Interview with Philip McDonagh – Irish Ambassador

Philip-McdonaghHow long have you lived in Russia, and how long do you plan to be here?
I have lived in Russia for four years, and in accordance with our general rule, I am being transferred in the summer to another posting.

Have you got used to Russia in terms of the climate and the food?
Yes I have, and so has my family. We came already equipped with fur hats, because we previously had a posting in Finland. In terms of culture and outings for the children, such as skiing and skating in the winter, you can find anything in Moscow. I have been in the foreign service quite a long time, so I don’t find adaptation that much of an issue really. It is a privilege to learn about a new country and a new society, especially a country as interesting as Russia.

A lot of people who come here don’t really get on with Russians, they find them a bit brusque. Do you get on with Russians?
I think Russians are amazingly coherent and loyal people. We have a wonderful Russian staff here at the embassy, and I feel very well looked after. There is graciousness and a spirit of service, which is quite striking.

D6704-0007How many Irish are there here?
It’s hard to know exactly because not everybody introduces himself or herself to the embassy. But there are many hundreds in Moscow, and many hundreds in other parts of Russia, including we believe 200 on Sakhalin island. We also feel that there are many people in Russia whose first identity is British or American, who may also have some Irish blood, and a connection with Ireland. So we see on certain occasions on events like St. Patrick’s Day, that the real Irish community is bigger than one thinks.

What difficulties do the Irish community face, and how are these difficulties overcome?
The business profile changes from decade to decade, but actually our trade and investments in both directions now are higher than ever before and increasing at a very impressive rate. Our trade with Russia is now about EURO 2 billion a year, which for a small country as far away as Ireland is promising. Moreover, trade is increasing; it has more than doubled in my time here in Moscow. We have recently seen significant Russian investment into Ireland from Russia, including most recently Transaero which is creating a base at Shannon airport for the overhaul and maintenance of aircraft. We have investments from Ireland into Russia from many sectors, so as far as business is concerned; this is a good news story. There are other categories such as people who come here to get married, or those who come here to study Russian. We have a steady stream of cultural figures; writers and performers, as there is a huge interest in coming to Russia. It is quite remarkable. Then we have another phenomenon, which people haven’t woken up to: how many Russian-speaking people we have in Ireland. A lot of the people who came to Ireland in the 1990s from Eastern Europe are actually Russian speaking, whose children are now coming up to university entrance level. Here in the embassy, we have two very able members of staff who are both Irish and Russian. They are absolutely Russian if you approach them in Russian, and absolutely Irish if you approach them in English.

D6704-0212What’s the main Irish profile now in Russia?
In business we have food and beverages, we have various forms of information technology. We have construction, we have medical equipment, we have the leasing and overhaul of aircraft; Ireland is a very major centre for that. We have many niches. It is very interesting to see that the Irish profile is so broadly based. The same sort of thing is happening in some of the neighbouring countries, including Kazakhstan.

In your opinion as Ambassador, how important is culture in terms of facilitating communication and bringing people together?
Culture is antecedent to politics and economics, and that means it has a potential to unify. Then there is a particular content which creates a common focus. For example, John Field – the Irish pianist and composer – whose bust is downstairs, influenced a whole series of Russian musicians; indeed a whole Russian tradition. We had a festival of Irish chamber music here in Moscow with wonderful venues such as the Kremlin last October. In literature, I think you could look at Pushkin and Lermontov and Byron and Shelley as part of the European movement, but the link is Irish. Thomas Moore was the biographer of Byron, and I have been reading about how the Russian embassy in London in 1818 made a report to St. Petersburg about the importance of Thomas Moore. Vasily Zhukovsky in St. Petersburg, who was poet laureate decided that Thomas Moore should be translated into Russian, and Nicholas 1st celebrated his marriage with a performance of Lalla Rookh. Thomas Moore was translated into Russian by the ’Dekabristy’, so it wasn’t only the Tsar in his court who appreciated him, but also the opposition. Thomas Moore became immensely important. He is mentioned in Eugene Onegin, and also Lermontov says that he came to poetry through Thomas Moore’s biography of Byron. So the content that writers, painters and musicians generate is something that can be focussed on together.

17march-390Do you think that if countries understand each other culturally, that there is less chance of them misunderstanding each other politically, simply because they share so much in common that serious misunderstanding is inconceivable?
That is an interesting idea. I have been posted in Sweden, and I lived in Denmark as a child. Something happened in the eighteenth century between Sweden and Denmark, that it became inconceivable that they could ever fight each other again. Some kind of cultural transformation took place which meant that they were family. In a sense this is also true between Ireland and Britain. Despite certain troubles, nevertheless there is also a unity, and there is a state of affairs where it is inconceivable that there could be what is called war. I suppose the UN Charter, or the Helsinki Final Act, or the Universal declaration of Human Rights, are an attempt to institutionalise that idea.

Do you feel that modern Irish culture and in particular poetry is appreciated in Russia today?
That is certainly true, but it is also true that the audience for poetry is not what it was. I think Pasternak was able to sell 300,000 copies of a book, in his day. There is no doubt that the audience in Russia is stronger than it is in most places, as it is in Ireland where the average person knows the names of poets, even of contemporary poets, and know some of their work. That may not be true in every country.
I think the greatest poet in the English language who wrote about exactly this is the English poet Shelley. In his ‘A Defence of Poetry’ he talks about poetry as being ‘the unacknowledged legislator of the world.’ I am not sure that poets are experts at legislators, but Shelley’s idea that poetry is a kind of tuning fork which sets a note which people ought to work around, to help build social harmony, is extremely important.

IMG_5100How do you view the current relationship between Ireland and Russia?
I don’t think the relationship has reached its full potential. I am not sure that our business operators understand where Russia is today. Many of them do, but they don’t all understand it. I also think that there is an interdependence in the European continent that can be developed further.

How would you like to promote Russia to the Irish?
As an ambassador you have to report accurately, but you also have to promote dialogue. Dialogue is not always easy. I was involved for five years in the peace process in Northern Ireland, which was a wonderful experience. Dialogue involves finding common ground. John Hume, who was probably the most important name in the peace process, described the European Union as the world’s largest peace process. I suppose all diplomacy is a peace process. I am tempted to go back to my Greek studies. Behind dialogue you have the logos, which is about giving a true account of where one is, and that brings us back to culture and all the common reference points that we have between us.

Does your family enjoy being here?
My family is very happy here. My wife is the doctor at the British embassy, and appears on the British diplomatic lists. She also appears on the Irish diplomatic list as my spouse. She may be the only person who has ever been on both the British and Irish diplomatic lists at the same time. The children have been happy here as well. The fact that we live upstairs in the embassy is very good for them. They have made progress in Russian, I hope that in the future they may be Russian speakers if they keep working at it.