Colum Kenny: When is it all right to speak ill of the dead?

Romancing the reputations of public figures does a disservice to those they let down

Never speak ill of the dead? Soothing tributes flowed from the pens of Irish bishops and others when first cardinal Desmond Connell and then former bishop Eamonn Casey died. The social significance of their deceit was played down.

Say nothing but good of the departed? When the British TV presenter Michael Parkinson wrote after the death of reality-TV "star" Jade Goody that she had come to represent "all that's paltry and wretched about Britain", even a bishop criticised him.

De mortuis nihil nisi bonum ("Of the dead, nothing but good [is to be spoken]"). Thus the Romans adopted an even older Greek saying steeped in decency and superstition.

To judge from critical and other reactions to his play about the late Charles Haughey and family, Sebastian Barry transgressed that taboo. When the Abbey Theatre in 2002 staged his Hinterland, some found Barry's take on Haughey's personal life cruel.


Old maxim

There is merit in the old maxim, although it is not enshrined in law. Despite reforming Irish defamation legislation in 2009, the


did not lift a general barrier that prevents families suing for slander of their deceased loved ones.

A tabloid may publish vicious falsehoods about the circumstances of a violent death, yet surviving relatives cannot even seek the simple new remedy of a judicial declaration without damages for that defamation.

It is only right to be restrained about the personal faults of the dead, albeit fulsome eulogies from the altar can be hard to take. There is much to be said for the Catholic Church’s efforts to limit these.

All of us are far from perfect, and allowances should be made for the sake of the surviving family, and in humble recognition of human nature.

Obituarists struggle to strike the right note. When the Irish citizen and respected Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe died at Oxford in 2001, a number of those who loved him for his brilliance and character referred to his personality faults in a way that he might have approved.

English obituaries, for example, featured his "fondness for drinking" (Telegraph), with one allowing that "it was not solely because of his heavy drinking that he produced no heavy books" (Independent). He was a "harsh debater" with "a dark insecurity in his personality" (Guardian).

Role model

There is a special challenge when it comes to people who held important public offices or were elevated as a role model or media everyman. Romancing their reputations is a double disservice to those whom society hurts.

When Michael Parkinson wrote that Jade Goody had become media property “to be manipulated and exploited ’til the day she died”, he was registering a significant and corrosive fact of modern life.

There is no fear that the good that Eamonn Casey did will be interred with his bones. But reading tributes to his work for emigrants and Travellers, I have felt uneasy – not due to a celibate having sex or a person being hypocritical, but because of a system failure still unresolved.

For, like Jade Goody, Casey let himself be manipulated and exploited. He masked a hierarchy that had not fundamentally changed after Vatican II, and that still has not changed enough.

I and very many others were kept waiting in Knock on the day that Casey and another icon of easy faith, the late Fr Michael Cleary, delayed Pope John Paul II at Ballybrit racecourse. Theirs was an exhibition of egotism calculated to win the young people of Ireland for an institution that urgently needed reform rather than public relations.

Stab of guilt

In a striking article (

Irish Times

, March 1st), Patsy McGarry recently wrote about the scarcity of public representatives at the funeral of a major figure in Irish life, cardinal Desmond Connell. He asked if we have “abandoned basic respect for the dignity of a person with whom we may disagree, even profoundly”.

I felt a stab of guilt, having approved the absence of public representatives as a kind of honesty.

But to me, Connell, whatever about his personal politeness, facilitated dishonesty or self-delusion on the part of his institution. His concept of “mental reservation” was symptomatic of an Irish establishment that has let moral and political corruption flourish when it suits its interests.

In 1984 I attended the humiliating ceremony at UCG where US president Ronald Reagan received an honorary doctorate, and was glad that Eamon Casey stood aloof from it. To say that bishops abuse power is not to deny that sometimes they use it well.

The abuse of power in Ireland, by bishops, gardaí, media, business and politicians, has been too easy. Apologies are the last refuge of those caught out. In the absence of systematic change and reform, speaking only good of the dead is not always the best option.