There have been sufficient articles written in Ireland about the legacy of so-called “catholic guilt” in Ireland that, if stacked one on top of the other, you’d be unwise to bet against them reaching the moon. How many times, over the years, have you heard people sobbing on the radio about dealing with the “legacy of shame” inflicted upon them by various villainous nuns, priests, and brothers? Mostly, of course, it was all about sex. Shame was a tool used to punish fornication, impure thoughts, and all of the rest of it.
Thankfully, we’ve moved on now. Haven’t we?
“Extracts of reflective essays written by students who breached Covid guidelines through actions such as organising house parties have become the centrepiece of a special exhibition at NUI Galway.
More than 100 students at the university were disciplined last year for breaches related to Covid regulations, about 1 per cent of the student population. Of these, 48 were asked to write an essay to consider their behaviour in the context of the pandemic.
Ahead of a broader reopening of campus, quotes from the essays are being put on display; they are, for the most part, a stew of guilt, shame and embarrassment.
“The whole world is suffering, I should suffer too, play my part, suck it up, get on with it as it is and hope for better times in the future,” wrote one student in an essay.”
It is hard to know, in truth, which is more depressing: That a University, revered and advertised for generations as places which foster independent and critical thinking, should so rigidly enforce and promote a single conformist view; or that students should so eagerly comply, and profess the true faith on demand.
On the second point, there might be one reason for hope: Bear in mind, these essays were assigned as punishment. As such, how likely is it that any student would write anything other than “I feel ashamed, I am so very sorry”, especially if the alternative was some other, more severe, punishment? These confessions, given that they were a punishment, are coerced. They would not stand up in a court of law. They do stand up, though, in an Irish University, which tells you a little about standards.
All the same, though, you would have hoped, amongst a campus of supposed free thinkers, that there was one amongst them willing to tell the University to take a running jump, or, at the very least, to use their essay to ridicule the laws, and the University’s view of them.
On the first point above about the University itself, by contrast, there is no room for hope. What we have here is an institution in authority publicly using shame as a weapon to enforce and encourage conformity. It is the kind of thing you’d be unsurprised to read happening in one of those endlessly miserable and fictionalised accounts of life in Ireland’s mother and baby homes: “they made us write down our shame, and then printed it on the walls, for all to see. It was for our own good, they said”. It has all the stifling, censorious, oppressive, bullying and preaching characteristics that we have been told for thirty years that the country was escaping from.
Of course, this shaming will be broadly tolerated, just as the shaming of past generations was broadly tolerated. Nothing of real substance in Ireland has changed, even in the slightest. The governing values have changed, but the culture is exactly the same as it ever was: domineering, and conformist, with the views of the governing class imposed ruthlessly from the top down, and all dissent crushed, or ridiculed.
We deserve everything we get. We live in a country obsessed with this kind of thing – where a much greater priority is placed on discouraging middle class dissent than is ever placed on discouraging actual crime. That’s how you end up in a country where Rainbow flags adorn the streets of the capital by day, while gangs of gurriers attack gay men and anyone else they can find at night. The Governing class is, and always has been, more obsessed about respectable opinions than the safety or good governance of the country.
It’s fitting, really, that this latest episode of shaming should come on a University campus, given that in terms of how we are governed, Ireland, these days, is little more than one enormous students union.