Homily of Bishop Denis Brennan, Bishop of Ferns at the annual Mass for all who died in 1916, Church of the Sacred Heart, Arbour Hill, Dublin, Wednesday 16 May 2012
“Easter Week 1916 set the Irish people on a new path. Not everything that has happened since has been glorious but because of that unexpected, and initially unpromising, rendezvous with destiny, we have been able to chart our own distinctive course as a free people…”
In the long story that is the history of the Irish people there have been many defining moments. Occasions when in the words of the American President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt “we have had a rendezvous with destiny.”
In our recent history some of these moments have been:
• The 1798 Rebellion, which despite being a military failure, showed us a new way of organising society, a way which promised greater respect and regard for the dignity and freedom of the individual.
• The Great Famine of the 1840’s which decimated our people but created an Irish Diaspora which continues to define us at home and abroad.
• And of course, 1916, a week which proved to be the catalyst for so much that has happened to us subsequently as a people.
Like 1798 a military failure, but a week which set our country on a new trajectory.
The prevailing view of Ireland at the time was encapsulated in a remark made to the Duke of Rutland in 1784 “Ireland is too great to be unconnected with us, and too near to be dependent on a foreign state, and too little to be independent.’’
The men and women of 1916 refused to accept this analysis.
Writing of the Rising in 1966 Dr Garrett Fitzgerald noted that “it was planned by men who feared that without a dramatic gesture of this kind the sense of national identity that had survived all the hazards of the centuries would flicker out ignominiously within their lifetime, leaving Ireland psychologically as well as legally… an integral part of the United Kingdom.”
1916, heroic, but doomed to fail allowed us to dream again, to imagine in the words of George Bernard Shaw “things that never were and say why not?”
The men and women of the Rising paid a high price to give us that gift, that is why we remember them, that is why we celebrate their idealism, vision and courage.
In the words of Yeats those seven days of Easter “changed everything and a terrible beauty was born.” The beauty of being free, the beauty to imagine and do new things.
The words of President Higgins recently in New York are also apposite in relation to 1916. Reflecting on the effects of the Famine he reminded us that “in transience an enormous creativity happens.”
The transience of Easter Week, tragic and futile as it appeared at the time, released a great creativity, a great energy, in the words of Garrett Fitzgerald, “1916 was an event of enormous emotional power.”
At the present time we are working our way through another sort of transience. We hope and pray that this too, despite its pain and confusion, will in its own time and its own way release a new age of creativity, and lead to a renewal of the national spirit.
The men and women of 1916 dreamed of a social order which recognised and promoted the material needs of people but they also understood that in the words of Scripture “man does not live on bread alone.”
The 1916 Proclamation is explicit in its recognition of the Transcendent. It begins “In the name of God” and it finishes by saying “We place the cause of the Irish Republic under the protection of the most High God.”
I believe that the rest of the 20th century provided enough evidence to show that when societies are not underpinned by a sense of the transcendent, however beguiling materially, life can become soul-destroying, repressive and dehumanising.
Religion, despite sometimes falling spectacularly short of its ideals, gives expression to the spiritual side of our human nature, the side which calls us to look above and beyond, the side which challenges us to be more than we think we can be.
1916 was a very public event, played out mainly on the streets of Dublin, though I have to say that in the spirit of ’98 rebels turned out in Enniscorthy too, and for four days the tricolour flew defiantly over the town until Padraig Pearse himself ordered the rebel surrender.
We sometimes forget that public people, like the people who led the 1916 Rising, are also private people, sons, daughters, fathers, sisters, husbands. We are so used to seeing them in their public role we can be blind to the fact that off stage, as it were, they loved and were loved, belonged to, and are still missed by their families.
The English poet Philip Larkin explores this public/private dichotomy in his poem “An Arundel Tomb.”
He was looking at the tombs of people who had been buried in Chichester Cathedral. One caught his attention, it was the tomb of the Earl of Arundel and his wife Eleanor.
Their effigies were carved in stone, lying side by side, each wore one glove but their other hands were ungloved, and lightly touching. Larkin found this simple gesture of affection very moving.
It had obviously been carefully planned as an expression of the love the couple had for each other.
The poet used the scene to reflect on fame, mortality and the limits of earthly love. The opening lines of the poem go;
“Side by side their faces blurred, the Earl and Countess lie in stone.” The last line says simply “what will survive of us is love.”
There is a great deal of Christian theology and belief in that short sentence, it echoes St John saying ” God is Love”, St John of the Cross saying “in the evening of our lives we shall be judged on love” and the Song of Songs proclaiming “Love is stronger than death.”
The men and women of 1916 are gone from us physically but in the words of the poet, their love survives and lives on, their love of country, their love of freedom, their determination to keep alive the national spirit.
1916 has been transformational, it has changed our country, it has changed us. As we remember the people of 1916 we are changed by that remembering, in that sense they are still touching us, still inspiring us.
On this 96th anniversary we thank God for the gift of their lives – mindful as ever of the words of Scripture – “the life and death of each of us has its influence on others.”
This is true of every human being but given the pivotal role played by the men and woman of 1916 in the history of our country the words take on an added significance.
Easter Week 1916 set the Irish people on a new path. Not everything that has happened since has been glorious but because of that unexpected, and initially unpromising, rendezvous with destiny, we have been able to chart our own distinctive course as a free people.
The journey goes on, we are still writing our story, trying to make real the promise and the dream of the Rising.
Today we remember in gratitude the small handful of people who gave us the confidence to realise that we had, and still have, a story to tell and a contribution to make.
Ar dheis De go raibh siad.
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