Sacred and Secular Martyrdom in Britain and Ireland since 1914
- ISBN: 9781350019270
- Published By: Bloomsbury Academic
- Published: November 2019
During the opening years of the 21st century, martyrdom was imprinted on the global consciousness by the events of 9/11. Other acts of terror were subsequently committed in Afghanistan and Iraq and on 7/7 in London, and so over time the phrase “giving one’s life for a cause” became firmly related to murder, life-changing injury, and mayhem. Thus, writing on martyrdom tends to be subjective and somewhat sensationalist. Sacred and Secular Martyrdom in Britain and Ireland since 1914 provides a refreshing antidote to such narratives. John Wolffe’s attention to detail, rigorous research, eloquent argument, and calm and objective tone demonstrate how the concept of martyrdom has evolved since the outbreak of the First World War (1914-1918).
Wolffe has several objectives in writing this monograph, the first being to promote more rigorous approaches to understanding the role of religion in the public sphere: demonstrating “the importance of academically informed religious literacy for shaping public policy and for challenging distorted and problematic interpretations of religious traditions themselves” is a key aim of this work (vii). Second, he adeptly demonstrates the changing comprehensions of martyrdom and the role of religion in public life over the past century. Wolffe’s historical methodology encompasses a number of sources, including war monuments and graves, newspapers, novels, personal papers and sermons. In his reading of these sources, he does not seek to impose a single definition of martyrdom, but rather to identify and trace the ways in which the concept has been employed both explicitly and implicitly in the more diffuse language of sacrifice (2). The result is a book which illuminates varous areas, such as ecumenical and church-state relationships; martyrdom and terrorism; and commemoration. He argues that “martyrdom brings into sharp focus the complex and contested interface between the sacred and the secular” (vii). As a consequence, besides being a history of martyrdom, this book also acts as a case study of both secularization and the development of nationalisms in Ireland and the United Kingdom.
Two key arguments stand out in this monograph: The first concerns the interplay between the sacred and the secular and the use of martyrdom as a means of validating national identity, and the second the use of John 15:13, which is perhaps the most misused sentence in the New Testament.
Fundamentally, this monograph is about the interplay between sacred and secular understandings of martyrdom—how they have come together to justify the massive loss of life during the First World War; how they have been deployed by Irish nationalists and republicans, and British loyalists and unionists; and how ultimately sacred and secular understandings of martyrdom have moved away from each other as secularization has occurred in Ireland and the United Kingdom. Those who died in what are essentially political conflicts, such as the World War I and the 1981 Republican Hunger Strikes, were implicitly presented by those in power as Christ-like figures who were imitating His death on the cross (see, e.g., 18-19 and 72). It is generally accepted in the historical literature that this appealed to popular piety and was accepted by most “ordinary” people. Wolffe’s excellent historical research and analysis disabuses us of this notion and shows instead that people understood that such “sacrifices” were located within the context of secular nationalism (see, e.g., 75). Wolffe goes on to demonstrate the separation of secular and sacred ideas of martyrdom over the course of the 20th century using Diana, Princess of Wales’ funeral as a means of illustration. In his discussion of the development of the National Memorial Arboretum, he establishes how both sacred and secular authorities have come to terms with secularization, and how death is now memorialized in a country that no longer sees its war dead as martyrs.
John 15:13—“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”—is frequently found on war memorials around the globe, as well as in publications sanctifying republicans in Ireland and commemorating the deaths of soldiers at the Battle of the Somme (1916). Its use is a recurring theme in Wolffe’s book, although in keeping with the objective tone of this monograph, he does not comment on its use beyond its framing in the sources. Wolffe’s message is that this New Testament text is used as a means of defining and justifying martyrdom—linking the sacred to the secular by suggesting that the dead of the Somme were dying for an ideal that equated the nation with God. This is a familiar trope and Wolffe’s book helpfully provides a series of examples that allow us to think laterally about how this biblical text interacts with the relationship between God and nationalism. Understandably, he does not discuss the inherent exegetical issues with such an approach.
In conclusion, this is a rich and immensely enjoyable book, one that will widely appeal to audiences in the UK. Its accessible style means that it will be used by undergraduates and postgraduates alike, who will find much to inspire them in its pages. Wolffe set himself a difficult task in writing this monograph but one which he achieved in producing a significant and thought-provoking book.
Maria Power is a senior research fellow at Blackfriars Hall, University of Oxford.Maria PowerDate Of Review:December 26, 2022