Sunday, January 24, 2010

Brisk Trade in Schadenfreude

By Jennifer O'Connell

It’s not actually true that the Eskimo or Inuit people have hundreds of words for snow. In fact, they have a modest seven.

The legend reputedly comes from the fact that most Inuit languages are polysynthetic, so that even seldom-used expressions like – say - ‘snow that falls on a gloomy Wednesday in January and causes traffic chaos’ are combined into one word.

But at least they’ve given it a word. They don’t wade around in it all day, use it to build beautiful dwellings, and then pretend it doesn’t happen in their beautiful country. “What, snow? Here? Never come across any myself.”

We, on the other hand, are forced to borrow our term for what is perhaps our most outstanding national characteristic – the deriving of pleasure from the misfortune of others - from the German.

This January will be remembered for our record cold snap, but there was a mere dusting of snow beside the deep drifts of schadenfreude we’ve been wading around in for the past few weeks.

From the travails of Barry O’Callaghan to the closure after ten years of Bang Café; from the collapse of the empires run by Paddy Kelly and Bernard McNamara, there was plenty to divert us from the misery of snow, floods, water shortages and traffic chaos.

If you’re in any doubt about whether schadenfreude really qualifies as a national sport, ask Paddy Power. In recent weeks, following the closure of Renards and the appointment of an examiner to Residence, the members’ club owned by the Stokes brothers, the bookmaker has been offering odds on which Dublin nightclub will fail next.

The Wright Venue in Swords is the 6/4 favourite. Following close behind is The Sycamore Club (2/1): The Odessa Club (3/1); Krystle (7/1); and Lillie’s Bordello (10/1). 

What kind of mentality thinks betting on other people’s business failures with all that entails – redundancies, unpaid suppliers, families left with no means of support - makes for an amusing parlour game?

The kind of mentality which holds that, because Bernard McNamara lost the run of himself and gave a €62.5 million personal guarantee on an ill-advised punt on a derelict site  (and let’s not even get into the dancefloor which opens out into a swimming pool), he deserves to live out the rest of his days in a campsite in Doolin.

The same kind of mentality, presumably, that has been revelling in the fall from grace of Simon and Christian Stokes, who went in a matter of months from being what one newspaper called "golden boys of the Dublin jet-set” to a charactertisation by the High Court last week as "deliquent directors". 

The hard-working twin brothers have recently had to endure the closure of their restaurant, Bang Cafe, and a dressing down in the by Justice Peter Kelly, who last week turned down an application for examinership for the private members' club Residence and recommended that they be investigated by the Director of Corporate Enforcement over their failure to pass on employees' tax deductions to the Revenue. 

The same kind of mentality that can barely conceal its delight at the news that the popular property developer Paddy Kelly has been forced to leave his Shrewsbury Road home with little more than the shirt on his back for the second time in his life – twenty years ago, he was one of the ‘Lloyds Names’ who lost everything in the debacle surrounding the British insurance company, and subsequently executed a Phoenix-like ascent from the ashes.

Last weekend, another Sunday newspaper ran a piece in which it boasted that it “was there as the furniture removal men arrived at the Kellys' pile to begin the process of transferring the developer's personal effects to an as-yet- unidentified rental property”.

You have to wonder if maybe those eagerly heralding the demise of the newspaper have a point, when stalking removals vans in Dublin 4 is how cash-strapped media organisations chose to spend their resources.

Of all the country’s former top developers, Paddy Kelly is probably the least inaccessible to the media. I met him when I was a reporter working on a profile of him for this newspaper. He spent an afternoon driving me around Dublin in his car, taking me on an impromptu tour of the sites he’d developed. It was clearly a passion for what he did, rather than money alone, which drove him.

Before we don our tap shoes and join in the stampede in the direction of the graves of some of Ireland’s formerly wealthiest businessmen, we should ask ourselves what we really want.

To crush entrepreneurship in its infancy? To ensure people like Paddy Kelly never get a second chance?

In the last six weeks, 228 companies have gone into liquidation, receivership or examinership, or have had to call meetings of creditors to attempt some kind of financial restructuring in the last six weeks.

In 2009, over 1,400 Irish companies were declared insolvent -- an increase of 82 per cent on 2008. By December, companies were folding at a rate of around five a day.

In other countries – the US, for example - making the gutsy decision to go it alone, even if it leads to you falling flat on your face, is something to be celebrated. The right kind of business failure might even regarded as a badge of honour, evidence that you’ve earned your stripes.

But not here. Here, if you’re lucky enough to have made a few quid before everything falls apart, you can expect a slew of newspaper articles to pick gleefully over the entrails of the comfortable life you once enjoyed, recording the details of the Ferraris, the art collections and the ‘plush’ villas in Marbella, with the kind of attention to detail normally only witnessed among long-lost relatives at the funeral of a wealthy maiden aunt.

Here, you’re an eejit if you have aspirations. You’re an eejit if you chase those aspirations and manage to make a few quid in the process. And if you lose it all when the economy goes belly-up, you’re the stonking greatest eejit of all.

Bernard McNamara might well be an eejit for gambling his house – literally – on a property deal. The Stokes twins might have been better advised not to give personal guarantees – reportedly including their life insurance policies - on their business ventures. But at least they were willing to put their money where their mouths were.

And publishing magnate Barry O’Callaghan may have made some spectacularly poor decisions, but he has also contributed, by his own admission, “tens of millions of dollars” to the coffers of the Irish Revenue.

Whatever happens to the economy over the next 12 months, Paddy Power can probably look forward to a brisk trade in schadenfreude.

An awful lot of tripe has been spouted lately about how the single good thing to come out of the economic collapse is the opportunity for us all to be nice to each other again.

Personally, I wouldn’t bet on it.

This article first appeared in The Sunday Business Post on January 24, 2010


  1. Nice piece, but I don't think schadenfreude is our outstanding national characteristic. The deriving of pleasure from the misfortunes of others comes a second to our true national characteristic, anti-schadenfreude, the deriving of displeasure from the good fortune of others.

    And for that, we do have our own word: begrudgery.

  2. Very nice piece, indeed.

  3. Jennifer O'ConnellJanuary 25, 2010 at 1:19 PM

    Ha, ha - you're right of course, Gerard. Thanks for the comments.

  4. I must take a gander into Paddy Power's after all - sounds like a terribly intereting place full of social insight! Nice piece Ms. O'Connell.

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