The invisible presence on that State visit

The Catholic Church was notably absent

And so, as so many of us have observed, the presidential state visit of Michael D. Higgins, along with his wife Sabina, to Britain last week was altogether a great success.

Each event was planned and carried out flawlessly, from start to finish. It certainly was a historic moment to see An t-Uachtaran and his spouse flanked by Prince and Princess Michael of Kent at the Royal Albert Hall – and just in the next tiered box of the concert hall, Martin McGuinness sitting alongside Peter Robinson.

Mr McGuinness’s presence at various events was not uncontroversial. But he is a constitutionally elected politician, and, as such, draws on constitutional legitimacy: For his part, he is now acknowledging the Court of St James. So we go forward.

Yet there was one glaring omission from the whole programme – which included, as well as banquets for the political establishment, an appearance at the House of Lords, congratulatory events with the arts and with the Irish nurses who did so much to contribute to the British National Health Service. But wholly invisible was any reference or allusion to the Catholic Church.

I noticed this, first, when I was participating in a panel discussion on Sean O’Rourke’s RTÉ 1 morning programme from Windsor. Reportage traced the patterns of Irish emigrants to England over the decades, revisiting such places as Kilburn and Cricklewood. These were strong Irish colonies in the 1950s and ‘60s, with their pubs and dance-halls catering to the men in the building trade and the women in the caring professions who had migrated from rural Ireland in search of work.

But no mention of the priests who ministered to those emigrants: the stalwarts at Quex Road Church in Kilburn which was an outpost of Irish religious observance. Nor the many organisations run by priests and nuns to help migrants in trouble – including, let it be remembered, Eamon Casey, who was so involved in the London organisation for the homeless, Shelter.

Lay Irishmen and women also contributed considerably to the charitable and community works initiated by the Catholic church, such as the Vincent de Paul in England. Not long ago, on a Ryanair flight between Dublin and Stanstead, I fell into conversation with an older Irishman who told me proudly he had helped raise money to build seven Catholic churches in the south-east of England.

Such people were “invisible” for this State visit.

In a letter to the Irish Independent on April 10, a parish priest, Fr Tom Grufferty wrote: “As an Irishman working happily in England for over 40 years as a Catholic priest, I am astonished that the state visit of the President…does not include any acknowledgement of any current Catholic institution.” Fr Grufferty felt that surely an engagement at Westminster Cathedral could have been arranged,and he suggests that the omission came rather from Áras an Uachtaráin rather than Anglo-Irish diplomatic planning.

It would be interesting to know if, indeed, Áras an Uachtaráin made the decision not to include any “Catholic institution” in the itinerary.


Money talks

Everyone involved in trade and business was, of course, especially thrilled with the success of the Irish State visit. Why wouldn’t they be? Britain is now in the flush of financial recovery and probably the most successful economy in the developed world.  Why wouldn’t business and finance want to be best friends with George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, who wields a great deal more power than any monarch?

Oh yes, money talks, in its own very eloquent way!


Mass in a picturesque setting

I was fortunate enough to have spent five days in Rome – and its environs – the previous week: and indeed wish I could be be there for this Holy Week. In early April everyone seemed to be gearing up for the passion of Holy Week, which is advertised, in small towns, with a vivid sense of drama.

I attended Sunday Mass in a picturesque (but  everything in Italy is picturesque) local church by Lake Trevignano, about 25 miles from Rome. I got there a little after the Mass began – wrong information about time – to find it was standing room only. The packed church reminded me of the Masses of my childhood in Sandymount, in Dublin, when any latecomer had to stand at the back.

The European Union so often seems to underline that Europe is growing ever more secular, but in small Italian towns, the faith is evidently still very much part of community and everyday life.  I liked the way the children and young people behaved: attentive at Mass, but high-spirited and larking about in a natural way as they emerged. Afterwards, I purchased the latest Italian religious publication, a glossy magazine modelled on Hello! called Il Mio Papa – My Pope. Published by the indefatigible Mr Berlusconi.