WESTMINSTER MPs have vowed to fight “shoulder to shoulder” with the family of an Irish woman denied a Gaelic inscription on her gravestone until “justice is done”.
A group of supporters, community leaders and politicians met today to lend their support to the family of Co. Meath native Margaret Keane in their battle to inscribe a cherished Gaelic phrase on her gravestone.
Following her death in 2018, Margaret’s family had intended to inscribe the words ‘In ar gcroithe go deo’, meaning ‘In our hearts forever’, on her headstone.
But in May 2020 a Church of England ecclesiastical court ruled that the phrase must be accompanied by a translation, because it could otherwise be deemed a “political” statement.
In the months that have passed the Keane family has launched an appeal to overturn the anti-Irish ruling.
That appeal hearing will finally take place on February 24, at St Mary-Le-Bow Church in London, led by the family’s legal team, which includes solicitor Caroline Brogan at Irwin Mitchell and barristers Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC and Mary-Rachel McCabe, of Doughty St Chambers, who are all acting pro bono.
The issue has also galvanised an array of community stakeholders to take action, many of whom took part in the Zoom meeting hosted by the Labour Party Irish Society as the countdown to the court hearing began.
In addition to Margaret’s family members, three labour MPs, the CEO of the Birmingham Irish Society, and the newly elected President of GAA in Britain, Noel O’Sullivan, were all in attendance at the meeting and pledged their emphatic support for the cause.
Liam Byrne, a Labour MP who previously served as Chief Secretary to the Treasury in Gordon Brown’s government, gave his full commitment to the Keane family's campaign.
“When my father Dermot died back in 2015 we were able to lay him to rest in a grave that bears precisely the words that you seek to enshrine on Margaret’s grave,” the MP, whose grandparents hailed from Ireland, explained.
“I know what a comfort that is to me and to my family.”
Others highlighted the unfairness of the consistory court's decision and pointed to it as an example of anti-Irish prejudice.
Caroline Brogan, the family’s solicitor, told those gathered that other gravestones at St Giles Church in Coventry, where Mrs Keane is buried, had inscriptions in Welsh, Latin, and Hebrew and some even bore the same phrase ‘in our hearts forever’.
Yet these did not require a translation, as was demanded by the ecclesiastical court in the Keane case.
Presiding over the case, the Chancellor of the Consistory Court in the Diocese of Coventry, Stephen Eyre QC, said at the time: “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 itself be seen as a political statement.”
He added: “It would be unintelligible to all but a small minority of readers in English speaking Coventry."
In today’s meeting, Ms Brogan went on to say that Coventry is “the city that produced Mo Mowlam, she was one of the key architects of the Good Friday Agreement”.
“This judgement is completely at odds with the values of our city and completely at odds with the Good Friday Agreement.”
The family – whose “grieving has been suspended” by the court ruling, according to Margaret’s son, Vincent – were roundly assured that they had the full backing of those present.
Maurice Malone, CEO of the Birmingham Irish Society, who is a member of Irish President Michael D Higgins’ Council of State, revealed that the president is “well aware of the situation, as is the Ambassador in London”.
While he expressed his hope that “in ten days’ time common sense will prevail and this ludicrous decision will be overturned”, he went on to say that “the big guns” – referring to the president – were “there in the background, ready, if required”.
Speaking about the Church of England authorities, who were responsible for blocking the Keane’s gravestone request, he said: “Their time would be far better spent looking at some of the issues they have in their own establishment than interfering in headstones.”
Labour MPs Taiwo Owatemi and Zarah Sultana also expressed their solidarity during the meeting, with the latter saying that she was “very keen to help in any way that we can, whether it’s in parliament, whether it’s in the streets, wherever”.
Concluding his statement, Mr Byrne said that no matter the verdict of the impending court hearing, the issue would not be dropped until the Keane family had won their battle.
“We fight today for tolerance and a society in which we have a rich cultural life, in which we can all celebrate the things that we are proud of, celebrate our language, celebrate our identity, celebrate the culture that gives us that sense of purpose and place on earth,” he said.
Addressing Margaret’s family members, he said he was “standing shoulder to shoulder with you this morning, locked arm in arm, determined that your cause will prevail”.
“We will win, you will win, this justice will be done for Margaret, and ultimately no matter how long it takes, we will prevail because we’re a stubborn lot and we will not give up until we have won."
He added: “Whether we will battle on in parliament or in civic life here, we will get there in the end, rest assured of that."
Many members of the Keane family were in attendance on the Zoom call, including Margaret’s husband Bernie, two of Margaret’s sisters and four of their six children.
Margaret’s son Vincent used the opportunity to pay a touching tribute to his mother.
“Mum was the centre of our family, our house was busy, loud, and a place where there was always a welcome on the mat and a place where the door was always open,” he said.
Pat Hoey, Chairman of the Roger Casement GAA club in Coventry, where Margaret was a long-serving committee member and, according to Mr Hoey, a surrogate mother to “anyone who wore a Casement jersey”, also spoke during the meeting.
He reinforced the Club's ongoing commitment to the Keane family in their fight for justice for their mother but also confirmed that the Club had recently decided to rename their annual Club Person of the Year award as the Margaret Keane Memorial Trophy, in her honour.
Live updates from the court hearing, which takes place on Wednesday, February 24 at St Mary-Le-Bow Church in London, will be posted on the Messages to Margaret twitter feed.
The Keane family has also asked for supporters to light a candle in Margaret's memory at 7pm on February 23, the evening before the court hearing, and to share images of that on Twitter.