The Boss

by Kieran Healy on June 13, 2006

“Charles Haughey has died”: at his home in Dublin at the age of 80. The _Irish Times_ today calls him “the dominant and most divisive figure of the past 40 years” in Ireland. If you’ve never heard of Charlie, think of him as something like a triple cross between Charles DeGaulle, Richard Nixon and Huey Long. The Times’ “obituary”: gives an overview of his life. Essays by “Dick Walsh”:, “Geraldine Kennedy”: and “Fintan O’Toole”: span his career from its brilliant beginnings to its scandal-ridden end. Wikipedia also has “a good article.”:

Haughey was the leading figure of a generation of Irish politicians born in the years after the foundation of the state in 1922. They were in the ascendancy in the 1960s and by the end of the 1970s they were running the country. Haughey’s generation wanted a slice of the postwar economic boom, and they partly got it. The economy grew rapidly in the 1960s. Haughey’s career prospered and he became minister for justice, instigating a series of important reforms of the Irish legal code, and then minister for agriculture. He also became a wealthy man very fast — far wealthier, in fact, than anyone on a modest political salary could reasonably be expected to become. He bought a Georgian mansion and an offshore island. His extravagant lifestyle became a topic of conversation, and eventually his political opponents tried to make an issue of it. He brushed them off. His career nearly came to an end in 1970 with the “Arms Crisis”:, but after a decade in the political wilderness he became the leader of “Fianna Fáil”:áil and, soon after, “Taoiseach”:

The view of him taken by his supporters is key to understanding Haughey’s position in Irish politics. In a brilliant article written in the early 1980s, my former advisor at UCC, Paddy O’Carroll, made an argument about the importance of local culture to Irish political style. An important figure in the Irish mythos is the “cute hoor”: — the person who can magically bend the rules or circumvent them altogether in order to get what they want. Cute hoors are admired by “sneaking regarders”, those too timid to get involved themselves, but who admire the strokes he pulls to get what he wants. Haughey played that role in Irish politics on a grand scale, to the point where he was subject to a cult of personality. A pliant press helped. By the 1980s, Haughey’s long-term extramarital affair and his ill-gotten personal wealth were open secrets, along with much else about the country that could not be said in public. Joe Joyce and Peter Murtagh’s book, “The Boss”:, a superb account of Haughey’s “GUBU”: government of 1982 is one of the few contemporary pieces of really hard-hitting investigative journalism on Haughey. (Joyce and Murtagh’s obituary for Haughey is “in the Guardian”:,,1796554,00.html.)

A series of “legal tribunals”: in the 1990s took the lid of the whole thing, detailing the bribery and corruption that greased the wheels of Irish politics in the 1980s. Haughey was at the center of it all, of course. Called as a witness in one of these investigations Haughey tried to play the fool, claiming he didn’t remember anything. His own effort to pass himself off as a clueless gobshite, after a lifetime spent burnishing an image of shrewdness and authority, probably did as much to tarnish his legacy as anything the evidence showed.

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Pretty Cunning · Fixity of Tenure, Freedom to Sell and Fair Rent
06.14.06 at 7:22 am



John Emerson 06.13.06 at 10:36 pm

“Cute” in Flann O’Brien seems consistently to have the meaning “clever”, which is rare in American English except in certain set phrases, and never the commonest American meaning, “pretty”.


Kieran Healy 06.13.06 at 10:41 pm

Yes, in this context “cute” definitely does not mean “pretty.” It means strategically clever, sharp, a little devious. In Irish English, “cute” in the American sense is really only ever applied to babies, not adults.


agm 06.14.06 at 12:02 am

Would that be the vector triple product, or the scalar triple product? (Sorry, just came from Chad Orzel’s place.)


John Quiggin 06.14.06 at 1:25 am

“Cute” was originally, I think, a shortening of “acute” (if I’m wrong, someone with access to the internets will set me straight, quick smart).


Sebastian Holsclaw 06.14.06 at 1:45 am

In the US I’ve heard “Isn’t he cute” sarcastically employed to describe someone who believes himself to be clever or strategically devious but who is actually obvious in his gameplaying. I think it partially invokes the use in the normal child-describing context–as in “Isn’t he childlike to believe he is fooling us with such an obvious ploy.”


bad Jim 06.14.06 at 2:21 am

The American Heritage Dictionary seconds Quiggin’s etymology.

Acquaintances of mine have in my hearing used “cute” to mean devious, less than ethical, sailing close to the wind, not so nice, and suggesting that they hadn’t thought of it themselves. What Kieran said, except that these were Americans.


Doug M. 06.14.06 at 3:03 am

The DeGaulle-Nixon-Long comparison is clunky, but I don’t think that’s Kieran’s fault. It’s just that there is no close comparandum to Haughey in recent American or British politics.

Haughey was grossly, blatantly, and egregiously corrupt, but so charismatic and so competent that he was able to carry it off for a long, long time. There are American analogs at the regional level — Daley _pere_ of Chicago comes to mind — but I can’t think of any at the national.

While casting about for comparisons, let’s not forget the “competent” part. Loathsome though Haughey was, he could get stuff done, and he wasn’t in politics purely and solely to enrich self and friends. You can argue how much credit he can claim for the good economic times, but there’s no denying that Haughey was more than just another crooked populist. There was a tough, amoral, competent technocrat there, joined at the hip to the vain, sleazy demagogue.

It’s hard to find his like, partly because he rose out of the deeply weird environment of postwar Irish politics, but partly also because the man himself was _sui generis_. We really won’t see his like again.

Doug M.


chris y 06.14.06 at 4:25 am

IIRC, this was the guy who told the tribunal that he found an envelope with £I100,000 on his doorstep one morning, had no idea where it came from and made no effort to find out. Cute indeed.


Jasper Milvain 06.14.06 at 4:44 am

C.E. Montague actually spells it ‘cute, not that that proves anything.


John Emerson 06.14.06 at 5:10 am

The Irish meaning does appear in cop stories, where the cop tells the suspect “Don’t get cute”. Even there it seems more to mean “evasive” than “clever”. I was quite struck when I read the word in O’Brien.


DC 06.14.06 at 6:50 am

The best Haughey story in the obits is Ben Dunne’s evidence to the tribunal. Dunne, head of Dunnes’ Stores, Ireland’s Walmart if you like, was hanging around with Haughey and percieved that he was a bit down. Happening to have three cheques for £75,000 made out to fictitious names – for some other purpose – he decided to give them to CJH. Well, obviously these were a nice pick-me-up for Charlie, but his legendary response to Dunne distills something about the man:

“Thanks, big fella.”

Actually this makes me wonder whether it’s really possible to understand the essence of Haughey without having heard Dermot Morgan’s guttural impression (“Maaara…”) on Scrap Saturday.


Steve 06.14.06 at 7:05 am

Actually, when reading the article, I thought of Clinton (not for the corruption part, but for the ‘cute hoor’ part). Maybe a combination of Huey Long and Clinton for this guy.



Walt 06.14.06 at 9:03 am

I heard “don’t get cute” a lot as a kid. But I grew up in an Irish neighborhood in Philadelphia, so it could have been a holdover.


P O'Neill 06.14.06 at 9:54 am

Of the French presidents, there’s also a case for analogies with Mitterand and Chirac. Charlie had Mitterand’s imperiousness and the shadow life concealed from the public, and he had Chirac’s ability to get ever wealthier with most of his life on limited public salaries. I also think the focus on scandals neglects his more disastrous role in Irish public life — the loss of control in public spending in 1979-81, exactly the worst time for a government to pile up debt, and then the period in opposition 1983-87 spent hobbling a government trying to implement policies that he would later embrace.


dearieme 06.14.06 at 10:15 am

The “Arms Crisis” was his contribution to Terrorism of the sort that the USA supports, I guess.


Kieran Healy 06.14.06 at 10:16 am

Yeah, Mitterand is a better fit.


Esq. 06.14.06 at 10:24 am

This sounds an awful lot like a James Michael Curley in the old country.


Gene O'Grady 06.14.06 at 10:52 am

I of course thought of Giulio Andreotti, doubtless because I know a little about Italy and nothing about Ireland.

That said, I’m impressed by the criticism that he ran up debt at the very worst time to do so, but totally unimpressed that by the charge that he was “corrupt” because he got wealthy while in office.


Ray 06.14.06 at 11:00 am

How about the fact that he got wealthy in office, without having any obvious sources of income apart from his salary?


Diarmid Logan 06.14.06 at 11:40 am

Whatever faults Haughey may have had he was at least against British colonialism in Ireland which is more than can be said for the West Brits of Fine Gael.


John Burke 06.14.06 at 11:58 am

(1) in Hiberno-English (not Irish-English please) the important thing about “cute” is that it is (almost?) always used with “hoor” which is a term of abuse as much of affection & as with CJH there is admiration for as well as disapproval of the cute hoor
(2) it pains me to say it but for all of the stink of corruption around CJH, no specific decision or act of CJ can be linked to any “corrupt” payment


Kieran Healy 06.14.06 at 12:12 pm

Whatever faults Haughey may have had he was at least against British colonialism in Ireland which is more than can be said for the West Brits of Fine Gael.

Yeah, his preference for the Plain People of Ireland over the Brits was why he lived like a country squire in a Georgian mansion. C’mon diarmid, you can do better.


Kieran Healy 06.14.06 at 12:15 pm

Hiberno-English (not Irish-English please)

How about “Irish-Anglo”?

the important thing about “cute” is that it is (almost?) always used with “hoor”

I wouldn’t say that. “He’s very cute” or “He’s a cute one” and the like are very common.


anacostia 06.14.06 at 12:32 pm

The complicit admiration for a corrupt figure is often aided by a persecution complex on the part of the sneaking regarders.

Sure, he’s trimming, but it’s about time one of ours got some back. Look, the powers that be have it out for us–you know we couldn’t get ahead playing by the rules, when the rules are stacked against us. So what if he takes a bit on the side–it’s one in the eye for the man.

I watched this play out year after year with Marion Barry in DC. No matter how corrupt he was, and no matter how much damage he was actually doing to the millions of black people who lived in DC (by creating a dysfunctional city, and by perpetuating the worst stereotypes), the people I talked with always forgave him. They were sure the man was out to get him, that he was set up, that voting for MB was showing the white establishment that black people wouldn’t be kept down.

I think the Irish have a tendency to play the underdog in this way as well. Not a healthy tendency, esp. when it means you tolerate parasites in your midst.

Oh–and for extra points: I am distantly related to Haughey, through my grandmother. She always pronounced it as a monosyllable, “hoy”.


Gerry 06.14.06 at 1:47 pm

I agree with doug m that we won’t see his likes again and it’s tempting to regard Haughey as sui generis. But part of the explanation lies in understanding the nature of the Fianna Fáil party, the politics of brokerage or clientilism Irish style, and perhaps the residual traces of a peasant political culture. It’s well over 20 years ago since I read Paddy O’Carroll’s “cute hoors and sneaking regarders” article – I must dig it out again.

Haughey’s defenders will say that “he did the state some service”. His detractors will want to emphasise the taint of corruption and abuse of power associated with his governments. There’s truth in both propositions. He was exceptionally talented and took some daring policy initiatives that had lasting benefits. While he was an opportunistic adventurer and consummate populist he did not try to remake Irish democracy on personalistic lines in the way Berlusconi attempted in Italy.

Fianna Fáil was, and still is, the dominant party in the system and it owes its dominance to the way it used a political strategy/discourse based on nationalism and populism to become a cross-class political alliance of urban and rural, centre and periphery. It managed to appear to be part of the Establishment while remaining outside of it.

Haughey himself embodied all these contradictions in extremis. He was a sophisticated European statesman of considerable personal wealth and a devoted patron of the arts. He was also a gutty populist and beloved of the north Dublin working class. He could be extremely sentimental but also ruthless and unforgiving.

Within the broad culture of Fianna Fáil, Haughey and his associated hedonism nevertheless represented a decisive break with the moral puritanism and personal rectitude of the deValera era. The Lynch-Colley-O’Malley element, who regarded Haughey as a complete upstart, probably on snobbish class grounds, embodied the more “traditional” values of the party’s founders.

Haughey, as befitting such a polarising personality, was largely responsible for the fractious and faction-ridden state of the party for over a generation, from the retirement of Lemass to the start of the leadership of the emollient Bertie Ahern. Since 1994 the party has never been so much at peace with itself and it is perhaps from that date that the legacy and influence of Charles J. Haughey began to fade from the political culture.


puzzled 06.14.06 at 2:18 pm

I had a real analysis professor who liked to say “That’s a cute proof”.


nick s 06.14.06 at 3:42 pm

Actually this makes me wonder whether it’s really possible to understand the essence of Haughey without having heard Dermot Morgan’s guttural impression (“Maaara…”) on Scrap Saturday.

Sigh. Link to video, anyone?


Kieran Healy 06.14.06 at 4:25 pm

Link to video, anyone?

It was a radio show.


goatchowder 06.14.06 at 6:24 pm

Umm, Boss Tweed?

Wasn’t he Irish as well, the “cute hoor” of New York?


vivian 06.14.06 at 9:26 pm

Lyndon Johnson maybe?


dearieme 06.15.06 at 10:52 am

“against British colonialism in Ireland”: that’s still a euphemism for ethnic cleansing of the Irish protestants, is it?


nick s 06.16.06 at 3:25 am

It was a radio show.

Ah. Audio, then?


mick gannon 06.16.06 at 2:22 pm

I grew up in Ireland in the 80’s, I live in The US now. The Irish people voted this clown in. Each time there was an election I just pointed to the fact that while the whole country was hurting this cute hoor had his own PRIVATE ISLAND. No one had the guts to really ask him point blank how he got all his wealth on a politicians wages. The cute hoor thing will only work as long as the people allow it. I hope the next generation are more fortright in questioning their leaders.


DC 06.16.06 at 7:45 pm

Actually Vincent Browne did ask Haughey where he got his money. What’s more, Haughey told him, but Browne didn’t believe him.

Specifically, CJH told VB that he could borrow against his palatial home. VB said this made no sense, since the banks would be looking for interest and repayments. CJH said “no”, VB didn’t believe him. As we now know, CJH was right – the bank, once he was in office, didn’t look for repayments. This was before he got all that money from Ben Dunne.

Browne recounts all this on his radio show, where you can also find a clip from Scrap Saturday, albeit not quite the best one to illustrate the essential cute hoor/Boss CJH – rather it’s a pisstake of his penchant to claim ancestry everywhere in Ireland and beyond.

Go here and choose the Tuesday 13th the show, about 56min 30sec in.

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