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A difficult journey but never a lonely one – the Keane family on winning appeal in Irish language case

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The family of Margaret Keane were delighted to announce on the evening of 24 February that they had succeeded in their appeal to the decision to deny them an untranslated Irish language phrase to Margaret’s gravestone. The initial decision demanded a translation and warned it could be seen as a “political” statement.

  • The Keane family (in campaign tee shirts) with their legal team after their appeal victory, from left: Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC, Caroline Brogan, Bez Killeen, Caroline Newey, Mary-Rachel McCabe.
    The Keane family (in campaign tee shirts) with their legal team after their appeal victory, from left: Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC, Caroline Brogan, Bez Killeen, Caroline Newey, Mary-Rachel McCabe.
    Photo credit: Mary-Rachel McCabe

The highest court of appeal in the Church of England – the Court of Arches – judged in favour of the Keane family on Wednesday 24 February. “In ár gcroíthe go deo” will now adorn Margaret Keane’s gravestone in St Giles, Exhall, without a translation. The words in Irish translate as “in our hearts forever”.

Margaret and her husband Bernie were both born in Ireland but built their lives and raised their family in nearby Coventry. She died in 2018 and it has been a long and difficult campaign for her family to win the right to the gravestone with which they want to pay an appropriate and personal tribute to their mother.

Margaret was a stalwart supporter of local GAA club Roger Casements and received recognition for her community work from President Michael D Higgins.

Message to Margaret

Margaret Keane

The ‘Message to Margaret’ campaign, run by her daughters Caroline and Bez, has garnered support from local MPs, been mentioned in parliament by Conor McGinn (chair of the All–Party Parliamentary Group on Ireland and the Irish in Britain) and been reported on widely in Britain and Ireland. Members of Conradh na Gaeilge (the Gaelic League) in London also worked with the family and legal team on the final appeal. 

The Keane family were given pro–bono support from an all–Irish, all–female legal team, which included Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC, Mary–Rachel McCabe and Caroline Brogan. In the autumn of 2020, the Church of England agreed to cover the family’s legal fees which were stretching into thousands of pounds.

Irish in Britain have met with Margaret’s daughters twice and given support to their campaign. We covered the background to the case in August 2020, read it here.

We spoke to Bez Killeen, Margaret’s daughter, and asked her how they were all feeling in the aftermath of the decision.

“It’s a mixture of emotions, relief, delight, tiredness. We look forward now to be able to do what grieving families before us have done and that is to install our mother’s headstone, to complete the grieving process, to start to heal.”

Respect

“The outcome of the ruling has meant that the Irish language is being afforded the same respect as other languages. It means that we don’t have to attach an English translation as a means of validating the use of Irish, that our language on its own has meaning, value and standing.

“We know the outcome but we await the full reasoned judgement, so we are unsure what grounds the appeal has been accepted. It will be the full judgement that will inform us about possible changes to Church of England process, this will be important in understanding how the Church of England moves forward in ensuring no other family is subjected to the same as we were.

“We remain hopeful that the outcome means that families who follow who want a loving inscription on headstones in any language other than English will be met by decision makers who pay due diligence to laws of equality and human rights, and that systems and more importantly decision making processes will become more transparent, accessible and compassionate.” 

We also asked Bez about role community organisations had played in supporting the campaign:

“It’s safe to say that as difficult a journey this has been for the family it has never been a lonely one. 

“It is because of the support of Irish organisations in Coventry and beyond that we had the strength to pursue the appeal. The ruling, when made public last year, galvanised a community response, with Irish community leaders reaching out not just with expressions of support but offers of action. With them we were able to showcase the best our community has to offer, to put on the public stage expressions of our culture and language that ensured we provided a counter narrative to the wording of the original ruling.

“The family are beyond grateful to all those community groups and national organisations that stood with us, that stood up for Mum.”