RTÉ’s tone deafness on eternity was audible to all

Poets and creative writers provide comforting words in times of grief

Commenting on the recent horrific tragedy in Berkeley in which six Irish students lost their lives and several more were injured, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin said that at times of disaster prayer becomes almost natural for us.

Miriam O’Callaghan’s RTÉ Radio 1 programme last Sunday morning was an attempt, in light of the awful tragedy, to understand loss and grief, using literature, poetry and music. Whether deliberate or accidental, however, almost any mention of God or religious faith was avoided throughout the hour-long programme.

Writer Colum McCann’s focus was that the tragedy highlighted the importance of celebrating life in the here and now.

Novelist Dermot Bolger said that life is like a lottery, and sometimes it doesn’t work out. He read a poem by Brendan Kennelly called Begin Again, beautiful, to be sure, but which makes no appeal to God or to faith in rebuilding one’s life after disaster or defeat.

Booker prizewinner John Banville spoke of the limitations of language when faced with the tragic loss of innocent young life. His message was that time alone can assuage this loss.


The most airtime was given to columnist Michael Harding. He said that the toughest question a tragedy such as this throws up is where our loved ones go. In raising the question he showed openness to the idea of eternal life, but unfortunately he didn’t bring us any further. Instead, he turned to the lyrics of poet and songwriter Thomas Moore, Oft in the Stilly Night:

“The eyes that shone, Now dimm’d and gone, The cheerful hearts now broken…Sad memory brings the light, Of other days around me”.

These are moving and nostalgic words, but bereft of any real hope or consolation. He also drew upon Mary Elizabeth Fry’s famous poem: “Do not stand at my grave and weep… I am not there”.

The defiance of death in her poem has a strong Christian resonance. But how truly consoling is it to say: “I am a thousand winds that blow, I am the diamond glints on snow, I am the sunlight on ripened grain”?

More promisingly, Mr Harding spoke of how love can overcome death. But then he clarified that he was speaking of the love of family and friends. He specifically said that he was not speaking of love in a supernatural way, explaining that “maybe that’s not how we think about it anymore”.

When my 89-year-old aunt was dying a few years ago, she asked me to read to her some of the poems she learned in her childhood, and I was delighted that I found many of them in my old inter- and leaving-certificate poetry books, Exploring English, and Soundings. Poets such as John Donne “One short sleep past, we wake eternally”, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dylan Thomas, Emily Dickinson “I first surmised that the horses heads were for eternity”, Patrick Kavanagh (his poems in memory of his mother and his father), all dealt with the reality of death in a way that faced the bitter break with life it causes, and yet held before us the Christian hope of eternal life with God.

Are these poets still taught in Catholic schools? I hope so.

Was the RTÉ programme a kind of secular funeral liturgy? If so, none of the reflections, it seemed to me, was quite able to bear the weight of the tragedy and grief that touched us all in this devastating event.

The really interesting issue is the secular frame out of which the programme’s contributors and producers seemed to be working, whether consciously or not. Did they assume that anything drawn from the rich corpus of religious poetry or literature would be inappropriate? Was I the only listener who missed the voice of someone like Aidan Mathews? Aidan always mediates words of hope, and even of joy, in the midst of grief and loss, from the heart of Christian literature.


In short, I sensed a strange disconnect between the programme and its likely audience. As witnessed by the spontaneous prayer services and vigils that took place on both sides of the Atlantic in the wake of the tragedy, and as Archbishop Martin noted, religious sources of meaning are still sought by many if not most people, when confronted with tragic death.

We look to poets and creative writers to do two things. We expect them to be custodians of the depths of meaning in a tradition and a culture, and to help us to draw from this at times of great joy and sorrow. We also appreciate it when they are prophetic voices, calling us beyond compromise with what is superficial in our society.

Unfortunately, I didn’t hear anything along these lines last Sunday morning.


Eamonn Conway is a priest and theologian