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Remember When the Irish First Met the Chinese?

To: The Most Reverend Robert Henry Alexander Eames, Archbishop of Armagh, Primate of all Ireland and Metropolitan; The Most Reverend John Robert Winder Neill, Archbishop of Dublin and Bishop of Glendalough, Primate of Ireland and Metropolitan; The Very Reverend R.B. MacCarthy Dean and Ordinary The National Cathedral and Collegiate Church of Saint Patrick.

Dear Reverend gentlemen,

We recently conducted a Chinese visitor upon a tour of Dublin.

The context of this was the developing relationship between Ireland and China flowing from the remarkable growth of the economies of our two countries. Ireland and China have entered into agreements covering, inter alia, economic and cultural issues.

Essential to the growing spirit of solidarity is the principle that we
share a common heritage as victims of colonialism. The first thing
which caught our visitors’ attention upon the streets of our capital was the prevalence of heroin addicts. It had been the determination of the Chinese government to resist the importation of drugs into their country, said resistance being the pretext for the invasion of China in 1841.

The one hundred and sixty-fifth anniversary of that illegal invasion occurs this year on May 24. That was Queen Victoria’s birthday. Who was the head of the Church of Ireland. Let us go back to the first encounter between the Irish and the Chinese.

The commander of the invasion force was Hugh Gough, of Tipperary. Soldiers of the 18th Royal Irish Regiment were the first Europeans the people of Amoy ever saw. Many committed suicide. At Tinghai, the
Royal Irish bayonetted defenders along the wall of the city until they reached Pagoda Hill. There they planted the colors. The Chinese had no weapons to match those of the invaders. The Royal Irish slaughtered
them.

At Ningpo, the citizens opened their gates without a struggle, thereby frustrating Sir Henry Pottinger’s object of plundering the town as a punishment for resistance. He proposed instead to steal public and
ransom private property. Gough demurred, declining to disperse his men “to punish one set of robbers for the benefit of another set”.

Gough and the Royal Irish moved on to Chapoo, where the stiffest resistance was offered by the Tartars, many of whom, preferring death to the dishonor of defeat, destroyed their wives, their children and
themselves. On to Chingakingfoo where again the Tartars fiercely resist, where again they kill themselves in defeat. At Nanking, Pottinger offers to spare the city on payment of a ransom. The Tartars refuse to accept these terms, so Gough prepares to bombard them into submission. Then emissaries arrive from the Emperor, sueing for peace. They agree to indemnify the opium sellers and make a present of Hong Kong to the British, among other concessions.

Returning to the present day, our Chinese friend noted that Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin flies the colors of the Royal Irish Regiment (1837-54). And noted that there was a large monument to some people who had died perpetrating the rape and humiliation of his country. A monument which attributed success in this action- called “The China War”– to the intervention of Jesus Christ.

How can a national Cathedral of a country which presented itself to China as a fellow-victim of colonialism commemorate the humiliation of China? It was clear that the people who stole Hong Kong from the Chinese in 1842 were the same as those who had stolen Saint Patrick’s Cathedral from the Irish in 1532, through a “surrender”.

Dean and recalcitrant elements of the chapter of the then Catholic Cathedral– some of whose sacred relics remain to this day beneath the altar– were locked up in a room until they submitted to a man named
Browne, who described himself as “a protestant”, and agent of King
Henry VIII.

The ancient sacred staff of Saint Patrick was burned by Browne ­ an act designed to humiliate the Irish people. So now instead of finding in our national cathedral the staff of our national saint, our Chinese
visitor could find the standards of an army which had crushed and humiliated his people, and ours.

And our Chinese visitor was obliged to confront the pretence of the Cathedral: that the gospel of Jesus Christ was implicated in the humiliation of the Irish and the humiliation of the Chinese.

The British lease on Hong Kong ran out in 1991. Had not the lease on
Dublin run out in 1922?

In 1948, when the British were evicted from India, all the imperial statues on the streets of Calcutta were collected and re-housed in Barrackpur in a kind of reservation for British imperial art.
Something of that nature might have happened to Saint Patrick’s cathedral. It didn’t.

Shortly after the Chinese re-occupied the city of Hong Kong, every vestige of British imperial domination was removed. overnight.
Something like that might have happened to St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It didn’t.

It is a matter of urgency now. Because the Church of Ireland Prelates have not condemned the illegal invasion of Iraq anymore than their forbears condemned the illegal invasion of China. Irishmen are part of the occupation force. At least one has died. There is a space on the wall of the North transept.

There are many Muslims in Dublin.

Our Chinese friend and ourselves concluded that seisin of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin should be surrendered to the people of Dublin. To all of us. Catholic, Buddhist, Orthodox, Hindu, Muslim, Jew, Sikh, Confucian — everyone–not least the protestants, who are as sick of the duplicity of the hierarchy of the Church of Ireland as the rest of us.

If the surrender is not volunteered, it might be encouraged in the manner of the previous surrender. The Primate, the Archbishop and the Dean might be locked up in a room. And a deed of surrender slipped
under the door. For execution.

There should be no need for that.

Our Chinese friend and ourselves shall be pleased to receive the surrender of Saint Patrick’s on behalf of the people of Dublin.

Yours faithfully,
RONAN SHEEHAN

RONAN SHEEHAN is co-founder of the Irish Writer’s Co-Op. His novels are “The Tennis Players”; and “Foley’s Asia”. He won the Rooney Prize for
Literature. He lives in Dublin and is proud that he can count among his ancestors John Philpot Curran, the defender of Robert Emmett and the Sheares Bros, who and tried to save Wolfe Tone & Lord Edward Fitzgerald. His email address is sheehanwriter@yahoo.ie