They banned Ulysses, the authorities did, they banned it as “obscene” in Britain, and they banned it as obscene in America, and they banned it as obscene just about anywhere else where English speakers could be shocked, offended, or otherwise appalled by James Joyce’s strange, lovely mix of prose poetry, incomprehensibility, genius, and naughty talk. That was then. Nowadays, Leopold Bloom’s Dublin odyssey is revered, a masterpiece, a monument, a part of our high culture, but its author would still be in trouble. Not for his book, but for his lunch. Times and taboos change, but killjoys and scolds do not.
Joyce used to eat in Davy Byrne’s pub, a meal he later bequeathed to Bloom, a Gorgonzola sandwich, a glass of burgundy and a cigarette. The sandwich? No problem, so long as the cheese had been labeled as required by EU regulations. The Burgundy? Well, “glowing wine on his palate lingered swallowed. Crushing in the winepress grapes of Burgundy. Sun’s heat it is.” Who’s going to argue with that? Not you, not me, not even Brussels. But that cigarette, oh dear, that cigarette.
Since late March, those addictive little sticks of dangerous delight been banned from Davy Byrne’s, and every other pub in Ireland. They’ve been banned in restaurants, they’ve been banned in offices, they’ve been banned in factories and they’ve been banned just about anywhere else the Irish government considers a workplace, even banned, let Willy Loman howl, in company cars. There are exceptions, but most of them are not a lot of fun–prisons, nunneries, the Central Mental Hospital in Dundrum and, with grim, but kindly logic, hospices.
And Micheal Martin, the instigator of the ban? He’s the typographically challenging busybody-in-chief, a bore, and a smug, self-righteous zealot. His one experience of a cigarette, as a foolish “teenager” naturally, was “disgusting.” While he may have a drink now and then, he never, never gets “tipsy.” Of course he doesn’t. He’s too busy planning his next crusade, pondering ways to restrict the advertising of alcohol. And when he’s done thinking about that, this nanny, this ninny, this drone, this nosey, hectoring clown is “very tentatively” mulling a fat tax. Ireland’s tragedy is that this monstrous figure has the job of his dreams–and everybody else’s nightmares. By being appointed Ireland’s Minister for Health and, wait for it, “Children,” Martin was given a blank check for bossiness. On January 30, 2003, he cashed it.
On that dark day, Martin made a speech. Citing the findings of an “independent scientific working group,” he announced that, “on the best of international scientific evidence…there is harm in Environmental Tobacco Smoke. Proven harm about which there is not only a consensus in the worldwide scientific community, but a significant substantial consensus.” What’s the difference between a “significant substantial” consensus and an ordinary consensus? Who knows? All we do know is that the Martin consensus evidently does not include all that awkward, inconvenient research showing that the health effect of passive smoking on adults is minimal, nonexistent, or statistically irrelevant. That data does not count.
And while we’re talking data, let’s chat about dosage. A substance can be perfectly safe, even good for you, in low quantities, but lethal in large amounts. Martin has no time for such quibbling. So far as this Einstein, this Galileo, this prince of precision, was concerned, all that we simpletons needed to be told was that in a smoky room, we’d be breathing in “a load of” dangerous chemicals that “do us enormous damage.” This horrifying state of affairs had, Martin explained, led him to take “radical new measures…. I’m banning smoking in the workplace…I am publishing draft regulations…. I’m doing this because–as this report makes inescapably clear–I have no choice. There is no other option open to me…as you know, I’ve already taken a number of initiatives to reduce tobacco consumption…I’ve raised the age limit for buying tobacco…. I’ve stopped tobacco advertising in newspapers and magazines…. I believe that in every decade, we are presented with one major choice where…we change the future for the better…. I’m making the call the way it must be made.”
“I”, “I”, “I”, “I”, “me”, “I”, “I”, “I”, “I”, “I”. Did I mention that our Mr. Martin is a tad self-important?
To be fair, there wasn’t a lot of “we” about it. Martin may have had “no choice,” but nor did members of the Irish parliament, let alone their electors. There was no vote approving the ban. The minister simply exercised the discretion given to him by an earlier piece of legislation. It’s a well-known trick to anyone familiar with the way that the EU imposes its rules and in a way, that’s only fitting. For while, behind the (forgive the phrase) smokescreen of healthcare concern, the real motives behind this move include Martin’s ego and the uncontrollable urge of politicians to control their fellow citizens, one critical additional element has been the Irish establishment’s determination to prove to the outside world how their country is modern, “European,” Communautaire, international.
Turn again to that January 30 speech, with its reference to consensus in “the worldwide scientific community”, the “best of international scientific evidence and to “the use of internationally recognized experts on tobacco control.” A year later, Martin was boasting (not inaccurately) that his initiative had triggered “significant momentum across Europe.” Foreigners impressed! That’s what counted. The ban he had earlier described as “a massive cultural change” was (the Belfast News Letter reported) marking Ireland out as a “forward-thinking, modern society.” “Ireland had,” Martin said, “transformed itself in many ways over the last decade…Irish people have demonstrated their capacity to change and to adapt.” Indeed they have, but as anyone familiar with the destruction of Georgian Dublin will know, unthinking modernization, or what passes for modernization, can come at a high price.
Writing in the London Independent late last year, a journalist recalled walking one rainy day into a pub in County Clare:
“A warm miasma…reached over and enfolded us in its arms. It was a heady mélange of smells–of burning turf and spilt beer, of mushroom soup and cigarette smoke and wet tweed slowly drying…The atmosphere was extraordinary–thick and savory and textured, like anchovy toast, like the barmbrack spread with butter that my aunt gave us every teatime. The embracing fog of fragrances was practically visible in the fumes that rose to the murky ceiling from every corner of the room. Fumes of sweet turf-smoke, fumes from our drying clothes, fumes of burning tobacco and exhaled smoke, all of it drifting lazily upward like a sacrifice to the household gods. We stuck around. What else could you do?”
History be hanged. In Micheal Martin’s antiseptic, go-ahead Celtic tiger there can be no place for messy, awkward anachronisms such as the fug, the fellowship and the fumes of a country pub on a rainy day. The much-heralded choice, ‘diversity’ and openness of the New Ireland do not, it turns out, mean very much. If, as is always claimed, most drinkers prefer no-smoking pubs, then the market should be left to provide them with that choice. To argue that some supposed fundamental freedom to hang out in a smoke-free bar means that all pubs have to renounce tobacco is to make a mockery of liberty in a country where generations fought, and died, for the real thing.
You’d think that, in the land of craic, cussedness, conflict, and Cuchulain that there would have been more opposition, but while there was some grumbling, some debate, some jeering, only the splendid Deirdre Healy of John Player & Sons (the manufacturers of Eire’s most popular cigarette) struck a note that, in its defiance and its poetry was, somehow, very, very Irish. The impact of the ban on her company’s business would, said this warrior queen, be no more than “a slap in the face from a butterfly’s wings.”
Some butterfly, some wings. Prohibition has been introduced, on schedule and on the lines that Martin wanted. Worse still, like so much nanny state nagging, the new law seems to have been accepted, something that was even acknowledged by two visiting statesmen, two giants of our time, Gerrit Zalm, Holland’s finance minister, and Jean-Claude Juncker, the premier of mighty Luxembourg. The two men were in Ireland for an EU summit and, in what was possibly the most supine diplomatic gesture seen in Europe since Neville Chamberlain boarded that plane to Munich, they smoked their cigarettes out in the cold.
But, in Ireland’s worst moments a hero usually emerges to inspire, enchant, and Irish history being what it is, come to an unfortunate end. On March 30, John Deasy, a member of the Irish parliament, did just that. He committed an unthinkable act in one of the Dail’s bars. He smoked not one cigarette, but three (some say two). The whole story remains, so to speak, cloudy, but it appears that Deasy first asked for a fire door to be opened so he could step outside into an alleyway. Request denied! It had not yet been designated a smoking area (it has now–too late for Deasy). Thwarted, the MP remained at the bar, enjoyed his three (or was it two?) cigarettes regardless, washed down, quite possibly, with three pints of beer (whether the barman served this outlaw, this smoker, is still under investigation). Retribution was inevitable. In Micheal Martin’s Ireland, such open defiance could not be left unpunished.
And it wasn’t. These days there’s no smoking without a firing. Deasy was promptly removed as Fine Gael’s justice spokesman. More was to come. On April 13 this wretch, this reprobate, this renegade, this rebel, was questioned for half an hour by officers from Dublin’s feared South West Area Health Board. He runs the risk of prosecution and a fine of over $3,000. Yes, yes, yes, I know. As an MP, let alone a justice spokesman, Deasy should, of course, have complied with the law (which, disgracefully, he had done nothing before to oppose). But, when you read how this freedom fighter has refused to apologize and, better still, has told the media (“a bunch of hypocrites”) to take “a running jump,” it’s impossible not to cheer.
James Joyce, I suspect, would have felt the same way.