Blessed are the routemakers


NOWHERE in the gospels does it say Jesus Christ was born in a stable, only that he was laid in a manger afterwards, somewhere in Bethlehem. And that turns out to be but one of the differences between the messiah and Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary.

O’Leary was invited to speak at the European Commission’s ‘Innovation Convention’ this week, and the biography he supplied raised a laugh here and there – mostly that choky, reluctant laughter you experience when someone you don’t like says something funny.

(O’Leary’s contribution to the convention was billed as “a masterclass on doing innovation”, but as there are so many things wrong with that phrase, let’s just pretend we didn’t see it.)

“Born in a stable in 1961, he was a boy genius who excelled both academically and at sports,” wrote O’Leary, or if not O’Leary then one of those springy little subordinates of his, like Stephen McNamara. “Having represented Ireland internationally at bog snorkelling and flower arranging, he graduated from Trinity College in Dublin as soon as they could get rid of him,” he went on. “He then became another boring KPMG accountant until divine inspiration sentenced to him to a life of penal servitude in the airline business.”

After a paragraph of slush about Ryanair, the biog concluded: “It is widely known that women find him irresistible”, though that line was later removed for reasons unknown…

“Oh, there goes Michael O’Leary again, ha ha,” chuckled everyone indulgently. “Born in a stable indeed. What a card.” And yet, the idea lent itself to scrutiny. Once Michael O’Leary has compared himself to Jesus, what can you do but imagine him as a sort of ‘Monty Python’s Life of Michael’ figure, but one who really, really wants to be the messiah?

Picture the scene. You’ve got Christ on one hillside, preaching no-frills Judaism to the masses, and O’Leary on another, telling his baffled followers that even a rich man can enter the Continent if he will only swallow his pride.

By all accounts, Jesus’s mother appears to have travelled an awful long way to give birth, and yet still not quite arrived. It would make you wonder which carrier she chose. That manger in Bethlehem might be the Palestinian equivalent of Beauvais. Yea, though I walk in the valley of the shadow of Bratislava, Ryanair assureth me I’m in Vienna.

This is a man who probably punches pilots (alright, that’s a pun too far – I’ll get my coat). And to be fair to O’Leary, he does honour certain Christian tenets. For instance, unlike many native tycoons, he favours rendering unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s – to wit, he pays tax here.

However, O’Leary is not one to resist the temptation of a fiver. “I am not the Messiah,” he might have mumbled, as on Friday he whacked €5 onto the cost of checking in a bag. The new charge takes effect on 15 December – just in time to cream the emigrants coming home for Christmas with suitcases full of maize for their indigent families, prompting mothers across the country to write, on tear-stained vellum: “Don’t come home, son. Just send blankets.”

So much for the three gifts of Christmas. ‘You can’t take that frankincense and myrrh on board; you’ll have to check it in, for a fee. The gold should just about cover it.’ Suddenly the soundtrack to O’Leary’s messianic delusion is less ‘Little Donkey’ and more ‘Carmina Burana’.

In other aviation news this week, actor Alec Baldwin has been publicly criticising the service on US airlines. He complained that flying had become an “inelegant” experience. That word again? Inelegant. Air travel… elegance… Nope, can’t put those two together in a sentence; it’s been too long.

Perhaps ironically, Baldwin is best known for playing arch-capitalist Jack Donaghy in the sitcom ’30 Rock’. Donaghy is a sort of dignified Michael O’Leary – as in, ruthless ambition and employee blood-letting are all very well but no respectable man should open his mouth that wide in a photo… or dress like Jeremy Clarkson.

Baldwin has clearly never flown Ryanair.“It is sad, I think, that you’ve got to fly overseas today in order to bring back what has been thrown overboard by US carriers in terms of common sense, style and service,” he wrote, as his European readers wept with mirth.

So once again the Ryanair Christmas message is more Satan than Santa. “Ryanair continues to incentivise passengers to travel light by raising our online checked-in baggage fees,” was Stephen McNamara’s typically overcooked comment on the increase.

We know what O’Leary’s comment might have been: “When you’re chewing on life’s gristle, don’t grumble, give a whistle… And always look on the bright side of life.”


Published (heavily edited) in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 11 December 2011