Belfast Telegraph

Words of wisdom from an Irish Renaissance man

By Robert Fisk

To Monaghan, then, with its narrow sun-flashed lanes and petrol smugglers and hidden lakes and the North's wind farms on the horizon and the driver telling me that Patrick Kavanagh came from here and me, tired and irritable after the flight from Beirut, saying yes I know that, and then infuriated when the man adds that he's never read anything by the fellah.

At the Flat Lake Festival - in the grounds of the great Madden abode - I am supposed to "debate" with Eamonn McCann on Northern Ireland and the Middle East. Alas, Eamon and I agree too much. An American in the audience attacks me for calling the US Press "gutless" and "rubbish", so I whip out a copy of a Wall Street Journal report on the Taliban in which every paragraph is attributed to anonymous "government officials", until the audience bursts out laughing and the guy storms out.

Eamonn goes on and on about the murder of 14 unarmed Catholics by British paratroopers in 1972, tearing apart the Saville report which brought final possible comfort to their relatives.

I talk about the Armenian holocaust of 1915 and Turkey's refusal to acknowledge the truth, until someone else in the audience, an Irishman this time, starts blathering on about the need to "move on" since injustice cannot be undone. And so Eamonn goes back to Bloody Sunday. He's caught the flaws in Saville. But I sense the audience growing weary. Didn't Cameron apologise?

It's a relief to head to the stately home where the Anglo-Irish Maddens have lived since 1734, a miniature Buckingham Palace but one of the very few great Irish houses in which one can actually feel cosy. Real wood on the fire, great oil paintings of the ancestors, bacon and fried egg and brown toast and coffee with cream for breakfast at 7.30 next morning.

And there on the sofa is another festival feature, Ulick O'Connor. If Garret Fitzgerald's death means that John Hume is the only Irish statesman left alive, then Ulick is surely the only Irish Renaissance man still on the island; poet, rugby player and playwright. He is 82.

I've known Ulick for years and am always ready to cast a cold eye on him. Generous to a fault, memory as big as a volcano, he presents me with an inscribed copy of his diaries, 1970-1981. Like every Renaissance man, there is a Machiavelli in Ulick, a cynical understanding of power, wit soaked in poison for his enemies. When Seamus Heaney chooses not to express too nationalist an opinion, he is dubbed "Sheepy-eyed Seamus". There's Ulick for you, like a fine chocolate with a tiny splinter of glass buried deep inside it. But he is in great form tonight, getting the Middle East dictators spot on, perhaps because he understood Oswald Mosley so well.

Within 48 hours, I am meeting barristers at the Four Courts in Dublin and then I'm soaring over the Atlantic towards Canada for a university commencement address way north of Vancouver. Then I'm sitting by Heffley Lake, dark Canadian firs around me and, in a deckchair by the water, I open the right-wing National Post.

The post-revolutionary Arab nations, George Jonas tells me, are "regimes infiltrated or dominated by Muslim Brotherhood-types (sic), sounding as repressive as the regimes they seek to replace... Many of the Arab Spring's stalwarts ... far from being friendly to liberal democracy, seem implacably and permanently hostile to it. They are "Taliban types" (sic again). "It isn't democrats who are spearheading the opposition... it's jihadists."

Fantasyland. The age of Narcissus again.

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