Just over a month ago, fittingly, on Easter Sunday morning, Fr Joe Mallin, the last surviving child of a 1916 leader, son of Commandant Michael Mallin, chief-of-staff of the Irish Citizen’s Army and commander of the St. Stephen’s Green garrison during the Easter Rising, died peacefully in Hong Kong. He was 104 years old.
Some years ago, he travelled home from China where he had lived since 1948 to attend the 90th State commemoration ceremonies. And on that occasion, he received a lot of media attention. In one of his interviews he said, “I will attend the parade on Easter Sunday, as the Government was good enough to invite me, but what I am most looking forward to is being able to go to the grave of my father in Arbour Hill, with the other families of those executed, for a ceremony in early May”.
I know that you too, the families of those executed, look forward very much to this annual event. And as we greet and salute you at this year’s commemoration ceremony we acknowledge that, in some ways, this year’s ceremony marks a new moment for you. For everything there is a season, as our First Reading put it. With the death of Fr. Joe, an immediate link between us and the 1916 leaders has been cut. With the death of the last of the surviving children, all the second generation has now gone before us ar shlí na firinne, along the way of Truth. The third, fourth, fifth generations are now well and truly promoted onto the frontline, as it were, assuming a new level of responsibility as guardians of the flame of memory.
As you move forward beyond the second generation, your coming here as families for the annual commemoration ceremonies, will increasingly serve as a visible reminder that the 1916 leaders were not isolated heroic individualists. They each had a family and family was important, very important to them.
The Gospel passage we’ve just heard is from that part of the Fourth Gospel that reveals the sentiments of Jesus’ heart, his hopes and his dreams the night before his execution. As he looked into the history lessons of the future, as a pater familias, he knows he has to leave those he had generated spiritually to the new life of heaven on earth. He knows their potential and he trusts in it but he also knows only too well their limits – there will be betrayal, denial and disillusionment.
So as he is leaving this world, Jesus provides an example that embodies a word that will be the constant base note to which the new community will have to return again and again – Love one another as I have loved you, the foundation document of the new family of God coming to life around him. He washes the feet of his disciples, symbol of a way of relating that is to characterize his follows. It won’t be long before the apostles will go forth brandishing the flag of victory of life over death, but they will always have to return again and again to rediscover the key values that launched them on their adventure through time and history. They will have always have to look again into the soul of love seen in Jesus’ example and revealed in his New Commandment.
Perhaps we can take from that a message for ourselves today. With the death of the last surviving child of the 1916 leaders, the flag of victory is now being handed over definitively to the next generations. It’s a new step in our journey. And while we know the colours of freedom and equality are clearly to be seen on this flag, let’s notice too watermarked on this flag the image of family.
We know family was important for the 1916 leaders. We see if from their last deeds, conversations or letters written: the wedding in Kilmainham between Joseph Mary Plunket and Grace Gifford, just seven hours prior to Plunket’s execution; Seán MacDiarmada’s concern for Mary Kate Ryan the woman “who would have been my wife”; Pearse’s letter to his mother; Seán Heuston’s letters to family, sisters and cousins. And there are other examples. Each family here will treasure its own recollection.
It is perhaps in Michael Mallin’s letter to his wife Agnes that we see the depth of emotional turmoil he experienced at the thought of the consequence of his death for his pregnant wife and four young children: “My darling Wife Pulse of my heart, this is the end of all things earthly; sentence of Death has been passed, and a quarter to four tomorrow the sentence will be carried out by shooting and so must Irishmen pay for trying to make Ireland a free nation. God’s will be done.” He continued, “My heart strings are torn to pieces when I think of you and them, of our manly James, happy go lucky John, shy warm Una, daddy’s girl, and oh little Joseph, my little man, my little man. Wife dear Wife I cannot keep the tears back when I think of him, he will rest in my arms no more, to think I have to leave you to battle through the world with them without my help, what will you do my own darling..
Families were so present physically or emotionally in the last earthly days of the leaders. And they had dreams for their family. In his last letter Michael wrote, inter alia, “Joseph, my little man, be a priest if you can …”. His dream for his son came true. If these men died for the freedom and equality of a nation, they did so mindful of family life. They gave their lives not just for the sake of Irish individuals but for the sake of the families of this land.
Families are where dreams are had, support is provided, values handed on. Families are a community-building leaven in society, holding us, moulding us, scolding us at times, but, ultimately, providing us with the deepest parameters of our outlook, judgements and decisions.
The annual gathering of the families of the 1916 leaders for the Commemoration ceremonies alerts us to an important word, perhaps silently spoken but so powerfully present, a word we always need to hear from the 1916 leaders: the family, don’t forget the importance of the family – support families and learn from them.
Yes, of course, families have limits and difficulties – and here I’d like to refer to Pope Francis who will be coming to Ireland this year for the large international event, the World Meeting of Families. He puts it so well when he says no family drops down from heaven perfectly formed; each family is on a journey; every member of a family is on a journey, but it is a journey on which we can help, inspire and encourage one another.
I think it is not an exaggeration to say the 1916 leaders would want us to recall how family can be of inspiration in helping shape Ireland. We can learn from the family how to give a soul to our institutions. If we look closely at the family, it provides us, at least in its best aspects, with great values which, when projected onto and applied to society at large, can transform our thinking about society, our policy planning and our institutional response to issues. It is important to look through the family lens when we are creating social policy at all levels and ask: “how does impact on family life?” or “what might a family focus say to us on this topic or policy?”. The family has always to be part of the equation when tackling problems and formulating new directions.
I’m sure the 1916 leaders would be pleased to see an Ireland that has done well. Yes, of course, there are limits. But society too is a family that doesn’t drop down from heaven perfectly formed. But we can be proud that Ireland has a vast array of government ministries, hospitals and schools, courts, banks and associations, and all kinds of social agencies and networks. But perhaps their word to us in this year when the last surviving child of the leaders has died, would be to remember how structures always need to be humanized; that the spirit of service that needs to animate our institutions can draw its inspiration from the many shades of love – giving, receiving, communicating – that we experience in a family.
[Sa dara léacht deirtear: cruthaíodh i gCríost Íosa sinn chun ár saol a thabhairt i mbun na ndea-oibreacha a bhí ullamh roimh ré dúinn ag Dia…. ]
It has rightly been said if you don’t know where you are going, then any road will do. But the 1916 leaders clearly believed Ireland was going somewhere. They spoke of our State’s freedom, welfare, and exaltation among the nations. For each of them, however, the family would have been an important road to travel.