In a candid affecting book Alan Shatter takes us into the “deep recesses of my mind”. The deepest, darkest recess holds the memory of the cold December afternoon in 1965 when he returned home to find his mother Elaine dead on the kitchen floor, beside an open oven in a room full of gas, her head resting on a pillow.
He grew up in the close Jewish community living around its heartland of Clanbrassil Street in south-central Dublin. Jews were and are a tiny minority – they numbered around 3,300 when Shatter was growing up – and regularly encountered hostility. “Sure he only killed Jews’” said the man beside young Alan on the bus, reading an article on the trial of Adolf Eichmann.
Such talk baffled the “dirty Jew” – as a neighbour once called him – and whetted his curiosity about the world around him.
From an early age he was clear about the ills besetting the country. One of these was outdated legislation. Another was the “suffocating” influence of the Catholic Church. He regarded the GAA, for its part, as the sporting wing of the Catholic Church, and thought its antipathy to his beloved soccer plain “daft”.
As a young lawyer he campaigned energetically for an overhaul of family law in the 1970s. One of the necessary and overdue reforms he fought for ended the days when husbands could legally dispose of property without consulting their wives.
The young legal activist was looking for a political home by the late 1970s. He concedes that Fine Gael was a strange place for a Jew to find himself. His co-religionists tended to keep their distance from the party that had added to the gaiety of Irish life by spawning the pseudo-fascist Blueshirts in the 1930s, and numbered among its ranks Oliver Flanagan TD, who had warned the Dáil in 1943 of the need to ‘rout’ the Jews from Ireland.
Jews had always found Fianna Fáil more congenial, and were grateful to Dev for the reference to ‘Jewish Congregations’ in his 1937 constitution.
But despite its history, Fine Gael now looked quite attractive. Garrett Fitzgerald’s progressive rhetoric impressed him while the loathing he felt for Charles Haughey would probably have caused him to rebuff any approach from Fianna Fáil.
He delightedly recalls writing his first best-seller Family Planning Irish Style, a satirical send-up of CJH’s confused and confusing legislation regarding the importation and possession of condoms.
The book established Shatter’s ascendant as a national authority on the importation and use of barrier contraceptives. On the Late Late Show Gaybo and he sagely discussed condoms over a table strewn with the devices.
He wasn’t to everyone’s taste in Fine Gael – there were mutterings within the party regarding the infliction on it of the “Jew abortionist” – but his energy and industry quickly won over the doubters.
By concluding the book with his successful outing in the 1981 election he cleverly leaves his readers hanging on, in eager anticipation of the next volume.