Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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Vive la Difference!

This column appeared in The Dubliner in March 2001.

For Evil to prevail, my Scottish godfather Paddy Meiklejohn once told me, all that is required is for good men to remain silent.

In 1979 the Austrian government accepted the resignation of their Head of State Psychiatry, Dr. Heinrich Gross. The eminent scientist had been rumbled for his part in the murder of some 250,000 children during World War Two. Human guinea pigs, I'm afraid. The reason the Doc was caught was due to a particularly brilliant protest painting by a then little known Viennese artist named Gottfried Helnwein. That was when Gottfried learnt that an individual being could change the fate of the world for the better. Later this year, he will become the first Western artist to be exhibited in Beijing since the 1930s.

In 1997, Gottfried purchased a castle in Tipperary and came to roost. He liked Ireland. So much freedom! The continent had become too Big Brother. He needed to escape.

It's always odd meeting a newcomer to our land. They seem to unequivocally regard the country as the finest they've ever seen. They jest about the weather and insist the rain makes them feel comfortable. They visit the pubs, drink the black and jiggle their knees to the sound of giddy fiddles. It's extraordinary. They feel at home. They feel Irish. Gottfried says he finds this island profoundly magical. He can't quite put his finger on why. It just is.

But I wonder how long Gottfried will feel the magic.

Given the barrage of assaults and conquests this island has undergone in the past thousand or so years, its really quite astounding how well the Irish have managed to cling onto their cultural roots. Sure, the Brits nearly eradicated the whole lot during the 17th and 18th centuries, but nearly never kicked the buicead. Irish culture survived, thrived and, come the last century, it regained the ascendancy.

My family were the enemy. We were the Protestant currs who'd invaded Ireland 300 years earlier and done nowt since but keep the wailing masses suppressed and miserable. At least, that's the way the story goes. I don't know how many Prods emigrated after independence. My family and many others opted to stay on.

Ireland was our Homeland. Our passports said we were Irish, even if our neighbours did not. The Irish Government didn't cart us all off to the nearest guillotine. On the contrary, the new Constitution guaranteed us religious freedom. Egads!, we were allowed to retain our different cultures and ideals at a time when Catholics across the land seemed to be drowning in an all-new no-nonsense Vatican-dominated state. To survive, all we left-footers had to do was to keep our heads down and not speak out.

My great-uncle spoke out once. He (quite rightly) accused the Papal Nuncio of collaborating with the Nazis in World War Two. The Nuncio stormed off to Dublin Airport and flew back in a huff to the Vatican where he presumably soothed his mind by carefully studying his private Botticelli collection. My great uncle was forced to resign from every Society or Board he represented and censored for 30 years. Large chunks of Irish society, Catholic and Protestant alike, felt it would be inappropriate to have the outspoken scholar over for dinner. Things have changed. Last October, the Mayor of Kilkenny issued a rather moving, public apology to the late Hubert Butler on behalf of the people of Kilkenny.

But the Catholic Church has been deposed now. Young bucks don't go to Mass or Church on Sunday morning. They lie in their beds and sweat off the night before. So, you have to ask, who's in control? My reckoning is the Brussells Sprouts have got the steering wheel well and truly grasped. And they're cute enough to be motoring along without waking anybody up. Every now and then, we might stir from our slumber and gaze perplexedly through the windscreen at the new and unfamiliar terrain we are now travelling through. But then there'll be a nice song on the radio and we'll drift off again.

I get very worried about this. I'm not convinced by Brussells and its Euroversal ambitions. I stopped trusting them the instant they scrapped Duty Free. What sort of brute force can abolish such a beloved institution? Who the Hell are these anonymous spoilsports? But we didn't say anything then and we're not saying much now either.

People are always banging on about how the world is slowly but surely fulfilling the Orwellian prophecy. But they have a bloody good point. The fact is, while the Eurocrats are busy thinking up more schemes to homogenise and destroy that which made us all different, we're all bouncing up and down in our armchairs chanting "Me! Me! Me!" whenever some gombeen on the telly asks who wants to be a millionaire. I don't know who's responsible for this. The media? The pharmaceutical gurus? The ignorance of mankind? What I do know is that we are being duped and doped so that the idea of an alternative life, of escaping the Cuckoo's Nest, will not even arise.

Gottfried doesn't know why Ireland is magical. I fear we will soon find out why. If we are not damned careful, I believe we will find out by a process of elimination. The familiar will become standard. Variety will fade away. In decades to come, as we lunch with our children in the brand new Little Chef in Connemara, one eye glued to the flickering orb-screen above our heads, we will, perhaps, recall the way it once was.

I did not relay my fears to Gottfried. Not this time. He is happy here, happier than he has ever been. And so I bade him farewell and silently wished him God speed when next he feels compelled to fly from the Cuckoo's Nest. Fais attention, mes amis.