Written by John Hagan
Monday, 05 September 2016 00:00
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“If all else fails, immortality can always be assured by spectacular error”. JK Galbraith

As a callow economics student at Trinity College, Dublin, JK was my idol. At the drop of a hat, I could quote extensively from his works, and consistently peppered my economic essays with his insightful and pertinent observations, including some I made up myself. On graduation from Trinity, I promptly forgot all my economics – except for JK’s sapient comment, above. Success is arguably overrated, and often just too dull to contemplate. My observations are that incompetence is what humanity is really good at; it is what we should respect and admire. Being really bad at something stems from inspired idiocy, and must be viewed as a welcome counterblast to the current all-pervading ‘success’ ethic so embedded in modern Western culture. Author, Stephen Pile, has written three books (see below) cataloguing achievements of breathtaking incompetence.
From his books, I have selected some Irish feats of ineptitude which bear celebrating. 
Every man has a scheme that will not work.

In March 1979 workmen at Ballymena, County Antrim, replaced a telegraph pole on which a pillar box was fixed. The workmen did not have the official keys needed to release the clips that fastened the box to the pole. So they raised it over the top of the old one and then slipped it down the new one. The new pole turned out to be thicker than the old one and the post box came to rest nene feet above the ground. It remained in this position for three weeks during which time some post still managed to get through. “I’m told”, said Mr Ernie McDermott, the postmaster, “that someone provided a step ladder. The mind boggles”.‘If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly”

The least satisfactory garage in the history of covered car parking adjoins a semi-detached house at Elkwood, Templelogue in Dublin. In 1976 the prospective buyers of Mr Donal O’Carroll’s home were intrigued to see that four concrete steps led up to the garage. The estate agent handling the sale said. “I understand that the driveway was very steep which was why the steps were put in. The garage is ideal for anyone wanting an extra room, but certainly not if you want to park your car”.“A real failure does not need an excuse. It is an end in itself”.

A 1974 dinner dance for the Belfast branch of Alcoholics Anonymous ended in a cloakroom brawl after £385 had been spent at the bar. The manager of the hotel at which the event was held said the trouble was not so much caused by those who had abjured the grape. “It was their friends”.“Try again. Fail again. Fail better”.

In one of the great moments of horse-racing history the Irish jockey, Roger Loughran showed the importance of holding something in reserve for the final push. Riding Central House in the Paddy Power Dial a Bet Chase at Leopardstown in 2005, he was in the lead after two miles and the finishing line was a hundred yards away. The situation looked very serious indeed, but with victory staring him in the face, he still had something up his sleeve and mistook an upright bundle of birch for the finishing line. He stood up on his stirrups, punched the air in victory, waved, smiled and was just saluting the crowd with his whio when he was overtaken by Hi Cloy and Fota Island, lost the race and came third. “these things happen”, said the horse’s trainer.“If at first you don’t succeed, failure may be your style”.

Roused by the alarm, the firemen of Arklow in County Wicklow raced to their posts in December 1984 only to find the flames completely engulfing their own fire station. “Christmas is always a busy time for us”, Mr Michael O’Neill, the Chief Fire Officer, said, explaining why the fire had gone unnoticed. “The lads found their equipment and protective clothing had been destroyed and we watched the station burn to the ground”, he said philosophically. It was the second time Arklow fire station had burned down in recent years.‘Next to being right ---, the best of all things is to be clearly and definitely wrong”.

Not only does this attractive resort boast a celebrated fire station, but it is also the home of the Arklow Music Festival, which hosted the least successful choral contest on 12March 1978. Just one choir entered and even then only managed to come second. The Dublin Welsh Male Voice Choir failed to win first prize, the judges said, as punishment for arriving forty-five minutes late. “Success: the one unpardonable sin against one’s fellow man”.

With a great fanfare Bombadier (Ireland) Ltd launched ‘the bus of the 80s’. The plan was to have the Irish Minister of Transport, Mr Reynolds, drive the first one out of the works on a triumphant tour of Limerick. On 10 November 1980, he got into the bus but could not start it. Bombadier officials said the batteries were flat. New ones were fitted, but with no visable consequence. Technicians worked underneath throughout the launching ceremony. When the Minister threw the bottle of champagne he could not break it. Eventually, he hurled it with such violence that the Mayor of Limerick was drenched. “It’s all part of the risks attached to the office”, he said. The Very Reverend Emeritus M J Talbot prayed for the bus whereupon the Minister drove out of the works hooting his horn on routeto a reception at the Shamrock Hotel, Bunratty. Halfway there the bus broke down and the VIPs completed the journey by car. In a speech applauding this fine vehicle for the new age the Minister said that “last week Mrs Reynolds and I launched a ship in Cork; there was not nearly as much excitement”.“Every decision you make is a mistake”.

No actor is more exciting to watch than the mould-breaking Irish thespian, Alan Devlin. As happy off stage as on. He can inject drama into even the most lackluster play by his ability to leave the stage in mid-performance with no warning whatsoever. His finest hour came while he was playing Sir Joseph Porter in the Dublin Gaiety Theatre’s 1987 production of HMS Pinafore. Gilbert and dSullivan’s operetta was wandering to its predictable conclusion when he turned to the audience, said F--- this for a game of soldiers, I’m going home”, clambered through the orchestra pit, shouting “Finish it yourself” and vanished. Still dressed in the flamboyant costume of an admiral, this excellent man went straight to Neary’s Bar. The cast and audience thought they had lost him for the night, but not so. Because he was still wired for sound, the evening was further enhanced by the tones of this great actor ordering a round of drinks. Such a performance as this is not given without a lengthy apprenticeship. He first went missing in 1982, muttering audible obscenities, half-way through a tedious play called Ducking Out at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London. His stature grew yet further when he brought and early and welcome end to the vastly overlong Eugene O’Neill play A Moon For The Misbegotten. He was in Ireland by the time the director tracked him down.

Extracts from Stephen Pile’s books:

* The Book of Heroic Failures. First Futura Publications (1980).

** The Return of Heroic Failures. Secker & Warburg (1988).

*** The Ultimate Book of Heroic Failures. Faber and Faber (2011).