Friday 24 May 2019

Eoghan Harris: 'Fermanagh Man drives down to Waterford to speak his mind'

Cartoonist: Jim Cogan
Cartoonist: Jim Cogan
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

To Waterford, to give a talk titled 'Reflections of a Revisionist', which turned into a two-day tour of the literally wonderful Waterford Museum of Treasures.

Literally wonderful because the three interlinked museums of the Viking Triangle (Reginald's Tower, the Medieval Museum and the Bishop's Palace) are filled with treasures that take the breath away.

Dr Eugene Broderick, the museum's historian, who invited me to talk, was equally erudite on subjects dear to my heart such as soupers and sectarians.

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On the way into the talk, I was cheerfully greeted by a happy husband and wife, two regular readers of the Sunday Independent, who told me they were from Fermanagh, but did not volunteer their names.

Later, I found out Fermanagh Man, as I took to calling him, had read of my talk in the Sunday Independent and driven 317km to have his say.

The core of my talk concerned the danger of Irish nationalists adopting the congenial role of permanent victim.

Any small country close to a major power is going to have problems. We had a hard history but not an exceptionally hard one. And if you doubt that ask the Armenians or the Jews.

Northern nationalists, I said, are too fond of still casting themselves in the role of the victims, long after the revolutionary reforms since 1974.

To support my belief that victimhood is a corrosive political condition leading to predictably bad outcomes, I quoted the Russian dissident Joseph Brodsky.

"At all costs try to avoid granting yourself the status of victim. The moment that you place blame somewhere, you undermine your resolve to change anything."

The audience gave me a good round of applause. Unlike RTE news chiefs, they seemed to relish my challenge to the consensus.

Normally I try to shut up after a talk and let the audience at it. But I had forgotten Fermanagh Man.

He sat comfortably with folded arms and cut strips off me without any rancour.

So I forgot about not responding and demanded to know why nationalists did not vote for the SDLP? He replied: "These boys didn't have any guns."

That dropped my lower jaw so fast I looked like the photos of John Delaney's imitation of a blue whale scooping up plankton.

On the plus side, Fermanagh Man was robustly optimistic about the prospects for a permanent peace.

As I like most Northern Ireland people, of both denominations, I was happy to have my photo taken with Fermanagh Man.

What I admired most was that he never indulged in the victimhood that sets southern teeth on edge when they hear it from Northern nationalists settled in cosily down here.

Southerners are not freed of self-pity either. Brexit has seen media commentators indulge in anti-British and anti-DUP whining that is morphing into a nauseating self-pitying nationalism.

This naff posturing, which Declan Lynch has memorably dubbed 'Recreational Nationalism', sees tweeters tormenting unionists or Israeli Jews in a way that will adversely affect all outsiders.

As Brodsky points out, being a victim brings out the Hitlers. Here is the bit we have to take on board:

"By considering yourself a victim you but enlarge the vacuum of irresponsibility that demons or demagogues love so much to fill."

In sum, the current bout of Brexit self-pity is also creating a congenial space for demagogues feeding the delusion that the country is being deluged by foreigners.

******

Only six years ago I recall a May Day in Waterford dawning on a depressed city, bowed down by a ruthless recession.

But this May Day the sun blazed down on the Suir flowing regally by the splendid quays.

Leo Varadkar was out canvassing streets that were vibrant with the feel-good factor that is Fine Gael's most potent asset.

Eamonn McEneaney, the director of the museum, guided Gwen and myself, around the glowing streets of the Viking Triangle, which even includes superb social housing.

Previously, Donnchadh O Ceallachain had given me an absorbing tour of the beautifully restored Bishop's Palace.

As Eamonn spoke with equal passion, I saw that all who work in Waterford Treasures have what Yeats called a fanatic heart.

Even Aine Whelan at the reception desk of the Medieval Museum seemed ready to vault over it to enthuse us about its joys.

No wonder. From the colourful Great Charter Roll to the cloths of gold woven by Flemish artists at Bruges, it's a feast for the senses.

Rudyard Kipling says that unseen work leaves a shadow on the page.

Eamonn McEneaney filled me in on the unseen embedded work of people past and present, from Rosemary Ryan of the museum to Minister Josepha Madigan, who is helping them to branch out into two new museums dedicated to silver and clocks respectively.

Martin Cullen was the man who made it possible first day. Later, during the recession, Michael Walsh, the county manager, carried on in tougher times.

Walsh seems to be cut from the same cloth as the famous former Cork county manager, Michael Conlon.

When Waterford was on the rack of recession, Walsh still found money for McEneaney's vision for further expanding the Viking Triangle.

A call to spend public money on culture should have tempted the councillors to emulate Goering and reach for their financial revolvers.

But to their eternal credit, Walsh and Waterford Council coughed up the money that enabled Eamonn McEneaney to turn the Viking Triangle into a golden goose.

Today, cultural tourists come in their tens of thousands; last year in numbers equal to half the population of the city.

Finally, Eamonn brought Gwen and myself to a small, sunny garden beside the Bishop's Palace.

Here stood a slab of Spanish marble, carved like a clenched fist, in memory of the Waterford men who fought in Spain against Franco's fascists.

Fresh flowers from the Communist Party lay beneath the list of names headed by Frank Ryan.

As I recalled in my talk, Ryan, from a republican family, admired the bravery of his Jewish commander, Major George Nathan, a former Black and Tan.

******

As principal screenwriter of the Sharpe series starring Sean Bean, whose budget did not extend to big battles, I thought the recent Game of Thrones episode, The Long Night, was worse than even critical fans conceded.

First, the writers broke the basic rule: don't fall in love with your cast.

Second, you couldn't see anything. Director Miguel Sapochnik should have emulated cinematographer Andrew Lesnie who used a blush of blue light to indicate night in Lord of the Rings. Asked where the blue light was coming from, Lesnie laconically replied: "Same place as the music."

Lesnie was echoing the composer Hugo W Friedhofer's reply to Alfred Hitchcock who, rejecting a musical score for Lifeboat, jokingly asked where the music would come from. Friedhofer: "Where does the camera come from?"

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