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A diamond service: Irish Chaplaincy in Britain celebrates 60 years of ministry

By Cian Molloy - 25 September, 2017


No automatic alt text available.The Irish Chaplaincy in Britain celebrated its 60th anniversary yesterday with a Mass in the London parish most associated with Irish emigration to England’s capital, Kilburn in North London.

The chief celebrant at the Mass marking the diamond jubilee was Bishop John Kirby of Clonfert, who is chairman of the Irish bishops’ Council for Emigrants, and he used the occasion to criticise the Irish government’s ʻdirect provisionʼ arrangements for those migrants who come to Ireland seeking asylum.

In his homily, Bishop Kirby noted that immigration and emigration were both ancient and modern phenomena. “In the first book of the bible, Genesis, the Lord says to Abram ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you’ and that is the start of the people of Israel, later, Jacob and his sons follow Joseph to Egypt at a time of famine and 430 years later, Moses leads the people of Israel back to Canaan, the Promised Land.”

“Migration has also had a major role in Irish history”, said the bishop, citing the 16th and 17th century plantations of Ireland and the massive exodus from Ireland in the 18th century as people fled the famine.

“A further wave of emigration took place in Ireland in the early years of independence at a time of recession and hardship in the 1940s and 1950s,” the bishop told the congregation in the much-loved church on Quex Road.  “Many of you here in this church in Kilburn are Irish born or are descended from Irish born people of that period.  Your work and life here have contributed to your own prosperity and to the prosperity of this country.  Indeed, you have also helped the Irish economy through the practice of what became known as ‘postal remittances’, money sent to assist families back home in Ireland.

“Sadly, not everyone was able to contribute to life in the new country or in the old.  We know that there are Irish people who continue to need help and the Irish Chaplaincy Service exists precisely to help them.”

The chaplaincy is an agency of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference, and is partly supported by grants from the Department of Foreign Affairs.  When the first group of nine chaplains were sent over to England in 1957, some of them travelled with the Irish navvies who were building Britain’s motorway network, and they had a mobile chapel where the workers could celebrate Mass.

Very many Irish priests served in the Irish Chaplaincy in different parts of London, Bishop Kirby noted.  Today, much of the chaplaincy work is carried out by lay people. As needs have changed, the chaplaincy’s ministry is focussed on three key areas: Irish prisoners held in UK prisons, the older generation of Irish emigrants, and the Irish Travelling Community in Britain.

Indeed, the Irish no longer feature so predominantly among London’s immigrant community: the Oblate Fathers serving in the Sacred Heart Parish in Kilburn cater for people of more than 60 different nationalities.  Bishop Kirby told some of them who were present at the celebration: “Of course there are large numbers here this morning that do not have any Irish connection and I recognise your presence here as well.  You are from various parts of the world, particularly from areas that were formerly under British administration.  You continue to play an important part in this country and perhaps also in your own former countries of origin.”

Bishop Kirby remarked that many migrants travel to other countries because they are fleeing persecution or conflict.  The problems of those trying to get to Europe from the Middle East and North Africa continue to grow.  It is a huge problem for all the countries of the Western world and particularly for us here in Europe.

Noting that Pope Francis is the son of Italian migrants who travelled to Argentina, Bishop Kirby said: “Pope Francis has made the care of migrants one of his main initiatives.  His first trip outside of Rome as Pope was made to the Island of Lampedusa off the coast of Sicily.  This was one of the main landing points for those from Libya trying to gain entry to Europe.  Large numbers drowned whilst attempting the journey.  Those who landed faced further difficulties.  In Ireland the system of Direct Provision for migrants arriving from very difficult situations is a very unsatisfactory arrangement, and we need to change it into a more respectful system for those coming to Ireland.”

Fittingly, the chalice used in the Mass was partly made from wood salvaged from a boat used by asylum seekers.  As the bishop explained, “The chalice is a silver cup inside a wooden shell.  It was made by the same wood-turner who made a chalice for Pope Francis when he visited Lampedusa four years ago.  In both cases the wood used had been part of a boat carrying migrants from Libya to Lampedusa.  It was given to me on loan specifically for this Mass as we are commemorating migrants.  The cup of the chalice is silver and is stamped 2016 in memory of the centenary of the Easter Rising.  Thus, it links the migrants coming to Ireland with those who fought for Irish freedom 100 years ago.”

“The care of migrants is one of the major problems being faced by governments of the developed economies”, the bishop said, adding that “it was also a major challenge for the Church and for all of us as individuals”. He continued, “Remember the parable of the Last Judgement in Saint Matthew’s Gospel – ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me’ or ‘I was a stranger and you did not welcome me’ as the case may be.  If we take the gospel seriously, the care of migrants has to be placed high on all our plans.”



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