FLIGHT OF THE EARLS MASS
HOMILY GIVEN BY
CARDINAL SEÁN BRADY
CHURCH OF ST. PIETRO, MONTORIO, ROME
SUNDAY 13 APRIL 2008
together to celebrate this Mass in memory of the Ulster Earls – O’Neill,
O’Donnell and Maguire and their companions, who arrived in Rome this month four
hundred years ago. We come to this historic Church of St. Pietro in Montorio.
Here, as in St. Anthony’s in Louvan, the noble Franciscan community, in the best
tradition of St. Francis, gave princely hospitality to our fellow countrymen, in
their hour of need, and a last resting place in their hour of death.
to the Eternal City – not the intended or preferred destination of the Earls -
but, nevertheless, a city where they were welcomed with courtesy and respect and
honour. We remember the fact that they were given the privilege of carrying the
canopy at the Papal Corpus Christi procession.
departure of the Earls was one of our history’s milestones. It has been
described as perhaps the most significant event since the coming of St. Patrick
in terms of its impact on our country’s destiny. Of course, now at a distance
of 400 years, it is very hard for us to try and imagine the anguish and the
are well known. After their disastrous defeat at Kinsale, the Earls had
surrendered at Mellifont. O’Neill had then gone to London, in the company of
Mountjoy, to be well received and formally pardoned. Once again it appeared,
that despite all that had happened, the State was placing its trust on the new
Irish nobles. But things don’t always work out as planned. So it was that on 4
September 1607 O’Neill, quickly gathering his family together, sailed from
Rathmullen for the continent. The effect of their departure was to raise the
possibility of the confiscation and colonisation of Ulster. In December 1607
they were adjudged to have forfeited their lands to the Crown.
often been asked the question: What is there to celebrate about the Flight of
the Earls? It is not an easy question to answer but, at this point in time,
people are daring to hope that we are celebrating the end of four centuries of
unhappy conflict and of bitter, sometimes acrimonious, Anglo-Irish relations and
the arrival of a very different relationship.
a certain poignancy in Tadhg O Cianáin’s contemporary account of the arrival.
went on after that, through the noble streets of Rome, in great splendour. They
did not rest till they reached the great church of St Peter in the Vatican.
They put up their horses there and entered the Church. They worshipped and went
around, as on pilgrimage, the seven chief privileged altars of great merit.”
three months later Rory O’Donnell, Earl of Tyrone, had died and was buried in
this Church on 28 July 1608.
of disbelief, of denial, of alarm and of ruin among the people of Ireland is
well captured in these verses from a poem by Eoghan Ruadh Mac an Bhaird:
hand of O’Donnell of Dun os Samh
fallen, (if it is true) in Italy.
that is the cause of thy distress,
it is no
it be, if the land of the children of Conaill,
hear what I have been told,
think it her own ruin,
right land of clear waterfalls and cool mounds.”
Earls should, as their first deed on their arrival in Rome, proceed to St
Peter’s to worship, is worthy of note and celebration. They had experienced
humiliation and defeat, they had been exiled from their native land, yet their
first instinct on arriving in the Eternal City was to honour God and give thanks
for their lives and for their faith. It is striking that the faith which had
been the very cause of their suffering at home, found itself so immediately at
home in this city. It is as if, in the words of our Gospel, they had run from
the ‘voice of the stranger’ in Ireland to find in St. Peter’s the voice that
‘they knew’, the voice of the Good Shepherd, the Good Shepherd who had led them
through the valley of darkness to pastures fresh and green.
Meanwhile, back in Ireland, a time of renewal for the Catholics in north-east
Ireland was underway thanks to the arrival of priests and religious, trained
here in Europe, in the Irish Colleges on the Continent. They were able to
function because they received hospitality in the homes of the Catholic families
of the Pale and from there they undertook their mission of preaching the Gospel
and administering the Sacraments, despite the fact that church buildings were
often in ruins.
Catholic Archbishop of Armagh at the time, Peter Lombard, was here in Rome and
was never able to set foot in his Diocese. I’m sure the people back home may
have, at times, felt leaderless and without a shepherd. By contrast, in 1612,
Bishop Blessed Cornelius O’Devany OFM, of Down and Connor and Blessed Patrick
O’Loughran of Donaghmore were martyred for their faith. I am sure their
sacrifice played no small part in giving hope and courage to the Catholic people
of the north at the time.
commemorate today then is a time of tumultuous change and uncertainty in Irish
affairs. It was the end of one era and the beginning of another, the beginning
of a long chapter, of some four hundred years of unrest, uncertainty and
tribulation. It was the beginning of four centuries of unhappy, bitter,
sometimes acrimonious Anglo-Irish relations.
today Britain and Ireland enjoy a very different relationship. Thanks to the
patient effort of many ‘good shepherds’ at local and national level, the
relationship between Britain and Ireland has never been more interdependent,
more characterised by respect and solidarity than it is today. Our geographical
and historic proximity is a gift and an opportunity. It means that in spite of
all that has happened in the past, the relationship between Britain and Ireland
will always be a special one, one of mutual possibility and promise.
it needs to be clearly noted that the development of the broader European
project was critical to the healing of this relationship. Indeed the
transformation of the relationship between Ireland and Britain generally, and
the Northern Ireland peace process in particular, is one of the most recent and
tangible manifestations of the founding aims of the European Union.
but one reason why today we should give thanks for those who took the vision and
experience of St. Columbanus, St. Gaul, Hugh O’Neill and the other Earls, to its
logical conclusion by founding a European Union based on interdependence and
solidarity as the principles of enduring peace. To commemorate the flight of the
Earls is to celebrate the intimate and irreversible links between Ireland and
the rest of Europe. To celebrate the principles of interdependence, solidarity
and peace which inspire the European Union, is to celebrate values which are at
the very heart of the Gospel. They are the values which allowed the Earls, as
people of deep and abiding faith, to feel ‘at home’ in the Europe of their day.
why I believe that developing the concept of a ‘Europe of values’ remains a
critical but somewhat unresolved dimension of the European Union. In the context
of an increasing technocratic and economic emphasis within Europe, the sense of
vision and values which inspired the fundamental project of the European Union
can. all to easily, be lost. As a recent Report of the Bishops of COMECE in
Brussels put it:
European Union was not fated to happen…. It is, as is all human endeavour,
fragile. Today it is searching for the way forward. It must become more aware of
the strength which lies at the heart of the values it enshrines: dignity of the
human being and human rights, peace, freedom, democracy, tolerance, respect for
diversity and subsidiarity, and the search for the common good without any one
group being dominant over another… Their roots lie deep in two thousand years of
Christian tradition, as also in the traditions of other creeds and philosophies.
Those values and that tradition are as potent now as they were in the past. They
must remain the foundation of our common endeavour, which we must pursue with
consistent and determined leadership.’
point has particular significance for people of faith. Unlike the Earls in their
day, it is increasingly difficult for those of religious faith to feel
completely ‘at home’ today with what appears to be the dominant values of the
European Union. Some people of faith have even developed an innate disposition
of suspicion towards any proposal from the Union, or its bodies, which has an
ethical dimension. Put simply, people of religious faith who may be natural
enthusiasts of the concept of a European Union, increasingly approach European
developments with scepticism. They have an expectation that a secular,
relativist and utilitarian approach dominates ethical considerations. It would
appear that the right to maintain a distinctive ethos in religious institutions
is constantly under threat. Issues such as the nature of marriage, the family
or the origin and end of life have to be constantly defended against a dominant
centralising and standardising tendency.
why the structured dialogue between Governments, Churches and faith communities
proposed in the Lisbon Treaty and already established by the Irish Government is
so important. It would be regrettable if some people, on the assumption that the
European Union is innately hostile to particular religious or ethical values,
misjudged or misrepresented critical European developments. On the other hand,
failure to give due recognition, equality and protection to the objective,
rational and often shared ethical values of large numbers of citizens within the
Union, undermines the very principle of tolerance and diversity on which the
Union itself is based. It may also become a source of increasing threat to the
successful progress of important European developments. It undermines the
principle of subsidiarity and diversity on which so much of the success of the
Union has been based to date.
we celebrate ten years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, we give
thanks for the progress made in bringing peace to Ireland, especially Northern
Ireland. One of the lessons we can learn from the period of the Flight of the
Earls is that where peace is concerned, there can never be grounds for
complacency. There can be no substitute for justice and truth, solidarity and
respect, tolerance and reconciliation, as the basis of an enduring peace. A
‘brittle peace’ of a sort descended on Ulster after the Flight of the Earls but
it was short-lived as the history of the century that ensued has shown. But it
was short-lived precisely because the basis for genuine peace was missing.
every reason to believe that the current peace in Northern Ireland is more than
a ‘brittle peace’. However, the experience of the previous four centuries should
spur us on to build and consolidate the peace and to build it into a just and
stable peace for all.
God who, in His infinite mercy, has sustained the people who negotiated the
peace in Northern Irelands. We pray that, in His mercy, He will now lead all
the people of Ireland, Britain and Europe into an era of even greater peace,
harmony and understanding.
hoped that in the process, people will not become so obsessed by material
progress that they will forget the help given to them by God through those
centuries of tribulation set in train by the plight and flight of the Earls.
remember the great European leaders of modern times and recognise their positive
influence – shepherding the human family for the common good of peace along the
ways of justice and prosperity. Good shepherds are trusting. They trust others
to follow them and in turn they inspire trust in those who they lead. They are
happy to be humble instruments through which others can go freely in and out
making their own way to live life to the full.
pray that God will continue to bless Europe with leaders who will look into
their hearts and ask themselves are they real shepherds of the nations entrusted
to their leadership. Are they people who will have the courage to see and
respect both the spiritual and material needs in the lives of all; leaders who
will assess positively the things of value – life, family, marriage?
O’Neill was a man for whom religious faith mattered. His dealing with Europe
and his migration to Rome reminds us that our contact with Europe began long
before the second half of the twentieth century, before the development of the
Common Market and later the European Union.
celebrate his memory and those of his colleagues and friends who rest in this
place, let us ask the Good Shepherd to guide each of us and his Church through
the challenges of our own time. The future belongs to those who can give reasons
for hope. The Earls never lost their hope because, even though they mourned
their beloved homeland in exile, their first hope was always the Good Shepherd
who, as the psalm says, is ‘true to his name’. Such hope, St. Paul reminds us,
is not confounded. Surely goodness and kindness shall follow us, all the days of
our life. And in the Lord’s own house shall we dwell, for ever and ever.
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