Dames, knights and nobility

Dames, knights and nobility

January's British  Honours List has once again focused attention on rewards systems

IRELAND alone in Europe, has no system for honouring its illustrious citizens. The best you can expect is a clap on the back from President Higgins.

At various times it has been mooted that an honours system, akin to that in France, might be introduced. The French system, broadly speaking, consists of the Légion d'honneur for French citizens, and the Ordre national du Mérite which can be awarded to both French citizens and foreign nationals. These designations tidied up several French awards, including the Croix de guerre (the War Cross) and Médaille de la Résistance or the Medal of the Resistance. Samuel Beckett received the latter for his efforts on behalf of the Allies during World War II.

The British honours system dates as far back as the Anglo-Saxon monarchs, who rewarded their loyal subjects with various adornments such as rings and pendants. However, it was the Normans who introduced knighthoods as part of their feudal government. The first English order of chivalry, the Order of the Garter, was created in 1348 by Edward III, and thereafter followed centuries of royal largesse in return for fealty.

Probably the most internationally famous Irish knights, in relatively modern times, have been Sir Arthur Wellesley (the Duke of Wellington), explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton and Sir Arthur Guinness.

These knighthoods were all created when Ireland was under British jurisdiction. For a similar honours system to be introduced today would require a change in the Irish Constitution, which is quite clear about the situation: “No title of nobility or of honour may be accepted by any citizen of the Irish Republic except with the prior approval of the government.” (Article 40.2.2). The only decorations the Daíl allows are the ones which adorn Leinster House at Christmas.

In the past several decades Ireland’s universities have taken to awarding honorary degrees. Thus academia has become, de facto, the Irish honours system. Recipients range from Mary Robinson to Roy Keane.

Of course, many Irish citizens have been honoured in the British system, such as Bono, Bob Geldof and Terry Wogan — all receiving knighthoods from the British monarch. However, only Terry was able to style himself ‘Sir’, as he had dual nationality. Anyone born in Ireland before 1949, when the country became a republic, can claim British nationality, which is what Sir Terry did.

The only Irishman — since mediaeval times — to have been stripped of his knighthood is Roger Casement, executed in Pentonville Prison in 1916 for his part in the Easter Rising.

Many Irish people have let it be known that a British honour would be ‘inappropriate’. These are believed to include both John Hume and Seamus Heaney. The latter, it is also presumed, has been sounded out to become British poet laureate but indicated he would decline. However, both received the ultimate international award — a Nobel prize.