Sunday 16 June 2019

Children shouldn't have to suffer 1916, leave that to the grown-ups

Pupils being dressed up in army uniforms toting rifles is an abhorrent way to mark the Rising

Living history: Andrea Farrell as rebel sniper Margaret Skinnider and Dave Swift as another sniper, from An Post GPO Witness History in Dublin. Right, a 2016 proclamation Photo: Maxwells Dublin
Living history: Andrea Farrell as rebel sniper Margaret Skinnider and Dave Swift as another sniper, from An Post GPO Witness History in Dublin. Right, a 2016 proclamation Photo: Maxwells Dublin

Will Hanafin

LP Hartley said the past is a foreign country and they do things differently there. That's why it's so repellent that in 2016 our children are being used as pawns to mark our century-old bloody Easter Rising.

My heart has sunk so many times in recent months when I've seen a gun-toting child dressed in a military uniform trying to mimic some aspect of the Rising. I've looked aghast at TV news reports of children pretending to shoot other children to replicate the executions of the 1916 signatories.

I've glimpsed photos of tiny little fellas storming the GPO with guns and in slouch hats. I've browsed school website photo galleries to see artwork commemorating the Rising which would make any child psychologist wince. There are drawings done by innocent hands depicting a bleeding and tethered Connolly being executed by firing squad.

Many more feature a smouldering GPO with men and women falling and dying as they're sprayed with bullets. There are videos on YouTube of seven- and eight-year-olds reverentially hoisting huge cardboard portraits of Pearse and Clarke around their school yards.

I've listened to vox pops featuring children extolling the bravery of the seven leaders. One little girl on a news bulletin, who was related to a 1916 rebel, was jokingly accused of going over to the other side by a reporter because she portrayed a British soldier. The State's militaristic onslaught on our children has been unrelenting since last year. First up, was the armed forces visiting every primary school to deliver a national flag and read the Proclamation as part of a cod nationalistic ceremony.

I don't have an issue with Oglaigh na hEireann being reverential towards the flag in their barracks. But there's zero constitutional mandate that our Tricolour be flown in our schools and that our little ones be forced to engage in a charade towards a flag that has been fought over by every nationalist and republican faction for a century.

Why didn't some bright spark in the Department of an Taoiseach commit to providing broadband in every primary school by Easter 2016? Or shore up funding provision for special needs assistants? Instead, we chose to theatrically deliver a divisive piece of cloth to every school with the stomp of army boots.

We are imprinting in these malleable little minds that the national flag can no longer be associated with fun national celebrations like Sonia O'Sullivan winning gold, or the boys in green doing us proud in Italia 90.

On the Defence Forces' website, the section on flag day for primary schools uses the famous photo taken inside the GPO in 1916 by Joseph Cripps, featuring the 14-year-old child soldier Tony Swann.

Of course, the Proclamation has laudable elements but the chilling references to blood sacrifice and support for the warmongering German empire is not the kind of reading material I want little ears exposed to.

Earlier this year, when I used Twitter to question the wisdom of using our primary school kids to celebrate the Tricolour and the Proclamation I was criticised by some teachers.

I pointed out that 210,000 Irish people served in the British army and navy during the First World War.

A century ago, our two police forces, the Royal Irish Constabulary and the Dublin Metropolitan Police, were three-quarters Irish Catholic and one-quarter Irish Protestant. Whatever the original intention of the commemoration was, eulogising the rebels and the national flag is the outcome in most schools. There was talk initially from the commemoration committee that the 1916 ceremonies would encompass the different traditions, but to me that message is getting lost.

There are 250,000 child soldiers around the world forced to fight in wars everywhere from Rwanda to Colombia. As charities campaigning to end this abhorrence point out, easily influenced children don't have a full grasp of the finality of death and the act of killing a human being.

Marking Red Hand Day, the International Day against the Use of Child Soldiers on February 12 each year, would be a more appropriate event for our schools. One of the benefits of our hard-won peace is that our children aren't forced to take up arms.

I grew up during the 1980s and my parents' generation was very clear that militarism was a bad thing. Ignoring State cultural nationalism was a necessity, given the Troubles, and because post-Civil War reconciliation took so long.

If you assemble the ghosts of any Irish family around a table you will have seating plan nightmares. Take my own family. In 1888 my granduncle, Jerry Hanafin, was evicted with his family from their smallholding in Killeagh, Co Cork, by the Ponsonby estate.

They had taken part in the Plan of Campaign to withhold rent because of rack-renting. A long-running (non-violent) dispute eventually resulted in my family owning the holding.

Despite my granduncle's early privations, including near starvation and eviction, Jerry became an RIC constable. He survived the War of Independence and was later a publican in Dingle, Co Kerry.

Telling children that there are just good guys and bad guys in the rich tapestry of Irish history is so wrong. The genealogy of any family that has managed to survive on this island has always been complicated and messy.

It is only basic decent human traits like pacifism, tolerance and forgiveness that have really kept us going.

But sometimes it's hard to hear those voices above the din of replica guns and the stampede for the slouch hat uniforms these days.

Sunday Independent

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