A very old, very charming and very wise Clonmel woman, now long dead, was known to many of us, old Clonmelians, for her ability to tell stories. These were based on her own life experiences and observations of people and of life, and like all good stories, they were added-to, embellished, at each telling. But all had a moral tag-end, a personal comment, that was surprisingly accurate in hitting the nail on the head.
I can imagine her how telling the story of the cake which Sean Quinn ordered (or commissioned) for the wedding of his daughter. Improbable as it may sound, this was six feet in height, was decorated with pendant roses (made of icing sugar), and was so fragile that it had to have extra-special care in its transport by plane from the United States, where it was made, to Ireland.
The cake was a prop, a bit of bling, in a modern Irish fairy story, â€œthe poor man who went from rags to riches,â€ the beautiful little girl who became a princess and married her prince. And having told the story, I can hear the echo of this old womanâ€™s comment. She had little time for excesses and ostentation. â€œAh! she would conclude,â€the vulgarity of it all!â€
And whatâ€™s wrong with vulgarity? one may well ask. Isnâ€™t any billionaire entitled to a bit of extravagant exhibitionism? Indeed, he is, but here the bad fairy enters the story. The cake cost 100,000, and was not treated as a personal expense. It was charged to company accounts and is now part of Irelandâ€™s national debt, which hard-working, tax-paying, Irish people will be paying for, in their own lifetimes, and for which their children and, proabably their grandchildren, will be paying for in decades to come.
The cake has become a sort of metaphor for the fate that befell many ordinary Irish people, where, in our race to get rich quickly, we seemed to have lost our common sense, replacing the shadow for the substance, the glitz for reality.
A recent RTE â€œLivelineâ€ programme was devoted to the experiences of some of these ordinary people. There was the taxi man who now found himself not only in single negative equity, but a multiple of that factor. He had â€œinvestedâ€ in 14 houses. This investment had been made gradually. He acquired one house, and that led to another acquisition, and yet another and another. And now, he was in serious trouble. He owed the bank four million, and the rapacious wolves were howling at the door, and he didnâ€™t have any wagons to circle his besieged space.
In telling his story, he was actually asking for public sympathy. When it was suggested to him that his personal debt was, apparently, about to become the debt of Irish taxpayers, he sounded nonplussed. This wasnâ€™t his responsibility, he seemed to imply; hadnâ€™t he been led up the garden paths of each of the houses by the banks, who had thrown money at him.
His story was a magnet for other story-tellers, all of whom found themselves in deep financial trouble, though to a lesser extent. Some had two â€œinvestmentâ€ houses, some had three or four. All felt aggrieved about â€œwhat the banks have done to us.â€
It appeared they had not only been cajoled but they had been part-bullied, part-seduced, into borrowing more money than they could possibly earn in several average lifetimes. The seduction took the form of lunches in restaurants, weekends in posh hotels, and tickets for rugby matches.
The deliberate inflation of the value of a property, by the bank, so that this would facilitate another mortgage on yet another property, was also mentioned. â€œHe just came into the hall. He didnâ€™t go into any of the rooms. He said to me: â€œWhat value would you put on it?â€ and I said so-and-so, and thatâ€™s what he wrote down.â€
All the contributors balked at the suggestion that they might have been motivated by greed. No, no, they said - they were only thinking of the childrenâ€™s education or a modest pension for themselves in old age. And neither was there any concern about the ordinary tax-payer, nor the fallout of their adventure on health and education and employment.
The houses had become debt-accuring burdens. Houses had to have tenants, and tenants did not always pay their rent, and sometimes they filled the garden with garbage which had to be removed by the landlord. And pipes leaked in bathrooms, and sewerage outlets became blocked, and windows were broken and ceilings required paint. Thatâ€™s what people said on the national radio.
How did we Irish get ourselves into this mess? Did we do our sums? No computer required, just a pencil and a piece of paper and third class primary arithmetic. What had happened to our sense of values? Did we think that the main ingredient of our investments, the building block, would go on wildly inflating beyond the intrinsic value of a combination of sand and cement and water? And that it would not ultimately disintegrate under its own weight? Or did we all believe that we could have our cake (even Sean Quinnâ€™s cake) and eat it?
Intermingled with this modern Irish story, I can hear the distant comment of that old story-telling Clonmel woman and her wry conclusions. â€œEven in your so-called, sophisticated times,â€ she would say: â€œpeople will fall for that old con-rascal, the Three Card Trick Man at the village fair.â€