Bishop Paul Colton’s Address at the Official Opening of ‘The Sam Maguire Community Bells’

Address given by

The Right Reverend Dr Paul Colton,  Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross

at the Official Opening of  The Sam Maguire Community Bells

in St Mary’s Church, Dunmanway, County Cork,

on Saturday, 9th September, 2017

Sam Maguire died in penury and obscurity 90 years ago this year.  Recognition has come after his lifetime in the erection of the headstone in the churchyard of this church, in the eponym of the All-Ireland Senior Football trophy, the Sam Maguire Cup, and in a statue erected in this town in 2002.  Today, in an Ireland different from his time, we open, not a memorial, but a community project: the bells which have been installed here, to be known as ‘The Sam Maguire Community Bells’.

Born in the townland of Mallabraca, and going to the Model School here in Dunmanway, and going about his ordinary life in these parts, I very much doubt that Sam had much opportunity to hear a full ring of bells.  That would have changed of course when, at the age of 20, Sam passed the exams for the Post Office and he went, in 1897, to work in London.  There he would certainly have heard bells on a daily basis in all their glory, as we know from the children’s nursery rhyme ‘Oranges and Lemons, say the bells of St Clements’; a song which names some landmark churches:  St Clement Danes, St Martin-in-the fields, St Sepulchre-without-Newgate (opposite the Old Bailey), St Leonard’s, Shoreditch (in the East End where my own great-great-great-great grandfather Henry Colton was baptised), St Dunstan’s, Stepney (also the East End where Henry’s son, Samuel – my  great-great-great grandfather – was baptised), St Mary-le-Bow, Cheapside and St Helen’s Bishopsgate.  Escaping the poverty of some of those East End parishes in the nineteenth century to join the military as a groom is how my great-grandfather came, as an English soldier, to be in Ireland, and to be on the opposite side to Sam in events as they unfolded.  After Independence, the family stayed and made this country home as Irish men and women.

Today, St Mary, Fanlobbus in Dunmanway joins the league of church towers with a full ring of bells: eight of them in all.  In this County this community joins Doneraile, Bandon, Rosscarbery and Skibbereen, as well as the two Cathedrals in Cork: St Fin Barre’s, and St Mary and St Anne.  Shandon is different; the bells there are chimed, not rung.  St Colman’s Cathedral in Cobh is different also; it’s a carillon.  Bell-ringing is an art and a skill – campanology – and we give thanks today too for the volunteers who commit to this skill to inspire our community life, to signal our worship, and to create moods – sometimes festive and other times sombre – reflecting what is happening among us.  To this thanks we add those in foundries who manufacture bells,as well as those install and maintain them.

To  me, however, this project is not mainly about the actual bells!

It is, in my view, an inspired project in the wake of the centenary of 1916, and as we approach the coming centenary years of the War of Independence and of the Civil War in our country.  Credit for that inspiration and for his leadership has to go to the rector here, the Reverend Cliff Jeffers, the local community that has weighed in behind his vision, and those who have made it possible financially through their generous donations and gifts.  It is a project that should make us pause for thought about our times, and about our role in the commemoration of the coming centenary years here in Ireland.

Reflecting on what the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ means – the very heart of the Christian faith – Saint Paul (in our second reading today – 2 Corinthians 5.13 – 6.2) says’ ‘Christ’s love urges us on…’ it ‘controls’ us.  It ‘compels’ us (2 Cor. 5.14).  The conviction that we have as Christians not only gives us an entirely new perspective – ‘from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view…’ (2 Cor. 5.16) – it renews us completely – we are ‘… a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come …’ (2 Cor. 5.17).

And if this is so, argues St Paul, there are consequences, one of which, he says is that the work entrusted to us in our own life and times is ‘ the ministry of reconciliation’.  

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself,* not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. (2 Cor. 5.18)

This is a trust placed in us by God himself.  We are to take it seriously because

‘… we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us …’  (2 Cor. 5.20)

What might this mean in practice as we approach the commemoration of the coming centenaries?

About 18 years ago, I visited a Cork woman, a Methodist, in St Luke’s Home on the occasion of her 100th  birthday. Frail and in her bed, she could no longer see.  I held her hand and I asked ‘X, looking back, of all those years what one time in your life sticks out in your memory?’  Her eyes filled with tears and she said: ‘The Troubled Times; they were terrible.’  To her those ‘troubled times’, vivid in her memory 100 years on, were the years of the War of Independence and the Civil War.

Here we are ninety years after the death of Sam Maguire, and, in not too many years down the road, one hundred years after those ‘troubled times’, we will be commemorating through the lens of what we are now, and of what our country has become now.

Among some in our Church of Ireland community (and I’m sure they are not alone) the commemorations are anticipated fearfully and with a certain dread.  Our recent West Cork History Festival in Skibbereen hit the news headlines. The courageous steps taken by our own Canon George Salter to tell his family’s story as he, now in his 90s, inherited it drew heated debate.  Among many there is still an enduring reluctance to talk.  

It has to be said too that the moods, motivations and complexity of emotions of that period, indeed, the truth itself about that period, cannot be extrapolated from statistical analysis of deaths alone.  Statistics do not tell people’s human stories as they are remembered.  Those stories are still vibrant on all sides of conflict as part of our oral tradition, and that oral tradition, vulnerable as it is to all sorts of emphases, distortions even, cannot be ignored.  There is an understandable reluctance to name anything in our past as sectarian or undesirable, but we are not well served by pretence either.  The stories and memories are still vivid in the testimony of children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews today.

All of this – the many facets and strands of the same story – have to be shared openly, and told as part of the commemoration.  People on all sides of what was need to be empowered and facilitated to tell their stories, to exchange them, and to listen to one another.

We know war is cruel, divisive and ugly. We know that Cork was a most violent place in those years.   In every war there are sides; there are enemies, divisions, spies, informers, atrocities and injustices.  In every situation of conflict, people take sides. Division is part and parcel of the human predicament.  War scars landscapes and humanity itself. It scars memories. It changes things forever. At a century’s remove, we live even now with its outcomes and legacy.

The quest of the historical debate about the times 100 years ago … seems to be about justifying, from the perspective of hindsight, who was right and who was wrong. It’s the age old quest for justification. Some of our families, including mine, as I said, were on the other side, yet, we have happily become part of what now is.

But what are we to do with our hindsight now, 100 years on?

Be in no doubt, in our new Ireland 100 years on, the coming centenary years call for careful thought and even more careful and sensitive commemoration.   This country has to. be cautious about how it goes about commemorating events of 10o years ago. Memories are still raw.

Against that background, let us be under no illusions about the huge significance of what the Rev Cliff Jeffers and this community here in Dunmanway have put in place; what are we are opening today. In a prophetic way, from within this place (contentious in its own history) they have put down a marker of what the character of the coming centenary commemorations should be – reconciliation.

This project has set a tone that others, locally, regionally and nationally might do well to note and to emulate as we prepare: a note of reconciliation; a note of cooperation and partnership; a note of dialogue; and a note of opportunity of community building for the future.  That’s as it should be, not least for those of  us who call ourselves Christians, for our calling is from God who ‘… reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.’ (2 Cor. 5.18).  That ‘ministry of reconciliation’ requires much of us in the days ahead.


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