Civil War wounds healed by St Brian of Béal na mBláth

 

There was no mistaking the affection for the Minister yesterday: this was a symbolic burying of hatchets, writes CARL O'BRIENIn Beal na mBlath

WHO’D HAVE thought this was an incursion into enemy territory? As he stepped down from the podium, an adoring crowd surged forward, clapping and cheering at the first senior Fianna Fáil figure to deliver the keynote oration at Béal na mBláth.

Older women thrust their hands through the railings to shake his hand (or just tug at his trouser legs). “You’re looking smashing, Minister!”, an elegant lady cooed. “Well done, altogether.”

Another woman tried to manhandle a photographer out of her way. “We want to see the Minister! We want to see him!” she insisted.

One dyed-in-the-wool Fine Gaeler in his 80s jostled forward to get the Minister’s autograph, dropping his crutches in the process. “He’s been cured!” shouted a woman alongside him, to roars of laughter.

As the Minister lingered in the sunshine to sign countless autographs and pose for innumerable family photographs, there was no mistaking the warm affection of the crowd. His speech had been marked by spontaneous and sustained ripples of applause, and a sense that this was a symbolic burying of old hatchets.

It was a world away from the dark mutterings in the weeks beforehand. Fine Gael senator Liam Twomey had warned that Lenihan – whose predecessors “murdered” Collins – wasn’t welcome. Young Fine Gaelers, too, said they would boycott the occasion in protest at the Minister’s appearance.

In the end, they seemed woefully out of touch with the spirit of the day.

Helen Collins, Collins’s grandniece, said: “Michael belongs to all the people of Ireland and beyond.”

Among the hundreds waiting to get a word with the Minister afterwards was John-Joe Lyons, a Fine Gael voter in his 70s from Newcestown. He had brought with him two antique postcards – one of Collins, one of de Valera – to get signed by Brian Lenihan.

The event also drew Fianna Fáil supporters, many visiting Béal na mBláth for the first time. One of them was Tim Maher, a dairy farmer from Templemore, Co Tipperary. “I’m definitely Fianna Fáil. Why the reception? He’s doing a good job in very hard times – at the end of day, he’s doing a job no one else would do. People appreciate that.”

Also there to witness the event were many of Brian Lenihan’s extended family, including his aunt Mary O’Rourke who was struck by the generosity of the welcome.

“We were going into unknown, really. But it’s been marvellous. Such a warm welcome. I couldn’t but be partisan, but I was taken by all the people coming up to him. I think he’s overwhelmed himself. He genuinely regarded it has a huge honour to be asked here.”

In a post-Civil War world where differences have been well and truly laid to rest, it may be inevitable the issue of a Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael merger will feature on the landscape. If it did rear its head yesterday, it did so discreetly.

For Tom O’Shea of Kilkenny, a staunch Fine Gaeler who’s been coming to Béal na mBláth for decades, that’s for another day. Yesterday was about laying old ghosts to rest. “I used to bring my father here, who sent dispatches to Collins during the War of Independence. There used to be lots of old IRA men here too. The divisions in those days were still quite raw . . . But I really welcome what’s happened today. The talk of a boycott was uncalled for. It’s 2010. It’s time for us all to move on.”