Diarmaid Ferriter: We have been here before and we have prevailed

Coronavirus is a challenge but our nation's brief history is full of setbacks

In November 1998, Fr Harry Bohan, chairman of the Ceifin Centre for Values-led Change, organised a conference on the theme “Are we forgetting something? Our society in the new millennium.” Fr Bohan invited speakers to reflect on the idea that “even in the short period of the Celtic Tiger it was becoming increasingly obvious that Irish society, as distinct from the economy, is beginning to pay a high and unacceptable price for the material prosperity”.

As one of the contributors, historian Joe Lee, provocatively suggested a re-examination of Éamon de Valera’s “Ireland that we dreamed of” speech, broadcast on St Patrick’s Day in 1943. The most famous passage in the speech maintained: “The Ireland which we dreamed of would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis of right living, of a people who were satisfied with frugal comfort and devoted their lives to things of the spirit – a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youths and the laughter of comely maidens, whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age.”

Lee dismissed the modern derision of the speech and concluded that de Valera’s words amounted to a desire to see a well-populated country, with full employment, good housing, healthy children, an interest in sport, respect for the elderly and that “de Valera’s model emphasised the essential links between the generations as he identified his ideal for the dependent ages in society – childhood, youth and old age. Giving was as important as taking, service as important as wealth. It was a society in which rights were balanced by responsibilities.”

Strip away all the facades and tools of modern communication and globalisation and what we are left with is fear and uncertainty

It was also delivered during the second World War when a state of emergency existed in Ireland with sweeping, draconian powers exercised by the State and no way of knowing when the conflict would end. Neutral Ireland was largely spared the horrors of that war experienced by others, a good fortune we do not enjoy in the current emergency.


The St Patrick’s Day speech by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar this week was grounded in a dignified, stoic acceptance of that reality and yet he also emphasised the basics of the essential links between the generations. Strip away all the facades and tools of modern communication and globalisation and what we are left with is fear and uncertainty that is largely responded to with military terminology and declarations: resistance, solidarity, a battle against the enemy (infection) and an insistence “Your country needs you.” Fashioning a message of hope in darkest hours inevitably has leaders reaching for the Churchillian lexicon – insisting we will prevail – but the words are uttered in hope rather than certainty. Cork writer Seán Ó Faoláin observed in 1945 that even an isolated, poor neutral Ireland spared the ravages of invasion and slaughter was rising from the emergency compromised: “We emerge a little dulled, bewildered, deflated. There is great leeway to make up.”

What we need now is ongoing clarity about the scale of the challenge and the strategies to deal with it

There has been “great leeway” to make up at various stages: this State was born in civil war, grew up in considerable poverty and experienced staggering levels of emigration. “Here, if ever was, is a climate for the death wish,” declared Irish writer Anthony Cronin in 1954, while American writer John Kelleher referred the same decade to “the extraordinary shrinkage of Ireland”, such was the despondency he identified.

In subsequent decades there were cycles of boom and bust, but we managed. Most recently, think back to December 2010 with freezing fog, ice-packed pavements and roads; commuters still fortunate enough to have jobs slipping and sliding to work with worried brows while they listened to analysis of the IMF/EU deal that spelled the loss of sovereignty, and the hairshirt budget, while enduring the inept blustering of failed, uncommunicative leaders.

What we need now is ongoing clarity about the scale of the challenge and the strategies to deal with it as well as a consciousness of the cycles of history and the opportunities that have emerged in the past from the sense of reaching the lowest point.

We also have certain advantages we did not have in the past, including the welfare state, a peaceful island and our EU membership. But coping with the enormity of what is to be endured will inevitably come back to society, family and community bonds and what sociologist Tom Inglis has described as the “webs of meaning” spun by people in their everyday lives. Those webs will have to be reinforced, as an antidote to the vulnerability that is one of the prices we pay for the relentless pace of our global interconnectedness which has always been referenced in St Patrick’s Day messages, for good or ill.