Signs and secularism: The Gardai, religion and the public space.

The issue of the use of religious iconography by the Gardai is one which has shot to prominence over the past month as one of the Garda Reserve who is also a member of the Sikh religion sought permission to wear a turban as part of his uniform. In this instance the Garda Commissioner determined that such overtly religious imagery was not suitable for a ‘secular’ force. A debate has now ensued over what is permissible.

I’ve no wish to promote a position on this one way or the other, but only draw attention to the fact that this raises interesting questions for any of us concerned with visual culture, if only because it is a profoundly curious ruling in the context of this society as presently extant.

Consider the Gardai themselves first. Fintan O’Toole in the Irish Times [sub req’d] notes that:

The Garda organises Masses to mark the anniversaries of the opening of police stations. The Dublin metropolitan traffic division, for example, holds a Mass in Dublin Castle which has been attended by the President at least once in recent years. The Garda Commissioner, Noel Conroy, attended the Mass in Knock Basilica to mark the beatification of Mother Teresa, of whom, on her death in 1997, the Taoiseach informed the Dáil, “no one doubts the evident saintliness”. Gardaí on duty, like the Taoiseach in the Dáil, wear ashes on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday.

This appears, on the face of it, to be some distance from a neutral public promotion of the Gardai. Indeed is clear that this is explicitly positioned within religion and a specific religion at that.

But O’Toole considers other areas where religious imagery and activity enters into the public space:

What was the first thing the Dáil did when it assembled in June after the general election? All the reports will tell you that the new term started with the election of the Ceann Comhairle. In fact, it started with a prayer, asking God to direct all the words and actions of its members. This is what happens at the start of every session of the Dáil and Seanad. It is so much taken for granted that no one even mentions it and the parliamentary reports do not carry the text of the prayer, writes Fintan O’Toole .

Christianity – and often a specific Catholicism – frames the functioning of the Irish State. The preamble to the Constitution invokes the “Most Holy Trinity”. Article 44 commits the State to hold the name of Almighty God “in reverence”. Juries and voters are sworn on the Bible, unless they specifically request another form of affirmation, so that a religious declaration, implicit or explicit, is central to the way a citizen performs the actions that define citizenship.

Other areas where religious iconography permeate the public space include hospitals which are “heavily adorned with Catholic symbols”, schools “Religious schools are, for most people, the only schools their children can attend” and most clearly “RTÉ, the State broadcaster, [which]starts its main news bulletin a minute late in order to allow it to mark a specific Catholic religious practice, the Angelus”.

I’ve discussed the imagery of RTÉ here previously, and also pointed to how the state when developing the nascent elements of public health provision also appropriated exclusively religious iconography in order to project a domesticity that softened the negative significations of ‘state intervention’ in this area. RTÉ in it’s logo used such significations in order to bring what was an alien, and for some a profoundly suspect, technology embedded in concepts of modernism into the domestic space.

But as soon as we note that it is evident that such imagery is not in any sense ‘purely’ religious. The cross on the wall, the St. Brigid’s Cross, the ash on the forehead are linked into much broader and deeper webs of signification. To read religion in the public space is of necessity to disentangle political, cultural and religious ideas which have been threaded together over centuries.

I think it is also necessary to consider the way in which religion and political and cultural expressions joined to become a key component of nationalist, and ultimately Republican, thought on the island. In part this was due to the legacy of history. The incursion of the Anglo-Normans did not in and of itself trigger a specific national identity (nor is it entirely clear that such an identity existed in any meaningful way prior to those events). However, the Reformation, and the consequent rupture in Christianity led to a more pointed differentiation between an Irish who retained an allegiance to Catholicism, and the English who were mainly Protestant. Initially (and perhaps later), this differentiation was expressed in terms of class, but in the interim it led to both cultural and political efforts by the English to eradicate Catholicism, most notably during the period of the Penal Laws. This resulted in a clear identification, indeed an elision, between Nationalist sentiment and Catholicism which endured, arguably in some forms, to this very day (on a slight tangent it is also worth noting that the Penal Laws also – for a brief period – resulted in common cause between dissenting traditions in Protestantism, such as Presbyterianism, and Catholic Nationalism, due to a similar dynamic of cultural and political repression directed at those religions).

Later during the Celtic Revival in the latter part of the 19th century there was a conscious evocation of the Celtic Christian period. The reasons for this were self-evident. This was the last point in history when the island had been autonomous, when it had had, however fractious, at least some measure of a common culture. And the religious aspect was not insignificant. It was perceived as the glue which held the society together. It’s also possible to argue that the position of religion in the wake of the Famine led to a greater authority for the Catholic Church.

One of the intriguing aspects of the Celtic Revival was the number of those from Protestant, and indeed even Unionist, backgrounds who found in this area a means of identification with political and cultural elements of what would become a central influence on the drive for Irish independence.

When this state was established in 1922 there was a deliberate effort to generate visual imagery that drew together elements of Christianity and Celtic motifs. The Great Seal of Saorstát Éireann, designed shortly after, was similar to those seals used to validate documents and acts.


This combined the “Brian Ború Harp” from the collection of Trinity College Dublin with elements of the Ardagh Chalice (discovered in 1868). The choice of the Ardagh Chalice was deliberate, in that it was regarded as an example of ‘the highest perfection of Irish Art in decorative metal work.’ Elizabeth Crooke in her history of the National Museum has noted that ‘claiming ownership of the past was necessary to create a sense of place and to symbolise power’.

The incorporation of the harp and elements of the Ardagh Chalice was deliberate. This was an attempt to discard the history between the Norman conquest and the establishment of the Free State – and draw upon a Celtic Christian heritage. Whether this was an ahistorical reading of the past was quite irrelevant. Ronan Fanning in his history of Ireland following independence makes the interesting point that there was ‘a common concern of church and state to establish a national identity in the face of political disillusion…though the treaty remained the ‘dream that went bust’, though the island remained partitioned and the republic a mirage, there remained Catholic ideals to bind together a riven nation…Catholicism, always central to so much of Irish nationalist ideology, thus took on additional significance in the search for national identity’. Brian Kennedy makes a similar point when he quotes the poet Thomas MacGreevy as arguing that ‘Our first need in Ireland if we had realised it was not a political republic, but a cultural republic. We made a mistake. We must rectify it.’

Benedict Anderson’s concept of the ‘imagined community’ as a foundation of nationalism is also applicable with relation to this example of high state imagery. The Great Seal admits of a single interpretation of Irish nationality, an essentially Catholic, Celtic tradition. This represents one aspect of an Irish nation, and one that was clearly in the ascendant in 1922. But it excludes other facets of the Irish nation. This sits within Anderson’s own definition of the ‘imagined community’ as limited in both geographic and cultural terms. Quite simply the boundaries of those who saw their identity as belonging within the Irish nation were self-evident.

Donald Horne argues that ‘the [myths] of the Irish revolution remain, historically, pure – to such an extent that the two principal political parties are based on a division as to how that revolution should have occurred’ The purity of these ‘myths’ as presented by the Irish Free State became, in the form of the Great Seal, a relatively simple signifier of nationality, yet one that reaches to the heart of the state-building project.

The ‘mythic’ associations of the harp merged seamlessly with the Christian elements of the Ardagh Chalice. The ‘myths’ of a Celtic Christian Ireland were easily understood by the general population. They were also readily acceptable by the Catholic church and acceptable amongst a broadly conservative population. This led to a concentration on a narrowly defined version of Irish identity. The Great Seal was the visual manifestation of the conjoining of various ‘myths’ of Irish nationhood: a sovereign, independent and Catholic Ireland.


But there are more contemporary resonances, some so obvious I’m surprised that they haven’t been noted recently in the press. Consider the imagery of the Garda emblem which is in and of itself profoundly religious. The first Garda Commissioner Michael Stains contacted a friend of his from the Gaelic League John Maxwell, an art and woodwork teacher in Dún Laoghaire and Blackrock technical schools. On foot of this, Maxwell, who was also well known as an illuminator, designed the Garda badge. At its centre the interlaced initials GS. These were surrounded by the inscription ‘Garda Síochána na hÉireann’. Four decorative circles are positioned at each quadrant rather like the boss of a cross, and arranged between each circle is a Celtic decorative feature. In short this is an avowedly ‘Celtic’ design. This slotted neatly into the Celtic Christian aesthetic that the new state was rapidly adopting in many areas of visual imagery.

Or take the first series of stamps issued by the Free State. Four designs were selected by the Council, The Sword of Light (Claideamh Solais), the Map of Ireland, Arms of the Four Provinces and finally the Cross of Cong. The Cross of Cong design (fig. 56) was an adaptation by Lily Williams, a portrait artist, of a stamp which she had produced in 1907 for Sinn Féin and which had been used for propaganda purposes and to provide finance for the party newspaper (fig. 57). Williams was of particular interest as an artist and designer. She came from a Protestant and Unionist background, but had learned Irish prior to independence and come to identify strongly with the cultural aspects of the independence movement. Indeed in later years she painted portraits of various members of the Free State government so clearly her sympathies remained strong. That she designed the original stamp based on the Cross of Cong indicates the inclusive nature of cultural and religious nationalism at this point.


The design of the stamp was skilfully executed with the word ‘Éire’ was set at the hub of the Cross. The Cross of Cong stamp is well executed, with the details of the Cross very skilfully rendered, but slightly overshadowed by the four shamrock which fill the space between the arms of the cross. The notes record that this design of:

[the] oaken cross was made about the year A.D. 1123 to enshrine a portion of the True Cross presented by His Holiness the Pope to King Turlogh O’Connor and is at present preserved in the Royal Irish Academy. The design is by Miss Lily Williams, A.R.H.A.

Two general points are immediately apparent. These designs looked to a restatement of Celtic and Christian imagery. As noted by the designer Liam Miller, all four designs ‘were symbolic rather than pictorial’.

Donald Horne has argued persuasively that ‘…a public culture might be seen as the ‘language’ used to enact the dominant ‘myths’ of a society…’. This goes some way to explaining the necessity for visual imagery. An independent Irish state appeared at a time when the visual ‘language’ necessary to project the legitimacy of the state included a wide variety of visual elements. These elements were in the Irish case, as elsewhere, essentially ‘inventions’ in the sense that term is used by Eric Hobsbawm. They rested upon designs which drew upon a past without an organic connection with it. The designs represented a narrow vision of Irish nationhood which can be regarded as an ‘imagined community’ as defined by Benedict Anderson. This was a Catholic dominated state, that sought to establish a linkage with an essentially ‘mythic’ past through the projection of symbols of state that drew upon a Celtic Christian heritage.

That of the Gardai, while entirely new, was in a style closely related to that of the Gaelic League and the visual iconography of Irish cultural, and to some degree Catholic, nationalism. The imagery of the above areas appeared fairly soon after Independence, and as a result of specific needs. While not always overtly Catholic, state imagery turned away from Republican and imperial imagery towards a nationalist imagery that drew upon Celtic and Christian symbolism. How else to explain the profusion of Celtic crosses that appear as logos and seals – the Celtic Cross was a distinctive symbol that had long been associated with Ireland.

It is clear that a primary reason for using such imagery was that it allowed the state to project certain ‘myths’. It could portray itself as the legitimate inheritor of a thousand years or more of artistic and cultural endeavour. It provided a connection with a time when Ireland had prospered independent of Britain. Republicanism, particularly the branch which prosecuted the Civil War, might potentially find the use of hard-edged Republican emblems, such as the tricolour as grossly provocative. The British, ever watchful as regards even the limited sovereignty of the Free State, would find such displays equally provocative. In such a context it was safer to stress the imagery of a Celtic Christian Ireland generating ‘myths’ of an historic unity and cultural solidarity that avoided the difficulties of the contested imagery of state surrounding the tricolour.

And of course it doesn’t end there. In the early 1930s we see an imagery drawn from the illuminated manuscripts. The elision of the state and religion is quite explicit in the form of the Saorstát Éireann, the Irish Free State Official Handbook, published in 1932. This was a luxurious yearbook celebrating the achievements of the state since its foundation. The cover of the book was a defining example of Gaelicisation and Celtic Revival. Art O’Murnaghan (interestingly enough born in England, the son of an Irish emigrant), the well established calligrapher, was responsible for the design of the cover. The cover, a lavish image replete with interlace, intertwined birds and intricately defined hand rendered letterforms. An odd feature of the book is evident in the use of Irish. While the name of the state is spelt out in Irish, the words ‘Official Handbook’ are rendered in English. It is curious that these were not designed in a Gaelicised script. The Handbook looks back to the illuminated Irish medieval manuscripts like the Book of Kells, another indication of the retrospective nature of state identity. Here again is a restatement of the ‘myths’ of cultural Gaelicisation. The very structure of the Handbook is such that it provides a receptacle for such ‘mythic’ meaning. National identity here becomes a means of interpreting the present through the past.

Further examples include much of the output of An Gúm, the Irish language state publisher.

But what these serve to demonstrate is the way in which religion and nationalism are entwined by history and politics into cultural legacies. How does one determine the balance within any emblem or artifact between the secular and the religious? Does that question have any meaning in the context of overlapping levels and layers of signification? And yet even to the most dispassionate eye such significations persist. To shift this to the contemporary, how is it possible to talk of a ‘neutral’ societal image of the Gardai in any meaningful sense when their most obvious public emblem is one which embodies the Christian Cross? But is that religious meaning ‘read’ on any significant level by those of us who see the symbol on the side of a Garda car, or on a hat? I’d suggest not. It is only as we uncover the levels of meaning that that particular signification becomes clear. And that raises the interesting question of how that emblem is ‘read’ by those from elsewhere, or those who belong to a different religion?

Culture, history, religion and politics when represented in the visual area are difficult. They raise issues of identity, of self-image and of meaning. On this island there are well known issues relating to the usage of certain symbols, the tricolour, an Orange Banner and similar visual artifacts. But the truth is that they remain part of a – literally – insular discourse where many of the basic iconographic signifiers are shared to a greater or lesser extent. In a society where there is increasing cultural differentiation such a shared discourse is more complex, more open to negotiation, and more open to misunderstanding.

O’Toole concludes by arguing for a total prohibition on religious imagery in the public space and suggests entertainingly that:

The problem is that this State has absolutely no right to take such a stance. So long as we refuse even to discuss a non-sectarian education system, so long as we evoke a specific religious belief system in every aspect of our system of governance, we have no right to tell anyone that they have to keep their religion separate from their public function. Unless we are to practise naked discrimination, the logic of our current system is that our police officers can wear turbans, hijabs or Jedi light sabres – anything that is required by their faith. We also have to provide a range of religious schools in every community, all paid for by the taxpayer. We have to start Dáil sessions not with one prayer, but with at least 25 – one for each of the main religious groupings in the State – and with an atheist evocation of humanist principles.

He may well be right, but the closer one examines the imagery of the state the more evident it becomes that detaching religious elements from that imagery is going to be an almost impossible task unless it is reworked almost in its entirety. This isn’t just a question of religion, nor is it a question of politics, but instead it is an issue of how to deal with linkages that are expressed in both societal and visual terms throughout this state and society.

Ciarán Swan


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