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John-Paul McCarthy: Take a bow, Tommie, and we await your knighthood

WHY was Tommie Gorman's documentary on the Queen's Irish visit so good? Firstly, it was unhurried and each contributor was given plenty of time to develop their thoughts and reveal their character. And unlike previous RTE documentaries on the bailout and the waning days of the McAleese presidency, Gorman did not clutter his narrative with talking heads.

Instead of the predictable cliches of the Fintan O'Toole/Diarmaid Ferriter/ John Bowman faction, Gorman cast a wide net.

He gave us fascinating testimony from the driver of the British ambassador who was murdered in Dublin in 1976, as well as some moving reflections on Anglo-Irish history from the Durkan family.

It would have taken a Sean O Faolain or a Frank O'Connor to do full justice to the Queen's perambulation around the English Market in Cork city. But since both have rejoined the cosmos, Gorman found the next best thing, Eoghan Harris, a Corkman whose searing play Souper Sullivan did much to force Catholic Ireland to confront its cultural indebtedness to Protestant Ireland in the grim Eighties.

Harris's ironic reflections on the political complexity of our home city reminded me at least of Daniel Corkery's description of Cork city as an 'inneall cealgach', literally, a thorny engine, in his novel Log an Chiunais.

And it is a mean city in its own way, but the reception afforded Elizabeth that day showed that once in a while, a thorny engine can assume a gentler shape, and the millstone can become a star.

All serious documentaries generate unexpected internal images and emotions.

Eliot said that this task was about ". . .waking a dead world, /So that the mind may not be whole in the present".

With his elegant editing and erudite tone, Gorman cleared that bar as well.

Listening to Mary Robinson relive her quarrel with Cambridge about her legal title in 1991, I suddenly imagined her on the Irish Supreme Court and wondered again if she might have become a somewhat less self-important figure had she done something other than being president.

Because of its personal mandate, the Irish presidency leads to what we might call the aggravation of the self. Would Mrs Robinson have become an equally influential if less regal figure in our history if the fates had forced her to earn her corn on a collegial bench that only functions if individuals can carry at least two other colleagues with them?

Some of the shots from the Dublin Castle banquet generated equally unexpected assonances. Watching the scandalously young British prime minister gaze tearfully at his sovereign during her speech, I mentally cleared every table in the castle and filled them instead with modern Ireland's real Anglophiles.

If entrance to the castle that night had been denied to all but the sternest and most resolute bridge-builders, then the top tables flanking the heads-of-state would have looked pretty different.

Jack Lynch would have been there, Taoiseach during the initial phase of polarisation and near-collapse in Anglo-Irish relations, and author of the immortal phrase from July 1970, "there is no real invader here".

Garret FitzGerald lay stricken in a hospital bed that night, but he should also have been there.

When it was neither popular nor comfortable to do so, he publicly ridiculed the 'national territory' language in the old Articles 2 and 3, and matched the H-Block blanket men stride for stride in 1981 as they tried to derange the Republic.

And though Conor Cruise O'Brien was the last Irishman to defend the idiosyncrasies of monarchy, the reception seemed all the poorer for his absence. More than any other Irish intellectual since Joyce and Hubert Butler, O'Brien helped people to see the futility of looking across the channel for someone to blame.

From the Fifties, he wrote brilliantly about the Catholic addiction to historical mirage and self-pity, and did much in later years to expose those hateful Afrikaaner analogies that still surface when debating Ulster unionism.

He gave back more to the soil that produced him than all the salmon-guzzlers assembled that night from Foreign Affairs' celebrity rolodex.

I had one small quibble at the end, though I expect this is a quarrel with television itself. For all its virtues, the old idiot-box is bad for long-term thinking. And because of the potency of the imagery that Gorman deployed with such skill -- the bow at the Garden of Remembrance, the DUP's frolicking at the castle, the Cork walkabout -- one or two things got slightly mangled.

It would be a bit hasty, I think, to date Britain's recognition of the basic legitimacy of Irish nationalism to 2011. If anything, the British have been bending over backwards for us for quite some time.

Edward Heath arrived at Baldonnel Aerodrome in 1973 and after a few days with Liam Cosgrave, he agreed to void about 50 years of British policy on Northern Ireland almost overnight.

He accepted the idea of power-sharing, the north-south dimension as well as the basic postulate of Irish nationalism, namely the idea that Northern Ireland might one day leave the UK.

Two other British prime ministers were more or less open in their support for a united Ireland (Wilson and Douglas-Home), and another was so sympathetic to the general Irish case that he allowed Irish civil servants to dress him down in meetings.

(The story of what Paddy Teahon said to Tony Blair can be found in Dean Godson's biography of Trimble). But this is all for another day.

Today we should just tip our hats at Tommie Gorman and brace ourselves for his knighthood.

John-Paul McCarthy writes for Beo.ie

Sunday Independent