Willie O’Dea: What the Dickens! Nickleby and Copperfield are alive in the Dáil


Though Coca-Cola, Hallmark and Disney have tried to influence our vision of the ideal Christmas, none of them have had a fraction of the impact of the great Charles Dickens. When it comes to depicting the sights and sounds of this holy and festive season, Dickens has no equal.

It is over a century and a half since Dickens produced his last written work, yet his characters can speak to us about the problems of the first quarter of the 21st century. In his story telling Dickens displays his deep understanding of flaws and foibles of the human condition. The characters he created may live in the Victorian era, but they are so real and imbued with humanity, that they are still relatable today.

The cast of Dicken 20 novels and novellas, and his hundreds of short stories, remain with us. We see them around us every day. I do. I need only stroll from my office to the Dáil chamber, and I encounter the cast of Great Expectations, Nicholas Nickleby… not to mention Bleak House.

This time last year a Corkonian Nicholas Nickleby stood aside as Taoiseach to be replaced by Castleknock’s erstwhile Copperfield. Though as the year progressed it did seem that young Copperfield was acting and sounding more like Mr Micawber: “Annual polling average 22%, actual election result 25%, result happiness. Annual polling average 22%, actual election result 20%, result misery.”
Not that his colleagues would see this Micawber-iness as a bad thing. It was Micawber who had the fortitude to expose the cloying obsequious of his Uriah Heep, the most ‘umble of cabinet ministers.

While Copperfield was struggling to assert his mastery of the house, Nickleby took to his new role with alacrity. They say travel can broaden the mind and cheer even the weariest of countenances. There seems to be some truth to that. Though whether there is any veracity to the rumour that Nickleby is considering a new headmaster role in the land of chocolate, mussels, and beer… who knows?

Travelling across the globe, week in and week out, is a strain. Not just on the physique, on the luggage too. We hear that the once solid triple lock on Nickleby’s old valise has shattered under intense external pressure. Its replacement, by a far inferior double one, is much spoken about, but has yet to happen. Until the trusty and sturdy Triple Lock is re-instated, there is a risk of the dirty linen being seen.

Not that Mr Nickleby was the only one to consider how well the world can look from the first-class lounge. Over recent weeks the periodicals and journals have been rife with rumours that Drumcondra’s own “Pip” Paschal, that most kind, sympathetic, and ambitious of young men, might be in line for the post of chief clerk at some big financial house… though not at Tellson’s Bank from A Tale of Two Cities.

Not that there is a shortage of Dickensian characters on the opposition benches. For most of the past year Sinn Féin’s polling numbers bloomed like a rose, a rose whose thorns were concealed under a façade of righteous indignation. But by year’s end those numbers were looking as jaded and sounding as hoarse as their front benchers.
Though many of those front benchers still enjoy near anonymity among the wider public, when you look hard you can see that they display, as a collective, the best and worst traits of Havershams (all three), Barnaby Rudge, Augustus Snodgrass, and Bill Sikes.

Their other great penchant is to ring out the most grandiloquent of denunciations, like disharmonious church bells on a dreary Sunday morning.
As we close the chapter on a tumultuous year, we look back at see that 2023, like a good Dickens novel, was a tale of missed opportunities and unfulfilled promises. The ghosts of the past still haunt the present, leaving a bittersweet aftertaste.

The pages of history turn without ceasing. But, fear not dear readers, the whims and woes of Irish politics continue. But through it all we not merely endure; we take solace in the hope of a brighter future.

Truly, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. A tale worthy of Dickens. Have a happy Christmas and a prosperous 2024.

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