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"The Ireland That We Dreamed Of" and the Ireland That We Got
When I was growing up 80s and 90s, the phrase “dancing at the crossroads” was something that you said with a smile and an eye-roll. It meant you were referring to an Ireland that either never existed or was long gone but which was in either case an embarrassment. The phrase is still used from time to time – “they take their kids to mass? that’s a bit dancing at the crossroads” – but for the most part it’s doubly forgotten, because not only the formulation but the idea it summarised are lost to history. It’s a misremembered line in Eamon de Valera’s speech, “On Language and the Irish Nation”, delivered over the radio on St. Patrick’s Day 1943. In the popular imagination he spoke of “comely maidens dancing at the crossroads” as representative of his vision of a Gaelic, rural, eternally Christian Ireland. Here’s the speech:
The ideal Ireland that we would have, the Ireland that we dreamed of, would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis for right living, of a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, 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 contest of athletic youths and the laughter of happy maidens, whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age. The home, in short, of a people living the life that God desires that men should live. With the tidings that make such an Ireland possible, St. Patrick came to our ancestors fifteen hundred years ago promising happiness here no less than happiness hereafter. It was the pursuit of such an Ireland that later made our country worthy to be called the island of saints and scholars. It was the idea of such an Ireland – happy, vigorous, spiritual – that fired the imagination of our poets; that made successive generations of patriotic men give their lives to win religious and political liberty; and that will urge men in our own and future generations to die, if need be, so that these liberties may be preserved. One hundred years ago, the Young Irelanders, by holding up the vision of such an Ireland before the people, inspired and moved them spiritually as our people had hardly been moved since the Golden Age of Irish civilisation. Fifty years later, the founders of the Gaelic League similarly inspired and moved the people of their day. So, later, did the leaders of the Irish Volunteers. We of this time, if we have the will and active enthusiasm, have the opportunity to inspire and move our generation in like manner. We can do so by keeping this thought of a noble future for our country constantly before our eyes, ever seeking in action to bring that future into being, and ever remembering that it is for our nation as a whole that future must be sought.
The language is twee, but the message is serious. In the Ireland of today it is also become subversive, because it is pro-natal, anti-materialist, respectful of old age, religious, nationalistic, purposeful, transcendent, communitarian, and rooted in the generational experiences of the same people living in the same place for a long time.
I once asked my father, who is about the same age as this speech, what Ireland was like in his youth. He’s a cautious and patriotic person so it must have been an unguarded moment that caused him to reply “grey and humourless. There wasn’t a lot of laughter.” I can think of many people of a similar age who would not be complimentary of the Ireland of that time, for reasons too well known to recount, some mundane and some terrible. Some are directly attributable to Dev himself. Is that a reason to dismiss this? It’s not, because the speech is valuable not because it is an accurate description of a historic Ireland that existed, but because it presents an Ireland animated by something essential – an idea that is beautiful, and larger than ourselves, but also ours alone. Say what you want about de Valera’s dream: it was something.
By way of contrast, here is Leo Varadkar speaking at this month’s St. Patrick’s day White House breakfast, held in his honour by Mike Pence:
Mr Vice President, growing up in Ireland I loved following American politics – ‘It’s morning in America’, ‘A thousand points of light’, ‘The man from Hope’. It helped inspire me to believe in the power of politics to do good, to think about running for office myself someday, of being involved in making the laws and driving change.
But I also knew that I lived in a country where if I tried to be myself it would involve breaking the laws.
Today all of that has changed.
I stand here this morning as leader of my country, flawed and human, but judged on my political actions and mistakes and not on my orientation or my skin tone or my or my religious beliefs. I do not believe my country is the only one in the world where my story is possible. It is found in every country where freedom and liberty are cherished. We are, after all, all God’s children.
It’s true of the United States, the land and home of the brave and the free. Where the promise of America inspires boys and girls growing up to dream big dreams, and inspires others around the world to do the same E pluribus unum has now become a universal truth. Out of many we have become one. In times of struggle, we struggle together. In times of peace, we work together. In times of need, we help each other.
Men and women who came to these shores centuries ago searching for religious freedom, political liberty, and a new life, created a shining city on a hill. Created a dream that travelled around the world. A dream that reached our shores across the Atlantic and inspired us to believe we could be better. The greatest dream of all is the one that is passed between generations and is never dimmed.
So, this morning, I want to thank you for your wonderful hospitality and say:
‘God bless the United States of America’. And ‘God bless Ireland’.
To cut Varadkar some slack – these are speeches for different audiences, and made by people with different political histories at different stages of their careers. A speech made on Paddy’s Weekend in the oval office is always going to be fluffy stuff. I wouldn’t expect him to outline a spiritual vision of Ireland’s future in this venue or at this point in his reign, if he was even the kind of politician to do that.
Slack cut, it’s hard not to compare the latter speech to the former. For a St. Patrick’s day speech from someone who once claimed to be a religious social conservative, there’s nothing religious about what Varadkar says. God exists in this vision but only in the context of the greater faith of social liberalisation – hovering in the background, out of focus, giving his blessing to modern Ireland in all its blossoming diversity, and then making himself scarce before he says something embarrassing. Despite these rote references to an almighty, the content is entirely materialist.
There’s nothing very Irish about his speech either. The message is that Irishness is a pre-modern burden and with the assistance of American political and popular culture, we have eased ourselves out from under it. We’re free to be ourselves now, in all our wonderful variety. And we don’t need to alter any of that wonderful variety to adapt – dreaming big dreams and making your story possible are things best unshackled from the pressure of conformity to a nation or religion. No goal Varadkar could accomplish is couched in terms of an Irish spirt or destiny or outlook – he’s all about the globo-managerial beatitudes of doing good and driving change. Doing good for who? Everybody! Driving what change toward what? Toward a place where we can do more good, of course! Ireland could be anywhere. Irish people could be anyone. Isn’t modernity grand?
In its own way de Valera’s speech is just as full of platitudes. But rootedness, regional specificity and a sense of history is what give these airy declarations substance and meaning just as those things help to give our lives meaning. You don’t get that with Varadkar. Instead of an ethnocentric vision of Ireland, we have a Leo-centric vision of Leo. Of course, he also has one eye on his post-Taoiseach life, and is using the occasion to position himself as the affordable Justin Trudeau, available to add ethnic authenticity and real world gravitas to the board of your NGO, transnational corporation, or media conglomerate, for a reasonable fee.
The Ireland that we dream of is neither de Valera’s nor Varadkar’s. We reject Dev because the Ireland he describes is gone and cannot be recreated – it’s not certain we’d want to. But Dev’s speech acknowledges the existence of Irishness, a spirit that can’t be commodified, bought, sold or taken on and off like a novelty headscarf in a post-atrocity instagram photo. It’s an inheritance left for you by your Grandparents that you can hand to your Grandchildren. If we’re to be a country, there is something in de Valera’s dream that can and should be salvaged. We reject Varadkar’s dream of Ireland, because it’s the mundane vision of a transient company man rather than a leader, and in truth, it’s not even of Ireland.