November 2008: Patriotism

‘They say that patriotism is the last refuge

to which a scoundrel clings.

Steal a little and they throw you in jail,

steal a lot and they make you king …’

These words of Bob Dylan echoed in my head as Brian ‘The Brain’ Lenihan delivered the final words of his budget 2009 speech when he made his  ‘call to patriotic action’. (Yes, I know. I promise that this will be the last mention I’ll make of the budget. If I keep going like this, I’ll still be writing about it when the mini-budget comes about in January).

Anyway, we were talking about patriotism or the lack of it, maybe. Apparently, Brian would like us all to play our parts in the patriot game, to paraphrase another song. He has some neck really, as Bob Dylan points out so succinctly. Or maybe, he’s just cottoned on to the next big buzzword of our times.
After all, the American election threw up its fair share of patriotic speeches. Obama felt he had to defend himself when McCain … or McOld as one wag called him … questioned his patriotism. In a speech entitled ‘The America We Love’, the president-elect said; ‘I … believe that patriotism must, if it is to mean anything, involve the willingness to sacrifice – to give up something we value on behalf of a larger cause.’

This is the bit that Brian obviously read. But when you read further into his speech, you get this: ‘We must remember, though, that true patriotism cannot be forced or legislated with a mere set of government programmes. Instead, it must reside in the hearts of our people, and (be) cultivated in the heart of our culture, and nurtured in the hearts of our children.’

Perhaps Brian didn’t have time to read that far into the speech. If he had, he wouldn’t go about cultivating and nurturing patriotism in the hearts of our children by piling them into classrooms occupied by half a teacher (the upper body half, of course, in order to retain the brain which is vital to any teacher), would he?

Charlie Haughey and patriotism are not words that make easy bedfellows in any person’s mind. Apart from The Great Escape artist that is. Bertie, in his graveside oration at Haughey’s funeral, laid heavy emphasis on his former leader’s patriotism, his “proud identity with the people of Ireland …all of them”. Many people choked into their hankies during this speech and it was not tears that they were shedding.

To get to the origins of this patriotic kick that the current government is on at the moment, we have to go back to Cowen’s triumphant Offaly homecoming speech. I wasn’t lucky enough to be there myself but, according to my sources, the speech was delivered a little like one that an All-Ireland winning captain would give when he was about to receive the Sam Maguire.

He got a little bit wound up, apparently, as winning captains often do. Thankfully, on this occasion, my source tells me, he didn’t give in to the temptation of scratching his nether regions (although he didn’t put it that politely) as All-Ireland captains often do, or forget he had a microphone in his hand and shout so loud as to blow a speaker in the PA system.

However, he did come out with the words; ‘all national progress can only be predicted on an upsurge of patriotism’. This phrase, of course, was borrowed from Sean Lemass, another son of Fianna Fail. So Cowen seems big on the patriotism thing. Unlike Bertie, he bellows out the words of the national anthem at Lansdowne Road and Croke Park. Whether or not he’ll sing ‘Ireland’s Call’ will be interesting to see. Then again, he prides himself on being a ‘bit of a singer’, as we patriotic Irish quaintly have it.

So that’s where Mr. Lenihan was coming from in his wrap up of the budget speech. He was taking his cue from his leader. He wanted the old age pensioners who had already showed their patriotism in the 1980s by paying out over half their wages in tax and health levies to now start paying the state again to look after them in their final years. You have to hand it to The Brain. He gave us a whole new twist on the patriotic act of dying for your country.

But back to the future, and the real world.  Barack Obama, of course, continued on the patriotic road with his speech when he gave his victory speech in Chicago on Wednesday: ‘So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism; of service and responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other’. Hmmm.

I wonder if the two Brians were listening to the president-elect, especially to that bit about looking after others. Maybe Cowen could ask Obama to explain real patriotism to him when he shoves the bowl of shamrock in his hands next March. That is, of course, if he is still Taoiseach then.

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