Homily of Bishop Eamonn Walsh at the Annual Mass for all who died in 1916, Church of the Sacred Heart, Arbour Hill
Wednesday, 7th May 2014
President Higgins, Mrs Sabina Higgins, Lord Mayor of Dublin, Mr Oisin Quinn, Taoiseach Mr. Kenny, Relatives of those who fought in 1916, Public Representatives and Office Holders, Religious Leaders, Boys and Girls from St. Gabriel’s National School, and all gathered here, warmest greetings and God’s peace.
We are gathered in a faith context to commemorate all who died in the 1916 Rising. We also remember those who made sacrifices, suffered lifelong consequences before and beyond on the journey towards Irish Independence. The journey is a continuum; a bit like the Liffey flowing under Heuston Bridge, known as King’s Bridge until 1966. No one day’s water is the river. In our commemoration we partly freeze the river in 1916 time to create a context while recognising what went before and after.
The context in this year’s commemoration is the Millennium of the Battle of Clontarf; the Centenary of the First World War; the year of President Higgins’ hugely successful State Visit to Britain; the preparations for the 1916 Commemorations in two year’s time.
Last month there were many events and ceremonies commemorating the Battle of Clontarf – not an occasion for the faint-hearted. World War I was not a pleasant business either.
Orpen’s painting of an Irish Soldier vividly captures the heavily laden soldier thinking of what lies ahead; family at home. Will he see them again? Will it help Home Rule? Thoughts ocean deep.
People like Thomas Kettle, who joined the newly formed Irish Volunteers, was sent to Europe to raise arms where he witnessed the outbreak of war and acted as a war correspondent. On his return he continued to advocate Home Rule. He later died serving with the Dublin Fusiliers in September 1916. His sacrifices and those of his fellows were not honoured by many. FX Martin spoke of them being victims of the “National Amnesia”. Four days before he died Thomas Kettle wrote the poem; “To My Daughter Betty, The Gift of God” …….
You’ll ask why I abandoned you, my own,
And the dear heart that was your baby throne,
To dice with death. And oh! They give you rhyme
And reason: some will call the thing sublime,
And some decry it in a knowing tone.
So here, while the mad guns curse overhead,
And tired men sigh with mud for couch and floor,
Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,
Died not for Flag, nor King, nor Emperor,
But for a dream, born in a herdsman’s shed,
And for the secret Scripture of the poor.
Another picture of World War I is put before us in Siegfried Sassoon’s poem – ‘They’ written in May 1917 in which the bishop is duly mocked.
The Bishop tells us: “When our boys come back
They will not be the same; for they’ll have fought
In a just cause: they lead the last attack
On Anti-Christ; their comrades’ blood has bought
New right to breed an honourable race,
They have challenged Death and dared him face to face”
“We’re none of us the same!” the boys reply
For George lost both his legs; and Bill’s stone blind;
Poor Jim’s shot through the lungs and like to die;
And Bert’s gone syphilitic; you’ll not find
A chap who’s served that hasn’t found some change.
And the Bishop said: ‘The ways of God are strange’.
The ways of war are very distant from the desired ways of God; a long way away from the Beatitudes. Conflict will always be with us as Archbishop Michael Jackson reminded this gathering last year when he said; ”Too often we have lived with the mirage of a better future beyond conflict…conflict is part of our nature”. How to resolve it in a civilised way has been the challenge from the beginning of time. Standing in the shoes of others is a good start.
Back to World War I and 1916: the Parliamentarian, John Dillon, happened to be in his home on North Great George’s Street for the 1916 Rising, and experienced at first hand the mood on the streets of Dublin. He would stand also in the shoes of the Parliamentarians immersed in a World War and furious with the ‘Irish Rebellion’ when Britain’s Army could best be occupied elsewhere – the Somme was about to begin. They saw it as a stab in the back not to be tolerated. Dillon could see years of progress being undone by over reactive repression and executions.
Lyons in his biography of Dillon, outlines Dillon’s address in Parliament where he argued that; “in the interest of peace and good government in Ireland, it is vitally important that the Government should make immediately a full statement of their intentions as to the continuance of executions in that country carried out as a result of secret military trials, and as to the continuance of martial law, military rule and the searches and wholesale arrests now going on in various districts of the country”.
He went on to say – “the primary object of my motion is to put an absolute stop to the executions.
He accused the British authorities of “letting loose a river of blood and make no mistake about it, between the two races who after 300 years of hatred and strife, we had nearly succeeded in bringing together”…
His emotions ran even higher when he recalled the case of a young boy of 14 who was brought in as a prisoner and the officer looked at him: ‘What on earth am I going to do with you?’ The boy said to him ‘Shoot me, I have killed three of your soldiers’. Dillon went on to say: ‘That may horrify you, but I declare most solemnly, and I am not ashamed to say it in the House of Commons, that I am proud of these men. They were foolish, they were misled’. To which the Honourable members of the House chanted ‘Shame’.
His speech had little effect. Further executions took place the next day, including Connolly who was too ill to stand and was shot while sitting in a chair.
These illustrations, frozen in time, help situate the 1916 commemorations in context. A lot of water and blood has flown under Heuston Bridge before and since. “River Ireland” of today and beyond is largely in our hands.
Legitimate anger such as Dillon’s serves as an illustration that in all conflict both sides must be heard and even more important, experience that they have been heard. Audi alteram partem is a basic rule in resolving any issue be it in a family squabble or on the international stage.
To build our country on solid ground we have to respectfully listen especially to those who may irritate us most. Not easy! From experience we know that the longer a voice is suppressed the stronger the force and resentment that will accompany it when it eventually explodes and has to be heard.
To enable us to listen with a heart of flesh rather than a heart of stone, it can be helpful to listen in silence each day to the voice within. For people of faith this is letting God speak to the heart; taking daily quiet time saying, ‘speak Lord, your servant is listening’.
Reflective living can be different for different people. Regardless of traditions, faith, dormant faith or none, there is always a voice of conscience within. Listening to that voice is part of wholesome listening.
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise person who built his house on rock”. (Mt:7.25).
“Unless the Lord build the house those who build it labour in vain”. (Psalm:127).
To listen to each other and the voice within is a good hook on which to build the preparations for the 1916 Centenary and Ireland beyond.
To do what deep down we know is right is the “solid rock” for decision making. That the right thing happens is more important than getting the credit for it. Rejoicing in other’s success is the way to a more mature Ireland. Often “name, claim and tame” are more productive than “name, blame and shame”. Deep listening helps in naming the issues to be tackled together; claiming joint responsibility for tackling them; and taming the obstacles on the journey.
Perfection, like a conflict free world, is a mirage for now. It is more sensible to move on together, warts and all, and with a healthy sense of humour.
Let us leave behind the ‘old Irish lobster’: The Englishman observing an Irishman carrying his freshly caught lobsters in a shallow bucket said: ‘You need a deeper bucket otherwise they will escape! ‘No’, said the Irish fisherman – ‘these are Irish lobsters; as soon as one gets near the top of the bucket the others will pull it down’. Let us build the future of our country on encouraging each other to play our part; rejoicing in each other successes in this task, and treating the most vulnerable as any genuine family would. That is the rock on which to build for the present and beyond.