Profusion of Tricolours puts me in mind of friends

 

The Tricolour is flying outside a pub, another is mounted in a window, and some passing cars have miniatures

WALKING THROUGH Dún Laoghaire in the morning time, I’m playing host to a confusion of semi-connected thoughts. The little town is looking more like itself.

For a short while it appeared bereft – so beaten down was it by the sledgehammer blows of this damned recession, I feared it might never entirely recover its vitality. But lovely Dún Laoghaire seems to be doing fine again, thank God.

Perhaps the creeping decrepitude of last year was mostly in the eye of this beholder? Or maybe the recession has bottomed out? But I don’t believe either of those things. Most likely its people just refused to be defeated. The Tricolour is flying outside a pub, another is mounted in a house window, and some passing cars have miniatures attached to either side.

Not too many years ago I would have felt anxious and repulsed to be in such close proximity to a profusion of Tricolours, but not anymore. Now they just put me in mind of friends. I recall something the late Peter Ustinov wrote on the subject of national standards: “I can take no allegiance to a flag if I don’t know who’s holding it.”

For me, the Tricolour is now the preserve of some of the most decent people I’ve ever known. They hail from virtually every part of Ireland – Louth, Limerick, Galway, Wexford, Wicklow, Dublin, Sligo, Waterford, Kildare, Offaly, Longford, Kerry, Donegal, Meath, and Cork. Henceforth, it will always be the likes of them who are “holding it”.

When I first encountered Ustinov’s line, it made perfect intellectual sense. But it took Dún Laoghaire to plant it at an emotional level. Bars of green and orange, on either side of white, the universal symbol of peace – it was a nice idea, destroyed by our fallibility.

Ustinov proffers an explanation, though not an excuse: “Not only ideals, but even ideas, have always been greater than men, greater even than the men who fathered them.”

I catch sight of myself in a shop window: grey-haired and bespectacled, no longer a spring chicken, that’s for sure. Was Ustinov ever a young man, I wonder? Patently, he must have been, but he seemed always to be elderly. There’s a lot to be said for getting older, and admittedly a few things to be said against it.

For instance, I sometimes wonder is there a law of nature that dictates many of the best among one’s family and acquaintances must depart first. I suppose I should be grateful that there appears to be, but I’m not. The middle-aged me never gets a second glance from the fine-looking young women who walk through Dún Laoghaire in the morning time. Maybe they wouldn’t have noticed me even when I was younger, but at least then I had room to kid myself. On the upside, with age comes the delightful realisation of how little knowledge one actually possesses, as the burden of old certainties is gradually lifted by the experiences of life (provided, that is, at least some of it is spent away from the parochial bubble).

Someone remarked to me a while back that my views aren’t always consistent. Thank God for that, I thought. If he was inside here looking out, he’d realise just how inconsistent they really are. Over the years, through no conscious effort on my part, my emotional attachments have shifted markedly, if not yet entirely, from the abstract to the physical: from entities to people. That is not to say I am anybody’s: rather, the complete opposite.

Ustinov touched on the folly of blind allegiance: “My only allegiance is to my own conscience, and who is to tell me that that is not higher than any flag, or any mediocre tune written by a third-rate bandmaster to the words of a fourth-rate poet, to which men rise as a mass with a look of inane piety on their faces?”

I reflect for a second or two on how, in certain circumstances, conscience can too easily be parked. I give thanks that this is by no means applicable to everyone, and move swiftly on.

I decide that Peter Ustinov seemed perpetually elderly because, even in his youth, he possessed the kind of wisdom that only normally comes with age – if indeed it comes at all.

It has taken me the best part of a lifetime to even begin to realise something of what he instinctively knew from boyhood. He was most commonly known as a raconteur, which was a bit like describing Picasso as someone who mixed paint. I would give my right arm to be labelled a raconteur – but if I had been Ustinov, I would have felt severely short-changed.

There is no better walk than through lovely Dún Laoghaire in the morning time, and no better companion than Peter Ustinov. As I near my destination, he leaves me with one last thought: “We are destined to live out our lives in the prison of the mind; our one duty is to furnish it well.” If we don’t, it will not have been through any lack of effort on his part.

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