Credit: Dept of Children via Flickr under Licence CC BY 2.0

The Cabinet’s Poetry Corner with Katharine Zappone

A thought occurred to me yesterday, reading the somewhat bizarre revelation from Leo Varadkar that the Government enacted a policy in relation to mother and baby homes after hearing a poem from Katharine Zappone:

Speaking in the Dáil, Mr Varadkar said Ms Zappone visited Tuam while she was minister, “looked in the tank” and “looked in the graves” and came back to Government and said, “we need to be the Government that tried to do something about this”.

“I remember her [Ms Zappone] that day, in that Cabinet meeting, addressing that Cabinet meeting, almost breaking down in tears as she read out a poem that she wrote herself on that day, and it was that that convinced the Government to act,” Mr Varadkar said.

My thought was simply this: If this news strikes you as odd, then just imagine how it might be received in Áras an Uachtaráin. President Higgins spent the guts of half a century in politics, and writing poems on the side. Did even a single one of them change Government policy? Now he has to cope with the news that Katharine Zappone – not even a real poet, I’ll have you know – was able to move Ministers to tears and action with an amateur effort. He must be ragin’.

Anyway, is this how cabinet meetings are generally conducted? The affairs of the nation are, we’re told, considered by 15 very serious people, around the cabinet table. Is it really possible that a report on the nation’s finances might be followed up by a poem from the Minister for Children? Did everyone sit there in solemn silence to listen? What’s the appropriate reaction if you happen to think that the poem isn’t very good? Would saying so amount to workplace bullying?

Anyway, the bad news, I realised yesterday, is that the actuarial tables suggest that I will still be alive when the text of this poem is released to the public under the 30 year rule, sometime around 2050AD. The good news is that the mortification of it will probably make me die of second hand embarrassment, sparing me a long decline.

Really, I think the idea of emotional personally written poetry being read aloud at cabinet meetings is almost the perfect example of a political rorshach test. What you see here will say more about your views than it will about the story itself. If you are like me, then the very idea of cabinet meetings being interrupted so that a public servant can read a poem she has written is so absurd as to confirm in your mind that our politicians are simply not serious people. What’s more, the idea that the Taoiseach would essentially brag about having his mind changed by a poem by Katherine Zappone confirms one’s worst suspicions of him, as essentially a vacuous, image-obsessed, and remarkably unserious leader.

On the other hand, there’ll be those who almost find themselves weepy at the very thought of poetry moving our leaders to action. This, they’ll say (in my view absurdly and offensively) is the benefit of having women in politics, allowing as it does politicians to commune with their emotional side, and take some time away from the facts and figures to focus on the human element. Politics, they would say, should not be cold and clinical and businesslike. There should be time for tears and hugs and communing with our feelings, and all that, eh, good stuff.

But you know, I think those people are the loud minority. And I think this is increasingly a problem for Varadkar – an inability to differentiate the often very weird views of the loud minority for the more normal views of the rest of us. I could be wrong, but I suspect most people in Ireland regard the idea of listening to Katharine Zappone reading a poem as the kind of thing that might await them in purgatory, if purgatory is slightly worse than advertised. And I further suspect that when Varadkar talks about how a poem by Katharine Zappone changed his mind, most people will think, at best, “well that’s slightly odd”.

And that has been a consistent theme with Varadkar: Do you really believe that a Katharine Zappone poem made him emotional? I’ll be honest: I do not. I think it’s the classic Varadkar tin-eared pander to the kind of people he thinks would get emotional at a Zappone poetry night.

Anyway, we’ll ponder it no more. Each to their own, I suppose.

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