Robert Fisk: Words of wisdom from an Irish Renaissance man

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To Monaghan, then, with its narrow sun-flashed lanes and petrol smugglers and hidden lakes and the North's wind farms on the horizon and the driver telling me that Patrick Kavanagh came from here and me, tired and irritable after the flight from Beirut, saying yes I know that, and then infuriated when the man adds that he's never read anything by the fellah.

"No, no, no, I know I was not important as I moved/Through the colourful country..." Jesus., I can see why Kavanagh left this land-locked county and headed for the Dublin pubs.

At the Flat Lake Festival – in the grounds of the great Madden abode – I am supposed to "debate" with Eamon McCann – "activist", journalist, "extremist", according to the Saville report on Bloody Sunday, and "terrorist", take your pick – on Northern Ireland and the Middle East. Alas, Eamon and I agree too much. An American in the audience attacks me for calling the US press "gutless" and "rubbish", so I whip out a copy of a Wall Street Journal report on the Taliban in which every paragraph is attributed to anonymous "government officials", until the audience bursts out laughing and the guy storms out. Eamon goes on and on about the murder of 14 unarmed Catholics by British paratroopers in 1972, tearing apart the Saville report which brought final possible comfort to their relatives – after nearly 40 years of lies.

I talk about the Armenian holocaust of 1915 and Turkey's refusal to acknowledge the truth, until someone else in the audience, an Irishman this time, starts blathering on about the need to "move on" since injustice cannot be undone. Oh yes it can, I say, by telling the truth about history. If the killing of 14 Catholics in Derry merits a 10-year inquiry, surely the genocide of a million and a half Armenians is worth 96 years of study. But Eamon goes back to Bloody Sunday. He's caught the flaws in Saville, the slippage of investigation when confronted by the evidence of the most senior officers, but I sense the audience growing weary. Didn't Cameron apologise?

It's a relief to head to the stately home where the Anglo-Irish Maddens have lived since 1734, a miniature Buckingham Palace but one of the very few great Irish houses in which – thanks to Johnny and Lucy Madden – one can actually feel cosy. Real wood on the fire, great oil paintings of the ancestors, bacon and fried egg and brown toast and coffee with cream for breakfast at 7.30 next morning. One of the Maddens was a British officer in Egypt – he can be seen in a sketch above the staircase, riding in a pith helmet past sand and palm trees – while another was in the Palestine police. Johnny's dad was in the Irish Guards and lost a leg at Normandy. (He discusses Saving Private Ryan with a certain distaste.)

And there on the sofa is another festival feature, Ulick O'Connor. If Garret Fitzgerald's death means that John Hume is the only Irish statesman left alive, then Ulick is surely the only Irish Renaissance man still on the island; poet, rugby player, playwright – an expert of Japanese Noh drama (he wrote Submarine in which Roger Casement lands from his German submarine on the west coast of Ireland to try to stop the 1916 Rising), in awe of Yeats and Gogarty and Maud Gonne, friend of the original New York beatniks and of Cecil Beaton and the Guinnesses and Michael MacLiammoir and all the great actors of our age, author of a wonderful, slightly scabrous biography of Behan and others, pole-vaulter and champion boxer. He is 82.

I've known Ulick for years and am always ready to cast a cold eye on him. Generous to a fault, memory as big as a volcano (plenty of dangerous ash, too), he presents me with an inscribed copy of his diaries, 1970-1981. Like every Renaissance man, there is a Machiavelli in Ulick, a cynical understanding of power, wit soaked in poison for his enemies. When Seamus Heaney chooses not to express too nationalist an opinion, he is dubbed "Sheepy-eyed Seamus". There's Ulick for you, like a fine chocolate with a tiny splinter of glass buried deep inside it. But he is in great form tonight, getting the Middle East dictators spot on, perhaps because he understood Oswald Mosley so well.

"Mosley was one of the first victims of the age of Narcissus," he writes in 1971. I am curled up under the blankets of my semi-four-poster now; big houses are cold, blankets have to be thick. "As little boys envy film stars, so too the Mosleys of the day found it impossible to resist the drug of public adoration... Mosley rallying an exhausted England under the canopy of Earls Court exhibition hall ... was a trip as seductive as any LSD-inspired experience." Ulick also includes the shortest letter in the world, sent by the Great Man to a woman whom he thought was getting too thin. "Dear Shelah, Fatten. Yours sincerely, WB Yeats."

Within 48 hours, I am meeting barristers at the Four Courts in Dublin, Gandon's façade still marked by Michael Collins' English-made shells – readers may remember its partial destruction in Neil Jordan's biopic of the man who inspired the Jewish guerrillas of Palestine – and then I'm soaring over the Atlantic towards Canada, three weeks for a famine ship, nine hours for me on a 747, for a university commencement address way north of Vancouver, and then I'm sitting by Heffley Lake, dark Canadian firs around me, the honking of mallards, tiny lanes (named after Irishmen, of course), the briefest glimpse of an elk and, in a deckchair by the water, I open the right-wing National Post.

The post-revolutionary Arab nations, George Jonas tells me, are "regimes infiltrated or dominated by Muslim Brotherhood-types (sic), sounding as repressive as the regimes they seek to replace... Many of the Arab Spring's stalwarts ... far from being friendly to liberal democracy, seem implacably and permanently hostile to it. They are "Taliban types" (sic again). "It isn't democrats who are spearheading the opposition... it's jihadists."

Fantasyland. The age of Narcissus again.



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