Monday, January 15, 2007


2005, Ireland, produced/directed by Niamh Sammon for RTE

A four-part documentary made for RTE, Haughey is an essential addition to the growing body of work concerning this most divisive of public figures, the dominant figure in Irish political life since the late 1960s. Although the series was screened a year before Charles J. Haughey's death, it has the air of a blunt obituary, particularly given that the former Taoiseach is not interviewed. As with any decent obit, it's a balanced account, making clear his accomplishments in a number of areas (especially while Minister for Finance, from 1966-1970, and during his third and final stint as Taoiseach from 1987-1992, when the country finally grappled with its crippling debt burden, and took real steps towards peace in the North), but pulling no punches on his overweening ambitions and the constant questions about his lifestyle and finances that ultimately led to his downfall and utter disgrace (though not his impoverishment; indeed, the end of his career in public life was also the beginning of a life of true wealth given how he was able to profit from the property boom in Ireland).

While the entire series is absorbing, there are particular highlights: the 1982 GUBU period, inevitably, given the serial skulduggery that punctuated Haughey's brief term as Taoiseach in that year; the breathtaking 1990 betrayal of loyal supporter and friend Brian Lenihan in the presidential election controversy (some of the roughly contemporaneous footage of the sickly Lenihan is genuinely disturbing); and the 1992 events that led to Haughey's resignation. In contrast to all of the shenanigans, there are moments of courage, too; though you're never supposed to like a Minister for Finance, even a former one, Charlie McCreevy won my grudging admiration for his 1982 backbench revolt.

The format is standard for episodic TV documentary, with a strictly chronological approach that blends voiceover narration with contemporary footage, radio and television snippets, and dozens of talking heads. The gallery includes family members, businessmen (few improving their public images), government officials, politicians (in addition to the aforementioned McCreevy, Desmond O'Malley and Mary O'Rourke are especially good), journalists, and academics. For his part, longtime adviser and confidant (and driver) P.J. Mara does nothing to throw off the vaguely sinister image fixed in amber by Dermot Morgan's legendary turn as Haughey on the Scrap Saturday radio show, whereas Pádraig Flynn is, on camera at least, a surprising hatchet man; he comes across as somewhat frightening in the third installment, but looks marginally better by the conclusion despite pocketing a donation from a businessman who 'said he liked me'.

Haughey's dominance of his era and his misbehaviour are by now well-known, so perhaps the key achievement of the series is the manner in which it pins down his divisiveness, especially within his own party, which was almost torn asunder (that Haughey's successor as leader of Fianna Fáil, Albert Reynolds is reduced, on camera, to tears when recounting old events speaks volumes about the passions raised). That polarising effect is undoubtedly critical to the continued fascination his life (private and public) exerts.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States