Saturday 25 May 2019

Ian O'Doherty: 'Notre-Dame blaze reminds us all of what is important'

People watch as fire and smoke rise from a fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris on Monday
People watch as fire and smoke rise from a fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris on Monday
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

Every now and then, there comes a moment when you know you're watching something momentous.

The nature of momentous events tends to be rather grim, so those memories are seldom happy ones - think 9/11, the Manchester bombing, the Bataclan or the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

Anyone tuning into the telly on Monday afternoon would have experienced that sensation of watching something terrible unfold as they looked at the conflagration in Notre-Dame.

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One of the world's truly iconic buildings and a mainstay of European culture and literature for nearly 1,000 years, it seemed to encapsulate the grandeur of old Europe.

It's a sad indictment of the world we live in that most of us would have immediately thought of terrorism. A sad indictment, but a perfectly justifiable reaction, particularly when you consider that Paris is the most attacked capital in the EU.

That it wasn't an act of terrorism, but merely one of those awful things that randomly happen, was a source of immense relief.

After all, with France on the verge of even more civil unrest as the Gilets Jaunes and Emmanuel Macron become ever more antagonistic towards each other, the country already looks likes it is simmering - and observers have predicted a terrible summer of discontent and violence in the French capital.

That it was just one of those awful things that happens in a chaotic universe, rather than an act of wanton malevolence, is something for which we should be grateful.

As regular readers of this column will know, I'm not exactly a hippy who espouses peace and love and believes in good vibes, but there has been something quite wonderful about the response to Monday's fire.

Unfortunately, sometimes it takes a tragedy to make people remember that there is more to unite us than divide us, and while nobody died in the fire, this was undoubtedly a tragedy - a tragedy for Paris and for France, but also for all of Europe.

After all, as Macron said: "Part of us all is burning this evening", before describing Notre-Dame as the epitome of "our history, our literature, the epicentre of our life, the cathedral of every French person."

Of course, being a politician, he then added that they have to rebuild it because "this is our destiny".

A sensible person shivers whenever a politician starts talking about "our destiny", but on this occasion it was hard to argue with the sentiment.

So why has there been such a massive response to the blaze, and are we all just over-emoting?

Shane Coleman and Kieran Cuddihy raised an interesting point on Newstalk the other day when they asked if people were simply losing the run of themselves in the wake of the blaze.

Have we all become addicted to public displays of grief? Was the response one of genuine sorrow, or was it just another example of what is known as the 'Dianafication' of our culture, where people feel the need to show the world just how upset they are?

It was a fair point, and the number of people who went on Twitter to tell everyone that they were sitting on their couch and sobbing as they watched the spire collapse was undeniably nauseating.

But for once, there was an air of sincerity to most of the responses.

Well, most but not all.

Isis - quelle surprise! - were quick to gloat about the fire, and promised that they would finish the job. But it wasn't just the Muslim fanatics trying to make some political capital out of the event.

Alice Weidel, of the German party AfD, made a fool of herself when she issued a statement saying: "During Holy Week, Notre-Dame burns...47 attacks in France."

As it happens, there has been a huge increase in attacks on Christian churches across Europe in the last two years. In France alone, there were 1,063 acts of vandalism or desecration of churches or icons last year, a 17pc increase from 2017.

But this wasn't one of them.

I remain convinced that most politicians are essentially insane, and only go into politics because they are manifestly unsuited for a job in the real world. But even the most jaundiced eye could see that there was an unparalleled degree of cynicism to the responses from the likes of AfD.

After all, it takes a strange mentality to see an awful event like Monday's fire and immediately try to exploit it for your own political ends.

Not surprisingly, some of France's richest people have come forward to pledge money for the restoration of the building and, at the time of writing, the fund has already reached a billion euro.

Inevitably, that also provoked fury from the usual malcontents who carped that we live in an age of austerity.

But, if anything, Notre-Dame reminds us that there are more important things in life than people.

Call it culture or history or a sense of majesty, but that iconic building represented nine centuries of human achievement and ingenuity and, while it may not be fashionable to say it, those things are far more important than any of us.

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