Monday 17 June 2019

David Robbins: Dr Johnson might not agree, but I relished that warm glow of patriotism

David Robbins

The President was due any minute now. Outside, the town band was waiting. A couple of gardai were on standby. A lone piper stood on a traffic island. The town square in Listowel was bathed in late evening sunshine. "We're poxed with the weather," someone said.

There was a good-natured unruliness about it that was quintessentially Irish. It could have been any town, or indeed any president, from Douglas Hyde onwards. The scene has hardly changed in almost a century.

Inside the hall, there was a kind of relaxed mayhem. We were asked to stand for President Higgins's arrival, and again for his departure. A harpist played, a singer sang, and sang again when the President was delayed. The old rhythms, and the old lyrics, had power yet.

And then he was at the entrance, along with his wife and his female aide-de-camp. A small retinue for a small country. We thought of the informality of it all. No men peering down manholes, like they did for another presidential visit.

The President made his way to the platform and people stood, clapped and cheered. There were whoops too, and exhortations of the "Go on ya boy ya" sort.

And something else happened. There was a thrill that ran through the room, a welling up of emotion, of fellow-feeling, a kind of pride. I remembered it from somewhere before. It was patriotism.

The President, who was here to open Listowel Writers' Week, spoke about writers and about the need for creativity, the need to break out of old ways of thinking, especially economic thinking.

He was, of course, in his element, among writers and those who care about writing. This was his world. He knew it well. Sure, hadn't he put in the long hours above in John B Keane's pub talking poetry deep into the night.

When he had left, I asked the people next to us if they had felt that same thrill of something on seeing their president among them. "Something happens to them the moment they're inaugurated," one said, "they take on the aura of the office."

There's something in that, I thought, and I remembered the last time I had felt it. It was when President McAleese spoke at the GIY Convention a couple of years ago.

There was that same pride in her, that same surge of emotion, when she came into the room, her smart, sword-wearing aide-de-camp at her side. It wasn't so much what she said -- although she spoke well, and knowledgeably, about spuds -- it was the fact of her presence and what she stood for.

There was another time. It was the opening of Farmleigh, newly refurbished by the Office of Public Works, and thrown open to all and sundry over a few summer days in 2005.

We lay on the grass and listened to the RTÉ orchestra. An Army band played elsewhere. There was a fly-over of what must have been the entire Air Corps. It was a moment when it was possible to feel proud to be a citizen of this republic.

Patriotism, according to Dr Johnson, is the last refuge of the scoundrel. When you think of some of the evils done in its name, you can see where he's coming from.

When I was growing up, and the generation who fought against the British (and then against each other) was fading, there was a lot of patriotic one-upmanship.

Now, the heat has gone out of the word, and what is left is a kind of occasional warm glow you feel when your president walks into a hall in Listowel of a summer's evening.

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