'Ireland will survive her sufferings . . . and rear one day an Arch of Triumph'


OPINION: Hope doesn’t die in a day – we learn that from a little remembered Irish patriot

WHAT IS there in common between the virtue of hope and the Irish national flag?

At a time when the national mood is especially despondent, and when the whole nation fears the tough days ahead, there is a surprising and, even uplifting, answer to this question.

Ireland is a small boat in the middle of a very stormy ocean. We are at a time in the nation’s history when hope and fortitude and self belief are required, in spades. This is a time for leadership.

This is not the time for the nationally elected representatives to turn upon each other and seek to jettison each other to the waves. The day of reckoning will come when the nation goes to the polls. I, for one, will be voting for those who show leadership now.

Now is not the time for recrimination and finger pointing. Now is the time for consensus among the main political parties – consensus around one thing – that they will work together to steer Ireland out of the storm we are in.

It is only two weeks since an editorial in this paper headlined “Perspective, please”. It began by asking “Is Ireland the worst country in the world?” It concluded by noting: “A glance around the world tells us that, despite our record budget deficit, our massive levels of personal debt and our unpopular Government, we are not much better or much worse than anywhere else.”

Nothing has changed materially in the past two weeks to change the underlying facts behind that analysis. In the critical discussions now taking place with the ECB and the IMF, we are faced with a threat or an opportunity, depending on how we deal with it. Are we going to pull together and negotiate the best deal for Ireland? Or are we going to pull each other apart before the eyes of the world?

In looking for perspective and hope, we could look back not just to 1916 and 1922, but to 1849, when one of the most potent expressions of hope that I have ever heard was written by the Irishman who gave us our national flag.

Recently I had the privilege of hearing the little known, but truly inspiring words of Thomas Francis Meagher read to a roomful of people in Waterford City Hall when Mayor Mary Roche publicly thanked those who had gifted artefacts to the collection of the Bishop’s Palace Museum. The words were from a letter written by Meagher in July 1849, gifted to the museum by Senator Mark Daly.

Thomas Francis Meagher was the Young Ireland leader who, at a meeting in his native city in March 1848, first publicly unveiled the flag which would subsequently become the Irish Tricolour. He was never destined to see that happen. Within the coming year he was tried and sentenced to death for his part in the failed Young Ireland rising of July 1848.

That sentence was subsequently commuted to penal servitude for life in Van Diemen’s Land, moder-day Tasmania. On July 9th, 1849, the morning of his deportation, he wrote a letter from the Bridewell to his friend in Paris, John P Leonard.

In it he lamented the plight of his “poor sad country”, a land recently engulfed by famines. “In the darkness which covers the land we hear but the wail of the dying and the supplications of the penniless and the breadless. Never, never was their country so utterly downcast, so debased, so pitiful, so spiritless”.

But it is the next paragraph of his letter which is so particularly apt in the light of our current need of perspective and fortitude.

“Yet I do not, could not despair of her regeneration. Nations do not die in a day. Their lives are reckoned by generations, and they encompass centuries. Their vitality is inextinguishable . . . Greece has so outlived her ruins and her woes. Italy has so outlived her degeneracy and her despotisms. Thus too, shall Ireland survive all her sufferings, her errors and disasters, and rear one day an ‘Arch of Triumph’ high above the wreck and wilderness of the past. This is my sincere faith.”

As the gathering in Waterford contemplated the circumstances in which the letter was written, and the writer’s courage and fortitude, a deep chord was struck with all who listened and made silent comparison with our present crisis.

Thomas Francis Meagher was deported to Van Diemen’s Land before escaping to America four years later where he became brigadier general of the famous Irish Brigade in the American Civil War.

Some 114 years after he left these shores, he was honoured here in July 1963, by President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, when he presented the banner of the Irish Brigade to the Houses of the Oireachtas as a gift to the Irish people.

Meagher’s words to his friend John Leonard could be his gift to his nation today.

Agnes Aylward is a former researcher with the Economic and Social Research Institute and public servant