Homily of Dr Donal Murray, Bishop of Limerick, ay 1916 Commemorative Mass
9 May 2001
The following is the homily given by Dr Donal Murray, Bishop of Limerick during the celebration of the 1916 Commemorative Mass in Arbour Hill at 10 am this morning, Wednesday 9 May.
As the new century gets into its stride our world seems very far removed from 1916. The people we are remembering today could never have imagined the rise and fall of the Soviet empire, the nuclear arms race, satellites and space stations, the European Union, the communications explosion or our present affluence.
One thing that they would certainly find strange is that we are so uncomfortable with heroes. Our approach to history is more interested in uncovering feet of clay or hidden scandals than in celebrating achievements and acknowledging idealism. The words of Yeats seem truer now than when they were written: “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone, / It’s with O’Leary in the grave.”
Today’s commemoration is a reminder that, however changed it may be, today’s Ireland did not appear from nowhere. We are the heirs, even if we sometimes seem reluctant to acknowledge it, of those who have gone before us. The 1916 Proclamation opened “in the name of God and of the dead generations from which (Ireland) receives her old tradition of nationhood”.
It is interesting that they should have chosen the rather stark term “dead generations”, not some gentler phrase like past generations or previous generations. By speaking in the name of ‘the dead generations’, the Proclamation recognised two things. It expressed in the clearest and most realistic way that the people of previous centuries and the Ireland they had known belonged to the past. At the same time, it clearly recognised that the Ireland of 1916 was built on the generations now gone and that it owed a loyalty to their memory.
Those who died in 1916, mostly young men full of promise, are now part of the dead generations themselves. They would have expected that we, like them, would be conscious that we are heirs of the dead generations. But they would not have wished us to cling to the past or to try to recreate the past of their dead generation. They would have wished us to look to the future and to ask, as Pearse did in his day, “What if the dream come true?”
It is significant that, even before mentioning the dead generations, the Proclamation addresses Irishmen and Irishwomen “in the name of God”. God’s call to each of us does not come to us as isolated individuals. God calls with our personal background, our family background and with our national, cultural background – the heritage we have received from dead generations of Irishmen and Irishwomen. All of that goes to make us the people we are. From the beginning of our existence,God addresses us as members of our families and communities, and, indeed, as “Irishmen and Irishwomen”.
Along with God’s call to each individual, therefore, comes the call to recognise that we belong to all of these communities and to feel responsibility for them – for our families, for our country and for the whole of humanity.
God’s call also invites us to know and to value what we have received from our families and from the tradition of our country. Our history contains great achievements in art and science and literature, in exploration and missionary endeavour. Thousands upon thousands of noble, courageous, creative and generous people have gone before us whose names are not remembered. In their lives were numberless acts of quiet heroism, of dignity in the face of suffering, of loyalty to their commitments and fidelity to their religious beliefs. Their values, their virtues and their faith are part of our inheritance.
Anyone who would fail to recognise their dependence on their own heritage, or who would yearn to be somebody else with a different background at a different period in history, would be evading the truth about themselves. They would not be living in the real world. And it is only in accepting the truth about ourselves and by living in the real world that we can be free and responsible. It is only there that God comes to meet us.
Unless we know and value our present and our past, we cannot build the future. As Pope John Paul put it, “Prophecy must spring from memory”.
That is by no means to say that we should live in the past. The converse is also true – that memory should give rise to prophecy. Our heritage is not a prison; it is a resource and a starting point. We ought to be asking what lessons we can learn from history; we ought to be asking how might our dreams come true. But, wherever we wish to go, whether as individuals or as a country, the journey must begin from ‘where we are’ and from ‘who we are’, not from where or who we would like to think we are.
No human effort can construct the perfect society. But we do know the path along which we should be trying to travel towards the God who will not refuse anything he can give (First Reading). We know that anyone who loves his life – that is anyone who thinks only in terms of his own advantage – will lose it, but that God the Father will honour those who serve Jesus in his brothers and sisters (Gospel). Such an ideal will seem unrealistic in a world that seems to require hardheaded realism and competitiveness. The 1916 Proclamation expressed a similarly ‘unrealistic’ resolve, “to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally…” It is an ideal which is still worthy of our best efforts today. The need for continuing effort is made evident by the fact that we never hear that phrase quoted except on behalf of some group that does not feel equally cherished – and in criticism of the rest of us. It is made evident also by the shrinking world which makes it impossible to think only in terms of the children of our own nation but challenges us to look to the wellbeing and dignity of the citizens of other countries, whether here in Ireland or other parts of the world. The reason those efforts are worthwhile is that God’s word promises that we will triumph through the power of him who loved us. Nothing can come between us and the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus our Lord. Nothing can separate us from that unconquerable love not trioblóid, nó cruatan, nó géarleanúint, nó nochtacht, nó guais, nó an claoimh féin [even if we are troubled or worried, or being persecuted, or lacking food or clothes, or being threatened or even attacked] (First Reading).
Eighty-five years later we come here in an Ireland very different from anything the people of 1916 could have imagined. They would, I am sure, have viewed the world of the twenty-first century with a mixture of admiration and horror – as I am sure any of us would do if we were able to see the world of 2086! But as is the case with every generation, and as will be the case with ours, they died leaving a heritage to be recognised and built upon by generations who will face a whole new set of challenges and opportunities.
We come here to pray for them and to remember them because we know that their efforts and ours are imperfect and passing. We will one day join them among the dead generations. We pray that their efforts and ours will be grains of wheat that die in order to yield a rich harvest (Gospel) in the peace which only God can give.
Fr Martin Clarke 087 220 8044
Ms Brenda Drumm 087 233 7797