The Keane family are in the midst of a legal battle over five words they hoped would be used to remember their mother.
They believe their case is a watershed moment for the rights of Irish people in Britain, and are pushing back at the perception that the language is something to be feared.
“The Irish community in England are invested in the outcome of this case because we’re challenging a view of Irish people that shouldn’t exist any more,” Bez Martin, the daughter of Margaret Keane, told the Irish Independent.
The family, who live in Coventry, have been banned from inscribing the phrase “in ár gcroíthe go deo” or “in our hearts forever” on their Meath-born mother’s gravestone without a translation.
The reason given by the judge in the ecclesiastical court, which controls diocesan graveyards, is that the language has been politicised.
“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,” said Stephen Eyre QC.
Shocked at the prohibition, the family of six Keanes and their Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo-born father John are challenging the ruling. An all-female, all-Irish legal team is handling their case pro bono and the appeal is expected to be held early in 2021.
“This is anti-Irish prejudice. Five words of our language on a headstone are being represented as incendiary. That’s dangerous and needs to be challenged,” says Ms Martin.
“This associates my mum’s headstone with sentiments of sectarianism and a history which a lot of people worked very hard to move on from. It’s nearly 23 years since the Good Friday Agreement which ended the Troubles.
"That sentiment, that representation of Irishness, is back to the past. It makes English people fear Irishness and that’s not right or accurate.”
Margaret Keane, nee Brennan, who was originally from Athboy, was closely involved as an official in GAA circles in England. She died in 2018 aged 73. Since then, the family has been engaged in a court action with the Church of England authorities, which owns the land where the municipal graveyard used by various denominations is situated.
The same phrase is written in Welsh without a translation in an older part of St Giles’s graveyard in Coventry.
“The case has become about more that one family – it’s about the Irish community in Britain’s entitlement to have its identity and culture respected,” adds Ms Martin. “There’s a moral dimension to this because the wording of the ruling was very inflammatory and if that wasn’t challenged it would be wrong.”
The Keanes have launched a gofundme page to raise money for the appeal, under the name Court Costs for Margaret Keane’s Headstone Appeal. Estimated costs are £20,000 because they are obliged to meet the ecclesiastical appeal court’s cost, win or lose.
Ms Martin added: “Mum taught us to speak up for what we believed. She was gentle, she would never put herself centre stage, but she always taught us the difference between right and wrong. The implications of this case transcend one family – we feel we’re representing the Irish community and their right to display their heritage.
“For our parents the language was a marker for their Irishness. It’s not a political statement – they assimilated to England.”
She and her family of four girls and two boys, including a set of triplet sisters, were champion set dancers and attended Irish language classes at weekends.
Her parents were active in GAA circles, and Mr and Mrs Keane were invited to Croke Park for Queen Elizabeth’s historic visit, while Mrs Keane was honoured in 2017 by the GAA president for her work.
London-based Dubliner Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC, who is acting for the Keanes, said: “This is a landmark case of vital importance, not only to the bereaved family who have been prevented from honouring Margaret in a way which pays tribute to her Irish heritage, but because of the disturbing wider message the ruling sends about the Irish language and cultural diversity in Britain.
“It has a strong undercurrent of anti-Irish sentiment, and it rests on the offensive assumption – without any evidence – that the people of Coventry will associate the Irish language with politics and passionate views. This is a slur with a long history, associating Irish speakers with republican terrorism.”
She noted that in Winchelsea, East Sussex, where actor and comedian Spike Milligan is buried, the epitaph on his gravestone is in Irish without a translation “Dúirt mé leat go raibh mé breoite” (I told you I was ill).
Irish PEN has lent its voice to the Keanes’ campaign, joining for the first time in combined action with other English, Scottish and Welsh PEN centres and PEN International’s Translation and Linguistic Rights committee.
Irish PEN said: “We found it hard to believe that in the 21st century an Irish language inscription on a headstone could be interpreted as seditious. In Ireland and the UK we take rights like freedom of speech and the principles of liberal democracy for granted, but we don’t have to look too far to see democracy under stress and how easily political systems we believe in can fracture. We can’t be complacent.”
The Church of England has distanced itself from the headstone ruling saying it doesn’t reflect national policy.
The Court Costs for Margaret Keane’s Headstone Appeal gofundme page can be found here: gf.me/u/y8bpdx