Finding a more realistic faith in Ireland's future

Sgt Patrick Hassett (front row, centre) flanked by colleagues from the Royal Irish Constabulary circa 1910
Image caption Sgt Patrick Hassett (front row, centre) with colleagues from the Royal Irish Constabulary

The surprise discovery of a photograph of one of his ancestors prompts Fergal Keane to reflect on how his great-grandfather would feel about the crisis Ireland is living through today.

Sergeant Patrick Hassett gazes out at the world with the certainty of a man who knows that his place in the world is secure.

He is of slender build, medium height, with a handlebar moustache and a severe expression. The four constables around him - hardy-looking countrymen all - are clearly conscious of his authority. You can read the deference in their faces.

I came across the photograph of my great-grandfather by chance at an exhibition of local history in the village hall in Ardmore, County Waterford, my ancestral home and the place to which I return every summer and Christmas.

It was a cousin - researching our family genealogy - who alerted me to the photograph's existence.

Current 'mess'

In recent years, there has been an explosion of interest in local history, a reaching back into the past of family and community.

Image caption There have been protests against government cutbacks

It is no surprise that this is happening at a time when the Irish present has been filled with uncertainty.

There has been one blow after another to the economic and moral fabric of the nation.

Corrupt politicians, greedy developers and reckless bankers helped to create an economic disaster.

At the same time, the once-mighty Catholic Church was revealed - in a series of horrifying scandals - to have covered up the sexual abuse of children on a massive scale.

I often wonder what that stern imperial policeman, Sergeant Hassett of the Royal Irish Constabulary, would have made of the current mess.

How would those stern eyes have viewed the grim parade of paedophile priests, or the ravening snouts of boom era Ireland?

With shock and disdain, I imagine.

'Flashy statements'

Yet at home over the summer, I was reminded that, for all the wretchedness of the last few years, the Irish story is also one of hope.

My great-grandfather was a commander of the barracks in Ardmore during the reign of Queen Victoria.

Back then, most Irish people believed that their future lay under a Home Rule parliament within the British Empire.

The notion that Ireland might eventually become a republic, that it would - in the words of a dead revolutionary - "take its place among the nations of the Earth" would have been unimaginable to Sergeant Hassett.

He lived to see a violent revolution against the Crown he had served, an uprising in which his own son took part as a member of the IRA.

But Ireland's transformation into a modern state happened long after his death. It is happening still.

The Ireland I experience through the daily life of one community is certainly shaken by the upheavals of recent times.

It is poorer. Gone are the flashy statements of the Celtic Tiger years: the brand-new cars, the jet skis bouncing noisily across Ardmore Bay, the permanent tans from frequent foreign holidays.

Public sector pay cuts and cuts in benefits have all been imposed. But there has been very little significant public protest.

I was initially tempted, in a mood of cynicism, to put this lack of demonstration down to the deference to authority which helped create our national crisis in the first place.

'Culture of questioning'

But a few weeks in Ardmore has led me to believe it has more to do with a new, more realistic kind of patriotism.

One recent evening, I sat drinking coffee with my friend Nicky at Whiting Bay, a lovely expanse of white strand that runs between Ardmore and the mouth of the Blackwater River, the natural border between the counties of Cork and Waterford.

Image caption Ardmore is a popular seaside resort

Across the border in Cork, we could see the lights of the combine harvesters move through the fields of barley, a methodical procession tracing a path to the end of summer.

Below us on the shore, our children were hurling themselves into the darkening surf, their shouts of pleasure echoing up to us.

Nicky has a job which takes him around the world, working for a multi-national company. He is well placed to contrast the mood in Ireland with that in America, Europe or the Middle East.

I asked him why the people of Ireland had not taken to the streets and rioted against the political class that had failed them.

"Because that won't get us out of the mess will it? There is nothing to be done but get on and get through this, and make sure it doesn't happen again," he replied.

And this is what most people seem to be doing.

My sense is that the justifiable fury with the political elite is hardening into something more valuable, a genuine culture of questioning, not least of ourselves.

For the hardest lesson of the last few years has been that, as a people, we were content to allow our elites - political, financial and clerical - do as they wished, as long as life was comfortable for the majority.

I came back from holidays infused, not with the familiar melancholy of summer's end, but with tentative faith in a new Ireland.

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