13 May 1997

An Irishman’s Diary:

Patrick Comerford

TAGHMON in south Co Wexford is celebrating a handful of anniversaries. Seven miles outside Wexford town, Taghmon was once a corporate borough and returned two MPs until the Act of Union.

According to the local historian Tom Williams, chairman of the Taghmon Historical Society and editor of the society’s Journal, Taghmon was founded 1,400 years ago in the year 597 by Saint Fintan or Munn, who gave the village its name – Teach Munn or Munn’s House.

This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Taghmon’s best known curate, the Rev Henry Francis Lyte, author of the hymn ‘Abide with Me.’ And to add to the celebrations, St Munn’s Church – rebuilt in 1818 two years after Lyte left the parish – was reopened and rededicated two months ago after an extensive rebuilding and renovation programme following the disastrous collapse of the roof and ceiling last autumn.

Special Edition

The church stands on the site of the cell of Saint Munn, who died in 636. By the year 960 the monastery was derelict, but the remains of an old Celtic cross close to the church is said to mark the saint’s grave.

To mark the anniversaries, Archbishop Walton Empey launched a special edition of Tom Williams’ journal last month. The journal also acknowledges the contribution of the parish to the 1798 Rising.

Among the British troops sent to Ireland in 1798 was Captain Thomas Lyte, who settled first at Dunmore, Co Galway, and later at Ballyshannon, Co Donegal, with Anna Marie Oliver, who claimed to be his wife, and their three sons. However, at the age of nine, the young Henry Francis Lyte was abandoned when his father married Eliza Naghten in Roscommon, ran away from both Anna Marie and his debtors, and settled in Jersey, where he had eight more children. Anna Marie moved back to England, leaving the three boys to fend for themselves, and she soon became destitute.

Henry was alone and without any means of support, but the Rev Robert Burrowes, headmaster of Portora Royal School, Enniskillen, took a special interest in him. Burrowes, who had resigned as Archdeacon of Ferns and Rector of Adamstown, Co Wexford, at the height of the 1798 Rising, paid for Lyte’s schooling at Portora and encouraged him to go on to Trinity College, Dublin.

Despite poverty, difficulties and hardships, Lyte did well at Trinity, won three poetry prizes, was elected a scholar, and changed his mind about studying medicine, turning his attention to the ministry.

Against all the rules, he was ordained a deacon and priest in 1814 and 1815 within months of each other at the age of 21. Through Burrowes’ contacts in Co Wexford, Lyte was appointed curate of Taghmon, where the new Rector was the Rev Simon Little. Little had succeeded Canon Robert Hawkshaw, whose family gave their name to Hawkshaw's Bridge nearby, and who was Rector of Taghmon during 1798; later his son Samuel married Ellen King, whose father owned Scullabogue Barn, scene of one of the worst atrocities during the Rising.

A Dreary Curacy

Lyte described his 18 months in Taghmon as a “dreary curacy” and too remote from town life, and moaned the loss of “the comfort, the society and the carelessness” he had explained of the constant intrusions, the long dinner parties (!), and the time he had to give to neighbours and parishioners.

But the spiritual outlook and religious values of the unhappy curate were changed as he watched the death of a neighbouring rector, the Rev Abraham Swanne, and took over his duties in the parish of Killurin. Swanne died on February 8th, 1816, at the age of 44. His faith in the face of death, and the effect of his death on his three tiny children, transformed Lyte and brought him close to a mental and physical breakdown.

One of his last acts was to chair the Easter Vestry in Killurin in 1816. Soon after he left for the Continent to convalesce in France and Italy. In Jersey, he met his father once again, and was godfather to his own half brother, Thomas Henry Lyte.

Henry Francis Lyte never returned to Taghmon; instead he settled in the south of England, where he met and married Anne Maxwell, daughter of a Co Monaghan clergyman and a cousin of the Maxwell Barry family who gave their name to Newtownbarry, now Bunclody, in Co Wexford. With this marriage, Lyte received a welcome legacy that allowed him to pay his debts to Burrowes and to live in comfort for the rest of his days.

His last parish was Brixham, where he was vicar for 23 years. There his reputation grew as a hymn writer, and his famous works included: ‘Praise My Soul the King of Heaven’; ‘God of Mercy, God of Grace’; and ‘Pleasant are Thy Courts Above’.

Greatest Memorial

Lyte’s health never recovered fully after his experiences in Taghmon and Killurin, and he spent long winters in Naples, the Tyrol and Switzerland, away from his family and his parish. During his last serious illness, in September 1847, he wrote his last and greatest hymn, ‘Abide with Me!’, inspired by the view of the ebbing and flowing tides from his vicarage and his own failing health. By now he was afflicted with TB; he sent the manuscript to his wife from Avignon, and proceeded to Nice, where he died on November 20th, 1847.

Today, Lyte is commemorated by plaques in St Munn's Church, Taghmon, Westminster Abbey, at Portora, in Brixham, and at his birthplace near Kelso in Scotland. But his greatest memorial is ‘Abide with Me!’, one of the most popular hymns ever written. The words, which have brought comfort to many with their message of permanence amidst decay, are sung at funerals and Remembrance Day services around the world and are a regular feature at Wembley cup finals.

The Rev Derek Milton, Lyte’s successor as vicar of All Saints’, Brixham, hopes this year’s anniversary of ‘Abide with Me!’ and Lyte’s death will help save the church where Lyte was vicar from 1824 to 1847.

All Saints’ contains many memories of the poet priest, including the pulpit he preached from, but has fallen on hard times. Mr Milton says the church needs around £100,000 but the parish has an annual income of barely £20,000 and All Saints’ is having to run faster and faster just to stand still.

“The Gospel can’t be financed on fresh air and faith alone. All we are doing is paying our running costs,” he says amid the encircling gloom of late 20th century finances.

On the other hand, the rescue and reopening of St Munn’s Church in Taghmon brings particular joy to Canon Norman Ruddock, who is not only Rector of Wexford but can claim to be Lyte’s successor as his parish now includes both Taghmon and Killurin.

This feature was published as ‘An Irishman’s Diary’ in ‘The Irish Times’ on 13 May 1997.

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