John Waters


Life
1955- ; b. Co. Roscommon; ed. Mean Scoil Iosef Naofa [St. Joseph], Castlerea; initially worked as clerk with CIE before becoming radio critic on Niall Stokes’s Hot Press after a stint as news journalist for pirate radio in Castlerea; interviewed Charles Haughey, Dec. 1984; afterwards edited In Dublin and later still became a columnist on The Irish Times; issued Jiving at the Crossroads (1991), essay chiefly concerned with the putative urban/rural split in Ireland and the year of GUBU; issued Race of Angels, Ireland and the Genesis of U2 (1994), and Everyday Like Sunday? (1995) being Irish Times pieces; issued Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Ireland (1997); also The Politburo Has Decided That You Are Unwell (2004);
 
Waters had a dg., Roisín, with Sinead O’Connor and subsequently expressed public concerns about diminution of father’s role by feminist politics; submitted a song (“The Words That never Wear Out”) for Irish Eurovision bid, being eliminated in favour of Brian Kennedy’s entry, 2006; in 2007 he was the author of a Eurovision song (“They Can't Stop the Spring”) which received 5 points, the lowest in the competition; enrolled a writer on Village magazine, ed. Vincent Browne and Michael Smith, 2004 - but departed in dispute over lack of payment, c.2006; contrib. preface to Lifestory (2007), a blank book for individual life-writings, designed by Ed Miliano; issued Lapsed Agnostic (2007), and Beyond Consolation (2010) - departing from Nuala O’Faolain’s last interview on RTÉ with Marian Finucane;
 
briefly imprisoned at Wheatfield, Dublin, for non-payment of parking fine on conscientious grounds, Sept. 2013; embroiled in controversy over gay marriage, and awarded damages in court in the wake of the Panti Bliss debate, April 2014.

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Works
  • Jiving at the Crossroads (Belfast: Blackstaff Press 1991), 188pp. [ded. ‘To my mother and sisters / and the memory of my father’ - see extract];
  • Race of Angels: Ireland and the Genesis of U2 (Belfast: Blackstaff 1994), 314pp.;
  • Everyday Like Sunday? (Dublin: Poolbeg 1995), 317pp.;
  • Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Ireland (London: Duckworth 1997; pb 1998, 2001), ), 187pp.;
  • The Politburo Has Decided That You Are Unwell (Dublin: Liffey Press 2004), 300pp.;
  • The Pursuit of Glorious Failure (Dublin: Arts Council 2007), 10pp. [pamph.]
  • Lapsed Agnostic (2008), 193pp. [Chaps.: 1. Early experience; 2. The secular agnostic path; 3. The path of faithlessness; 4. The rediscovery of faith.]
  • Beyond Consolation, or How We Became Too Clever for God - and for our own good (London: Continuum Press 2010), 235pp.
  • Feckers: 50 people who fecked up Ireland (London: Constable 2010), 275pp., ill. [by Aongus Collins]
  • Was it For This: Why Ireland Lost the Plot (Transworld Ireland 2012), 312pp.
Journalism incls.
  • ‘Challenge to Liberal Agenda Cannot be Dismissed’, in The Irish Times (Tuesday, 3 Sept. 1996) [see extract];
  • ‘No poetic truth for MacBride’, in The Irish Times (q.d.; [2001]) [based on Anthony J. Jordan, The Yeats Gonne MacBride Triangle, 2000; see extract].
Miscellaneous
  • ‘The Irish Mummy: The Plays and Purpose of Martin McDonagh’, in Druids, Dudes and Beauty Queens: The Changing Face of Irish Theatre, ed., Dermot Bolger (Dublin: New Island Press 2001), pp.55-71;
  • with Maeve Binchy, contrib. preface[s] to Lifestory (Irish Hospice Foundation 2007), 272pp.

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Commentary
Liffey Press Notice (Books Ireland, April 2004), calls The Politburo [... &c.]: ‘For years Waters has been a dissident voice writing in his weekly column for The Irish Times, invariably confronting the conventional wisdom on issues ranging from fatherhood and the official denial of the rights of parents and children, to the absurdity of Ireland’s seemingly endless tribunals, to the aftermath of September 11, to the misunderstood meaning of the life of Charles Haugher. In that time, his chief stock-in-trade has been the elegant representation of common sense in the face of ideology, received thinking and self-serving cant. [..., &c.]’

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Noreen Bowden, review of The Politburo Has Decided That You Are Unwell: ‘[...]“The Secret History of the Past”, an essay describing the writer’s youth in Castlerea, Co. Roscommon, articulates his efforts to describe the Ireland of Marian statues, cute hoors, and Big Tom to liberal Ireland; the meanings ascribed to these cultural icons by the outsiders “had removed from them all irony, mischief, wit and subversion.” One of his strongest pieces, this 2003 work is most reminiscent of his excellent 1991 book on rural Ireland, Jiving at the Crossroads, and shows his skill at “speaking a language that transcends both prejudice and nostalgia”. (Irish Emigrant, Book Review, May 2004: online.)

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Diarmaid Ferriter, review of Was it For This: Why Ireland Lost the Plot, in The Irish Times (16 June 2012), Weekend, p.10: ‘[...] The historian in me was naturally drawn to his assertion that “the problems begin with a lack of self-knowledge which derives from a refusal to look squarely at history”. But Waters, it seems, does not follow his own advice. Despite regret at the absence of “a national father figure to show us the way”, and his framing of his argument by pointing to the loss of an idealism and honesty associated with the Irish revolutionaries who fought for independence nearly a century ago, he decides to substitute historical research with a reliance on his own heart. He occasionally cites from the writings of Patrick Pearse, the economist JK Galbraith and the American poet Robert Bly, but the author he quotes most is himself. This is an indulgence too far. His self-reliance too often results in meandering, repetitive and verbose psychobabble that makes the book too long and compromises his sound central thesis, which is that instead of getting back to the basics of a vision for a changed Ireland we are “constantly looking for some new dependency to enter into”. / The book contains a number of insightful and cleverly elaborated perspectives, but it is too flabby to remain compelling. There are constant assertions about what “we” do, think and believe, which seems to wear out even Waters himself eventually. As he admits on page 298, 100 pages after the book should have ended: “Perhaps, after all, there is no longer a ‘we' worth talking about.” / He is, in my view, accurate in his conclusion about contemporary politics – “politics today is not politics at all, but something more like management of a minor company with an uninteresting product” – and it is surely fair to assert that, domestically, there is now no one of whom we can think “they're in charge”. But the road he travels to reach his conclusion is far too long and exhausting.’ (See full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or direct.)

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Quotations
Jiving at the Crossroads (1991) - extracts [I]: On “The Gay Byrne Show” [radio]: ‘Each discussion began with a specific theme - abortion, divorce, contraception - but the underlying agenda related to something more profound and fundamental: what kind of people we were, what we wanted to become, and who was standing in the way of progress and change. At some time, not long before, an invisible line had been drawn across the path between The Past and modern Ireland. It was as though a count of heads was being undertaken to establish how many people were on [82] either side of the line. Mobility between the two appeared almost unthinkable. The two Irelands had value systems that had little or no common ground. Those who lived in the past were taken to give their allegiance to the Catholic Church, the land and Fianna Fáil - loyalties that then became synonymous in the mouths of their Modern Ireland accusers. These, in turn, outrightly rejected this model of Irishness - we were an urban people, they insisted, a modern industrialised state with an emerging class system. They spoke disparagingly about de Valera’s dancing-at-the-crossroads vision of a people content with hard work and simple pleasures. We needed urgently to rescue our political structures from the grip of the tribal politics of Fianna Fáil. / Those speaking for Modern Ireland appeared to regard whole sections of the country as priest-ridden, tribal and untouchable. An attachment to the land, they averred, was no longer a defining feature of what it was to be Irish; on the contrary, it appeared to disqualify large sections of the population from membership of their Ireland. Their vision seemed to have been fashioned entirely as the antithesis of the past. If de Valera said black, then the correct position must be white. Certain issues were always close to the surface, but were never touched upon - issues like God, faith and the natural world. These became unmentionables. To refer by name to one or other of these concepts was immediately to be branded a “conservative”. Everything was reduced to the dry, neutral language of ideology and conceptual politics. There seemed to be an unspoken suggestion that those who wished to belong to their Modern Ireland would have to leave behind all the nonsense of the past. / To listen to the radio, you would think the entire country was tearing itself apart. […]’ (pp.82-83.)

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Jiving at the Crossroads (1991) - extracts [II]: [On the coinage “Dublin 4”],‘a pejorative term to describe what was effectively a new class of people, whose principle characteristic was perceived as a stridently professed aversion to unreconstructed forms of Catholicism and nationalism, but in particular to Fianna Fáil, and most especialy to Charles J. Haughey. / [...; 107] These were the equivalent of what in London were known as the “chattering classes”: people who, through their jobs in the media, the civil service and the professions were in a position to influence the direction of society in an intravenous manner, and who were not shy about giving vent to their opinions at every available opportunity.’ (p.107-08). ‘“Dublin 4” was an attitude of mind, an attitude that had become impatient with the reality of life in modern Ireland. There was those who held that the term defined a class of people who regarded themselves as the social and intellectual élite of modern Ireland, but who ideally would hav eliked to have been born somewhere else. [.../] In time both “Dublin 4” and what it described as “rural Ireland” became mutually reinforcing stereotypes, one depending on the other for affirmation. [...] the new tribe defined Ireland on radio and television, the old listened with growing incomprehension to this strange definition of the country it had imagined itself to [109] inhabit. It was a perfect new tribal division for a people in love with tribal warfare. [...] But ultimately, if we were honest, “Dublin 4” was part of all of uts: the part of our brains that wanted Ireland to be different, better, that wanted to walk through agreeable, leaf streets with blinkers carefully adjusted. It was the part of us which refused to face up to ourselves as we were. [...] there was scope for seriously deluding ourselves.’ [End.] Also contains “The Parable of the Fat Chieftain”, an essay on Sean Doherty (the minister blamed for phone-tapping of Bruce Arnold, et al.), ending, after an account of the loathing he invoked in Dublin and the intensity of his Roscommon following: ‘At last I saw him, spinning a woman around with one hand, as though she were a top. / He was the best jiver I had ever seen.’ (p.100.) Also “Acts of Grave Political Cannibalism”, the final chapter.

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On the Citizenship Referendum (2004): ‘This country got rich quick and the people were never told they might have to pay back their dues. The leadership has abdicated responsibility. This vote will create a two-tier idea of belonging in Ireland.’ (Quoted in Angelique Chrisafis, ‘Has Ireland Lost Its Soul?’, in Guardian Weekly, 2 July 2004, p.17.)

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The Politboro has Decided That You are Unwell (2004): ‘The role of the newspaper columnist is not merely to fill space with entertaining copy. The job involves a brief to challenge orthodoxies, make new connections and, all the time, to assert the right to life and its logic to dominate the formulation of public thought. This is both an objective and a subjective endeavour: the columnist deals with public facts and events, but he or she does so from a singular perspective, a particular lived life within a society, and brings to everything the personal perspective based on experience and turns technocratic issues of law and policy into a language of human aspiration and desire.’ (Quoted in John Kirkaldy, review, in Books Ireland, March 2005, p.56.) Also remarks on necessity of resisting shame at beliefs shared with the Omagh bombers: ‘I heard people on the radio during the week [of the bombing] demanding that those voters in the Republic who had voted against the Belfast Agreement show themselves and explain their actions now, in the shadow of Omagh. Such thinking [...] is deeply dangerous to democracy. For surely nothing in a democratic society is as far from the mark of a pencil on a ballot box as a car bomb in a crowded street. To suggest that the act of the first suggests a complicity in the second is to say that, far from being an antidote to terrorism, democracy is merely its synonym.’ (Idem.)

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Notes
John Harrington, The Irish Beckett (Syracuse UP 1991), on the survival of the seanachie role in modern Irish literature, writes: ‘[John] Waters observes that the inheritance is a “dual sense of cultural identity”. The modern Irish comic writer “tends to be suspicious of his rhetorical heritage and at the same time thoroughly capable of exploiting it.”’ (Harrington, p.80.)

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