That was the week - that was! It was a week in which there was an extraordinary coincidence of events: the State visit of Queen Elizabeth II, the visit of the President of the United States and Mrs Obama, and the State funeral of a former Taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald.
In the pictures and reports that were relayed into our homes on radio and television, we had an intimate and personal look at these events. We saw the colour of eyes, heard the sound of voices, the chuckle of jokes, watched the formal and informal, and saw the juxtaposition of an official State funeral and the personal sadness of a mourning family.
But, most of all, we saw ourselves - ordinary Irish people. And we liked what we saw. For some years now, we did not always like much of what we saw. We, rightly saw ourselves as betrayed by institutions, Church and State. Obfuscation about child abuse; brown envelopes circulating in high places; gross mismanagement (if not worse) of our banking system: the return of emigration: all contributed to our demoralisation. We had messed it up.
But in the past week, even if much of it was ceremonial and of no great economic consequences, we got it right. Our timetables worked. Our President, always gracious, combined the formal with the friendly informality of Irish people. Our army was superb. Our gardai maintained with good humour and good manners, the crowd control on our streets. Our politicians represented us with dignity.
Even that most cynical component of communication - the international journalists - had nothing but good to say of us. Facilities for their accommodation; prompt transport to their assignments; constant availability of refreshments; special “eat as you go” lunch bags; all combined to impress a contingent that is not easily impressed.
Every detail of the week’s events had to be meticulously organised. Hitches had to be anticipated and catered for. Timetables had to dove-tail. The threat from malcontents and would-be-disrupters had to be seen as a constant reality.
It is easy to forget that relaxed, enjoyable well-functioning public occasions are preceded by long periods of very hard work and by the co-operation of many disciplines and many people. In that intermix of events, both happy and sad, during the past week, the public sector got it right, very right. Fair play to them.
But there was a peripheral element to the ceremonies associated with the Queen’s visit to both Trinity College and to Cork University’s Tyndall National Institute, and which would not be within the daily existence of us, ordinary Irish people. Amongst the long lines of academics, we saw world experts in eugenics, in research into diabetes, in advanced technology, and distinguished scholasrs, all working in Ireland and all contributing to the education of our young people.
And as a by-product of this education, and almost as a by-the-way in comment, we learned, many of us for the first time, of the achievements of Irish people in Britain, where they occupy the most prestigious positions in medicine, in industry, in academia, even in the BBC.
As we beat ourselves up for our recent failures, should we not also find some reassurances in the world-class achievements of Irish people: that when we put our minds to it, we can achieve and we really can do? And we can achieve and can do, without resorting to the sleaze and greed and cute hoorism which characterised much of the immediate past.
But all the happy celebrations had a parallel in the sad but proud celebrations of the life of Garret FitzGerald, who should have been guest at so many of the events, and who died during the week.
I only once saw Garret in person. Many years ago, during electioneering, the Fine Gael bus had stopped by Hearn’s Hotel, and I stood aside while he was helping his wife alight from the bus and settling her into her wheelchair. I noticed the tenderness with which he fussed over her, personally fixing her rug and wheeling her into the hotel. The closeness and endurance of their marriage is now legendary: Joan and Garret do not even need the “FitzGerald” to identify their special place in peoples’ knowledge or affection.
Like many thousands of Irish people, I read Garret’s column every Saturday in “The Irish Times.” Because I was never good at sums, I often had to read it a second or third time, to get to the core of what he was saying. Many columns have been written about his brilliant intellect, his kindness, his love of children and family, but it is his practical patriotism, his foresight, his persistence, his basic decency and honesty that have combined to identify his place in history, as an exceptional leader is this country.
The late John Healy (also in “The Irish Times”) gave him the title of “Garret The Good” and it is significant that in the changed morality that obtained in some sectors of subsequent Irish life, (some would call it the whiff of sulphur) “good” became a pejorative, mocking description, like goody-two-shoes.
But it was the concept of goodness and decency and honesty that was foremost in the minds of ordinary Irish people in recently celebrating the life of a good man.
It was indeed a memorable week. It was a week when all sections of society, the great and the good, the public and the private, but chiefly, the ordinary people of Ireland, got their corporate acts together. The experience could be a template for our recovery: that if we work hard, co-operate with each other, put our backs into it, cherish the FitzGerald virtues that: Yes, we can!
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