TAOISEACH, Leo Varadkar wore wellies at the Ploughing championships last week and I don’t know if this was a sartorial statement, a nod of empathy to the farming community, or a just a practical measure, considering the state of the weather. Whatever it was, it became a matter of great interest to ploughing and fashion commentators. For heaven’s sake, did anyone care what the ploughmen wore or how their furrows turned out?
The President, Michael D Higgins, hadn’t, as far as I know, worn wellies on the previous day, but the ground was firmer and drier then, and maybe he was too down to earth to be bothered by a few mud spatters.
Nevertheless, he must be strategic about his attire, because it seems to me, following a conversation I overheard during the week, that the nation is developing the strangest obsessions regarding sartorial elegance and gentility, especially when our public representatives are on show. It will define our identity yet, if we’re not careful. Funny then, isn’t it, that most of us should have started out without the proverbial ‘ass’ to our britches and with just a shawl over our shoulders?
On the second day of the National Ploughing Championships, I was sitting alone in a coffee shop in Killaloe, watching the rain pelting off the window and wishing I was in Screggan. I spent many a great day at the ‘Ploughing’ in my reporting years and, looking back now, I think those were the only times in my entire life when I felt part of a great national movement. Most of the time, I’m either ploughing a lonely furrow going the other way, or I’m going nowhere at all. The ploughing gave me a sense of belonging.
And as happens sometimes when you find yourself alone in a coffee shop, you tend to eavesdrop. The late Maeve Binchy unashamedly admitted that she got most of her ideas for her columns and her books from eavesdropping, so I’m not a bit embarrassed at resorting to the device myself. Although I have to add that I’m no Maeve Binchy.
Anyway, the conversation was at full volume, and short of plugging my ears with cotton wool, I couldn’t avoid hearing it, not to talk of overhearing it. The four ladies at the next table were comparing the horrors of the mud bath at Screggan on the second day of the championships to the gentility of the old RDS Spring show, which, when it came to agricultural events, was much more to their taste. “There was such wonderful style and class at the Spring Show” one of them recalled nostalgically. “Everything was done in great taste.”
No need for wellies, then! No-one got soiled by their once-off interaction with the soil.
The conversation at the coffee table turned quickly to the Presidential visit to Screggan and what sounded like some more hankering after a more genteel era. One got the distinct feeling that the Viceroy should have been there. Then suddenly, out of the blue, one woman primly announced that she’d had it with Michael D. She had always been a great supporter – on first name terms on her side – but he had let them all down once and she couldn’t forgive him. My ears pricked up. In an earshot, I was suddenly all ears. Until now, the President had been above reproach. Even I couldn’t find fault with Michael D.
“I liked Michael D,” she went on, “until he turned up at the Aga Khan competition in the RDS this year without a morning suit.”
There was a stunned silence. Make of that what you will! Then her companion at the table rose kind of half-heartedly to the defence of President Higgins. “Maybe he feels that he doesn’t have the figure for a morning suit,” she suggested tentatively.
“Nonsense,” said the first woman. “It’s a question of protocol. Any good tailor can make morning dress to suit any kind of figure.”
She went on to explain that the chairman of the RDS, who escorted Michael D to the stand, was wearing morning dress and “looked extremely elegant”.
Not for the first time in my life was I gob smacked. We’ve come a long way, I said to myself. Then the coffee went down the wrong way and the spluttering that ensued from a fit of suppressed laughter was anything but elegant. I ran out without paying and then I had to go back in again, mortified. But the ladies, thankfully, had moved on to another topic.
Before I started ear-wigging in the coffee room, I had been reading Nick Rabbitt’s excellent article in the Limerick Leader on the late Jim Kemmy, marking the 20th anniversary of his death. One phrase in particular tickled my fancy. When asked once why he refused to don the ceremonial red robes of the City Fathers at public events, Kemmy replied: “Politicians may act like clowns at times, but there’s no need for them to dress like clowns.”
I don’t know what Kemmy would have made of the conversation in the coffee shop, but as I walked away I could almost hear a familiar chuckle in the distance. I wished he had lived to be President himself one day, although I doubt very much if he’d have been interested in a ceremonial role. He could, however, have given us a steer on both style and substance that would have made us proud and which would have put our new found stuffed-shirt protocol in the shade.