Eleanor Butler’s geography text book explained why there are no minerals in Ireland. This was Gospel. That was why we had no Industrial Revolution, no empire, no trouble at t’mill, Arthur Scargill or canaries on poles down t’pit. (You have to write t’ instead of the.) We had uileann pipes, snipe grass and endless laments. But were we better off?. As Rimbaud (French poet of the decadent school, 1854-1891) might have said, or was it the immortal Gogarty, ‘Were we ****!’ That’s James, not Oliver St. John.
I taught all this stuff for years. I read a wonderful feature about the impending exploitation of North Sea oil and shared it with my class. The North Sea as you should know, if you were paying attention in school, does not wash the shores of our fair isle. Consequently we got none of the new wealth. In fact the title of the piece was Yes, We have No Bonanzas It explained that the cost of extraction from the deep North Sea would be 10 times the cost of extraction from the shallow Gulf of Mexico and much more again than the cost of extraction on land. I did a blinder. A student raised his hand.
‘Sir. If you know all this, why aren’t you rich?’
Now that’s a tricky one. French, as George Bush reminded us, has no word for entrepreneur. Neither had the Irish language or Hiberno English. ‘Gombeen man’ was the best we could do, with all its connotations of envy and contempt for anyone who made a bob or two. They were rare birds indeed in the Ireland that I recall in my childhood. Old Mr Honda, who founded the company of that name and went on to live to a great age, told how an automobile stopped in his village when he was a little boy. Some oil dripped down into the dust. (I had a few cars like that myself.) When the vehicle departed, in noise and smoke, he crept forward on all fours and sniffed the black liquid. It was, he said, the most exquisite smell that he had ever experienced, more beautiful than the odour of cherry blossom blowing in the breeze on Mount Fuji. It determined the entire course of his life. You know the rest of the story.
The budding entrepreneur must be nurtured and encouraged. He or she must be lucky. I was lucky enough to find a harmonica. I found it on top of Nelson’s Pillar. Only ‘culchies’ climbed Nelson’s Pillar. No true Dubliner would ever do that culchie thing of gazing at the sights of the capital from the top of The Pillar. Anyway, I ran it under a tap to sterilize it. Some other culchie must have lost it. You can’t be too careful. Larry Adler said that he put his children through college on the proceeds of one tune-Genevieve. Fame and fortune beckoned. I huffed and I puffed but I was no Adler. Maybe it was limescale from the tap. The central plain of Ireland is largely composed of carboniferous limestone. This means that we have strong bones. (Pay attention at the back.) However the glaciers of the Ice Age, stripped away all the coal. The luck of the Irish.
I sold the instrument to a classmate, who desperately lusted after it. I got one shilling and fourpence. This was seed capital. My mother enquired about my sudden wealth. ‘You should not have taken that money. That family is not well off. Give it back.’
I gave back the four coppers, much to his delight. I kept the silver,’that pale and sullen drudge ‘twixt man and man’ (William Shakespeare, Englis…Oh, never mind.) I lied to my mother. Judas had twenty nine other pieces, enough to buy a rope. I bought toffee bars, in Miss Collins’s shop in Dublin Street. She also sold minerals, despite what Eleanor Butler said. I was maimed by guilt and the sense that there was something wrong in making a profit. The toffee bars were nice all the same. Time moved on. I became a teacher.
I read about a boy called O Reilly who got an orange on his First Communion day. It was during the war. An orange was a wondrous thing, a golden apple of the Hesperides. (Look it up later.) He ate the succulent flesh, revelling in the liquid sunshine of the juice. He then cut the peel into thin strips and sold them to his fellow communicants. For cash. Was he reprimanded for his enterprise? I doubt it. He went on to play rugby for Ireland (Vitamin C) and shine in business, to the point where ‘he doth bestride this narrow world like a colossus.’ ( William Shakes… Oh, forget it.)
Time passed. Somebody huffed and puffed and blew down Nelson’s Pillar. Rimbaud, the afore-mentioned French poet of the decadent school, inexplicably became a minister in an Irish government that sold exploration licences in our off-shore waters. He had them rolling in the aisles of Leinster House. Five hundred quid for a bit of sea floor! Had those oil tycoons never read Eleanor Butler? Gombeen men! That’s all they were. Pouring money down holes in the ocean floor! Weren’t we the cute ones?
Towards the end of my teaching career, some business typhoons produced a report on how education should change to suit the needs of industry and trade. None of that oul Shakespeare guff. They said that I, among others, should teach entrepreneurial skills. Hollow laughter. It gave me some ironic satisfaction to see one or two of these blow-hards in front of the Public Accounts Committee, giving an account of their off-shore activities.
Sir Anthony O Reilly, as he is now, (You probably twigged that if you were listening and not looking out the window.) is also a noted raconteur. He told a story about a tomcat who had to be neutered because he went out every night causing havoc in the neighbourhood. Nevertheless, he continued to go out at night. The owner, curious to find out what he was up to, followed him. He found him sitting on a dustbin, lecturing a crowd of young tomcats who were assiduously taking notes. The moral is that if you can’t do it yourself, become a consultant. I wonder if the French have a word for ‘raconteur’.
There is oil off our shores. If it can be brought ashore, says another entrepreneur, we can cancel the national debt. We can all drive around in Pontiacs and Cadillacs with long-horn cattle horns on the bonnets. We can caper in ‘the black gold’ like Jimmy Dean in Giant. That young lad with the orange is involved in oil exploration. Unfortunately for me, I hate the smell of oil. I can’t stand it on my hands. I won’t be drilling in my garden. I will even go to great lengths to avoid peeling an orange, although I love the taste. You have to get your hands dirty, like old Mr. Honda’ in order to make a bob. I’m probably too old for the next Industrial Revolution anyway.
I could invest my pension in a harmonica and give it another go. I could use my pension to migrate to the Hesperides, but as one hobo said to the other, ‘Who’s gonna peel the oranges?’ Does any of that answer my student’s question. Cheeky little beggar.