Age of innocence – Frank McNally on being traumatised by the increasing youth of taoisigh

There was a time when ruling elders really were elderly

A thing of duty is a boy forever, as Myles na gCopaleen once said of the well-known and problematical phenomenon whereby policemen always seemed to be getting younger.

But Myles never had to live through the situation that afflicts many of us today, when even taoisigh are increasingly more juvenile than we are, sometimes to the tune of decades.

I had just about grown used to Leo Varadkar, elected to Ireland’s top job aged 38½ and still baby-faced as he settled into his mid-40s.

Now suddenly he’s gone, and those crazy young things in Fine Gael have exacerbated the trend by electing a 37-year-old, still damp behind the ears, to replace him.


At least in Myles’s time, ruling elders really were elderly. Or in the cases of WT Cosgrave and Eamon de Valera, they went to considerable trouble to appear so.

True, Myles lived long enough to see the Lemass-Whitaker era, and the new age of progress it ushered in (which didn’t seem to suit him creatively as much as the poverty of the 1940s).

But by the time de Valera released his grip on power, finally, and gave youth its turn, Sean Lemass was a month off 60.

Myles was still in his 40s then. He went on to die too young of course, but so doing would never suffer the trauma of seeing a taoiseach whose father he could have been. Baby Powers he knew plenty about. Power babies he was mercifully spared.

Getting back to policeman, I have long since become inured to seeing gardaí with cherubic features, but it was a big challenge for a while.

Readers may recall that about 20 years ago, for example, there was a thing called Operation Freeflow, designed to keep Dublin’s sclerotic traffic moving in the weeks before Christmas.

This involved putting garda officers – often recent recruits – at all major junctions, to override traffic lights where necessary. But an unintended consequence of the extra supervision was greatly increased observance of red lights by cyclists.

It was a dark time for our community, forced not just to stop more often than usual but also to pretend we did this all the time. I remember cyclists pulled up together, side-by-side, and unable to look at each other from the sheer embarrassment.

Anyway, one morning at the height of the madness, I was cycling to work up a hill in a suburb we’ll call K*lma*nh*m, where there was a red light near the top. A cyclist never wants to stop when climbing – it’s too hard to get going again. And the junction was very quiet that morning.

The potential problem was a young garda, fresh out of Templemore – even then I could have been his father – leaning against a wall near the lights. But I remember thinking it would embarrass both of us if I stopped.

So I kept going. Whereupon, to my horror, he disengaged slowly from the wall and moved toward the road, raising his arm with all the majesty of the law a 20-year-old can muster.

Now an even worse prospect beckoned: the lecture this manchild would be obliged to deliver to me while I nodded meekly like a bold schoolboy.

So it was that, again to save both of us from the shame, I accelerated past him like a drugged-up Colombian mountain specialist launching an attack on Alpe d’Huez, and left the poor recruit standing.

But now of course I was a fugitive from the law. And realising there would be a garda at the next junction too, possibly tipped off by radio, I was forced to abandon my usual route and continue the journey by side streets and back alleys, feeling haunted.

It was a powerful metaphor for what happens when you take a wrong turn in life, from which I hope I learned a lesson.

If long-time readers find this story familiar, yes, you may have read about it at the time. Except that back then, I attributed it to “a friend”. I’m only outing myself now, because at this stage it’s highly unlikely I’ll ever run for politics.

Speaking of which, it is some consolation that although his features are distressingly fresh, Simon Harris has the personality and demeanour of an older man. Indeed, there is something about his career that reminds me of another Brian O’Nolan creation, from At Swim-two-birds:

“There was nothing unusual in the appearance of Mr John Furriskey but actually he had one distinction that is rarely encountered – he was born at the age of twenty-five and entered the world with a memory but without a personal experience to account for it.”

Simon Harris also appears to have been born old. At any rate, he seems to have reached maturity without accumulating any of the usual youthful indiscretions along the way: student drug-taking, rash opinions posted on social media when drunk, theft of plastic traffic bollards as a joke, etc. I would also be shocked to learn that he has ever broken a red light while cycling.