We gather today to commemorate the Leaders of 1916 who made the supreme sacrifice of their lives when they were executed by the imperial power against which they struck in the Easter Rising of 1916.
As a Church we are in these Easter weeks of 2022 celebrating our Faith in the Resurrection. These same Easter liturgical Ceremonies were also the spiritual backdrop to the events of the 1916 Easter Rising and the subsequent executions of its leaders. Easter in Ireland is forever imbued with the memory of 1916.
We pray for a share in the Resurrection for the leaders of 1916 – Resurrection: the ultimate rising to eternal life.
I draw attention to the faith aspect of the executions because of the documented witness of priests who ministered to the soldiers of the rising and to the leaders as they prepared for their executions.
I name but one as representative of those attending priests and that is Father Aloysius Travers, Capuchin who has left testament that the leaders went to their deaths confident in the promise of their faith and the knowledge that they were: Dying for the glory of God and the honor of Ireland.
I remember as a small boy being present at the 50th anniversary of the 1916 rising. I had gone with my late father to the local village, Tulla in Co Clare to see the local commemoration. It was a great surprise to me to see local elderly men whom I knew well being given places of honor on a special stage in the village.
The men being so honored were those who had taken part in the war of independence, and it was a great surprise to me to discover for the first time that these men with whom I brushed working shoulders were esteemed in the community as local heroes.
They were men like Jack Butler and Mick O’Dea who went to the same bog as us to cut turf in the spring, or who sat in front of us at Mass on Sunday. They were ordinary men who had been called by the circumstances of life to do extraordinary things and by doing so put at risk the safety and security of their simple rural life for the considerable danger of being active against a great imperial power.
As a small boy, it was I think my first awareness that being great and being ordinary can co-exist in one person and that circumstances can call greatness from all of us if we have the generosity and bravery to allow it and to follow it.
Since my boyhood experience of the 1966 commemoration, 1916 took its place in my mind. Now, many years on from 1966 I have been living and ministering in Wexford for the past eight months. It has been one of learning, but it has also been a time of reconnecting with the 1798 story in Wexford – that other significant Irish rebellion.
The statues of pikemen in various places function as reminders of 1798, but what strikes me more as I travel about is seeing place names that resonated in song and story throughout my own school days – Boolavogue, Vinegar Hill, The Harrow, Geneva, and so on. All of them are reminders that we have inherited a love and a yearning for freedom. And there is no doubt that Fr Murphy and the Rebels of Wexford were in many ways, inspirers of the 1916 rebels whom we remember today.
In the words of today’s Gospel, they were the grain of wheat which produced a great harvest. Their place in history has in ways removed them from the ranks of ordinary people. When people stand at the hinge point of a nation’s story as the 1916 leaders did, we easily forget they too had an ordinary beginning and a vision of life in their youth which did not encompass the circumstances that brought them to this place. They were the men like my elderly neighbors in Tulla, County Clare, but unlike them they were not allowed to grow old.
And so, we gather here 106 years later to acknowledge their sacrifice, and, in the faith, we share with them, to celebrate the Eucharist for the repose of their souls. No person can probe the heart or soul of another, but we can have some understanding of the faith story of those who lie near us here. The 1916 proclamation both begins and ends with acknowledgement of the transcendent. It begins ‘’ In the name of God ‘’ and it finishes by saying ‘’ We place the cause of the Irish Republic under the protection of the most High God.’’ It is consistent with that sense of transcendence that we pray for them as we would pray for any other soul. The religious faith stories of the leaders of 1916 are historical facts and as such cannot be overlooked or airbrushed out of the history of that time.
It is central to our faith to pray for the dead, to remember those who were part of our lives and to appreciate the gift they were to us while they were living. Those people are usually our family and near friends. But it is the extraordinary turn of history that we stand today, praying for the leaders of 1916 as though they were our family.
But there is another family here today also. I acknowledge the presence of the families of the executed leaders. Your family story is intertwined with the story of our nation, and you can be rightly proud that you carry in your DNA, the spirit of freedom which enabled your relatives to lay down their lives for freedom.
The 1916 executions deprived your families of beloved sons, husbands, breadwinners, and dearly loved fathers. Some of the most poignant stories of the post Easter time in 1916 are the stories of the visits of children to their condemned fathers and their final goodbyes. These losses were the sacrifices that your families made as a life-giving gift to our nation.
Today also, our hearts are heavy with a new story of oppression and the desire to be free from it. Our knowledge of the world is now instantaneous but our sadness and helplessness in the face of oppression is as old as humanity. It was moving in the past few months to see families send the old, the young or the vulnerable away from the war in Ukraine while at the same time, men and women turned towards danger and death, simply because it was the right thing to do. We pray that all who have recognized the call within themselves to stand for justice, tolerance and self-determination will go forward in the same spirit of self-sacrifice that marked all Irish women and men who over the years turned towards danger because they believed it was the right thing to do.
I return to this sacred National monument, which carries our grateful memories for the generous sacrifice of the 1916 leaders. We commend the souls of the 1916 leaders to the care of Almighty God and that the generous seed sown by them may continue to bring a harvest to Irish people forever.
We are still writing our story, still trying to make real the promise and the dream of 1916. We owe it to the legacy of 1916 to do it in the spirit of the Proclamation itself which states ‘’ its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation……cherishing all of the children of the nation equally.’’
May those who began the good work in us be rewarded for their sacrifice and may they rest in the peace of the Risen Christ, who even in his appearances to his Disciples carried the wounds of Good Friday, but only as a sign and a pointer to all of us that the Resurrection is the completion of human life, and it awaits all of us.
Suaimneas siorai tabhair do na laochra croga, gaisciula sin a Thiarna,
Saoranaigh agus Gaeil den chead scoth.
Go Lonrai solas na bhflaitheas orthu.