Interviewer: Siobhán McHugh for National Library of Australia
Bishop David Cremin has been involved in so many aspects of the Catholic and Irish/Australian scene for so long that it is hard to single out an occasion that represents all of his deep engagement with life around him. One that stands out was his celebration in 2005 of the Mass and giving of the eulogy at the funeral of Father Ted Kennedy, the Redfern priest who was a champion of Aboriginal rights. While the great and good came to honour Father Ted, Cardinal Edward Clancy of Sydney, and one who had found him a thorn in his side, was less impressed by the lengthy proceedings where many wished to say a public word about Father Kennedy or even sing a song. Cremin remembers Clancy’s annoyance and recalled how the Redfern priest had opposed the Cardinal spending money on the erection of spires on St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney:
… it was good of Clancy … to come along … at the end I could see that [he] was chafing at the bit as yet another person would come up and get a chord on a guitar and sing a song and I said to him at one stage, I said Ted ‘have you got a song in you’? and he said ‘if there’s another song you’ll have to sing it’ … he was not amused at that stage.
David Cremin was born in Castlemahon, west Limerick, into a farming family strong in their Catholic faith. Apart from David, who trained at All Hallows, Dublin, for the priesthood, he had a sister a Mercy nun and a brother who joined the Christian Brothers. Ordained at an emotional service at All Hallows in 1955, David then sailed for Sydney where he ministered at St Benedict’s in Broadway. It was there he came in contact with the work of the Irish National Association through the organisation’s regular dances. Other parishes followed – Bondi Junction, rural Camden, St Canice’s at Elizabeth Bay – followed by an appointment as the administrator at St Mary’s Cathedral and, in 1974, his consecration as bishop, a role he resisted strongly:
I reluctantly got roped in, didn’t like it, didn’t want it, … umpteen reasons, didn’t regard myself as intellectually right for that, I had no post-graduate academic qualifications, I never regarded myself as much of an administrator and as a bishop you’d be doing an awful lot of that and many other personal reasons … not my thing.
Others disagreed and as a bishop David Cremin’s life has been devoted successfully to meeting many different challenges facing the church. One of these was the need to cater pastorally for a great variety of new Australian ‘immigrant’ Catholics from many counties and speaking different languages. David became Director of Catholic Immigration services, a role for which as a ‘new Australian’ himself he felt well suited.
From the point of view of Sydney’s Irish born community what stands out has been David Cremin’s unswerving support in the promotion of Australia’s Irish cultural heritage. This has taken many forms. For years he led the celebration of the Mass during the ceremony held by the INA on Easter Sunday at the 1798 Memorial in Waverly Cemetery, Sydney. For him this has always been an ecumenical service as Irish nationalists of all creeds and beliefs are represented on the memorial, but what deeply affected him always was the division of his homeland – ‘a great sadness that there was a border running through the green fields of Ireland’. Cremin became nervous, however, when one Easter event was attended by a number of men in black berets and sunglasses, supporters of the Irish Republican Army, and felt that this was not the way forward to peace in Ireland.
As time went on, and the situation in Northern Ireland became critical around the time of the 1981 ‘hunger strikes’ in the Maze Prison near Belfast, David Cremin had the courage to hold a Mass in St Mary’s Cathedral for the first of the strikers to die – Bobby Sands.
Cremin denied that Sands, as many critics said, had committed suicide and pointed to other Irish patriots who had laid down their lives for Ireland in a similar manner. Today, on his own admission, he is no longer looking for Irish reunification in his lifetime and, in thinking of the needs of reconciliation, is more likely to focus on models like Martin Luther King and texts such as ‘love your enemies’.
But what perhaps has most endeared Sydney’s Irish community to David Cremin has been his delight in supporting Irish culture and in bringing it to wider audiences. He recalls the many Masses he attended said in Irish and one occasion in particular when, at the request of an Irish girl after Mass, he spoke on the phone to Ireland to the girl’s mother assuring her that her daughter had indeed been to Mass that day. He often celebrated the St Patrick’s Day Mass in St Mary’s Cathedral, afterwards joining the crowd for all the various festivities that accompanied that special day for the Irish. Of central significance in keeping a sense of distinctive Irish culture alive in modern times is the Irish language, and David Cremin has always been an active participant in Irish language classes. And his love of Ireland is nowhere more visible the in the harp he made himself. It all came about when he damaged his hands severely and was told that his recovery depended on strengthening them with exercise. The result was a fine Irish harp that has, to this day, stood almost silent in his home. However, when the ‘last trumpet’ sounds David may just be ready to meet his maker with his harp beside him:
I can’t play it, I never did learn to play it but one day before I die, before I play harps upstairs, I might learn a few arpeggios.