Tuesday 18 June 2019

If TDs won't stand for Dáil prayers, maybe 'Songs of Praise' will get them on their feet

For balance, atheists and agnostics could also suggest choices – their acknowledged anthem is John Lennon’s 'Imagine'. Photo: PA
For balance, atheists and agnostics could also suggest choices – their acknowledged anthem is John Lennon’s 'Imagine'. Photo: PA
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

Prayers in Dáil Éireann? My alternative solution to this controversial question - since secularists continue to be opposed to it - is to begin proceedings with a hymn.

A hymn brings people together in the spirit of community. A hymn can be rousing, sonorous, reflective or soulful, and it is a known medical fact that singing out loud helps the heart and the lungs, and even stimulates the brain.

Hymns can be specific, but they can also be ecumenical and multi-cultural. I attended a Sunday Mass in Navan a few months ago, where the African priest in the pulpit, embarking on a homily, broke into a dazzling rendering of 'Amazing Grace'. Surely a fine hymn to start parliamentary proceedings!

And in these days when we talk about Brexit prompting a united Ireland, what better bridge could we build with our separated brethren in the North than acknowledging the popular hymn writer Mrs Cecil Alexander of Derry, author of 'All Things Bright and Beautiful', 'There is a Green Hill Far Away', and 'Once in Royal David's City'?

And wouldn't a spirited belting out of 'Bread of Heaven' lift the parliamentary mood? Just as a chorus or two of 'Faith of Our Fathers' would remind deputies that there was a time when many of our ancestors did have to risk "dungeon, fire and sword" to uphold their faith. Then the many good works of the Salvation Army could be recalled with the satisfying 'Onward Christian Soldiers'.

Fr Fergus O'Donoghue, of the multi-cultural St Francis Xavier church in Dublin's Gardiner Street, suggests that well-loved hymns might include: 'O God Our Help in Ages Past', 'The Old Rugged Cross', 'Bringing in the Sheep', and 'Nearer My God To Thee' - the last being played on the Titanic as it was sinking, and a contemplation of the disasters that can befall the best-laid plans.

As an Irish-language hymn, Fr Fergus nominates 'Ag Críost an Síol', also suggested by the psychotherapist and Gaeilgeoir Stella O'Malley. Stella recommends, as Gaelige, 'Dóchas linn Naomh Pádraig', 'A Mhuire Mhathair', and 'Bí Íosa im Chroise'. She praises them not for religious reasons - she is an agnostic - but because they are beautiful and reach those parts of the psyche that everyday speech may not.

Evidently, the task of choosing would go to the Ceann Comhairle in the Dáil (and the Cathaoirleach in the Seanad). The criteria, I'd suggest, would be that the hymn should be uplifting, tuneful, easy for everyone to sing, and help to start proceedings in a spirit of goodwill.

There could also be a seasonal element, as with carols, and for times of special mourning, more sombre vocals such as 'The Lord is my Shepherd', drawn on the poetic Psalm 23 of the 'Hebrew Bible'. I'm not sure the assembled deputies would be up to a bit of gospel, but if they were, they could try 'By the Rivers of Babylon', or 'Give Me Joy in My Heart (Keep me Singing)'.

For an accompaniment, strings are always versatile and harmonious: a couple of fiddlers would provide the perfect backing. For solemn occasions, add a cello.

For balance, atheists and agnostics could also suggest choices: the acknowledged atheists' anthem is John Lennon's 'Imagine', although it is hard to sing in a group and is anti-patriotism as well as anti-faith. The best atheistic anthems are songs made famous by Communism - the 'Internationale', 'The Red Flag', and 'Avanti Populi!' are terrific as tunes and vocals, but they may be judged a little too partisan.

TDs like Bríd Smith say they will not stand up for prayers in the Dáil because religion should be a private matter, not a public one.

But in practice, faith is often a communal matter, fulfilling the inextinguishable human need for rite and ceremony.

Prayers in the Dáil have been retained because they are a nod to history, and a useful moment of reflection before a democratic discourse which can be adversarial. A hymn serves the same purpose at the double, and singing together can be a rewarding and bonding experience.

Glory hallelujah, it would be an austere soul indeed who could stay sitting through a spirited rendering of the 'Battle Hymn of the Republic'!

Irish Independent

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