Lord David Putnam

 Lord David Putnam

Beal na mBláth Sunday August19th. 2007


It goes without saying that it’s an enormous privilege to have been asked to speak at this very special place this afternoon.

I’m also conscious of a significant additional responsibility. In the eighty five years that have passed since the life we’re gathered here to commemorate was cut tragically short, the nation he died for has changed a very great deal.

As a result, I find myself informally representing two significant groups of people – all of whom share a debt to Michael Collins. As a UK Parliamentarian, I am one of well over 100 members of both Houses whose past or present – in some cases both past and present, is intimately connected to this country. I am also just one among over 100,000 UK citizens who have been fortunate enough to come and live among you, and hopefully contribute in some tangible way to this nation’s future.

I’m particularly proud of the fact that, as a Film Producer I was able, in 1987, to commission Neil Jordan to write the original screenplay for what, ten years later, became a remarkable movie – a film that introduced Michael Collins, and the achievements of his all-too short life, to a world-wide audience.

In preparing for this afternoon I was influenced by two recent events. The first was the historic address by the Taoiseach to the Joint Houses of Parliament on the 16th May of this year, and the second was Gordon Brown’s address to the UN Assembly a little over two weeks ago.

Both men chose to close their respective speeches by evoking the memory of a very great Irish American, John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

Their reasoning was easy to understand – Kennedy, like Collins, represented the future; a brighter and better future; a future forged by a combination of individual commitment, and a generous desire to improve the human condition. Jack Kennedy’s life, and the promise it contained, just like that of Michael Collins, was cut down far too early.

For all sorts of reasons related to my age; my work and my experience, I find myself very much one of “Kennedy’s children – just as every man, woman and child in this country can count themselves among Michael Collins’ children.

By one of the great ironies of history, this nation, its recent history, its place in the world, its hopes for the future, all of which the Taoiseach eloquently described to Parliament just three months ago represents, almost word for word, Michael Collins vision – and necessarily, his legacy.

Having stressed his commitment to a plural and inclusive future, at the very end of that speech An Taoiseach said:

“Ireland’s hour has come: a time of peace; of prosperity, of old values and new beginnings”.

Good stuff- and much of it true – certainly a level of peace and prosperity that many of us would have doubted possible when I first arrived almost twenty years ago.

My very first public engagement in this country was the opening of Skibbereen’s ‘Welcome Home Week’ – in the summer of 1993.

That evening I tried to articulate the acute awareness my family and I had developed of the importance of family, of friendship, of community to people of this region; in stark contrast to what we’d left behind in a U.K. still reeling from Mrs Thatcher’s very singular concept of what constituted a functioning ‘society.

But I questioned whether the fundamentals that bound this country together were going to easily survive the pressures and contradictions of ‘globalization’, as it was then beginning to impact this western outpost of Europe.

A dozen or so years later I find myself asking the same question, but this time with a little more urgency, and in the absolute conviction that, were he with us today, Michael Collins would be equally concerned.

He understood better than most that “old values and new beginnings’ are not always natural bedfellows. That squaring that particular circle involves a lot of difficult decisions and, from time to time, some tough choices.

He wanted to help build something that was, in his words, “not like other nations”; an Ireland that could be “a shining light in a dark world”; and that in the raw human material, forged out of 700 years of bitter experience, Ireland had the capacity to be exactly that.

All of my reading of the man leads me to the conclusion that what he felt worth fighting and dying for was at the very minimum a nation culturally and socially better, and fairer, than its historical oppressor. He knew that this nation’s future would be principally determined by the qualities of body, mind and character, of its people.

Interestingly, what we today refer to as ‘character’, the Ancient Greeks called “destiny – and there’s a compelling argument that, across time, the destiny of nations has always been determined, to a quite extraordinary degree, by the character of its people.

As I see it, the challenge facing Ireland in general, and the rural community of West Cork in particular, is how to carve out that ‘special’ future for itself; a future full of promise and opportunity for the young, whilst never betraying its crucial “human values’, those generous social assumptions that have made this society that little bit different – and that much more harmonious.

This also happens to be a country with a vast array of cultural weapons at its disposal. It is simultaneously both ancient and very young, able to reach back and draw important lessons from its treasure house of myths, fables and legends. In an important sense it was through constant reference to those legends that the very concept of nationhood was nurtured and sustained.

I would argue that, as we approach the new and in some respects uncharted challenges of the 21st century many of us are likely to find ourselves badly in need of heroic examples to reassure us in our search for a resilient personal and national identity.

Ten years ago I published a book. ‘The Undeclared War’ in which I attempted to describe the enormous cultural reach that Cinema possessed, and the way that medium had influenced 20th century imagination. In the book I argued that film was, and remains an extraordinary, in fact a unique means of conveying ideas, and shaping our sense of exactly who we are. Given my own professional background, and the small part I played in bringing Michael Collins’s life to the screen, it seems worth trying to explain why I believe that influence continues to be relevant?

Let me offer a recent and fairly vivid example from the work I’m currently doing for the UK Government.

For some while now we’ve been trying to promote the use of cinema as an effective teaching and learning tool, and in doing so we run classic black and white films like “Twelve Angry Men” and, as the lights go up, we ask the kids ‘from the cast of characters in that movie, who do you most want to be? And unsurprisingly they all say “Oh, Henry Fonda.”

And you ask “really, why? After all., he’s the guy that kept everyone else stuck in that hot room for hours on end, when all they really wanted to do was go off to the baseball game.” But they quickly see past that, and start to explain in some detail why Henry Fonda represents the character from the story that they most closely identify with. And eventually you find yourself saying, “congratulations -you’re now thinking like real citizens”.

They’ve understood the sometimes difficult nature of leadership and responsibility, and standing up for what they truly believe in. They’ve understood how very complicated the important decisions that affect their lives can be. “Cinema has worked its magic, and opened a window for them. And it’s changed them, just as it changed me, and maybe even a surprising number of you, over the years!

I’ve never wavered in my belief that there’s a very clear correlation between the quality of cinema, in fact the arts generally, and the view that people, most especially young people, come to form of themselves.

Whv should this be?

Well, in the case of cinema, I think it’s got everything to do with its unique ability, under cover of darkness, and assisted by the overwhelming size of the image, to burrow its way into our subconscious and, having taken root there, subtly shape the way we see ourselves.

Once that’s occurred, what gets reflected back can be the very best, or the very worst aspects of our personality – and sometimes a little of both.

Throughout my thirty years as a movie producer I was always aware that filmmakers can take advantage of this phenomenon in one of two ways; either by igniting the dreams and ambitions that encourage and elevate their audience, the ones that allow them to more fully appreciate their potential as human beings -or, to simply reflect the negative, even violent “survival instincts that from time to time lurk within pretty well all of us.

I have always felt that the former is an act of extraordinary cultural generosity; whereas the latter is in every respect a form of exploitation-merely ‘dressed up’ as entertainment.

It’s true to say that films are probably not the best medium for exchanging very complex ideas. But they can be unbelievably successful at engraving images and emotions onto our sub-conscious.

They are also a brilliant medium for treading the fine line between history as a simple record of dates, names and events, and history as ‘inspirational myth” – and paradoxically it’s so often the ‘myth’ that offers the more genuine reflection of human motivation and achievement.

Michael Collins is the most wonderful example of a life suspended somewhere between history and myth – and that alone makes this an annual gathering of enormous significance. Let’s be honest about it – we all need our heroes, we need them to help sustain our dreams of a better and more secure future.You’ll remember that just a week before he died, at Arthur Griffith’s funeral, Michael Collins was heard to lament,

“Why has Ireland always lost its leaders when it had the greatest need of them”? We might just as easily ask, “why have we always needed outstanding men and women to re-calibrate our moral compass”?

History suggests that sometimes we need our leaders to die in order to fully appreciate their importance to us. I would hate to think that what happened on this site eighty Five years ago was in that sense, necessary.

But what’s certain is that, on that day, Ireland was gifted a figure to rank alongside other twentieth century leaders such as Mahatma Ghandi and Nelson Mandela men who, having freed their own people from the shackles of oppression, became icons for peace and reconciliation everywhere.

I will go to my grave believing that, had he lived, Michael Collins would have forged his own place in precisely that pantheon.

It’s important to remember that, should we fail to rediscover that level of vision; should we fail to produce leaders of similar breadth, generosity and understanding, then we could all too easily find ourselves facing another of those ‘clashes of civilisation’ that have bedevilled societies down the ages.

But this time we are dealing with a series of new “global” crises, in the form of climate change, indiscriminate fundamentalism, and new and quite terrifying forms of health pandemics, in the face of which we are all likely to increasingly feel like victims; with every scrap of our common humanity becoming permanently disfigured in the process. I mentioned earlier that much of my work in the UK involves visiting schools and talking to heads and teachers – those on the frontline of any possible future for the rest of us.

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of opening a brand new school in the North East of England. It was an absolute revelation – everything you could possibly hope for in a twenty-first century institution devoted to teaching and learning.

As I walked down the main corridor leading out into a magnificent glass atrium – ahead of me on the wall was a huge and beautifully designed poster, which contained a message

from two thousand years ago.

It was Marcus Aurelius’s simple injunction –

“If it is not right, don’t do it.

If it is not true, don’t say it.”

I stopped and stared until the Head-teacher noticed and explained – “that’s our school motto”. I came away wondering why on earth we’ve had to struggle for two millennia and more to absorb the lessons of that extraordinarily simple piece of common sense!

I’d like to close with a thought that’s somewhat more personal. For us as a family, the decision to settle here in West Cork wasn’t an easy or even a particularly convenient one and it certainly wasn’t taken on account of the weather! It had everything to do with a realisation that who you are, and where you are, have to be brought into alignment; especially as you approach the final years of your life.

I recently stumbled across a novel that resonated with me on several levels. It happened to be written by the American author, James Michener in the year I was born., and its central character is named David.

It’s entitled ‘The Fires of Spring”, and hopefully this short extract will convey far better than any words of my own, exactly what living among you in West Cork has come to mean to my family and myself:

“And David thought: “It’s like coming home to yourself at last.” For this is the journey that men make in order to find themselves. If they fail in this; it doesn’t matter much what else they find. Money, position, fame, are all of little consequence, for when the tickets are collected at the end of the ride; they’re likely to be tossed into the bin marked ‘failure’.

But if a man happens to find himself- if he knows what he can be depended upon to do, the limits of his courage, the positions from which he will no longer retreat, the secret reservoirs of his determination, the extent of his dedication, the depth of his feeling for beauty, his honest and unpostured goals – then he has found a mansion which he can inhabit with dignity all the days of his life”.

The challenge for you, me, and many people like us, is to be prepared, as was Michael Collins, to give everything to protect, nurture and advance the best interests of all those who are fortunate enough to find themselves living in this country.

Thank you very much for listening to me.

David Puttnam

19th August 2007