Bishop of Meath Dr Michael Smith Homily at the Annual 1916 Commemoration Mass, Arbor Hill
3 MAY 2006
BISHOP OF MEATH DR MICHAEL SMITH
HOMILY AT THE ANNUAL 1916 COMMEMORATION MASS, ARBOUR HILL
I have been invited to share a few thoughts and reflections with you as our nation
honours those who gave their lives in the cause of our freedom. Over recent months
in the lead up to the celebration of the 90th anniversary of the Rising many have
shared their own views, diverse and at times challenging. For Fr Mallin, the family
members and relatives of those executed it must have been an interesting experience.
It is good that we gather in a gentler context here this morning. We gather in the
context of prayer and faith since their deep faith in God was what sustained the men
we honour and remember. Their faith gave them that immense courage and dignity with
which they faced death. In that courage and dignity they gave substance to the cause
they espoused. The courage and dignity with which they faced death had a profound
effect on the national psyche, changing it utterly.
Both our readings, from St. Paul to the Romans and from the Gospel, express hope and
invite trust. It is in the invitation to understand life as transcending death and
reaching to God that we gather once more to commend these men, your relatives, to the
infinite mercy and kindly welcome of that same God in which they believed.
I would like to share two reflections with you this day. There is a tendency to view
and judge the actions of those who went before us in the context and the attitudes of
our own day. Often we seem less than willing to seek to understand the context in which
these decisions were made. Death as we know is the great leveller. We pass alone though
the portal of death and in faith we believe we come alone before our God, our conscience
in our hands. One writer recently expressed it simply and profoundly by reminding us
that no one can take our conscience from us. None can escape standing alone before the
face of God and explaining why they think what they think, no matter who we are. Dante
in his Divina Commedia reserved some exotic places in Hell for those who betrayed their
Those who gave their lives in 1916 believed they acted in accordance with the demands
their informed conscience placed upon them. They did not see the First World War as their
battle or indeed as a war in which Ireland should become involved. Perhaps they listened
to Pope Benedict XV. He was one of the very few voices of sanity raised in Europe against
this awful disaster. From the moment of his election in September 1914 he was tireless in
his work for peace. His countless pleas and efforts were ignored and ridiculed. History
has been kinder to him and has vindicated his judgement.
He rightly considered the senseless slaughter of that war as an obscenity, a war without
meaning or purpose. One respects the conscience of the many Irish people who fought and
died in that war. It is harder to respect the conscience of those who encouraged them to
become involved in this appalling adventure or that of those who time after time sent
millions to pointless death. Those who led the rebellion in 1916 believed in conscience
that their planned action was the only way to evoke a hearing. Subsequent developments
confirm the validity of this view.
But I believe there was another dimension to their motivation that must be respected. They
were part of the reawakening of the memory of the Irish nation, following a long, dark
and clouded period. The founding of the Gaelic League and the GAA had brought back some
of that memory. Without memory we lose our identity and without our identity we are cast
adrift into a sea of chance, with others holding the compass and deciding the destination.
Whilst they appreciated and were part of this re-awakening they considered it insufficient
to reclaim the identity and destiny of their country.
Ireland seemed fated to continue as a very small cog in a very large wheel with its
extraordinary rich memory thrust to one side as of little relevance. In their view reclaiming
its memory and identity was in danger of becoming an impossible dream. It is not by accident
that among those we honour and remember this day were poets, teachers and philosophers. They
felt that their act of foolishness and bravery was necessary if that identity was not to be
lost. In our day we should not forget that it was the memory of their unique stories that
kept alive the spirit and identity of the nations of Eastern Europe in spite of the terrible
suppression they suffered over so many decades. The context may differ but every nation in
each generation faces the same challenge.
While many did then and would now disagree with their actions there is no doubt that their
enterprise did awaken the identity of a people. Within a short space of time it led to the
foundation of this State. The ultimate judgement rests with God. In conscience they firmly
believed that their actions were right. That is why they merit our respect and our gratitude.
They were men of immense selflessness and passion, inspired by a profound love for their
country. They were willing to give up their greatest possession, their lives, so that the
spark of freedom and nationhood would be kept alive in the hearts and minds of the Irish
people. May they rest in peace.
+ Michael Smith
Bishop of Meath
Notes for Editors
– A photograph of Bishop Smith is available upon request from the Catholic
Martin Long Director of Communications (086 172 7678)
Brenda Drumm Communications Officer (087 233 7797)