Leo Varadkar and the poetry of leadership
Poet Martin Dyar parses Taoiseach’s Dáil speech and its quoting of Seamus Heaney for clues as to the likely style and substance of his leadership
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar: appears to have certain gifts that will allow him to manage now and then a dollop of spontaneity, and even a bit of heart on sleeve. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Our new taoiseach has been teased in recent days for revealing that a scene from the film Love, Actually was on his mind on the occasion of his first visit to 10 Downing Street.
Some thought it an embarrassing turn on the world stage. It’s easy enough to argue the other way. Even if his mentioning the actor Hugh Grant was not premeditated, and even if the shadows of grief and upheaval that are cast across London and Britain this week (to say nothing of the gravity of Brexit) might have dictated that he approach a meeting with Theresa May with a safer solemnity, his poise and his work on the day are not really in question.
But there might be reason to suspect that humanity, and human emotion in particular, will now and then be given a particular platform in the Leo leadership era.
In what is sometimes a comically serious job, he appears to have certain gifts that will allow him to manage now and then a dollop of spontaneity, and even a bit of heart on sleeve.
The words from Seamus Heaney's From the Republic of Conscience that Varadkar chose have depth, charm and a lovely multiplicity of meaning
Varadkar’s maiden speech in the Dail was variously rich and ranging, clear and witty and open-hearted, idealistic and subtly authoritative. He spoke from the heart, and about the heart. He joked about his yoga practice with Gerry Adams, putting thereby an extra emphasis on the Tao in taoiseach. He also spoke a bit of poetry. He conjured the past extremely well too, and there were moments where “our forebears”, and even our former selves, were almost at the table again.
However, change being the thing we pay our TDs to manufacture, it was mostly a speech about the future.
For those who are wondering what the new Dáil might be like, there were subtle cues to the Taoiseach’s resilience. In the preceding debate that morning, Varadkar’s track record and even his fitness to lead had been questioned and at times bitterly criticised by a number of other TDs.
In acknowledging these views, the imminent taoiseach thanked his detractors “for setting out the challenges that faced the country and the new administration”. Thus he appeared to rise above antagonism, while at the same time suggesting that at least some of the dissenters’ remarks were ungracious and perhaps overly personal. This sally slotted nicely into the more philosophical passages of the speech. Leadership, he went on to say, should never be about one person.
Varadkar then quoted his younger self, and words spoken in the Dáil just one year into his career as a TD. He reminded us that he’d once urged Brian Cowen to build a government that was “strong on ethics, strong on the economy and strong on equity”. To this Varadkar now added a gloss: “I’ll demand of myself and my own government what in the past I insisted of others.”
There was more rhetorical suppleness here. He might have used the term demanded twice, and without the risk of a bum note, but the near-synonym insisted was better, and another signal. Some of the potential terms of the Varadkar era were audible here, in the implication that the opposition should not make demands. They may insist, if they wish. That, perhaps, is their prerogative, and an index of their lesser standing.
The emotion of the second half of the speech inhered in part in Varadkar’s appeal to the role of humane feeling in politics. In the Leo era, politicians, at least at the outset, are to be reminded of the value of having a sense of the privilege of public office and an appreciation for what it means to be a participant in a supremely important tradition. Varadkar’s emphasis on listening and his comments on the role of the heart foregrounded the need for politicians to deploy emotional intelligence in the work of bridging divisions. Some world leaders have advanced their careers by ridiculing the very notion; but our young taoiseach has begun by staking out a claim for that old narrative and heart-based art of tuning into the experiences of others.
Many have said it this past week, and it’s a fair enough assessment: Varadkar’s first Dáil speech had touchy-feely elements. He got into the ideal of leadership, and struck bassy chords of renewal and integrity, and neither was he afraid to sound a little self-ordaining. In hindsight it wasn’t much of a leap from there to the poetry.
As a kind of climax, Varadkar quoted the following lines from Seamus Heaney’s From the Republic of Conscience: “At their inauguration, public leaders / must swear to uphold unwritten law and weep / to atone for their presumption to hold office …”
If the idea of reciting these words caused any doubt for Varadkar in advance, he would have been able to reassure himself by looking at two comforting words in his draft: the word Seamus, and the word Heaney. For many, these two little signs indicate a subliminal path to the very idea of trust, and in the context of a major address they were always likely to channel the powers of the likes of Bill Clinton and Nadine Gordimer, and all the others who’ve borrowed the non-rhyming rhyme quote about hope and history from Heaney’s The Cure at Troy.
They also stood a good chance of blending the gooseflesh of laureateship with the gooseflesh of inauguration. Tingles within tingles. It was probably an easy decision.
And even if for a moment the chosen words had seemed at all strange or questionable in themselves; if in some vaguely mutinous way they’d seemed too poetic; or if the scribbling Leo’s mind ran ahead and pictured a confused or laughing chamber, he could have told himself that uttering the words Seamus and Heaney together was the essence of the poetry paragraph. That is what people would hear. It was a big day, the biggest, and he’d be forgiven for thinking he was playing it safe in this respect.
There was also of course the seductiveness of the poem’s title, a kind of poem in itself. It must have been a delight for Mary Lawlor of Amnesty International when she first received the work in 1985, having commissioned the poem from Heaney. Seduced, Leo won extra acoustic merit for his speech by echoing the title when he declared that he wanted to create a “republic of opportunity”.
Whether they are considered in isolation, in the context of the poem as a whole, in the light of the subjects they illuminate, or in relation to the broader world of Heaney’s writing, the words from From the Republic of Conscience that Varadkar chose have depth, charm and a lovely multiplicity of meaning.
And it’s difficult not to assume that this latter aspect was in the end a problem for Leo. The only time his diction faltered on June 14th was when he said that leaders must “weep to atone for their presumption to hold office”.
It’s a wonderfully extreme image, and its figurativeness, and even, untypical of Heaney, its note of satire, might have caused Varadkar to feel a provocation. He might even have have thought of tagging on a comment along the lines of, “Not literally, of course. We needn’t actually weep here, folks.”
It was a single moment of hesitation in a brilliant delivery. As high wire wobbles go, it could not be called dramatic, but there was a ghoul of frisson there, and a touch of resistance. For an instant the Taoiseach and the occasion appeared at odds with the poem. We might connect this dip in confidence to the dip in language in Leo’s declaration that he was feeling “profound humility”. This doesn’t sound right on a second reading. He was leaning here, unwittingly, towards the bombastic. It would have been better if he’d said he was feeling profoundly humbled, instead of claiming to be possessed by the whole virtue. But maybe “Profound humility” are the bravely askew words of someone who is seeking to balance the fine excess of From the Republic of Conscience with the fine excess of being a young man on the cusp of a wave of international fame and history.
Heaney, who often appeared to be all things to all people, and who, for the sake of his art, and by virtue of the abundance and generosity of his genius, became in the end a kind of statesman, was deeply concerned with the idea of non-enlistment. He had a certain judicious fear of writing political poetry, and he fought long and hard (however unobjectionably) to defend the independence and the rootedness of his talent.
Arguably, in this regard, when Leo was looking for some perfect lines, From the Republic of Conscience was not to be trusted. The poem sets down memorable and irresistibly quotable thoughts on the nature of leadership, certainly, but they are mixed with doubt and ambiguity, with a weirdness of wonder, with delicate senses of vulnerability and spiritual transformation, and also with a special suspicion of power.
This quality of doubleness, this hard-to-handle surface, is what makes the poem a poem. It is also the reason why deciding to read a second verse, or a whole section, would almost certainly have been inappropriate when the opportunity arose this month in Dáil Eireann.
There is a sister poem behind From the Republic of Conscience called Shame, by the American poet Richard Wilbur, to which Heaney was responding, and the two are very alike. One of the Wilbur lines reads: [The citizens] “lack the peace of mind of the truly humble”.
If Heaney had given his Amnesty poem a title like Shame, it would almost certainly have caused its afterlife to be curtailed.
So what is there in Heaney’s poem that might be difficult for a leader to love? Well, to coin a phrase, and risk invoking a movie: change, actually.
Heaney’s vision of change embraces not only conscience, but consciousness itself. Conscience serves as a euphemism for the whole of the person, and for such feelings as love and empathy, taken on their own terms, as divinities of the inner life.
In From the Republic of Conscience, the Heaney character that speaks (the one that Varadkar chose to ventriloquise) has returned from a fact-finding mission. The poet Dennis O’Driscoll saw him as a mapper of an ethically evolved territory, and observed that the unusual tone of the poem might relate to the speaker having been “challenged” to accept a permanent ambassador’s role.
The requirements of that role, including the details in the lines quoted by Varadkar, are enumerated in the poem with a degree of anxiety. Inspiration is the light of possibilities, the beacon of the heart, but it is not the road ahead. The road ahead is change, and that means a break with the past, a true rupture. Nothing short of a new mind is required. Hence the weeping titans. For in the land of love, power is not king. Rather, the powerful find themselves homeless, banished to humility, and they find that they must try to learn how to align themselves, along with everyone else, with a natural order that is chaotic and vulnerable, sometimes hostile, sometimes profound, sometimes heavenly; all these things at once.
Poetry is a kind of foothold in such a world, and maybe a kind of road map.
But the standard of leadership in Heaney’s poem remains forbiddingly high. That is, it remains truly visionary. Our leaders should dwell in daily aspiration for higher values. They should be capable of using language that is infused with empathy. They should be vocationally driven to keep their egos in check, and to keep their citizens, those they have sworn to serve, in sight. More than taking injustice personally, they should be justice addicts. And ultimately they should know a thing or two about the actualities of love.
In our world, if a new leader has a vision of change, not to mention a vision of having followers, then nothing less will do. This is the needful approach. This is humanity. This is the job at hand.
Martin Dyar is the author of the Pigott Prize-shortlisted poetry collection Maiden Names, and is presently writer in residence at the Washington Ireland Program, a non-profit which offers leadership training opportunities to Irish undergraduates from diverse backgrounds. In 2000, the Washington Ireland Program awarded Leo Varadkar a work placement in the office of the Republican congressman Jack Quinn. On hearing the news of Varadkar’s becoming taoiseach, Quinn remembered him as “An ambitious young man who was bound for success in a lot of different ways. I hope the experience was helpful but he gave us more than we gave him.”