GERARD HOWLIN: Sutherland, and his ideas, on the same level as Dev and Robinson

In Burying Peter Sutherland tomorrow, we lay to rest one of very few who rose out
of this State into the first rank of global influence. Many were influential in their time and used office adroitly to effect events beyond the scope of a small country.

But Sutherland is one of less than a handful I think, whose personal position ultimately outranked any office they held. It is almost 100 years since the State was founded, and other than Sutherland, only Éamon de Valera and Mary Robinson rank politically as figures of global stature. Their position is ultimately personal to themselves, as distinct from the passing importance that attaches to office for as long as it is held. Interestingly, all three are ultimately associated with the influence of ideas, not just the passing power of office. Fame in the old-fashioned sense was not about either power of celebrity. It was about immortal deeds.

A contrast between Sutherland and Garrett FitzGerald is telling. As attorney general — the former on appointment by the latter — he occupied a role, though underrated in importance, still of the second rank politically. He did, of course, go on to occupy other more senior roles elsewhere. But his ultimate stature came from a synthesis of many jobs, and of one man, wielding considerable influence across a broader plain. In hindsight, FitzGerald does not rank with his protégé.

Robinson, a barrister like Sutherland, followed a narrower path which ultimately stretched beyond its own confines. Her focus over many years, in different roles, was on an agenda once so contentious here as to be antagonistic to the mainstream. It has given her a stature in the international conversation, from Irish president to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, which very few Irish people have achieved on a sustained basis.

De Valera, of course, had longevity. He also had a revolution. His role over time, in firstly
surviving contemporaries including Pádraig Pearse and Michael Collins, and outpacing others such as WT Cosgrave, gave him political prominence for sure. But ultimately his influence lies in his managing, through war and peace, the separation of the greater part of this island, from the largest empire in the world. It was a prototype for decolonisation.

The 1937 Constitution is a latterly underrated, but liberal and humane document, not just in the context of its time, but in hindsight. Those who caricature him as conservative, and he was a moderate conservative, forget his commitment through the Constitution to the firm and permanent restraint of power. It’s a joke still not understood, but the marriage equality referendum was the most conservative constitutional initiative since 1937. The Eighth Amendment, in contrast, was a radical departure. I should say I voted for equal marriage. But no genuine understanding of feminist or queer history could ever have led to
an extension of the franchise for the patriarchal institution of matrimony. The irony was never grasped because it was an uncomfortable truth, but that’s for another column.

Fame, very distinct from modern celebrity, is an age-old quest. It is the search for immortality, through the doing of deeds that will be remembered.This hope of being remembered was the only way to survive death before religion promised an afterlife.

Achilles preferred to fight and die, and thus live on, than to go home and live to be old. Pádraig Pearse was immersed in that tradition, mixed with Christian martyrdom. It has antecedents too in Cú Chulainn. It is why all memorial is so important. It is also why it is a tool for further memory making, and remains essential fodder politically. We go to funerals hoping that we too will have a good one. We want our share in the mythology of heroism.

In contrast, the selfie is the peephole of celebrity, but the antithesis of fame. It says, even to people as insignificant as ourselves, that we are famous enough to be photographed and skilled enough to be a photographer. It’s a self-application of a history where everyone deserves to be known.

In continuously curating what we do, we insist, comically, on the importance of the irrelevant. In posting online we ridiculously say we have nothing to hide. The corollary of that untrue claim is that we are fundamentally uninteresting.

In any event, the camera lies all the time because we never see the context which remains outside the frame. It’s about our imitating symbolic fantasy figures and gives legs to the untruth that everyone deserves to be known. Just at the moment in history when the eye of the all-seeing god is gouged out, we insist on being seen online all the time. It’s a curious displacement of one form of reassurance with another. It’s far too soon to say which is better.

And what of the age-old comfort of being forgotten?

The thirst for true valour — to be another Achilles — was plain on Monday night in the RTÉ documentary, Micko. Mick O’Dwyer managed Kerry to eight All-Ireland titles in 11 years. His fame will never die. Gaelic games, in the sense of being open to any girl and boy in every parish, are different from the colosseum of modern, professional sport. Sutherland was a rugby player. He was stimulated by the excitement of the arena. He knew the intimacy of the club, of being renowned among the small audience who are your own.

Patrick Kavanagh knew it too. In a sonnet called Epic, he announced: “I have lived in important places, times/When great events were decided, who owned/That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land/Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.”

He concluded: “Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind/He said: I made the Iliad from such/A local row. Gods make their own importance.” The Illiad, of course, was such a local row, but it crystallised into an ideal.

There was always more celebrity than fame, and even before we could instantly curate our own life, an overlap between the two. It would be naive to think a Micko, a Dev, a Sutherland, or a Robinson don’t have a keen eye for their own public persona. Kavanagh certainly did. But what they have in common is rare. It is fame in an old-fashioned, lasting sense. They have done deeds to be spoken of after they are gone. It’s one definition of immortality and the only one proven to date. The other is based on faith, which, under terms and conditions, is universally accessible. Peter Sutherland succumbed to his last illness on his way to Mass. That itself is unsettling, and counter-cultural. It does go to show that what truly lasts are ideas.

He knew the intimacy of the club, of being renowned among the small audience who are your own


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