Tone of a statement is as important as the content
Recent history research found me mulling over the life of Walter Blake
Kirwan, Church of Ireland Dean of Killala, 1800-1805. Kirwan was a
grandnephew of Anthony Blake, Catholic Archbishop of Armagh. Blake
encouraged his grandnephew to study for the Catholic priesthood which he did
in Louvain, Belgium where he was ordained in 1777. He later served as
professor in that university before becoming disillusioned with the Catholic
Church and converting to Anglicanism. He wasn¹t entirely comfortable there
either the historian Desmond McCabe suggests he was ‘lightly burdened by
dogmatic belief’ but he found his niche in preaching ‘charity sermons’ in
Indeed Kirwan became the foremost preacher of his day. When he preached so
many gathered to hear him that the police had to be brought in to control
the crowds and it’s estimated that in a few years he had achieved a figure
of £6,800 a huge sum in those days for a number of good causes.
After his death, some of his sermons were published but they are as dull and
banal as ditchwater, indicating that somewhere between the page and the
spoken word Kirwan, through his personality or approach was able to touch a
nerve in people. It’s hard to describe what that quality was but I suspect
it had a lot to do with inclination and tone, a convergence where people
felt respected but challenged.
When that convergence happens, we know that the tone was just right. And we
know too when the tone is wrong. Take that recent hilarious spat on RTE’s
Prime Time between Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter, and the independent
TD, Mick Wallace. There was Shatter (dapper, articulate, intelligent,
incisive, controlled, in charge) and Wallace, the mirror opposite (rambling,
scattered, inarticulate, all over the shop). Shatter was the picture of
elegance (expensive suit, ironed shirt, sharp tie and incredible hair for a
man in his sixties). Wallace was the mirror opposite (a gaudy pink shirt, a
pair of well-worn jeans and hair that seemed unbrushed and unloved). All
they seemed to have in common was their hair, one never going to the barber,
the other there every day. Shatter had the authoritative aura of a man whose
Mercedes was parked outside the door; Wallace that of a man who had left his
shovel inside the door.
Shatter presented his arguments lucidly and with conviction. He made sense
and Wallace didn¹t but I found myself wanting to believe Wallace. Why, I
wondered, was I rooting for Wallace (who was wrong) and hoping Shatter (who
was right) would come a cropper?
The reason, of course, was the different tone of the two participants.
Shatter was haughty, condescending, contemptuous, patronising and arrogant,
talking down to Wallace (and, as a viewer, to me). Wallace was dishevelled,
confused, chaotic, like a man drowning and desperately seeking an
over-hanging branch on which to haul himself to safety.
What matters sometimes is not how convincing or well marshalled the
arguments are or how well or badly they are presented but the tone,
respectful or dismissive, in which they are delivered. What matters too is
that the person speaking communicates a respect for the person addressed and
an empathy with the human predicament that underpins the subject. In short,
tone is everything.
Two interventions in the abortion debate illustrate my point. Archbishop
Eamonn Martin, recently appointed coadjutor-archbishop of Armagh and
effectively leader in waiting of the Irish Catholic Church, at a novena in
Dundalk, commented on the implications for Ireland and for Irish Catholics
of the proposed legislation on abortion and developed them in comments
reported in last Sunday’s Sunday Times, where he said that politicians who
‘knowingly introduce legislation aiding and abetting abortion’ should not
approach a priest for Communion and that legislators who supported abortion
were ‘excommunicating themselves’.
Leaving aside the issues involved, what struck me about Martin’s
intervention was the tone and tenor of it, the magisterial nature of the
exercise, the pronouncement from on high, the implicit demand for
acceptance. It made all the wrong noises. No acknowledgement of the human
hinterland or the complexity of decision-making in acute medical
circumstances. No sense that those with a different view might be convinced
if a different strategy, respectful of other sincerely-held opinions, was to
On the other hand, the other Archbishop Martin Diarmuid of Dublin took a
quite different approach in a letter to the Irish Times. He opened with the
comment: ‘I write as a citizen of Ireland who happens also to be the Roman
Catholic Archbishop of Dublin’. And he went on to talk about his ‘concerns’
and ‘worries’ about ‘the protection of perfectly healthy unborn children at
a stage of their development where there is the clear presumption that they
are viable outside the womb¹.
He went on to draw a distinction between the judgement in the ‘X’ case and
the constitution, suggesting that an interpretation regarding the former
should not ‘supersede or relativise the clear constitutional right to equal
protection for unborn life’.
It was a markedly different approach from his name-sake in Armagh. It was
clear and defined and precise and it was seeking a respectful reaction to
his concerns and worries. There was no threat, no pandering to a
media-agenda about excommunicating politicians or refusing anyone Communion.
It was an adult addressing adults, a citizen addressing other citizens, an
archbishop addressing his people. The tone was exactly right.
And it needs to be right. There are many important things that need to be
said in the present ‘abortion’ debate, not least worries about freedom of
conscience for medical personnel and about the gestational period, etc and
the Church needs to get them said. But there are ways of saying them that
give due account to the faith and intelligence of the audience, Catholic and