Read 'em And Weep

He was a slow starter, but once he put the foot down it was burnt rubber all the way. In the space of the short few years it took The Beatles to dump Pete Best and find the Maharishi he'd gathered a personal fortune, fashioned a legend of vision and efficiency and made a vain grasp at the brass ring. Missed.

That was 1966. Maybe if they'd made him Big Cheese then and left Cork Jack puffing his pipe and nibbling his apple tart things might have been different. (For Charlie, mostly, not for us. Face it, this Taoiseach thing is a little overrated. You get to drive the car, but the route is determined elsewhere.) But Big Charlie could wait. Minor setback, he was young. Three, four, maybe five years - tops. That's the way it looked. Cork Jack was just warming the chair. This was the dawning of the age of Aquarius. (Sure, Big Charlie is a Virgo - but if you believe that you'll believe anything.) Things were changing. It was cool to sit back and let destiny unfold.


Gay Byrne was conducting the national debate on just about anything that mattered. And everything was up for grabs. You didn't even, for god's sake, have to eat fish on Fridays anymore. The rising tide had lifted all boats and if some of them were leaky dinghies and others yachts. Well, that seemed alright too: enterprise, merit and all that anyone says different is indulging in The Politics Of Envy, right? And when they pulled the pin on the grenade that was Northern Ireland it seemed for a while like nothing that wasn't overdue. Everything was falling into place. The boats were rising, the ship was coming in, the Fourth Green Field was ripe for harvest. It seemed like just a matter of time before the Risen Ireland got its rightful Big Cheese. Cork Jack was mooching around in the dark, had trouble finding the end of his pipe.


Then ...


 It was like some massive sparkling machine came down from the skies one night going "da-da-dada-daaaaaa" and took Big Charlie away and left Little Charlie in his stead. And if Big Charlie had only to blow on the dice and flick a wrist to make his point it was snake eyes every time for Little Charlie. Don Marquis had a great line about a guy being so unlucky that he ran into accidents that started out to happen to someone else. That was Little Charlie.


In 1968 his car did a flip-flop and he almost died. Two years later he fell off his horse - which is funny when it happens to Royal Charlie across the water, but it shattered Little Charlie's health at precisely the point that Cork Jack started getting stroppy. Smirnoff and gunrunning leave you breathless. As far as smuggling the hardware was concerned, Cabinet meetings had up to then been like conventions of the League Of The Blind. Nod's as good as a wink to a blind Big Cheese, kind of thing. But suddenly Cork Jack decided that maybe he didn't know much about running a country but he knew what he liked. Little Charlie was out on his ear. And into the nick.


An Arms Trial later Little Charlie was walking free without a stain on his character. But Cork Jack had developed muscles. He wanted Little Charlie and Neil Blaney to kiss ass. Ass was duly kissed. After a year or so Neil couldn't take it any more - he threw up, and got the boot. But little Charlie kept his lips puckered for a five year stretch at the kissing game. Which may not be Mountjoy but it's still doing hard time.

Back in the good old days you stuck an ass in Big Charlie's face and you didn't get it kissed, you got a lump chewed out of it. But these were the bad new days. Different rules. You want the right to hang around for a shot at being Big Cheese you do what the man with the muscles says. And if Little Charlie felt like the Germans at Versailles back in '18, forced to concede extortionate reparations, he didn't say so out loud. Having got into the arms game, you might say, her bit the bullet. A soldier of destiny's gotta do what a solider of destiny's gotta do.


What had seemed in '66 like a minor setback - a slight pause before rising to the level of Big Cheese - had turned into a thirteen year wait. But Cork Jack finally packed his pipe and his apple tarts and went walkies. And Charlie was ready. And a lot of people pulled their chairs closer to the table to watch a real mechanic at work. They remembered how Big Charlie could shuffle the deck blindfolded and still fill his hand with aces. And if he had to palm a card now and then, or deal seconds, that too was part of the skill.


 Little Charlie picked up the deck, shuffled, and butter-fingered like a guy who's never juggled the pasteboards except for maybe a family game of Snap at Christmas time. Thing was, maybe Charlie went into freeze-frame back then, but everything else had kept right on changing. The tide wasn't rising anymore and, besides, the boat was leaking. Big Charlie could afford to be givish, filling the hills and valleys of Wicklow with soft porn merchants and notta-tall, sir, we wouldn't tax a creative fella like you. And even later on, Little Charlie could draw some applause by handing out free toothbrushes.


But now when - with all the largesse which is the prerogative of the Big Cheese - he began handing out free airports, the same people began barking at him. And there was a time when the Big Cheese was a figure of respect, godamnit. People tipped their hats and said, Hi there, Big Cheese. Now there were people climbing all over Little Charlie, poking at him and shaking his sleeve to see if any aces fell out. This was What he'd waited thirteen years for? He was the guy with the muscles - but nobody kissing ass. They were nipping at it; Colley, O'Malley, O'Donoghue, McCreevy. And it wasn't because they possessed any great courage or vision of their own. They scented blood.


Things got so bad that the boys in the back room began muttering about a conspiracy to do down Little Charlie. Sometimes it was a Fine Gael conspiracy, sometimes it was the media who were at it. Now and again the paranoia got so bad that the source of the conspiracy was pinpointed in the land of the dreaded Sassanach. Understandable. There was something unnatural about the succession of humiliations which poor Little Charlie had to endure as he went about fulfilling his destiny as Big Cheese. One long series of custard pies in the face.

Election '81: going into the game with the makings of a Full House and up pops big Jim Kemmy. No one told Little Charlie that jokers were wild.


Election '82: same story, except that Tony Gregory could stroke the deck like the Cincinnati Kid on a hot streak.


Pat O'Connor: well, it was embarrassing, but the man was innocent. A judge said so. And judges are as reliable as, oh, say, Attorney Generals.


Dublin West: you cast your bread upon the Dick Burl and whoops!


Begorraghgate: and Jim Mitchell announcing that Dail phone system was bugging him, and implying that when the Big Cheese was in the House the walls had ears. Poor Little Charlie - started the '70s by falling off his horse, and the '80s by falling off his override.


Patrick Connolly: "hey, Big Cheese, you'll never guess what's happened now!"


Election '82, Take 2: and you suddenly agree to play this new-fangled game, Austerity, and you even deal a few green cards for the hell of it, and the other guy, a greenhorn, rakes in the pot.


Ring-a-ding-ding: people start talking about your close buddy, Sean Doherty, and how every time he has a spare moment he rings the cop shop in Boyle.




But there's no mystery, no conspiracy, no flawed pedigree to blame. What we have here is a plain old bad streak. When you're hot you're hot and when you're cold you're not. Little Charlie is simply on a bad streak of legendary proportions. There are nights when you go to a friendly table with a clean deck and a clear head and, against all the laws of averages and natural justice; you sit there all night getting one hand of feet after another. Read 'em and weep. All you can do with a cold deck is keep shuffling until it warms up.

James Thurber defined humour as emotional chaos remembered in tranquillity. And if Little Charlie ever gets some tranquillity he, being by repute a man of some humour, will remember the days of emotional chaos and appreciate them for what they are: a Buster Keaton. The other thing you can do with a bad streak is fold, cut your losses, walk away from the table. He'd be missed. It's much more fun watching a guy on a bad streak - seeing his eyes light up when he draws the fourth seven and he's all bubbles until someone turns up a royal straight. Most Big Cheeses, like Cork Jack and Lips Cosgrave, play cautiously, win small, lose small. The edge may have gone off Little Charlie's game but he's still not afraid to pull a bluff or take a flier at filling an inside straight.


Little Charlie's most vociferous enemies (other politicians have critics or opponents) have been small-minded, vain, treacherous, vengeful, obsessive and, above all, moralistic. But, apart from the odd airport here and there, he's as good or bad a Big Cheese as is currently on offer. Morality doesn't enter into it. Mostly what's barking at his heels are little men whose concept of morality is as stable as a floating vote.


Or moral gymnasts of the likes of Conor Cruise O'Brien. The same O'Brien has yet to apologise for the blood-smeared lips, the shit-smeared underpants and the tear-stained "confessions" that were the consequences of the Heavy Gang's thuggery in the cop shop basements. That was what editorial writers and other moralists call premeditated violence employed for political ends - and it was carried out under the collective responsibility of a Cabinet in which O'Brien held a Ministerial Seal.


As did Garret FitzGerald. Let's talk sometime about flawed pedigrees. Morality is a movable feast. So, play it as it lays, Little Charlie, play it as it lays. The least we can expect is an entertaining game, lots of emotional chaos - and if we can remain tranquil we'll at least get a laugh out of it. We're due at least that much, Seeing as how it's us folks' lives you folks are using for chips. I'll see your Minister for Justice interfering with the Gardai and raise you a framed Nicky Kelly.