A lament for Creeslough: another test for our faith

What happened in Creeslough in County Donegal on Friday, October 7th has had a profound effect on the whole country. The death of ten people in one incredible incident on a quiet Friday afternoon is really difficult to comprehend. Amidst the mourning, many are still searching for answers in their faith as to what happened.

I am not a deeply religious person by any means but for the last three decades I have been a personal friend of Fr John Cullen – a priest in the diocese of Elphin who was in charge of religious programming on Shannonside FM when I was Head of News there back in 1991.

John and I have from time to time enjoyed an open dialogue about the ways of the church and the actions of ‘his boss’ AKA God. We have debated the good, the bad and the ugly parts of the institution on a regular basis. I have to say he is a brilliant man to bat on the church’s behalf – making sense of many things I could never have previously understood or accepted.

I remember one particularly entertaining and emotive argument in this vein that I enjoyed having with John. It was about the actor, broadcaster and writer Stephen Fry after his appearance on the ‘Would You Believe’ TV show with the late Gay Byrne. Readers may remember that Fry had pointed to the callousness and unfairness of absolutely harrowing real-life events such as babies developing leukemia or dying with cancer tumours in their youth. In really strong and controversially outspoken language, he told Byrne he could never respect “a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world … so full of injustice”.

Public outcry

There was a bit of an outcry about what Fry had said  among those people of deep faith in this country. You may remember that one person even reported Mr Fry to the Gardai on grounds of alleged blasphemy and the Government subsequently changed a law in response to such occurrences. John and I continued the argument for many weeks as we had our own debate in a civil manner, by text and phone call, on how events of such a tragic and heartbreaking nature could ever be interpreted as acceptable in a church which was allegedly endorsing a life where individuals should portray love and respect for one another (and the aforementioned God).

Last week was another one of those similarly difficult moments for me and for some of the people around me. As we watched the funerals take place in Donegal our hearts sank to the point of despair as the relatives came forward to speak so passionately and so bravely – at the funerals – about the loved ones they had lost in such an indiscriminate manner.

I wasn’t actually speaking to John about the events in Donegal at all last week. Nowadays he is far from his old Roscommon duties. He is on a working sabbatical in a ministry with the poor and the homeless on the streets of London. Yet, as if by telepathy, he probably knew what was going through my head (and in the minds of a few more people). He decided to email me a copy of some deliberations he put together while speaking at an inter-faith prayer service in London last week.

I read it, and even though I still don’t agree with everything he says, I am big enough to admit that he has once again struck a chord that may well help and console people of faith in the aftermath of such horrific events as those we witnessed in Creeslough. So, with his permission, I am going to republish it here this week in my column in the People. I will leave it to each reader to interpret it as they wish.

‘A lament for Creeslough’

The sound of lament is heard throughout the Bible: cries of grief, distress, oppression, displacement, protest, pain, anguish and a timeless expression of the weeping voice of God, in whose image and likeness we are all made.

Creeslough is twinned with Calvary. Together we stand at this station of sorrow. We all feel the searing pain of this moment in our collective and individual lament. We all cry for the loss of life and for the loss of a future. Our lament expresses a painful paradox: that in the midst of life – we are in death.

In our time, the haunting sounds of lament are heard across our fractured world: Ukraine, Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Iraq, Thailand, Myanmar, Palestine, Nicaragua, the Uyghurs in China, the plight and danger endured by migrants in their search for a welcome and a home, and the victims of knife and gun crime across London…agus anois…An Criooslach… croíthe briste…

The Taoiseach, Micheál Martin solemnly read into the Irish House of Parliament (the Dáil), record, the ten names of those who died. We name them here –  believing God ‘calls each one us by name’ (Isaiah 43:1). A candle will be lit for each one of the names as they are called…Shauna Flanagan-Garwe, and her father, Robert Garwe, Leona Harper, Hugh Kelly, Jessica Gallagher, Martin McGill, James O’Flaherty, Martina Martin, Catherine O’Donnell and her son, James Monaghan.

It is in the prophecy of Jeremiah that we hear the lament of Rachel echoing down the centuries to our own day, as she weeps for her children: “A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation and weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children. She refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more” (Jeremiah 31:15). The sound of lament is rooted in our ancient, biblical past. Rachel still grieves for all generations who have known loss, grief, suffering, death and bereavement.

I hear muffled laments in London: in the voices of those who queue for food, in the voices of homeless, in the voices of the elderly, in grieving parents who face the suicide of one of their children, in a young person who is trapped by cocaine or another addiction, in a marriage break-up, in those impacted by the financial crisis, in those who have to beg for food for their families and in that unique quality of silence in a palliative care hospice.

The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem is the subject of the Book of Lamentations. It was a catastrophic event for the people. It precipitated a tradition of lament that became part of the ritual of the people. It was a vocal expression of collective grief in response and in reaction to the dire loss and displacement that they felt and experienced.

The recent time of mourning for Queen Elizabeth  united Britain’s different faiths, traditions and cultures. People gathered to sign Condolence Books, bring flowers and messages, to stand in silence, prayer and long, overnight procession queues to lament and honour her memory and service with respect. It was a reminder that the ancient language of lament is still expressive and that it has not, as yet, become a lost language, in a society that tends to be so preoccupied and too busy to stop and face the reality of death.

As we lament in silence for Creeslough, we all share a Donegal accent that is now our universal mother tongue. But fluency is not a requirement for prayer or a biblical imperative as we mourn and lament the massive loss of ten precious lives. Jesus gives us a tip on how to pray – ‘do not heap up empty phrases when you are praying’ (Matthew 6:7).

Our authentic lament here at our inter-faith prayer service is grounded in the experiences of Irish people who have made London their home. I also welcome the people who have joined us from other faith traditions, nationalities and cultures. Your prayer and presence with us is appreciated. As we say in Irish…Céad Míle Fáilte.

Together, we believe that our lament for Creeslough is heard, held and healed by our God, ‘who is close to the broken hearted’ (Psalm 34:18). Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine. (In the shelter of each other, people survive).

– John Cullen, October 2022