Tuesday 19 September 2017

Political funerals take on an extra dimension for us

Former US President Bill Clinton visiting the Kilkenny Design Shop today on Dublin's Nassau St (Photo: Doug O'Connor)
Former US President Bill Clinton visiting the Kilkenny Design Shop today on Dublin's Nassau St (Photo: Doug O'Connor)
John Downing

John Downing

In just seven days, we have had three very high-profile funerals laden down with politics. There was the errant bishop, Eamonn Casey; the stoically long-suffering political wife and daughter, Maureen Haughey; and the gunman-turned-statesman, Martin McGuinness.

Amidst family and friends' very genuine personal grief in all three cases, all were hugely public political acts.

In fact, all were overtly about shaping a legacy, addressing darker shadows of the past, and recasting the future of their associated institutions, the Catholic Church, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin/IRA.

Irish people know a lot about funerals and in the main we do them rather well. But the political or institutional funeral takes on an extra dimension alongside supporting and sympathising with the bereaved. Here the waking and burial ceremonies also fulfil other functions. They become a statement about the status and power of the institution to which the deceased was attached. They often are about enhancing or at least adjusting that institution's reputation. They regularly are an attempt to re-orient that institution for the future.

All of these factors were in evidence in the three funerals which occurred from last Thursday week to Thursday of this past week. At Galway Cathedral there were 11 bishops and 61 priests in attendance at the requiem mass for former Bishop of Kerry and Galway, Eamonn Casey. His remains were laid to rest beneath the splendid cathedral he had to leave rather abruptly in 1992. The second sentence uttered by principal celebrant of the mass, Bishop Kirby, would have been unthinkable just a short few years ago as it referred to both Bishop Casey's son and former lover. "I sympathise with Peter Murphy and his mother, Annie," he said.

In the homily, Bishop Brendan Kelly paid a warm tribute to an old friend, who had many strengths, and noted it was not the time to rake up the details of the controversy. But he balanced that by saying many people were hurt by the controversy and implicitly stated that a higher standard of behaviour is expected of priests and bishops.

Eimear Mulhern with other family members at the funeral of her mother Maureen Haughey Photo: Colin Keegan
Eimear Mulhern with other family members at the funeral of her mother Maureen Haughey Photo: Colin Keegan

"Irresponsibility, infidelity and sin are very shocking in the lives of those who preach the gospel," Bishop Kelly frankly stated.

For many church critics, the bishops will never do right. But this was a very candid and Christian approach to life which reflected very well on the senior churchmen on this occasion. There was no attempt to dodge reality.

The politics of our second funeral were more nuanced and subtle. Maureen Haughey, the daughter of a Fianna Fáil Taoiseach, who married another, was a strong woman in her own right, who led her own life, and successfully guarded her privacy through many controversial years. But she was the daughter of a Fianna Fáil founder, Seán Lemass, and the wife of a man who led the party for 13 years.

There were seven pews at St Sylvester's Church in Malahide full of Fianna Fáil people reaching back five decades and right up to the present day. The presence included party leader, Micheál Martin, and former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.

There was more than a suggestion that the party's past, and that of their most controversial leader, Charlie Haughey, was being reconciled with the present and future.

Some 20 contemporary TDs and Senators were in attendance - presenting as party trying to project a united front.

Politicians sitting in enforced silence in a church for over an hour can project strange effects. And Maureen Haughey's story also reflected well retrospectively on her late husband whose memory still evokes intrigue.

Our final politically-laden funeral was, like the other two, also an expression of familial and community grief. But the burial ceremony for Martin McGuinness, who led Sinn Féin and the IRA through a bitter war, on to armed peace, and finally into politics, was undoubtedly the most politically-loaded of all our three funerals.

The coffin of Martin McGuinness is carried to the cemetery (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)
The coffin of Martin McGuinness is carried to the cemetery (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)

Martin McGuinness's primary position within the Republican movement was uncontested for the past 30 years. He was very well respected by his contemporaries and something of a mythical folk hero to a rising generation.

But beyond those narrow confines. things got tricky. It was not just unionist and Protestant communities who remembered the atrocities with still burning hurt. The IRA, like all terror organisations, expended a lot of its energies terrorising their own neighbours in efforts to keep them compliant and, at least silent, if not quite on-message.

Yet the genuine nature of Martin McGuinness's work for the peace process over 20 years, and his clear commitment to making power-sharing work, won out over the very dark shadows of the earlier phase in his life. The cross-community acknowledgement, especially from among one-time bitter adversaries on the unionist side, could not be gainsaid.

The Sinn Féin party's primacy in Northern Ireland politics was confirmed by the Assembly elections earlier this month. They even finally emerged ahead of the SDLP in their Derry heartland for the first time. The enormous funeral, attracting luminaries from all sides of the political spectrum on these islands and beyond, can only copper-fasten this primacy.

The message from former US President Bill Clinton was more than a tribute. It challenged the emerging new leadership.

Irish Independent

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