Yesterday morning I went to a flag-raising ceremony as part of the primary school’s ‘Proclamation Day’. The children -many of whom arrived decked out in green wigs, shamrock head boppers and so on- gathered down outside the church. There were percussion instruments laid out for them, and they proceeded in a colourful noisy line the short distance to the school, banging tambourines, shaking maracas, laughing and joking among themselves.
When they got to the school yard they played around for a bit and then gathered around the flagpole where the Irish tricolour -delivered by the army some days previous- was raised aloft, to applause for the children who had raised it, and then to a rendition of the national anthem, accompanied by one teacher on keyboard and another on guitar. I suppose it was as informal a national flag-raising ceremony in a school might get.
I don’t care much for flags -the red one an exception- and I don’t like Amhrán na bhFiann much: for me it has always been something played at discos and public events to remind that the fun is under strict ration and at the discretion of others. It doesn’t make me want to retch the way God Save The Queen does: imagine singing to God so that someone else will rule over you.
Later in the day the children read their ‘Proclamation for a new generation’. I didn’t get a copy but I expect it is decent enough – certainly better than a great many adult attempts to synthesise what a good society ought to be like. From other examples I have seen online, it looks like children have more or less the right idea and the right priorities.
It’s strange, though, to witness a commemoration of an act of rebellion in a context -the school- where rebellion can be an undesirable disturbance, a disruption of the exercise of proper authority and order. Schools have uniforms for a reason, and it isn’t a coincidence that their practices of rules and regimentation resemble the barracks and the prison, and this uniformity can end up appearing ‘natural’. Recall the ‘Mary said yes to God’ religion textbooks released last year: school is mostly about saying yes to rules, yes to what important people say, yes to higher powers, whether these go by the name of God or the State or (a contemporary favourite) the Rule of Law, and yes to parliamentary democracy where you get to vote once every for years and get back in your box the next day.
No-one is ever taught in school that they should be a law-breaking citizen, and you can see from Proclamation Day photos how the presence of police and armed forces looms large, with military flyovers, even. But school isn’t just about teaching. It’s also a place where children learn. Sometimes they do it with a teacher’s assistance, sometimes they do it in spite of the teachers and their parents. There would not have been much human progress if people did nothing but obey. In fact it is disobedience, not obedience, that is at the heart of human progress. Sometimes this carries great cost: the mythical creator of humanity, Prometheus, disobeyed the Gods to gift humanity with fire, and was chained to a rock for eternity for doing so.
Children are notorious for taking things seriously, and the persistent danger of the Rising here in Ireland is that people might end up taking its ideals seriously. The fear is that they might transform what the Rising has been -for State ideology, a useful founding myth for encouraging exploitation and domination in the name of high ideals- into something vital and relevant to people’s lives. In so doing, they might expose a radical betrayal on the part of its would-be custodians.
Of course, not every charge of betrayal remains faithful to what is being defended, and things can slide quite easily into a necrophilia upon which the ruling order merely nourishes itself.
We are never all that sure how or if these ideals, and what sustains them and gave rise to them, have been kept alive. Surveying what has happened in recent decades, there might be plenty of grounds for declaring them dead. There are plenty of people inclined to do so, and for different motives.
But if they were really dead, I doubt we would have pictures of venerated political nobility, who had nothing to do with the 1916 Rising itself, hanging from a huge banner outside the site of Grattan’s parliament. Things like this suggest that the powers that be still worry a great deal about what children might think.