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| 10 minutes read

A Grave Mistake? Ecclesiastical court rules against Irish language only inscription on headstone

The Church of England's ecclesiastical courts do not often hit the headlines, and certainly not the Irish headlines. Today, however, Irish newspapers, The Irish Times and InTallaght are reporting on a recent judgment of the Consistory Court of the Diocese of Coventry.

The reason? The Chancellor of Coventry, Judge Stephen Eyre QC, rejected a bereaved family's application for a memorial stone with an inscription in Irish only, ruling that "the passions and feelings connected with the use of Irish Gaelic" could lead to people regarding it as "some form of slogan" or "a political statement."  He ruled against the family's wishes, requiring an English translation to be added to the gravestone, rejecting their wish to simply have the Irish words “In ár gcroíthe go deo" (in our hearts forever).

Margaret Keane

Margaret Keane died in July 2018. She and her husband were both born in Ireland, but, as the judgment says,"made their life in the United Kingdom. They remained proud of their Irish heritage and were active in the work of the Gaelic Athletic Association both in Coventry and nationally. This was important public service to the Irish community in the United Kingdom and formed a major part of Mrs. Keane’s life and of her work for others."  A year before she died, in 2017, Margaret received one of the prestigious GAA President's Awards (Gradaim an Uachtaráin). The GAA's description of the reason for the award gives a flavour of how important her Irishness was to her, and the central role the GAA played in her and her husband's lives:  

"International Award - Margaret Keane 

When Margaret Healy left Athboy to make a new life in Coventry in the 1950s she did as so many before and since have done and sought out the local GAA community to help make a home from home. It was in the Roger Casements GAA club that she not only met her future husband and Mayo hurler Bernie Keane but she started out on an extraordinary career as a volunteer which has seen her become synonymous with the Club through a variety of officer posts ever since. A highly regarded member of the Warwickshire County Board and an ever-friendly face at meetings and matches at Páirc na hÉireann, Margaret has given a lifetime of unselfish service and dedication."

Margaret's family were clear about how they wished to mark her grave: a memorial stone with an inscription stating that it was in loving memory of her, her dates of birth and death, a Celtic cross containing the GAA emblem at its centre, and the words “In ár gcroíthe go deo." 

The Diocese of Coventry has Churchyard Regulations, written in 2019 by the Chancellor who decided this case. The Regulations, at [4], describe churchyards as having "consecrated status" and containing "memorials to departed Christians demonstrating the Church’s continuing love for them".  They also state that, "Churchyards are places of solace and relief for those who mourn. In addition many people find comfort in knowing that their mortal remains will be interred in a particular churchyard and in a particular setting. That comfort derives in part from a confidence that the character of that setting will be preserved."  They go on, at [5]:

"Accordingly, the memorials placed in our churchyards must be fitting and appropriate and they must be fitting and appropriate not just for today but also for the future."

The Regulations set out the requirement that the permission of the Chancellor is needed for the erection of any memorial in a churchyard, with vicars, rectors and others authorised to approve memorials which fall within the Regulations: [17]. Margaret Keane's memorial required his approval.

The Celtic cross with a GAA symbol was permitted, with some agreed amendments. But what troubled the Chancellor was the request for Irish words to appear on the gravestone. It is clear from the judgment that it was a matter of intense importance to Margaret's family that the phrase on the memorial be in Irish only, with no translation into English. Her daughter made clear that, 

"the use of Irish Gaelic is not intended as a political statement but is an important part of the Irish heritage of Mrs. Keane and of her husband. Mr. Keane is still alive but the intention is that his remains will be buried in the plot in the fullness of time. [She] says that the Irish language is regarded not just as a means of communication but as a “vehicle of symbolic value”. She says that Gaelic names would not be translated into English on a memorial and contends that translation should also not be required for messages from the bereaved."

She also argued that the presence of a translation would overcomplicate or crowd the memorial. 

Nevertheless, the Chancellor ruled against the family. His reasons are deeply troubling. 

"Incomprehensible" Inscriptions

First, at [11] - [12] of the judgment the Chancellor referred to [34] of the Regulations (which he himself drafted): “…it is to be remembered that the memorial will be read not just by those who knew the deceased in question but by those who did not. Indeed, the message conveyed to those who did not know the deceased is in many ways more important than the message being given to those who did know him or her.”  He thus held that,

"As a consequence regard must be had to the message which an inscription conveys to those who did not know the person being commemorated. An inscription which is incomprehensible to such persons is unlikely to be appropriate."

At [16], he spelled this out: the Irish phrase"will be unintelligible to all but a small minority of readers" in "English-speaking Coventry" and so, he found, it is not appropriate for the memorial. This approach is extremely narrow-minded. The Irish in Britain are many. Although only c. 870,000 of the population in Britain are Irish-born (about 1.4% of the population), a far higher number have Irish ancestry: about 6 million people, or 10% of the population. And Coventry is one of the cities with a higher than average Irish population, according to Irish in Britain. Certainly a sizeable minority in Coventry may understand the phrase, or at least recognise the language, particularly coupled with the Celtic cross and the GAA symbol. Yet the Chancellor's approach essentially mandates the English language, in "English-speaking Coventry."

His approach is difficult to square with Coventry City Council's pride in the city being ethnically diverse, with around one third of the population being from minority ethnic groups (compared to only 20% for England as a whole). The largest minority ethnic group are Asian and Asian British communities. Would he object to memorials including words in Hindi without translation? Would he consider this inappropriate in "English-speaking Coventry"? Or is Irish different?  

And besides, why should the memorial have to be clear to the majority of those strangers who may in future pass by it and read it?  This is certainly not the case for old headstones with Latin inscriptions, now incomprehensible to most of us.  A far more sensible and flexible approach was taken by the Deputy Chancellor in the Diocese of Southwark, Morag Ellis QC, in a recent case. The applicant wished to commemorate her parents with a memorial containing their names, dates, and a single Welsh word, "Tangnefedd" (peace). The Deputy Chancellor ruled, at [13],

"The struggle for the Welsh language to achieve recognition and legal status has been a long one. Whilst the language does not enjoy in England the legal status which it does in Wales, it is one of the languages of the United Kingdom.  Those who want to find out the meaning can, these days, easily look it up online, as I have said.  Culturally, I can understand that the use of this word, not translated into English, is a fitting memorial to a native Welsh speaker and his wife, although she did not speak Welsh.  The simple design of the tablet is also pleasing and uncluttered.  The church evidently has its own association with Wales and this, in my view, strengthens the case for the use of Tangnefedd."

The Chancellor of Coventry attempted to distinguish this Southwark case, but his reasoning is wholly unpersuasive. He refers to the Southwark memorial containing only one word, rather than a phrase, which is of course irrelevant to the question of whether it is intelligible to the reader in 'English-speaking Southwark'. He also omits the key sentence from Judge Morag Ellis QC's reasoning, above: "those who want to find out the meaning can, these days, easily look it up online." Why could the Chancellor of Coventry not allow Margaret Keane's family their wish, and those intrigued by the Irish phrase could simply google it, as non-Welsh speakers in Southwark can?

"Slogan" or "Political Statement" 

The Chancellor's second reason for refusing the family's application is, however, far more pernicious. This is the real reason a Coventry church court is now splashed over the pages of Irish newspapers. At [16] of the judgment the Chancellor makes clear that his concern is not only that the phrase would be "unintelligible" to most readers:

"Not only would the message of the inscription not be understood but there is a risk of it being misunderstood. 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. That is not appropriate..."

Frankly, this is an astonishing paragraph. Here, it is clear that the Chancellor does consider there to be something about the Irish language which is different to other languages. Something about the  "passions and feelings" associated with its use which could result in a dignified phrase in memory of a much-loved Irish wife, mother and grandmother being seen as "some form of slogan" or "a political statement."  This is, unfortunately, a slur with a long history, associating Irish speakers with the IRA and republican terrorism. It is little wonder that many Irish people online are horrified by this reasoning. See, for example, The Blindboy Podcast

This is seen by many as a clear example of what Colm Ó Broin has described as 'Gaeilgephobia,' or the irrational fear of the Irish language. 

Nor is it improved by the Chancellor's attempt to distance himself from the sentiment, with his description of there being a "sad risk" that others would take this view. What is the evidence base for assuming there to be such anti-Irish sentiment amongst those who walk in Coventry graveyards? And if there is such prejudice, why pander to it and deny a perfectly reasonable request from a grieving family?

Inhumane and Unreasonable  

This is not the first time the Chancellor has ruled against a bereaved family's wishes based on these Regulations. In January of this year, in Re St. Leonard Alton [2019] ECC Lic 10, he ruled against a bereaved husband, John Michael Chadfield, who wanted to include these words on his wife Elaine's memorial:

"My much loved wife of fifty years and mother of our two boys, died at home aged seventy-one. She met her death with courage and is now at peace. 


For the sword outwears its sheath 

And the soul wears out the breast,  

And the heart must pause to breathe, 

And love itself have rest. 


The Chancellor took a metaphorical red pen to the proposed wording, ruling that "the references to “my” and “our” do make the memorial overly personal" and refusing permission for the word "boys" to be used, replacing it with "sons": [15]. This was despite Mr. Chadfield's entirely understandable submission, at [8], that he accepted the proposed inscription is personal, but "why should the message not be personal on a memorial to his wife of fifty years"?

He also refused permission for Lord Byron's words, "so we'll go no more a'roving" and the rest of the verse, to be included, as it "is part of a secular poem which conveys no suggestion of Christian resurrection hope"  and, "it is language which is not appropriate on a memorial in churchyard and cannot be permitted."

The result was bland wording, written by the Church and not the grieving family: 

"Much loved wife of fifty years and mother of two sons. She died at home aged seventy-one meeting her death with courage and is now at peace.” 

This wording is gutted of Mr. Chadfield's own language and sentiment, and with Lord Byron's words stripped out, the meaningful words which he wished to use to express the profound loss of his partner of half a century. This ruling also attracted criticism in the press. 

Both of these rulings are restrictive and inhumane. They hamper bereaved families in expressing their loss in the manner of their choosing, for reasons which are difficult to follow and appear to boil down to the subjective views of the individual decision-maker as to what is 'appropriate'. The wishes of Margaret Keane, Elaine Chadfield and their loving families have not been respected, for reasons which have caused concern to many. The ruling in Margaret Keane's case is made infinitely worse by the undercurrent of anti-Irish sentiment. 

The Chancellor might do well to look at one historic example of the Church of England showing a certain degree of flexibility to respect the wishes of the dead and the grieving: St. Thomas's Church, Winchelsea, where Spike Milligan is buried. The epitaph on his gravestone is in Irish: "Dúirt mé leat go raibh mé breoite" (I told you I was ill). It is in Irish precisely because the Diocese of Chichester did not consider his chosen epitaph appropriate for a churchyard, and an Irish translation was the compromise reached by the family with the Diocese. The result is a meaningful epitaph, reflecting both the person who has been lost and the wishes of those left behind. And despite being in Irish, in English-speaking Winchelsea, Spike Milligan's epitaph has been voted the nation's favourite, beating Oscar Wilde's 'Either these curtains go or I do' and Frank Sinatra's 'the best is yet to come.'  Respecting the nature and importance of churchyards does not mean removing personality, turns of phrase or languages other than English from proposed memorials. We live in a diverse country, and that diversity should be reflected in graveyards, including those of the Church of England.  


epitaph, ecclesiastical law, irish language, coventry