Breda O’Brien: We must not play down the faith of the 1916 leaders

This Easter, we could honour the sacrifices of the Rising by remembering religion’s role

A cross which marks the place where James Connolly was executed, sitting in a chair, in  Kilmainham Gaol. Photograph: Frank Miller

A cross which marks the place where James Connolly was executed, sitting in a chair, in Kilmainham Gaol. Photograph: Frank Miller

 

There is a great irony in the fact that while planning the 1916 Commemorations, no-one remembered that Christians have the habit of celebrating the resurrection, and therefore would need access to their city centre churches during the Easter Sunday events.

It has all been sorted out, with special arrangements in place for St Patrick’s Cathedral and the Pro Cathedral, but the fact that initially no-one considered the needs of worshippers confirms the current status of Christians in the State - largely invisible and occasionally a nuisance.

Excluding believers from the Pro Cathedral would have been particularly ironic.

As Archbishop Diarmuid Martin pointed out in the foreword to a new book, The Church and the Rising, edited by Greg Daly and published by the Irish Catholic, the Pro Cathedral was “a centre of humanitarian and spiritual concern during the dramatic days of Easter 1916”.

During the Rising, the priests of the Pro Cathedral spent days blockaded into Jervis Street Hospital and other buildings in the vicinity, tending to the wounded.

In the same book, Noelle Dowling, archivist for the Roman Catholic diocese of Dublin, provides fascinating insights into the role of Archbishop William Walsh, and more particularly, that of Msgr Michael Curran, his secretary.

He acted as eyes and ears for the archbishop who was in poor health.

Showing great personal courage, the monsignor cycled into the city centre on Easter Monday.

The first person he encountered in the GPO was James Connolly, shouting orders and holding a Colt revolver. He told the monsignor that all priests were free to pass.

The monsignor asked for Pearse, whose one request was for priests to come to hear the confessions of the Volunteers. Fr Flanagan and Fr O’Reilly of the Pro Cathedral did so, as did other priests, including from religious orders.

The Capuchins, in particular, played a vital role during the Rising. They were involved from 12.00 on Easter Monday when Sean Foster, toddler son of a parishioner, was killed by a stray bullet in Church Street, to when they were driven from the Friary in the dead of night to hear the condemned leaders’ confessions before their executions.

Quite rightly, it is no longer acceptable to exclude women from the narrative of the Rising, but our current cultural mood finds no fault with downplaying the faith of the majority of the volunteers.

Of course atheists and agnostics were equally courageous, but this was a rising with a distinct Catholic flavour.

Religious freedom

Catholic, by the way, does not mean sectarian. One of the Rising’s major aims was to secure religious freedom for all, and many Protestants fought bravely for that objective.

Greg Daly points out that the Rising was conducted to the sound of the rosary being prayed, particularly in Irish. An eccentric Finnish seaman, Tony Makapaltis, joined the Volunteers in the GPO along with a Swedish friend because they believed in the rights of small nations.

Unlike his Swedish friend, whose name was not recorded, Makapaltis had no English at all, but by the time he left the GPO, Makapaltis could say the rosary in Irish, so often had he heard it prayed.

Connolly, who declared in 1908 that he had not practiced his Catholic faith in fifteen years and that he had not a tincture of faith left, still received the sacraments before his execution, leaving a profound impression on one of the Capuchins, Fr Aloysius Travers.

It is impossible to understand the motivation of Pearse, Joseph Mary Plunkett, Sean Heuston, or many others, without understanding their deep faith.

Not that it gives them a free pass. The fact that Pearse and others understood their sacrifice in religious terms does not exclude the possibility that they were misguided.

The Christian Church thrived in the first centuries, not because it responded to the oppression of the Roman Empire with violence, but because it declined to do so. However, the early church leaders shared something with Pearse.

Although unlike him, they drew the line at taking the lives of others, they were very willing to lay down their own, and they inspired others to do likewise.

It is possible to admire the courage and personal sacrifice of the 1916 leaders without endorsing violence.

These brave men and women were willing to die for Ireland because they felt that as a long-colonised country, it was losing its soul and its language.

What would they make of us today? For influential opinion-formers, the central identity of the Irish seems to involve jettisoning anything that does not fit the zeitgeist, including centuries of spiritual heritage.

Sacrifice for a cause often now seems to extend only as far as changing your cover photo on Facebook.

Writer Mark Shea coined a phrase describing those praised for their courage, when in fact all they are doing is adopting the position approved of by the elite. He calls it ‘bravely facing the applause’.

Maybe this Easter, we could honour the sacrifices of 1916 by asking ourselves how many of us, Christian or non-believer, are willing to do more than bravely face the applause for any just cause in which we believe?

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