Seeking progress and preventing disaster

Seeking progress and preventing disaster Still Life with Bible by Vincent Van Gogh
The View

A book that I treasure for many reasons is a Holy Bible given to me as a Christening present in 1947, and inscribed “to my godson Martin with affectionate greetings”.

It is compact with a leather cover, and, despite being well thumbed, its 1,400 pages of thin but strong paper are very well preserved.

The donor, the husband of a college contemporary of my mother at Oxford, was Canon John Collins of St Paul’s Cathedral, who turned out to be the very opposite of the ‘safe pair of hands’ much prized by establishments (and of course the Church of England is established).

He was a founder figure of two radical movements from around 1960, the Anti-Apartheid Movement, and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).

Although it took 40 years’ struggle, the first was completely successful, being of material importance in shaking off apartheid, with parallel offshoots in many western countries, including Ireland, where it was led by Dr Kader Asmal, later a minister in early post-apartheid governments.

The first president of the new South Africa, Nelson Mandela, embodied values admired by most Christians, which is not to underestimate the very great challenges that his country still faces. He was warmly received, when he came to Ireland in February 1990 to thank the people here, soon after his release.


CND certainly contributed to limitations on nuclear weapons, but not so far to their elimination. This month, the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, causing a literally incalculable number of mainly civilian deaths, is a reminder that nuclear bombs are a genocidal weapon.

Macho great power leaders regularly warn each other and the world of their willingness to use them. Of course, the arsenals can only be dismantled with care, to minimise scope for nuclear blackmail. The ideals of both the anti-apartheid movement and CND were close to those of Irish foreign policy, even if campaigning and diplomacy employ different methods.

The bible I was given was the authorised or King James’ version, which contains many purple passages, even from a purely literary point of view. Nowadays, most Anglican churches, with the exception of some cathedrals, such as St Patrick’s in Dublin, use a revised edition, which eliminates archaic language and provides a more accurate or intelligible translation. The soaring language in some places is unfortunately also missing, or much attenuated.

Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies”

One of the things I like to do, if I am particularly struck by a passage in a lesson reading, is to compare it with its rendering in my godfather’s bible. Sometimes it is an improvement, sometimes not. I have occasionally been guilty of combining texts from different versions so as to enhance the meaning.

At my mother’s funeral service in Tipperary, I chose and adapted a reading from Proverbs 31, beginning at verse 10: “Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies.” It is an unusual biblical passage that praises women with strong organisational and entrepreneurial abilities, who are also thoughtful and charitable.

My cousin Philippa was showing me again recently a very different sort of bible, an enormous family bible published in London in 1793, containing many handwritten entries on key family events. It was a present of Richard Martin of Bridgetown in north Cork to his daughter Mary, where she was married in a drawing-room in 1795 to my great-great-great grandfather John by the Rev. William Berkeley, nephew of Bishop Berkeley of Cloyne, the philosopher.

It contained a heart-breaking and poignant message by their eldest surviving son, whose Christian names were also Richard Martin, half a century later, when he lost his second wife in childbirth in 1854.

Apart from intense grief, some husbands may have found it difficult to avoid some feeling of guilt. The entry recorded that “my dear beloved and kind wife” of 11 years and seven months died with her seventh child in Dawson Street, not from confinement, but from heart disease. “I hope through God that my sins and iniquities may be washed away and may our blest Redeemer who died for sinners join me hereafter to those who loved and took care of me. I hope through God to meet my darling there.”

Strong faith

There is no doubt that the uncertainties of life and of death were often met by a strong faith. That particular time was of course a period of devastating human tragedy for large numbers of people deprived of all resources necessary to cope with the Famine.

In one of the pew sheets distributed by the Dean Very Rev. Gerald Field to our Cashel group of parishes, during the pandemic when churches were closed for services, a passage relevant to our present situation caught my eye. In this instance, the New Revised Standard Version of I Kings, chapter 3, where Solomon talks and prays to God in a dream, reads better: “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?”

Most people have confidence that the government is trying to do all it can, with some success to date”

We face, here as elsewhere, a situation of great uncertainty, with no guarantees about the future course of the pandemic, or its intensity and duration, or when people will be able to come safely together again in unrestricted numbers and settings. Most people have confidence that the government is trying to do all it can, with some success to date.

While the new coalition has so far got the big decisions right, they have been tripped up on a number of little things. Government supports become ever more elaborate. It is not always clear that better government results.

The restraint surrounding John Hume’s funeral did nothing to detract from the impact. We were reminded how much we owed to him and his colleagues. We had one civil war 100 years ago. John Hume helped prevent the Northern conflict from degenerating into a full-blown inter-communal conflict by finding another way. Governance is always a combination of seeking progress and preventing disaster.