John Mitchel’s Return to Ireland 1874-75

Digging through some files recently I came across this article on John Mitchel I’d written some years ago for a publication in Australia on the Young Irelanders. I can’t remember why but the book never saw the light of day. So here it is ….

John MitchelOnly the most committed readers of this blog may know that John Mitchel, the Irish patriot, author of Jail Journal and numerous other books, and father of physical-force Irish Republicansim is a relative of mine.

There are some other posts about him here, here, here and here

This article is about the last year of Mitchel’s dramatic life – right to the end he caused political upheaval, fierce opposition, adoring support, a women’s strike against men (!) and even a new law to be passed in Parliament banning former felons from becoming MPs.

So, for a change of subject, here’s a bit of Irish history.

John Mitchel’s Return to Ireland 1874-5

For much of the 1990s I lived in the tiny village of Coalbrook, Co. Tipperary. Our view looked out on the rolling landscape of the Slieveardagh Hills, and, by remarkable circumstance, in the distance we could see the Widow McCormack’s house, scene of the 1848 rebellion. John Mitchel, imprisoned in his hulk-ship cell as prisoner 2014 en route to Van Diemen’s Land, with typical outspokenness, called it a ‘poor extemporised abortion of an uprising in Tipperary [at] this cursed Ballingarry’.[1] It was strange, as a Mitchel 150 years later, to wander around that deserted shell with all its associations with the Young Irelanders.

When, in 1998, different events were held in the area to commemorate 1848, I was honoured as a relative of John Mitchel to be asked by Dr William Nolan of University College Dublin to give a lecture on ‘the Patriot’ at the Slieveardagh Summer School. On its conclusion, Mr William Corbett of Drombane, Thurles generously presented me with a bound edition of a John Mitchel Scrapbook 1874-75 that he had purchased at auction in 1976. Within its covers, an anonymous hand has assiduously cut and pasted eighty pages of newspaper clippings containing a mine of information relating to the events of the last year of Mitchel’s life.

Reading the Scrapbook I was struck by the details of a fascinating and (in true Mitchel style) gripping story in its own right. It appears to me that the events surrounding his double return, double election and death have often been telescoped into a brief addendum in accounts of his life, overshadowed perhaps by the intense drama of his earlier adventures. It is these events on which I wish to reflect in this essay.

Mitchel set out from New York on 14 July 1874 on the Idaho, accompanied by his daughter Isabel and a Dr. Carroll of Philadelphia, and arrived in Queenstown (Cobh), largely unannounced, eleven days later. It was twenty-six years since he had seen the Irish coast. Evidently ill, his friends in Cork were struck by his prematurely aged appearance. Newspaper reports described his health as fragile,

‘He looks careworn, and his voice is far from robust, while a hollow asthmatic cough falls occasionally and disagreeably on the ear.’[2]

Sentiment was largely sympathetic to the old rebel, now a naturalized American citizen, apparently back on a personal visit. The Freeman’s Journal opined that

‘After the lapse of a quarter of a century – after the loss of two of his sons … John Mitchel again treads his native land, a prematurely aged, enfeebled man. Whatever the opinions as to the wisdom of his course … none can deny the respect due to honest of purpose and fearlessness of heart.’[3]

After large public demonstrations of support in Cork and Dublin, he arrived in Newry on 28 July, unhindered by the forces of the state. There he was welcomed by his brother-in-law, Mr Hill Irvine, and so returned once again to his boyhood home of Dromolane. After a stay of some weeks, he left Newry for Dublin on 8 September where he was met by John Martin and others. Then on 25 September, he continued to Killarney and thence on to Cork for departure back to America on 1 October 1874 on the steamer Minnesota. The visit was low key throughout, but Mitchel was never a man to go quietly. The scene was set for his second return.

Back in America on 8 December 1874, Mitchel lectured on ‘Ireland Revisited’ at the Cooper Institute in New York. The event was organized by the Clan-na-Gael Association.[4] Its size and long list of prominent nationalists (including O’Donovan Rossa)[5] in attendance, spoke of Mitchel’s undimmed charisma and political influence. The Irishman noted that ‘his love of Ireland, if possible, seems to have increased, while his hatred of the oppressor has unquestionable suffered no mitigation.’[6] Certainly Mitchel displayed no softening of his zealous desire for independence. His speech is worth commenting on in detail in that it reveals much of his thinking as he entered the last tumultuous year of his extraordinary life. In it he spoke with characteristic flamboyance, nationalistic optimism and a fair degree of prophetic foresight. He outlined three specific reasons for re-visiting his homeland. These were thoughts he had kept largely private until this point, ‘you may suppose that while in Ireland, though my mouth was shut, my eyes and ears were open’.[7] The first motive was that he wished to visit his relations in the North. His second was more political,

‘knowing that Irish history is not yet concluded, that it is not a book that is closed and sealed – knowing that a high destiny is inevitable to Ireland, that she is indestructible and immortal – I desired to see “How fares it with old Ireland, and how does she stand (loud cheers)”.’[8]

Although these reasons were persuasive, the third was clearly the catalyst for his voyage. Mitchel had been nominated (unknown to him) by citizens of Cork and Tipperary in a general election of early summer of 1874 when still in America. However, it was the reaction to his nomination that galvanised him into action. His words reveal a man with undimmed political passion. This was no purely private return.

There was a class of newspapers in Ireland which said that I was ineligible; that my sentence of felony was not yet discharged; that if I went there I should be arrested; that a vote for me was a vote thrown away; that I dared not set foot in Ireland at all. Well I would not be dared (loud and prolonged cheering). I said to myself, ‘One of these days I intended to go, and as friends are desirous of my presence I may as well go now’. I felt offended by the assumption on the part of Irish gentlemen that I was a proscribed man; that I was legally exiled from my country and dared not go back; that Cork and Tipperary could not elect me to represent them … Of course, I was well aware that in landing I was placing myself in the power of mortal enemies. It was nevertheless my intention, if any vacancy should occur, to offer myself as a candidate – not to test the question of eligibility, but to get the Irish members to put in operation the plan suggested by O’Connell at one time, of declining to attend in Parliament altogether (enthusiastic applause) that is, to try to discredit and explode the fraudulent pretence of representation in the Parliament of Britain.[9]

In the same speech, Mitchel dismissed the Home Rule movement, despite the best intentions of it members including his closest friend John Martin, as hopelessly naïve. On Martin, Mitchel commented, he ‘now attends Parliament like other good Irishmen, a demoralising practice’. Mitchel argued that the fruitless experience in Parliament of even someone like Thomas Francis Meagher demonstrated that

‘the fact that this Home Rule League goes to Parliament and sets it hope therein, puts me in indignation against the Home Rule League … they are not Home Rulers but Foreign Rulers. Now it is painful for me to say even so much in disparagement of so excellent a body of men as they are … after a little while they will be bought.’

As with O’Connell’s constitutional reform, Mitchel’s impatience with the Home Rule League lay in its unwillingness to resort to physical force. He argued

‘One would suppose that the affair of keeping the peace within the borders of Ireland would be an Irish affair. But no Home Ruler has claimed that in Parliament. That is left out of Home Rule policy. Not one of them has ventured to say they want to arm themselves and become volunteers. They have not breathed so Irish a sentiment.’[10]

The only way England would ever surrender was if she were ‘beaten to her knees’. He contended that Home Rule candidates were not representing their own constituencies but in reality

‘they are representing the I. R. B. (loud cheers). Yes there is a great mass of silent, quiet power now holding itself still, collecting itself together – making itself ready should an opportunity present itself.’[11]

When no vacancy arose in 1874 Mitchel returned to Brooklyn with the clear intention of returning in the spring of 1875 ‘if I could see my way of doing good there’. His hopes were fulfilled perhaps more quickly that he imagined following the resignation of Colonel Charles White MP for Tipperary in January 1875. Almost immediately, on 3 February, Mitchel set sail from New York once again. Somewhat ironically, it was John Martin who wrote to the Fenian activist C. J. Kickham announcing his friend’s candidature and promising that Mitchel ‘will immediately come to Ireland and present himself before the electors of Tipperary.’[12]

Martin’s awkward position was highlighted by his own ambivalence over Mitchel’s quest. He hoped that Mitchel would be elected since ‘no living Irishman better deserves the highest political honour that his country can bestow’. This despite Martin’s view that Mitchel’s New York speech judged ‘the Home Rule movement in particular and the policy of the Home Rule party in a spirit that seems to me neither impartial nor friendly.’ In what can only be described as supreme optimism, Martin concluded that after Mitchel’s election ‘the Home Rule movement will not suffer, but will prosper and advance all the more.’[13]

His benign hopes were not shared by other Home Rulers. Rev. Thadeus O’Malley, in a letter to the electors of Tipperary, passionately warned them not to do ‘an extremely foolish thing’ in returning Mitchel who was ‘utterly unfit’ to be the member for Tipperary. Martin had made a ‘grave mistake’ in backing Mitchel ‘blinded by too intense an admiration of Mr. Mitchel’s rare abilities and his close affinity for him.’[14] Mitchel had given ‘gross personal insult to the sixty gentlemen representing the League in the House of Commons.’  How could the electors of Tipperary send to Parliament ‘its avowed enemy’ who, in light of his ‘expressed contempt for their cause’, would find it impossible to co-operate with the Home Rule movement?

O’Malley developed his case against Mitchel at a more profound level with an argument that continues to reverberate down the generations through contrasting figures like O’Connell and the Young Irelanders; Redmond and Pearse; Collins (post-Treaty) and de Valera; and Hume and Adams. In short, it revolved around the divide between those holding to the effectiveness, morality and electoral validity of constitutional nationalism as against the ineffectiveness, immorality and electoral invalidity of physical force republicanism.

O’Malley argued that Mitchel’s ‘insane notion’ of revolution in 1848 destroyed the chances of the National Confederation of ‘achieving something great for Ireland’ at a time when they were poised to do so. Most damning of all in O’Malley’s eyes was Mitchel’s arrogant disregard for democracy and the assumption that his path was the only legitimate one despite the absence of popular support within the National Confederation. He wrote that although Mitchel

‘had a perfectly free debate upon his motion for three whole nights and was utterly defeated by a large majority, instead of loyal obedience to the verdict he broke away from the Confederation altogether, putting himself at the head of a little clique or coterie of his own.’[15]

Seen from this perspective, Mitchel’s imminent election put the Home Rule movement neatly on the horns of a dilemma. To oppose Mitchel was to be seen to betray an Irish hero. To welcome his renewed political role in Ireland was to invite criticism from an unbending and formidable foe. In the end, it was to be Mitchel’s failing health and the actions of the British Government that resolved their quandary.

Mitchel was elected unopposed on 16 February 1875 while still a day off the Irish coast. With unprecedented haste, within two hours of receiving the news by telegram and before the House of Commons had even received formal confirmation of the result, Disraeli gave notice of a motion for 18 February to declare the result invalid and to move a new writ for the county of Tipperary. His actions divided opinion and over the next few days there followed a rather torturous legal debate on Mitchel’s eligibility and fact that a decision of the House was being used to disqualify him rather than a judicial decision. In the event the motion was passed by 269 votes to 102.

Even The Times said ‘it seems most difficult, if not impossible’, to support the conclusion reached by the Crown.

‘To say that John Mitchel is a “felon” so far that he is incapable of being elected … but for all other purposes is as free as air, is to enunciate a proposition belonging rather to the domain of scholastic divinity than that of right human reason’.[16]

Other London papers however were scathing in their dismissal of ‘a score of Tipperary nobodies’ who ‘render themselves again and again ridiculous if only they can vex the “enemies of the country”.’ The Daily Express caricatured Mitchel as a

‘form of Tipperary caprice [that] savours of Donnybrook Fair or the traveling show-box. The ringmaster, the punster, the posturer – somersault, grimace and grin, all are present in all their comic integrity’, such activities are ‘the refuge of imbeciles.’[17]

Meanwhile in the midst of this controversy, John Mitchel had arrived at Queenstown on 17 February, accompanied by his only surviving son, Captain James Mitchel. That afternoon he traveled by train to Tipperary Town and then on to Clonmel. Crowds of thousands greeted him in both places and he vowed to contest Tipperary as often as a vacancy arose and ‘would go before any Irish constituency that would return him.’[18]

Mitchel was back to stay – but surely no one realised just how short that stay was to be. His appearance was described without sympathy by a Daily News correspondent,

‘He is physically a wreck; pale, wan, feeble and emaciated … he has almost wholly lost the Irish accent, and there has been substituted for it what I may call an American intonation.’[19]

Mitchel returned to Cork to rest as his supporters considered their next move. Meetings were held all over the county during the weekend of 20-21 February, the most important being a conference in Tipperary. In Thurles, ‘grave doubts [were] expressed as to the propriety of renominating Mitchel’ but the overall mood was one of bullish determination that renomination should proceed, not least in protest at the disenfranchisement of the voters of Tipperary. Interestingly C. J. Kickham advised against this, arguing that, after much effort, Mitchel’s re-election and inevitable expulsion would not add to the cause and it would be more effective to propose James in John’s place.

Perhaps if his words had been heeded, John would have lived longer – a second election was to cost him his life. His rapid decline was made evident by his failure to deliver a lecture ‘On Tipperary’ in Cork’s Theatre Royal on 26 February. Mitchel had to be helped from the stage ‘looking very ill’. Mr. John Dillon (son of John B. Dillon Young Irelander) read the text to a large audience in which Mitchel had concluded

‘To elicit from Tipperary the magnificent declaration of faith in the National right of Ireland, I consider that it was well worth my while to cross the ocean.’[20]

Events proceeded apace towards the second election on 11 March. Heavyweight political voices spoke out for Mitchel, not least Issac Butt[21] and Charles Stewart Parnell. The latter wrote a letter to The Freeman stating

‘On broad constitutional grounds it must become everyone to protest against the decision of an obscure legal question by a party vote, in hot blood, of the House of Commons … I beg you to put down £25 as my contribution to Mr. Mitchel’s committee.’[22]

Then, on 5 March, the worst fears of Mitchel’s supporters were realised when Stephen Moore of Barne, Clonmel, a wealthy Conservative proprietor, put his name forward to contest the seat. Mitchel would not have a second walk-over and his opponent would likely be declared the winner in light of Mitchel’s inevitable disqualification. Canvassing for the two candidates was ‘conducted with energy and determination’ all over the county in the days running up the election.[23] One correspondent was even shown a remarkable document entitled ‘A pledge by the women of Tipperary’ that promised

‘we will never walk with, talk with, cook for, wash for, court, marry, or countenance, but let live and die as they like any man who will not vote for and support John Mitchel for Tipperary’![24]

The result, announced on 12 March, declared that Mitchel had polled 3,114 votes to 746 for Moore. Unsurprisingly, the result elicited radically different political interpretations. English papers like the Morning Mail pointed out that only one third of the 9,246 registered voters had exercised their franchise and concluded (with remarkable logic) that this level of abstention entitled Moore ‘morally as well as legally to the seat.’[25]

Mitchel, in a letter to The Irish Times indicated he would not attempt legally to defend his seat against Parliament’s decision to declare him ineligible.[26] By this time he was already confined to his deathbed in Dromolane. His last letter was published on St. Patrick’s Day, 17 March 1875. In it he expressed his gratitude to the electorate of Tipperary and answered calls for him to ‘carry on the war at the bar of the House and before the judges.’ He wrote

If … any friend of mine in Tipperary thinks he has reason to be surprised at my manner of meeting the present emergency, or that I have, ever, at any time or in any manner, led him or others to suppose that I should act otherwise than I am doing, I can only refer him to my whole past political career and to all my published speeches and writings so far as they relate to this subject of Irish representation.[27]

By this he meant that the matter was ‘now complete’ in that no more could be done to expose Tipperary’s effective disenfranchisement and the ‘fraudulent’ system of Irish representation in Parliament. He concluded with his last published words,

‘So now, my friends of Tipperary, I ask your favourable construction, and bid you farewell for the present, with God save Ireland.’

He died on 20 March at 8.00am, surrounded by family, but far from Jenny his wife of 38 years and son James who had returned to New York a week before.

John Mitchel was buried in the peculiar family graveyard in Newry, originally connected to the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of which his father had been minister, but now completely surrounded by a convent of the order of Poor Clares. Revd. Craig Nelson gave the address from a pulpit from which Mitchel’s father had often preached. In it he revealed something of the ambivalence that many felt as they reflected on Mitchel’s flawed legacy,

But I may freely and candidly state, that as much as I loved and admired the man, I had no sympathy with his political views, nor with the means and measures by which he proposed to carry them out. But his most decided, and even his bitterest antagonists must and do admit his honesty of purpose, his self-sacrificing devotedness, his consistent and faithful adherence to his convictions, and his unswerving and untarnished truthfulness.[28]

During the procession, John Martin had been unable to continue and had retired to one of the following carriages. In a bizarre twist of fate, during the graveside oration, he collapsed was carried out by mourners. He was never to recover and died a week later, also in Dromolane. The two old friends, united by ideals, transportation, and family ties were now joined in death.

Tributes and biographies poured in for Mitchel, reflecting his ability to divide reaction in death as in life. Some from a nationalist outlook were overblown and sentimental. The Freeman’s Journal was more measured,

‘we may lament his persistence in certain lines of action which his intelligence must have suggested to him could have but been futile issue … his love for Ireland may have been imprudent. But he loved her with a devotion unexcelled’.[29]

Others from a British perspective were scathingly critical. The Morning Mail described Mitchel’s defense of slavery as his ‘prostituting great talents to a very low end’.[30] The Standard concluded,

‘His powers through life, however, were marred by want of judgment, obstinate opinionativeness, and a factiousness which disabled him from ever acting long enough with any set of men’[31]

The Daily Telegraph argued with some persuasiveness that Mitchel’s political ambitions had failed because

he had no taste for the practical part of war. He was a solicitor and a journalist and knew nothing of that most elementary kind of insurrection, street barricades, and was utterly unsuited by temperament or power to organize a real revolt. His sole idea was that the whole people should rise one day, and that, after a brief fight, the soldiers would fraternise with the populace and a Provisional Government replace the Lord Lieutenant.[32]

However, in another sense the act of failure itself contained the seeds of later triumph. A few decades later Patrick Pearse was to describe Mitchel as one of the ‘four evangelists’ of Irish nationalism who had left behind a holy and authoritative body of teaching to be obeyed by the faithful ‘calling’ every living Irishmen to a blood sacrifice for Ireland – a call fulfilled in the Easter Rising of 1916.[33]

In the light of history, perhaps one of the most mistaken claims of the British papers was by The Morning Post that

‘we cannot believe that Mr. Mitchel’s opinions are shared by any considerable number of Irish electors. He was, we imagine, the last exponent of them that will attract any considerable attention.’[34]

The debate continues. Iconoclastic Irish Times columnist Kevin Myers described Mitchel as the exhibiting ‘the psychopathology of the terrorist’ in his apology for political violence as shown in

the personalization of a political injustice so that ego becomes one with the nation; the demonisation of an entire species, in this case the English; vengence becomes a therapy and national requirement; and the transformation of political will into a weapon of punishment, designed to hurt people, and be morally sure of the rightness of that hurt.[35]

Inspirer of hatred or inspiring idealist? Apologist for terror or freedom fighter? Opponent of democracy or man ahead of his time? Arrogant or bravely uncompromising? Wasted talent or glorious visionary? Naively out of touch with religious divisions within Ireland or non-sectarian hero? Which way someone answers these questions will probably rest on their prior political assumptions. One thing is sure; John Mitchel stands out as one of the most dramatic, controversial and memorable figures of 19th Century Ireland.

Patrick Mitchel

[1] John Mitchel, Jail Journal (London: Sphere Books, 1983) 69. First published in Mitchel’s The Citizen newspaper in New York from 14 January 1854 to 19 August 1854.

[2] ‘John Mitchel Arrives in Ireland’, unknown newspaper, 26 July 1874.

[3] Freeman’s Journal. 27 July 1874.

[4] An oath bound organisation which recognised the Supreme Council of the IRB as the rightful ‘government’ of Ireland. The term IRB stands for Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secretive militant otherwise known as the Fenian movement.

[5] Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa (1831-1915): member of the IRB; manager of the Irish People, 1863; imprisioned 1865-71; exiled to the USA where he editied the United Irishman; died in New York.

[6] The Irishman, 2 January 1875.

[7] The Irishman, 2 January 1875.

[8] The Irishman, 2 January 1875.

[9] The Irishman, 2 January 1875.

[10] The Irishman, 2 January 1875.

[11] The Irishman, 2 January 1875.

[12] John Martin letter to C. J. Kickham, unknown newspaper, 30 January 1875.

[13] John Martin letter to C. J. Kickham, unknown newspaper, 30 January 1875.

[14] Thadeus O’Malley, ‘John Mitchel’s Candidature’, The Freeman’s Journal, 12 February 1875. Mitchel and Martin were of course brothers in law after Martin’s marriage of John sister Henrietta.

[15] Thadeus O’Malley, ‘John Mitchel’s Candidature’, The Freeman’s Journal, 12 February 1875.

[16] The Times, 20 February 1875.

[17] The Daily Express, 19 February 1875.

[18] The Daily Express, 17 February 1875.

[19] The Daily News, 18 February 1875.

[20] The Mail, 26 February 1875.

[21] Issac Butt (1813-70): Constitutional nationalist; Professor of Political Economy, Trinity College, Dublin, 1836-40; brilliant lawyer; tried to hold onto an identity that was Protestant, unionist and Irish; defended the young Irelanders in 1848 and the Fenians in the 1860s. Conservative MP for Youghal, 1852-65; Home Rule MP for Limerick, 1871-9.

[22] The Freeman, 5 March 1875.

[23] Unknown newspaper, 5 March 1875.

[24] Unknown newspaper, 5 March 1875.

[25] The Morning Mail, 13 March 1875.

[26] The Irish Times, 12 March 1875.

[27] The Freeman’s Journal, March 17 1875.

[28] Revd. Craig Nelson, funeral oration for John Mitchel, Morning Mail, 24 March 1875.

[29] The Freeman’s Journal, 22 March 1875.

[30] The Morning Mail, 22 March 1875.

[31] The Standard, 22 March 1875.

[32] The Daily Telegraph, 22 March 1875.

[33] Patrick Pearse, Political Writings and Speeches (Talbot Press: Dublin, 1952) 91.

[34] The Morning Post, 22 March 1875.

[35] Kevin Myers, ‘The Physical Force Tradition’ in Kevin Myers: From the Irish Times column ‘An Irishman’s Diary’, (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2000) 31.

Down With This Sort of Thing: How is the Gospel Good News in Contemporary Ireland?

Now we are pretty well all confined to quarters, maybe it is time to catch up with some reading.

Praxis Press is a new Irish Christian publishing venture. They published their first book last year – Down With This Sort of Thing by Fraser Hosford. Other ones are in the pipeline.

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This is what I said in endorsing the book

It is so good to see an Irish pastor writing about theology, culture and mission for our contemporary Irish context! Fraser Hosford asks an important question – how is the gospel good news in Ireland today? What is so fresh about this book is that he answers this question by engaging thoughtfully and graciously with what real people in Ireland today actually think, believe and hope for. It is from this foundation of careful listening that Hosford unpacks how the gospel is good news for all of life. Peppered with stories and illustrations, the result is a very readable account of how the gospel leads to a flourishing life. Anyone writing about such a great theme has my attention, I suggest that he should have yours as well.

Highly recommended. Not only an excellent read but by buying a copy you will be supporting a new Irish Christian publisher committed to helping the church think about and practice mission in 21st Century Ireland.

Irish Bible Institute – One Word

Have a look at this if you have 53 seconds to spare – and share with others to get the word out. Perhaps consider joining us if you can or recommending to others …

Yes, I am biased, this is where I work and someone related rather closely did the video, but there is something special about seeing the enthusiasm and joy in these students’ (and some staff) words …

The phrase ‘Theological education’ sounds dry, but done in community and with a passion for loving God and loving others, it is clearly a powerful transforming experience.

 

A day out in county Clare

Took a day trip to the county of Clare over the bank holiday weekend. Hadn’t been in ages. The weather was beautiful, as was the scenery … and the company good as well.

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Dunguire Castle
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The Burren

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Poulnabrone Dolmen
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Ennistymon
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Lehinch beach
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Cliffs of Moher
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Cliffs of Moher

Kickstarter to launch Praxis Press, Ireland – an invitation to participate

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A group of Irish Christians are getting together to launch a new publishing imprint, Praxis Press.  

They have a kickstarter campaign to raise €5000 which closes on the 03 May. Check out the website which has a series of short videos sharing the vision.

Something like this takes passion, dedication and courage – if you can, do consider how you can help them reach their target.

The plan is to faciliate Irish voices, engaged in the frontline of ministry and mission, getting into print.

This is important because so much of our theology and thinking about mission, while often excellent – and sometimes not – is ‘imported’ from very different cultural contexts, particularly America.

The plan is to launch 3 books. The first one is already written by Pastor Fraser Hosford. I’ve read it and wrote this endorsement.

It is so good to see an Irish pastor writing about theology, culture and mission for our contemporary Irish context! Fraser Hosford asks an important question – how is the gospel good news in Ireland today? What is so fresh about this book is that he answers this question by engaging thoughtfully and graciously with what real people in Ireland today actually think, believe and hope for. It is from this foundation of careful listening that Hosford unpacks how the gospel is good news for all of life. Peppered with stories and illustrations, the result is a very readable account of how the gospel leads to a flourishing life. Anyone writing about such a great theme has my attention, I suggest that he should have yours as well.

Here is the vision behind Praxis Press in their own words:

There are unique challenges facing the people of God in Ireland. Challenges which resemble challenges faced in other places but are still unique to our island. And so it is that theologies and practices from England, Europe, America and beyond, while meaningful, will never be exactly right for Ireland. This place, this island of poets and dreamers, with its legacy of writers and revolutionaries, of deep spirituality and profound faith needs to elevate its own voices and examine its own mind. In a post Christendom reality, the church must rise again to the challenge of mission, to see itself as sent, in love, to the world. This is not a dire change but a liberating one. As one form of church begins to wane, a freedom actually emerges and it is here that the Irish voice will rise. We seek to elevate the naturally modest Irish missional practitioner. We seek to examine the context of Ireland as a place of mission, engagement and love. We seek to share the ideas, explore the theological reflections and tell the stories of ordinary yet brave Irish Christians who are searching and finding God on the frontier of mission. We want to elevate Jesus in His people, free and at work in this complex and wonderful place.

 

Vox 10th Anniversary

vox 10thCongratulations to the team at VOX magazine led by Ruth Garvey-Williams and Jonny Lindsay for their January 10th anniversary edition.

It is a remarkable achievement; the quality of production, done on a shoestring budget, is outstanding and the magazine has grown to be a unique place of news, discussion,  reviews and reflections concerning Christianity in Ireland.

But more than this, what strikes me reading it is the passion of Christians all over Ireland to serve their God by serving others. The Apostle John says that

whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. (1 John 4:20)

Yes the Church is imperfect, it is full of imperfect people – I’m one for sure. Yes it is often divided relationally and theologically. Yes, there is much to be concerned about and lament over. Yes, it can be especially hard going in a local church when there is disagreement and division.

But it was ever so – as a quick read of Corinthians and Galatians and James will remind us! The real challenge is to develop constructive criticism that builds up and does not just tear down.

So at times I get a bit weary of endless criticisms of the local church – and have to watch that critical spirit in myself. This is why VOX has been, I think, a blessing to the church in Ireland.

It has taken some risks to host debate – and the 10th Edition gives space to leaders talking honestly about challenges facing the Irish church.

But it has also given voice to how the heartbeat of the Christian faith is ‘faith expressing itself through love’ (Galatians 5:6). Faith in Jesus, empowered by the Spirit, leads to a life that looks outwards from the self to others. And that is what I see in story after story in VOX.

So thank you VOX for 10 years and best wishes for the ones ahead.

Parkrun theology?

Parkrun has become a global movement. After starting in 2004 in London there are now something like 3 million runners in over 20 countries. The concept is brilliantly simple – join others at 9.30 on a Saturday morning in running 5k around an open public space. It’s a timed run, it’s free and volunteer led.

Here’s a map of parkruns in Ireland (from the Irish Parkrun website)

Parkruns ireland

I am a Parkrun novice but get to my local venue when I can. My aim is modest – try not to die and keep moving until it’s finished. The ethos is non-competitive and friendly. There are young children running with parents, dogs on leashes, and even mums running while pushing a buggy complete with baby (good for the humility to be passed out by such a pair – I should know!).

Why talk about Parkrun on a theology blog? Well, as I was ‘running’ around the course this morning it struck me that there are parallels to baptism and the community of the church.

Better explain how before you think I have lost the plot.

A Radical Levelling

At a Parkrun everyone comes as they are. The ‘uniform’ is some sort of running gear. Participants are stripped down to bare essentials. It is just each person facing the same physical challenge. The only ‘resource’ each one has is their body.

Pretty well all the trappings of the modern world are left behind (apart from those running with headphones on). Practically all markers of status, wealth, achievement and distinction become irrelevant. There is a certain vulnerability in having those ‘protective’ layers removed. Whoever you are ‘in the world’, here you are just another runner. For each person, it is just ‘the course and me’. But – and this is the genius of Parkrun – ‘me’ is able to join with others in a community of runners sharing the same task together.

In the early Church, there was a different type of ‘levelling’ experience linked to community – that of baptism. Ben Myers describes it in his wonderful little book on the Apostle’s Creed (from a 3rd Century document called the Apostolic Tradition).

When the rooster crows at dawn, they are led out to a pool of flowing water. They remove their clothes. The women let down their hair and remove their jewelry. They renounce Satan and are anointed from head to foot with oil. They are led naked into the water. Then they are asked a question: “Do you believe in God the Father Almighty?”. They reply, “I believe!” And they are plunged down in the water and raised up again.

Two further questions are asked – about their belief in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and in the Holy Spirit. Each time they are immersed after their affirmative reply. Then

When they emerge from the water they are again anointed with oil. They are clothed, blessed, and led into the assembly of believers, where for the first time they will share in the eucharistic meal. Finally they  are sent out into the world to do good works and to grow in faith.

Now, I’m not advocating that modern baptisms (or Parkruns for that matter) should be done naked! But the symbolism is powerful. Believers bring absolutely nothing of their own status and achievements to baptism. They come utterly dependent on the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

And this radical levelling is permanent. From now on there are to be NO distinctions in status and treatment of believers based on their status and wealth. James is the most outspoken but it is a consistent theme in the NT.

Wealth and status are irrelevant before God – indeed they are most likely to be severe hindrances to the Christian life. Take this warning in 1 Timothy 6: 6-10 that I’m studying at the moment.

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

And this is where (the admittedly loose) parallel to a Parkrun begins to break down. For at the end of the run the hundreds of runners return to the car park (yes, some irony about driving to a run) and get into their cars.

Immediately the world’s obsession with status and achievement comes rushing back – for few things in modern Ireland proclaim those values than our licence plates numbered by year of production attached to famous brand names – whether Mercedes, Audi, BMW or whatever.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

 

 

 

 

Musings on beauty, Barth, buildings and blessed hope

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Had a wonderful hike up Slieve Donard over the bank holiday weekend. Can’t say it was easy (getting on you know) – after rather a lot of huffing and puffing there were fantastic views to enjoy – including the best golf course in the world (last photo).

When have you last heard a sermon on beauty? Or read something on the relationship of beauty and theology? There were a lot of people on pilgrimage up Donard – all doings something physically demanding in order to experience beauty. There is something compelling about beauty – humans are drawn to it and go to literally great lengths to see a beautiful place.

Within the evangelical Christian tradition in which I grew up, live and work, beauty has tended to be neglected. There are probably a few reasons for this. Four come to mind, and these are simply musings, feel free to add your own reasons.

And if it is the case that beauty is marginalised within our lives, our theology, our churches – what might be some ways to recover an appreciation and experience of beauty? Beauty can be found in many places, not just a mountain top experience. Where do you find, and take time to appreciate and perhaps create, God-given beauty?

1) The Revealed Word versus Natural Theology

Christianity is a religion of the Book. Christians believe God has revealed himself in his written Word which therefore has authority above any other source of revelation.

No-one was a fiercer opponent of any form of natural theology (the idea that God can be in some way known outside his self-revelation in Jesus Christ the Word of God) than Karl Barth. His great ‘NO!’ to natural theology insisted that there could be no such thing as ‘theology from below’. Its fatal weakness is to open the door for human hubris to reinvent God in our own image.

Barth was in the midst of a fight against classic liberalism and its utter failure to speak out against the rise of national socialism. I am no Barth scholar but he may have softened his views towards the end of his life. But the point is Barth was essentially right. No natural theology can ‘reach God’. Without revelation we end up turning ‘God made beauty’ into ‘beauty is God’.

The Christian gospel is essentially mysterious, surprising, scandalous and apocalyptic. It can only be revealed by God in his Word and through his Spirit, never discovered in and through human reason – whether through the physical creation or beauty of mathematics (I’m told maths is beautiful and wondrous but have to take others’ word for it!) or whatever other forms of natural theology.

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2) Suspicion of beauty: musings on church architecture

But, I wonder, has the flip side of the supreme authority of the revealed Word been an overly suspicious attitude to beauty within much post-Reformation Protestantism?

As if beauty is, at best, a secondary distraction and, at worst, a pathway to idolatry and worship of the created world rather than its creator?

Take the Reformed Tradition of which I am also a part (Presbyterian). The theology of the Word is reflected in the architecture of its churches. The early Presbyterian churches in Ireland were stark ‘meeting houses’ – and most churches today remain plain and simple. The pulpit and the Word is what matters. There is, I think it fair to say, deliberately not much a tradition of the beautiful in the design of Irish Presbyterian churches.

Or take another strand within evangelicalism – that of culturally adaptable communities who deliberately eschew ‘churchy’ buildings, imagery and symbolism in favour of modern pragmatic facilities which, with the best will in the world, are hardly ever beautiful.  Beauty, within such pragmatic utilitarian theology, is simply not ‘useful’ and therefore effectively unimportant.

As I’ve gone on as a Christian I find I desire and appreciate beauty more than I used to. Beauty has the power to draw us into the presence of God beyond the world which we can control and manipulate. Dismissing beauty, or seeing it as an optional ‘add on’ to what really matters, seems to me to deny something essential about God, the creator of beauty. And, as a result, such spaces fail to inspire or draw our hearts towards him in wonder and praise. Rather, they can merely echo the narrative of our pragmatic, utilitarian and relentlessly ‘this worldly’ capitalist culture.

3) Dualism

A third reason for the marginalisation of beauty is the legacy of the Enlightenment. As Descartes’ dictum, ‘I think therefore I am’, unfolded historically, the elevation of reason promoted a type of dualism between the ‘higher’ mind (reason) and the created order. This sort of Cartesian dichotomy impacted Christian theology in spirituality that neglected the physical world – including the body and the affections.

To be fair, such dualism has a much longer legacy than the Enlightenment – one of Augustine’s negative legacies is still felt in his neo-platonic linking together of sex and sin for example.

Regardless of how exactly these influences developed, my point is that Christianity has a long and an ongoing struggle with dualism. Deliberate focus on and integration of beauty within Christian theology and practice can act to overcome such dualism. God has created us with minds, hearts and bodies and calls us to worship him holistically using all our God-given senses.

4) Sin and the Fall

A fourth possible reason for Christian ambivalence towards beauty is the doctrine of the fall. This world is broken. Sin, death and injustice stalk creation, which itself, Paul tells us, groans for liberation from its bondage to decay (Rom 8:21). Wrongly understood, the brokenness of creation can lead to an anti-worldly theology of escapism – where there is little of value to be redeemed here. Our main task is to ‘get the hell out of here’ and not get too entangled with temporary marginal distractions like pleasure, beauty and the joys offered by the material world.

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Towards a Christian integration of Word and Beauty

God is an artist.

The fact that we live in a wondrously beautiful world tells us that beauty is a creation of God. All beauty derives from him. The universal human desire for beauty points us to how we are created with a sense of wonder to appreciate, enjoy and create beauty. The Psalms are full of this link between appreciating the beauty of creation and the worship of God.

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.

They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.
It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,
like a champion rejoicing to run his course.

It rises at one end of the heavens
and makes its circuit to the other;
nothing is deprived of its warmth.

Psalm 19:1-6

Yet the next verse of the Psalm continues

The law of the  Lord is perfect,
refreshing the soul.
The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy,
making wise the simple.

The beautiful world is never detached from the beautiful Word.

As someone who ‘deals with’ the Bible every day, the more I study it the more I am struck by its beauty. It is a magnificent work of art as well as God’s inspired Word. Each book is a remarkable literary work in its own right. Overall, at heart it is a story that overflows with images, symbols and themes that draws readers into a magnificent drama of divine goodness, beauty and love versus all that would corrupt and destroy.

In the New Testament we are even told that it is in and through Jesus Christ that ‘all things were made’ (John 1:3; Col. 1:16). It is this beautiful creation that is in the process of being redeemed by its triune creator.

The new creation will be a place of unimaginable beauty (Rev 21-22). What is the image of the new Jerusalem but a vision of perfect beauty in which God dwells with his people? The future outcome of this drama is a restored creation in which love, beauty, worship and goodness flourish in all their all fullness.

All this means, I suggest, is that Christians should be people above all others who love and appreciate beauty.  A Christian theology of beauty integrates Word and world, creator and created with hope. Beauty points us to God himself in thankfulness and praise.

Not saying you have to climb a mountain to experience beauty! But why not take time out to search out, experience, create, appreciate and share beauty wherever you are.

Thus endeth the sermon

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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A tribute to carers

My mother died recently after some years of gradual decline due to dementia, hastened by a bout of pneumonia. She was 92. I happened to be the family member with her in hospital in the early hours of the morning when her life ended. The nurse on night duty was wonderful. She had supplied a mattress, sheets and pillows for me to stay the night. When I told her what had happened, she was kind and compassionate well beyond mere efficiency. Her care that night has prompted these musings.

Over the last few years as a family we have met countless health care professionals – carers, nurses and doctors – the vast majority of them women. I am beyond admiration for every one of them. Carers visiting at home do so under poor rates of pay, working unsocial hours, doing often extremely difficult work under unrealistic time pressures. Yet, they not only do their job but forge genuine relationships of care and love with elderly and often helpless people.

Nothing speaks to me more of the distorted priorities of Western culture than how poorly funded and valued are carers and nurses. They work at the sharp edge of human mortality. While capitalism appeals to self-interest and pursues accumulation of wealth, my mum’s carers do their job out of a sense of vocation. Of course they work for pay, but to a woman, they give of themselves far beyond any contract of employment in order to maintain human dignity and care to some of the weakest and most vulnerable people in our society.

We are embodied beings and our bodies wear out and die. I’m musing here, but it seems to me that much of our culture is effectively gnostic. By that I mean it values the abstract above the physical. We fear death and prize fickle and transient things like respect, image, status, power, beauty and success. Money itself is simply a means to such ends and it is pursued relentlessly. When the capitalist system fails, no price is too high to fix it, regardless of the cost to ‘less important’ and ‘soft’ professions like caring and nursing, mental health provision or disability services.

In saying this, some may retort ‘What’s your alternative?’ Hospitals need funding. Funding comes from taxes. Taxes come from those who work and create wealth. If everyone was a carer the system would collapse. Yes, but I’m pushing back against distorted priorities within recent neo-liberalism (or ‘turbo-capitalism’) and the damage it is wrought globally – and in Ireland particularly. See this excellent article on ‘financialisation’ for more detailed discussion of what has happened.

Nor does a rampant capitalist culture contain any logical impulse towards doing justice, righting wrongs or, dare I say, loving others. It prizes individual happiness, comfort and pleasure, but is largely indifferent to those that fall by the wayside of the capitalist dream.

At the risk of massive generalisation, I wonder if women tend to be less seduced by such gnostic dualisms than men? Is that why it is overwhelmingly women who get their hands dirty in the mess of sacrificially tending and respecting ageing bodies? I honestly do not know the answers to those questions, save to say I want here to pay tribute to all those wonderful carers who contributed to looking after my mum in the last years of her life.

But I do know that the Christian faith is anything but gnostic. The entire Bible values the earthly, physical and material aspects of life. It begins with God willing a good creation into being. It climaxes with the incarnation of God’s Son. He enters human history, born of Mary and is Israel’s promised Messiah. He heals the sick and raises the dead. He is crucified under Pontius Pilate. He sheds real blood and suffers real death. His resurrection means that all in him have hope of a resurrection body in a renewed creation.

You can’t get more committed to the pain, complexity and physicality of the world than that. The cross reveals the true nature of our God. As one theologian puts it, ‘The uttermost depth of human misery has been plumbed by the incarnate Lord.’

And that is very good news indeed.