By Patrick O’Sullivan

When The Swarbriggs represented Ireland in the Eurovision Song Contest in 1975, they sang a song called ‘That’s What Friend’s Are For’. The song was unusual in that it had friendship, not love or romance, as its theme: the idea of being there for someone in need very much to the fore.

The contest was won that year by a simple, happy, little song from the Netherlands, a song which I have to admit I liked very much: the Irish entry finishing high in the order of merit too. The late great Maeve Binchy wrote about friendship in many of her novels, among them Circle of Friends and The Lilac Bus.

When we are young, we think of friendship as the most natural thing in the world, which of course it is, involving as it does feelings of warmth and companionship and society too. We talk of our friends all the time: what we are doing, where we are going, what we have planned for the future.

As we grow older however, we seem to grow more self-conscious, as if friendship were something we were meant to leave behind along the way. I like to think of it differently though: if friendship is good for the young, then it is equally good for the young at heart.
One of my favourite quotes about friendship comes from the American writer and philosopher R.W. Emerson: “The only reward of virtue is virtue: the only way to have a friend is to be one.” It is surely the simplest, yet most profound of philosophies, implying as it does that we cannot expect from others what we do not expect from ourselves.

Almost inevitably the old Greek philosophers were intrigued with the idea of friendship. According to Diogenes Laertius in the ‘Lives of the Philosophers’, when Aristotle was asked What is a friend?, he replied, ‘One soul dwelling in two bodies.’ It seems for Aristotle then that friendship was the union of two spirits, two souls, a union expressed in mutual respect and trust.

Again, according to Aristotle, wanting to be friends was the easy bit but friendship, he wrote, was a slow ripening fruit. In other words, his advice is ‘Don’t look for too much too soon.’

This is perhaps all the more challenging in an age which looks for instant gratification at every turn, especially in the case of films and television, where we expect things to happen sooner rather than later and if they don’t we soon get bored.

One of the ancient writers I came across when I was studying Latin was the dramatist Plautus. Although much of his work had a comic twist to it, he still had some words of wisdom on the subject of friendship. According to him, nothing but heaven itself is better than a friend, who is really a friend.

Apart from Emerson, mentioned above, another of my favourite American writers is Henry David Thoreau. He wrote that the language of friendship is not words, but meanings, while friends cherish one another’s hopes; they are kind to one another’s dreams.

I have always loved this idea of being kind to the dreams of others, for again it implies respect and understanding and empathy too. In the old days, of course, life was lived at a far more leisurely pace, the thatched cottage and the half-door emblems of an age that placed great store by friendship and community.

I remember seeing the last of the half-doors when I was young, and the more I think of them now, the more it seems they were bridges to friendship: the place where friend and neighbour came face to face and stopped to chat for a while.

There was the art of speaking of course, but more significantly maybe, there was the art of listening too, for as everyone knows the ability to listen is very much part of friendship still. It was a time when people had time for one another; time to stop and chat and pass the time of day.

A neighbour tells of her mother cycling to town for groceries years ago. It was a distance of three miles or more each way and yet her mother rarely came home without having a chat with someone along the way. It was an age which was philosophical about time, something which was given tangible expression in the heavy measured beat of those old-fashioned wall clocks, that were such a feature of so many country kitchens then.
If friendship teaches us empathy and respect, it teaches tolerance too. Hence the proverb: ‘Love is blind: friendship closes its eyes.’ It teaches us to be non-judgemental, for it is only when we have walked in the shoes of others that we can fully understand the realities and very often the hidden realities of their lives.

According to the Book of Ecclesiasticus, a faithful friend is the medicine of life, something which in itself catches the healing, restorative power of friendship.

At the heart of friendship is equality, something so vividly expressed by French novelist Albert Camus: ‘Don’t walk behind me. I may not lead. Don’t walk before me. I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.’

Read Patrick O’Sullivan every week in Ireland’s Own