Remarks at St Bartholomew’s Church, Ottawa, 6 November 2022
Eamonn McKee, Ambassador of Ireland
Go raibh míle maith agaibh go leir. I am honoured and delighted to a part of this service today as we rededicate this wonderful stained glass window by Irish artist Wilhelmina Geddes.
I want to pay particular thanks to Reverend Father David Clunie for inviting me to be a part of this restoration project. I thought at first he was just looking for money but I quickly realized that what he really wanted was my endorsement as the Irish Ambassador. He rightly intuited that this was a really important dimension to this endeavor.
Since our first meeting at the home of our neighbors Rob and Joanne Nelson, this has been great, a certain highlight of my time here. I have to say as a civil servant you do not often start a project and get to see it finished! But here it is less than two years later and how wonderful. The detail and clarity is amazing.
We should acknowledge too the restoration team who must have a special feeling for this window and they cleaned and restored it piece by piece. They have done a wonderful job.
Thank you then to David, his fundraising committee and all the supporters of this wonderful piece of Irish art, newly restored and good for another one hundred years.
The Geddes Window was commissioned in early 1916 when so much was in flux in Irish society and in art. Geddes was an artist working in the medium of stained glass, at the Túr Gloine studio in Dublin, part of a revival of artisanal craft and the medieval world. As Reverend Clunie noted, the medieval motif makes this work ageless.
When I approached my colleagues back at Headquarters, they immediately recognized the significance of this project and gathered funding to support it.
We hosted a reception last Thursday at Residence to mark the completion of the restoration. We premiered David’s wonderful documentary on the history of the Geddes Window. Beautifully done and soon to be online and available to the public. Well done David and all the volunteers who shared in its making.
As a result of the restoration, St Bartholomew’s and this Geddes Window will be a gem in the Bytown-Ottawa Heritage Trail on which we are working. We hope this will help make more people aware of this treasure, both here in Canada and in Ireland.
We will also put Rideau Hall and Rideau Gate on our Irish Heritage Trail. Call it reverse colonization!
These Church walls bear the names of Governor Generals. The first three after Confederation in 1867 were Anglo-Irish: Viscount Monck, born in Tipperary and educated at Trinity College Dublin; Lord Lisgar whose father was from Bailieborough in Country Cavan; and of course Lord and Lady Dufferin, Frederick and Hariot Blackwood, probably the most consequential couple to live at Rideau Hall as they transformed the function of that office.
The last private family living at No 7 Rideau Gate, now the Government of Canada’s official guest house, were the Ahearns. Lilias Ahearn Massey grew up there and became vice regal consort, attending the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. From her Irish-born blacksmith great-grandfather, her grandfather Thomas and father Frank Ahearn, to that august role was but three generations
The Geddes Window represents a time in Ireland’s history when local loyalties and aspirations, hopes and fears collided with global events and the outbreak of World War I. The struggles in Ireland were projected onto the wider screen of European hostilities.
Ulster loyalists resisting Home Rule joined the Ulster Volunteer Force and then the 36th Ulster Division to fight for King, country and little Belgium.
Irish nationalists insisting on Home Rule joined the National Volunteers and then the British Army to fight for home rule for Ireland and little Belgium.
Irish Catholic Canadians joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force King, country, and home rule for Ireland.
They all fought and died for what they believed were noble causes.
The noble cause of Irish freedom also called to Irish patriots who fought for Ireland in the streets of Dublin in 1916 and paid the ultimate price for their beliefs.
We honour our patriot dead at our Garden of Remembrance. There in 2011, Queen Elizabeth II paid her respects. It was an historic peacemaking gesture in reconciling Ireland and Britain. In this year of her passing, we remember her too.
So this window is part of the mosaic of our shared history. Irish, British, and Canadian. Nationalist, unionist, and Commonwealth.
We remember today the 200,000 Irish men and women from all traditions who enlisted in the Great War and the 35,000 who fell.
To what degree they were betrayed by the great powers that led them to such horror and sacrifice remains a live historical debate. That debate enhances our memorial of them. It serves to remind us that war is a solemn and grim business.
That as all soldiers know who must put their lives on the line, the greatest honour is reserved for the peace makers.
We are honoured today to have with us a soldier and a peace maker, John de Chastelain. He and his fellow members of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning helped take the gun out of Irish politics.
It is the peace makers who strive to avoid conflict until all other options are exhausted.
And when that fatal price is paid in the fight for our beliefs, we honour the fallen, we remember them.