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Opinion: 'Our indifference to our flag and anthem is actually healthy'

Placing legislative restrictions on how our anthem is used would be an unnecessary limitation on our freedom of expression, writes Caoimhín De Barra.

Caoimhín De Barra Assistant professor, Irish history

RECENTLY, THE SEANAD Public Consultation Committee announced that they are looking for the public’s views on whether the Irish State should take steps to protect Amhrán na bhFiann.

The copyright to the song expired in 2012, and some members of the Seanad feel that the anthem could be misused unless protective legislation is introduced.

As each country has a national anthem and national flag, we rarely pause to stop and think why it is normal for every State to adopt them, and more interestingly, why many are so insistent that they are shown proper respect and dignity.

Nationalism is modelled on religion

It is amazing that things like a flag or a national anthem could provoke such emotional responses within people, but perhaps not surprising. When revolutionaries in France in the eighteenth century wanted to win widespread support for their ideas, they looked to Christianity for lessons on how to indoctrinate the masses.

They replaced crosses with flags, prayers with anthems, and church holidays with national holidays. Nationalism doesn’t just resemble religion in its use of symbols, it is directly modelled on it.

The outrage in recent weeks over the decision of some NFL players to kneel during the American national anthem is proof of this, with denunciations of the players’ actions approaching something of a religious fervour. The same could be said about the year-long series of street protests by loyalists in 2013, angry at the decision of Belfast City Council to limit the number of days the Union flag flies above Belfast City Hall.

Fanaticism is rare

In the twenty-six counties, however, such fanaticism about our national anthem or flag is rare indeed. The origins for such relative disinterest can be traced back to the Troubles, when overt displays of nationalist sentiment were suspected of condoning, if not encouraging, the carnage that unfolded in Northern Ireland.

Indeed, considerable angst emerged about the role Irish history played in causing the Troubles, with many believing that the memory those who fought for Irish freedom from 1916 to 1921 had sparked the Ulster conflict. Along similar lines, Will Hutton recently argued in the Irish Times that the Spanish constitutional crisis has been created by Catalan nationalists who refuse to forget historical grievances against Spain.

Frankly, such analyses are backwards. The crises in Northern Ireland in 1969 and Spain in 2017 didn’t erupt because nationalists suddenly remembered their history lessons. Rather, both groups sought to legitimise their actions against contemporary problems by linking them to the past. The Provisional IRA certainly claimed to be the spiritual heirs of Patrick Pearse and Michael Collins, but doesn’t mean that it was their legacy that led the Provos to violence in the first place.

At any rate, one of the consequences of the Troubles is that there are still mixed attitudes about how we should behave in relation to our flag and anthem. For a start, it is only recommended, not required, that primary school children be taught the national anthem. Like many Irish citizens, I never learned the national anthem in school. It was only when I left school and decided to learn it for myself that I wondered why I hadn’t been taught it.

We don’t behave properly

We also don’t behave properly when the national anthem is played. At least according to protocols released by the Department of the Taoiseach in the lead-up to the 1916 commemorations. Apparently, “when the National Anthem, Amhrán na bhFiann, is played in the presence of the National Flag, all present should face the National Flag, stand to attention and salute it, remaining at the salute until the last note of the music.”

I don’t think I have ever seen anyone salute the flag during Amhrán na bhFiann. Certainly, nobody is standing to attention until the last note of music, given that we have effectively replaced the last line of the song with collective freestyle screaming and roaring.

We don’t do much better when it comes to respecting the flag. Those Department of the Taoiseach protocols say that: “The National Flag should never be defaced by placing slogans, logos, lettering or pictures of any kind on it, for example at sporting events. The National Flag should not be draped on cars, trains, boats or other modes of transport.”

All of that went out the window at Euro 2016. As Ger Keville pointed out in the Independent, the Irish tri-colour was decorated with, among other things, Clinton Morrison’s bare arse, pictures of convicted drug smugglers, sexual innuendo, an endless supply of Father Ted quotes, and a series of penis jokes.

For comparison, I googled “USA fans World Cup” and looked at pictures from past tournaments. Of the hundreds of images I saw, not one contained an American flag with any writing on it. This was not surprising. No American supporter would dare do something like that to their flag, aware of the backlash they would receive.

Our indifference to our flag and anthem is healthy

However, on balance, I think our relative indifference to our flag and anthem is actually healthy. Demanding an unquestioned reverence for a piece of cloth and a song isn’t just irrational, it is potentially divisive. Just look at the tension generated in the United States from a few guys playing sports adopting the “wrong” body position while someone sings a song before the game.

The national anthem and flag represent us as a nation, but that also means that these things belong to us all equally as citizens of that nation. In a democratic society, we should be free to use these as we see fit without fear of “offending” someone, which brings us back to the Seanad announcement.

The copyright for Amhrán na bhFiann lapsed five years ago, but so far, no disaster has befallen us. Indeed, most national anthems are in the public domain. Many States rely, in the words of the Seanad Public Consultation Committee, “on public opinion to police what is appropriate usage of them.”

It is our anthem, collectively and individually. Placing legislative restrictions on how it is used would be an unnecessary limitation on our freedom of expression.

Caoimhín De Barra is Assistant Professor for Irish History and Culture at Drew University, New Jersey.

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About the author:

Caoimhín De Barra  / Assistant professor, Irish history

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