I guess I was barely a wet week in this wet place back in 1985 by the time various people had opened my wide American eyes: the Leader of the Opposition and Taoiseach-in-Waiting, Charles Haughey, was a scoundrel, probably a criminal, and a philanderer whose lovers could be pointed out as they made their various appearances in the media.

In years to follow I learned more, rarely from journalism, about his public and personal activities, including a jaw-dropping story from his private life that has yet to see the media light of day. Most of the evidence-based negative characterisations I heard had this in common: they came from Plain People who nonetheless held Haughey in high (or at least sneaking) regard.

Friends who were otherwise rational, sceptical and, indeed, leftish would suddenly pause and say, eg "But I do believe it's Charlie Haughey's destiny to bring about a united Ireland." I never got or shared the belief or admiration, even after 1991 when Charlie gave me the once-in-a-lifetime pleasure of being tall enough to stand behind another man in a group photograph (don't ask) and I got to see his surprisingly, rather touchingly, unkempt fingernails as he clasped his hands behind his back. However, most of my favourite Irish people had some version of "great time for Charlie".


Speaking regarders

The Irish Times, when I got there, was another story. Almost no one had any time for Charlie, but conversely the naïvety about him and his "culture" was astounding. In 1990 a senior, Labour-leaning colleague told me there was little investigative journalism in the newspaper "because political and business life in Ireland is carried out with a remarkably high degree of probity".

We all know better now, and even the Plain People who already knew Haughey for a scoundrel felt betrayed in the 1990s by the revealed depths of his cupidity. As the days after his death rolled on, it was noticeable that the vox pops were more negative than the pundits and politicians. One woman on radio, meaning to paraphrase Bertie sympathetically, slipped Freudianly: "The good weighed up the bad."

Mind you, the pundits weren't as universally eulogising as the instant cliché would have it. (The Sunday papers in particular had to pretend that they were the first to approach truth-telling.) On the day after his death the Irish Times editorialised that "Now is not the time... to intrude upon his family's mourning... There will be another time to pass critical judgment." But when you turned to the special supplement, it opened with Fintan O'Toole writing that "just as a prostitute who charged high prices became a courtesan, a politician who couldn't be bought for less than the price of a country estate was a statesman. In this sense, Charles Haughey was undoubtedly a great statesman."

One wondered about the editor's idea of what might constitute the postponed "critical judgment". Later in the week it became clear it referred simply to something she might write herself.


Charlie and Browne

If Village's own coverage might be regarded by some annoyed readers as a suspension of "critical judgment", it was also (if I may say so) by some distance the most original and revealing. Indeed, Vincent Browne on radio and in print was far more taboo-breaking than those who dared to "speak ill of the dead", in that he was prepared to speak ill of death itself. What is it like for a Great Man to slowly die? It's like it is for most people: cruel and miserable and uncomfortable and heartbreaking, with heroic dignity generally, and understandably, in short supply.

Browne evoked some lineaments of a genuinely humane value system that was widely lacking in most of the media weighing-up of Haughey's achievements. It was particularly striking in the things that the pundits were most likely to put on the "credit" side of the scales: eg the fiscal rectitude of the post-1987 government, the development of Temple Bar, and his support for the IFSC.

The Plain People would surely recognise these as among the most damaging assaults on this society's fabric of decency: health cuts from which we still haven't recovered; a revolting "drinking quarter" consisting of properties that were being mysteriously bought by well connected developers months before Haughey announced publicly it wasn't going to be a bus station after all; and a glassy-eyed monument to Mammon that would have forcibly removed a vibrant inner-city community, if locals hadn't fought for their all-too-thin share of the pie.