In 1979, 28-year-old Alan Shatter was elected to the Dublin City Council as a Fine Gael (“Tribe of the Irish”) candidate. Shatter was the only member of Ireland’s Jewish community, numbering about 2,000 at the time, to have ever sought electoral office as a candidate for that party.
Fine Gael had long been shunned by many in the Jewish community. In the 1930s, the party was briefly led by the pro-fascist Gen. Eoin O’Duffy, and later counted among its members Oliver Flanagan, who in 1943 had asserted that Ireland needed to rout the Jews from the country, just as had been done in Germany.
Nonetheless, Shatter’s admiration for Fine Gael’s leader from 1977 to 1981, Garret FitzGerald, led him to join the party and to begin a lengthy political career that ended only in 2016.
Within two years of joining, Shatter, at age 30, was elected to the lower house of the Oireachtas, Ireland’s parliament. After serving for more than 25 years as both a solicitor and a Fine Gael parliament member, he became the first person in Irish history to hold the posts of both minister of justice and equality and minister for defense.
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.
Though subsequently cleared by several investigations and inquiries, he lost his 2016 bid for reelection – and suddenly found himself unemployed and with nothing to do for the first time in his adult life.
Shatter’s decision to write “Life is a Funny Business: A Very Personal Story” (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,” he wrote in his book.
As part of this cathartic recounting of his first 30 years, Shatter also delves into aspects of Irish society from the 1950s through the 1970s, and offers insights into how his Jewish background has influenced him.
“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 wrote in the introduction to “Life is a Funny Business.”
While various parts of the book are indeed humorous, Shatter’s youth was marred by tragedy.
Sometime after his 10th birthday, his mother began developing health problems.
“From being a loving, happy, soft-spoken, tactile parent she became distracted, irritable and distant,” he wrote.
Returning home one winter afternoon, at age 14, he found his 40-year-old mother on the kitchen floor. She had taken her own life.
Shatter and his father found the shiva that followed to be a “horrendous” experience rather than a source of some comfort or support.
“It was during that week that I became a secular Irish Jew,” Shatter wrote. “To some this description may be contradictory. To me, it is an honest description of who I am. Over the years, I have learnt that being not only Irish but also Jewish is part of who I am and how I view the world.” (The book, in fact, has a five-page glossary of Hebrew words found throughout.)
After the Six-Day War, Shatter became determined to visit Israel, and arranged to spend two months in the kibbutz Ma’anit.
He tells of his first time seeing the Western Wall: “For someone who regards himself as a secular Jew, I was surprised by the depth of the emotion I felt just being there, a feeling that has been replicated on every occasion I have returned. My emotional reaction is always a surprise as still to this day it is being in the precinct of the historical Wall that elicits my response. For me, prayer still has no meaningful role.”
Although it was suggested to him in 1968 that he stay or settle in Israel, Shatter felt he needed to go back to Dublin. Israel, he wrote, “is a country with which I feel a close bond and in which I have a deep interest but Ireland has always felt like home.”
He has returned often to Israel, though, including as a Cabinet minister, during which he discussed complex political issues with Israelis and Palestinians. He wrote that he now sees “little cause for optimism that any substantive progress in achieving a permanent end to the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict … will be achieved any time soon.”
One of the most fascinating chapters in Shatter’s memoir tells of his efforts on behalf of Soviet Jewry, including with the Irish Soviet Jewry Committee.
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 effort to persuade the religiously observant Begun to end his already month-long hunger strike, the secular Shatter “referenced rabbinical authorities asserting suicide to be contrary to Jewish law and values.” Though his argument was unconvincing, a phone call to Begun from one of Israel’s chief rabbis eventually led him to call off the hunger strike.
Shatter has lately come to doubt the value of the “frenetic multitasking” that characterized much of his life. 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, when Shatter was 22 and Carol not yet 20.
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.”
She was apparently able to laugh off this egregious oversight, however. After all, life is a funny business.
SHAI AFSAI lives in Providence and is currently researching Irish Judaism. He will speak at the Rhode Island Jewish Museum (www.rhodeislandjewishmuseum.org) about Benjamin Franklin’s influence on Judaism on Sunday, Oct. 14, at 2 p.m.