SENIOR church figures have distanced themselves from a consistory-court ruling that an Irish Gaelic phrase on a gravestone might be seen as a political statement.
The Chancellor of Coventry diocese, His Hon. Judge Stephen Eyre QC, refused permission for the wording on the headstone for Margaret Keane, who came originally from the Irish Republic, unless it was accompanied by an English translation.
The family of Mrs Keane, who died in 2018, aged 73, wanted to include the words “In ár gcroíthe go deo” (“In our hearts for ever”) on the stone at St Giles’s, Exhall, near Nuneaton, but the judge considered that it could be open to misinterpretation.
That decision, last month, prompted protests. The Church of Ireland Bishop of Cashel & Ossory, the Rt Revd Michael Burrows, who is episcopal patron of the Irish Guild of the Church, Cumann Gaelach na hEaglaise, said: “I carry no brief for the family involved, and I can but imagine the personal sensitivities that are involved in this for them. But the decision, and more particularly the Judge’s justification of it, raise serious issues in terms of cultural respect between our islands which go to the very heart even of the delicate Irish peace process. Supposedly small matters like this are litmus tests of assumptions and attitudes.”
Bishop Burrows said that at the heart of “this unfortunate matter is the judge’s apparently fixed notion that use of the Irish language is inseparable from a political agenda. It is this very opinion that we in the Irish Guild of the Church have spent over a century vigorously opposing, thereby striving to liberate the language from political manipulation and misunderstanding.”
He questioned the need for a translation. “Would the Judge have done this had the desired inscription been in Cornish or Welsh or Manx? Or even Latin? . . . The judgment in this local case has a capacity to do harm, to reignite the notion that one of the ancient languages of these islands, the original language of hymns like ‘Be thou my vision’, is to be regarded by the Anglican Church not as a vehicle of spirituality but of its very nature as an instrument of politics. And to that assertion we feel bound stridently to object.”
Statements by Church House, in London; the diocese; and the Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth, expressed surprise and hinted that the family should appeal against the decision.
This week, Mrs Keane’s daughter, Caroline Newey, said that she would appeal. “We are very disappointed by the ruling which has politicised a grieving family’s final declaration of love. It has been devastating to us, and it has suspended the grieving process. Almost two years on, we have no final memorial for her yet. We are an Irish Catholic family and are immersed in that culture, but we are also totally assimilated into English culture and society.
“Our Irish is not political. It is much more sentimental than that. We did not feel we were making any statement, other than love for our mother.”
In a statement, the Church of England said: “This decision does not reflect any national Church of England policy. This was a judgment from the Consistory Court of the diocese of Coventry. Consistory court judgments may, with permission, be appealed to the Provincial Court of the Archbishop: in this case, the Arches Court of Canterbury.”
Dr Cocksworth wrote on his website: “I am praying for this particular situation, especially for a distressed family, and I am ensuring they are made aware of their legal rights according to the procedures of the Consistory Court.”
The diocesan statement repeated the statement from Church House that an appeal could be made against the decision to the Court of Arches.
Mrs Keane came to England from the Irish Republic in the 1950s. She and her husband were active in the Irish community, particularly the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA). The design on her headstone included a Celtic cross and a GAA emblem, but there were objections to the untranslated phrase. Mrs Newey maintained, however, that an English translation would “over-complicate and crowd” the memorial.
In his ruling, the Chancellor said that it was “clearly right” that it should celebrate Mrs Keane’s Irish heritage, but the inclusion of words in a language other than English caused him “greater difficulty”. The phrase would be “all but unintelligible to all but a small minority of readers. I make it clear that in saying this I am not in any sense adjudicating on the relative merits or standing of English and Irish Gaelic as languages.”
The situation would be “wholly different” if the memorial were in the Republic of Ireland, but this was “English-speaking Coventry”, and there was a risk of its being misunderstood. “Given the passions and feelings connected with the use of Irish Gaelic, there is a sad risk that the phrase would be regarded as some form of slogan, or that its inclusion without translation would, of itself, be seen as a political statement. That is not appropriate, and it follows that the phrase must be accompanied by a translation.”
Although few speak Irish Gaelic in everyday conversation, it remains the official First Language of the Republic, and most of the population are conversant with some of it.