Court of Arches finds refusal of Irish-only inscription on Coventry family’s gravestone was discriminatory

A Church of England appeal court, the Court of Arches, has now handed down its written judgment in a case concerning the wording on an Irish family’s gravestone.

The judgment, handed down on 16 June 2021, has allowed the Keane family’s appeal against a May 2020 ruling of the Consistory Court of the Diocese of Coventry which had denied them a gravestone of their choice over their mother’s grave. 

Margaret Keane died in 2018, aged 73. She was born in Ireland (in Athboy, Co. Meath) but moved to England in the 1950s and made a new life in Coventry. She met and married Irishman Bernard (Bernie) Keane, and they raised six children together. They lived in St Giles, Exhall, on the outskirts of Coventry. Margaret’s Irish heritage was very important to her throughout her life, and she and Bernie gave decades of voluntary service to the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) in Britain.

Margaret was buried in her local churchyard in St Giles, a short distance from the family home. The intention is, when he passes, for Bernie to be buried alongside her. The family has chosen a gravestone reflecting their heritage and culture, which includes a Celtic cross with the GAA symbol and the Irish phrase “in ár gcroí go deo,” which translates as ‘in our hearts forever.’ However, the  Consistory Court of the Diocese of Coventry ruled that they were not permitted to have an Irish phrase only, and it would only be allowed if accompanied by an English translation. The reasons given by the judge, Chancellor Stephen Eyre QC, included that the phrase would be “incomprehensible” to people in “English-speaking Coventry” and that, “given the passions and feelings” associated with the Irish language, there is a “sad risk” that people would consider it “some form of slogan or political statement.”

One of Margaret’s daughters, Caroline Newey, appealed on behalf of the family to the Court of Arches, the appeal court of the Archbishop of Canterbury. At the conclusion of the hearing in February 2021, the three judges announced that they were allowing the appeal, with their reasons to follow. 

The Court has now handed down its written judgment which confirmed that the decision of the Chancellor not to permit the family’s inscription in Irish-only (without an English translation) was unreasonable under the common law, and in breach of the family’s right not to be discriminated against under Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Court also found that the Chancellor’s decision did not give effect to the Public Sector Equality Duty to eliminate discrimination under section 149 of the Equality Act 2010, which he was required to do.

The Court of Arches was highly critical of the Chancellor’s judgment, finding that:

“The sentiments expressed in the Judgment, which were not founded on evidence, seem to us to run so strongly counter to the reality of twenty first century Britain, a multi-cultural society with ready access to the internet as a source of instant translation, and the cultural make-up of Coventry, as to have crossed the boundary from the realm of a permissible exercise of discretion into the territory of unreasonableness in the legal sense of that term.”

The Court added:

“…we find that the effect of the Chancellor’s decision was to discriminate directly against the Appellant on the basis of her race…an assumption seems to have been made that viewers of the inscription, realising that it was in Irish, would conclude that it was a political slogan, which we have found not to be based upon evidence or any other rational footing.”

The judgment also directs all Diocesan Chancellors to review their Churchyard Regulations to ensure that they are not discriminatory, particularly in relation to non-English inscriptions.

Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC and Mary-Rachel McCabe acted for the Keane family on appeal, instructed by Caroline Brogan of Irwin Mitchell

Tim Moloney QC and Blinne Ní Ghrálaigh, instructed by Raj Chada of Hodge Jones and Allen acted for the intervener, Conradh na Gaeilge i Londain. The intervener filed detailed evidence with the Court of Arches concerning the history of the Irish language in the Church of England and the importance of the language to the Irish community in Britain, which the Court expressly found “of great assistance in apprehending and determining the issues in this appeal.”

The Judgment of the Court of Arches is available here. A press release on behalf of the Keane family, issued by Irwin Mitchell, is available here.