A Hero of the Celtic Renaissance

From the cottage I keep in West Clare, I sometimes look across the Shannon Estuary to the Kerry Hills. From the end of the peninsula, I can make out Ballybunion, where Bill Clinton golfed in September 1998, in the midst of the Monica Lewinsky imbroglio. Back in Washington, Senator Joseph Lieberman was calling Mr. Clinton’s behavior ”immoral,” which, of course, it was. But in Ireland a beauty parlor named Monica’s on the road to the famous golf course had its sign removed lest it embarrass the motorcadians. The Irish know what’s in a name. They also know that words can hurt or heal old wounds.

Is it Derry, then? Or Londonderry? Is it the North of Ireland or Northern Ireland? Is it Sean or Sidney? Mabel or Maeve? Are the violently conflicting views of the Six Counties of the North rooted in race or sect, language or doctrine, poverty or pride or power lust? ”Whatever you say,” wrote Seamus Heaney famously of the painful case of Ulster, ”say nothing.”

Whatever history says of William Jefferson Clinton, let it say he did the right and difficult thing by Ireland.

A writerly friend from one of the border townlands once told me that when asked he always claimed to be an atheist. ”Of course, here the question always is, ‘Are ye a Catholic or a Protestant atheist?’ ”

But the question of Protestant or Catholic is giving way to new ones: Visa or MasterCard? Cash or charge? Expanding markets and lines of credit breed good will toward men in ways that God on Our Side or the Others’ never did. And Ireland’s lively new economy — the Celtic Tiger purring in the Republic — trumps the old begrudgers and hateful rhetoric.

In Belfast this month, the shoppers come and go without opening their bags or standing for the old inspections. The worry over bombs has given way to the welcome extended to coin of the realm. Dublin is bulging at its seams with cars, computer wares, trendy bars and multinationals. It is one of the dividends of even a fragile peace: the marketplaces thrive. And though there are growing pains, more, it turns out, is merrier than less. If Mr. Clinton did not invent this truth, he had the courage nonetheless to come and preach it in these contentious parishes.

Equal access to a promising future, investments in jobs and education, forsaking of the old tribal alliances and wars in pursuit of peace and creature comforts — these things took root in this ancient, rocky place. In the three decades of the Troubles, Bill Clinton was the first, the only American president to take the Irish predicament to heart. Campaigning in New York in April 1992, he promised to do something about it, and then he did. From the granting of a visa to Gerry Adams in 1994 to the appointment of George Mitchell as a peace envoy disguised as an economic adviser — all done against the odds — Mr. Clinton has deftly handled the dicey relations between London and Belfast and Dublin and Washington. By bringing the weight of his office and intellect and charm to bear on both sides of the divide, he has opened the dialogue of cooperation, if not conciliation.

And in Ireland they know it. They have forgiven him everything — every moral failing, every political duplicity, every personal foible — in trade, in thanks, for the moral high ground he helped to clear, where no side wins but none is vanquished. For the first time in 200 years, the young of this country may go or stay as they please, and people are trying to get into Ireland for its opportunities. For the first time the Irish have to contend with the perils of too much rather than too little.

Little wonder, then, that our president finds, in the ever shortening days of his watch, the comfort and commiseration of home fires among people who, like himself, are known for their enigmas — their excesses and abuses, suffering and kindnesses, their gifts of gab and blatherments, their poets and politicos, their shame and guilt, their hunger for forgiveness and for the deeper gifts of history: peace on earth, good will toward men — even if they are their own worst enemies.

December 15, 2000

The New York Times