Bishop Brendan Leahy, Bishop of Limerick, launched The End of All Things Earthly: Faith Profiles of the 1916 Leaders in the Capuchin Friary in Church Street, Dublin last night. Speaking at the launch Bishop Leahy said:
Some months ago, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, noting that almost all the men and women of 1916 were people of faith, and that the Proclamation is prefaced in the name of God, commented that “each of the leading figures had a personal story of faith which accompanied them along their journey. I would love to see some historian taking up research into the spiritual and religious roots of their commitment”. I am delighted to be here this evening at the launch of a book that at least in some small way responds to the Archbishop of Dublin’s wish, a wish that many of us have shared.
I congratulate David Bracken the editor. As soon as I suggested the idea to him last October, he got straight into action. Despite the short time frame, he managed to persuade a number of fine contributors to offer short, accessible articles on each of the 1916 leaders. I am grateful to them for their generosity in responding to David’s request. I’m sure they are pleased with the outcome.
Modest in size, the book gently leads the reader through a series of fascinating and clearly focused chapters, each one a fine vignette in itself, though obviously linked to the common story that links all the 1916 leaders. The editor is to be commended for his own succinct and enlightening introduction in which he clarifies that the book wants to inhabit a space “between the extremes: the hagiography of the past, on the one hand… and, on the other hand, a present in which the personal faith story of the 1916 leaders is sometimes forgotten”. He notes the problematic question of faith and the violent revolution that was the Rising. Questions were, and have been since raised, about the appropriation of religious concepts in service of a justification of revolution. Professor Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh asks the unavoidable question: Did 1916 justify the IRA campaign?
The contributors to this book were not asked to address directly with these issues. Rather, their focus was to reflect on the personal faith story of spiritual life of one of the sixteen executed leaders, taking an event or a relationship in that person’s life or an item associated with them as a point of departure. As David Bracken points out in his introduction, each of the reflections “serves as an invitation to the general reader to delve more deeply into the extensive literature documenting the Rising and its seminal significance”. What each chapter does is to alert us to the issue of faith and its significance in the personal life story of each of the leaders. It is timely to do so because there is a risk in our commemoration that we forget this important dimension in the lives of most of them.
As we read through the book we grow in our appreciation of the characters and the background that shaped them: the horrors witnessed by Roger Casement in colonial Africa and South America; the educational passion of Patrick Pearse; the impact of the 1798 rebellion on leaders; the reading of advanced spiritual works in the family of Thomas MacDonagh; the emotional turmoil that beset Michael Mallins as he began to grasp the consequences of his death for his pregnant wife and four young children.
It is not by chance that we are launching this short book in Church Street in a year when the Capuchins are celebrating 400 years in Ireland. The Capuchin Friars found themselves in the thick of the fighting of Easter Week as British forces repeatedly attacked Volunteer positions around Church Street and at the Four Courts. The Friars were in constant attendance, providing consolations to the combatants, conveying the wounded to Richmond Hospital and hearing the confessions of the Volunteers. Subsequently, the Capuchins mediated negotiations between the British Army and the rebel leaders, and ministered to the leaders awaiting execution in Kilmainham Gaol. They showed immense courage and conviction themselves. One cannot help but be struck by the experiences of Fr Aloysius’ in his time with James Connolly in the days before his execution. Fr Aloysius stood behind the firing party as Connolly was placed on a chair and executed and remarked afterwards, “It was a scene I should not ask to witness again. I had got to know Connolly – to wonder at his strength of character……(and) now I had to say goodbye”
We are now over halfway through the “decade of centenaries”, a period that was approached with some trepidation because of the risk of reopening old wounds; thankfully these fears have not materialised. The centenaries marked to date have provided a context for mature reflection and an opportunity to rediscover and re-engage with the experiences, hopes and fears of the generations that have gone before us. Particularly positive have been those initiatives that have engaged young people in learning about this important period of our history.
On Monday, speaking to 6000 young people in Croke Park as second level schools were presented with the flag and a copy of the Proclamation, President Higgins described the Rising to the young people as a “stunningly ambitious act of imagination”. He went on to remind them that it is up to young people of today to take charge of change and imagine what Ireland might yet become. Young people, after all, have a great part to play in shaping the future. Their ideas, enthusiasm and dreams, as President Higgins pointed out, are needed to continue the work of building a society in which all out citizens can flourish.
As we launch this book on the faith profiles of the executed 1916 leaders, I hope it might find its way into the hands of young people. Taking up President Higgins’ remarks on Monday, I invite young people to explore the faith stories of the 1916 leaders. Many of the executed leaders were young people themselves who were fully engaged with the communities around them. Among them were artists, poets, educators, diplomats and dreamers. Many were their gifts. Many were their faults.
Thomas Kent was a young man actively involved in his community, the Temperance Movement and in Irish cultural activities. Eamonn Ceannt had a real passion for the Irish language and Irish music. Willie Pearse was a young artist, a sculptor whose work showed great promise. Con Colbert had a sense that he was was called by God like so many others of his generation. Joseph Plunkett, a poet and mystic, seeing the glory of God in all things.
The 1916 leaders were people who engaged with the world around them. They didn’t just observe but poured themselves into life. While we might question, discuss or disagree with their means, we cannot but be inspired by their vision and conviction. And faith was an integral part of life for many of them. For some a serene, simple faith. For others a hard-won faith, full of struggles. For others still an inspiring faith, full of light. For some faith in darkness.
In exploring the faith and spiritual stories of these executed leaders, I invite young people not to get stuck in detail. The forms of faith may vary. Each of us has our own personal faith story – I can’t have yours; you can’t have mine. It’s not a question of proposing the leaders as models to be imitated in pedestrian fashion. What matters is to note the fact of faith in the leaders. And explore how faith might be significant in our lives today.
I was taken recently by the words of Tyrone GAA football manager Mickey Harte at what was the final public event as part of preparations of our Limerick diocesan Synod, which takes place on April 8th, 9th and 10th. He urged people to be proud of their faith and have the courage to follow it. The executed leaders of the 1916 Rising certainly had courage in abundance, courage in particular to follow their patriotic convictions. Those who had faith, for sure followed it. Those who had a struggling faith, well there is certainly evidence to suggest that some – notably Roger Casement and James Connolly – fall into the category of a reminder to us that ‘it is never too late to call on your God’.
In the world today, a world in which many are searching for meaning, I would urge young and old alike to look at the 1916 leaders and what they got from their faith. How it anchored them in their final moments. We admire their courage and conviction and their faith was clearly part of that. We should also be willing to celebrate this aspect of their existence.
It is true that some felt alienation and distance from the Church. The 1916 leaders would have been acquainted with the limits of the Church. And yet they recognised the presence of Christ working in and through these limits.
We know that when the fighting began, two priests were let into the GPO by James Connolly. Padraig Pearse requested that they send more priests as many of the men wanted their confession heard. The two priests were Msgr. Michael Curran, then secretary to the Archbishop of Dublin at the time, William Walsh, and Fr. Edward Byrne, administrator of the Pro-Cathedral and himself later Archbishop of Dublin. They were joined by other Pro-Cathedral priests Frs. Flanagan and O’Reilly.
We know that Dublin’s pro-Cathedral was a centre of humanitarian and spiritual concern during the dramatic days of Easter Week 1916. Indeed it was Msgr Curran, accompanied by Fr. Walsh who anointed the man who was probably the first person to die in the uprising: a British soldier that passers-by noted was wearing a miraculous medal.
Twenty priests from ten parishes, as well as the Capuchins, ministered to the wounded and dying. Fr. O’Reilly ran from the Pro-Cathedarl to Wynne’s Hotel through streets raked with gunfire from all sides to attend to a wounded man who was badly injured.
In a set of photographs of Dublin in the destruction of the aftermath of the Easter Rising which were commissioned by the British military governor, General Sir John Maxwell, we find a picture of a Daughter of Charity distributing food to a group of boys.
The 1916 leaders appreciated the presence of the Church ministers and services. But they also recognised the Church isn’t just benevolent works, rules and regulations. The Church has a deep maternal dimension that we perhaps don’t always realise or articulate but it is deep in Catholic consciousness.
Through the ministry of the priests, the administration of the sacraments and the community life of the Church, there is a maternity at work – supporting us, accompanying us, healing us, feeding us spiritually, offering forgiveness, preparing us for death. The 1916 leaders experienced that. That’s why the sacraments were important for them – they were encounters with Christ. Faith ultimately is about encounter with a Person, Jesus Christ.
In short, the faith of the 1916 leaders was not a vague spirituality dislodged from Church life and spiritual exercises. Some of the leaders explored their faith, reading classical texts from the Church’s spiritual treasure trove – works such as Thomas à Kempis, Imitation of Christ, biographies of Francis of Assisi and Saint Columbanus. Some read up on the mystical tradition of the Church.
They were in touch with what the Church is about – to enable us to access union with God and live in right relationship with others. It is striking how many of them uttered words of no resentment and forgiveness towards those who had been their enemies in the course of the Rising or as their execution approach.
A hundred years later, I hope the 1916 commemoration will be a time when young people now building the future of Ireland will profitably look again at the issue of faith and the Church as a source of inspiration. Along with recent scandals, a certain form of secularism will want to eclipse God and Church belonging from our horizon, but that is not the only option available to young people. The Church certainly needs young people but they too will find much of value in the Church, understood with an adult faith. And it is this adult faith that the 1916 leaders call us to embrace.
I am delighted to co-launch this book that introduces us to the faith profiles of the 1916 leaders. Congratulations to all concerned – the contributors, the editor and Veritas, the publishers.
The book is edited by the Limerick diocesan archivist David Bracken and published by Veritas.
In this photo: Brian Kirby, Capuchin Archivist; Bishop Brendan Leahy, Bishop of Limerick; Maura Hyland, Director of Veritas; David Bracken, Editor of The End of All Things Earthly and, Father Bryan Shortall, Guardian of the Capuchin Friary Church Street.