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Gaelic-epitaph ruling reversed

05 March 2021

Inscription needs no English translation, says Court of Arches

Creative Commons/Robin Stott

St Giles’s, Exhall, in the diocese of Coventry

St Giles’s, Exhall, in the diocese of Coventry

THE Court of Arches, the highest ecclesiastical court of the Province of Canterbury, sitting at St Mary-le-Bow, in London, has reversed a decision of a diocesan chancellor who refused to allow an inscription in Irish Gaelic on a gravestone in a church burial ground unless the inscription included an English translation (News, 12 June 2020).

The court, presided over by the Dean of the Arches, the Rt Worshipful Morag Ellis QC, sitting with the Chancellor of Chester diocese, Judge David Turner QC, and the Chancellor of Salisbury diocese, the Worshipful Ruth Arlow, announced on Wednesday of last week, at the end of the appeal hearing, that the Gaelic inscription should be allowed without an English translation, on condition only that a translation be provided in the appropriate parish register. The Court will give a reasoned judgment at a later date.

The court proceedings originated in the Consistory Court of Coventry diocese, when Caroline Newey applied for a faculty permitting an inscription on the memorial stone over the grave of her mother, Margaret Keane, who died suddenly in July 2018, aged 73. She was buried in burial grounds owned and managed by St Giles’s, Exhall, in the diocese of Coventry.

Mrs Keane and her husband were both born in the Irish Republic, and remained proud of their Irish heritage, although they had built their lives in the UK for many years. Her family wanted the memorial stone to include a Celtic cross, containing at its centre the emblem of the Gaelic Athletic Association, which Mrs Keane and her husband had actively supported. It was also proposed that the memorial should have the Irish Gaelic phrase “In ár gcroíthe go deo”, which translates as “In our hearts for ever”.

In May last year, the Chancellor, Judge Stephen Eyre QC, had refused to allow the inclusion of the Gaelic phrase on the memorial unless an English translation was also included. The reasons for that were, the Chancellor said, that the Gaelic message would “be incomprehensible to all but a small minority of readers”, and it was “not appropriate . . . without translation”, since this was “a memorial in English-speaking Coventry”.

Not only would the message, he said, “not be understood, but there [was] a risk of it being misunderstood” and, “given the passions and feelings connected with Irish Gaelic”, there was a “sad risk” that it would be “regarded as some form of slogan” or “would itself be seen as a political statement”.

Mrs Keane’s family had resisted the inclusion of the English translation, which they felt would overcomplicate and crowd the memorial. They said that the use of Irish Gaelic was not intended as a political statement, but as an important part of the family’s heritage, and a “vehicle of symbolic value”. The family appealed to the Court of Arches against the Chancellor’s ruling.

Last week, lawyers for the family argued before the Court that the Chancellor was being irrational; that there was no evidence for the Chancellor’s assertion of the “sad risk” that the Gaelic phrase would be regarded as a political “slogan”; and that his assertion was based on prejudice. It was submitted that his ruling amounted to saying that the family were in England and should speak English.

The family’s lawyers also relied on human-rights issues: in particular, Article 14 of the Human Rights Convention as scheduled to the Human Rights Act 1998, which prohibits discrimination on any grounds including race, colour, language, political or other opinion, national or social origin, and association with a national minority. It was said that there was direct discrimination in this case, since there were inscriptions in other languages without any translation, so that the Irish had been singled out.

The extent to which human rights affect the ability of churches to set limits to inscriptions on gravestones — for example, an atheist slogan in a Church of England churchyard — is an issue that might arise in the future.

Judgments of the Court of Arches create precedent that diocesan chancellors sitting in the consistory courts are obliged to follow. This is the first appeal from a consistory court on the subject of non-English inscriptions on memorials, and, since England is a multi-ethnic, multicultural society, it is likely that a significant minority of families might wish to to inscribe non-English expressions on memorials. Guidelines may be laid down by the Court of Arches, therefore, to assist chancellors when deciding whether to grant a faculty permitting unfamiliar foreign words, emblems, or forms of decoration to be inscribed on memorials in churchyards and consecrated ground in cemeteries.

Since the Court of Arches has not yet given a full reasoned judgment for its decision, it remains to be seen what those guidelines might be, and which of this family’s arguments, particularly those based on the Human Rights Convention, found favour with the court in allowing the appeal.

In the mean time, however, the court acceded to the family’s request for an indication of its ruling so that they could install the memorial on Mrs Keane’s grave by Mothering Sunday or St Patrick’s Day.

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