History doesn’t always judge politicians kindly, which is perhaps one of the reasons why so many of them are inclined to offer us their own version of events, between the hard covers of a memoir. Des O’Malley did not need to write a book to be assured of enduring respect for his achievements over more than three decades at the centre of Irish politics, but the publication of his autobiography, mischievously entitled Conduct Unbecoming,will only see his already formidable reputation enhanced.
O’Malley writes with authority and uncompromising clarity. The sharpness of his recall does not spare some of those he encountered on an epic political journey, not least his long-time adversary Charles J Haughey. He may never have been Taoiseach, but ultimately he did the state a good deal more service than the man who got the better of him in those unforgettable days when O’Malley tried, unsuccessfully, to depose Haughey.
He never suffered fools gladly, or at all, and his idea of sheer misery was probably the fate bestowed on so many members of the Dail; feeling obliged to attend endless funerals and expending vast amounts of time and energy on the various needs of constituents, most of them mundane. Thankfully, his unwillingness to play the usual game did not hold him back, for the electorate in Limerick appreciated his ability to deliver on the big stage. It was no surprise, then, that every copy of his memoir was sold when the author paid a visit to O’Mahony’s bookshop at the weekend.
“A politician to stand out from the herd” is how its author was described by the Labour Party TD Pat Rabbitte, who launched the book at the Mansion House in Dublin this week.
It is rare enough that an Irish politician delivers a volume that genuinely advances our understanding of events, as well as entertains us royally. Mr O’Malley is rather cutting in his book about another former Fianna Fail colleague, Willie O’Dea, who some time ago informed this newspaper of his intention to publish his political diaries. Judging by his acidly funny contribution to the Dail last week on the Irish Water fiasco, Mr O’Dea certainly has the potential to join the founder of the Progressive Democrats in the bestseller lists one day. On the other side of the Civil War fence, perhaps Michael Noonan - Limerick’s master of the one-liner - might also be persuaded to join the political memoirists.
In the meantime, those seeking a sharp-eyed perspective on some of the most tumultuous events ever to take place in this country should seek out Conduct Unbecoming.