An Irishman's Diary
A running theme of the Taoiseach’s recent speeches, I notice, has been a comparison between the work of his Government and that of the 6th-century Irish monks who led Europe out of the dark ages. It’s a bold rebranding strategy, by any standards. But he has touched on it at least three times this month alone, so it must be deliberate.
The first mention was in his address at the citizenship ceremony in Dublin, when he made only a fleeting reference to the subject, reminding the new Irish of our long history of migration, both inward and outward, and then boasting of how our early-Christian monks had once “colonised the minds of Europe”.
A day later, on a mission to heathen Cork, he elaborated on the theme, this time referring to his recent visit to Davos, which – as he said unto the Corkonians – was “just down the road” from St Gallen: a city named after the Irish monk who established a monastery there in 615.
St Gall was of course a follower of the famous Columbanus who, the Taoiseach added, had been called “one of the founding fathers of Europe” by the current Pope.
In the same speech, adjusting his own halo, the latter-day St Enda suggested that these holy men were now his role-model. He promised an imminent “international charm offensive” to restore Ireland’s reputation and implied that, in the process, our “small island in the Atlantic” would again change the world. “Remember”, he warned doubters, “we have form”.
But Mr Kenny was even more explicit last week in Boston when, in yet another embellishment of the theme, he linked this country’s presidency of the EU next year with the challenge that faced Irish monks in a “semi-Barbaric Europe” after the fall of Rome.
We were already pointing the way forward, he suggested. Having started on the hard road to recovery while the EU dithered, implied the Taoiseach, Ireland was now poised to emulate “Gall and Columbanus [who] rescued Europe and brought the light of Christianity to a dark continent”.
CLEARLY, we’ll be hearing more of this: both next month when our monkish ministers go forth and preach the Good News to the Diaspora, and later in the year, as the EU presidency looms. The only question is the extent to which the metaphor can be developed.
For example, I know from my copy of Thomas Cahill’s How The Irish Saved Civilisation (a book the Taoiseach, or at least his script-writers, must be reading) that one of the enemies Columbanus had to face down on his travels was “the wicked Visigothic princess”, Brunhilda. She was eventually overthrown by the Burgundian Franks. But I wonder if Mr Kenny sees any parallels with Brunhilda among modern-day Germanic leaders?
A more obvious sub-theme, perhaps, is the question of books. Much of the early monks’ work involved the preservation of sacred texts. And in today’s Europe – Ireland very much included – the state of the books is again a matter for concern. Cahill writes of the monks that wherever they went, they made a point of exhibiting the books, “tied to their waists as signs of triumph, just as Irish heroes had once tied to their waists their enemies’ heads.” Similar triumphalism with the Minister for Finance’s books would be premature yet, by at least three budgets. Still, if the self-styled party of fiscal rectitude does ever succeed in restoring the State’s solvency, I can see such exhibitionist tendencies coming back into fashion. In fact, even the heads of Fine Gael’s enemies may not be safe then.
A fly in the ointment of the Taoiseach’s rebranding attempt is that, where the ancient monks made a point of opening monasteries everywhere they could, his Government is committed to closing a number for cost reasons: including a certain embassy in Rome.
But of course, Fine Gael has been repositioning itself on that issue too. And even if there remains some tension between the Taoiseach and the Vatican, well, there’s an impeccable precedent for that too.
Columbanus had a notoriously tetchy relationship with Rome and didn’t hesitate to inform the church fathers when they failed to live up to his standards.
Naturally, I wish the Government well in its attempt to emulate the likes of St Gall. Critics will say it already perfected the gall bit. Only the saintliness now needs work.
And no doubt the more pessimistic economists will see the Taoiseach’s saints and scholars strategy as evidence that his only real plan, vis-a-vis the national debt, is to hope for miracles. In any case, I look forward to his future speeches to the Huns and Visigoths. And I hope that, after the Celtic Tiger’s attempts to bring light regulation to a dark continent, the continent will still listen to us.