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Why did Leo Varadkar tell Boris Johnson that Ireland could be the UK's 'Athena'?

We look at what the Taoiseach could have been implying when talking about the Greek goddess.

THE VISIT OF UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to Government Buildings was always going to be a big moment for the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar.

For the last three years, Varadkar and other high-ranking Irish political figures like Minister Simon Coveney have had to walk gingerly along a slippery tightrope marked ‘Brexit’.

They’ve had to show that as leaders, they’re representing a strong, uncompromising Ireland. An Ireland that’s not going to forget the past, but won’t let it taint too much of the future. An Ireland that’s arm-in-arm with the European Union. An Ireland that doesn’t really want the UK to get its own way easily, and sure as hell doesn’t want it to toddle off into no-deal Brexitland, nonchalantly tossing a cigarette onto the gasoline-splattered island of Ireland on its way. 

But at the same time, there’s the matter of keeping the relationship between the UK and Ireland stable. Nothing can be pushed too far in this game of Brexit chess.

Which is why it was interesting to see Varadkar invoke the name of a Greek goddess in his speech when he appeared alongside Boris Johnson at Government Buildings today. Johnson is over on an official meeting with the Taoiseach, and the pair were addressing the curious press in an early morning public appearance. 

During his portion of the speech, Varadkar hammered home the tough times that await the UK in the run-up to 31 October: the difficulties a no-deal would create for Ireland and its neighbour, the need to get back to the negotiating table, the ill-fated withdrawal deal.

He told Johnson that if there is a deal – and he does think a deal is possible – there will be a lot to deal with: “…it’s going to be very tough, we’ll have to deal with issues like tariffs, fishing rights, product standards and State aid. And it will then have to be ratified by 31 parliaments.”

It would, Varadkar told Johnson, be “a Herculean task for you”:

But we do want to be your friend, and your ally, your Athena in doing so. And I think the manner in which you leave the European Union will determine if that’s possible.

pre-elections-in-athens-greece-12-jun-2019 A statue of Athena in Athens. Source: Yiannis Alexopoulos

It’s not the usual thing to hear Varadkar namecheck Greek gods or goddesses in his speeches – he tends to favour more Irish-leaning references. But this was the kind of reference handpicked for a man like Boris Johnson, he an Etonian who excelled at Classics while in university (according to one of his biographers – though Johnson was annoyed at his failure to get a first in his final exams). Johnson went to Oxford to read Literae Humaniores, which is the study of Classics, ie the Greco-Roman world. 

So Johnson, then, must be very familiar with who both Hercules and Athena were: Hercules the Roman hero who was born mortal but became a god (in Greece, he was Heracles), Athena the warrior goddess who was also Odysseus’s divine counselor, a goddess often used as a symbol of democracy.

Both emerged as part of Greek mythology, the myths created and loved by the ancient Greeks, back from the 12th century BC to AD 600 – myths that gave them figures to believe in but also provided them with moral and spiritual lessons for how to live life. The lessons in these myths still provide us with food for thought and philosophical thinking today.

Johnson must know that Varadkar was no doubt offering the example of Athena by invoking how she used her wisdom and strength to support others. Hercules was given 12 tasks (or labours) to complete, and Athena helped him with three – one of which involved saving him from his own madness

Without Athena there to help, you could surmise ol’ Hercules wouldn’t have whizzed through his 12 labours very easily.

But Boris no doubt knows too that there was a reason Athena was considered a warrior goddess. She stepped in when heroes needed her help, and wasn’t afraid of taking serious measures. She turned Arachne into the first spider, and Medusa into a Gorgon with writhing snakes for hair. Athena was born wearing armour – always ready to go into battle and never afraid to strike out when she needed to.

So perhaps the unspoken message from the Taoiseach was: Ireland will be there to support you when needed, but don’t forget – the Irish people are not going to be trampled on. 

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