It is probably fair to say that a minor decision about a gravestone in England gaining Irish media attention is unprecedented. But the decision of the Coventry Consistory Court on May 6th that an Irish-language inscription on a gravestone must be translated to avoid misinterpretation sparked outrage on both sides of the channel recently. The case provoked interesting questions on British prejudices to Ireland and attitudes towards the Irish language.
However, the first question that must be answered is what exactly is a ‘Consistory Court’? Consistory courts are ecclesiastical courts under the Church of England with a history dating back to the Norman conquest of England. A relic of a legal system renowned for its anachronisms, they possess a very specific and limited jurisdiction in modern England. Their work consists of arbitrating in decisions such as the sale of books from a parochial library, burial rights, decisions regarding diocesan land. The majority of the ecclesiastical courts’ work involves the granting of Faculty orders. Faculties are needed to alter anything on consecrated land, changes to church buildings, burial memorials etc. Judges in these courts are called Chancellors of the Diocese and addressed as Worshipful Sir. They are appointed by the dioceses' bishop and an eligible chancellor must hold, held or be qualified for judicial office.
Mrs Caroline Newey brought the case to the consistory court in order to receive a Faculty for her mother’s gravestone. Mrs Keane was a proud Irish emigrant who did considerable work for the GAA in Coventry. Mrs Keane was interred in the local Church of England graveyard in St Giles, Exhall which has stringent regulations governing burial memorials penned by Chancellor Eyre who oversaw this petition. The regulations seek to conserve the character of the graveyard and Eyre Ch has proven in the past to be harsh in their application.
Mrs Newey’s petition sought a memorial stone with protruding Celtic cross and the words “In ár gcroíthe go deo” (In our hearts forever) inscribed on the stone. Mrs Newey acquiesced to the incision of the cross on the stone rather than protrusion but challenged the translation of the phrase in English, arguing it was not political but a “vehicle of symbolic value” and a translation would clutter the stone.
The short judgment of the Coventry Consistory Court releases a bevy of issues. Eyre Ch cited the churchyard regulations in opposing the Irish inscription unaccompanied by translation; “…it is to be remembered that the memorial will be read not just by those who knew the deceased in question but by those who did not. Indeed, the message conveyed to those who did not know the deceased is in many ways more important than the message being given to those who did know him or her.”
Like a regular court, ecclesiastical courts are bound by the principle of ‘precedent’. Precedent restricts a court to using the same logic used in a previous case of a similar nature decided in a court of corresponding jurisdiction. This ensures the consistency of the law. The reasoning of a court in a previous case can only be abandoned if a court of superior jurisdiction overrules it or the judge deems the facts of the previous case significantly different enough from the case at hand to warrant a distinct decision. This is ‘distinguishing’.
A case of a similar nature was decided in a Consistory Court two years ago in Southwark where Deputy Chancellor Ellis granted permission for the use of an untranslated Welsh word on a gravestone.
“Culturally, I can understand that the use of this word, not translated into English, is a fitting memorial to a native Welsh speaker and his wife, although she did not speak Welsh. The simple design of the tablet is also pleasing and uncluttered. The church evidently has its own association with Wales and this, in my view, strengthens the case”.
Eyre Ch’s attempts to distinguish Mrs Newey’s petition to the case in Southwark proved weak. Firstly, he points to the use of a single word in the latter as evidence of its distinctness but given that a single word is as liable to be misinterpreted as a sentence, this point is unsatisfactory. Secondly, he offers a better argument in highlighting Ellis Dep Ch’s own admission that Southwark’s links to Wales made it appropriate. However, Coventry’s significant Irish minority and Mrs Keane’s own devotion to the local GAA club raises a large question mark on this point.
Furthermore, Eyre Ch’s argument that the phrase would not be understood by English speakers pales when one considers the prevalence of Latin and indeed archaic English on burial memorials. Furthermore, Ellis Dep Ch had pointed out in the Southwark case that with today’s technology, instant translation of unfamiliar languages is ubiquitous. These arguments against the untranslated inscription crumble under even light scrutiny and would make one wonder why exactly the Chancellor would oppose the use of Irish, which brings us to the crux of the Chancellor’s judgment and the origin of the current controversy.
Eyre Ch articulates his fear of the inscription as follows; “given the passions and feelings connected with the use of Irish Gaelic, there is a sad risk that the phrase would be regarded as some form of slogan or that its inclusion without translation would of itself be seen as a political statement.” Despite Mrs Newey’s assertion that the use of Irish was not political did not sway Eyre Ch who evidently feared the sentence’s misinterpretation as a Republican slogan by future users of the graveyard. This view has been deeply criticised by Irish commentators from Dara Ó Briain to the Rubberbandits but also by prominent British figures, such as historian Francis Young who branded it “resurgence of old-fashioned anti-Irish prejudice”. Indeed, perhaps the truly “sad” element of this is that there exist such narrow perspectives of a language which has one of the richest and deepest histories in Europe. The self-same view that had blocked progress in the Northern Irish Assembly for years. It is clear the language has been stained in some minds by its perceived Republican affiliation.
The family of Mrs Keane announced on June 5th they would appeal the decision to the Court of Arches of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The ‘Court of Arches’ is the appeal court for the Province of Canterbury, encompassing the 30 southern dioceses of England. (The northern 12 dioceses are under the remit of the Province of York.) The court is presided over by the Dean of the Arches, to which Ellis Dp Ch has recently been nominated. As such, the appeal is highly likely to succeed.
Typically, the outcome of a case in an ecclesiastical court in England concerning the appearance of a gravestone would not raise much interest. Indeed, the actual decision itself is not particularly radical. The mandatory translation of Irish in an English graveyard is not completely unreasonable. However, the scrutiny and ire this judgment has drawn is due to the reasoning behind the decision. Despite cries of anti-Irish prejudice and xenophobia, the judgment has drawn criticism from virtually every quarter and the Church of England has distanced itself from the decision and emphasised the importance of the Irish language’s history in England’s Christianity. Ultimately, Eyre Ch did not quite grasp how right he was when he wrote “Questions of language can raise intense feelings”.