Fr Kevin Hegarty
It is fashionable, nowadays - not just among Fine Gael supporters - to satirise Eamon DeValera. He would have been a modern spin doctor’s nightmare; the school masterish tendency to lecture people as if everyone in the world was aged between four and 13; the bleak visage; the mournful voice; the incessant emphasis on the spiritual joys of frugality; and the constant harping on the importance of the Irish language.
For the majority of the population, today, DeValera’s Ireland is a foreign country to which they do not wish to return. Unless you obeyed the Catholic Church, spouted nationalist platitudes about the unity of Ireland and played Gaelic games, there was small space for you. The novelist, Brian Moore, in a parody on the opening line of St John’s Gospel, described it as a society where ‘in the beginning was the word and the word was no’. Albania in an Irish dancing costume.
Yet DeValera was one of the few politicians to have the confidence to articulate a vision for Irish society. Take, for example, his St Patrick’s Day radio address of 1943 when he talked of his dream of an Ireland which would be ‘the home of a people who valued material wealth only as the basis of right living, of a people who were satisfied with frugal comfort and devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit – a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youths and the laughter of comely maidens, whose firesides would be the forums for the wisdom of serene old age’.
Behind the archaic and sentimental language there was a vision of a society which stressed the dignity of the individual and the connections between the generations. Giving was as important as receiving, voluntary service as worthwhile as wealth. It was a society where rights were balanced by responsibilities.
This vision of an Arcadian utopia never happened. DeValera had no idea how to achieve it and many of his economic policies undermined its attainment. The historian, Joe Lee has commented that there were indeed ‘contests of athletic youths’ but ‘on the building sites of Britain where McAlpine’s God was a well filled hod’.
We have moved on but to where have we moved? Is the Celtic Tiger society only about economic enrichment, individual fulfilment, fast cars and garish night clubs? Or have we found spirituality that nourishes, inspires and challenges us? Or a vision of society that takes pride in our economic and technological advances, which rejoices in our artistic and sporting achievements, is responsible for the young, the old and the vulnerable and is open to the wonders that our ethnic minorities can bring us?
Fr Martin O’Reilly, Youth Director with the Diocese of Clogher, thinks not. In his passionate sermon, at the funeral of two of the victims of the recent tragic car crash in Monaghan, he said: “We have been making hay for the last 20 years when our young people have been growing up. We have thrown i-pods at them, mobile phones, colour televisions, DVDs, whatever you call them, and VCRs but we fail to throw ourselves at them.”
In the 12 years since his ordination he has buried more people from the generation after his than the one before him. He is acutely worried by the numbers of young people killed in car accidents, the rise in young suicides and the weakening of community spirit. Involved in the Foróige organisation, he has seen the number of its youth clubs in Monaghan decline from 25 to six, in recent years, due to the reluctance of adults to get involved as leaders.
He made it clear that he does not advocate a return to the time before the Celtic Tiger, when people had to struggle to make ends meet, but wants us to acknowledge that in our drive for economic advancement we have left ‘so much good stuff behind’.
It would be a pity if Fr Reilly’s comments became just a one-day media wonder. It is imperative that we analyse where our headlong pursuit of materialism is taking us.Contemporary Ireland, as Seamus Heaney once wrote, is full of uncomfortable noises.