One post-recession summer spent building up a photographic archive of Ireland’s political elite.
This is a story about a man who never existed. A man named Peter J. Prendergast.
In 2010, Ireland was a beached whale. An enormous property bubble had become an even bigger crash. Most of the major banks had been nationalised in a panic, absorbing tens of billions of dodgy debt into the Irish exchequer. Irish people like to note with a bleak and furious humour that it was the most debt incurred per capita of any nation in Europe. In March of that year Sean FitzPatrick, the chairman of Anglo Irish Bank, was arrested for fraud. His case would later collapse amid accusations of mismanagement on the part of the police. A zombie government, of centre-right Fianna Fáil and Ireland’s [insert political conviction here] Green Party, was grimly marching into electoral catastrophe. I was working in a car park.
I had ignominiously crashed out of a Computer Science degree so, before going back to college, I tried to earn my fees by working as a glorified traffic cone for a major hospital. It rained a lot. I wasn’t allowed to listen to music. The angrier drivers used to call me a jobsworth, which I had to look up. I was once found during a morning shift fast asleep, curled up on a bench, by my boss’s boss. I was 19. It was a delicate time.
The mind does strange things if given eight hours a day without any stimulation except the ever-present threat of a low-speed traffic collision. I recited every American president in order, every European capital alphabetically. I carried out baroque text message exchanges with anyone who would respond. And in the heart of some endless Tuesday, my mind wandered to a plan.
It began with the discovery that all TDs (Teachtai Deala, members of the lower house of the Irish Parliament) had their government email addresses available online. I considered all kinds of messages, from the sincere to the obscene. But what would be the point? The country was in free fall. The IMF was circling. Soon the Troika would be in town and effective sovereign politics would all but cease for at least a few years. I couldn’t get anything from them, could I?
On June 6th 2010, I wrote a simple email to all 166 sitting TDs and a few Senators too:
My name is Peter Prendergast. I will be starting a teaching placement at [SCHOOL REDACTED] this autumn. I will be teaching a special extracurricular class on politics for first years as a supplement to the CSPE [Civic, Social and Political Education] curriculum. A major part of this class is the formation of a ‘Mock Oireachtas’, including a mock Dáil and Seanad. As part of this project, we would like to request a signed photo from each of the TDs and Senators included. Preferably an 8 x 10 glossy, but really any photo will do. It would really mean a lot to the children if you would participate in this project as they are all enthusiastic to learn more about the politics of this country. If you would like to participate, please send all photos to:
Thank you very much in advance for your help, it really is much appreciated.
Peter James Prendergast
The next morning, photos arrived from the Taoiseach and the leader of the opposition, both neatly signed at the bottom. I took a moment to enjoy the idea of Ireland’s leader, Brian Cowen – house crumbling to sand around him – taking the time to scrawl his signature on a glossy photo like he was walking the red carpet, mobbed by hordes of screaming, salivating, teenage fans. I figured I might get one or two more, from enterprising young TDs in the constituency of the school, or the old pros more adept at clientelist politics.
The next day the postman arrived at the door holding a stack of envelopes that could stop a very small car. It must have been thirty deep. ‘Who’s Peter J. Prendergast?’ he asked, as I mumbled something indistinct. There were campaign leaflets, glossy photos with sharpie signatures, offers of school tours to the Dáil and ministerial visits to the (unfortunately real) school in which Peter was doing his placement.
Michael D. Higgins, the man who would go on to be our beloved current president, wrote to ask, would a printed out A4 colour photo be ok? A Green backbencher made legendary by screaming FUCK YOU across the floor of parliament offered dozens of business cards, one for every student. An independent TD found to have been involved in a scandal deemed by a tribunal of inquiry to be ‘profoundly corrupt to a degree that was nothing short of breathtaking’ said, ‘Very interesting project, keep me updated.’
Some sent a photocopy of whatever they had lying around. Others seemed to take the matter more seriously. Too seriously, perhaps. Occasionally what came through the door looked to be the product of an impromptu photo shoot, the vibes of which ran the gamut from ‘child in father’s suit’ to ‘speedboat salesman’ to ‘forgotten mid-20th Century dictator’. Maybe it was a nice moment of respite in between being told the repo men were asking for our pension fund and the art in the National Gallery.
After about 80 responses I was getting a little anxious. This was meant to be a quick joke, and it was, if anything, gaining momentum. I had picked a school that a frankly suspicious amount of TDs claimed to have attended as children. Then a bombshell: a letter came from the principal of the school itself, saying he had received numerous phone calls from politicians wanting to speak to this Peter J. Prendergast. Who, he asked, are you? And why are you impersonating a teacher at this school?
I panicked, stopped all communication, and buried the photos in a drawer as they came in. I gently asked a law student I knew if you could be done for fraud if you hadn’t asked for any money. I pictured myself as a Cold War submarine captain: running deep and silent. (Years later, the letter itself was revealed to be a hoax, a double bluff from a cousin I had stupidly told about the whole plan.)
I did little else with the rest of my summer. My barely paid debts and endless gruelling days had left me chastised, and also moderately depressed. But I understood something about patronage that had been hidden to me: it’s not just about money.
Ireland has been held up in recent years as a beacon of liberal tolerance and centrist restraint. Our last (and ostensibly next) Taoiseach, the Thatcherite scandal machine Leo Varadkar, got weeks of gushing headlines in the international press for being the first gay head of government.
To outsiders, it’s hard to describe how depressingly limited the horizons of our system have always been. Two right-wing parties trading power for a hundred sullen years, consuming whatever leftish coalition partner is required to get them over the majority line. Both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have operated for most of their history as clientelist parties, as jobs and favours machines. Clientelism works best in a society with weak, underdeveloped public systems, poor social welfare, a small middle class, few good jobs and chronic unemployment. It promises some benefit in exchange for your vote, but not in a formalised sense. There is merely an understanding between the voter and the party that largesse will be distributed to populations, locations and people that are supportive of that party. But it depends on an illusion. There aren’t enough resources to pay off every voter, but there is enough visible direction of favours, funds and jobs to suggest that you might be in with a chance. And half the reason to do it is for the sheer joy of feeling as if you’re part of the game. To know that you are someone who matters, even if what you receive is nothing more than a piece of photo paper with a childish scrawl.
Ireland likes to boast about how local our national politicians are. How easily you could see the leader of the government in the Ginger Man pub of a Thursday evening, or riding their bike to the closest Spar. These photos are, to some extent, a document of that approachability, and a reminder of a time that feels more distant than it really is: a time when a dig-out, a whip-round and a signed photo were about all you could reasonably ask for.