Pomp and Circumstance

We are all agreed that something as pompous as the Queen’s funeral could never happen here, right? Michael Bergin isn't.

Perhaps one of the most distinctive features of post-colonial, Elizabethan Britain, and one which we so regularly, and rightly, laugh at, is the bizarre focus on pomp and ceremony.

It seems a nation that prides itself on an “unwritten” constitution has become so dependant on inane ritual that should one feathered cap be out of place, or indeed one inkwell be unfortunately positioned before the King, the whole damned thing may come crashing down. We here in Ireland take comfort in the security of a written constitution, that bypasses the emphasis on tradition, which so clearly hinders our neighbour.

Watching the proclamation of the Queen’s death, in which a jovially-dressed band of merry men offered three cheers for the new monarch, amidst a London that had been forced to a stop, I could not but ponder the curious necessity of the whole English set-up. Unfortunately, however, we are not as immune from pomp as we would like to think.

The day after the Queen’s passing, I was lucky enough to attend my own graduation ceremony in the O’Reilly hall, the culmination of 16 years of education. Dressed in an idiotic robe, and donning a mortarboard clearly too small for my generously proportioned head, I didn’t necessarily feel like the republican advocate of common sense that we tend to portray ourselves as, particularly in comparison with those across the pond. 

If my suspicions were aroused before, the string quartet that played for us academics as we entered the hall confirmed my worst fears. The whole thing was entirely out dated, from the ridiculous hats worn by the notables on stage, to the conferring of graduates in Latin. Had I fallen into the same trap of deified tradition that so encapsulates the English?

I had, to be fair, known that an institution so blindingly proud of itself as UCD would likely indulge in a fair bit of pomp. The quote from Joyce that adorns the back wall of the O’Reilly hall, about “the uncreated conscience of my race” could not be more egregious, especially when considering what UCD has become. 

Joyce is no doubt one of the literary exports that we can be most proud of, but it is pure coincidence that he attended a university that would one day build a hugely controversial Confucius centre on campus, let alone ridiculously priced penthouse apartments for students.

Bastardising history in order to put a pleasant glimmer on contemporary developments is something that UCD then, also shares with our neighbours in dear old England, particularly those of a conservative bent.

For the longest time, and some would argue it is the case still, large parts of English society have taken a “sunny-side-up” view of their history, refusing to acknowledge their position as an historically cruel and oppressive colonial state, and refusing to empty their museums of stolen artefacts.

The culture of ignorance that this creates is exactly what allows such hard-headed bullishness as Brexit to come to pass, and a feverish devotion to shallow symbols of state, such as the monarchy, to develop.

In a similar fashion, UCD gloats about its alumni, in an effort to distract from the less amicable aspects of the university’s operation, in the process allowing a deification of scholarly prowess, and the rituals that accompany it, to take place. This reaches its conclusion at the point where a team of brightly-robed intellectuals, some wearing floppy caps (don’t ask what on earth they signify) sit on stage and applaud another cohort of students, that are nonplussed enough to allow the whole ceremony to take place, so long as they can finally get their piece of paper and get out of there.

In essence, UCD can no longer be described as West Brit, but Full Brit.

This process, of course, is not limited to blue-blooded Belfield, however. I cannot speak from experience, though I imagine that Trinity College Dublin is equally, if not more, self-congratulatory, with the emphasis being on the tory part. Yes, I am basing my assumptions of Trinity on anecdotal and reputational evidence, but is it seriously going to be tested?

Even good old Western NUIG was renamed recently, to “Ollscoil na Gaillimhe – 

University of Galway”, in order to emphasise to the world the University status of the place. Has there ever been a more insipid and frankly stupid declaration of aggrieved ego? If our universities think of themselves in this posturing manner, what are we to do with the inevitable graduates who buy into this nonsense?

Our universities clearly have a problem with pomp, and the hard-headed idiocy that goes with it. It is the reason that UCD’s logo carries the title “UCD Dublin”, the reason why “NUIG” was judged not to clarify that there was a university in Galway (what they thought the “U” stood for I will never know), and it is the reason our universities are increasingly sliding downward in the world rankings.

Tradition and culture of course have their places in the modern world, but the granting of unjust emphasis to rituals, such as conferring ceremonies and pompous grieving parties in the UK, is irrational and ultimately counter-productive.

The Queen is dead, and an enormous amount of choreographed set-pieces will follow. However, before we make judgement on the fickleness of a constitutional monarchy, we should do well to consider the influence we still continue to take from our nearest neighbour, particularly in our universities.