- 24 Jul 19
When Ireland was a colony, we looked to Europe, and to France in particular, for help in escaping the clutches of the British empire. And that connection was crucial to the formation of a Republic that makes citizens of us all...
In these days of days, as existential threats cluster on our doorstep, it’s important to keep reminding ourselves of basic values and fundamental principles. As regards politics and the growing prospect of Brexit, up here on Hog Heights we remember members of our paternal ancestry greeting each other as “citizen” and proceeding to engage in vigorous, not to say vituperative, political argument. Afterwards they shook hands, hugged and went their ways. This debating was, as they saw it, a fundamental duty of a citizen of the Republic.
Why remember this now? The answer is simple: this column is being written on July 14th, France’s national day, widely known as Bastille Day. Only 10 days separate it from America’s national day on July 4th and both commemorate critical moments in the overthrow of monarchies and the ancien regime. But they could scarcely be more different; and likewise their imprint on the Irish imagination.
One wonders why. The American Revolution preceded the French. Indeed, it might be that the latter wouldn’t have happened without the former. And yet, one can’t imagine a ballad proclaiming “The Yanks are on the Sea says the Sean Bean Bocht.”
This is a complex area and not one that can be seriously explored in a short column. Irish soldiers made very significant contributions to the armies and wars of many countries, often fighting other Irish in the process. Some of these, Spain and France for example, and the Dutch during the Jacobite War, included Ireland in their military planning for several centuries – and their arrival was enthusiastically awaited and foretold in song and story.
Britain gave sanctuary to many millions of largely undereducated and poor Irish in the 100 years between 1860 and 1960. There was a time, it is often said, when more native Irish speakers lived in London than in Ireland. The Irish worked and fought for Britain; many assimilated and faded from view. But, because of the colonial relationship and especially the depth of bitterness arising from the Famine, at no point did the idea of Britain, or its constitutional structures, elicit serious regard in this country outside of Ulster.
UNDER A BUS
In America, as the waves of emigrants landed and dispersed, Irish republicans plotted, organised and equipped. They were recognised and supported, leading to the actions of the Fenians and then the Easter Rising, a half century later. There has always been a deep well of support for the Irish struggle for independence in North America, and indeed for militant republicanism. Furthermore, since the ’60s, politicians like JFK and Obama have inspired us more than any of their peers on the European stage.
And yet, and yet, for the philosophical underpinning of the independent national path we have chosen to follow in the world, and especially of our Republic, the French are the key reference point. That’s even though, notwithstanding their strong affinity for the Irish and the Republic, they didn’t really figure in the Irish independence struggle since the mid-19th century.
Maybe it’s the promise of liberté, égalité, fraternité. This declaration of freedom, equality and solidarity stands in marked contrast to the alternative ideal of individualité, doesn’t it? As for the Brits, one cannot escape Richard Hamilton’s celebrated diptych of a hunger striker and bowler-hatted Orangeman, the first titled Citizen and the second Subject.
Of course, we also harbour a more general affection for France, and for Paris in particular, the ultimate setting for revolt, philosophy, great black and white photos (Beckett! Francoise Hardy!), movies, food, coffee and wine – and, of course, total cool.
But everything evolves and now, h-e-e-ere’s Brexxxittt!
Its advocates may laud it as disruption on a global scale, but they’re wrong. Useful chaos has a recognisable structure and momentum. Brexit doesn’t. It started as a shambles and it has descended into chaos and farce, something akin to civil war. It’s feral.
There’s no need to reprise the crassness, carelessness and inanities here, though the smallness of the Brexit Party in turning their backs on the EU anthem, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, takes some beating. Likewise the wretched sacrifice of the Britain’s US ambassador Kim Darroch who was left with no option but to resign after Tory leadership candidate Boris Johnson refused to back him. Thrown under a bus by Johnson was the general verdict, and all to placate Donald Trump …
For our part, old alliances are being revivified and new ones formed. Hence the recent visit to Ireland by the King of the Netherlands and his wife; and the visit by the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins to Germany. Huge work is being done by diplomatic staff elsewhere.
It may surprise some, but this is reminiscent of an earlier phase in our relationship with the European Union, when Irish public servants frequently punched far above their weight, revelling in negotiating challenge, opportunity and scale, after decades of introspection, fustiness and reaction at home. For over two decades they excelled on the bigger stage of the EU. The Brits, by and large, did not.
That faded as the EU enlarged. Maybe it was that the centre moved East. Or perhaps it was that Bertie Ahern got on famously with Tony Blair and Ireland benefitted from being in Britain’s shadow. (And fair’s fair, the Good Friday Agreement represents a fine return on whatever investment was made at that time).
But those days are long gone too.
We’re now where many people think we should have begun generations ago: in Europe and aligned with those closest to us philosophically and socially rather than geographically.
Our nearest neighbours are tootling off into the sunset. We’re not going with them and what follows now won’t be easy.
But we no longer think of Ireland as the Sean Bean Bocht, the Poor Old Woman of the song. The days of the poor mouth are over. Though our commitment to forging our own path brings risks as well as opportunities, our alliances with others will help.
And we can look in the mirror and feel okay about what looks back out at us: not from any stupid narcissism but from the quiet satisfaction of knowing that we are Citizens, all.