GOOD breeding was once a quality we proudly considered a distinctive feature of the Irish. I don’t really know where we got that notion considering the fact that we were all genetically linked, one way or another, to that infamous slave owner, Niall of the Nine Hostages, as well as to numerous other irascible scoundrels.
Nevertheless, it was something towards which we all aspired - so long as it remained profitable and respectable, of course.
I hadn’t much time for it myself because it smacked of snobbery.
But I had no time at all for good breeding after hearing a neighbouring farmer comment on the ubiquity of the well-bred in his particular locality, saying ‘shure you’d even see it in an ould bullock.’
The hallmark of good breeding was, of course, etiquette, and for all our notions of gentility, I don’t think we ever really got our heads around all the essential good manners expected of the breed. Be that as it may, I think it’s now time we improved our manners and showed more respect to those who don’t share our views.
We can start in the Dáil where a handful of TDs are at present flatly refusing to stand up for the daily prayer, claiming that religion is a private matter and should not be used in a public forum. Whether they are right or wrong in that opinion is neither here nor there, although it has to be pointed out that religion has been part of public deliberations since we first came down from the trees and realised that there was a force greater than ourselves in the universe. But in my humble opinion – there’s manners for you - this sit down protest is nothing more than a display of downright bad manners.
The majority of representatives in our National Parliament have voted to retain the Dáil prayer and they want to stand up to recite that prayer before each session. That wish should be respected, and instead of displaying blatant discourtesy by sitting in a sulk on their back benches, the couple of dissenters should stay outside until the prayer is over if they want to give a nod to secularist Ireland.
Or maybe they could take a leaf out of the book of two non-Catholic girls who were in my class years ago in a Convent Secondary school, where prayers were recited morning, noon and night, and before every class. Some of us were very devout back then, especially if we had forgotten to do the homework and only the Almighty could save us. The two girls, one Church of Ireland and the other Methodist, did not of course attend religion classes, but when prayers were recited in the class room they always stood up with the rest of us, showing respect for our beliefs as well as a politeness we found hard to match in after life. What can I say only they must have been very well-bred.
Bad manners, however, are not just confined to the Dail, where shouting and yelling have become the acceptable face of democracy. It’s everywhere. I can’t drive down the road, without some ill-mannered yahoo expressing his road rage at my leisurely pace and my clumsy efforts at parallel parking. I can’t sit down for a coffee without having to listen to a mobile phone conversation with the volume turned up. When I travel by rail I have to sit in a carriage where everyone else’s attention is focussed entirely on their smart phones, and I know for certain that they wouldn’t even look up if I passed away, gasping, in their midst.
I think Iarnrod Eireann should introduce a special carriage for people like me who hate the idea of being invisible and who might like to pray instead of watching others scroll zombie- like through their phones on long journeys. They have ‘quiet carriages’ in England and maybe we should copy the idea.
No-one however, was more surprised than I was to learn that there is now a special etiquette for the digital age. They call it ‘netiquette’ and I have to say that the title did not inspire much confidence in me. It says nothing about reading your emails or newspapers on the phone in public, but it does advise that you do not use capital letters when texting. Apparently that’s the equivalent of shouting and yelling in the Dail.
I think it’s time to introduce a new code of conduct or at least try and find out where are manners have gone. I don’t know how we became so coarse and vulgar with such distinctive breeding, in the first place. But it’s certainly not too late to reform. We could start by remembering that the basic principle of good manners is to think about other people’s feelings first and respect those feelings without compromising our own.
Maybe Richard Bruton could introduce a course on etiquette in the Junior Cert and forget about mindfulness and some other useless endeavours. If we had good manners we wouldn’t need mindfulness.
On the other hand, we wouldn’t want to take our manners too seriously either. We wouldn’t, for instance, want to emulate the fourth Earl of Chesterfield who, in the 18th century, wrote a long treatise advising his son on the art of ‘becoming a man and a gentleman’. Whatever he did, the Earl advised, he was never to laugh out loud in company.
“There is nothing in the world as ill-bred as audible laughter,” he declared.