‘I wish more people had been here to hear that.’
So whispered a parishioner from St Oliver’s Plunkett’s in Lenadoon, who was sitting behind me last night at Fitzroy Presbyterian’s performance of ‘The Gospel According to Christy Moore,’ in St Oliver’s Plunkett’s Church.
Rev Steve Stockman of Fitzroy had just asked the Catholics in the audience for forgiveness, because of what he identified as his forebears’ oppression of their forebears. Indeed, over the course of the evening, Stockman explained that he saw the Fitzroy musicians’ performance of Christy Moore – in a Catholic Church – as a type of repentance and identification with the oppressed.
The evening at St Oliver Plunkett’s was part of the programme for Féile an Earraigh. There will be a repeat performance this Sunday, 18 March, at Fitzroy Presbyterian at 7 pm. Though the symbolic impact of the event may not be as great in Fitzroy as in Lenadoon, it’s worth attending just for the exceptionally high quality of musicianship.
Despite the parishioner’s wish for a bigger audience, there was actually a fair-sized Thursday evening crowd on hand to enjoy the music and, I think, to be genuinely moved by not just by Stockman’s apology, but by the way in which the event marked the identification of one community with another.
By that I mean that by humbly asking to perform Moore’s nationalist songs in a Catholic Church, the Presbyterian musicians were saying they wished to come alongside that community – to enjoy music, to prayerfully consider a painful past, and to try and build a better future together.
On his blog, Stockman elaborates on the thinking behind the event, describing how what started out as a ‘gimmick’ to entice university students into church had become for him a much more spiritually engaging experience:
An American group from Fuller University were with us and one of their staff said he had been singing Irish songs to the students and I asked him up to sing one. When he started into The Fields Of Athenry I was sitting beside him wondering if this song had any right to be sung in Church. It was then that I had an epiphany. The Fields Of Athenry and some of the other Irish songs that Christy Moore sings are songs of oppression with an Old Testament ring to them and a hope for the liberation from oppression (e.g. Amos 5) that Jesus declared right at the outset of his ministry (Luke 4: 18-19).
This revelation took me to a place of social discomfort. I was born and raised in the Protestant Unionist British side of the tragedy of Irish divide. As a result the oppression that Christy Moore sings about through hundreds of years of Irish history has been caused by those of us intending to sing the songs and commentate upon them. The youth of today would cry “Awkward.” Last year in Fitzroy though we had author Nicholas Wolterstorff who has said, “In taking side of the exploited, Christians find themselves in opposition to some of those who confess the same Lord.”
It is more of this discomfort that the Irish people need if we are going to be honest and authentic with our former enemies, ourselves and our God. In 2 Chronicles 7:14 God promised them people, “14 if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” This is one of those ways when we humble ourselves and admit to having and turn from our wicked part of the tragedy.
Doubtless Stockman’s apology and request for forgiveness will annoy the ‘whataboutery’ brigade, especially those who think that it makes no sense for those of us living today to apologise for our ancestors, as well as those who might think that the other ‘side’ has more to apologise for – particularly when it comes to recent history.
But the dynamics of reconciliation are complex, and it is doubtful that Northern Ireland will ever have any sort of meaningfully integrated or reconciled society unless there is some apologising and forgiving – including acknowledging a painful past and extending grace to one another.
Of course, it is easier to wait for the other side to apologise, foregoing the individual or communal self-examination necessary to recognise that everyone (even those who did not participate in violence) has been somehow implicated in sustaining the divided, sectarian society on this island.
At the end of the performance, St Oliver Plunkett’s Fr Martin Magill noted that elsewhere that evening for the Féile, there was a roundtable discussion of the Ulster Covenant. Themes around covenant were also explored last week by Rev Johnston McMaster at the Centre for Contemporary Christianity’s Catherwood Lecture.
Magill asked us all to ponder how those of us today might think about a new covenant – with each other rather than one side against the other – for building a shared future together. Courageous and symbolically rich events like the Gospel According to Christy Moore seem to me like a good place to start.