A Transatlantic pilgrimage flight landed at Knock Airport this morning and was welcomed by the Taoiseach. In his remarks to the media, Enda Kenny said:
“They’ve come here not just to see scenery, but to participate in a pilgrimage, and I hope in the land of St Patrick and the place of apparition of Mary they get a deep appreciation of what that spiritualism is, the kind of people we are and the land that we inhabit.”
One assumes that the Taoiseach intended to refer to the “spirituality” rather than “spiritualism”; spiritualism is about communing with the dead. But perhaps Enda Kenny was still thinking of last week’s commemoration of the centenary of the funeral of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, an occasion where the spiritualism was evident.
Patrick Pearse’s oration at that funeral in 1915 was explicit in references to communing with the dead. In remembering O’Donovan Rossa, Pearse spoke of being:
In a closer spiritual communion with him now than ever before or perhaps ever again, in a spiritual communion with those of his day, living and dead.
The sort of language used by Pearse reflected his own religious spirituality and the spirit of the age. Pearse speaking in 2015 would not have spoken in such terms, would he?
As the centenaries of the events of 1916-1922 approach, there seems a political contest to claim to be inheritors of the spirit of the protagonists, like aspiring Elishas squabbling over the mantle of Elijah, contemporary politicians present themselves as successors to the leaders of a century ago. The contest was manifest last week when there were two commemorations of the centenary of the O’Donovan Rossa funeral, an “official” one held by the government and an “unofficial” one held by Sinn Fein.
Do politicians still believe they are in “spiritual communion” with the nationalist leaders of the past? Does that sort of religious language still have a place in 21st Century republicanism? Would the centenary of independence in 2022 not best be marked by an escape from spiritualism?
Perhaps there is still felt a need to pay obeisance to the sentiments of former times, but to be constantly revisiting the personalities and the politics of the past, while it may reassure the party faithful, does nothing to engage with the increasing number of Irish people who have no interest in the recycling of a hundred year old speeches. (How many of the twenty-somethings who came home to vote on 22nd May are likely to be engaged by internecine conflicts over historical details?)
It seems unlikely that the pattern of commemorations is going to change course. The government is intent on a programme of political spiritualism, an exaltation of those of former times, a communing with their spirits. Unless there is a very unlikely change of direction, a conscious rejection of mantles from the past in favour of a new secular republicanism, the process will have one certain outcome, that Ireland in 2022 will be as divided as it was in 1922.