Leaving Christ out of Christmas

Sarah Carey examines the Christmas message row

I’ve learned a lot from  President Michael D. Higgins’ non-Christian Christmas message.

            •           RTE's Liveline is the most important programme in the country. (Should I have known that already?)

            •           Most of what you read in the papers is exaggeration and distortion – especially headlines. (Actually, I knew that).

            •           It’s best not to dwell on things too much. (Most important).

The first I knew about the whole palaver was when I read on The Irish Times website last Saturday that the army Chief of Staff had apologised to the President for a homily made by army chaplain, Msgr Eoin Thynne. Apparently he had criticised Mr Higgins for leaving Christ out of his Christmas message. His comments had generated a conversation on Liveline with the usual debate and disagreement. Caught up in the domestic duties and social obligations of Christmas I hadn’t noticed the President’s message, nor had I tuned into Liveline. Amazingly I hadn’t attended the army’s Mass in Windy Arbour Church either.


It was thus at stage four of this story that I set about establishing the facts. First I read the President’s speech and indeed, it was the case that it managed to avoid any mention whatsoever of Jesus, God, Christ, a stable, baby or even a star. Not so much as a Mary Robinson style candle in the window. Instead it used that ghastly American term ‘holiday season’ and made a reference to the message of Christmas being “shared by all faiths” which was to do with inclusivity and welcoming the stranger.

I won’t argue with the statement that ‘a’ message of Christmas is the importance of welcoming strangers. This message may be shared by many faiths, though being unfamiliar with the minutae of all faiths, I wouldn’t necessarily be confident about making such a claim. Still, it would be nice if it was true, so we won’t get bogged down there. But the point is: you have to be pretty contrary to make a Christmas speech which bangs on about inclusivity yet quite deliberately and perversely excludes the actual message of Christmas which is that Jesus Christ was born on that day; a ‘message’ shared by all Christian faiths.

Then I contacted the army and asked for a copy of the apology. Having read it in full, I concluded that it wasn’t an apology at all. It was a defence. It said that Msgr Thynne’s “homily should not be construed in any way as a criticism of the President or his Christmas message. This would be a particularly unfair interpretation of this homily”. At the end it said that, “immediately after the [Liveline] programme was broadcast, the Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Conor O’Boyle contacted the Office of the President to convey the regret of the Head Chaplain for any embarrassment that may have been caused to the President”.


Nowhere are the words ‘apology’ or ‘sorry’ used. Regretting any embarrassment caused is not apologising. He didn’t specify that the embarrassment was caused by the homily. My conclusion was that the embarrassment referred to the whole thing ending up on Liveline – not that Msgr Thynne wanted to withdraw his comments. So I thought the headline declaration of an apology was a bit of a stretch. (Other iterations on the Interweb added that the “army had been forced to apologise”. By whom? So we’d moved from over-egging to simply making things up. Go journalism!)

Just to confuse the issue further, a photograph accompanying the article, purportedly of Msgr Thynne, was of somebody else entirely. And the best bit, by which I mean the most annoying, was that since I really wanted to know what Msgr Thynne had actually said, because I was going to discuss it on my Newstalk show, I was pleased to see that The Irish Times had embedded a two hour video of the Defence Forces’ Mass in the website article.

Wasted time

As it was Saturday morning; my show is on at 1pm and I didn’t have two hours, I enlisted two colleagues in Newstalk to help me find the part where Msgr Thynne made his comments. After a lot of wasted time, we eventually realised the video was of the army’s annual carol service, not the Christmas Eve Mass, and was therefore completely irrelevant.

So there you go. The lifecycle of a story on a slow news week. A photograph of the wrong person. A misleading headline about a non-apology. An irrelevant video. All in response to a radio show discussion between people who hadn’t heard the homily in question. The poor old chaplain no doubt has a severe headache. And I still haven’t found any evidence of what he supposedly said. If you think about the whole thing, you’d get a headache yourself. So really, the best thing is not to dwell on it too much. Most important.