The death of the diehard


We used to value our country and all the sacrifices the selfless republicans of 90 years ago made in its creation. But we’ve lost the plot, and our politicians have turned the concepts we once believed in into mere rhetorical weapons, writes JOHN WATERS

WHEN I WAS A CHILD in the Castlerea of the 1960s, I spent an inordinate amount of time at home in bed, suffering from various ailments arising from what my father spoke of as my “delicate constitution”. I had bronchitis, or perhaps asthma, and at the slightest sniffle or sneeze my mother and/or father would insist that I stay home from school, which suited me fine.

When I was tired of reading I would listen to the traffic and the sounds of the street: the shouts of people going and coming to the pubs or shops; the click-clacking of high-heel shoes; the hum of motor cars, as they were still called, to distinguish them from the horse-drawn variety.

Day and night I listened to this symphony and perhaps unconsciously started to interpret it as a soundtrack to the town, with its hierarchy of importance and self-importance. At night I would listen and put faces to all the vehicles and their drivers and watch their passing lights make shadows on my ceiling, then close my eyes and sink into the idea that this town was not Castlerea at all but some other town, or even a city, close by but undiscovered, a town no one talked about, which hummed and breathed and sighed and groaned within earshot of the real world but could not be visited except in the imagination.

During daytime, whenever I heard an unfamiliar car I would jump out of bed and run to the window, and in this way I had acquired the ability to tell one car noise from another and put a face on its driver as it approached and passed underneath my bedroom window. It wasn’t as amazing a feat as it sounds now: there weren’t that many cars around at the time, and most of them made more – and more idiosyncratic – noises than the modern variety.

The two cars I had the greatest trouble distinguishing from one another were the squad car, a black Ford Prefect, and the blue Ford Prefect owned by Dan O’Rourke, a former TD, retired teacher, one-time president of the GAA and – his most elevated qualification in a locality in which he was venerated – ex-freedom fighter.

The two Prefects had the same rattle, and I never quite achieved certainty in telling them apart.

Dan O’Rourke was a familiar figure around town, a tall man crouched over the steering wheel of his incongruously small car.

He wore dark suits and a grey moustache and seemed a little too tall for the dark-blue Prefect. Occasionally you might see him stop and clamber out to conduct some piece of business. Sometimes, when I was out with my father, we would meet Dan on the road, and the two men would exchange salutes. I never saw them go further, and I assumed this was because of differing political views, or perhaps some arcane sense of the niceties of the town’s complex hierarchy, in which Dan had a special, elevated place, though – unusually – not for reasons of wealth or property.

Dan, though he started out in Sinn Féin, had long been a Fianna Fáiler, and had served as the local TD until the early 1950s, and for a brief time thereafter as a member of Seanad Éireann. In those days a man was in large part defined by the attitude he had taken to the Treaty of 1921, which established both partition and the Irish Free State. My father, having been pro-Treaty, was a Fine Gael supporter. Many times I heard my father excoriate de Valera and his “bowsie” followers, whom he blamed for starting the Civil War and “setting brother against brother”. I always assumed that Dan must have belonged also to this abominable company, even though I never heard my father say a bad word about him.

When I was 15 my father sent me to Dan’s funeral with a Mass card. It was my first time to see in real life a coffin draped in a tricolour, and it stoned me with awe and reverence.

It was only relatively recently that I was able to figure it all out, after a friend from home handed me a sheet of paper with the text of a short speech delivered in the Treaty debate in the Second Dáil, in the Mansion House in Dublin, on January 7th, 1922, by Dan O’Rourke, then a Sinn Féin TD for Mayo South-Roscommon South.

Something about this speech enthralled me with its sense of something familiar yet no longer detectable in our culture. I read it repeatedly, seeking to name some of the qualities it exhibited. It was of another time and yet, it seemed, urgently relevant to the present. I had noted similar thoughts and sentiments before in, for example, the essays of Pádraig Pearse, in the way words seemed to step out of history and imply a timeless view of what Ireland was, is and might become.

Dan O’Rourke’s Wikipedia entry says that he “supported the Anglo-Irish Treaty and voted in favour of it”. But the story is far more interesting than this arid citation suggests. The thing about O’Rourke is that he was actually opposed to the Treaty but still voted for it.

In this speech, O’Rourke was explaining why, although he remained a republican, he had come to decide to vote in favour of the Treaty. Before getting to this, he explained that the first he had known about being elected to Dáil Éireann (he was an unopposed Sinn Féin nominee to the Second Dáil at the 1921 general election) was when he read about it in the newspapers. Had he known his name was to be put forward, he said, he would have objected.

He then moved on to the point of his speech, firstly explaining that he was unhappy with the manner in which the Treaty had been signed.

“Until I came here I didn’t know how the matter stood. When I found out how things happened I must say I did not like, and I do not like, the idea of the plenipotentiaries having signed without having brought back the Treaty for consideration.”

He was referring here to the Irish negotiators, including Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith, who signed the Treaty without reference to their leaders in Dublin.

“When I came here first,” he said, “I was opposed to the Treaty, and on principle I am opposed to it still.” But he had changed his position, if not his mind. His “great ambition and prayer” was for unity. “I am prepared to do anything for unity because I realise that the great curse of this country has been disunity.” If a division had been taken before Christmas, he said, he would have voted against the Treaty. Now, he explained, he was going to vote the other way.

“I returned to my constituency at Christmas and I went there to the people. Not the resolution passers – to the people who had been with me in the fight, the people whose opinion I valued, the people who are, I believe, diehards. And I consulted with them about this question, and I must say that, unanimously, they said to me that there was no alternative but to accept the Treaty.”

I have a strong memory from growing up also of the aura of moral purpose that was attached to the Fine Gael view of the world. It was a political outlook associated with compromise and accommodation, a strange mixture of fanaticism and adaptability.

In the years since the Civil War this had seeped into the culture like a bloodstain into a bandage, a kind of reminder of the limits of ideals and the danger of rhetoric that failed to take this into account. This view had about it an element of weariness with conflict but was mindful, too, of the historical experience of subjugation and of the foolhardiness of taking on an impossibly powerful foe. It did not seek to deny or revise anything but merely owned up to the difficulties and costs associated with grand gestures. It saw the pursuit of pure principle as representing an extravagant luxury that placed idealism of outlook against the immediate welfare of real people.

This was my father’s kind of patriotism, a kind that embraced both the ideal and the consequences of pursuing it, and took both into account. It did not attach itself to vain or hopeless gesturing but blended ideal with a pragmatic sense of other choices.

In all the talk we’ve had about the “Civil War divide” it is forgotten that originally, in the main, this factor related to respective dispositions as opposed to ideological positions. The true knot of difference related to the question of warfare.

Dan O’Rourke was a Fianna Fáiler but not a warmonger. His disposition, now that I come to think of it, was not unlike my father’s, even though he belonged to the other side of the argument, the other tribe.

My father, a non-participant political animal, about whom I wrote at some length in my book Jiving at the Crossroads, was a pro-Treaty republican who believed that the interim settlement achieved in 1921 would have led in a short time to a United Ireland. Thus his gripe with the irredentism of Fianna Fáil included not a concession of the final nationalist ideal but the contrary: he believed they had scuppered the prospect of a United Ireland by affecting to be passionate about it. This was the view of many Fine Gaelers in the west in my childhood years rather than any formal view of the Fine Gael party, then or since.

“Everything that is personal to me,” Dan O’Rourke went on, “is against this Treaty. I yield to no man in my hatred of British oppression and in my opposition to any symbol of British rule in Ireland. But I say I would be acting an impertinent part by putting my own views and opinions against the views of my best friends, the men who are the best fighters with me.”

For himself he would be “just as well pleased” if the Treaty were rejected. But he would not take responsibility for throwing the young men of his country into war, “for I know what war has meant”. His desire was that “the members of the Dáil will come together and come to some common understanding to work our country in the interests of the people”. If the Treaty were rejected, he concluded, and war the result, he would do everything possible to unite the people against the common enemy. “And I promise to fight to victory or death to secure the Republic.”

The Dáil passed the Treaty by a majority of just seven votes, with three deputies abstaining. O’Rourke’s contribution was by many accounts decisive.

READING THIS SPEECHtoday is strange and moving in a way that leads to deep sorrow. For it is instantly clear that we have lost almost everything of the values and qualities that underpin these words of Dan O’Rourke. To read such words in the current climate is almost like looking into a strange culture as a tourist, a culture in which different things are important and these shifted priorities are visible, consistent but also strangely opaque.

It is hard to articulate what it is that strikes me, and immediately, on writing this, I know that “strikes” is the wrong word. I should say, rather, that something unsettles me on reading what Dan O’Rourke said. Something moves me. Something stirs in me a sense of loss that is almost unable to glimpse the nature of itself, never mind to express itself.

The speech acknowledges, too, a higher authority than Dan O’Rourke, an authority captured succinctly in the word “diehards”. In this word there is so much that the meaning seems to burst out from it, a word that in modern usage usually has a pejorative connotation. Here it has about it an almost overwhelming sense of affection.

It goes without saying that Dan O’Rourke’s speech could not be imagined arising from our own times. It is impossible to imagine a politician today being able to invoke his deepest personal desires in this way and then go on to explain why he is disregarding them, to summon up an idea of Ireland that is so self-evident that he scarcely need refer to it.

O’Rourke was speaking in a language I understand, a language I recognise as English, the same language we speak in Ireland today. But the mode of his expression, the awarenesses and sentiments he was calling up, the sense of proprietorship of his own citizenship, as well as his sense of his role as leader of his fellows, all these are alien now. Alien too is the implicit air of entitlement to speak of the destiny and welfare of his country, in a way that was neither economistic nor sociological, neither moralistic nor sentimental.

Arthur Miller, in his essay The Family in Modern Drama, wrote about the dramatic incompatibility of public and private language. Poetry, he argued, was the language of the public arena, prose that of the domestic space. Private life lends itself to realism; public life does not.

These dichotomies spring from different aspects of human experience and appeal to different receptivities in the audience: “When one is speaking to one’s family, for example, one uses a certain level of speech, a certain plain diction perhaps, a tone of voice, an inflection suited to the intimacy of the occasion. But when one faces an audience of strangers, as a politician does, for instance – and he is the most social of men – it seems right and proper for him to reach for the well-turned phrase, even the poetic word, the aphorism, the metaphor.”

One does not imagine Dan O’Rourke speaking to his family in the same way as he addressed the Second Dáil. But it is not the full story. Miller’s analysis makes something clearer, but it also skates over something about the nature of political speech in the present time. Dan O’Rourke’s speech in the Treaty debate contained no aphorisms or metaphors, nor even a great wealth of well-turned phrases. We can but speculate on the manner of its delivery, but its content was such as to suggest that it was a low-key speech, spoken at the pitch of a street conversation. And yet it carried within it great burdens of feeling and thought.

Perhaps the point to be made about Dan O’Rourke’s speech is that, because political rhetoric has become almost exclusively bound up with economistic concerns and technocratic solutions, there is no longer room for genuine inspiration, or breadth of vision, and therefore no language in which the deeper strands of collective meanings and attachments can be expressed. It is rare to hear a political speech now that does not sound like the address of a chief executive of a factory producing some indeterminate articles for some unspecified purpose. The only values capable of being summoned to such an occasion are those of self-interest and what is called “progress” or its economic equivalent, growth.

Nowadays we do not look to the public square in search of the towering figure of the political demigod or demagogue but snort our disdain to our nearest fellows, infecting them as they have infected us.

We look balefully now not just at our present-day leaders but at all those who came before: at Pearse and de Valera as much as at Haughey and Ahern. We convince ourselves that the bitter complaints we direct at their departed backs represent a judgment by us on them that somehow implies an improved awareness and moral growth. Others – Garret FitzGerald, Mary Robinson – our culture contrives to remember more benignly. When we look closely at this “morality” we can perceive that it is overwhelmingly connected to agendas of what is called progress.

Perhaps as a way of justifying to ourselves the deeper, unacknowledged costs of progress, we remember well those who allegedly “dragged us kicking and screaming” out of the past. This, more than anything, is the moral criterion to be applied to the record of Irish leadership in the near-century since independence.

Mostly the memories are false, for in truth there was very little objective difference between the public lives and contributions of these leaders and the ones we excoriate. Almost invariably the denunciations and benign remembrances are retrospective and based on circumstantial evidence of limited reliability.

Patriotism nowadays is simply a concept to be employed as a weapon against those you accuse of lacking it. Ideals are still expressed, but they are always coded expressions of the idea that greatness resides in giving people what they demand. For as long as a leader continues to do this, he remains a hero. When he has outlived his usefulness he becomes a villain, the object of ridicule, or both.

There is a strange contradiction here: on the one hand such hostility is frequently expressed in irony and a dark humour, but on the other it is invariably characterised by a withdrawal of openness to the complexity of the character being disparaged. We make jokes about Pearse’s myopia while denying the power and range of his observations about the Irish condition. We sneer at de Valera while distorting his vision, the better to mock it into oblivion. We scorn Haughey while overlooking the extent of his imaginative grip on his country for nearly half a century.

We laugh and laugh at those who built our nation on their ridiculous pretensions and sentences, but still we cannot imagine ourselves belonging to a country that loved itself so much it could not wait to be whole. Above all, we cannot imagine a way of building a country if we had to start again from the beginning.

This is an edited extract from Was It for This? How Ireland Lost the Plot, to be published by Transworld Ireland on May 24th

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