Irish Gaelic on memorials? Re St Giles, Exhall: updated

In Re St Giles, Exhall [2020] ECC Cov 1, Mrs Caroline Newey, the daughter of Margaret Keane, sought a faculty for a memorial on her grave [1]. Mrs Keane and her husband had been born Ireland:

“They remained proud of their Irish heritage and were active in the work of the Gaelic Athletic Association [GAA] both in Coventry and nationally. This was an important public service to the Irish community in the United Kingdom and formed a major part of Mrs Keane’s life and of her work for others [2]”.

Mrs Keane had also received a GAA President’s Award for her work on behalf of the Association.

The petition sought a faculty for a memorial stone which would include a protruding Celtic Cross incorporating the GAA emblem “to recognise and celebrate Mrs Keane’s Irish heritage and her community service through the GAA” together with the words “In ár gcroíthe go deo”: Irish Gaelic for “in our hearts forever” [3 & 4]. The Diocesan Advisory Committee opposed the inclusion of a protruding cross and GAA emblem and Mrs Newey agreed that to seek a faculty for the cross and emblem to be incised into the body of the memorial rather than protruding from it [8].

The critical issue, however, was that Eyre Ch “expressed a provisional reservation as to the inclusion of an inscription in a language other than English without a translation, which Mrs Newey resisted, arguing that the use of Irish was not intended as a political statement but was an important part of Mrs Keane’s Irish heritage that it was a “vehicle of symbolic value” and that Gaelic names would not be translated into English on a memorial [9].

Eyre Ch concluded that “regard must be had to the message which an inscription conveys to those who did not know the person being commemorated. An inscription which is incomprehensible to such persons is unlikely to be appropriate” [12]. He noted that in St Peter & St Paul, Nutfield [2018] Ecc Swk 1, Ellis Dep Ch had permitted the inclusion of the word “Tangnefedd”, which is often found on memorials in Welsh churchyards, on a headstone and concluded that its inclusion was a “fitting memorial” [14]. However, he distinguished that case on the grounds that

“the issue was in respect of a single word. Moreover, the Deputy Chancellor noted at [8] that although the parish was in the Southwark diocese, it had various links to Wales and had a tradition of having Welsh incumbents. The Deputy Chancellor regarded this as strengthening the case for the use of an untranslated Welsh word” [15].

He concluded as follows:

“The proposal in this case is not just for the inclusion of a single word but for a short phrase which the reader will immediately realise is conveying a message. However, it is a message which will be unintelligible to all but a small minority of readers. In those circumstances, it is not appropriate for it to stand alone without translation. I make it clear that in saying this I am not in any sense adjudicating on the relative merits or standing of English and Irish Gaelic as languages. The situation would be likely to be wholly different if I were having to make a decision as to a memorial in the Irish Republic. However, the situation which I have to address is of a memorial in English-speaking Coventry. Should I permit an inscription which will be incomprehensible to almost all its readers? Not only would the message of the inscription not be understood but there is a risk of it being misunderstood. 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 of itself be seen as a political statement. That is not appropriate, and it follows that the phrase “In ár gcroíthe go deo” must be accompanied by a translation which can be in a smaller font size” [16: emphasis added].

Comment: The judgment was widely reported in the Irish media, and in A Grave Mistake? Ecclesiastical court rules against Irish language only inscription on headstone, Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC analyses Eyre Ch’s reasoning in some detail and finds it wanting. She points out that the headstone on Spike Milligan’s grave at St Thomas’s Church, Winchelsea, bears the epitaph: “Dúirt mé leat go raibh mé breoite” (“I told you I was ill”) and that it is in Irish precisely because the Diocese of Chichester did not consider his chosen epitaph appropriate for a churchyard. The Irish translation was the compromise agreed by the family. She describes the Chancellor’s fear that an Irish epitaph might be seen as “some form of slogan” as “a slur with a long history, associating Irish speakers with the IRA and republican terrorism”. (“Slogan”, it should be noted in passing, is itself derived from the Gaelic for “battle-cry”: “sluagh-ghairm“.)

To which one might add this: what if a proposed epitaph read “nar cridheachan gu bràth”, in Scots Gaelic rather than Irish? Would the same considerations apply, on the grounds that the average English-speaker is unlikely to be able to tell the difference between them?

On 3 May, the Church of England posted a statement on the judgment, as follows:

“This was a judgment from the consistory court of the Diocese of Coventry. Consistory court judgements may, with permission, be appealed to the Provincial Court of the Archbishop, in this case, the Arches Court of Canterbury. The Irish language is an important part of the heritage of the Church of England. It was, after all, Irish-speaking monks in Lindisfarne and beyond who played a central role in establishing the Church in what is now England.”

It should also be noted that, in the Church of England, Churchyard Regulations are made by the individual dioceses rather than nationally, as we indicated here.


Speaking on behalf of the family, Margaret Keane’s daughters, Bez Martin and Caroline Newey, announced on Friday that they are seeking leave to appeal the decision:

“This week, our family’s private grief has been very much in the spotlight as the ruling of the Consistory Court of Coventry has become public. The Chancellor of Coventry ruled against our choice of wording for the memorial headstone, refusing our wish to have an inscription in Irish without translation. We are very disappointed by the ruling which has politicised a grieving family’s final declaration of love. It has been devastating to us, and it has suspended the grieving process. Almost two years on, we have no final memorial for her yet.”

The family thanks everyone for their messages of support this week. We can confirm that we have now instructed lawyers to seek to appeal the ruling to the Court of Arches of the Archbishop of Canterbury. We are seeking an appeal urgently given the long delays we have endured since Margaret’s death. The family also wishes to emphasise that this is not a national level decision by the Church of England; it is a decision by a single individual, the Chancellor of Coventry, which we hope will not stand.”

The accompanying note to editors points out that there is a 21-day limit for appeals and the family are seeking permission to appeal out-of-time. They are represented by Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC and Mary-Rachel McCabe, of Doughty Street Chambers.

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Irish Gaelic on memorials? Re St Giles, Exhall: updated" in Law & Religion UK, 4 June 2020,

10 thoughts on “Irish Gaelic on memorials? Re St Giles, Exhall: updated

  1. It’s particularly interesting that C of E Comms thought it appropriate (or necessary) to post a statement about the judgment on the C of E website and to flag up that consistory court judgments may, with permission, be appealed to the Arches Court of Canterbury: almost encouraging the petitioner to appeal. Might this, perhaps, be the first case to land on the desk of the new Dean of the Arches, Morag Ellis QC, whose appointment to succeed Charles George was announced by the two archbishops earlier this week and is the news item on the C of E website immediately below the above statement?!

  2. What would have been the situation if the words had been a scriptural quotation in Biblical Hebrew/Aramaic/Greek? Or, for that matter, from the Vulgate or other Ecclesiastical Latin texts?

    • And the meaning of some scriptural quotations isn’t exactly crystal clear anyway, even in English. How about Psalm 42:9 in the version in the 1662 Psalter? Suitable, perhaps, for the headstone of a deceased plumber.

  3. There is now a statement on the Diocese of Coventry website on this matter:

    And a letter from the Bishop of Coventry to those of us who have written to him on this matter:

    So far I am not really seeing, in either the Diocesan or the national church response, much in the way of recognition of, or regret for, the apparently xenophobic views which people (Irish and otherwise) have perceived in the wording and line of reasoning in this judgement.

  4. There is further comment on the judgment and, in particular, on the C of E statement, in the media. The headline in the Coventry Observer is “The Church of England rebukes Coventry diocese decision in Irish language gravestone row.” The report (by journalist John Carlon) includes: “The decision has drawn the ire of Lambeth Palace, which said in a statement: “This decision does not reflect any national Church of England policy.”
    The statement on the C of E website (not Lambeth Palace) is now prefaced with these words: Following reports of a consistory Court case in the Diocese of Coventry a spokesperson for the Church of England said: “This decision does not reflect any national Church of England policy.”

    • While other chancellors might have given permission to appeal, Chancellor Eyre’s decision is not surprising and is consistent with the stance taken in most cases by first instance judges in the secular courts, i.e. refusing permission to appeal, leaving it to the appeal court to decide whether the case merits the grant of permission, and for losing party to apply for permission to that court (in this case, the Court of Arches.) It is a ‘paper’ application, so not unduly onerous. Given the controversy generated by the Chancellor’s decision in this case and the wider issues involved, I would expect permission to be given.

      The statement by two family members on the Irwin Mitchell website (“Being forced to defend our original application through a lengthy legal process is an insult to the very memorial we wish to erect”), while understandable, is unfairly critical of the entirely proper legal procedure required when permission is sought for a memorial outside the parameters of the Chancellor’s churchyard regulations and, therefore, not able to be granted by the incumbent under (in effect) delegated powers, thus requiring an application to the Chancellor for a faculty. Other chancellors may well have approved the proposed Gaelic inscription (and I predict that it will eventually be allowed on appeal), but it is noteworthy that (as indicated on the Irwin Mitchell website and in the best traditions of the Bar), Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC and Mary-Rachel McCabe, together with their instructing solicitors, are acting for the family on a pro bono basis.

      Predicting the outcome of the eventual decision in Re St Margaret’s, Rottingdean (see the ’emergency’ judgment at [2020] ECC Chi 4) is much more problematic!

  5. Agree that one could anticipate the Court of Arches permitting the inscription on appeal.

    I do hope that, alongside resolving the specific matter at hand – the inscription – it might also be possible in time somehow to address the offence that has been caused by the initial judgement in its wording and line of reasoning, and the widespread perception that it reflected xenophobic attitudes towards the Irish language and people. I do not have any idea of the practicalities of how that might happen.

    My background is as a dual British & Irish citizen of rather mixed ancestry, born in Northern Ireland and now living (and ministering as a C of E Reader) in England. I’m in the next-door diocese to the late Mrs Keane, and in the next-door parish to one of the GAA grounds she was involved at. I pass as English right up to the point at which I open my mouth to speak.

    I am afraid that the Chancellor’s judgement reminded me quite strongly of the prejudice I experienced on occasion in the 90s and early 2000s, after moving to Great Britain, though my background and that of the late Mrs Keane are not exactly the same. I do not really want to be part of a church that is perceived to provide a platform for such prejudice. That is why I hope that more can be done to repair relationships and perceptions, in addition to approving the sought-for inscription.

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