Fr Kevin Hegarty
“Jesus said to his disciples, ‘I say this to you who are listening: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly. To the man who slaps you on one cheek, present the other cheek too; to the man who takes your cloak from you, do not refuse your tunic’.”
The above quotation is from the Gospel of St Luke. It is the start of a reading proclaimed in churches on a recent Sunday.
Can we live up to the massive challenge of these words? That was the question I struggled with as I composed my homily notes. As I tried to make sense of the gospel, the example of Erskine Childers came to mind.
We are in the midst of centenary commemorations of the events that led to the foundation of our state. Three years ago, we celebrated the Easter Rising of 1916. In January, we marked the establishment of the First Dáil in 1919. Commemorations of various events in the War of Independence are planned.
The most difficult and controversial event lies ahead. How will we remember the Civil War of 1922-23. What has been termed the four glorious years’ led to a year of torment.
The Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921 split the revolutionary movement. Those who supported the treaty, believed, to paraphrase the words of Michael Collins, that it gave us the freedom to achieve full freedom. Committed republicans asserted that it fell far short of their ideals.
By June of 1922 the country had drifted into civil war between the two factions. Men who had fought together now turned their guns on each other. Horrendous atrocities, on both sides, were regular occurrences. It was the darkest year in 20th-century Ireland. It was a time when, in the words of WB Yeats, ‘we fed the heart on fantasies, the hearts grown brutal from the fare, more substance in our enmities that in our love’.
In the midst of the darkness there was a glimmer of light. Erskine Childers was an Englishman who became romantically attached to the cause of Irish nationalism – an attachment for which Winston Churchill called him ‘a murderous renegade’. A gifted writer (he wrote the classic spy thriller ‘A Riddle in the Sands’), he was an able propagandist for the Republican cause during the War of Independence.
He took the anti-Treaty side in the Civil War. In November 1922, he was captured by the pro-Treaty forces and put on trial for the possession of a gun. Ironically, the weapon had been given to him by Michael Collins when they were both on the same side during the War of Independence.
A military court sentenced him to execution. On the night before his execution he asked his 16-year-old son, also named Erskine and later to become the fourth President of Ireland, to shake hands with the men who had signed his death warrant.
Before his execution he shook hands with each member of the firing squad, advising them gently, ‘step forward lads, it will be easier that way’.
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you … pray for those who treat you badly.”