Tribute to a statesman
Seamus Mallon’s principles, rooted in a strong Faith and in an unstinting commitment to a culture of life, remained steadfast even in face of opposition, writes Archbishop Eamon Martin
In the entrance hall of the Seamus Heaney ‘home place’ in Bellaghy, Co. Derry there is a quotation from one of Heaney’s poems (The Herbal, Human Chain, 2010): “I had my existence. I was there. Me in place and the place in me.”
I expect that Seamus Mallon felt the same about Mullaghbrack and Markethill: “Me in place and the place in me.” But like the poets – Heaney, Kavanagh and McGahern – his sense of place was never tribal or ‘parochial’, in any narrow sense. For him, ‘place’ was always about openness, welcome and belonging.
He wrote lyrically about his ‘home place’ in the opening stanzas of his recent book: “Every day of the week I am fortunate to be within touching distance of places and moments that have helped to shape our country’s history, and indeed have helped to shape me, both as a person and a politician…each of my kitchen windows looks at the symbols of four centuries of divided history: the fears, the prejudices, the ethnic hatred, the lack of understanding…”
But Seamus was determined to help put these things right, to make a real difference, and to leave the world a better place than it was when he entered it and was baptised in this parish, back in 1936.
People sometimes speak of the “noble vocation of politics”. Seamus Mallon was a shining example of someone who gives their life in a vocation of service. As a committed Christian, he prayed daily the words of the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” And his prayer led to action, as he used his many gifts to build up God’s kingdom in the world – a Kingdom of truth and life, a Kingdom of justice, love and peace.
Today’s first reading from the book of Ecclesiastes speaks of there being “a time for every occupation under heaven”. Seamus certainly took time for healing, time for building up, time for gathering, time for planting. He made time for mourning, but also for laughing and for dancing; but he had no time for tearing down, or giving up; he had no time for hate, no time for war.
The Beatitudes of today’s Gospel reading were his pattern for living: “Blessed are the peacemakers; blessed are those who are persecuted in the cause of right – theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.”
In recent days many commentators have spoken of Seamus as a man of integrity and courage who was unafraid to speak up or call it as it was – even at great personal risk. He has been described as fair and principled, and as always respectful of the rights of others.
Visitors to his wake have shared stories of his astute leadership and tough negotiating skills, and also of his ‘stubborn’ determination and no-nonsense directness at times.
But many others, who have known Seamus in a personal way, have spoken of him as a devoted father, grandfather, brother, and as a faithful friend. Seamus enjoyed good company wherever he could find it – whether it was fishing on Lough Inagh, or golfing in Rosapenna, or watching a match, or putting on plays and shows, pottering around the garden, playing with his faithful dog Jesse, or savouring a ‘creamy pint’ or glass of whiskey with his friends.
Seamus was a ‘people person’, through and through, and whether he was with presidents, prime ministers, party colleagues or his own good neighbours and friends here in Markethill, he was the same Seamus. He had an amazing capacity to remember people.
Despite all the distractions of national importance, still his loving care for Gertrude, his ‘doting’ dedication to Orla, Mark and Lara and his affection for his sisters, nieces, nephews and extended family remained steadfast.
The last time I heard Seamus speak publicly was in September past during the Kennedy Summer School in New Ross. Despite being into his 84th year, his energy and determination for peace were undimmed and the audience knew that they were in the presence of greatness.
His wise words that evening seemed to resonate especially with the younger people there, and his address sparked a prolonged standing ovation. Seamus spoke with the authority and vision that come from having lived through the worst of ‘the Troubles’ and personally played a central role in the landmark events of our peace process.
Seamus Mallon was unequivocally anti-violence. Like Heaney he saw the ongoing bloodshed of the past as a “waste of life” and a “waste of spirit”. He empathised from his heart with all those who were suffering and his consistent condemnation of violence from whatever source often left him open to insult and unfair criticism. But his principles, rooted in a strong faith and in an unstinting commitment to a culture of life, remained steadfast in face of such opposition.
I find this passage from Seamus’ book particularly moving: “As I walk or drive on my weekly rounds I am haunted by the places that have been violated; too many places violated in my parish, my county, my country, violated by murder and massacre, places I used to know and love as I passed by them on my boyhood bicycle.”
At the beginning of our ceremony, Seán carried forward a photograph of Seamus’ meeting with Pope John Paul II in Rome, a picture of which he was very proud. Just two months before Seamus became Deputy Leader of the SDLP, Pope John Paul II spoke these words to our politicians at Drogheda in September 1979.
He said: “Never think you are betraying your own community by seeking to understand and respect and accept those of a different tradition…I urge you who are called to the noble vocation of politics to have the courage…to be leaders in the cause of peace, reconciliation and justice…those who resort to violence always claim that only violence brings about change…you politicians must prove them to be wrong…you must show that peace achieves the works of justice, and violence does not.”
I have no doubt that those words inspired Seamus Mallon. To his dying day he was consistent in his dedication to a culture of life and peace, and he remained a man of hope for a brighter and more peaceful tomorrow – a shared and respectful future where everyone can experience a sense of belonging. A fitting tribute to the legacy of Seamus Mallon would be a renewed effort by all our political leaders and by all of us to build that ‘shared home place’ which was Seamus’ vision and lifelong project.
Here was a wholesome human being who spent himself unselfishly for his family, his local community, his country and for the common good”
For Christians our ultimate ‘shared home place’ is of course with God, in heaven. St Paul wrote to the Philippians: “For us, our homeland is in heaven.” (Phil 3:20) There is a passage in his book where Seamus ponders on what God’s judgement might be for him “when it comes to the Last Day and the parable of the talents”.
He wrote: “I hope the judgment will be: ‘Could have done better. Could have done things differently. But tried his best.’” I think perhaps Seamus is a little hard on himself. Here was a loving father, husband, brother and grandfather. Here was a dedicated Catholic school teacher and principal, a kindly and attentive neighbour, a man of many talents who wasted none of them.
Here was a wholesome human being who spent himself unselfishly for his family, his local community, his country and for the common good. Here was a peacemaker, a ‘bridge builder’ a leader, a statesman, and a faithful worker for the Kingdom of God.
I am confident that God, in His great mercy, will be more inclined to greet Seamus with words like those of St Paul in today’s second reading: “Seamus, you have fought the good fight to the end; you have run the race to the finish; you have kept the Faith; all there is to come for you now is the crown of righteousness which I the Lord, the upright judge, will give you.”
This is an abridged version of the homily preached by Archbishop Eamon at Mr Mallon’s funeral Mass in the Church of St James of Jerusalem, Mullaghbrack, Co. Armagh.