David McWilliams latest book is focused on examining precisely who the successor generation which is driving much of the Republic’s new found economic power and energy and what makes them tick. He calls them the HiCos or, Hibernian Cosmopolitans. In today’s Irish Times he looks at how the Gaelscoilleana have provided them with a heady mix of educational empowerment and cultural authenticity – the Justice Minister among them.
We are outside the gates of two Gaelscoileanna on Oakley Road in Ranelagh – the hypotenuse of the D6 elite triangle. Minister for Justice Michael McDowell joins the ranks of other accomplished folk – the HiCos (Hibernian Cosmopolitans) as I call them – dropping their bilingual kids off at Scoil Bhríde and Lios na nÓg.
Scoil Bhríde is the grand old dame of Gaelscoileanna, having been set up in 1917 by Louise Gavan Duffy in St Stephen’s Green. It moved to the grounds of Cullenswood House in Ranelagh in the 1960s and has, for years, been catering to the traditionally modest demand for Irish language education in the area.
Traditionally, children in Gaelscoileanna came from three broad sources. They were the sons and daughters of the Irish-speaking aristocracy – a tiny minority of over-achievers, many of whom, like the Minister for Justice, can trace their roots back to the revolutionary movements of 1916. They are umbilically linked to the language revival movement and have always been conspicuous in the civil service, the law, academia and the arts. These Gaeilgeoirí aristocrats constituted a small, highly educated, cultural elite which emerged after the foundation of the State.
Or they were the children of Gaeltacht people who moved to Dublin.
Or they were the leanaí of fáinne-wearing Gaeilgeoirí zealots, who can be termed the cigire class – the foot soldiers of de Valera’s Ireland
Together, these three groups of people formed the core of the Gaelscoil movement up until the late 1970s.
For most people, Gaelscoileanna were out of bounds, in the same way as reservations were out of bounds for white non-Indian Americans. Rightly or wrongly there was a perception that the Gaelscoileanna were not particularly interested in embracing the gnáth duine nor was the gnáth duine particularly interested in what was going on inside. Over the past 10 years in particular, the demand for Gaelscoileanna broke out of this reasonably narrow core group and extended quite dramatically into the mainstream middle classes.
As well as the general HiCo quest for authenticity, there were other factors that made people aware of and comfortable with their Irish heritage.
Riverdance in 1994, the IRA ceasefire and the hip programming of TG4 combined to make Irish more fashionable. It also allowed the new elite to be comfortable with their Irish cultural heritage.
For many of the sophisticated elite, who are acutely aware of what their peers are doing, there was something different going on in the Gaelscoileanna. The fact that the Irish-speaking secondary schools, which are free, send more pupils to university than many fee-paying schools, indicates that there is something going on in Gaelscoileanna that money just cannot buy.
That something is participation. Parents in Gaelscoileanna get involved; they tend to be agitators rather than passive spectators. They are consulted, they are responsible, they feel ownership. And, it is as close as the HiCo parent can get to teaching without swapping their massive salaries for the modest teacher’s one.
More than anything else, it is that middle-class sense of ownership that drives them into the arms of the Gaelscoileanna. (The same is true in that other HiCo educational growth area, the multi-denominational sector, which places such stress on being parent controlled. In many cases multi-denominational schools are also parent founded.)
The Gaelscoileanna are a risk-free venture for HiCo parents. They can opt into the State sector, with all the psychological upside that has for the socially concerned world view, without jeopardising the educational prospects of their little darlings.
The aim of the HiCos is not to turn themselves into Gaeilgeoirí but to get the best for their family. As with everything they do, Gaelscoileanna allows them to pick the best bit from what the Hibernian menu has to offer and move on. It is an economic free lunch, spiced with the virtue of authenticity.
Gaelscoileanna are hip and much in demand. Gaelscoileanna and the multi-denominationals are the fastest growing sub-sector of schools in the country. From being perceived by many as being too nationalist, too Catholic and too atavistic, as they were years ago, Gaelscoileanna are now the pinnacle of educated sophistication. People who send their children to Gaelscoileanna display great taste. They are erudite, refined and concerned. Twenty-first-century Gaelscoil parents are in a class of their own. They are both cosmopolitan and Hibernian.
The growth has been phenomenal. When the “Pope’s Children” were born there were only 25 Gaelscoileanna in Ireland. There are more than 200 today.
Lios na nÓg, one of the new breed of Gaelscoileanna, opened just when the HiCo spirit was emerging 10 years ago. It is a project school, non-denominational and liberal. In short, its proposition is a perfect HiCo fusion of language, old culture and tolerance – a sort of Countess Markievicz meets Greenpeace offering. What HiCo in his right mind could turn down such an authentic proposal?
Back in 1996, just when the economy was beginning to motor properly, the demand for places at Scoil Bhríde went through the roof, with the result that many parents could not get their children into the school. They decided to set up their own in Cullenswood House itself which was just over the wall from Scoil Bhríde.
Cullenswood House is the cradle of the revolution. This is where Pádraig Pearse set up St Enda’s – one of the first bilingual schools in the country – at the height of the first Gaelic Renaissance.
For the HiCo, Lios na nÓg in Cullenswood House has it all. It is a restored old Georgian building yet it is the birthplace of the Republic; it is a project school, tolerant, cosmopolitan, non-denominational, yet, as everything is taught through Irish, it is pure Hibernian; it is suburban Ranelagh within a stone’s throw of the HiCos’ food emporium, Mortons.
Lios na nÓg opened its doors to its first students in 1997. There were 25 in its first year and now there are 187 children. Lios na nÓg runs intercultural projects and has children from seven different countries. The experience is a world music melody played with a bodhrán and tin whistle. How more HiCo can you get?
This morning, the kids are playing football in the yard, speaking in Irish to each other. The parents are arriving now.
Bizarrely, Irish is not heard. Not one parent speaks a full sentence to their child in Irish at the gate, but there are lots of gratuitous sláns, dia duits and the like. The dia duit sorority is a sight to behold – lots of mummies dia duiting each other in the same way as black teenagers high-five each other in the ghetto.
As soon as their kids are safely in the doras or through the geata, they then break into red-brick Ranelagh’s finest nasal tones. But they are making a statement, and in this society authentic statements are crucial.
The difference between Scoil Bhríde and Lios na nÓg is significant. Scoil Bhríde mummies arrive in Range Rover Freelander jeeps as opposed to bikes and by foot. They have perfectly groomed hair, Riverview memberships and the whole vibe is upper professional.
Scoil Bhríde is senior counsel, partners in law-firms, advertising executives and Mercs territory. You might be forgiven for thinking that the Leaving Cert points benefit of Irish alone is what is driving these parents. If so it is an acceptable, culturally far-sighted form of the Attainometer.
Lios na nÓg is different. Pearse’s direct descendants wear scarves, beads, wristbands, and cycle or drive 96D Mitsubishis.
While Lios na nÓg wears sandals; Scoil Bhríde docksiders. Scoil Bhríde is Minister for Justice territory; Lios na nÓg is non-conformist. Scoil Bhríde is Catholic and comes under the authority of the Archbishop of Dublin. Lios na nÓg isnon-denominational and is run by a patrons’ trust.
Despite their differences, both schools are part of a greater movement: they are both Hibernian and Cosmopolitan.
The Lios na nÓg children all have little sweatshirts with happy suns smiling out from them and they skip into class. The atmosphere is calm. Everything is good taste, far seeing and right on. The school has its own compost heap, all paper is recycled and a fatwa has been declared on Capri-suns and fizzy drinks. The greener lunch guidelines are enforced. Everyone is tolerant and well-educated.
This is where the HiCos send their children to school. It is the breeding ground for the new sophisticated elite.
First published in the Irish Times (subs needed) on Tuesday 13th December 2005.