Sermon by the Rt Revd John McDowell, Bishop of Clogher, Christ Church, Aughnamullen, Sunday 9th March 2014:
O stony grey soil of Monaghan
The laugh from my love you thieved;
You took the gay child of my passion
And gave me your clod–conceived…
You flung a ditch on my vision
Of beauty, love and truth.
O stony grey soil of Monaghan
You burgled my bank of youth.
I hope that it does not appear inappropriate to begin this sermon at a memorial service for one renowned Monaghan man (Senator Billy Fox) by quoting the words of another (Patrick Kavanagh).
Because it was indeed on the stony grey soil of a Monaghan field that the riches of the personality of Billy Fox were burgled. Burgled and stolen by the extraordinary heartlessness of some men who lived in a wilderness of self–righteousness, and who in that wilderness exposed themselves to the greatest temptation of all– the temptation to extinguish a life which God had created– a life which He loved with an everlasting love.
I was eighteen years old when Billy Fox was murdered and living in what would now be descried as a Loyalist housing estate in East Belfast. It was one of the worst years of the Troubles and there were shootings or bombings (often both) literally every day.
But the murder of Billy Fox stood out, and I remember the reports of it very well. And it stood out not because it was more tragic than any of the other murders, but because it was even more inexplicable than the other murders. To be honest with you in the part of Belfast where I grew up we didn’t know that there were any Protestants in the Republic of Ireland much less Protestants who were public representatives.
Now of course I know better, and I have read the newspaper reports of the time and have spoken to those who knew Billy Fox well, and thought about him a great deal as I was preparing this address. And his murder remains inexplicable.
Apparently some people who considered themselves to be super–patriots thought that the life of Ireland would be enhanced if a large group of men got together to murder a public representative after terrorising his girlfriends family and burning down their house. In the black– dark recesses of someone’s mind a calculation was made that society would benefit in the long run if someone who had worked with all his vigour and imagination and sympathy for the good of the community, was publically executed.
That is exactly the amount of sense that the murder of Senator Billy Fox and indeed the whole sorry mess of the “Troubles” was based on. And the problem is that it not only annihilated many individuals but that it also poisoned every well of common usefulness for the future. It divided and atomised society North and South, so that by the end of it all we felt that we had nothing in common. We had no common life and therefore there could be no common good. And that is at the root of the problems we are still trying to come to terms with today.
But it would be very wrong to dwell for too long on the problems caused by the depraved folly of those who murdered Billy Fox. We are not here to remember what was bad about them but to reflect on and give thanks for what was good about him.
Ireland in 1974 was a very different place to what it became twenty years later. It was different to look at and different to live in. There was a much greater need for voluntary participation in civic society and a far greater place for what George Orwell called “the little battalions”– the societies and clubs and informal associations which made society work and made community life rich and textured. Perhaps there is a place for them again.
Anyone I have spoken to about Billy Fox, and all that I have read about him, speak of someone who was an enthusiast in the best sense of that word. Not a depressing grumbler or a tiresome busybody– but someone who enhanced whatever he took an interest in and who widened the horizons of those who met him and worked with him.
That is not to say that he was a perfected saint. He could not have been. He was Church of Ireland. Let me explain. In the Church of Ireland we have no procedure by which to make someone an official saint. In the Book of Common Prayer we remember many of the great people of the Bible as saints and also remember heroic figures from the Irish Church, like Patrick and Columba and Brigid.
But we have no formal system of investigating someone’s life and appointing a candidate’s advocate to argue the case for and devil’s advocate to argue the case against sainthood.
There is one person at the moment who is being considered in this way in the Catholic Church – a man called Cardinal Newman. As you may know Newman was an Anglican priest before converting to Catholicism. He was instrumental in establishing the Catholic University in Ireland, which in time became UCD. He was a great scholar and an even writer of rare power and grace.
However, one of the arguments used as to why he shouldn’t be made a saint is that, I’m afraid to say, he was a bit of a wet blanket. Apparently if you spent half an hour with Newman talking about your troubles you came away feeling worse than you did at the beginning.
So, maybe Billy Fox was a saint after all. A saint in the sense that when you were with him the landscape changed and your horizons were widened and things that once seemed impossible began to appear to be within your grasp. Is that not what a public representative should be, a saint like that?
When I have spoken to people about him they tell me about someone who was interested in people and who respected them. Someone who, if people were open to it, would gladly and freely share the riches of his experience and his knowledge with them. He was truly Christian in this sense, that when he committed himself to something he felt he had no right to stop.
Every society needs people like Billy Fox to act as encouragers and examples. To remind us that we are made for great things. Not necessarily great wealth or great comfort, but great joy and great sacrifice and great commitment and great love. People who take us out of ourselves and into the lives of other people.
Active ordinary people like Billy Fox who can take the churchiness out of goodness and who are living reminders of all that we heard read in that wonderful passage from Deuteronomy:
That God is the God of Ireland now, as surely as he was the God of Israel in the time of Moses, and that obedience to the law of self sacrifice and service, which is the law of God’s own personality, is the only way that a person or a community or a nation can become great. That without these things, we will be lost in the wilderness of the world and its temptations; and find ourselves marooned in that great prairie of sterile hate that lies at the centre of so much of Irish history.
Perhaps it is only people who have used their lives as a means of service, not counting the cost who can say with the psalmist:
In peace I will lie down in sleep: for it is you Lord only who makes me dwell in safety.
It is only a pity that Billy Fox who lived his life with such energy was not allowed the opportunity of laying it down with composure.
In the wilderness Jesus Christ was tempted to take a shortcut to goodness. To try to do God’s work the world’s way. To give the people bread and circuses and by doing so to attain popularity and fame. Bread and circuses are not bad things in themselves but they are not the foundation of goodness and they were not what He was called to do.
He was called to show to the world of His time and of every generation what the life of God is like when it takes a human form, and to give us the power to follow him along that path.
Many of you here will have known Billy Fox well and will have many memories of him; personal memories and memories of an active, live enhancing public representative. And it is only right that this commemoration tries to honour that life by talking about of hope and promise and strength and peace. And perhaps with those memories in mind we can dedicate ourselves afresh to work towards the mature self–giving innocence that is one of God’s greatest gifts.
So, in concluding, we pray to the God who indeed hates nothing that He has made, and ask him to make in us new and contrite hearts. To take away our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh so that in the spirit of Billy Fox we may make a new Ireland.
Bishop McDowell Archdeacon Steed The Taoiseach Fr Quigley and Deputy Humphreys