Monday 22 October 2018

Of anthems, half-a-harp and Che Guevara

After the Government landed us with Guevara stamps, Damian Corless wonders why outsiders seem to intrude so much on our defining emblems and symbols

Jim Fitzpatrick, the artist behind the iconic Che Guevara image, with the new An Post stamps bearing his design. Photo: Maxwells
Jim Fitzpatrick, the artist behind the iconic Che Guevara image, with the new An Post stamps bearing his design. Photo: Maxwells

Fifty years ago this week, Ernesto 'Che' Guevara was going about his usual business of trying to export Cuba's communist revolution, when he was captured in Bolivia and summarily executed. Although it was flagged well in advance, An Post's decision to honour Guevara on the new €1 stamp has stirred up a hornet's nest at home and abroad.

Following the overthrow of Fulgencio Batista's US-backed puppet regime in 1959, Cubans with a stake in the dictatorship swarmed to Miami, from where there have been loud calls this week for the Government to "abolish" the stamp designed by Dubliner Jim Fitzpatrick. The first day issues feature a quote from Che's father, he from a long line of Galway Lynches, which reads: "In my son's veins flowed the blood of Irish rebels."

There was flak too from up close. FG Senator Neale Richmond wrote to Communications Minister Denis Naughten denouncing this "terrible" aberration which, as with all stamps, had to be signed off by Cabinet. He demanded: "What procedures were followed to decide to commission this stamp?"

Good question. Who gets to choose what's on our postage stamps? But why stop there? Who decides the other symbols that purport to represent us to the world? Who picks our coins and banknotes? Who selected the harp and the tricolour as our national emblems?

The plain people rarely have any say in these matters. Henry VIII imposed the harp on us when he promoted himself from Ireland's Lord to its King. On coins, the harp was a mark of Irish inferiority, a warning to English merchants that the melted-down silver content was half that of the English currency.

National symbol

Today, just half a harp serves as our national symbol. The Free State registered only the left-facing side. In 1983, the Attorney General advised registering both sides to proof against image theft, but the government pulled back, fearing a challenge from Guinness who'd been using the right profile long before the State existed.

The tricolour, meanwhile, was presented to the Young Ireland rebels by a group of French women during Europe's revolutions of 1848. Mothballed for seven decades, it was dusted off by the 1916 rebels, and stands as that rarest of Irish State symbols, one ratified by the people in the referendum to pass the 1937 Constitution.

This week, FF's Senator Mark Daly renewed his calls for citizens to make their views known on how the national anthem should be properly treated and respected. The new Rapporteur to the Seanad Public Consultation Committee is seeking to "protect the anthem" from commercial exploitation by the likes of the ad industry.

But some believe Senator Daly might do better to go back to basics and canvass the public on whether they'd prefer to dump the anthem for something better. Leaving aside the unbecoming line about "the Saxon foe", there's a school of thought that the dreary militaristic dirge of 'The Soldier's Song' is no longer fit for purpose, if it ever was. It too was foisted upon us from above with no by-your-leave. The Free State got by without an official anthem for a while. However, in 1924 an official urged Cabinet to pick a tune because "pro-British elements" were singing 'God Save the King' at sporting events. The official proposed a competition to pen new lyrics for Thomas Moore's melody, 'Let Erin Remember the Days of Old'.

But the government ruled out any public consultation. Keen to give the people a say, the Dublin Evening Mail put up 50 guineas for the best new lyrics to Moore's melody. Nobel laureate WB Yeats chaired the judging panel, which deemed that not a single entry was "worthy of 50 guineas or any portion of it".

'The Soldier's Song' was formally imposed on the Irish people in 1926, and was immediately condemned as an affront to good taste. Its critics rallied again in 1933 after co-writer Peadar Kearney sued the State for ripping him off. As the Dáil bought out the copyright, Frank MacDermot TD branded the new anthem "a jaunty little piece of vulgarity" that was "unworthy" of representing the Irish people. "It does not serve any useful purpose to have a cheap music hall jingle instead of some splendid and moving Gaelic melody," he complained.

Richard Anthony TD concurred, fuming: "Anyone with the most elementary knowledge of music could not for a moment suggest that 'The Soldier's Song' is either inspiring or even musical.

"The whole thing is an abomination to anyone who knows anything about music."

Beastly coins

An airy descendant of the Earls of Ormond, WB Yeats was the go-to man whenever the Free State wanted to a steer on how to project the national character. He chaired the committee to chose our first coinage, which featured farm animals, with the "most noble" beast, the horse, on the half-crown, and the "most humble" woodcock gracing the farthing, while one denomination up, the ha'penny, featured a sow and piglets. Almost a century on, the public has no say on the designs on our notes and coins. A Central Bank spokesperson says: "We do take advice from various sources, but there's a lot of stakeholders involved. A lot is bound up with the ECB (European Central Bank), who promote certain themes."

This week, An Post launched another new stamp, commemorating the Marian apparitions at Fátima, Portugal 100 years ago. So far it's proved less controversial than the Che stamps, with An Post calling the social media response "positive". An Post insists it encourages public submissions for new stamps, but once these enter the system, we get into Three Secrets of Fátima territory.

Suggestions from citizens are vetted by the Philatelic Advisory Committee. A spokesperson for An Post said members include figures from "the arts, design, interested citizens" and others. A promised list of current members failed to arrive before the print deadline.

After this behind-screens weeding process, surviving submissions are ratified by the board of An Post and passed to Cabinet, at which point the Cabinet confidentiality kicks in, drawing a thick veil on the public's right to know.

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