Tuesday 19 November 2019

Mary Kenny: Honouring our great and good is just what the doctor ordered

Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

I AM delighted that Pat Kenny was garlanded with an honorary university doctorate this past week: he is an accomplished broadcaster who has brought a special intelligence to his field -- not many journalists have a science degree as well as an understanding of language, politics and the arts.

In Britain it is usual for distinguished media personalities to receive honours -- think of Sir David Frost, or Sir Terry Wogan or Baroness Dame Joan Bakewell, who received both a damehood and a peerage for her work in the media. (Like many a leftie who denounces the House of Lords as an anachronism of irrelevant, archaic privilege, Joanie accepted the honour of being called Her Ladyship. Who wouldn't, for heaven's sake?)

Even more worthy than Dr Pat Kenny of the honorary doctorate was the philanthropist Chuck Feeney, who has just received an honorary doctorate of law, in a splendid ceremony in Dublin Castle, from all the universities of Ireland.

This wonderful benefactor who has given €800m to third-level education is surely an embodiment of public virtue, deserving of a statue to his accomplishments, let alone an honorary doctorate.

Not only has Dr Chuck given away this vast amount of money for the benefit of others, he has given an even more priceless gift -- good example; setting a trend.

If more men and women who had made fortunes in their life's work had endowed more seats of learning with cash, Irish universities would not have dropped out of the world league of excellence.

One of the reasons why Harvard and Yale remain ace universities and the best in the world is that rich alumni constantly put money their way, and every former student is encouraged to benefit the alma mater in their will.

Americans are taught to "earn as much as you can, and give away as much as you can".

I am sure that Dr Chuck Feeney is as pleased as any other recipient would be about the honorary doctorate, which is a symbolic recognition of what he has done.

And while I would not in any way wish to diminish the degree awarded, it must be said that the reason why honorary doctorates are a growing feature of the autumn schedule in Ireland is because the State itself has no honours system.

Unlike the Republic of France, or the Republic of Italy, or the Republic of Mexico, or the Czech Republic, or the Republic of the United States itself, the Republic of Ireland took a decision early in its development that honours and state decorations were not appropriate to a republic which should treat all its citizens equally.

The men who had so much influence in the building up of the Irish State, from 1923 onwards, were often characters of austere temperament -- such as Kevin O'Higgins, who refused a bottle of champagne on the grounds that it was "not befitting" for a politician from a small, struggling country to quaff champagne.

Honours were disdained by the State because they were historically associated with the neighbouring Crown. And it was held that honours lead to corruption and cronyism, since those who receive honours may often have "friends at court".

And yet can we honestly look at our recent history and say that because we have no honours system, we have never experienced any political corruption? I think not.

It is hardly the moment during these times of recession and belt-tightening to suggest or introduce an Irish honours system. Maybe this was why Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore was so at pains to underline the point that the new Presidential Distinguished Service Award for Irish people overseas is "not an honours system".

Politically, it would indeed be awkward to introduce a full, codified honours system to all Irish citizens. But we should be aware that the proliferation of doctorates being awarded to the great and the good -- by all means, deserved -- are nonetheless replacements for the lack of state honours.

Some of those overseas republics which have honours systems have given national honours to one of our own prominent citizens: the Presidential Medal of Freedom from the US; the Grand Cross, Order of Merit of Chile; the Order of the Southern Cross from Brazil; the Military Order of Christ from Portugal; Grand Officier, Legion d'Honneur of France; the Condecoracion-Acquila Azteca of Mexico; the Order of Tomas Garrigue Masaryk from the Czech Republic. All these honours have been bestowed on former President Mary Robinson, along with 49 honorary doctorates across the globe.

But however many more foreign decorations may be awarded to Mrs Robinson, none is available from her own native land, as the Republic of Ireland simply doesn't do honours.

Irish Independent

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