Sunday 18 March 2018

'Why is the Catholic system not delivering what it should?' asks Archbishop Diarmuid Martin

While Archbishop Diarmuid Martin reflects on 1916, he keeps a trained eye on the future

Proud: Archbishop Diarmuid Martin’s uncle was part of the Jacob's factory garrison during the 1916 Easter Rising Photo: Frank McGrath
Proud: Archbishop Diarmuid Martin’s uncle was part of the Jacob's factory garrison during the 1916 Easter Rising Photo: Frank McGrath

Celine Naughton

From the time he was a boy, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin was enthralled by his mother's early recollections of 1916. Eileen Mullen was only a little girl at the time, living in the Coombe in the heart of Dublin, yet the gathering clouds in the city were so heavy with foreboding, even children could sense that something momentous was about to unfold.

"My mother's first memory was watching her mother putting bullets into a bandolier for my uncle Martin, who was part of the Jacob's factory garrison," he says. "I often wondered how she could do that, watch her son go out to kill, or be killed."

Martin survived and was quickly dispatched with his fellow rebels to Frongoch prison in Wales. But while one brother had gone out to strike a blow for Irish freedom, another had already left to serve his king and country in the First World War.

"The second oldest, James, had run away and joined the British Army," says Dr Martin. "His father wanted his sons to move into his building firm as bricklayers, but James didn't want that, so he fled. He was wounded in Gallipoli and lost the sight in one eye, and only returned to Ireland in 1938, a few days before his mother died. He worked in the British Civil Service until he retired, while Martin ended up as the chief inspector of dangerous buildings in Dublin."

The women in the family were also active in the nationalist cause: one sister joined the Irish Citizen Army, and another Cumann na mBan, and the matriarch of the family made it clear where her allegiance lay.

"Once, when two British soldiers and two RIC people came to raid the house, my grandmother let the British soldiers in, because they were working for their country, but not the RIC people, as she felt they were doing jobs which were not befitting fellow Irish men and Irish women.

"I was brought up to be proud of my relatives who played their part in the Rising. I can't separate myself from my family participation in it and inevitably the commitment of one generation is passed on to another.

"However, it's always a difficult task to see how you justify violence. Most of us are pacifists in our hearts, but you have to understand the frustration there was in Ireland at that time. Whether they really expected a prolonged military combat, I just don't know, so it's very hard to judge."

While Dr Martin speaks with the benefit of hindsight, it was a different story for the priests and bishops who lived through the Rising.

"The clergy on all sides were divided," he says. "The Capuchins were particularly nationalistic, but then there were the anti-Rising priests known as 'Castle Catholics' - that is, Catholics who frequented Dublin Castle.

The priests in the Pro Cathedral were active in ministering on both sides of O'Connell Street: the GPO on one, and on the other, one of the worst slums in Europe."

But if the clergy was divided, so too was the majority of civilians at the time.

"The people living in the slums weren't out on the streets cheering on the rebels. At the very most they were interested in survival. And the people at the races were not particularly interested either. But within months of the shooting of the leaders, public opinion had changed dramatically."

Not only did the executions galvanise support worldwide for the Irish cause, they left an indelible mark on both the priests who witnessed them, and the soldiers who carried them out.

"There was almost a tenderness in the way the young soldiers had to blindfold the men before they were shot," says Dr Martin.

"The priest who witnessed the shooting of James Connolly described Connolly slumping so badly in a chair, he was instead put on a stretcher and propped up against a wall, and the way he was shot, the blood came out everywhere, so you could imagine how traumatic that was.

"The chaplain at Arbour Hill said the bodies arrived still warm, their mouths open, blood dripping from them, and they were thrown into a mass grave.

"The brutality of the immediate reprisals - and it wasn't just General Maxwell acting as an individual, he obviously had clear instructions that there were to be no negotiations whatsoever about this process - rebounded to a great extent on future history."

If this centenary has been a time for Archbishop Martin to reflect on events of the past, it's also one that also prompts him to ask hard questions about the future. After decades of sexual scandal and cover-ups, vocations to the priesthood in freefall and a generation of young people rejecting the faith of their fathers, he's in no doubt that this is a pivotal time in the history of the Catholic Church.

"If we accept the Proclamation as a document of ideals, we have to ask where are those ideals today, and where have we failed?" he says.

"I think, 100 years later, it means asking ourselves where we're going - not looking back, but asking the Catholic church in particular to take stock of that idealism. Does idealism still exist, or has it been neutralised by the cynicism of what we've seen happen in Ireland?

"Most of our young people who have gone through up to 12 years of Catholic education don't end up practising Catholics. You have to ask why the system is not delivering what it should.

"It's a logical question to ask, yet some people see any criticism of the Church as anti-Catholic. It's not. The Catholic Church in Ireland needs to carry out an honest appraisal of its place in Irish society in the future, otherwise it risks being trapped in its own history.

"We've achieved great things, but there's a fragmentation in Irish society now and you have to ask, where do we look for leadership, especially for young people?"

In the driving seat of a church in crisis, Dr Diarmuid Martin may have one eye on the rear view mirror, but his gaze is fixed firmly on the road ahead.

Irish Independent

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