Easter & Innocence


Still trying to read all the books I got for Christmas I’ve been dipping-into a recently-published collection of poetry by a local priest. His works of short and accessible verse are mostly on matters that might feature in a country curate’s sermons, except for one, which retells a story from his childhood, his trip to Dublin at Easter 1966. He recalls how he
“Felt at home
beneath the colours of the GPO”
Recalling a time when the display of the Irish tricolour was forbidden in his native part of Ireland. But the poem is subtitled “death of innocence” and recalls how the trappings of violent republicanism would take-on a different meaning in the years that were to come.

Despite its official condemnation of the 1916 Easter Rising the Catholic Church soon found an accommodation with the nationalist movement and was given a sizable stake in the new Irish state. By the time the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter rising came around the church was visibly involved in the commemorations. A recent article in The Irish Catholic referred to 1966, the rising’s golden jubilee as “A golden year” noting:

“The public commemoration of the Rising’s fiftieth anniversary was an almost exclusively Catholic phenomenon. Given the religiosity of most of those who took part in and led the Rising, and the overwhelmingly Catholic nature of society in the Republic of 50 years later, this was perhaps inevitable”

The year before the golden jubilee anniversary Galway’s Cathedral had opened, and featured in its resurrection chapel a mosaic of Patrick Pearse at prayer next to the Risen Christ and (perhaps even more incongruously) John F Kennedy. The Church was perhaps keen to shelter the image of Pearse and the rising’s leaders as a sort of      choirboy-gun-club and in 1966 an article by Jesuit priest Fr Franics Shaw, deeply critical of Pearse’s religious overtones to the rising, was suppressed having been deemed “untimely and inappropriate” by an Irish Jesuit journal.

But as the priest’s poem illustrates, an innocence and nostalgia felt for the rising would not continue following the outpouring of violence as the decade drew to a close. The Church’s horror at the works of the IRA would lead clerics such as Archbishop Conway of Armagh to unequivocal condemnation, at a funeral for one of their victims he said:
“The persons responsible for such a barbaric act have…become less than human”.

So far in this centenary year there has been no evident suppression of clerical critique on the 1916 Easter rebels and their methods. Dublin newspapers have carried numerous attacks on the rising’s moral standing from the point of Catholic moral teaching, not least from The Irish Times religious correspondent Patsy McGarry, who called the rising itself:

“an immoral and anti-democratic act”

Catholic philosopher Fr Seamus Murphy described as “deeply disturbing” the government’s planned commemorations of the rising. For his part the current Catholic Primate Archbishop Martin spoke of wanting to avoid “false glorification” of the rebels actions.

The centenary of the rising was never likely to gladden the hearts of many unionists, but whether or not it can maintain its imaginative power and resonance (that terrible beauty) with Ireland’s Catholics, in particular those in the North, was what drew me to priest’s poem in the first place.  Last week’s condemnation of the rising from the Attorney General John Larkin were significant as they were not the words of some legal inquiry but they were given as an expression of Larkin’s Catholic morality.

One of Patsy McGarry’s issues with the rising centenary commemorations is that they are to be held on Easter Sunday and not and not the calendar anniversary of the rising (April 24-29). I’ve never seen an official reason for this, and the official handbook for this year states just that: “It’s long been tradition”.

Prior to its 1966 demolition some Irish republicans used to say that Nelson’s pillar in O’Connell Street overshadowed the country’s principal monument, the GPO. Catholics who want little or nothing to do with the physical force republicanism might feel the same about the fanfare surrounding the rising’s centenary commemorations as many will take place on Easter Sunday itself. Few could blame the Catholic Church or indeed other Christian denominations in Ireland from wanting to avoid any dilution of the message of Easter, and the rising it proclaims.


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  • Jane2

    Why shouldn’t the Rising be commemorated on Easter Sunday if that’s tradition? The Catholic Church in Ireland has had 100 years to get used to it, and Patsy McGarry can stay home.

  • Greenflag 2

    The RC Church in Ireland and particularly it’s hierarchy never favoured Irish political independence . Once Catholic Emancipation had been won the RC Church increased it’s hold over the mass of the people and exploited it’s new role of access to world wide missionary activity under the protection of the British Empire just like the non RC Churches .

    But just like the British Monarchy being ever astute to the winds of change and public opinion (Saxe Coburg Gotha to Windsor ) the RC Church eventually ‘followed ‘ the people to wherever they were going . Before the people knew it when all the fuss had died down the RC Church regained it’s ‘control ‘ with the 1937 Constitution from which only in recent decades the Irish Republic has been empowered to amend in certain respects – mostly opposed by the RC Church .

    Easter is for believers a time of rebirth , renewal and hope . Why should’nt it also be a time for renewal and hope for those who are non christian or secular . Spring is for everybody even republicans and unionists . And tradition is tradition . Get over it Patsy . The time is long past when the RC Church hierarchy in Ireland can say hop hop and the people hop in deference .

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Traditions frequently change to suit a contemporary narrative but they nonetheless remain ‘traditions’ in the eyes of many. If Easter is a moveable feast then when to commemorate the Rising, and what to commemorate, become equally moveable.

    I’m not entirely comfortable with giving a possible quasi religious status to anything political or temporal. We see enough of that with the DUP.

  • Paul Hagan

    Well the point I was making is that is that if the RC Church is no longer comfortable with the rising will it now object to it being held at the same time as Easter? The ‘stay at home’ point is interesting here as many Catholics don’t want to stay at home on Easter Sunday, they’d like to go to Mass, the CofI clerics in Dublin raised concern over worshipers not being able to get access so Christ Church on Easter Sunday, a valid complaint perhaps.

  • John Collins

    I was standing at the street corner opposite the south side of Christchurch yesterday and when I looked up I saw two gentlemen, one in what appeared to be Episcopal garb, gazing down from the battlements on the parade. They had a wonderful vantage point and I truly envied them both.

  • Paul Hagan

    Fantastic, I’m glad things worked-out for them

  • John Collins

    Two different Popes granted Ireland to GB. In 1171 Adrian 5 ,Nicholas Breakspear, an Englishman of course. granted it to Henry 11. In the mid Fifteen fifties another bloke granted it to Bloody Mary.