TERRY PRONE: Is breaching the ‘respect window’ around a death ever acceptable?

The woman was properly ratty about her mother’s funeral. Even though it was a couple of years ago, she could still work herself up into a good rage about the priest
involved.

Flowers at the scene of the fatal shooting of Darragh Nugent, 35, on Wheatfield Avenue, in Clondalkin.

She didn’t know how new he was to the parish, because, as she admitted, her attendance at the local church had been confined, in recent years, to weddings and funerals, so she would’ve had little occasion, up to the obsequies, to observe him in action.

But she took a dim view of his attitude to her mother’s funeral, first of all because he wouldn’t allow her son to deliver a eulogy. No, he told her, the parish “of recent days” had banned eulogies.

This enraged her, because, in addition to the eulogy, she had planned to have her son sing at the altar a song he had composed about his nana. The priest impatiently ruled this out and made her feel as if she was a low-life.

She sacrificed the music and focused on the spoken word.

Absent a eulogy, she demanded, how could the life of her mother be properly celebrated? The priest’s lip, she said, curled. I’ve never, myself, witnessed a curling lip, but I suspect it requires being in the right place at the right time and I just haven’t been lucky.

His lip-curl preceded a blunt statement that a funeral was a rite of passage about the Christian understanding of death, an opportunity to vicariously face our own mortality.

All this New Age guff about celebrating a life, he told her, had little to do with the Catholic tradition. Her chest puffed all over again, at the memory.

“I told him, straight up,” she recalled. “I told him that didn’t resignate with me.” She might have meant “resonate”, but you can figure that the priest involved got the message, one way or the other. He couldn’t have missed that it was a “resignating” matter. If he did, it moved him not. No singers on the altar. No eulogy. Clear? Clear.

Her surrender was resentful,
but even the outward and visible manifestation of that resentment moved him not. The funeral proceeded and whatever was said about her mother was said by the priest, and woefully inadequate it was, largely because the celebrant didn’t know her mother, and didn’t bother to do any research about her. It wasn’t, the bereaved daughter said, that he said anything bad about her mother.

He simply said nothing meaningful.

Saying nothing bad about the dead is a tradition so old it goes back to the Spartans. Most people try to be pleasant about a disliked dead person until the funeral is over, after which time, all bets are off.

Which makes sense to the extent that it provides a window of respect, but then permits the writing of history, with inputs from all sides.

It was the breaching of this “respect window’ that made Fr David Halpin’s comments at the funeral, last week, of Darragh Nugent, so surprising.

Fr Halpin was officiating at the final rites in the Church of the Immaculate Mary in Neilstown. The dead man was the victim of a gangland shooting.

The congregation would have expected the standard, impersonal sermon: Not terribly specific to the dead person’s life or character, but properly laden with generalised appreciation for their time on this Earth. That was not what the priest delivered.

“We are here,” he told the mourners, “because one person decided they wanted another person out of the way. One person made a decision that they had the licence to order a hit, they have the power of life and death over another.” Factually accurate, that statement, and unlikely to offend anybody, not even the person who ordered that Darragh Nugent be gunned down. But then the priest continued.

“Darragh himself made bad decisions in his life that led him into a dangerous and precarious world. That is not in any way to say he deserved what happened to him. Nobody deserves to die in such an undignified way. But Darragh did make bad, bad decisions and those decisions and actions contributed…”

Some of the people in the church yelled at the priest to quit this line of argument, because they were there to celebrate a life — and were speedily, if paradoxically, told by one of the dead man’s family to “show some effing respect”.

But what’s fascinating is that nobody, in the aftermath of the coverage of Fr Halpin’s comments, seems to have noticed how closely they parallel the comments which have resulted in broadcaster George Hook’s rescheduling to the weekends on Newstalk.

The same pattern flows through what Hook said about the girl who was raped and what Fr Halpin said about the man who was murdered.

“What happened was horrible and you wouldn’t wish it on anybody, but isn’t there a case to argue that the victims put themselves, through their own fault, in positions of increased risk. That does not in any way diminish the culpability of the rapist or the murderer, but if the victim hadn’t increased their risk…” The words are different, but the tune is the same.

Yet, when Hook did it, all hell broke loose, and when Fr Halpin did it, hardly a peep resulted. One of the reasons may be, as a retired guard defined the funeral oration to me this week, its “cultural
dislocation”. That’s not a phrase you might expect from an ex-cop in his 60s.

“Getting killed is an occupational hazard of running drugs,” he said.

“Morals have nothing to do with it. Or shame. Selling gear is your job and some cleric trying to impose middle-class norms on it is like saying to the Provos, in the old days, that it was morally wrong to be shooting people.”

Perhaps, then, the lack of public response was not just consequent on a feeling that it’s a waste of time to talk to drug-sellers in the first place, but consequent on the disparity in numbers. More than 50% of the population is made up of women, whereas a much smaller proportion is made up of drug-peddlers.

Women, now, have the competence and the organisations to respond fast, furiously, and resolutely to blame-sharing nonsense about rape. Criminals have zero media competence.

Another factor may be grudging admiration for the priest. Saying what he said about a man who was, in that great euphemism, “known to the gardaí”, took courage. It took real courage on the part of a man working within an organisation which has suffered so many scandals that keeping heads down is the safest option.

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