Address by Bishop Paul Colton at St Patrick’s Day Civic Service 2016 in Cork

Address at the Civic Service of St Patrick’s Day, 2016

by the Right Reverend Dr Paul Colton,

Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross

in St Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Cork

Today, the Feast of St Patrick, our national saint, we celebrate the bringing of Christianity to our land.  That faith comforts and sustains those who call themselves ‘Christian’.  It inspires and motivates; but in equal measure it unsettles and confronts us. The theme of the St Patrick’s Day Parade later today in Cork is ‘1916 – the Legacy’.  Reflection in this centenary year, in the light of that faith, is inevitable.

When commemorating (not celebrating) any war, violence, or rebellion, or, for that matter, remembering the complex human, social, economic and political dynamics that brought them about – injustice, inequality, subjugation, even evil (such as that confronted in so many wars) – the unsettling starting point for Christians is to be challenged and humbled by the fundamental command given to us by the ‘Prince of Peace’  (Isaiah 9.6),  Jesus Christ himself:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matthew 22.36-46)

And in Christianity our neighbour is not simply the person whose hedge grows through the fence into our  garden;  it is the person I do not know, the person who is completely different from me, the foreigner, the Samaritan, good or otherwise;  the person who needs my help, hospitality and welcome; the one who comes knocking on my door;  or who stands looking at me longingly across the water or who peers accusingly  through the razor wire around our borders.

God, through Christ, said St Paul, ‘has given us the ministry of reconciliation.’ (2 Corinthians 5.18)  This is bridge-building, and it is a charter for all Christians in every age.

As we reflect on ‘1916 – the Legacy’ here in Cork today, from where we stand in 2016, the omniscience of hindsight is not a helpful prism of judgment of the times through which our forebears lived 100 years ago.  Equally, we cannot have our present, without coming to grips with the joys, pains, raggedness and torment of our past:  shared and divided, glorious and inglorious.  We can’t avoid such encounter with what was and what has been since: we can’t shape our today or tomorrow, without reflecting on both the beauty and the ugliness of our yesterdays.  

It is a tragic and disturbing reality of history that many of the nations of the earth are born or evolve through the cauldron of violence, revolt, uprising, revolution, rebellion, war  – the English Civil War, the French Revolution, the American Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the list is endless, the Easter Rising, the War of Independence and the Civil War.

These centenary years have their unsettling dimension.  One hundred years ago is not that long ago. As I said to the children in schools on Proclamation Day on Tuesday, I was a six year old on the 50th anniversary.  Just one more of me – two lifetimes – and I would have been a twelve year old in sixth class on the day of the Easter Rising.  We do well, therefore, to commemorate carefully and sensitively, and inclusively, cognisant of the untidiness of our history, of the ‘terrible beauty’ that we are still becoming. This again is the holy ground of other people’s’ lives that I spoke about from this pulpit last year.

We are still in a time where we recall that sides were taken; where rightly, as of first importance, we remember the human cost, that there were victims:  590 dead, 2614 wounded, 3509 arrested, 16 executed, prisoners, livelihoods, personal and family lives, commerce and civic life in upheaval – and especially to remember the children – Joe Duffy’s list of 38 under the age of 16.  For many, understandably, the oral tradition of family memories being what it is, feelings still run deep.  

We are naïve, therefore, if we try lazily to peddle one single agreed narrative of our history. It is multi-faceted and multi-layered.  It is complicated. Reducing the last 100 years to a comic book strip of goodies and baddies, heroes and villains is the childish option and is unworthy of our emerging nationhood and national maturity.   

The relationship of the Church of Ireland to the events of 1916 is itself very complicated. For the majority of Anglicans back then it was straight forward; I’ve no doubt, that the horror at it all exemplified in the speech of the Archbishop of Armagh in at the General Synod in June 1916, represented what most members of this Church thought.  There were others though, albeit a minority, who were actually involved or supportive, or tangentially connected.  Thomas Clarke’s father for example was a member of the Church of England. As Canon Patrick Comerford has pointed out (and his article is well worth reading),  James Connolly’s wife Lillie was Church of Ireland, as was Plunkett’s cousin (Horace) and as had been Grace, the woman he married the night before his execution. Thomas McDonagh’s wife Muriel Gifford was also Church of Ireland.  That’s before we get onto Countess Markiewicz and Dr Kathleen Lynn, and others.

For some of us, even today, the whole 1916 thing raises deep-rooted existential questions. Who am I as an Irishman and where do I fit in?  That question was clearcut in 1966:  I was less than Irish because I was Protestant.

In 1916 my great-grandfather, who had escaped frightful poverty in the 1870s by joining the army was stationed in Ship Street Barracks, Dublin Castle as a groom – maintaining the horses that pulled the gun carriages and on which the officers and cavalry road.  My grandmother’s first husband was in France where, with the 9th Inniskillings, he would charge out of Thiepval Wood on the first day of the Somme, and be killed in action at Cambrai 17 months later.  The man who would become my grandfather was in German East Africa with the Army Ordnance Corps alongside the King’s African Rifles – wounded for life, but returned and married the girl from Westland Row whose widowed mother lived over the shop as cleaner and caretaker.  They were all poor, inner city Dublin Protestants (a story of a people barely told or recognised) whose families lived in the wretched tenements of the second city of the empire. The family stayed and did their bit.  That Grandfather transferred his military experience to serve as a District Adjutant in the LDF during The Emergency, and we have become what we are in a modern Ireland.  

And so to 2016, one hundred years on, my day on Tuesday, Proclamation Day, began in Bantry – a school with 18 pupils of 6 nationalities.  There, outdoors, with Whiddy Island in sight, on the edge of Bantry Bay where Wolfe Tone had tried to launch an earlier rebellion in 1796, our ceremony opened with prayers in Irish, English, Latvian, Russian, and Albanian.  I deliberately chose that starting point because it was a sign to me of what our country is now, and there is no point to commemorations that only wallow in the mementoes, or scrapbooks of history.   I have made it my life’s ministry, in this context, to advocate for our self-understanding as a modern, pluralist and inclusive nation where there is peace, love, justice and equality for all.  I believe that is a charter supported by the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.

History is complicated and it has many layers.  The coming years will give us pause for even greater discomfort, closer to home to for us in Cork, and for the Church of Ireland in Cork, as we re-engage with the memories of the War of Independence and the Civil War.  I deliberately started my Proclamation Day tour by driving west along what we call ‘the Bantry line’ – Crookstown, Béal na mBláth, passing signs for Kilmichael.  If anything is a reminder of how complicated history is and the coming centenaries will be, let me put this awkward question:  what is to become of the church memorial to the auxiliaries who were killed at Kilmichael?  It was removed from one of our churches when that building was being closed and is currently stored, not displayed, in another in the Diocese.

On this St Patrick’s’ Day when we do reflect on our nationhood, not least in this centenary year, and as we reflect on the place of the words of the Christian Gospel within our national life, I recall again the words of Jesus himself, who said to us: ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.’  (Matthew 5.9)

Our remembrance is a crucible for self-reflection today and a springboard for our shaping of our future.  It is to the children we need to turn and to their Proclamations for a New Generation – ‘one of the greatest acts of learning we have ever done’, one Principal described it to me on Tuesday.  Those proclamations for our time embody much that is good and true in our country today and expose where the children see the gaps.  Come and see their Proclamations for a New Generation displayed here throughout Easter.  They identify the issues for our time:  security, safety,  peace, inclusion, mutual respect, equality and justice, jobs, homelessness, quality of life, education, healthcare, mental well-being, and care for the environment.

As Psalm 8 says ‘From the lips of infants and children you have ordained praise …’  Let me say (without focussing my eyes on the front pews here this morning) those who in these very days struggle to articulate a programme for government in our time would do well to start with the work of the children of our nation – here they will find their task already done for them.  

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