In the Shadows of Ben Bulben, a Handshake

Much of the world’s attention was riveted recently with the referendum on marriage equality that was held in Ireland, the events of which were blanketed on the front pages of newspapers everywhere and covered extensively on radio and television and all the social media. But there was another event that was just as important and just as “revolutionary,” one that, given Ireland’s history, should have garnered even more attention than it did, but did not. It was a quiet affair; it did not have great throngs of people crowding public thoroughfares exulting in what had happened. As far as historic events go, and given all the events in the world that demand our attention today, it probably wouldn’t have pivoted heads and caused bemusement (not to mention some consternation) as it would certainly have, once upon a time. It was just two graying old men shaking hands, one holding a teacup on a saucer and the other getting closer to say something that could only be surmised. The man with the teacup and the saucer was Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, and the other was Gerry Adams, a bearded nationalist-politician (and a member of Dáil Éireann, the Irish Parliament) who spent his entire life agitating against what that royal family—to Irish eyes at least—represented.

Perhaps because it was a quiet affair, it didn’t register much beyond a blip on the political Richter scale. Both men were polite, sociable—just two men amongst a crowd at a reception at the National University of Ireland in Galway, just passing the time of day with some idle chatter (as Orson Welles would have termed it). But given the history of these two men and of their cultures and national histories, it is hard to believe that they could have just engaged in “idle chatter.” Maybe in their brief meeting (a private one, which lasted fifteen minutes) they could have expressed what this occurrence meant not just to themselves personally, but to the islands they each inhabited. We will never know exactly. But in examining the photographs that were taken of the public encounter, we see something remarkable apart from the surface appearances—we see something that took nearly a thousand years of Anglo-Irish history to happen: with the act of a simple handshake, a reach across the divide of time and enmity between two peoples took place. And all of this happened in the shadows of Ben Bulben, part of William Butler’s Yeats’ beloved County Sligo mountains.

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Primarily it was the visit to County Sligo that was the reason for Prince Charles’ flyover to Ireland (as part of a four-day visit). It wasn’t that the prince hadn’t been to Ireland before; it was just that he came to Ireland this time specifically to go to Sligo to visit that place— Mullaghmore—where his beloved great uncle, Lord Louis Mountbatten, was assassinated by the IRA (along with other relatives and some local people) during a vacation excursion to his favorite lake, a vista in the shadows of Ben Bulben back on August 27, 1979, at a time when Anglo-Irish relations were far from placid.

It was an emotional experience for Prince Charles to see the place where his great uncle perished; he had meant for a long time to come to see for himself the place that his great uncle loved and where he died, but for some reason or other, could not. But now, he finally came. Like any tourist, he and his wife, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, saw the “sights,” and gazed upon the green fields that is Ireland and met with the local people, the people who live on that land and received in that land fabled for its “hundred thousand welcomes” a courteous and respectful reception. The time came, though, for him to realize the purpose of his visit. He went and gazed out on the now peaceful lake where his great uncle was killed so long ago. No doubt his mind and his soul were accompanied by many thoughts and feelings. In a photograph taken of him there, Prince Charles is seen, head bowed, deep in thought. And, perhaps because of that visit in the shadows of Sligo, he alluded later on to what it meant, not just for him, but for all the other inhabitants of those isles, poignancy giving way to reflection and a vision of what would have been, and could be: “We all have regrets,” he said. 

Having a vision of what could be also mattered to someone who once lived beside the Dartry Mountains (of which Ben Bulben is a part), and who was renowned for it: William Butler Yeats. After all, the man who wrote “The Lake Isle of Inisfree” was a dreamer of dreams and in his time, he saw the dream of an independent Ireland come into being, though not without a fearful cost. Yeats, who would become Ireland’s first-ever recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature—in 1923—would himself serve for a time as a Senator in a fledgling (though divided) nation. It would make for very interesting speculation as to what he would make of the Ireland of today, given these recent events. For the man who was born in Dublin on June 13, 1865 and died in France on January 28, 1939 (on the eve of World War II), the Ireland of today is radically different from the Ireland he entered into 150 years ago; and one wonders: could he have ever envisioned it? And, just as intriguing, what would he think of it?

The handshake between the two men did not take long; but it was a significant act. It did not erase the centuries between them, nor did it dissolve long-held differences; but it marked a civility that was a long time in coming, and much needed. In a world gone seriously deranged and thwarted by the grievous misuse of religious faith for political and other pernicious purposes, the act of a simple handshake was a powerful statement and a testament that hands that were once tightened in fists can be opened and extended to other hands, in a gesture signifying hope, offering goodwill, and believing for the better. Perhaps that handshake could be a lesson for the world; it shows that nothing is ever permanent—even hatred and distrust. Given time, patience and not a little diligence, circumstances can change and be “changed utterly” resulting in a “terrible beauty” being born. If that can happen in a land that has a Baltimore, County Cork, it can happen in a land that has a Baltimore, Maryland as well—indeed, it can happen anywhere.

William Butler Yeats’ life intertwined two different worlds and two different traditions. In his life—as well as his work—he tried not just to straddle, but to encompass both. Having been present at and witnessing the birth of modern Ireland, Yeats, if he were alive today, would have no doubt been fascinated by the handshake that occurred on May 19th between two graying old men of two different traditions. And, in the shadows of Ben Bulben, Sligo’s favorite son—who knew something about being “old and grey and full of sleep” and who is buried in the grounds of Drumcliffe Church—would have found that simple act more poetic—and visionary—than anything he could ever have written.

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