Monday 24 June 2019

Eoghan Harris: Time to call a halt to TG4's executions obsession

Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

LAST week, I kept thinking about the Latin phrase 'in loco parentis' ('in place of the parents'). Any parent knows how adolescents crave the moral authority of adults. But our young people are entitled to the same authority from those who act in loco parentis: the State, the mass media, civil leaders at every level of society.

The 1916 Proclamation implies that the State is in loco parentis. It speaks movingly about "cherishing all the children of the nation equally". But the leaders of the 1916 Rising were also in loco parentis. Their decision to lead their children down a physical- force path should be debated rather than celebrated coming up to 2016.

Leaving that aside, for now, we can presume the "flag" covers all the principles of the Proclamation. This means those who pay lip service to the 1916 Proclamation, especially the IRA and Sinn Fein, are duty bound to act in accordance with all the principles of the Proclamation – including the ones about not dishonouring the Republic by committing murder and rapine, as well as the explicit enjoinder to "cherish the children of the national equally".

The reference to "cherishing the children of the nation" is creatively comprehensive. It certainly refers to the Unionist minority on the island of Ireland. Thus the Proclamation states that anyone who calls themselves a republican is required to cherish our Northern Protestant neighbours.

But anyone who has read Pearse's writings would agree the "cherishing" also applies to the physical and moral welfare of the children of the nation. Whatever about their physical welfare, there is no sign that the State, the national broadcasters or civic leaders have enough interest acting in loco parentis on the moral side, particularly when it comes to protecting young Irish people from the propaganda of the Recurring IRA which is peddled on the internet.

The Taoiseach and the Tanaiste are great at going North, laying wreaths, and talking the talk. But when it comes to confronting the noxious side of Irish nationalism they refuse to walk the walk. Attacking Gerry Adams from time to time is no substitute for facing the fact that the Irish Government shares a nationalist ideology with the IRA in relation to 1916-21 which is of huge help to the recruiters of the Real IRA.

The late Doris Lessing noted how the propaganda of the deed darkened the minds of decent young people. Her novel, The Good Terrorist, was prompted both by the bombing of Harrods in 1983 and her visits to Ireland. "I happened to be in Ireland when they bumped off Mountbatten . . . and all the little boys, aged about 10 to 15, were rushing about, delighted, because of course they admire the IRA. I thought how easy it would be for a kid, not really knowing what he or she was doing, to drift into a terrorist group."

Right now most Irish adolescents receive their historical education from the internet. By and large, it is dominated by a toxic nationalist lobby, preaching the grisly gospels of Anglophobia and anti-Unionism. So what is Official Ireland doing to dispel the funereal fog of the past which fascinates so many of our young people ?

Not much, judging by some recent responses of our national broadcasters. Last week TG4 was running two series of documentaries that dwelt in dreary detail on the executions in 1916 and 1922. Although it did not depict the Free State side with any dramatic sympathy, Execution was the better of the two thanks to restrained commentary of Pat Butler and the contributions of Theo Dorgan.

The second series Seachtar Dearmadta (Seven Forgotten – but not by TG4) dealt with the seven lesser-known leaders of 1916 who were later executed.

The programme on Con Colbert could have served as a pilot for what was wrong with the series. The principal problem was a lack of historical sensibility, a failure to face how complex Ireland was before 1916.

For example, we were first told how the Baden-Powell boy scouts were training schools for British Imperialism. Then we were shown a group of Fianna boys charging a group of BP scouts and seizing their Union Jack. The West Brit boys were depicted as cutting and running in a cowardly manner.

In reality, before 1916, many Irish people were content with the symbols of the British empire, such as the Union flag and the monarchy, as films of Royal visits attest. Most of the Baden-Powell scouts were ordinary Dublin middle- and working-class Protestants. Whether they would have meekly run away is a moot point – like all the other moot points of the programme.

The programme makers seemed blind to the fact that there was something tribal about training young Fianna boys, who were all likely to be Roman Catholics, to attack other Irish boy scouts who were likely to be Protestants. Furthermore, we got no hint of the dark European dimension to all this.

The BP scouts, however, did not end as fascists. But the Fianna were being brainwashed by the same sort of blood and soil nationalists who were brainwashing German youth before World War One. And that brainwashing would eventually end in the fascist Hitler Youth movement.

Some more questions. Why was not more use made of Dr Elaine Sissons of IADT who has written an important critical study, Pearse's Patriots: St Enda's and the Cult of Boyhood? And why did an historian with a name like Padraig Og O Ruairc, subtitled as "Starai and Udar", speak exclusively in English?

These two programmes leave the impression that TG4 thinks we should be satisfied with the traditional nationalist view of Irish history. But this means putting the complex demands of pluralism aside and treating modern Ireland like a large Scoil Eanna, where it is now perfectly safe to subject adolescent viewers to a stodgy diet of nationalist necrophilia.

2016 is still two years away. Are we to have two more years of young actors with wispy moustaches and peaked caps running around with Lee Enfields to a wailing sound-track until they are finally stood against the wall and serially shot? Is this the best way to safeguard our young people against the seductions of naff nationalism?

But it's not just "our" young people. Surely the acid test of a good programme on Irish history is to ask whether it could be watched by young Northern Unionists without making them feel the symbols their forefathers (and indeed our forefathers) cared about – the Union flag, the monarchy, the link with Britain – were given no proper value.

Tommie Gorman, RTE's Northern Editor, sets the gold standard for treating the other tradition on this island. But his passion for pluralism finds its purest outlet as executive producer of the All Island Schools Choir competition – and note it is "all island" and not "all Ireland".

Some of the schools who take part are set in salubrious leafy suburbs. Last Sunday, however, for the second time, it was the the girls of Presentation School, Ballyphehane, Cork, who took first prize at the final in the Belfast Titanic with a stunning setting of a Sean O Riordain poem Fuinneamh. I doubt there was a dry eye in any of their houses. Nor in mine.

Eoghan Harris

Sunday Independent

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