Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 July 2014

Remembering Frederick MacNeice, man of faith and paragon of peace

When the centenary of the Solemn League and Covenant is celebrated in September, there are likely to be few glasses raised to the memory of a Church of Ireland rector who declined to sign, and, who later as bishop, refused to allow a flag over Carson's tomb in his cathedral.

The bishop in question, the father of the poet Louis MacNeice, "raised in the Anglican order", is the subject of this fine biographical study by David Fitzpatrick.

He applies a historian's eye and judgment to material which had previously been the preserve of the literary critic. He sets out to challenge the picture of the Home-Ruler bishop, a Southern liberal unhappy in the bigoted North, which had been sedulously cultivated by the poet in his later years, and accepted uncritically by the literary establishment.

His thesis is that MacNeice pere was an all-Ireland Unionist, an enthusiastic Orangeman and Mason, and an evangelising Protestant with a horror of violence, an aversion to conflict, and a keen purpose to keep religion separate from politics.

The son of Protestant missionaries, Frederick MacNeice spent his first 14 years on Omey Island in Connemara, from which the family was obliged to flee for safety in 1879 after a campaign of intimidation and physical abuse orchestrated by local priests.

Despite this, the most common theme in his sermons and speeches over the years was that people should forget old hurts and remember only the things that might unite them. Becoming a missionary himself and marrying the daughter of a Catholic convert from Connemara, MacNeice was ordained in the Church of Ireland and served as a curate in Belfast and Cappoquin, before being appointed rector of Carrickfergus.

His wife died young in a mental hospital, leaving him with three children, one with Down Syndrome, and the seven-year-old Louis, severely traumatised by her loss, as reflected decades later in the refrain, Come Back Early Or Never Come.

The rector soon remarried a wealthy spinster parishioner who was to prove a caring mother for his children (after some early trouble with Louis) and for Louis's infant son after his divorce. She also provided financial security and connections to social circles and political and commercial establishments without which a humble evangelical from Connemara could not have become bishop.

His independence of mind, however, his moral courage and his willingness to stand out from the mob was an enduring feature. He refused to sign the Covenant in 1912, regarding it as a contradiction for loyal subjects to pledge opposition to lawful authority, and unChristian to adopt a policy which could lead to war.

His opposition to the Carson memorial was an attempt to keep the church free from politics, as his son put it "he fixed his pulpit out of reach of party slogans".

Many of his judgments have a contemporary relevance. In 1922, for example: "A true patriot seeking a united Ireland would wait until the confidence of Northern Ireland should be won, feeling that Irish unity could only come about through the consent of the people themselves, North and South." In 1934, in terms which could be deployed in the Republic's referendum on the Fiscal Treaty, he maintained that no European state was now an independent economic unit; that conditions in the Far East and the far West determined the standard of life in Cork and Waterford.

In the mid-Thirties, in a period of riots and sectarian strife in Belfast, his was the voice of sanity and moderation, counselling people to forget past hurts, and mobilising leaders of the Protestant churches to keep the peace.

He was the first Irish churchman to speak out about Hitler's persecution of the Jews. In a long life, he was a consistent opponent of violence, a diplomat, a peacemaker. This study catches the complexity of the man.

While Frederick MacNeice is entitled to stand on his own reputation, he is essential to the understanding of the poetry of Louis MacNeice, for whom he provided an imaginative hinterland in the west of Ireland and who they had both fashioned into an admirable father-figure. David Fitzpatrick's scholarly and well-written study does them both proud.

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