Remarks at the Remembrance Service
7 November 2021
Thanks to Rob and Joanne Nelson and Rev Canon David Clunie for bringing this masterpiece to my attention. Thanks to Tim Piper, the church’s musical director, for allowing Mary and I to see it. We walked by one day and Tim very kindly let us in to see it. We had seen pictures of it but nothing prepares for its presence, illuminated by the sun. It is stunning, such a dramatic narrative, impossible to capture its beauty in reproductions.
This extraordinary masterpiece by an Irish woman artist, Wilhelmina Geddes, is a product of a confluence of influences and connections in Ireland at the opening of the twentieth century.
Governor General of Canada, the Duke of Connaught Prince Arthur, scion of the British royal family, turned to friends in Ireland to commission a commemoration of those dear to him lost in the war, many fighting for Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry, names in honour of his immensely popular daughter. It was 1916, the bloodiest year yet in the Great War.
Ireland had earned a world reputation for stained glass thanks to Sarah Purser’s studio, An Túr Gloine, the glass tower. Purser had recruited Wilhelmina Geddes to the studio after she’d seen her work as an art student in Belfast. Geddes herself was born in Leitrim, raised in Belfast, and worked there and in London and Dublin. Purser recommended Geddes for the commission. Geddes was an inspired choice. The window was installed here in 1919, one of the first Great War commemorations erected in Canada.
Those years between 1916 and 1919 were ones of profound change in Ireland. Frustrated at the lack of Home Rule for the past four decades – arguably the past one hundred – and inspired by the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force to resist Home Rule, the rebels of 1916 created a new reality, what Yeats called ‘a terrible beauty.’ By that he meant, in part, the beauty of simplicity, the ditching of complexity. A singular Irish identity was forged by the 1916 Rising. Ireland was transformed politically, the execution of the rebel leaders adding tremendous force to that process.
The Irish soldiers who fought in the British Army, at the behest of moderate nationalist leaders in Ireland, believed they were advancing the cause of Home Rule in Ireland.
This belief was widespread in Canada too among the Irish Catholic community here. In Canada, the Irish Catholics who flocked to the Canadian Expeditionary Force also fought for King and Country, believing that Ireland deserved home rule so Ireland too could become like Canada. They believed, and they were not wrong in this, that only self-government could provide the political accommodation of diversity that was key to a stable and prosperous nation state. They came home heroes, their loses and sacrifices contributing powerfully to the evolution of modern Canadian identity. The Irish soldiers came home to a new Ireland in which their heroism and sacrifices had no place in the new narrative.
Since the 1990s, Ireland has been recovering the diversity of Irish identity, including those from the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, those who fought in the British armed services, and those who hold to the unionist tradition and identity. Like Canada, Ireland embraces diversity and inclusiveness, sees richness in those values, and believes that they are the signposts to a better future.
This is the great narrative of the convergence in Ireland today, a process recovering the rich tapestry that is our history and is the reality of Ireland today. It has been energized by the Northern Ireland Peace Process. Our rapprochement with the British crown was tangibly expressed by the visit of the British monarch and Queen of Canada, Elizabeth II, to Ireland in 2011 and the official visit of our President, Michael D. Higgins, to Britain in 2014.
I want to pay tribute to General John de Chastelain who is with us today. As chairman of the International Independent Commission on Decommissioning, his contribution to the Northern Ireland peace process was critical. Without the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons, a return to normality, acceptable policing and democratic politics would simply not have been possible.
This window is not simply a masterpiece of Irish art. It is a symbol of the extraordinary journey of Ireland in the twentieth century. More than that, it is a signpost to a future of British Irish relations in the twenty first century. Notwithstanding Brexit, we will build a new bilateral relationship with Britain. It will the work of a generation.
That this ‘Irish Window’ is here in Canada is particularly significant given the challenges and promise of what lies ahead in the next chapter in the peace process in Ireland and our relations with Britain. Canada’s story provides Ireland with an inspiration for what our futures can be in an island of Ireland finally at peace with itself and with its neighbour.