Sunday, May 22, 2011

The week of 16 May 2011 was a special one for me. Not because we inducted a new vicar in our church. That was of course special, too, as we welcomed our bishop and together lived through the solemnity of that Church of England ceremony. But that week was specially memorable to me because of the courage and perspective and grace of the head of the Church of England, our 85-year-old Queen.

I should explain that I am half Irish. My Protestant family lived for hundreds of years in Ireland. They lived through all the terrible turmoils that have marked relations between our two countries. One direct ancestor was decorated for his part in suppressing a nationalist uprising while another relation went mad because she was forced to drink paint by the IRA. And in 1922 at the time of Irish independence my grandfather was told to leave Ireland by the end of the week or be shot .

Twenty-five years later at an international conference in Caux, Switzerland my mother reacted strongly to the words of an Irish Catholic senator. 'Who is this woman,' she thought, 'who talks about unity but chucked me out of my country?' But it was a conference aiming to heal hatreds from the past and that confrontation was the start of a profound change for her as she apologized to the senator for the indifference she had shown to Catholics. The senator went on to be one of the founders of the Glencree reconciliation centre and my family was launched into a work for unity.

It will be obvious to you that I am referring in this article to the visit of the Queen to Dublin. In 95 state visits she had never visited the Republic of Ireland. It was the first royal visit since George V in 1911.

The Queen laid two wreaths of extraordinary significance: at Islandbridge to the 50,000 Irishmen who were killed in World War I while serving in the British Army and at the Garden of Remembrance which commemorates Irishmen who were killed in the cause of independence, fighting against the British. There God save the Queen was followed by the Irish national anthem.

Her visit to Croke Park, the home of the Gaelic Football Association, scene of the first 'Bloody Sunday' when British forces killed 14 spectators and players at a Gaelic football match, was regarded as a tacit acknowledgement of that atrocity.

The Queen's speech at the state banquet in Dublin Castle was given a standing ovation. In the course of it Her Majesty said, 'With the benefit of historical hindsight we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not done at all' and 'To all those who have suffered as a consequence of our troubles past I extend my sincere thoughts and deep sympathy.' To the Irish President Mary McAleese she said that their laying of wreaths reminded us of the importance of forbearance and conciliation of 'being able to bow to the past, but not be bound by it'. Responding, the President said, 'The journey to peace has been cruelly slow and arduous but it has taken us to a place where hope thrives and the past no longer threatens to overwhelm our present and our future.'

There were threats against the Queen before the visit but as The Times wrote, 'Not the least of the Queen's virtues is personal courage. Another, inspired by Christianity, is forgiveness.' According to the paperthe Queen'came as close as anyone could have dared hope to apologizing for Britain's actions in Ireland'.

It has to be remembered that the Queen and her family have not been spared personal tragedy. Her cousin, Earl Mountbatten, the uncle of Prince Philip, and other family members were murdered in 1979 by the IRA. Prince Charles, reflecting on this sad event, has said, 'I remember how it gradually dawned on me that thoughts of vengeance and hatred would merely prolong the terrible law of cause and effect and continue an unbroken cycle of revenge.'

For years it has been a source of sadness to me that what has been going on in the North of Ireland has been held up as a reproach to Christians. Now, as the Queen said, the work of all those involved in the peace process has served not only as a basis for reconciliation between our people and communities but also 'gives hope to other peacemakers across the world that through sustained effort peace can and will prevail.' President McAleese said that the visit marked the day of 'the closing of the conflict.'

Some Irish may continue to harbour bitterness about English and British actions in the past, Some British may still refuse to face up to our cruelty to the Irish. But that week's symbols of reconciliation hold great promise of a better future. It was interesting to note that the following week President Obama in Dublin praised Northern Ireland's peacemakers for sending out 'a ripple of hope' to people locked in conflict across the world.

I wish my mother who used to visit Dublin Castle as a child could have been here to witness the Queen's actions and words that week. And the response they evoked.