Despite the mess, we still sneer at Dev's speech


The ‘comely maidens’ caricature is used to dismiss ideas contrary to our ideal of progress, writes JOHN WATERS

SPEAKING IN public recently I’ve taken to floating an idea I ceased promoting over a decade ago because you cannot argue it with success: that Éamon de Valera, when he delivered his 1943 St Patrick’s Day “dream speech” was not wrong about everything. For years it was impossible to say this without being run out of town.

Back in 1997, in a book entitled An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Ireland, I described how this radio broadcast became the mainspring of the ideological drive towards modernisation, how the values we adopted in its wake represented the philosophical antitheses of those Dev outlined that St Patrick’s Day 66 years ago. It is as if, in order to embark upon the adventure of untrammelled progress, we needed to bury Dev and his “dream speech” under a shedload of ridicule.

At the mention of Dev, my recent researches have established, the national expression still creases into a sneer. The objections haven’t changed, in spite of everything.

In recent weeks, when I have mischievously raised the possibility of looking again at what Dev actually said, I have met with the same conditioned responses of 15 years ago.

Back then, such objections had the redeeming aspect of being delivered in innocence: we had not yet become prosperous and might be forgiven for being impatient with those who told us that money couldn’t buy us love.

I find it infinitely interesting that, even now, in response to such provocation, someone will immediately mutter disparagingly about Dev and his “comely maidens dancing at the crossroads”, although the speech referred to neither phenomenon. Unfazed by such semantics, the speaker will invariably plough on to condemn de Valera for urging us to remain poor and isolated.

But Dev urged no such thing. His purpose was to establish a philosophical bedrock on which a coherent society might be built. The idea that Ireland might be “the home of a people living the life that God desires than man should live” is surely recognisable as code for a society in which connectedness with absolute values would enable a balance in which human happiness would be maximised. Dev was speaking at the level of metaphor, outlining not a literal landscape but a parable of a society in which human beings might prosper without succumbing to illusions or false gods. He was proposing the cultivation of a collective consciousness wired to the true meaning of human existence, bounded by a healthy sense of sufficiency and capable of growing by its own lights. The nearest he came to fantasising about comely maidens was the expression of a desire that his ideal Ireland would include the “laughter of happy maidens”, which always stuck me as fairly unexceptionable. He made no mention of crossroads at all.

This St Patrick’s Day, we could do worse than spend 10 minutes reading the text of the “dream speech” and then ask ourselves what in it, precisely, led us to adopt such a superior attitude to de Valera’s philosophy. Do we object to the idea that Ireland might be the home of people “who value material wealth only as the basis for right living”? Is what scares us the thought of being satisfied with frugal comfort? Are we still offended by the notion that the population of this ideal Ireland might devote its leisure to the things of the spirit?

A caricatured version of this speech was used for several generations to sell an entirely different kind of existence: one in which the sense of an absolute relationship with reality was replaced by the idea that limitless progress could one day meet all human needs. In this dream of Ireland, happiness would be predicated on belongings and sensations. Dev’s speech became the key weapon in an ideological war that, in truth, has brought us to this sorry pass: reduced to a dependency on the material and no longer able to maintain the habit.

What has happened, it is surely obvious, is more than an economic crisis. It is a crisis in the relationship between human beings and the systems they created to serve their wants. Human desire has burst at supersonic speed through the fragile edifice of the money system, leaving nothing in its wake but shattered illusions and unsatisfied appetites. The problem lies not with the systems, but with the fact that human longing, being infinite, is incapable of earthly satisfaction.

The idea that “regulation” could have saved us from the present calamity is as ridiculous as it is pervasive. This now constant refrain implies that some among us should have kept their heads, gone against the mood of the moment and sought to deny us our due. But the mindset epitomised by the caricature of Dev and his dream had made this all but impossible. Central to our post-de Valera imagination was the idea that restraint was a reactionary idea, that limits were for losers, that values were whatever the market decided. And despite everything, we remain incapable of making connections. We have learned nothing and understood nothing. Our towers of Babel fall around our ears, but still we hear only what justifies our deluded determination to make the same mistakes all over again.