Cluck, cluck, cluck. It’s the sound of many chickens coming home to roost. Or, would the meow of a cat be more appropriate? I ask because in recent weeks my attention has been drawn to that special breed of cat, the Celtic Tiger Cub. I have in mind outbreaks of disorder/bullying in several prominent Dublin schools (mostly fee-paying, though one, Oatlands College, is not but draws its pupils from a catchment area in south Dublin that houses many private schools, with all the social connotations that implies).1 The events concerned are still ‘live’ at the moment (late May 2012) and the precise outcomes of decisions made in the various schools over expulsions and the like remain uncertain.2 But it happens that I have visited two of the schools involved in these stories (where, I should say, I have never been met with anything other than courtesy and good behaviour on the part of pupils and the usual combination of courtesy and frosty suspicion a visiting academic tends to receive from teachers) and the controversy has interested me from the outset. The far darker shadow cast by events associated with former pupils of certain schools of the same kind in 2000 has been lurking just on the margins of sight and awareness,3 but there has been some suspiciously sympathetic reporting and editorialising in certain places about it all.4 However, I want to say little or nothing concerning the specific allegations here. My interest is rather larger than that, so back now to the cat metaphor (I’ve decided to let the poor chickens go free-range).
I wrote a short piece for Irish Left Review in September 2011,5 mainly prompted by the tendentious comments of a well-known ‘pundit’ (I use the term loosely be-cause pundit is a term suggesting great wisdom or learning)6 which seemed to suggest that all non-fee-paying schools were home to lawless disorder and only in schools where parents paid could there be any certainty of scholarly calm and disciplined life and learning. I’ve been paying close attention to issues of culture in Irish fee-paying schools ever since. I’d have been doing so anyway, because it’s an aspect of my job to do that, but the absurd suggestion that all and only non-fee-paying schools have disciplinary problems has given me special reason to watch the behaviour of pupils in some of the better-known establishments.
As spivs and profiteers are sometimes said to have ‘done well’ out of some war or other, fee-paying schools have done rather well from the so-called Celtic Tiger years, teaching the Tiger Cubs. I don’t know where, when or with whom the Celtic Tiger Cub metaphor arose but it was given flesh, of a sort, in 2007 with an issue of four commemorative stamps.7 I have a framed set in front of me as I write, purchased as a gift for our philatelist daughter. Executed by a well-known political cartoonist, the designs are insightful and amusing. Oh, how we laughed at the time. Five figures, one male Fat Cat, one female Tiger Mother or Celtic Tigress, two Cool Cats and (a little out of keeping with the theme as a whole because it seemed to refer to something less metropolitan and certainly more ‘traditional’) a hurley-bearing Kilkenny Cat, stare out at me from behind their glass. Taken as a whole they might be a property-developer father, a spendthrift mother, son or daughter with boyfriend or girlfriend – delete as applicable (he in Ireland rugby shirt and she in denim mini, with mobile ‘phone welded to her paw), or the pair might be brother and sister (his arm round her shoulder isn’t obviously sexual), and, as I’ve said, a little out of kilter with the other imagery, the rural uncle/brother/brother-in-law who hasn’t entirely lost touch with his roots. However, for present purposes, it’s the smug cat-that-got-the-cream kittens who’re important.
People are often disinclined to listen to sociologists and that may well, in part, be a state of affairs brought about by the sociologists themselves. Does any of that tribe ever use one word when three or more might be available for the same purpose? Does any ever use a recognisable word when an obscure one can be had? But, then again, pop sociology can be dangerous. In other words, it’s insidiously anti-intellectual to assume that because something is hard to follow in print or difficult to listen to that it’s nothing more than verbal or literary gymnastics. Occasionally, difficult ideas need to be expressed in difficult terms and there can be value in academic sociology. That said, sometimes certain obvious truths are just that: obvious and true. So, we can all be permitted a degree of casual observation, anecdotal evidence and personal reflection when it comes to the state of contemporary Irish society and culture. Not everything we think, say or write on the subject may be publishable in some scholarly journal, but that doesn’t mean we’re wrong. If the immediate impression is of a certain sort of pupil, from a certain sort of school, with parents of a certain sort, being increasingly inclined towards self-seeking, self-serving, narcissistic materialism and unmindful of the consequences of actions for others (even others in the immediate circle, such as fellow pupils in a school) then the impression may not be false. There is a culture of entitlement in some sections (literal and metaphorical) of Dublin, and Ireland more generally, and it expresses itself in ways that include indiscipline in the sort of school where, according to conventional wisdom, ‘that kind of thing’ simply doesn’t happen.
But if academic sociology is often distrusted in popular opinion my own discipline, history, is not necessarily much more highly regarded or more often heeded. The problem with historians is that they always want to complicate things by referring to earlier precedents. This can tend to make people unwilling to listen, because the evidence of the immediate can seem compelling enough. Nonetheless, it is useful to look to the past before rushing to conclusions about the present. Hence, any remarks about indiscipline in elite, fee-paying schooling should always be tempered or leavened with a sprinkling of history. In the, to say the least, raucous culture of the so-called unreformed public schools (ie fee-paying schools in England, usually boarding, before the attempts made to decrease violence there and to increase both sports and ‘muscular Christianity’ associated with Thomas Arnold [1795-1842] at Rugby in the 1820s-1830s) there was far worse to be found than in Ireland today. Thus, for example, in the absence of a police force in the modern sense, the militia had to be called to put down riots at Eton in the eighteenth century. The Riot Act was read at the almost equally famous and prestigious Winchester College. The practice of ‘barring out’ (locking of school doors by pupils to keep masters at bay) was common in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in England, Ireland and my native Scotland. A grandson of the then Earl of Caithness (George Sinclair [1566-1643]) shot and killed a local bailie or magistrate in one such outbreak of turbulence at Edinburgh’s Royal High School. The final scene of the film if…., directed and produced by Lindsay Anderson [1923-1994], in which a group of self-appointed ‘crusaders’ fire from the roof tops of a fictional boarding school at an assemblage of teachers, prefects, generals, Church of England clerics, business leaders and others (representing power, wealth and social esteem) is, of course, an allegory for rebellion in a more general way, but it has historical precedents of a sort.8
Ultimately, it’s unwise to read too much into too little. One heat wave does not a summer make, nor do a few outbreaks of end-of-year disorder in fee-paying schools represent something tantamount to the fall of the western Roman empire. Nonetheless, instances of disorder in fee-paying schools in Ireland are probably on the increase, at least, insofar as can be told, when compared with the situat-ion as recently as 20 or 30 years ago, which brings us back to Celtic Tiger Cubs (or kittens, take your pick) and the habits, values and expectations they have been imbued with by their parents. Although I said I would make little comment on the specifics of the cases mentioned above, I’ve found it impossible not to notice the immediate recourse to law on the part of parents of some pupils concerned. And while, as ever, generalisation is unwise, especially in the absence of concrete evidence, the image of the SUV-driving, pavement-parking, polo-shirt wearing ‘rugby dad’ and his Chanel-bag-toting wife, both with their lawyers on speed-dial, comes readily to mind. I get what I want by bombast and intimidation; why shouldn’t my child get what he/she wants in the same way? I’ll bluster on the child’s behalf through my lawyer. I am paying for this, you know! Overall, in a familiar refrain for anybody who has any experience of teachers and their professional culture (and I am an old teacher, both in the sense of former and, increasingly, alas, aged), I blame the parents more than the pupils themselves.
To return to an earlier point, it doesn’t do to invent social malaises and it’s always easier to see the recent past as markedly better than the present, while omitting to take into account more distant times. Let anyone who thinks the streets (or schools, fee-paying or otherwise) are violent and lawless today remember that the Thirty Years War is over. In other words, what in Britain might be called Daily Mail-ism (‘The world today, I don’t know… tut, tut…’; ‘And the young ones, no re-spect for their elders… Not like it was in my day…’) is always with us, but rarely very helpful. If Ireland, generally, in 2012 is less well ordered than it was, say, in 1952 (and the 1950s had their own problems: domestic violence, industrial schools, clerical abuse of power all quietly hushed up in a climate of tactic collusion with the status quo), what about 1912, or 1852, or 1812, or 1752, or…? I take it you get the point. The baseline of comparison is always important. And yet… there is something about those Celtic Tiger Cubs that troubles me.9 To take only one measure, I watch students in the ‘elite’ Trinity College (though it pains me to admit this because I love the place – probably too much at times) blatantly disregarding even simple decencies and conventions, such as putting litter in bins. Is that the kind of arrogance and discourteous indifference to others an expensive education buys you in Ireland today? Apparently so.
Of course, we have to be aware of the phenomenon of what might be called selective reporting. In other words, if there’s trouble involving pupils in some community school somewhere, beyond the immediately local press, there may be little or no external mention of it. Certain schools will attract attention because they have, or are, ‘names’. But any tendency to write it all off as (in most cases) testosterone-fuelled hi-jinx or ‘just the sort of thing that happens around this time of year’ is, it seems to me, mistaken.10 Granted, such incidents are not confined to one type of school and are not exactly new, but surely there is something more, as it were, structural at work here? I don’t use that word in an economically det-erministic way, but there is some relationship between culture and economics, that much seems clear. Thus, living as we do at the tail end of the Celtic Tiger, it can be easy to forget that it was itself part of something larger, or longer: the more or less relentless 30-35 year period of the promotion of competitive, agg-ressive individualism that has been the consequence, or evidence, of the rise of neo-liberalism. This being so, it would be dangerously naïve to expect that both the local (ie Irish) and international tendencies towards the promotion of anti-social greed would be without their effects on the young. Admittedly, there’s nothing new about greed, there’s also nothing new about bullying in schools (although this word is, I think, overused and its impact is dulled by repetition – let’s call violence and aggression what they are: violence and aggression and dis-pense with the unhelpful and sometimes rather euphemistic portmanteau category, ‘bullying’). But, ultimately, I am persuaded that there is something new ab-out their convergence and intensification typified by recent incidents in fee-paying schools.
So, we come full circle and return to the specific events to which I alluded above. History isn’t a science and it is, therefore, not a predictive discipline (and I’d be inclined to say much the same of sociology). Invariably, my background in the study of history leads me to be wary of detailed pronouncements as to likely future events based on the past. Except over the very short range, they are almost always the work of those who are, at best, naïve or simply manipulative charlatans trying to make others do what they want by claiming specious certainty as to what will happen anyway. However, all of that said, considering recent events and many more indicators of social change in modern Ireland, if I were you, I’d expect more of the same in the future as the children of the nouveaux riches who’ve too long dictated the tone of national culture sharpen their claws and ‘mature’, spitting and scratching, into a kind of adulthood.
David Limond teaches in Trinity College and tries to write on various topics including, most recently, the Irish universities and the assault on intellectualism in the collection: Walsh, B [ed], Degrees of Nonsense: The Demise of the University in Ireland (Dublin: Glasnevin Publishing, 2012).
1. [i] For examples of reporting of these events see, for instance: Flynn, S ‘Pupil expulsions feared after abusive Facebook post about teachers’, Irish Times, 17 May 2012.
Flynn, S ‘School faced dilemma over pupil expulsions’, Irish Times ,18 May 2012.
Flynn, S ‘Leaving Certificate term ends early after dance incident’, Irish Times, 19 May 2012.
Horan, N ‘Garda helicopter scrambled for school prank that went too far’, Sunday Independent,
20 May 2012.
Available at: http://www.independent.ie/national-news/garda-helicopter-scrambled-for-school-prank-that-went-too-far-3112771.html. (NB: Other reports subsequently suggested the helicopter story was exaggerated).
Ingle, R & Flynn, S ‘Exam students tie up girl in “prank”‘, Irish Times, 25 May 2012.
2. Holland, K & McGreevy, R ‘Up to school to find exam venue for expelled pupils’, Irish Times, 21 May 2012.
Flynn, S ‘Education welfare board queries legality of expulsions’, Irish Times, 23 May 2012.
3. Roughly speaking, by schools of ‘this kind’ I mean something like those often called ‘rugby schools’, ie fee-paying and for boys. However, in what may have been the most unpleasant incident in the whole saga, one girls’ school has been the scene of what might, in legal terms, constitute assault (see: Ingle & Flynn, 2012 in note ). And, of course, not necessarily all fee-paying boys’ second level schools in modern Ireland have cultures that greatly value the playing of this particular sport. Equally, not all schools in which it’s played are fee-paying, though there’s a strong correlation, especially in Dublin. Thus, ‘rugby school’ is something of a shorthand de-scription. On Irish school rugby culture and its potentially pernicious effects generally, see: McSharry, M ‘Stuck in a ruck: The impact of rugby on social belonging’ in Corcoran, M and Share, P [eds], Belongings: Shaping Identity in Modern Ireland [Dublin: Institute of Public Administration, 2008]).
4. One piece in particular, though raising more questions than it provided answers, did seem to hint that there might have been more ‘cutting of slack’ for wayward pupils in two of the schools, as there had been in another. To repeat, my intention is not to review/discuss the specifics of the cases concerned, but see: Flynn, S ‘Were school expulsions an overreaction or a timely line in the sand?’ Irish Times, 22 May 2012 and judge its tone for yourself.
As to the events of 2000, I have even less to say as they took place before I came to live in Ire-land and I know only as much about them as I gleaned from the press at the time of the sub-sequent court proceedings. I have also not read a certain controversial novel said to be based on the incident. For a reminder of the facts of the case, see: Brady, T ‘Teen beaten to death as row erupts after student disco’, Irish Independent, 1 September 2000 and on the novel see, for exam-ple: Horan, N ‘Shock novel based on Anabel’s tragic death’, Irish Independent, 5 October 2008.
Available at: http://www.independent.ie/national-news/teen-beaten-to-death-as-row-erupts-after-student-disco-366599.html and http://www.independent.ie/national-news/shock-novel-based-on-anabels-tragic-death-1490362.html, respectively.
5. Limond, D ‘The vulgar priority of private education’, Irish Left Review, 22 September 2011.
6. Hook, G ‘In defence of fee-paying schools’, Irish Times, 20 September 2011.
7. ‘See: Celtic cats’, Irish Stamps: Collectors News, 19, 2007.
8. I have discussed this film, its significance and certain events that could be said to have pro-vided inspiration for the final scene, including those mentioned above and an attempted armed insurrection at a custodial or ‘approved’ school in England in the 1940s, in my contribution to: Mietzner, U, Myers, K and Peim, N [eds], Visual History: Images of Education (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2005). See also: Adams, R Protests by Pupils: Empowerment, Schooling and the State (London: Falmer Press, 1991).
9. However, this is far from being an indictment of everyone born since 1990, or whatever cut-off we select as defining ‘young people’, as that would be an absurd and unhelpful generalisation.
10. This is rather the position that seems to have been adopted in at least one opinion piece. See: Faller, G ‘Expelled: Last resort or happy ending?’, Irish Times: Weekend Review, 26 May 2012.
Latest posts by David Limond (see all)
- Does Ireland’s ‘if…’ generation say more about the parents? On those Celtic Tiger Cub end-of-year antics - May 31, 2012
- The Vulgar Priority of Private Education - September 22, 2011