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Des Geraghty - 40 Shades Of Green

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Des Geraghty joins us on the show today to discuss his new book, 40 Shades of Green.

Des Geraghty

Des Geraghty, a Dubliner from the Liberties, is the former President of SIPTU, Ireland's largest trade union. Over many decades, he has been both an active participant in public affairs and a commentator on economic and social issues in Ireland. He is a former member of the European Parliament, The National Economic and Social Council, The National Competitiveness Council and the RTE Authority. He is currently Chairman of The Affordable Homes Partnership and a member of the Board of FÁS.

Des has life long interests in social history, the Irish language and Irish culture and tradition. He has presented a number of radio and television programmes on Irish music and culture, and is also the author of 'Luke Kelly, A Memoir'. 

In this important and timely book, Des Geraghty collaborates with photographer Liam Blake to take a refreshing new look at what it means to be Irish in today's world. He argues that we are now a very diverse society but points out that we were never as homogenous or as uniform a population as we sometimes like to think. With what Niall Crowley in his introduction describes as 'both humour and insight' the author 'deploys history, myth, literature and personal anecdote to unpick the concept of 'Irishness'.

Taking a look at the historic experience of the Irish at home and abroad he illustrates the many influences and people who have shaped our modern Ireland. 'Just as the waves of the sea continually rush to our shores, waves of humanity have washed over this little island for many centuries. Some have come as conquerors, others as exploiters or proselytisers, but more are carried on the tide of necessity seeking a better life in our country. What could be more familiar to us the Irish, who are the world's migrants, than people coming in search of a better life?'

Addressing the fears that many people have of the new arrivals in our midst, Des reminds us that only a few centuries ago, Dublin was a forbidden city for the native Irish, with a parliamentary decree stating that 'no Irish man nor men with beards above the mouth to be lodged within the walls of the city' and the watchers of the city were instructed 'to keep an eye on any Irishman who came to the city and to bring him to the mayor if he had an immigrant look.' That fear of integration was also evident in other cities and the British colonists actually enacted statues to prevent Norman lords from speaking Gaelic, patronising Irish music, wearing native dress, marrying Irish women and generally becoming indistinguishable from the natives.

We are also introduced to some of the more exotic visitors to this country such as the Maharaja of Connemara, or His Highness the Maharaja Jam Sahib of Nawanagar, who bought Ballinahinch Castle in 1924; Sheik Deen Mahommed, the Cork business man from India, who brought Shampoo to the western world and later Turkish Baths and the London Hindustani Coffee House. We hear how Cork became the home of Turkish Delight under the name Hadji Bey after a Christian Armenian came to the Cork Exhibition in 1902. Another 'Blow-In' was renowned Dublin artist Harry Kernoff who described himself as 'partly Russian, partly Spanish, partly Jewish but mostly Irish' and Charles Biancon i, the man who introduced the 'Irish back- to- back cart' and the earliest integrated transport system in Ireland, who was actually Italian.

In a random trawl of prominent Irish people he points out that 'St.Patrick was very likely Welsh, Padraig Pearse's father was an Englishman, Jim Larkin was from Liverpool, James Connolly was from Scotland, Countess Markievich was born in London and married to a Polish count, Erskine Childers, whose son became President, was English, yet he brought the guns into Howth for the Easter Rising, Seán Mac Bride, one time republican leader and later international statesman, was born in France.' He further claims that the De Valera family were most likely Cubans and that family members still live in the province of Mantanza in that country.

Given that the entire population of Ireland is not much more than five million and approximately eighty million people worldwide claim an Irish identity, he states 'its difficult not to conclude that we should accept henceforth that being Irish is far more to do with a state of mind than a state of place.' Looking at the Irish Diaspora he points out their role in such diverse conflicts as the liberation of Venezuela, Peru, Chile and Argentina. While the prominent role of the Irish is well known in relation to US history, what is less known is that a Young Irelander, Thomas D'arcy Mc Gee, imprisoned by the British for his role in Ireland, was largely responsible for the vision behind the creation of Canada. When Che Guevara, the great South American revolutionary was killed, his father Ernesto Guevara Lynch said of him, 'The first thing to note is that in my son's veins flowed the blood of the Irish rebels'. In Mexico, a Wexfordman named William Lamport, known to the Mexicans as Gullian de Lampart, was the author of the first proclamation of independence and his statue stands today beneath the Column of Independence in Mexico City.

He addresses the issues of racism arguing that 'Power relationships are generally at the heart of racist attitudes. Racism becomes a dangerous and potent force when these subconscious attitudes are exploited to support someone's power agenda. Exploitation is often at the heart of the matter because if we accept some groups as less equal than others we can justify inferior treatment.' He points out that Travellers, despite being very much part of the Irish nation, are perhaps 'the least integrated group in our society.' He argues that they are often the victims of racist attitudes and deserve far better treatment and respect than they currently experience in this country.

In a section entitled 'Race: the Power of Illusion' he draws on research from the US, which points out that there is no characteristic, trait or even gene that distinguishes all members of one so-called race from all the members of another so-called race. Despite appearances, skin colour is only skin deep and the genes determining skin colour have nothing to do with hair, height, athletic ability, or forms of intelligence yet 'all the elements of prejudice, insecurity, fear and ignorance that feed racist attitudes are present in our society. More importantly it's within all of us, however liberal we believe we are'. While he acknowledges the recent increase in racist violence in many European cities he strikes a more optimistic note for Ireland by placing his 'faith in that large and respectable class of the community, the ordinary decent citizens of Ireland.'

He recognises clearly the scale of the challenge facing us and given the worrying developments in Europe acknowledges that 'few countries have actually eliminated the causes of racist or religious bigotry, we face a serious challenge to develop a real harmony within our diverse communities that would enhance the European experiment of unity with diversity. Ireland can succeed with its own integration process, but we require a very conscious process of nation building, based on the emerging needs of a more diverse population.' He knows that we are undergoing something of a sea change, but wonders if we can make of it something 'rich and rare'. 

Perhaps we can take solace from the view of George Bernard Shaw quoted in the book, that the Irish weather will 'stamp an emigrant more deeply and durably in two years, apparently than the English climate will in two hundred years.' Or maybe more interestingly, the view of Oliver Goldsmith that 'the natives are peculiarly remarkable for the gaiety and levity of their disposition, the English transplanted there, in time lose their serious melancholy air and become gay and thoughtless, more fond of pleasure and less addicted to reasoning'. 

On a more serious note the author asks us if we have achieved the self-confidence to develop a suitable set of values to define our 'Irishness' in the modern world. He points out that 'people with a clear sense of their own identity and worth have a real security about themselves and can live comfortably with diversity.' But he has no illusion about the scale of the challenge;  'we have a lot of work to do, north and south to cultivate more positive attitudes about the new diversity in our population and to begin to discuss more openly the changes needed to facilitate a healthy form of integration.'