Thursday 18 July 2019

Well, just what have the Greeks ever done for us?

From the ancient philosophers to the peace process, our debts to the Greeks are many

Garret FitzGerald. Photo: SNOWDON/CAMERA PRESS
Garret FitzGerald. Photo: SNOWDON/CAMERA PRESS

John-Paul McCarthy

Greece's debts are sadly as big as the Acropolis today, but then again, we owe her plenty as well. The contemporary resonance of her great philosophers Plato and Aristotle continues to astound. Every Irish schoolchild learns about Ireland's wartime experience with reference to Plato's image of the marooned prisoners in the cave. This image was annexed by the historian Leland Lyons to stand for post-Emergency Ireland's isolation.

It is difficult then to read our Supreme Court's jurisprudence on the abortion question without being reminded of Aristotle's definition of law in his Politics as "intelligence without appetite". Irish lawyers have had little appetite for the near global critique of our eighth amendment.

Today, our Greek brothers and sisters arouse mere pity in us. Not so long ago though, they brought out our whimsical side. Garret FitzGerald liked to tell the story of being stuck in a numbing meeting of European foreign ministers when the matter of Mediterranean accession to the union was mooted. Greek accession would distort the existing internal market for various foods, so the ministers found themselves knee deep in discussions about Irish spring onions and the like.

FitzGerald found he had a low pulse after a few hours of this, so he set himself the task of composing a series of rhyming couplets that cited every foodstuff under review. His ode to Greece went as follows: "At a meeting of Foreign Mins./Decisions weren't taken about tins/Of apricots and mandarins/New potatoes and capers in brine/Pimentos, bay leaves, and also thyme/Oranges, bitter; hinnies and mules;/ Watermelons, within the rules.../Olives; peppers; and sowing seeds; /Fish products of several breeds./Truffles preserved,/Properly served". And so on.

He sent the finished product across the room to the equally glazed British Foreign Secretary Jim Callaghan, who was apparently so thrilled by it that he thought about swiping it. Truly, the price of liberty is eternal vigilance…

Perhaps our biggest cultural debt to Greece, though, is to be found in the unlikeliest place, namely on the Blasket Islands. One of the most important Irish language scholars of the twentieth century was an Englishman named George Thomson. Thomson came to the Blaskets in the twenties while working on Homeric verse at Cambridge. He could never quite grasp what Homeric verse must have sounded like in ancient Greece. "Then I went to Ireland. The conversation of those ragged peasants...astonished me. It was as though Homer had come alive. Its vitality was inexhaustible, yet it was rhythmical, alliterative, formal, artificial.

"One day it was announced that a woman had given birth to a child. In the words of my informant, 'She has brought her load from the west.' I recognised the allusion. Often, when turf was scarce, I had watched the women coming down from the hills bent double under packs of heather. What a fine image, I thought, what eloquence! Before the day was out I had heard the expression from three or four people. It was common property.

"After many similar experiences, I realised that these gems falling from the lips of the people were not novelties. They were centuries old. Returning to Homer, I read him in a new light . . . His language was artificial; yet strange to say, this artificiality was natural. It was the language of the people to a higher power. No wonder they flocked to hear him."

Thomson's love affair here had something to do with his hardline Stalinist contempt for the modern world. Here too, Greece was important. He dedicated one of his many books to Manolis Glezos, the Greek communist who tore the Swastika down from the Acropolis in 1941, and who was sentenced to death by the Nazis. (Glezos is still alive.)

Greece's fraught relationship with Turkey has also been influential in our thinking about the Northern Ireland problem. It was fashionable, for example, during the Haughey era to draw parallels between the traditional demand for "the re-unification of the national territory" in the Irish Constitution's old Article 3 and the Greek-Cypriot demand for enosis or unification with Greece proper. When deployed in Irish arguments this cast the British partitioners as little better than the militaristic Turks who used their membership in NATO to get Henry Kissinger to turn a blind eye to their brutal invasion of Cyprus in 1974.

The parallel proved insulting to unionists and was largely dropped after the Downing Street Declaration of 1993. Funnily enough, though, the Greek island of Corfu played host to a key meeting between Albert Reynolds and John Major at an important moment in the gestating peace process in June 1994. Here, Major set what became known as the 'Corfu test' for the Irish Government. The British demanded both the removal of the Republic's territorial claim over the six counties and a formal recognition of the legitimacy of Northern Ireland's position within the UK. Bertie Ahern passed that test with flying colours in 1998.

The Greeks, meanwhile, have returned to their anti-German, nationalistic roots. They may have to relearn why Plato dismissed hardline rhetoric as an "inherently corrupting utterance".

Sunday Independent

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