An Irishman's Diary


DURING an idle moment on Wednesday, I briefly considered compiling “a History of Ireland in 100 handshakes”.

Readers maybe relieved to know, however, that I rejected the plan as unfeasible.

For one thing, the late 20th and early 21st centuries would be vastly over-represented. Whereas, before that, historic handshakes appear to have been few and far between. As for pre-history, well, any landmark manual activity back then was as likely to involve amputation (the red hand of Ulster, for example) as shaking.

I’ve seen it suggested that, as well as introducing tobacco and the potato, it was Walter Raleigh who started the fashion for digital germ exchange as a peace greeting in these parts. But this would contradict the only famous handshake I can think of from the Irish medieval period.

It happened, reputedly, in 1492 – 60 years before Raleigh – when the Earl of Kildare resolved a dispute with his rivals, the Butlers of Ormond, by offering his hand through a hole in the door of a house where the Earl of Ormond’s nephew was hiding out.

Amputation was a risk, clearly. But the Earl of Kildare’s hand was accepted (while still attached to him) and thus history was made.

That one aside, though, I can’t think of any more examples until modern times. Indeed, if modern times can be defined by this newspaper’s archive, we recently passed the centenary of the first recorded use of “historic handshake” as a term.

It was mentioned in the House of Commons in May 1912 of an event that had already happened. And it’s not entirely clear from the reference whose hands were involved, except that Edward Carson seems to have owned one of them. If so, that handshake was a forerunner to most of the more recent examples.

Historic handshaking reached unprecedented levels during the early years of the Northern peace process. Yet already some of those events seem like ancient history. A former colleague reminded me on Wednesday, for example, of one involving Gerry Adams and Sir Patrick Mayhew.

Apparently it took place in the Sheraton Hotel, Washington, in 1995. And it was considered far too risqué at the time to allow journalists to see it. So it must have been a very important event. But as I had to admit to my colleague, 17 years on, I can barely remember who Sir Patrick Mayhew was, never mind the handshake.

Of all the historic handshakes of that era, in fact, the one that stands out now does so for all the wrong reasons. It was part of the triumphal pas-de-deux performed by the Rev Ian Paisley and David Trimble after the 1996 Drumcree parade was forced down Garvaghy Road.

And it wasn’t a shake, as such; they merely held each other’s hands briefly while walking. But what was memorable was not so much that they were holding hands as that they both looked absolutely terrified that anyone might think they were enjoying it.

I DIDN’T KNOW the late journalist Eugene Moloney very well. Even so, on the few occasions we met, I found him very much the genial, easy-going, thoroughly likeable person that his colleagues have been remembering. And yet he also had a certain steeliness, as I recall from an event in 1998.

We were covering a post-election press conference by the aforementioned Dr Paisley. This was before the latter’s conversion to the peace process. Indeed, after their brief manual dalliance, he was now a sworn enemy of David Trimble and anyone associated with the Belfast Agreement.

And fresh from elections that had boosted his position, he was in fighting form. A terror to journalists at the best of times, Paisley could be especially daunting in his Antrim heartland, after another resounding victory at the polls, and having just delivered one of his classic orations, laced with biblical references.

So it might have been in trepidation that Eugene questioned him about his plans. Whereupon Dr Paisley – still blustering to gale force – riposted that he would not be revealing tactics to such people as the questioner, adding “and you a friend of the IRA”.

It was a stupid comment: meaning nothing other than that Eugene was a journalist from a southern newspaper, or a northern catholic, or both. The intention was probably humorous. And sure enough, Dr Paisley’s admiring retinue laughed as if his clumsy joke was a bon mot.

With most journalists, he might have got away with it too. Certainly, I would have been stunned into silence at least long enough for him to get out of the room.

Not Eugene, however. After being stunned for about half a second, he shot out a big right hand in Paisley’s direction, with a big index finger pointing at the end of it. Then he said: “Take that back!” The ambient temperature suddenly increased a few degrees. I’m sure Paisley already knew his joke was a mistake. But this was not a man who ever retreated publicly from any position, however untenable. And his admirers were still looking on.

So he tried to make light of his remark, without apologising. But the index finger pointed again, unwavering. Gently, but firmly, its owner repeated: “Take it back, Dr Paisley”.

Still the DUP leader could not escape the petard on which he had hoist himself. He wriggled a bit more, to no avail. Again the finger, and again: “Take it back.” At which point, Dr Paisley did take it back – sort of, and not with good grace – as he strode to the door.

The grin that was always on Eugene’s face never completely left him during the exchange. Now, his honour restored, it returned in full. “My hero!” I said. But he just smiled as if nothing had happened.