Last night the UK Labour Party Irish Society held a Zoom meeting concerning the case of a headstone in the graveyard of St Giles’ Church in the Diocese of Coventry. The family of Margaret Keane, who died in 2018, went through a routine application process for a gravestone for their mother and in time for their father Bernie, who is still alive. They put a lot of thought, care and love into the design and wording of this gravestone, on which they want to include the inscription in ár gcroídhe go deo … in our hearts forever. In a shock ruling with deeply worrying implications, permission was refused, specifically concerning the Irish wording. The family have appealed the decision. The Church of England and, notably, the bishop of Coventry, a city known for its global influence for reconciliation, have disowned the decision. The appeal is due to be heard on 24th Feb in the Court of Arches, Canterbury. There is a widespread campaign to support the family. Many groups, organisations and individuals are involved, including Irish PEN/PEN na hÉireann, Wales PEN Cymru, Scottish PEN, English PEN, Aontas na Scríbhneoirí Gaeilge, Conradh na Gaeilge, Irish in Britain and others.
(@My_Mums_Voice and #MessagetoMargaret on Twitter; Links to more info below.)
The Zoom event took place at 6:30 pm on Tuesday 16th February 2021.
Paula Kelly (Women’s Officer of LPIS) was in the Chair.
Bez Martin, Margaret Keane’s daughter, spoke first. Speaking for her siblings as well as herself, she said they were glad their Irish parents had brought them up in England with a perfect balance of belonging and assimilation, with deep involvement in the GAA, holidays in Ballyhaunis every year and a love for the Irish language.
Bez spoke lovingly about their parents and the values and the community they grew up in. Margaret Keane died in 2018. Learning to live without her was made harder for the family by the 2019 decision to refuse permission for the inscription they had chosen with great care to reflect those values, their love for their parents and their acute sense of loss.
However this campaign is about more than their individual case. They are representing the rights of the Irish community, not just in Coventry but beyond.
They do not want to stir up animosity or conflict (although they have endured an amount of hateful commentary on social media). They have also received astonishing levels of support from many sources, including organisations and powerful people; but the big lesson for them in this experience is that it’s the ordinary person who can make a difference.
Mary Rachel McCabe QC, one of the family’s legal team, said that Bez’s speech was a powerful reminder that behind the headlines there is a bereaved family. She gave us a brief history of the case:
Background: The parish council initially ruled in favour of the family’s headstone design, with a small query about an elevated Celtic cross, no issue with the language at all. The next level of application is the Diocesan Advisory Council, who also queried the cross but not the use of Irish. They didn’t recommend approval solely because of the elevation of the cross, suggesting an embedded version instead. This query is the reason the application was sent forward to the Chancellor of the Diocese of Coventry, Stephen Eyre QC. He ruled against the headstone, saying that “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.”
Remember, the inscription states: in ár gcroídhe go deo … in our hearts forever.
Eyre’s ruling was subsequently disowned by the Church of England and in particular by the bishop of Coventry, who noted the city of Coventry’s essential role in promoting reconciliation across the globe. The city of Coventry has a diverse population, including many of Irish heritage, and the assumption that a person viewing the headstone would assume negative connotations to an inscription in Irish is extraordinary.
The family had no legal representation at that point, but following media attention, Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC, Mary Rachel McCabe QC and Caroline Brogan (solicitor) got involved. Gallagher wrote a blog at the time which summarises the issues
In a witty but thought provoking speech, Caoilfhionn Gallagher noted that the words chosen by the family matter, as well as the language. Such words are chosen to express the personality of the deceased and the emotion the family wish to convey. She cited witty examples of other headstone inscriptions, including the Nation’s Favourite Epitaph (2012) Spike Milligans’ Dúirt mé leat go raibh mé breoite (I told you I was ill), which came ahead of Oscar Wilde’s ‘Either those curtains go or I do’. Many people will recognise Spike Milligan’s inscription, but few realise that on th eheadstone it is actually in Irish and untranslated (this was news to me). She gave these examples to demonstrate that not all inscriptions have to be particularly worthy or religious. She reminded us that after Goldsmith’s death in 1744, Samuel Johnson wrote his epitaph in Latin because he ‘refused to disgrace the walls of Westminster Abbey with an English inscription’.
The goal of the legal team, beyond securing permission for the Keane family to remember and grieve their mother as they wish, is to set guidance so that no other family has to go through this experience. (The arcane nature of the ecclesiastical courts and their sundry expenses was referred to by several people during the Q & A)
Two of the grounds for Appeal are that the decision is unreasonable and that it violates the family’s Human Rights – among them the right to freedom from discrimination. It was noted that there are several headstones with, for example inscriptions in Welsh (untranslated) in the graveyard where Margaret Keane is buried.
Gallagher referred, too, to the Blindboy Boatclub Tweet and Podcast which point out the assumption inherent in the decision, that anyone who speaks Irish or loves the language is associated with the IRA/terrorism. This point was also taken up later by speakers from Conradh na Gaeilge and others.
Caroline Brogan (Solicitor) (also Irish) noted the larger than average Irish population in the cities of Coventry and Birmingham and said that Irish is spoken on a daily basis in both cities. Coventry is an inclusive city, known across the world as a city of reconciliation. Children there are schooled in the dangers of othering and the dark places it can take us to. Mo Mowlam grew up in Coventry.
Conor McGinn, Labour MP and Chair of the Irish in Britain, spoke about his personal connection with the family and about the unequivocal support he has received from Craig Tracey, the Conservative MP for the Keanes’ Constituency, and the broader cross-party support that exists for the family’s case. He pointed out that the travesty of this decision has shone a light on the Consistory system and suggested that it would be good to use this opportunity to reimagine the relationship between church and state law.
The ecclesiastical court allows organisations to make submissions in the public interest and Conradh na Gaeilge’s London branch have stepped forward as intervenors in the proceedings. We heard their intention to remind the Chancellor of the history of the Christian heritage of his diocese and the role of Lindisfarne in the Christianisation of England; they also intend to express the pain experienced by lovers of the Irish language as a result of this ruling and its (discriminatory) stated basis. We heard that since his decision the Chancellor has changed the rules, so that they now purport to apply to all languages, reserving the right to the Chancellor to decide which are acceptable.
Colum Eastwood MP, leader of the SDLP, reminded us that this case goes to the heart of a bigger issue, the right of all citizens to be treated equally. He finds the ruling deeply offensive and reminds us that there is an ongoing struggle for a Bill of Rights in Northern Ireland. He sees hundreds of people learning Irish in East Belfast, and doesn’t understand the fear and prejudice revealed by this ruling. He emphasised the importance of recognising that all traditions need to be equally valued and protected. He believes the Good Friday Agreement will be a driving force behind that process and argued that its principles should be remembered in Britain also.
Caoilfhionn Gallagher said that if the Appeal fails, they will take the unusual route of bringing the case to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council; but they hope the Court of Arches will get it right and make the right decision.
Many speakers during the Q & A were from the Church of England and expressed incomprehension, pain and anger concerning this decision. They expressed solidarity with the family’s right to honour their parents with the wording and in the language of their choosing. Almost universally, speakers commented on the dignity and courage displayed by the Keane family throughout this ordeal. We all wish them well in the Appeal.
For more information on the case:
Fiona Audley in the Irish Post: https://bit.ly/375tw0y
Martina Devlin in the Independent: https://bit.ly/3aXI9Ee
Owen Bowcott in the Guardian: : https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/05/church-of-england-disowns-ruling-irish-epitaph-gravestone
 Life iii 85 cited in Samuel Johnson and the Culture of Property by Kevin Hart CUP p 11
This is a painful tale, especially for the family but also for English society. Thanks for keeping us in touch with it, Lia.