acquaintance in the states whom you know, and I wonder if you would care to add a postscript."
Understandably puzzled but not ruffled, he took the card from me and stared it for the longest moment, prompting the woman in his company to ask: "Who is it, Bertie?"
"Jaysus, it's Bruton," he replied. "How do you know this fellow?"
I explained quickly how you and I had met at a dinner in Sacramento during a visit you had made to California this past summer and how we had taken note of the fact we had both been educated by the Jesuits (one of whom, in my case, had been the son of James Michael Curley).
"Well, Jock, this fellow comes over here often. I tell you what. Next time he's here, I'll mention that we met, but I've really nothing to add to your card."
After a few pleasantries were exchanged about the pleasures of visiting the home of my ancestors, I returned to my seat at the bar and resumed dinner. A man seated on the next stool asked whether I had gotten the Taoiseach to autograph my card. Feeling the need to distinguish myself from a mere autograph-seeker, I explained that I had instead asked the Prime Minister if he'd care to add a message to someone both he and I knew.
"And who might that be?"
"John Bruton, the former Taoiseach."
"My God, man, didn't you know they're bitter enemies."
Well, so much for my innocent, inadvertent attempt at political rapprochement.
In the end, I mailed the card after returning to Sacramento. If you have the postcard dusted for fingerprints, you'll find Bertie Ahern's on it.
Here is Ambassador Bruton's reply:
That's a very interesting story. From Esperaza to Fagans! We are not bitter enemies, but he is a hard man to fathom.
I got the card. Many thanks