Remembrance in St Mary’s

Text of the sermon preached in St Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick on Sunday 11th November (Remembrance Sunday) by the Rev’d Fr Seamus Madigan HCF, Head Chaplain to the Defence Forces.

Good Morning and thank you for your very kind welcome to St Mary’s Cathedral. My gratitude especially to Dean Niall Sloane for the invitation to share a few words on this historic day. My initial reaction to being invited was one of Awe and a kind of unworthiness. I can’t do this…. I am not an historian and I know very little about the Great War. Basically, I feared putting my foot in it. After some reflection I saw this invite as an opportunity for me to learn more.

And so I am delighted and honoured to be with you here at St Mary’s Cathedral on this special day for a number of reasons:
1. We celebrate 850 years of St Mary’s as a place of worship.
2. I am a proud Limerick Man. What a year! Up Limerick!!
3. As Head Chaplain to the Irish Defence Forces, what an honour to be with you as you mark the 100 anniversary of Armistice Day.

I joined the Chaplaincy Service to the Irish Defence Forces here in Limerick in 2006. Before this time, I had no connection with any Military tradition what so ever. In my nine years as Military Chaplain here in Limerick I served on peacekeeping missions to Kosovo, Chad and Lebanon. In 2015, I was appointed Head Chaplain to the Forces. This means I lead a team of fifteen Chaplains including one part-time Church of Ireland Chaplain, Rev. Fran Grasham, based at the Curragh Camp in Co. Kildare. In this day and age, especially with the shortage of Priests, many are surprised to hear that we have such a good number of Chaplains. We remember, soldiers have souls too!!! At any one time, we have two Padres overseas; one based in SYRIA and one based in LEBANON.

This day is a big deal for me. I have gone through all sorts of emotions in preparing for it! I would guess the greatest question and confusion I am left with is, WHY THE SILENCE for so many years?
Approximately, 220,000 Irish People took part in the Great War, over 35,000 of them never came home. 1,000 of them were from Limerick. Almost every community was affected by this war and yet SILENCE! Why the airbrushing out of some of our history? What happened? Why the GREAT SILENCE for so long?
TRAUMA is one possible answer: I think maybe it was inevitable that we would go into a National SILENCE! Sometimes the experience of War and Trauma is so awful that our only response is one of silence. Think of the wonderful silent rituals we have of lighting of a candle, or the laying of a flower or a wreath. Have you ever visited a place of horror, and realized that what happened was so awful that you just needed time to be alone for a while, that you just did not want to speak, that you sensed the answers to the WHY questions were so dreadful, you did not want to go there.

Of course there were also issues of the emerging narrative of a changing Ireland to which those returning from the War didn’t seem to quite fit into. With Ireland establishing itself as ‘different’, I am sure for many returning from the Great War, no matter what your rank and bravery, it was just easier to remain silent.

We can debate till the end of time about the reasons, conditions and motivations of Irish people who took part in the Great War and the silent aftermath. The fact is, Ireland at that time, was a United Country, all be it, part of the United Kingdom. The generosity, some may say foolish generosity, of so many Irish Men and Women needs to be acknowledged. In so many ways they gave their all. These young Irish people took off from villages, towns and cities from all over Ireland. They took pride in their Irish Divisions, Battalions, Regiments, and many paid the ultimate price for their youthful enthusiasm and adventure, others paid the ultimate sacrifice because of poverty and their need to keep family fed and alive, others motivated by a sense of righting a wrong being done to the people of neutral Belgium.

For those lucky enough to return to Ireland, the horror of War and the confusion of loyalty and historical allegiances cannot have been easy. The poet Yeats described it well; “They returned to a county changed, changed utterly.” Most of those who returned went on to live quiet lives where the un-employment rate of ex-servicemen in Ireland was 46% – compared to just 10% in Britain. Commemorations in Ireland were a dangerous business, at this time, often resulting in street fights and so our attitude to WW1, according to priest historian, FX Martin, became “an example of National Amnesia”.

But Ireland has changed and continues to change:
It’s hard for us now to believe that so many Irish people took part in a War that received very little acknowledgement in our education system and in our general conversations and discourse. Like the widow mentioned in all our scripture readings today, the bravery of these soldiers was conveniently ignored by society, their story silenced and their lives certainly not supported, all because they ended up on what some perceived as the wrong side of Irish history.

But the times, they are a changing! Today our younger generations are more socially inclusive and I believe would not wish to see a widow excluded and would wish to acknowledge the contribution and generosity of the soldiers who fought in WW1, especially those who never came home……

In 2016, I had the privilege of leading prayers at the National War Memorial in Dublin on the occasion of the centenary commemorations of the Battle of the Somme. In the prayer offered I remember the soldiers of World War One, by saying, ‘It is never too late to say thanks.’ On this centenary day of Armistice I would like to add; ‘It is also never too late to say sorry.’ Sorry for the hurt of Silence!

We all have our own reasons for silence, and much of it does come from a place of hurt. As we mature as a country we also mature in our Commemorations. We are like the grandchildren who have now decided, enough is enough. We need to build bridges, and simply acknowledge the reality of our sometimes awkward history without apportioning blame; Now is the time to gather in gratitude for the sacrifices of so many and to express our sorrow for the horrible casualties of war and the hurt of silence.

Both widows in our scriptures today gave their all. One gave all her food, the other gave all her money. They generously gave their all, they gave their today so that others might have their tomorrow. Sound familiar?

World War 1, like all war was an enormous human tragedy. We cannot change the past – but we can shape our future by deciding now, that we too will give our all, that we will not keep silent, but will try to engage with and listen to the real stories, in this present moment of hurt, exclusion and silence.

This year (dare I mention Christmas so early) as you sing, Silent Night – you might remember, that we keep its 200th anniversary of its first ever performance in Austria. Almost one hundred years later; Silent Night was the one Carol that brought those on opposite sides, entrenched in warfare, together. Remember the Christmas Truce of 1914. I believe the same happened in 1915 and 1916 with the words of Silent night sung in English and German.

In an effort to explain the War to his young daughter the Irish poet Thomas Kettle wrote from the trenches:

Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,
Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,—
But for a dream, born in a herdsman’s shed,
And for the secret Scripture of the poor.

The dream of course was for Peace, not just on the front in Europe but also at home for Ireland. Christmas and Christian Peace continues to bring us together so that we can learn to appreciate our differences as gift. Pray that we can now appreciate our wonderful little country not just as one shade of green – but many shades of not just green but of every colour in the rainbow.

One of the Irish words for heaven, ‘flaitheas,’ is also the word for generosity. Heaven is simply the generosity of God. The widow’s generosity reflected the godly generosity of heaven. May we be generous in our engagements with each other.

Today we remember with generosity, those who died during WW1:
Solas na bhFlaitheas dár n-anamacha
Light of Heaven to their Souls – We will remember them.