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The Gardaí, symbolism and secularism… or it may be more difficult than we thought folks! August 29, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Ireland, Religion, Secularism, Visual Culture.
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In light of the current debate on the wearing of a Turban I have to ask has anyone looked, and I mean really looked, at the symbolism of the Gardaí. Fintan O’Toole has raised some interesting aspects of the culture of the Gardai, noting that:

The Garda organises Masses to mark the anniversaries of the opening of police stations. The Dublin metropolitan traffic division, for example, holds a Mass in Dublin Castle which has been attended by the President at least once in recent years. The Garda Commissioner, Noel Conroy, attended the Mass in Knock Basilica to mark the beatification of Mother Teresa, of whom, on her death in 1997, the Taoiseach informed the Dáil, “no one doubts the evident saintliness”. Gardaí on duty, like the Taoiseach in the Dáil, wear ashes on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday.

But there is a vastly more basic element of the imagery of the Gardai which might give one pause for thought as regards secularism.

The Garda badge, designed in the early 1920s by John Maxwell, of the Dún Laoghaire technical school and a member of the Gaelic League is an explicitly Celtic Christian device in the general style of the Gaelic Revival. It was commissioned by the first Garda Commissioner Michael Stains who was also in the Gaelic League.

ie_garda.gif

Note the way in which the four decorative circles are positioned at each quadrant emulating the boss of a cross. There is some aspect of a ‘sunburst’ motif, often used on military badges (including the original Oglaigh na hÉireann badge from 1913) in the additional four curvilinear points on the emblem, but there is no way of avoiding the reality that this is to all intents and purposes an emblematic Christian Cross.

tl17-gaelic-league.gif

This is directly positioned within the aesthetics of the Gaelic Revival which saw emblems such as the GAA and Gaelic League use imagery which has linkages between cultural nationalism and Christian signification.

gaelic_athletic_association.gif

Is this imagery sufficiently beyond religious signifiers? I’d argue probably not. The visual elements are simply too obviously rooted in that discourse.

Seems to me that we might just have a bigger task than just thinking about the ashes on Ash Wednesday.


I should note that while not a huge fan of Celtic Revival material generally I actually think the Garda badge works pretty well visually. There’s a certain balance to the composition and decorative features that applies to most media or surfaces.

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Comments»

1. sonofstan - August 30, 2007

Never thought I’d be saying this in Ireland but i think this argument is largely over; the Garda Singh incident is a throwback. The power of the church really has evaporated in a way that wouldn’t have seemed possible 25 years ago; to an extent, Fintan and the like are indulging in a degree of nostalgia for a battle long won.

Ireland actually is a generally secular society these days; and for a country long derided as a theocracy, religion has little institutional force in the state. Compare, for example, Greece, where your identity card states your religion and where the constitution expressly enshrines the position of the orthodox church and where the building of a mosque near the new airport in Athens caused a national outcry; or even England, even with a head of state who’s also head of the church.

Encouragingly too, there is little evidence here – apart from Colonel Myers gin soaked ramblings – of any popular islamophobia, so evident elsewhere in Europe and in the US; perhaps the memory of what it was like for Irish people to travel to the UK in the 70s and 80s has inoculated us against the war on terror a bit.

As for education – I’m one of those parents who sent my child to an educate together school to protect her against what I suffered; only later, talking to other parents, did I grasp that most catholic schools are such in name only these days; and, since the ET schools (and Gaelscoileanna) tend to be oversubscribed by anxious middle class parents, the common or garden ‘catholic’ national school tends to be a lot more multi- ethnic and multi- confessional than the supposedly multidenominational ones.

It is of course, appalling that it took thousands of ruined lives to win this victory, but won it is, and, compared to the US, and even the UK where the last two PMs have been holy joes, the fact that we can comfortably have a taoiseach, not noted for his devotion and living with a woman not his wife when he assumed the office (try and imagine this of a US president or a British PM), should tell us that we may be moving towards being a really secular place – one final push on abortion notwithstanding…..

2. Pavement Trauma - August 30, 2007

I think there is a distinction to be made between societal and state secularism – the examples you give confirm progress towards societal secularism but we have a long way to go to achieve a level of state secularism anyway comparable with France or the US.

I would have thought that the largely symbolic role of the British head of state being head of the Church has far less influence on people’s day to day life than the Church control of the majority of the schools and hospitals here.

3. WorldbyStorm - August 30, 2007

I tend to broadly agree with you sonofstan. The tide has gone out, and it’s swept so far out I really can’t see it coming back in. Much of the paraphernalia is rhetorical and quite empty of any serious meaning. In a way I understand why many traditional Catholics are up in arms about that. But there are still instances which need some sort of change. Education is clearly one – although your experience tallies with that of people I know who have had to engage directly with the educational sector.

Incidentally I’m being a bit tongue in cheek with the above, but it’s just to demonstrate that where religion ends and culture begins in terms of iconography, let alone society can be more difficult to determine, and the project to wrest all religious or religious inspired imagery or ritual may be difficult or impossible. And in that respect we have to regard them as legacies of cultural and historical traditions. Wednesday (at http://ceadaoin.blogspot.com/2007/08/let-him-wear-his-turban.html) has been suggesting that to achieve some parity it might be necessary to give other religious emblems a visibility. In a way looking at the Garda badge I have more sympathy for that proposal than I did previously…

PT, that’s also being discussed at Wednesday’s. I’m dubious about the length of reach of the Church in relation to schools. Without societal support from parents it’s a bit like bolting the stable door shut after the horse has bolted. That’s not to say I’m agin secular schooling, I’m certainly not, I’d see it as a necessity and I regard religious education as to be something that parents and religious should organise on their own time if they so wish. Having said that I am in favour of comparative religion as an element of social and cultural studies.

4. sonofstan - August 30, 2007

I know what you mean PT, but frankly, I’m just back from a few weeks in the US, including a few long drives through the ‘heartland’ and i think I’d rather by far our societal secularism as it is now to their state secularism, coupled as it is with almost compulsory religiosity for anyone in public life. Srance is a different matter obv.

WBS – think I agree with your last line. Having ensured that the church should have no part whatever in my daughter’s education, i now find that, as she prepares for her leaving this year, i have to explain the most basic tenets of Xtianity to her, just do she can understand historical or literary allusions !

5. sonofstan - August 30, 2007

‘Srance’ may well be a different matter; i meant ‘France’

6. WorldbyStorm - August 30, 2007

I’m probably an oddity in these circles in that I’m a sort of agnostic theist or some such. I have little reflexive antagonism to religion (probably because I was brought up largely in two, RC and CofI) but at the same time I loath the idea that it should inhabit the secular space. I guess it’s as you say, necessary in order to understand the cultural aspects of our society, but after that something that should really be seen as a parental/religious issue, not a state one and I think all schooling should be state.

7. dublinstreams - August 30, 2007

if it is a throwback and you’re right in saying that catholic schools are fairly open why are they still catholic schools at all?, why are there still 90% of primary schools catholic owned, why still does the government not fund secular education fully… why is this still the case now, people say well its changing now and they’ll be gone soon enough but the ET schools are today opening in prefabs when is they going to proper final push.

90% of primary schools catholic owned, that’s no throw back,that’s now. thats not secular at all.

8. sonofstan - August 31, 2007

I’m totally for a completely secular education system (and a completely public one too – I think the increasing privatisation of secondary education, expecially in Dublin, is much more damaging to the promotion of equality than the denominational question to be honest). All I was suggesting is that those of us who left school in the 70s/80s probably have a slightly anachronistic view of what a catholic education consists of these days.

9. WorldbyStorm - August 31, 2007

It comes down to legacy really dublintreams. We’re in a society where the state ceded vast areas of social expertise to the Church (actually this predates Partition) for convenience, for expediency and such like. But although the form appears religious it is quite a lot ‘in name only’. INcidentally I’m not sure it’s entirely accurate to term them Catholic owned, more that they have a Catholic ‘ethos’… the funding structures are labyrinthine, they are de facto state schools with a patina of Catholicism. I think that’s wrong, very very wrong, but I don’t hear Labour or others actually addressing it in any serious way, and I actually agree with sonofstan, privatisation of eduction is a much bigger concern of mine at this point in time. Religion is and for a long time has broadly been irrelevant in this society except in specific relation to certain social issues. Class… well now, there’s the great unspoken. And funnily enough I don’t hear Labour or any formations on the Left seriously addressing that.

10. sonofstan - August 31, 2007

[i]privatisation of eduction is a much bigger concern of mine at this point in time……… Class… well now, there’s the great unspoken. And funnily enough I don’t hear Labour or any formations on the Left seriously addressing that.[/i]

Exactly – interesting that while taking ones kids out of the public sector is still a big no-no for Labour politicians in the UK, here the question seems to be a non-issue; it is assumed that once you reach a certain income level you’ll opt for a fee paying school (schools which are still largely funded by the state incidentally) Anything else would be seen as not doing what’s best for your kids.

11. Eagle - August 31, 2007

INcidentally I’m not sure it’s entirely accurate to term them Catholic owned, more that they have a Catholic ‘ethos’… the funding structures are labyrinthine, they are de facto state schools with a patina of Catholicism.

I thought, could be wrong, that most of the primary schools are actually owned by the Church. That would mean that for a fully secular education system to take root, the state would have to make one massive investment in land/buildings/etc. The Church would be free to sell the schools for development or whatever.

12. Eagle - August 31, 2007

France may be secular, but Holy Days of Obligation are still state holidays, as I found to my cost on the 15th of August.

13. Eagle - August 31, 2007

And, just for the record, I have no interest whatsoever in seeing a state monopoly in education provision.

14. Eagle - August 31, 2007

All I was suggesting is that those of us who left school in the 70s/80s probably have a slightly anachronistic view of what a catholic education consists of these days.

As a Catholic and father of school-going children all I can say is that’s completely accurate. My experience is that religion is at best an afterthought, particularly in so-called Catholic secondary schools. The sacraments are still a big part of second and sixth class in primary school.

I think the increasing privatisation of secondary education, expecially in Dublin, is much more damaging to the promotion of equality than the denominational question to be honest

It’s my experience that paying for secondary education provides virtually no benefit whatsoever. I can’t adequately explain why my teenagers attend fee-paying schools, but they do. Yet, the quality of the teaching is definitely no better than you’d get in a community school, there is a stomach-churning level of snobbery and elitist do-goodery and you end up paying for all sorts of other extras that the pushier parents deem “worthy”. Religion is at best an annoying – to the staff and most of the parents – add on.

I would rather the Church made a concerted effort to provide a good Catholic second-level education where people who haven’t got a lot of money can afford to send their children. There are plenty of people from less well-off backgrounds who’d like their children to get a Catholic education. And, despite what the media keeps bleating on about, a large number of our immigrants are Catholic and would like their children to get a Catholic education.

However, because the Catholic schools seem to target the wealthier elite, many of whom have no interest in Catholicism, those working class Dubliners and Poles and Nigerians and Filipinos who’d like their children get a Church-based education cannot afford one.

15. sonofstan - August 31, 2007

Actually, more than most countries, i think what we have is a state monopoly – nearly every teacher is paid by the state, and the ‘private’ sector exists, not to provide a better or more rounded education but, largely to facilitate the pursuit of better results in the same state exam everyone else takes.

Talking about this in America with people, i found myself defending the basic egalitarianism of the state exam system as the only criterion of university entry – obviously its not culturally neutral, but neither are SATS, and at least it demands a degree of effort from even the most privileged; it levels the playing field a little the way the US system – where your letter of application and statement of purpose act as class markers – doesn’t

16. Eagle - August 31, 2007

Talking about this in America with people, i found myself defending the basic egalitarianism of the state exam system as the only criterion of university entry – obviously its not culturally neutral, but neither are SATS, and at least it demands a degree of effort from even the most privileged; it levels the playing field a little the way the US system – where your letter of application and statement of purpose act as class markers – doesn’t

I’m not really sure what you’re getting at here. There is no US education system, although thanks to the Bush Administration’s profligacy and big government beliefs we’re getting closer to one. Each state is responsible for setting standards, etc. Each state licenses teachers, schools and universities.

I don’t know how it works in all the states, but within the states I’m familiar with, there’s an amount of local leeway with regards to what is taught and how. Local taxes fund various programs, etc.

I come from New York where we have state-wide Regents exams, which limit local freedom with regards to curriculum and standards.

I wonder how much more “egalitarian” the system here compared with what know of the New York state system. However, I really am not that worked up about achieving some utopian egalitarian education system. To my mind too many kids from working class areas have to endure an education system designed without them in mind. Talk to working class parents about Transition Year and you’ll hear loads of people complain about how that Year killed their children’s interest in school.

Rather than a one size fits all education system, I’d prefer loads of different models. Some schools should have rigid discipline and others should be operated in a way that fosters great creativity. Students (& parents) could then find the school that suits them, their situation, their abilities.

Plus, I have no time at all for the civil service mentality that dominates the staffing, particularly at the top of school management.

17. sonofstan - August 31, 2007

Point I was making was simply this; that access to university here depends on a fairly transparent, if not particularly educationally adventurous set of exams, rather than a culturally loaded application process.

I agree, I think, with the point you make in your third last para – I still think though that whereas middle-class parents will always have the means and the motivation to ‘ find the school that suits them, their situation, their abilities’ working class kids will be stuck with the left overs, unless a genuine attempt is made to make all schools the best available. The comprehensive ideal is much derided in Britain these days, but i was friends with someone who taught in a big Comp. in a pretty disadvantaged part of London at the same time as my kid was going through secondary school here – not fee paying, but well resourced and with a great rep – and was constantly struck by the much greater range of subjects, the support structures for failing pupils (and teachers) and the accountabilty available to my friend, her students and their parents in London compared to any school I knew of here, free or fee paying.

The problem with your ‘loads of different models’ is that, as ever, the poor will be left with the one – and probably worst – model.

18. Pavement Trauma - September 3, 2007

Today’s Morning Ireland report on the emergency opening of an Educate Together school in Balbriggan provides an interesting post script. There are up to 90 children who could not be accommodated in the schools already in the area. According to the report a) *all* of them were of African origin and b) many parents had belatedly had their children baptised in an attempt to improve their chances of getting into the existing schools – which request parents to bring baptismal certs.

While this shortage of places has nothing to do with religion in schools, the allocation of places certainly has.

19. sonofstan - September 3, 2007

You can hear the morning Ireland piece on the RTE Radio 1 site – it’s an appalling vista; effectively segregated education; Catholic schools taking the white Irish kids first -first pref. under the siblings rule- then i guess, Poles and other catholic immigrants, and the department or educate together setting up overflow schools for the rest……..

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