‘Tis all in the flag

Patriotism is proud of a country’s virtues and eager to correct its deficiencies; it also acknowledges the legitimate patriotism of other countries, with their own specific virtues. The pride of nationalism, however, trumpets its country’s virtues and denies its deficiencies, while it is contemptuous toward the virtues of other countries. It wants to be, and proclaims itself to be, ‘the greatest’, but greatness is not required of a country; only goodness is. Or so said American Journalist, Sydney J. Harris. I have struggled for years to adequately explain the difference between the two states and am happy to have discovered Mr Harris’s take on the matter.

Different perspectives

This coming week is a big one in terms of nationalism and patriotism, both for Hungary and for Ireland. Way back in 1848, on March 15, the great poet Petőfi Sándor called on the Hungarian people: ‘Rise up Magyar, the country calls!’ and so marked the climax of the national freedom movement, and the start of the revolution against the Habsburg regime. The Hungarians’ list of demands featured freedom of the press, the establishment of a Hungarian parliament in Pest, freedom of religion, a national bank, a Hungarian army, and the withdrawal of foreign military presence from the country. Hungary wanted control of its national guard, its national budget and its foreign policy. But the Russians intervened in 1849, siding with Austria, and put paid to any attempts at independence. Every year, on March 15, the streets and the people are bedecked in the colours of the Hungarian flag – red, white and green – the design of which is supposedly based on the French tricolour. Depending on whom you ask, these colours represent either red for strength, white for faithfulness and fidelity, and green for hope; or red for the blood spilled for the fatherland, white for freedom, and green for the lands of Hungary.

Different colours

On my first March 15 in Budapest, I was wandering the streets looking for some ‘fresh’ fish (one of my regular, non-pregnant cravings). I met detour after detour after detour. The tannoys were busy with people on their soap boxes proclaiming whatever…it was all Hungarian to me!  The shops were closed. The churches were empty. The streets were packed to capacity. And I was clueless as to what was going on. It reminded me very much of St Patrick’s Day, except that the colours didn’t match. Very patriotic. I turned a corner and walked into a group of young lads…shaved heads, black boots, black jeans, black tees and black jackets, with tattoos that cause nightmares. Then I turned another corner and found myself looking at a street-load of police in full riot gear. Patriotism had handed the baton to Nationalism and the race was about to start.

Different reasons

St Patrick’s Day – March 17 – is celebrated around the world. It’s a public holiday in Ireland and Montserrat; a bank holiday in Northern Ireland; and an official holiday in Canada, the USA and New Zealand. And, since the seventeenth century, St Patrick’s Day features as an official feast day on the global Catholic liturgical calendar. Irish people everywhere come out in all their glory to drown the shamrock. No matter if it was your mother’s mother’s mother’s mother who hailed from the home country, that drop of blood is enough to qualify you as Irish…on this one day, at least. The law preventing pubs in Ireland from opening on St Patrick’s Day was repealed in the 1970s and since then the holiday has taken a very social turn. For many at home, it’s simply a day off work; and if it falls on a Friday or Monday, an excuse to go away for a long weekend. For Irish emigrants, it has a different meaning. It’s the one day a year that you can admit to being homesick and wallow in all the things you’re missing, all things Irish…bad and all as Ireland is!

Same dates

All around the world, people wear the green, white, and orange of the Irish tricolour. Apparently, this flag was first presented to Thomas Meagher, the mayor of Waterford in 1848 (can this be a coincidence?) as a gift from a group of French women sympathetic to the Irish cause (mmmm…the French again!). It wasn’t until the Easter Rising in 1916, when it was raised in Dublin, that it came to be regarded as the national flag. The green is said to represent the Catholics, the orange the Protestants and the white the peace between them. The day is about unification and togetherness, a common past and a common future.

Here’s hoping that this week, everywhere, patriotism gets an airing and nationalism is left at home.

Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig daoibh go léir.

First publishd in the Budapest Times 15 March 2010

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