« Ça va Patrick, as-tu tout compris?» (have you understood everything?)
I’ll never forget the dread I felt on hearing these words from my boss at the end of my first team meeting in my first job in the European Commission, in Brussels, some 30 years ago. It had all begun with love – like all the best things in life. Love of French or more particularly my French teacher – a former beauty queen… So I jumped at the chance to apply for a temporary post to work on the 1992 Single Market and sure, wasn’t I fluent in French with my A in the Leaving cert and Diplome from the Alliance française…Well actually, not quite… as I quickly found out in my all French speaking unit. But with two hours of intensive courses in the morning before work, followed by another two in the evening, I eventually managed to master the “langue de Molière”. These memories came flooding back recently as I sat with my daughter outside a café in Paris where she is now studying thanks to the wonderful Erasmus programme and for me and so many others France and French are such an integral part of the idea of Europe…
Ideas and thoughts are all well and good but we know that it’s what we feel that really moves us. That is why it was amazing to be at a concert a few years ago when a Dubliner by the name of Bono unfurled the flag of Europe and lyrically lilted that “Europe is a thought that needs to become a feeling”. This certainly resonated with me and the audience that night and I think it’s fair to say that we have all felt more emotionally connected to our fellow Europeans in Ukraine these last months. We are sharing the anguish and anger of millions of our fellow citizens across the continent and have perhaps a deeper sense of our common European community and humanity. We all have a longing to belong and I think we are increasingly feeling at home in the lovely description of the EU as our “common European home that Ireland has helped to build”. It is something of a miracle that the warring nations of Europe have managed to construct a haven of peace, prosperity and progress over the last half century and we should never take it for granted.
But “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got, till it’s gone…” These immortal words of Joni Mitchell spontaneously combusted in a meeting colleagues and I had with three wonderful students from Italy, Germany and Spain last week. The exchange students had travelled down from Monaghan to plead for support in their inspiring efforts to promote and defend European values amongst their peers. They were moved to mobilise and organise in the face of the cynicism and pessimism of their friends and fellow students who were increasingly flirting with populism. We discussed how it’s human nature to take things for granted and to assume that things will stay the same. But of course the history of Ireland, Europe and the world is littered with overturned regimes and dark ages of regression and lost liberties. Values like democracy, human rights, respect for minorities have been hard won in Ireland and Europe over the last 50 years but malevolent forces are always trying to tear these down so we all need to follow the example of these courageous students and stand up and fight for our rights and freedoms.
Munster has of course been standing up and fighting on the rugby fields of Europe since the inaugural European Champions Cup in 1995. And for many thousands in the province, annual outings to the playing fields of Toulouse, Toulon or “La Rogelle” have come to define the lived experience of being European. The camaraderie and sheer joy of singing the Fields of Athenry in Trevor Brennan’s bar in the pink city or surprising the French by belting out La Marseillaise as if it were our own is a sight to behold. Our football supporters have of course also been bringing uniquely Irish humour and passion to places like Gelsenkirchen and Poznan over recent decades. This is Europe. And long may sport continue to provide us with reasons or excuses to travel and experience the beauty of our shared continent and its delightfully diverse people.
And speaking of sporting teams, I recently turned up before students at the University of Limerick wearing four jerseys and a flag! I wanted to talk about identities and thought it would be fun to squeeze into my Ireland, Munster, Tipperary and Solohead jerseys. By peeling off the club, county etc. jerseys I was trying to illustrate how we can embrace bigger ideas of who we are without losing anything. We all move seamlessly from being passionate Dubs, Rebels…to diehard Munster or Leinster supporters to proud Irishmen and Irishwomen without being any less of the former. And I think we shouldn’t hesitate to embrace our European identity as much as our Irishness. We have had some great Irish Europeans over the centuries from the monks “who saved civilization” to the late great John Hume who was recently honoured with a bust in the European Parliament. So, let’s look forward to the next 50 years of being Irish in Europe and adding new storeys – and stories! – to our common European home that we are helping to build and maintain.
In partnership with the Irish Foreign Ministry as part of the Communication Europe Initiative, our Ireland EU 50 series is a selection of unique stories from writers from Ireland and elsewhere. The CEI was established in 1995 to raise awareness about the European Union and to improve the quality and accessibility of public information on European issues.