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Dr Peter Birch

Second Reading
“I liked his gentle and unassuming presence. He was not, to paraphrase TS Eliot, one of those on whom assurance sat like a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire. His words were simple, clear and invariably profound.”

Fr Kevin HegartyFr Kevin Hegarty

LAST week I wrote here of Edward Delaney, the distinguished Mayo sculptor, who died in late September. In the course of the funeral liturgy, his brother, Monsignor John Delaney, told the congregation that Edward reckoned that the late Dr Peter Birch, who served as Bishop of Ossory, was the only Irish bishop who really appreciated art.
As the Monsignor wryly acknowledged, the commendation may have been occasioned by the bishop’s employment of Edward in the embellishment of St Mary’s Cathedral in Kilkenny.
Dr Birch, who died in 1981, along with Dr Willie Walsh, soon to retire as Bishop of Killaloe, are, arguably, the most prophetic Irish Catholic bishops of the last half-century.
Peter Birch was ordained bishop in 1962. It was a time of rapid change in Ireland. As Taoiseach, Seán Lemass had abandoned the failed protectionist economic policies that had prevailed since 1932 and opened up the economy to foreign investment.
New factories began to dot the landscape of the country. Employment rose and emigration fell. To further and copper-fasten this economic growth, he sought membership of the European Economic Community.
The cultural stagnation of the 1940’s and 1950’s ended. Television opened up new vistas of experience for Irish people. As the sociologist, Tom Inglis, perceptively observed, television ended the long 19th century of Irish Catholicism. Pope John XXIII, called the Second Vatican Council and sought to bring the Church into a conversation with modernity.
It was an era redolent of freedom,  hope, great expectations and radical possibilities. Something of the energy of the time is caught by John Montague in his poem on a Mullingar Fleadh Cheoil that took place in 1963:
“At the Fleadh Cheoil in Mullingar
There were two sounds, the breaking
Of glass and the background pulse
Of music. Young girls roamed
The streets with eager faces,
Shoving for men. Bottles in
Hand, they roared out a song:
‘Puritan Ireland’s dead and gone,
A myth of O’Connor and O’Faolain’.

In the early morning the lovers
Lay on both sides of the canal
Listening on Sony transistors
To the agony of Pope John.
Yet it didn’t seem strange, or blasphemous,
This ground bass of death and
Resurrection, as we strolled along:
‘Puritan Ireland’s dead and gone,
A myth of O’Connor and O’Faolain’.

The veteran religious affairs correspondent, Clifford Longley, some years ago described the Irish Catholic hierarchy as “sad, safe and second-rate”. The generalisation is harsh but it is hard to resist the conclusion that the system of appointment of Catholic bishops is designed for the emergence of men who are careful and conservative, who have never ventured a thought that might flutter the feathers of the anxious monsignors in the Vatican Curia.
To use sporting parlance, it is a system that is adequate in the production of full backs but is severely limited in its ability to provide creative forwards.
There was little in Peter Birch’s background to indicate that he would be a radical voice as bishop. Born in 1911 into a Kilkenny farming family, he was educated locally and at Maynooth. After ordination, he taught in St Kieran’s College before returning to Maynooth as Professor of Education.
Yet he had an open and questioning mind. Unlike most of his colleagues on the Episcopal bench, for whom the insights of the Second Vatican Council were like a tsunami and about as welcome, he was attuned to the new theology of the Church as the “people of God”. A humble man, he was deeply uncomfortable with the pomp and glory then associated with being a bishop in Ireland. He was temperamentally suited to being a bishop in a time of flux when the old order was coming apart and attitudes were not set in stone.
I liked his gentle and unassuming presence. He was not, to paraphrase TS Eliot, one of those on whom assurance sat like a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire. His words were simple, clear and invariably profound.
I was inspired by his consistent advocacy of the poor and the handicapped. He saw in them, in the words of Daniel Berrigan, “the tragic beauty of the face of Christ”. His quietly passionate championing of their needs led him to establish the Ossory Social Services, still a model for the country as to how voluntary bodies can best operate together for the marginalised.
I was impressed, too, by his commitment to Vatican II. His words exuded the exhilarating aura of that wonderful time. He sought enthusiastically to give effect to its conclusions, particularly in his commitment to the involvement of lay people in Church deliberations.
Above all, what was distinctive about Peter Birch was his openness and tolerance. He did not inhabit a psychological bunker in which all secularism seems inimical to Christianity. Instead, he dialogued on equal terms with the ‘world’ and brought the gaze of God into these deliberations.
We could do with leaders like him in the Church today.