Life is a Funny Business: A Very Personal Story by Alan Shatter

Writing.ie | Book Reviews | Memoir
Life is a Funny Business

By Shai Afsai

Alan Shatter was elected to the Dublin City Council as a Fine Gael candidate in 1979, at age twenty-eight. At the time, he was the only member of Ireland’s Jewish community, then numbering about twenty-one hundred, to have sought electoral office as a candidate for the party, which had long been shunned by many Irish Jews. In the 1930s Fine Gael had been briefly led by the pro-fascist General Eoin O’Duffy. It was later joined by Oliver Flanagan, who in 1943 had asserted that Ireland needed to rout Jews out of the country just as Germany had done.

Nonetheless, Shatter’s admiration for Fine Gael’s leader in the 1977-1981 period led him to join the party, beginning a lengthy political career that ended only in 2016. Serving for over twenty-five years as both a solicitor – Shatter authored the influential treatise Family Law in the Republic of Ireland – and a Fine Gael parliament member, he eventually became the first person in Irish history to act as both Minister for Justice and Equality and as Minister for Defence.

In 2014, however, Shatter was pressured to resign from the Oireachtas, departing under what he terms “a cloud of false allegations” in relation to his ministerial actions (xii). Though subsequently cleared by a number of investigations and inquiries, he lost his 2016 bid for re-election. Having already stopped practicing law in 2011, for the first time in his adult life Shatter suddenly found himself unemployed and with nothing to do.

His decision to write Life is a Funny Business: A Very Personal Story (Dublin: Poolbeg Press, 2017) arose from that crisis. “I felt a need to look back to my early years to try and gain some understanding of the journey I had first embarked upon that led to my arriving in the place in which I now found myself,” Shatter explains (xiv). As part of this cathartic recounting, he clarifies some features of Irish society from the 1950s through the 1970s, in addition to offering insight into how his Jewish background influenced his personal and professional decisions.

“For those currently experiencing one or more of life’s lows, or for those who simply enjoy a laugh, I hope parts of my story make you smile at life’s unpredictability, peculiarities and idiosyncrasies,” he writes in the introduction (xv). While much of Life is a Funny Business is indeed humorous, other parts deal with Shatter’s youth, which was marred by tragedy. Soon after his tenth birthday, his mother began developing health problems: “From being a loving, happy, soft-spoken, tactile parent she became distracted, irritable and distant” (36). Returning home one winter afternoon, at age fourteen, Shatter found his forty-year-old mother immobile on the kitchen floor. She had taken her own life.

One of the most fascinating chapters in Shatter’s memoir involves his extended efforts on behalf of Soviet Jewry, including with the Irish Soviet Jewry Committee, which he helped form in 1971. In 1985 he flew to Moscow to meet with Jewish refuseniks demanding religious freedom and the right to leave the Soviet Union for Israel. On his fourth day in the capital he met with Boris Begun, who was on a hunger strike to protest the seven-year prison sentence given to his refusenik father, Yosef Begun, for “anti-Soviet activities” (i.e., teaching Hebrew and Jewish culture). In an unsuccessful effort to persuade the religiously observant Boris to end his already one-month long hunger strike, the secular Shatter “referenced rabbinical authorities asserting suicide to be contrary to Jewish law and values” (163).

Shatter doubts the value of the “frenetic multitasking” that characterized much of his life (xiv). His wife, Carol, comes across as a generous and patient spouse who has also been a partner in her husband’s activism, legal efforts, and political pursuits. They married while still students at Trinity College, with Shatter then twenty-two and Carol not yet twenty. Here is Shatter’s recollection of his wedding speech: “The wedding guests were subjected to a narration on the need for law reform, the plight of Soviet Jewry and quotes from Alexander Solzhenitsyn, one of my favourite authors. Towards the end of my speech I managed to mention our mutual parents and concluded thanking those present for their generous wedding gifts. Relieved the speech was over I then sat down. Five minutes later, to my horror, I realised I hadn’t once mentioned Carol” (169). She was apparently able to laugh off this egregious oversight, however. After all, life is a funny business.

Life is a Funny BusinessShatter’s belief that “there can be “humour in the midst of strife” (262) resonates throughout Life is a Funny Business, which details a number of very sad personal experiences. The book’s abrupt ending suggests a further autobiographical installment might soon follow. At the conclusion of some pending legal decisions, Shatter published Frenzy and Betrayal: The Anatomy of a Political Assassination (2019).

(c) Shai Afsai

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