Garret the Good?

Nil nisi bonum de mortuis dicere –  speak only good of the dead – is a difficult command to follow. In fact impossible. There are clearly people who are dead – try Hitler, Stalin, some of my old teachers – who test that injunction to destruction.  But they’re dead quite some time now and that seems to make a difference.

Garret Fitzgerald is dead less than twenty-four hours and the commentators have been following the Nil nisi  injunction to the letter. Praise of all kinds from all quarters is being heaped on him. One politician – I think it was Seamus Mallon – said he was one of the great political figures of the twentieth century. I suppose it’s no more over-the-top  than to go “Wow!” when an Englishwoman says three Irish words.

He’s indissolubly linked with the Anglo-Irish Agreement which hugely annoyed the unionist population here, and for some that was enough to make the Agreement a  good thing and Fitzgerald a hero. Others like myself saw the Agreement as a British-Irish effort to block the electoral rise of Sinn Féin. In that attempt it and he were successful certainly temporarily. Did the Anglo-Irish Agreement pave the way to the Good Friday Agreement? Probably not.  The Hume-Adams talks and the IRA ceasefires did that.

Was Garret a great politician? I  don’t think so.  He failed as often as he succeeded in electoral terms. His efforts to make the south of Ireland a more secular society had partial success, although Gay Byrne could probably claim as much credit on that score.  Garret’s claim – or the claim of others for him – that he understood the north particularly well, having a republican father and a northern Presbyterian mother, is shaky. There are lots of people whose parentage is similar and who haven’t a clue about northern politics.

He was regarded, former Fine Gael Taoiseach Alan Dukes said last night, with feelings of  “amused affection” by his peers and the public. That got it just about right, I think. When I studied at UCD in the mid-1960s, Garret was a lecturer there.  He was the epitome of the absent-minded professor, only on speed. He thought at lightning pace, moved at lightning pace, talked at lightning pace. A lot of students didn’t know what the hell he was talking about most of the time but they still enjoyed him and were amused by him.

It’d be easy to remember his strenuous efforts to block the electoral path of Sinn Féin while at the same time calling on republicanism to embrace electoral politics. It’d be even easier to remember his very Dublin-4 dismissal of Charlie Haughey as a man ‘of flawed pedigree’. But I prefer to remember him before all that, lecturing in economics in UCD,  circa 1965.  He delivered his lectures in a tumbling, word-running-into-word non-stop torrent, which occasionally even he would feel uneasy about.  On one occasion he had been hammering on full-speed for some ten minutes, scarcely drawing  breath, and everyone in the lecture hall was scribbling flat-out in a hopeless attempt to keep up with him. Eventually Garret paused, looked over his glasses and asked in his naive way: “I’m not going too fast, am I?”  A voice from the fifth row, belonging to one Seamus McCotter from Swatragh Co Derry (one of Charlie Haughey’s many northern cousins, as it happens) responded in an audible whisper: “You’re goin’ like a fucking ‘puter!” [= computer].  Garret seemed genuinely baffled when the lecture theatre exploded in a yell of laughter.

 Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam  – May he rest in peace.

6 Responses to Garret the Good?

  1. Anonymous May 20, 2011 at 9:23 am #

    I believe it’s more of the ‘gush factor’…
    I have been reading some of the platitudes posing as tributes some of which are quite embarrassing…apart form his cosying up to Thatcher which was enough to put me on notice that we would not have a lot in common whom I had a lot politically speaking…I know shag all about the man…
    There seems to be a inability in Ireland to distinguish between the personality and the public office they hold…
    This is particularly the case at the moment…with her Madge…Ireland has gone quite mad for’ER…
    I have to say I have never seen her smiling so much…it’s possible she may even go bamboo…!
    I have nothing against the ‘woman’ personally… how could I?…I do not know her…as a ‘person’ she is as welcome as anyone else to visit Ireland…
    However what I do object to is her position as Head of State of a country claiming jurisdiction over part of Ireland…until that little contretemps is resolved then I will not be hanging out the bunting…
    While we’re on the subject of pithy sayings…SF may take some solace in that ‘no man is a prophet in his own land’…

  2. Anonymous May 20, 2011 at 9:25 am #

    I knew I should have proof read that last comment but I’m sure you get the drift…!

  3. Anonymous May 20, 2011 at 9:49 am #

    …’A knot of history to be loosened…’ Could that mean what I think it means…? Perhaps the visit was worthwhile…!

  4. Anonymous May 20, 2011 at 10:39 am #

    ‘All we hear is radio ga ga radio goo goo radio blah blah’…
    Queen… no not THAT ONE…!

  5. Anonymous May 20, 2011 at 4:26 pm #

    Now that Beiti’s ‘wowed’ the Citizenry…O’Bama had better brush up on his Gaelige before his visit…if he wants to guarantee that Irish-American vote…wouldn’t want to be outmanouevred by the Brits!

  6. Anonymous May 21, 2011 at 3:41 pm #

    Great work Jude. I can’t help thinking that one of the most damaging dynamics in Irish life, public and private, is the commonplace sense that we can’t really talk frankly about people or issues because of the goldfish bowl we inhabit, hence the treatment as near-heresy any contrary view of Garrett the Good’s ‘achievements’. It’s refreshing to read an objective, cogent and accurate analysis of what we are being told was the laying of the foundations of peace in this country – the Anglo-Irish Agreement. I listened with interest to your words on RTE’s Saturday View today, expressing similar doubts about the received wisdom.

    It’s notable that the business elite and its support structures in the political and media elites are at one on Garrett’s greatness – a welcome and timely boost to the established political elite.