Monday, 29 September 2008

Standing with Michael and the angels before the throne of God

A fresco showing angels and the heavenly hosts in Vatopedi Monastery on Mount Athos (Photograph © Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Genesis 28: 10-17; Psalm 103: 19-22; Revelation 12: 7-12; John 1: 47-51

When I worked as Foreign Desk Editor of The Irish Times, a good friend and close colleague was Michael Jansen. We shared many of her hopes and fears, values and visions while she worked in Israel and the West Bank. Later, when she moved to Cyprus and shortly before my ordination, she invited me to spend Orthodox Easter in her village on the outskirts of Nicosia.

Friends and readers alike were surprised to find Michael is a woman. Most of us presume Michael is a man’s name. Yet the name Michael (Hebrew: מִיכָאֵל‎, Mîkhā'ēl; Greek: Μιχαήλ, Mikhaíl; Arabic: ميخائيل‎, Mikhā'īl) is not gender specific. The Talmudic tradition says Michael means “who is like El (God)?” It is a popular mistake to translate the name as “One who is like God.” It is, however, meant as a question: “Who is like the Lord God?”

The name was said to have been the war-cry of the angels in the battle fought in heaven against Satan and his followers. With a name like that, is it any wonder that my friend Michael has lived up to her father’s expectations, taking a strong stand against the twin evils of oppressive violence and political corruption.

The Archangel Michael, whom we commemorate today, is one of the principal angels in the Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions, and has a formidable place in culture in this part of the world. In John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, Michael commands the army of angels loyal to God against the rebel forces of Satan. One of the best known sculptures by Sir Jacob Epstein is Saint Michael’s Victory over the Devil, at Coventry Cathedral. And Michael features on albums by Prefab Sprout, in numerous episodes of Xena: Warrior Princess, and even has a cameo role at the beginning of the movie Gangs of New York (2002).

Yet Michael is mentioned by name in the Bible only in the Book of Daniel, the Epistle of Jude and in the Book of Revelation.

After a period of fasting by Daniel, Michael appears as “one of the chief princes” (Daniel 10: 13). Michael contends for Israel and is the “great prince, the protector of your (Daniel’s) people” (Daniel 10: 21, 12: 1).

In the Epistle of Jude (verse 9), Michael contends with the Devil over the body of Moses, a story also found in the Midrash. In our reading from the Book of Revelation this morning (Revelation 12: 7-12), we hear of the war that “broke out in heaven” between Michael and his angels and the dragon.

The later Christian traditions about Michael drew on Midrashic traditions and accounts in the Hebrew Apocrypha, especially the Book of Enoch, where he is the “viceroy of heaven,” “the prince of Israel,” and the angel of forbearance and mercy, who teaches clemency and justice, who presides over human virtue.

Rabbinic lore and the Midrash made Michael the special patron of Adam, the rescuer of Abraham, Lot and Jacob, the teacher of Moses, and the advocate of Israel; Michael tried to prevent Israel from being led into captivity, to save the Temple from destruction, and to protect Esther.

In the early Church, Michael was associated with the care of the sick, an angelic healer and heavenly physician associated with medicinal springs, streams and rivers. The Orthodox Church gave him the title Archistrategos, or “Supreme Commander of the Heavenly Hosts.” Saint Basil the Great and other Greek fathers placed Michael over all the angels and so called him “archangel.”

In the Middle Ages, Michael became the patron saint of warriors, and later became the patron saint of police officers, soldiers, paratroopers, mariners, paramedics, grocers, the Ukraine, the German people, of many cities, including Brussels, Coventry and Kiev, and of Marks and Spencer.

There are legends associating Michael with Castel di S. Angelo in Rome, Mont-Saint-Michel in France and mountain chapels all over Germany, and Skellig Michael off the Kerry coast, which is a World Heritage Site. Michael was also popular in the early Irish monastic tradition, and there is still a Prebendary of Saint Michael’s in the Chapter of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

More practically, Michaelmas Day became one of the regular “quarter days” in England and in Ireland. It was one of the days set aside for settling rents and accounts. And on this day too in England, and Ireland, as you know today, terms began in universities.

In the modern world, where angels and archangels are often the stuff of fantasy, science fiction and new-age babble, it is worth reminding ourselves about some Biblical and traditional values associated with Michael and the Angels. Angels are nothing more than – but nothing less than – the messengers of God, the bringers of good news.

Michael’s virtues – standing up for God’s people and their rights, taking a clear stand against manifest evil, firmly opposing oppressive violence and political corruption, while always valuing forbearance and mercy, clemency and justice – are virtues we should always keep before us in our ministry and mission.

In the Preface to our Eucharist this morning we declare: “Therefore with Angels and Archangels and with all the companyof heaven, we laud and magnify thy glorious Name; evermore praising thee ...” We will join them in that praise again when we join together in the Gloria.

And we should always be prepared, like Michael and the angels to ask and to answer to the question: “Who is like the Lord God?”

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This reflection was shared at the Michaelmas Eucharist in the institute chapel on Saint Michael’s Day, 29 September 2008.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

The Rake of Rathfarnham: Rathfarnham Castle and Philip Wharton

Rathfarnham Castle: the north side. The Irish Hellenic Society opened its new season with a tour of the castle (Photograph © Patrick Comerford, 2008)

Patrick Comerford

1, Introduction

The Irish Hellenic Society began its new season this afternoon (Saturday 27 September) with a guided tour of Rathfarnham Castle. It was a good social afternoon, packed with local history. Normally, the society holds its events in the United Arts Club in Upper Fitzwilliam, so this was an interesting variation. And I suppose the Greek connection – however tenuous – was provided by the fact that James “Athenian” Stewart was involved in the restoration of Rathfarnham Castle in the 18th century, incorporating many classical and Hellenic motifs in the reordered interior.

Rathfarnham Castle was built in the late 16th century by Archbishop Adam Loftus (1533-1605), whose career included being Archbishop of Armagh, Archbishop of Dublin, Dean of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, first Provost of Trinity College Dublin, and Lord Chancellor of Ireland, the last post making him effectively the Prime Minister or Taoiseach of his day. In south Dublin, he is remembered as the builder of both Rathfarnham Castle and the less-appreciated Knocklyon Castle.

Rathfarnham was described as a “waste village” when Loftus first bought it. His castle in Rathfarnham in 1583 replaced an earlier Anglo-Norman castle and was built on lands which were confiscated from the Eustace family of Baltinglass, Co Wicklow, because of their involvement in the Second Desmond Rebellion.

Gerald or Garret Comerford of Castleinch, Co Kilkenny, stayed at Rathfarnham Castle with Archbishop Adam Loftus in May 1591. Within four months, the lawyer had been appointed Attorney-General of Connacht and Thomond, with the promise of a grant of lands in Munster. [See Comerford 7: The Comerfords of Castleinch and Waterford]

Rathfarnham Castle defended the Pale from the neighbouring Irish clans and in 1600 it withstood an attack by the Wicklow clans during the Nine Years’ War.

Archbishop Adam Loftus, who built Rathfarnham Castle in 1583, and hosted Gerald Comerford as his guest in May 1591

By the time of his death in 1605, Loftus was also the owner, landlord and controller of much of the lands and estates in the Rathfarnham and Knocklyon area, including: Scholarstown, Oldcourt, Tymon, Woodtown, Killakee, Ballycragh, Ballycullen and Mount Pelier Hill or the Hell Fire Mountain. His descendants soon became one of the most prominent, manipulative and long-tailed families among the landed aristocracy in Irish politics.

Loftus left the castle to his son, Dudley Loftus, and it then passed to his son Adam Loftus in 1616. During Adam’s ownership, the castle came under siege in the 1641 rebellion. Rathfarnham Castle held out against the Confederate army when the surrounding countryside was overrun. Adam Loftus opposed the treaty of cessation in order the stop the fighting between the Irish Confederates and the Royalists, and as a consequence was imprisoned in Dublin Castle.

During the subsequent Irish Confederate Wars (1641-1653), Rathfarnham Castle changed hands several times. From 1641 to 1647, it was garrisoned by Royalist troops. In 1647, Ormonde, the Royalist commander in Ireland, surrendered Dublin to the Parliament and Roundhead troops were stationed at the castle until 1649. A few days before the Battle of Rathmines, the castle was stormed and taken without a fight by the Royalists. However, the Roundheads reoccupied it after their victory at the Battle of Rathmines. It is said locally that Oliver Cromwell held council there before going south to besiege Wexford.

Adam Loftus recovered his castle and lands under Cromwell. He then sided with the Parliamentarians, but was killed at the Siege of Limerick in 1651.

After the Civil War, the Loftus family retained ownership of Rathfarnham Castle, and in 1659, Dr Dudley Loftus, great-grandson of Archbishop Loftus, took over the castle. During his lifetime, Dudley held the posts of Commissioner of Revenue, Judge Admiralty, Master in Chancery, MP for Kildare and Wicklow and MP for Bannow and Fethard, Co Wexford. He is buried in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin.

2, A family connection

The story of Archbishop Loftus and his descendants is well-known. But I have long been fascinated by the unusual tale of one of his descendants, Philip Wharton, whose titles included that of “second Earl of Rathfarnham,” and how, through this rake’s dissipate life, Rathfarnham Castle passed out of the hands of the descendants of Archbishop Loftus for a number of generations.

Philip Wharton (1698-1731), Duke of Wharton and Earl of Rathfarnham. But who was Maria Theresa Comerford?

I became interested in this Rake of Rathfarnham as I was thumbing through some notebooks and miscellaneous scraps of information in my relentless pursuit of family history. During that search, I came across a reference to the widowed Duchess of Wharton, who died in 1777. In her will, Maria Theresa Wharton named four Comerford siblings – the brothers Francis, Joseph and John Comerford and their sister Frances Magdalen Comerford – as “the four children of my deceased brother Comerford.”

After Maria Theresa’s death, the eldest of these three brothers, Francis Comerford, describing himself as her nephew, proved her will. In addition, a writer in the leading social newspaper of the day, the Gentleman’s Magazine, stated that Maria Theresa’s father was Colonel John Comerford from Co Tipperary. It was an interesting and romantic link. Could a Comerford have married that notorious 18th century rake, Philip Wharton, who inherited an overwhelming number of estates, titles and peerages?

Philip Wharton had inherited Rathfarnham Castle, Knocklyon Castle and the other Loftus family estates in south Co Dublin through his mother. But he led such a dissolute life that he was eventually forced to sell those estates seven years later to Speaker Conolly for £62,000 in 1723. It was a curious family connection: three generations of my family have been living on housing estates built on the lands once owned by this Rake of Rathfarnham, including Rathfarnham Wood in Rathfarnham, Glenvara Park in Knocklyon and Carriglea Court in Firhouse.

Could a Comerford have married Wharton just three years after his burden of debts and reckless lifestyle had forced him to sell those same lands?

The possibility of such a tenuous yet romantic link between my family and these lands, stretching back 300 years, was given a further romantic twist by the story that the “Rake of Rathfarnham” had renounced his dissipate lifestyle and converted to Catholicism when he married Maria Theresa Comerford. I thought this was a story worth researching, but as I tried to check out Maria Theresa’s identity I found it was cloaked in mystery; and I also came across the shocking story of her husband, who had been baptised an Anglican but later was accused of taking part in Satanic rituals in the Hell Fire Club. Indeed, his debauched lifestyle led to his description by Pope in the Moral Essays as “Wharton, the scorn and wonder of our days.”

3, The family background

Philip Wharton (1698-1731), who was given the title of first Duke of Wharton in 1719, was born in 1698 with too many silver spoons in his mouth. An eloquent and commanding orator, he became so licentious and dissolute that he wasted his patrimony in drunkenness and self-indulgence. He was outlawed for treason, and died in a wretched condition in a Cistercian monastery in Catalonia in Spain at the age of 32. His life, his downfall, and the fate of his widow make a most interesting tale.

From his father, Philip inherited a string of titles and peerages that made him not only the 2nd Earl of Rathfarnham, but also the 2nd Marquess of Catherlough (i.e. Carlow) and the 2nd Baron Trim in the Irish peerage, and the 2nd Marquess of Wharton, the 2nd Marquess of Malmesbury, the 2nd Earl of Wharton, the 2nd Viscount Winchendon, and the 6th Baron Wharton in the English peerage. Philip’s father, Thomas Wharton (1648-1715), the 1st Marquess of Wharton, was one of the chief Whig politicians in the aftermath of the Williamite Revolution of 1688. He is credited with composing the ballad Lilli Burlero in 1688, with its reference to a “Protestant wind.” He later boasted that as the writer of the ballad he “sang James II out of three kingdoms.”

During the reign of Queen Anne, he was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and was known as the truest Whig of his time. But as a man of great wit and versatile cleverness, he was cynically ostentatious in his immorality, with a reputation as the greatest rake of his day. He incurred the wrath of Dean Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), who attacked him as Verres in the Examiner (No. 14), and drew a separate “character” of him, which is one of Swift’s masterpieces. Yet, the Whig politician and essayist Joseph Addison (1672-1719), who had once been his secretary, dedicated the fifth volume of the Spectator to him.

Born in Caen in Normandy in 1648, Tom Wharton earned his reputation as “Honest Tom Wharton” as a young, earnest Puritan streak. Later, though, he became a successful racing enthusiast, especially at Newmarket. In 1673, he married his first wife, Anne Lee (1632-1685), the author of a number of poems, including an Elegy on Lord Rochester.

Anne died childless in 1685, and in July 1692 Tom married his second wife, the Hon Lucy Loftus, heiress to the vast Rathfarnham estates, including Knocklyon, Scholarstown, Woodtown, Ballyroan, Ballycragh, and other tracts of land in Whitechurch, Cruagh, Firhouse, Oldcourt, Tymon and Tallaght. Lucy was a direct descendant of Archbishop Adam Loftus, who had acquired the Manor of Rathfarnham, including all those lands, after their confiscation from Lord Buttevant in 1583.

Lucy’s father, Adam Loftus (1625-1691) of Rathfarnham Castle, held the titles of Baron of Rathfarnham and Viscount Lisburne, and died fighting on the Williamite side at the Siege of Limerick in 1691. The cannonball that blew his head off is now in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. Lucy Loftus was his only daughter and heiress, and she brought a vast fortune and estate with her on her marriage just a year after her father’s death, augmenting Tom Wharton’s income by some £5,000 a year.

William III thought Tom Wharton “too popular, or too much a Republican to be intrusted with the administration of state affairs.” Nevertheless, from 1708 to 1710, Tom was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Addison became his secretary, and Rathfarnham Castle became a useful and accessible residence and estate close to Dublin Castle. As Lord-Lieutenant, Tom Wharton was instrumental in settling poor Palatinate families from Germany in Ireland.

In 1709, Tom earned the wrath of Swift, when he refused him a chaplaincy. Swift, who is said to have had a number of his pamphlets printed at Rathfarnham, later declared Tom “the most universal villain I have ever known ... an ill dissembler and an ill liar.” He described Wharton as “an atheist grafted upon a dissenter,” and said he “is without a sense of shame or Glory, as some men are without the Sense of Smelling; and therefore a good Name to him is no more than a precious Ointment wou'd be to those.”

That year, “Honest” Tom was paid £3,000 for the office of Revenue Commissioner by Thomas Conolly (1662-1729), MP for Derry. Conolly was removed from office when Tom left office, but he returned to benefit from the misfortunes of the Whartons, acquiring their estates in Rathfarnham and Knocklyon within the next decade and a half.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who later had an affair with Philip Wharton, described “Honest Tom” as “the most profligate, impious and shameless of men,” while his wife, Lucy Loftus, was “equally unfeeling and unprincipled; flattering and fawning, canting, affecting prudery and even sanctity, yet in reality as abandoned and unscrupulous as her husband himself.”

4, The birth of a rake

Tom and Lucy Wharton had three children: two daughters, Jane and Lucy; and a son Philip, who was born around 21 December 1698, was baptised on 5 January 1699, and who would inherit his father’s titles and his mother’s estates. Philip’s sponsors at his baptism were King William III, Princess Anne of Denmark (later Queen Anne), and the Duke of Shrewsbury, and from the age of seven he was known as Viscount Winchendon, one of his father’s many titles.

The former Lucy Loftus from Rathfarnham Castle died on 5 February 1716; her husband died just two months later, on 12 April 1716. They left their 17-year-old and recently-married son Philip to succeed to his father’s panoply of titles and to his mother’s vast estates. Young Philip also inherited his parents’ great influence and wealth, with an estimated income of £14,000 a year that included his mother’s jointure of £6,000. But he would quickly dissipate this heritage within less than a decade.

Early in the previous year, Philip had already married Martha Holmes, the young daughter of an Irish general. But poor Martha was quickly abandoned by her wanderlust husband and was left at home. By the end of August 1716, a precocious Philip, still only a 17-year-old, was in Paris ready to offer “all imaginable submission” to the titular James III, the exiled Stuart Pretender. At Avignon in early October, the Pretender gave Philip the titles of Duke of Northumberland, Marquess of Woburn, Earl of Malmesbury and Viscount Winchendon, although he knew these Jacobite titles were mere baubles that could never be used in England or Ireland. Instead, when Philip returned from France, his flamboyance amused Dublin’s elite and he was introduced to the Irish House of Lords in Dublin by two of the leading peers of the day, James FitzGerald, 20th Earl of Kildare (father of the 1st Duke of Leinster and grandfather of Lord Edward FitzGerald) and Henry Montgomery, 3rd Earl of Mount Alexander.

And so, though still only an 18-year-old, Philip Wharton took his seat on 27 August 1717 as the 2nd Marquess of Catherlough (Carlow), 2nd Earl of Rathfarnham and 2nd Baron Trim. With Philip’s spectacular performances in the Irish Parliament, and despite his youth and known Jacobite sympathies, the Whig government found it expedient to promote him in the English House of Lords, making him the first and only Duke of Wharton on 28 January 1718, little more than a month after his 19th birthday. Thus the “Rake of Rathfarnham” became the youngest non-royal person ever advanced to the highest rank in the British peerage.

However, Philip’s wild and profligate frolics and his reckless playing at politics would quickly earn for him the satirical description by Alexander Pope (1688-1744) as “the scorn and wonder of our days” (Moral Essays, i. 179). In mid-1718, Philip briefly returned to poor Martha, the young wife he abandoned two years earlier. In March 1719, she gave birth to his only son, Thomas. But Thomas died before even reaching his first birthday, and once again Martha was abandoned.

Surprisingly, at times Philip could also show a generous and cultured aspect to his personality, and he unexpectedly endowed new buildings at All Souls’ College, Oxford.

Philip began political life as a Tory but he soon became a prominent Whig. In his private life, he was a Freemason and an atheist who sought to ridicule religion by publicly presiding over festive gatherings with allegedly “satanic” trappings. Around the same time as he was made a duke, he played a prominent role in the foundation of the first Hell Fire Club in London, and became its president around 1721. The club’s meetings were often held in a tavern near Saint James’s Square, although a nearby riding academy was sometimes used to allow the attendance of ladies of good reputation who could not be decently expected to be seen in a public house.

Of the female members of the club, one in particular stands out: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) was the daughter of the Duke of Kingston, who had been Philip’s guardian. She became Philip’s mistress, but was a notable figure in her own right: a strong-willed individualist, she had married Edward Wortley Montagu, the English ambassador in Constantinople. Lady Mary was not content with the polite life of a diplomat’s wife; instead, she travelled extensively on the Continent without an escort, was rumoured to have infiltrated the Sultan’s harem while her husband was ambassador to the Sublime Porte from 1716 to 1718, and at Adrianople she discovered there the secret of the smallpox vaccine, which she introduced to England.

5, The South Sea bubble

The eventual fate of Philip Wharton’s group was sealed by one of the great political and financial crisis of the early 18th century. In 1720, Parliament passed the South Sea Bill, permitting the South Sea Company to assume the entire national debt in order to pay it off out of its profits. This bizarre attempt at privatisation resulted in a short-term stock market boom, but was followed by the inevitable disastrous crash. Thousands lost their fortunes, including the young duke, who lost £120,000.

Wharton soon found himself at the head of a coalition of opposition Whigs and Tories, unified only by their outrage against Lord Sunderland’s government. Philip was most eloquent in his attack on the government, and Lord Stanhope was so excited by one of his tirades in parliament that in replying he burst a blood vessel and died.

The majority Whigs unleashed a brilliant counter-attack. To divert public attention from the South Sea Bubble and to undermine Wharton’s credibility, Sunderland and Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745) denounced the Hell Fire Club and its activities before Parliament. The charges of immorality alienated the Tories and moderate Whigs, and Wharton’s power was broken. The Hell Fire Club was suppressed by royal decree on 28 April 1721.

An unabashed Wharton went on to become Grand Master Mason of the London Grand Lodge of Freemasons in 1722. During his instalment, the orchestra, in a gesture that amounted to a dangerous political declaration, played a Jacobite anthem, Let the King Enjoy His Own Again. By now, however, Wharton had dissipated his large inheritance from the Loftus family. He was finally forced to sell his estates to pay off his debts, and returned to Ireland later that year.

In 1723, while he still only a 24-year-old, young Philip first tried to sell Rathfarnham Castle and Estates, including Knocklyon Castle, to Viscount Chetwynd for £85,000, but was forced to reduce his asking price when eventually he sold them for £62,000 to the Speaker of the Irish House of Commons, William Conolly. Conolly would never reside at either Rathfarnham Castle or Knocklyon Castle, instead letting both to a number of tenants.

5, Life in exile

Following the South Sea Bubble burst, despite sale of Rathfarnham Castle, Knocklyon Castle and his other Irish estates, Philip Wharton had lost the staggering sum of £120,000 (in an era when a middle class salary in London might be £200 a year). In response, he hired musicians and a hearse and held a public funeral for the South Sea Company.

Soon after, Philip went abroad, arriving in Vienna in June 1725. After migrating around Europe, in and out of the Stuart Pretender’s favour, he considered returning to Ireland or England. However, he sealed his loyalties when he once again publicly declared his support for the Old Pretender.

On 4 March 1726, James Stuart appointed him his ambassador to Madrid, and a day later nominated him a Knight of the Garter. Arriving in the Spanish capital, Philip declared that he was the Stuart monarch’s “Prime Minister,” and he was invested with the insignia and robes of the Order of the Garter in the Spanish capital with great ceremony on 10 April 1726 by the exiled Duke of Ormonde.

By now, Philip’s debts back in Ireland and England stood at over £70,000. He was soon living in Madrid as a house guest of the Duke of Lyria, who described him in his diary as having “neither faith, principles, honour, or religion – lied in every word, was cowardly, indiscreet, and a drunkard, possessed of all the vices. His only good quality being an admirable fawning toady.”

6, Marriage in Madrid

Throughout his dissolute life, and despite his very public affair with Lady Mary Montagu, Philip Wharton had remained married to the much-neglected Martha Holmes. She had been abandoned finally when he went into exile on the Continent and poor Martha died on 14 April 1726, within a week of Philip’s arrival in Madrid.

A day after he heard of poor Martha’s death, Philip, for the first time, saw the woman named in various accounts as Maria Theresa Comerford, Maria Theresa O’Neill and Maria Theresa O’Beirne; she too was newly arrived in Madrid, having moved there with her mother, Mrs Henrietta Comerford, following the death in Badajoz of Henrietta’s husband, Colonel John Comerford, also known as Don Juan de Comerford.

Philip fell passionately in love with this beautiful young woman, who had been appointed a lady-in-waiting to the Queen of Spain. He was immediately determined to marry her, and announced to all that he would turn Catholic in order to do so. However, Philip’s plans alarmed the Duke of Lyria and the Duke of Ormonde, who were protective of the young Maria Theresa. The two older dukes did what they could to dissuade and distract this new, younger duke, who by now was calling himself the Duke of Northumberland.

But Philip kept disappearing without explanation and eventually announced, “in the tone of a zealous and profound Catholic,” that he had been taking instructions in the Catholic faith – which was true, according to the spies sent to watch him by the Duke of Lyria. Philip was converted to Rome, and announced that he planned to marry Maria Theresa within a few days.

His conversion was the subject of a contemporary lampoon:

Pray isn’t it queer
That a wild Peer
So known for his Rakish Tricks
That Wharton shou’d
At last be Good,
And kiss a Crucifix?


With much difficulty, the Queen of Spain was persuaded to give her consent to the match. And so, despite the mixed despair and hilarity of his critics, Philip married Maria Theresa on 22, 23 or 26 July 1726 – whichever date is correct, it was just three months after the death of Philip’s sadly neglected and abandoned Martha.

But the marriage was already facing difficulties. Despite her consent, the Queen of Spain refused to attend the wedding, as did the Duke of Lyria, who then added injury to insult by evicting Philip from his house. Now homeless, Philip and his new duchess first went to Valencia, then travelled on into France, and on 12 October 1726 they were in Rome, where he “resigned” the title of Duke of Wharton. By now, Philip was deeply in debt and sorely impoverished, and to avoid further scandal he was ordered back to Spain by the Stuart court.

He returned to Spain penniless, enlisted in an Irish Foot Regiment, served as a volunteer at the Siege of Gibraltar in 1727, and was offered the rank of colonel in an Irish regiment, “Hibernia,” in the Spanish army in May that year. By September 1727, he was at Cadiz, “in bad health, and rarely sober.”

7, Treason and destitution

Despite having converted to Catholicism on his marriage to Maria Theresa, Philip founded a lodge of English Freemasons in Madrid in 1728. Now, driven either by a desire to return home or the hope of relieving his abject poverty, Philip applied for a pardon in June 1728 through the British ambassador in Paris, Horatio Walpole (1678-1757). Walpole was a brother of Robert Walpole, who had exposed Wharton’s Hell Fire Club in the Commons, and Philip’s plea was refused on 12 July 1728.

Worse was to follow: as a consequence of his conduct at the Siege of Gibraltar, Wharton was outlawed for treason by the English House of Lords on 3 April 1729, forfeiting all his titles and any remaining estates in England.

What happened, not just to the fate, but to the faith of the former president of the Hell Fire Club who had been converted to Catholicism by his beautiful second wife?

He was now dogged by fits of superstition in the intervals between blasphemy and libertinage. For three years, he was to be found rambling about Europe in a state of beggary, drunkenness and almost complete destitution, followed continually by a clamorous rabble of creditors. Hoping he might survive on his army pay, he returned to his Irish regiment in Spain. But his health broke down completely in the winter of 1730. He died a destitute in the Cistercian Monastery of Saint Bernard at Poblet, near Tarragona, at the age of 32 on 31 May 1731, and was buried in the church there the next day. At his death, all his titles, apart from that of Baron Wharton, became extinct.

Alexander Pope wrote of him in his first Moral Essay, probably noting Wharton’s death, in 1731:

Wharton, the scorn and wonder of our days,
Whose ruling passion was the lust of praise ...


Walpole later wrote:

With attachment to no party though with talents to govern any, this lively man changed the free air of Westminster for the gloom of the Escurial, the prospect of King George’s garter for the Pretender’s; and with indifference to all religion, the frolic lord, who had written the ballad on the Archbishop of Canterbury, died in the habit of a Capuchin.

8, No inheritance in Rathfarnham

In his will dated 1 April 1731 at the Court of Tarragona in Catatonia, Philip appointed his widow as his “universal heiress.” Maria Theresa may have expected to inherit a major fortune and estate back in Ireland, but she soon learned that her husband had been outlawed as a traitor.

The consequences dawned on her when, as the widowed Duchess of Wharton and Countess of Rathfarnham, she went to England with her grandmother to claim his estate and found that it had been forfeited to the Crown. To add insult to injury, All Souls’ College, Oxford, sued Philip’s executors for the balance of the money required for the new buildings he had endowed some years earlier.

Maria Theresa’s mother, Mrs Henrietta Comerford, died in Madrid in August 1747. Maria Theresa, who was still living in London in 1761, subsisted on a small Spanish pension, and died on 13 February 1777 at her house in Golden Square. She had been a widow for almost half a century, and there were no children to inherit her claims to her husband’s former wealth and titles in Ireland, including his estates and castles at Rathfarnham and Knocklyon. She was buried on 20 February 1777 in Old Saint Pancras churchyard, near Camden Town in London.

A writer in the Gentleman’s Magazine states that her father was Colonel John Comerford, from Loughkeen, Co Tipperary, although I would discover that this was a mistaken identity. In her will, the widowed duchess mentions her “niece Mrs Elinor O’Beirne, now residing in the court of Spain,” along with “Mrs O’Beirne now living with me” and her two daughters, then under the age of 21, “Mrs Mary Magdalene de Salle, my brother’s widow,” and “Francis, Joseph, John and Frances Magdalene, the four children of my deceased brother [Joseph] Comerford.” The first of these last four, Francis Comerford, as her nephew, proved the will.

9, Identifying ‘Maria Theresa Comerford’

So, who was this beautiful young widow, and was she a member of the Comerford family? She had used at least three different surnames during her lifetime, and I found it a difficult task to disentangle the mystery surrounding her identity. Charles O’Connor, the antiquary, wrote in 1762 that the Duchess of Wharton’s “father was cousin-german to mine.” But this provided few clues as I tried to uncover the identity of this mysterious Irish beauty who might have provided a 300-year-link between the Comerford family and the Rathfarnham, Knocklyon and Firhouse area.

John Comerford, who is described as her father in her will by Maria Teresa, was Major-General John Comerford (ca 1665-1725), of Finlough in Loughkeen, Co Tipperary, of Waterford, and of Madrid. A Jacobite exile who fled with the Wild Geese to Spain, Comerford became a colonel in the Regiment de Waterford in the Spanish army in 1718, was later promoted to the rank of major-general and knighted by the King of Spain. He died in Badajoz on 18 May 1725.

However, John’s place in the Comerford family tree is difficult to establish. A certificate of genealogy issued in favour of his son Joseph Comerford in 1744 by the Catholic Archbishops of Armagh and Dublin and five other bishops (Clogher, Meath, Derry, Kilmore and Kildare), and a similar pedigree in the Genealogical Office dated 1724 appear to be nothing less than genealogical fiction or fantasy.

John must have been a close relative of that amazing adventurer and pretender, Joseph Comerford of Clonmel, Waterford and Cork, who claimed for himself the French title of Marquis d’Anglure and who made John Comerford his heir. John Comerford’s sister, Elizabeth Comerford, married Peter Burke (died ca 1764) of Birr, Co Offaly, ancestor of the father and son John Burke (1786-1848) and Sir John Bernard Burke (1814-1892), who gave their names to Burke’s Peerage, Burke’s Landed Gentry, and similar publications.

However, these connections have made it no easier to trace John Comerford’s ancestry. Around 1716 or 1717, perhaps in Dublin, John Comerford married the widowed Henrietta O’Neill, widow of Colonel Henry O’Beirne, an Irish colonel in the Spanish army, and daughter of Henry O’Neill of Eden, Co Antrim, and his wife, Sarah O’Neill, of Shane’s Castle. John and Henrietta Comerford had one son and three daughters: Joseph, Elinor, Frances (“Donna Francisca”) Magdalene and Dorothea (“Donna Dorothea”). Elinor, the only surviving daughter, also married into the O’Beirne family and was living with the Duchess of Wharton at her house in Golden Square, London, in 1777.

The only son of Henrietta and John Comerford, Joseph John Comerford, was described by Maria Theresa Wharton in her will as “my deceased brother.” Born in 1719 in Barcelona, he was later made a Knight of the Order of Calatranta, and was still living in Spain in 1744, when he was known as “Don Joseph” Comerford. He married the widowed Mary Magdalene, Madame de Salle; she was still living when Maria Theresa made her will and described her as “my brother’s widow,” and Joseph and Mary Magdalene were the parents of the four Comerford children named in Maria Theresa’s will: Francis, Joseph, John and Frances Magdalene.

Francis or “Francisco” Comerfort was a sponsor in 1772 at the baptism in Spain of Carlos O’Donnell, father of the first Duke of Tetuan and Spanish Minister of War. Five years later, he was in England, and as her nephew proved the will of the Duchess of Wharton in 1777.

10, Not the father of the Duchess

But John Comerford from Waterford was not the father of Maria Theresa Comerford, who married Philip Wharton of Rathfarnham. It appears she was the daughter of Henrietta Comerford by an earlier husband, Colonel Henry (Enrique) O’Beirne, who, like John Comerford, was an Irish officer in the Spanish army. Henry died at a relatively young age and when his widow later married John Comerford in Dublin, Maria Theresa assumed her stepfather’s surname and so became Maria Theresa Comerford, the name she would use later upon her marriage.

By the 1720s, the Comerford family appear to have been living back in Dublin. However, Maria Theresa followed her stepfather and her mother to Madrid from Ireland in 1725, and John Comerford died soon after in Badajoz. There she was appointed Lady-in-Waiting to the Queen of Spain. And so in Madrid, the “very beautiful” Maria Theresa Comerford met the profligate Philip Wharton, the Rake of Rathfarnham, and married him within weeks.

11, Rathfarnham returns to the Loftus family

Maria Theresa never recovered the Rathfarnham estates or the lands and fortunes she believed were hers by right in Ireland and England. But in 1767, ten years before her death, the Rathfarnham estates, which had been sold in 1723 by Philip Wharton to Speaker Conolly, were recovered by the duke’s distant cousin. When Speaker Conolly died in 1729, his estates, including Rathfarnham, passed to his nephews, first to Thomas Conolly, MP, of Stratton Hall, Staffordshire, and then to William Conolly, MP for Ballyshannon, who died in 1760.

In 1742, the Conolly family sold the former Loftus and Wharton estates to the new Archbishop of Dublin, Dr John Hoadly (1678-1746), who had rebuilt the episcopal palace at Tallaght Castle. When Rathfarnham Castle came into his possession, Archbishop Hoadly lavished money on its restoration. Although he was appointed Archbishop of Armagh that same year, he repaired the castle and made it his home. He died in Rathfarnham Castle of a fever on 19 July 1746 and was buried with his wife in Saint Maelruain’s Church, Tallaght. His Rathfarnham estates then passed to his daughter Sarah and her husband, Bellingham Boyle, a nephew of the Earl of Shannon.

There is a curious tale in this circuitous route of inheritance, for Bellingham Boyle was a third cousin of Philip Wharton: Philip’s great-grandmother, Lady Dorothy Loftus, was a sister of Boyle’s great-grandfather, Roger Boyle, 1st Earl of Orrery. Five days before his death in 1767, Bellingham Boyle sold Rathfarnham Castle and demesne for a mere £17,500, one-fifth of the £85,000 sought and less than one-third of the £62,000 received by Philip Wharton when he sold the estates almost half a century earlier.

And so, once again, the Loftus family returned to Rathfarnham Castle in the person of the youthful Nicholas Loftus (1738-1769), 2nd Earl of Ely and fourth cousin of Philip Wharton. Rathfarnham Castle was bought on behalf of Nicholas by his uncle, Henry Loftus (1709-1783), MP for Co Wexford. Nicholas had succeeded to the family titles and the estates in Co Wexford only a year before the Rathfarnham and Knocklyon estates were bought back on his behalf.

Young Nicholas had been violently mistreated by his abusive father throughout his childhood. In his bid to establish his rights to the Loftus estates, he was the subject of a celebrated legal case concerning his soundness of mind, but was successfully defended by his uncle Henry. Nicholas died a few months after securing his legal victory in 1769, probably as a consequence of the great hardships he suffered in his youth. His uncle Henry Loftus, inherited the fortune, becoming 4th Viscount Loftus, and in 1771 Henry was made Earl of Ely. He set about remodelling his ancestral home at Rathfarnham Castle, using the best of architects, artists and craftsmen of the day, including Sir William Chambers, James “Athenian” Stuart and Angelica Kaufmann.

The entrance to Rathfarnham Castle was redesigned as part of the restoration work by Sir William Chambers, James “Athenian” Stuart and Angelica Kaufmann (Photograph © Patrick Comerford 2008)

The mullioned windows in the castle were enlarged and the battlements replaced by a coping with ornamental urns. A semi-circular extension was added to the east side and an entrance porch approached by steps, on the north. The interior was decorated in accordance with the tastes of the period and leading artists, including Angelica Kauffman, were employed in the work. Writers of the period who visited the house have left extravagant descriptions of its splendour.

Henry also built another entrance to the castle in the form of a Roman Triumphal Arch on the banks of the Dodder to celebrate the triumphal return of the Loftus family to Rathfarnham Castle.

When Henry died in 1783, Rathfarnham Castle, Knocklyon Castle and their vast estates, first acquired two centuries earlier by Archbishop Adam Loftus, were once again secure in the possession of his descendants. The estates were inherited by Henry’s nephew, Charles Tottenham Loftus, who later became Marquess of Ely as a reward for voting in favour of the Act of Union in the Irish House of Lords.

12, Rathfarnham in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries

In 1812, the Loftus family leased Rathfarnham estate to the Ropers and removed their valuable possessions to Loftus Hall in Wexford (which is on the market once again). The lands and castle were then used for dairy farming and fell into disrepair. To quote a contemporary account from 1838:

“Crossing the Dodder by a ford, and proceeding along its southern bank towards Rathfarnham, a splendid gateway at left, accounted among the best productions of that species of architecture in Ireland, invites the tourist to explore the once beautiful grounds of Rathfarnham Castle, but they are now all eloquently waste, the undulating hills covered with rank herbage, the rivulet stagnant and sedgy, the walks scarce traceable, the ice-houses open to the prying sun, the fish-pond clogged with weeds, while the mouldering architecture of the castle, and the crumbling, unsightly offices in its immediate vicinity …

“The castle, so long the residence of the Loftus family, and still the property of the Marquis of Ely, subject, however, to a small chief rent to Mr Conolly, is an extensive fabric …

“The great hall is entered from a terrace, by a portico of eight Doric columns, which support a dome, painted in fresco with the signs of the Zodiac and other devices. This room was ornamented with antique and modern busts, placed on pedestals of variegated marble, and has three windows of stained glass, in one of which is an escutcheon of the Loftus arms, with quarterings finely executed. Several other apartments exhibited considerable splendour of arrangement, and contained, until lately, numerous family portraits, and a valuable collection of paintings by ancient masters. But, when it is mentioned, that this structure has been for years a public dairy, and the grounds to the extent of 300 acres converted to its uses, some notion may be formed of their altered condition.”

In 1852, Rathfarnham Castle was bought by the Lord Chancellor, Francis Blackburne, whose family lived there for three generations. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Revd William Blackburn (1868-1919) was Warden of Saint Columba’s College, Rathfarnham (1909-1919); he is buried in Whitechurch Graveyard. The property developers Bailey and Gibson acquired Rathfarnham Castle in 1912 and divided up the estate. The eastern part of the estate became the Castle Golf Club, and the castle and the south-western portion of the grounds were bought in 1913 by the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), while the north-western part of the estate was sold off for housing.

The Jesuits converted the former Loftus ballroom in the castle into a chapel. One of the Jesuits at Rathfarnham Castle, Father William O’Leary, built a seismograph that could detect earth tremors and earthquakes anywhere in the world, so that for a time Rathfarnham Castle was a source of earthquake information for the national media.

The Seismograph House, formerly the Stewart’s House at Rathfarnham Castle and now the offices of the Tree Council of Ireland (Photograph © Patrick Comerford 2008)

To the north of the castle some of the remains still stand from a long vaulted chamber formerly known as Cromwell’s Court or Fort. This was apparently a barn or storehouse erected as part of the castle farm and had narrow loopholes in its 5-ft thick walls. In 1922, it was incorporated into the new retreat house, to which it formed the ground storey and its character concealed from the outside by a uniform covering of cement plaster.

My father was a life-long member of the Castle Golf Club. Not far from the Castle Golf Club clubhouse there once stood an attractive little temple built of stone and brick, another relic of Lord Ely’s time at Rathfarnham. Although out of repair, if restored, it might have added much to the charm of that part of the golf links. Unfortunately, the club committee decided to demolish it in 1979.

In 1986, the Jesuits sold Rathfarnham Castle. Before leaving, they removed the stained glass windows, made in the Harry Clarke studios, from the chapel and donated them to Tullamore Catholic Church, which had been destroyed by fire in 1983. The other windows were donated to Our Lady’s Hospice, Harold’s Cross, and to Temple Street Children’s Hospital, Dublin.

Rathfarnham Castle was sold to Delaware Properties in 1985 and soon there were fears in the area that the castle was about to be demolished. After immense public pressure to save the building, the castle was bought by the state in 1987 and was designated a National Monument. Since then, the castle has undergone extensive refurbishment and has been opened to the public. The programme of active conservation has provided tantalising glimpses of layers of its earlier existence, as we discovered this afternoon.

Autumn growth in the gardens of Rathfarnham Castle (Photograph © Patrick Comerford 2008)

13, Castle trivia

One of the chilling stories about Rathfarnham Castle that was repeated during this afternoon’s tour is that of the skeleton of a woman found in one of the hollow walls on the middle floor in 1880. It has been ascertained that she was there for over 130 years. It is believed that this woman was shut behind wooden panelling. Two suitors were arguing over her love and they decided to sort out their differences by way of a duel. The victor would then rescue the fair maiden from the wall. However, as it happened, both men died from their wounds.

The whole affair was conducted in secret and so the beautiful young woman was left hidden there, entombed in the wall, where she died. Lady Blackburne had the corpse’s silk dress made into cushions in 1880. Some claim her ghost haunts the ballroom in the castle.

The south façade of Rathfarnham Castle, with the spire of Rathfarnham Parish Church visible to the left. A secret tunnel is said to have led from the castle to the church

One interesting feature of the castle is its secret tunnels. One is said to have led from the castle to an exit at the present Castle Golf Club. Another led from the castle to the Church of Ireland parish church in Rathfarnham village. The second tunnel was only discovered in 1987. Both tunnels have been closed off. A third tunnel is believed to have led to the Yellow House, the oldest public house in Rathfarnham.

14, Back to Rathfarnham

It is ironic and worth recording that the decree of the English House of Lords in 1729 outlawing Philip Wharton and depriving him of his titles and his remaining estates in England was reversed by Writ of Error in the Queen’s Bench on 3 May 1845, when it was ruled that the outlawry was informal and irregular. Unknown to herself, Maria Theresa Comerford had died still legally entitled to call herself both Duchess of Wharton and Countess of Rathfarnham.

But if Maria Theresa was never born into the Comerford family, and thus was unable to provide me with a direct link between the Comerfords and the Rathfarnham and Knocklyon family that spanned over 2½ centuries, my search for her identity resulted in the discovery of one other centuries-old, albeit distant, link between her step-father and the Rathfarnham area.

John Comerford’s sister, Elizabeth Comerford, and her husband Peter Burke of Birr, had a great-granddaughter, Catherine Maria, who married Augustus Abraham Hely-Hutchinson (1766-1834), fourth son of the Right Hon John Hely-Hutchinson of Butterfield House and Provost of Trinity College Dublin, who gave the fair green to Rathfarnham village. It was a very distant and obscure connection, but the search for connections led me to the tale of the Rake of Rathfarnham.

15, A sad finale

The triumphal arch built on the banks of the Dodder by Henry Loftus to celebrate the return of his family to Rathfarnham Castle can still be viewed from Dodder Park Road, on a slope below the grounds of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute and Mount Carmel Hospital.

The triumphal arch on Dodder Park Road is now an indecorous traffic island in a sad and dilapidated state (Photograph © Patrick Comerford 2008)

But the arch is decaying, desolate and abandoned, covered in graffiti, its former dignity betrayed by cement blocks, and access denied by boulders. It serves merely as an indecorous traffic island.

I look down on this arch each day from the corridor outside my study in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and believe that unless remedial restoration work begins immediately, this sad relic that once told a story of adversity and triumph may soon be lost to future generations.

Sources:

Ball, F.E., A History of the County Dublin (Dublin: six vols, 1902-1920).
Bradley, Pat, et al, Knocklyon Past and Present (Knocklyon, Co. Dublin, 1992).
Broad, Violet, et al, Rathfarnham: Gateway to the Hills (Rathfarnham, Co. Dublin, 1990).
Burke’s Extinct and Dormant Peerage (1883), s.v. Ely, Loftus, Wharton.
Burke’s Landed Gentry, 18th ed (London, 1965), vol 1, s.v. Burke.
Burke’s Peerage, various eds, s.v. Cork, Donoughmore, Ely, O’Neill, Shannon and Wharton.
Dictionary of National Biography, s.v. Loftus, Montagu and Wharton.
Gentleman’s Magazine, vol c, part 2, p. 16.
Handcock, W.D., The History and Antiquities of Tallaght (1896, reprinted Dun Laoghaire: Anna Livia Press, 1991).
Historical Manuscripts Commission, 8th report, pp 472-473; cf pp 441-442.
Joyce, W. St John, The Neighbourhood of Dublin (Dublin, 2nd ed, 1921, 1976 reprint).
Melville, Lewis, The Life and Writings of Philip Duke of Wharton (John Lane, 1913).
Blackett-Ord, Mark, Hell-Fire Duke: The Life of the Duke of Wharton (Kensal Press, 1982).
Prestwick, J., Origin and Etymology of the Loftus Family (1783, unpublished family mss).
Price, C.H.P., St Patrick’s, Dublin: The Registers of Baptism, Marriages and Burials in the Collegiate and Cathedral Church from 1677-1800, vol 2 (ed. J.H. Bernard, Dublin: Parish Registers Society).
Robinson, V.R., Philip, Duke of Wharton (London, 1896).
Robinson-Hammerstein, Helga, “Adam Loftus and the Elizabethan Reformation in Ireland: Uniformity and Dissent,” Search 28/1 (Spring 2005), pp 53-67.
Smith, L.B., “Philip James Wharton, Duke of Wharton and Jacobite Duke of Northumberland,” in H.C.G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (London: Oxford University Press, 2004), vol. 58, pp 367-70.
Stanhope’s History of England (vol 2, p. 140).
Wallace, W.J.R. (ed), Clergy of Dublin and Glendalough (Belfast and Dublin, 2001).
Walsh, Micheline, Spanish Knights of Irish Origin (Dublin), vols 2 and 3.
Ware, J., The Whole Works of Sir James Ware concerning Ireland, revised and improved, vol 1 (1739).
White, G.H., and Lea, R.S., (eds), The Complete Peerage, vol 5, s.v. Ely; vol 12, Part 2 (London, 1959), s.v. Wharton.

This essay includes some material first presented on Thursday 7 April 2005 in a lecture to Rathfarnham Historical Society, ‘The Rake of Rathfarnham: the story of Philip Wharton who owned Rathfarnham Castle in the early 18th century.’ The lecture was part of the programme to mark the 400th anniversary of the death of Archbishop Adam Loftus on 5 April 2005. The Irish Hellenic Society can be contacted through its secretary, Ms Catherine Hickey, 15 The Laurels, Terenure, Dublin 6W.

Friday, 26 September 2008

Racism ‘officially sanctioned, approved and legislated for’

Today’s edition of the Church of Ireland Gazette (Friday 26 September 2008) carries the photograph above and the following news report on page 3:

Racism ‘officially sanctioned, approved and legislated for’ – Canon Patrick Comerford

Preaching in St George and St Thomas’ Church, Cathal Brugha Street, Dublin, on Racial Justice Sunday (14th September), Canon Patrick Comerford, Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, spoke in scathing terms about racism in Ireland.

Referring to a recent incident when Garda Immigration officials arrested a Nigerian priest on suspicion of him having entered Ireland illegally, confiscated his passport, took him to prison and forced him to stand naked in front of other prisoners, Canon Comerford said: “I say I am ashamed and I ask forgiveness.”

Canon Comerford told the congregation that the incident had come to light only because the man was a priest and his arrest had caused a diplomatic incident. He asked: “What about the countless others we don’t hear about?”

Recalling the Gardai’s description of their handling of the matter as “lawful and appropriate,” Canon Comerford added: “We live in a society where racism is officially sanctioned, approved and legislated for.

“If we do not challenge the racism and discrimination that I fear could quickly gather pace in Ireland under the present political and economic circumstances, then how can we convince others that we believe in Christ and the Kingdom he proclaimed?”

The service was attended by a large congregation and led by Canon Katharine Poulton, bishop’s curate of St George and St Thomas’, and the Revd Clement Ninziza, from Burundi. It was followed by a meal prepared by members of the Indian Orthodox Church, who also hold services in St George and St Thomas’.

The Church of Ireland Gazette is at: http://www.gazette.ireland.anglican.org/

The full text of the sermon is at: http://revpatrickcomerford.blogspot.com/2008/09/shameful-face-of-irish-racism.html

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Returning to the Prayer of Humble Access



Patrick Comerford

We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen. – (Book of Common Prayer 1662)

We do not presume to come to this your table, merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness but in your manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table. But thou art the same Lord, whose nature is always to have mercy. Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of your dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen. – (Book of Common Prayer, Church of Ireland, 2004)

We are back to our full programme in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute since the students returned last weekend, and it was my privilege this evening (Wednesday, 24 September) to celebrate or preside at the first College Community Eucharist of the new academic year.

The Revd Alan Barr, who was a sacristan in his final year and is now a curate in Bray, Co Wicklow, has been one of the visiting lecturers in this “pre-term week,” and he preached at the Eucharist in the chapel this evening.

Although it was not on the service sheet, I decided to use the Prayer of Humble Access during this evening’s Eucharist. I suspect I am no different than many of my priest colleagues in the Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough when I say I rarely use the Prayer of Humble Access. Yet it is one of the best-loved traditional prayers in Anglican liturgies, succinctly and elegantly expressing the extraordinary grace of God, without wallowing in overdone humility.

In the past I have used this prayer rarely. I used it on the few occasions I presided at the mid-week Eucharist in Christ Church, Leeson Park, during the recent vacancy, as I was using Holy Communion One according to the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of Ireland (2004). But I rarely used it at other times during Holy Communion I, and have only used it during Holy Communion 2 during the weekday celebrations in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, when I have been the canon-in-residence. The rubrics for Holy Communion 2 only provide for its use if the Penitence follows the Intercessions or Prayers of the People (Book of Common Prayer 2004, p. 207), and I have never followed this practice.

Yet the Prayer of Humble Access is a beautiful prayer that is part of the rich heritage of Anglican spirituality, and it is one of those great prayers that, like most Anglicans, I can recite by heart and from memory. However, my reluctance to use it stems from an acute awareness of the way in which infrequent reception of Holy Communion developed though a sad misinterpretation of this prayer.

Having confessed our sins earlier during the Liturgy of the Word and having received assurance of God’s forgiveness, the Prayer of Humble Access then comes at a point in the liturgy after we have already confessed our sins and our sinfulness and accepted that we have been forgiven by God, and invited to his banquet. At that point, it appears that we are being asked once again to recall our unworthiness.

Many Anglicans can recall a time when the emphasis on preparation and the “worthy” acceptance of the sacrament left many people feeling unable to undertake such an examination frequently. And so, they tended to receive Holy Communion only once a month – or even less frequently, perhaps only at Easter and Christmas.

One of my early memories is of people standing up to leave Church at the end of Morning Prayer, walking out during the final hymn, with only a handful of people behind, meekly kneeling on their knees, to receive Holy Communion.

But that sense of unworthiness does not reflect the original intentions of this prayer. Indeed, it was the intention of the Reformers, including Thomas Cranmer and the Anglican Reformers, as well as Luther and Calvin, was that we should all receive Holy Communion each week.

The Prayer of Humble Access has some similarity with the prayer immediately prior to Communion in the Roman Rite Mass: Domine, non sum dignus, ut intres sub tectum meum: sed tantum dic verbo, et sanabitur anima mea (“Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed” or “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word, and my soul shall be healed.” See Matthew 8: 8).

Through the influence of Cranmer, the Prayer of Humble Access was an integral part of the first editions of the Book of Common Prayer and has continued since then to be used throughout much of the Anglican Communion. It is not a prayer warning people against receiving Holy Communion, but it is a beautiful prayer encouraging us to frequent reception said as a prayer of preparation before receiving Holy Communion (hence, humble access to the altar or to the Blessed Sacrament). The prayer appeared in the earliest prayer book, the First Prayer Book of Edward VI (1549). It is derived from a similar Latin prayer in the Sarum liturgy – and, like much of the Sarum use, was translated and adapted by Thomas Cranmer.

In its earliest appearance the prayer followed the confession and absolution and “comfortable words,” which, in 1549, came after the Eucharistic Prayer.

In the revision of 1552, the prayer appears immediately after the proper preface of the Eucharistic Prayer. In subsequent revisions by different Anglican churches around the world, and in the proposed 1928 revision of the Book of Common Prayer in the Church of England, the prayer was moved to after the Lord’s Prayer and before the Agnus Dei (“Lamb of God …”) after which the consecrated elements are administered.

Many contemporary Anglican liturgies have either retained the 1662 wording or revised it to varying degrees. Some contemporary versions omit the phrase “that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood,” since some argue that this suggests that the Eucharist in itself has the power to absolve the partaker of sin. Other Anglican liturgies omit the prayer entirely.

In the 1979 Prayer Book of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America, the Prayer of Humble Access is an option in Holy Eucharist I, traditional language, after the fraction or Breaking of the Bread and before the invitation to receive (Book of Common Prayer 1979, ECUSA, p. 337). But it is not an option in the contemporary-language Holy Eucharist II (see pp 365-366).

In Holy Communion A and B in the Alternative Service Book of the Church of England (1980), the Prayer of Humble Access was placed after the Prayers of Penitence and before the Peace, Offertory and Eucharistic Prayer, as the congregation began to contemplate the shift in liturgical focus from the Liturgy of the Word to the Liturgy of the Sacrament (Alternative Service Book, pp 126, 188). The prayer found the same place in the 1984 Alternative Prayer Book of the Church of Ireland (Alternative Prayer Book, p. 52).

The Prayer of Humble Access was repositioned in Common Worship (2000) of the Church of England. In Order Two it returned to its traditional in the Book of Common Prayer – after the Preface and before the Prayer of Consecration (Common Worship, p. 241). But in Order One (Traditional), the Prayer of Humble Access has been moved to a point immediately after the invitation to communion (“Draw near with faith... remember that he died for you, and feed on him in your hearts, by faith, with thanksgiving”) and before the distribution (Common Worship, p. 225), which has destroyed its sense, in the opinion of many critics.

It is said that members of the liturgical commission could not agree on where to place it. However, they felt English people at prayer would be more appalled to lose this spiritual gem than any other prayer, and felt it couldn’t be lost altogether. They were not in entire in agreement about the proposed positions.

For some, the use of the prayer of Humble Access after the invitation before the distribution has something of the nature of movement of the Eucharist stalling quality.

For others, the Prayer of Humble Access comes at a point after we have already been assured that we are standing at God’s table through the grace and love of God. This is the moment of consummation, not the moment to step back and protest my own humility. To say at this moment “we do not presume ...” poses the danger of being over-anxious to demonstrate my own righteousness and to protest my own humility. I might appear to be saying something like: “Oh, you may think you’re very merciful, God, but you clearly don’t understand how seriously humble I am ...”

But we are not competing with God to prove that we’re at least as humble as he is merciful. There comes a point in any relationship when you either say “yes” or say nothing at all.

At this stage of my life, conscious of hurt, betrayal, denial, and alienation, I am feeling particularly humble in the presence of God throughout each and every day and night. And this evening I was particularly captured by the beauty of the prayer. I can never receive Holy Communion because I am worthy – at all times I am unworthy, and I must come to worship God without any presumptions, never knowing what God has in store for me.

The table I come to and invite others to is not my own, but the Lord’s, and this is the ever-merciful Lord God, without whose mercy there is nothing I could do. Once I start trusting in my own righteousness and start believing in myself, I start depending on myself and start losing my dependence on God … it is not what I do that matters, it is who God is. In simpler, evangelical terms, it is not my work that matters, but God who matters, I must depend on God in faith, not on what I do or have failed to do.

At present, I can only trust in the manifold and great mercies of God, but this is all I really need in life anyway.

It is never that I am worthy to approach the altar, for I can never be worthy enough; indeed, how can I even be worthy to gather up the crumbs under his table – although the Syro-Phoenician or Canaanite woman could point out that “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” (Matthew 15: 27), while Lazarus longed for the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table (Luke 16: 19). But these are not just the crumbs, but the real food, and when I eat them I also receive the host at the banquet too.

God is the same yesterday, today and forever, and the God who has shown me mercy in the past shows me mercy today and forever. In his gracious goodness, he invites me eat the flesh of his dear son Jesus Christ and to drink his blood – to become a full participant in the life of Christ, who is truly present among as and makes us the Body of Christ.

As I used the Prayer of Humble Access this evening, I was confident too that as part of that Body of Christ my sinful body has been made clean, inside and out, and my soul washed clean too. May he evermore dwell in me, and I in him.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute

Sunday, 21 September 2008

A harvest of healing and restoration

The Samaritan returns to say thanks for healing and restoration © jesusmafa.com

Patrick Comerford

Deuteronomy 8: 7-18; Psalm 65; II Corinthians 9: 6-15; Luke 17: 11-19.

May all we think, say and do be to the glory of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

I have to confess that I was never very good at science at school: unlike an older brother, and unlike my elder son, it was one of my weaker subjects. And so, when I sat the Leaving Certificate almost 40 years ago, I sat physics and chemistry as one paper, and just scraped through.

How things have changed over those past four decades. The Celtic Tiger, however short-lived, brought not just temporary economic prosperity, but a whole new set of agendas about what we can talk about, how we talk, and who we talk to.

Years ago, it was unacceptable to talk about sexuality and sex in polite society. Now everybody talks about them.

Years ago, the economy and finances were confined to somewhere around pages 17 or 18 in The Irish Times – what were called the business pages. Now we’re all talking about the crisis in the American and European markets caused by sub-prime lending and exposure. Did any one of us hear of the Lehman Brothers before Meltdown Monday? Now we all talk as easily about Morgan Stanley as we do about Morgan Freeman, about Merrill Lynch as about Meryl Streep. Everyone on the top of a Dublin bus seems to know what a tracker mortgage is. I hear people talking about Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae as if they lived on our street or are working a few fields away.

Years ago, sport was confined to the sports pages. Now the new owner of Manchester City is as likely to feature on the front pages or the finance pages, and the adventures of Verona soccer fans provide the topic for a best-selling paperback, popular even among people who know nothing about football.

And years ago, science was regarded as a subject for the knowledgeable and the educated – you could only read about nuclear physics and black holes in specialist journals and textbooks. Now, everyone talks about “the God Particle” and is concerned about the consequences of Genetic Modification and Global Warming.

We now know the connection between the floods in Bihar and the rainy summer here. For once, the fears of the farming community in Ireland are shared by the population at large as we all ask: “What have we done to God’s creation?”

Over the span of a generation or so, these topics have become part of everyday conversation for every age and generation.

I know a young man who was recently ordained priest in the Church of England, and who is putting a brave face on his battle against cancer and the side-effects of heavy chemotherapy. His emails are sometimes bleak and difficult, but are also filled with faith and hope, and sometimes even contain wonderful nuggets of humour.

Two weeks ago, he was taking part in a baptism when a young boy, perhaps ten years of age, approached Joe and suggested to him: “I suppose Joe you’re happy the world is going to end next Wednesday?”

“Why?” Joe asked.

“Because then you won’t die before the rest of us, you can die with all of us,” the boy replied.

Even small boys were listening to speculation and fears surrounding the experiments with the Large Hadron Collider. Many people were genuinely worried that this 17-mile particle accelerator under the French-Swiss border would create black holes that would start devouring the earth, this beautiful earth, the very place that we feel at the heart of the cosmos, God’s creation.

A distant cousin in Toronto jokingly asked a few days after the experiment began whether we had all died and entered heaven – because that meant she could sit back and relax and enjoy the music without worrying … not about whether there are actual Pearly Gates and angels with wings and harps and clouds, but worrying about world peace, world famine, world-wide oppression and poverty.

Now, wouldn’t that be a much better definition of what heaven should be like?

What we have done to God’s creation is a cause for real concern in the farming community throughout Ireland this year. This is one of the toughest harvests to celebrate in my memory. I know I had summer holidays this year – but when did we have summer?

Our care and attention to God’s creation, our stewardship of what has been entrusted to us, is not something we should worry about today because it’s topical and fashionable. It is part of our duty as Christians; it is part and parcel of our discipleship. For just as in our humanity we are made in the image and likeness of God, and reflect God’s glory, so the earth, the cosmos, should be seen and treated as an image or likeness of the Kingdom of God and reflecting its glory.

Agnus Day cartoon © www.massprep.org

Our Gospel reading this evening is not one we readily associate with Harvest time. Unlike the beautiful, rich harvest images in our Old Testament reading, unlike the images in our Epistle reading of sowing and reaping bountifully, and a harvest so blessedly abundant that it overflows into justice, righteousness, and the end of poverty for generations to come, our Gospel reading is not a pretty image.

It is a story of sickness, both personal sickness and the deeper malaise to be found in society; it is a story of marginalisation and discrimination; and a story of the use and the abuse of religious authority and power.

But then harvest is not just about bringing in the crops and giving thanks for God’s blessings on the land – however slim they may appear to be this year. Harvest, at a deeper level, is about the restorative justice that Christ seeks as a sign of what the Kingdom of God is like.

Try to imagine the horrific scene that confronted Jesus as he entered that village with no name in that dangerous zone between Samaria and Galilee on the way to Jerusalem … It is an isolated area, the sort of place where a man travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho could expect to be mugged, robbed and left for dead, with anyone who saw him scurrying by hastily in fear that they too would be mugged (see Luke 10: 30-37).

In an area like that you couldn’t expect a Good Samaritan to come by.

So this is wilderness country, bandit territory. And it is an area marked by discrimination and prejudice, deeply divided by sectarianism, racism and prejudice. Jews and Samaritans lived separate lives: they couldn’t share the same food, the same shops, the same streets, even the same villages. Although they shared a similar religious heritage and stories, they despised each other.

And this is an area where those who are disabled or scarred by their physical ailments are cast aside, left on their own, without help or assistance from the community at any level – political, social, economic or religious.

Can you imagine the scene in this dangerous territory? After a long journey, Jesus appears to have reached the safety of a village. But just as he gets to the gates, out from the rocks appear a rough-looking gang of dishevelled, disfigured, bedraggled, unkempt and filthy men, shouting out loudly. How dangerous are they? Will they mug and rob him? If they come too close, will he be contaminated too?

But these men are so desperate, so isolated, instead of mugging or begging, they keep their distance and all they ask for is – mercy. Mercy is all they want. How much they must have despaired in their search for compassion and companionship that all they ask for now is – mercy.

And what Jesus offers them is not mercy of the tea-and-sympathy sort. What he offers them, what he invites them to, is to be restored to, to accept again, their full place in society.

We don’t know when they were healed. When they called out for mercy? When Jesus spoke to them? When they obeyed his command? Yet the healing is less important than the collective action they are asked to take. They are asked to go together and show themselves to the priests. To show themselves to the priests allowed them to get a clean bill of health so they could be restored to their place in normal family, village, community, social, political, economic and religious life.

The Kingdom of God is a place where all can take part in life, and life in all its fullness. And what these 10 people are offered is a place back in society that will be an example of what the Kingdom of God is like.

The Samaritan is the only one to come back and say thank you. But I often wondered why this Samaritan even bothered in the first place to think of going to show himself to the priests. The priests could offer or refuse a clean bill of health to the other nine. But they would never give a Samaritan a clean bill of health. He is an outsider. Healed or not, he remains contaminated, unclean, impure, despised, rejected and isolated. He is “one of them.” He has no place with us.

But Jesus is saying he has. Jesus is counting him in. Jesus wants him to benefit from the great harvest and to sit down at the heavenly banquet.

The action of Jesus in healing the Samaritan alongside the other nine, in sending him too to the priests to stake his claim to a full, restored place in society, tells us the Kingdom of God is there for all. All are invited into it. And when we start excluding others we too become weak, we too fail to reap the rich harvest that God offers us.

The Kingdom of God is offered too to the Samaritans in our midst, to those afflicted with anything that places them outside normal, acceptable life: the immigrant who is isolated because of the collapse of our economy or the rise in vulgar racism; the single mother; the farmer whose harvest hopes are not being realised; the child who can’t get a special needs assistant at school; the distraught couple minding demanding and aging grandparents; the once-successful businessman whose enterprise has gone to the wall; and the employees who have lost trust in him and hope in the future when they lost their jobs.

Too often in the past our traditional Harvest Readings have been read both in a cosy, comfortable way, and in a way that separates the harvest from the full riches of creation. Yet those beautiful promises in the Old Testament reading of a rich, rich harvest were not made in a time of plenty. They were promises made to the people while they were still in the wilderness, when they were isolated in the desert, when they had been wandering for far too many years.

Even when there is little hope at harvest time, even at times when we feel most isolated, marginalised and unloved, God promises us a rich harvest that goes beyond this year’s yields, a harvest that will be so rich that we can also build up hopes for righteousness, for justice and for love.

And when the harvest is difficult, when we are not bringing in the returns we hoped for at the time of sowing, when economic gloom and doom appear to be imminent, we should remember that God’s creation is more splendid and more beautiful than anything we can imagine.

Let me return to the Large Hadron Collidor one more time. Did you notice the world did not come to an end the week before last? We were not all sucked into some monstrous “black hole” as the scientists started seeking what they call the “God Particle.” If anything, we realised instead, as it was put by the Revd Dr David Wilkinson, an astrophysicist who is also a Methodist theologian, that the earth, the cosmos, the universe, God’s creation, are “elegant and surprising.” But it also shows us that “we are still faced by the origin, the beauty, the universality and the intelligibility of the laws of physics itself.”

We are going through trying, tough times at the moment when it comes to farming, the economy, the changes that turn received values on their heads. But through all this we should remember that God is faithful to God’s promises, that when it comes to the real harvest that matters, there will be a place for everyone, especially those who have been marginalised, isolated and left to feel unloved.

In a week when the greedy have been saved from the consequences of their decisions in the banking world but the needy have to pay for this, in a world where the greedy take priority over the needy so that 30,000 people die each day because of poverty, God’s promise remains for a harvest that not only provides us with enough food and shelter but an abundance that allows us to measure out and ensure righteousness and justice for all.

God’s creation is filled with beauty from the very beginning. And if we believe this, if we gather hope from this evening’s Harvest readings, then we must work too to see that the Church and our society, by our priorities and by our lifestyles, in our actions and in our prayers, in the ways we preach and live the Gospel, are signs, icons, symbols and sacraments of this hope for creation and the Kingdom of God.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the glory of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at the Harvest Eucharist on Sunday evening, 21 September 2008, in Saint Tighernagh’s Church, Aughmacart, Cullahill, Co Laois.

Saturday, 20 September 2008

I will be with you; I will not fail or forsake you. Be strong and courageous

Being strong and courageous for God and for those we love … a fresco from Mount Athos (Photograph © Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The students are back at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute or the Church of Ireland Theological College. Since Thursday, the students for Non-Stipendiary Ministry (NSM) have been taking part in their summer school – although the “summer” description appears a little unrealistic at this late stage. The other students, working on the B.Th. programme, return tomorrow (Sunday) afternoon.

As I went into the chapel on Thursday evening for a Service of the Word with the returning NSM students, I felt my black eye and wounded knee – the result of a fall on the street in the dark on Monday night – reflected how I have been feeling inside about many important parts of my life for the last few weeks.

And then, unexpectedly, I was asked to read the Old Testament lesson, Joshua 1: 1-9. It was very difficult, with many of the broken and fallen wounds of the past few weeks, to find myself reading this passage, with words that kept leaping out at me:

“… Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you, as I promised …

“No one shall be able to stand against you all the days of your life …

“I will be with you; I will not fail or forsake you. Be strong and courageous …

“Only be strong and very courageous … so that you may be successful wherever you go …

“… you shall make your way your way prosperous and then be successful.

“… Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

I have always been confident that God is truly guiding the soles of my feet and my soul as I move forward, always been confident that God has promises for me that will be realised and fulfilled, even when I don’t know what they are, even when I turn away from them, avoid them, or delay along the way, even when in my own sinful and broken way I find myself hurting others and being exposed to my own brokenness and sinfulness.

I have always been confident that God is with me and will not fail or forsake me.

With promises like that, it has been easy through most of my life to be strong and courageous … but did I need to hear that three times, repeated again and again? It’s easy for me to be strong and courageous. It’s far, far more difficult for me to face up to my weaknesses, and to deal with the sorrow and the heartbreak that I have caused or had to live with.

I’ve never asked God to make me prosperous and successful … prosperity and success can be welcomed as gifts from God, but I feel they are not something to expect, to pray for or to be ambitious for. There are much, much more important, deeply-seated values, hopes and wishes that are so difficult, that are so, so difficult to live up to or at times to live with. And as I read that passage I found myself wanting to, needing to say sorry for my selfishness, my self-centredness, my self-interested priorities.

I know God is with me as I continue to step into the future, although there are times I fear I damage what is good and beautiful in the present. I’m not frightened by God’s plans, but I am dismayed by own weakness and ability to hurt those I love.

And yet, as I faced those thoughts I took hope and courage from the words of the great American author and theologian, Frederick Buechner, who wrote: “I suspect that it is by entering that deep place inside us where our secrets are kept that we come perhaps closer than we do anywhere else to the One who, whether we realize it or not, is of all our secrets the most telling and the most precious we have to tell.”

My knees are weak ... my flesh is dried up

On Friday evening, the set psalms at Evensong were Psalms 108 and 109. As we moved into the chapel for Evensong, I decided it was better not to read both psalms, indeed, that it was better just to read the latter part of Psalm 109, verses 20 to 30.

In my reflection or meditation, I joked about my present physical discomfort and the words verse 23, where the psalmist says: “My knees are weak through fasting and my flesh is dried up and wasted.”

But I also pointed out that this is one of the most difficult psalms we can ever find ourselves being asked to use in Church. I don’t know what anyone would wish on their worst enemies. But who could ever ask people to pray that wicked rulers be set above our enemies (verse 5), no matter how bad they have been to us, that their prayers should be counted as sin (verse 6), that their children be fatherless and wives left as widows (verse 8), that their children wander to beg bread in desolate places (verse 9), without compassion (verse 11) or that – in this economic climate – their creditors seize all they have (verse 10)?

And yet, when we are angry and distressed, when we are filled with rage and resentment, when we find it most difficult to forgive, then we must find the means and the words to be honest with God – even if those words are uttered only in the silent caverns and deep recesses of our hearts.

Dean Billy Beare of Lismore once said at a clergy gathering in Kilkenny: “Who said you can’t dump everything on God?” If we limit or restrict God’s ability to hear and to respond to our pain and distress, God stops being God for us. And all that pain, all that distress, has already been borne by God in Christ on the Cross.

And so I continue to ask God to search out those deep caverns of my heart and my soul that I want no-one else to discover or enter, to heal where I hurt and to bring healing to those I hurt and love, that I may be strong and courageous, that I may not be frightened or dismayed, and that I may continue to live and grow in the confidence that the Lord my God is with me (and with you dear reader) wherever we go.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute

Sunday, 14 September 2008

The shameful face of Irish racism

Challenging racism, affirming diversity: Archbishop Desmond Tutu with the Discovery Gospel Chorir in Saint George’s and Saint Thomas’s Church during his visit to Ireland in 2005.

Patrick Comerford

Racial Justice Sunday: Sunday 14 September 2008

Saint George and Saint Thomas Church, Cathal Brugha Street, Dublin : Romans 14: 1-12; Matthew 18: 21-35

May all we think say and do be to the honour and glory of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

If you were watching television last Monday, then like me you may have been engrossed by the RTÉ documentary, Where Was Your Family During the Famine? Three Irish people of varying degrees of fame or celebrity status – Irish Times journalist John Waters, the economist Eddie Hobbs who fronts his own television programmes, and the model Jasmine Guinness, a member of the famous brewing family – set out to find the answer to a question lost in time: what happened to their family during the famine?

This was an ambitious programme, introducing a new RTÉ television series, mixing genealogy with popular history, the Irish version of Who Do You Think You Are?, with six Irish celebrities tracing their roots.

Now, celebrity and fame and family trees, Guinness heiresses and financial and media high-flyers, may not be the sort of things you may expect to divert your attention on Racial Justice Sunday. Celebrity and media fame, and the hunt for famous ancestors, at first appear to have little to do with racial justice and challenging racism in Ireland today. But popular history programmes like last Monday’s help to dispel popular myths that help to perpetuate and endorse social injustice.

For example, Monday’s programme showed that while most of us think the Great Famine was only a disaster for the poor and landless, it actually had an impact on every type of family in Ireland in the middle of the 19th century, from the poor landless labourers to the rich butter merchants of Cork and the titled aristocrats with their landed estates. No family escaped the consequences, socially, economically and politically. Within a generation or two the population of this island had almost been halved, either through death or though immigration. And every family suffered.

Secondly, there is the myth that the famine was the beginning of the great tidal waves of Irish migration. But, in fact, there have always been immigrants to Ireland and emigrants from Ireland in every generation, in every century, and the famine also caused large-scale, widespread migration even within this island.

Alongside the migration myths is the idea that our Irish kith and kin were warmly welcomed wherever we went in the aftermath of the famine. Some aspects of this myth will be dispelled in yet another two part television documentary for RTÉ. Death or Canada tells the story of thousands of Irish emigrants who were exiled en-masse in 1847 and in a deluge almost swamped the new city of Toronto – 30,000 Irish economic refugees invaded a city of 20,000 people, then just a decade old.

And then there are all the dangerous myths about Irish identity and our supposed Celtic roots. But Blood of the Irish, an RTÉ documentary presented by Diarmuid Gavin, tracks the origins of the Irish people from east Africa, through the Mediterranean basin and on to central Europe.

Isn’t it fascinating in the Ireland of today to learn that our origins as a people are to be found in Africa, the Mediterranean basin and central Europe? And isn’t it humbling to realise that the brothers and sisters of our grandparents and great-grandparents survived because of economic migration, that they were often welcomed in the strange countries they landed in, but that they could also become a deluge that threatened to swamp and destroy modern cities?

How quickly we have forgotten our origins. How quickly we have forgotten our family stories. How quickly we have forgotten how the Irish abroad survived because they migrated. And also that we survived here because they went. Their suffering allowed us to survive, allowed the Irish economy and those who stayed behind to survive.

How would we respond today if we heard the real stories of the racist discrimination, economic exploitation and social injustice they faced wherever they went in Britain, in Australia, in North America, in many other places.

If those brothers and sisters of our grandparents and great-grandparents ever had a chance to return to the Ireland they left, would they have been welcome? And who would have been in need of forgiveness and who would have been willing to offer free, open, unconditional and non-judgmental forgiveness? Those who felt forced to leave? Those who remained behind and felt abandoned? Those who remained behind and prospered?

Those key, central themes of discrimination and forgiveness are closely inter-connected in our Lectionary readings this morning.

Yet, as a society, is Ireland today – the Ireland that is entertained on the stories of celebrities created by our recent economic prosperity – willing to speak out against discrimination, while at the same time being too willing to accept so many of our popular myths and stories that isolate and denigrate our ethic minorities and continue to marginalise and isolate them?

The Apostle Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, warns the Christians in the Church in Rome against discriminating, against discriminating against fellow Christians, and against discriminating against non-Christians, and against discrimination against people for a whole variety of other reasons too apart from religion: the food we eat, the festivals and holidays we keep, our lifestyle, and, at death, our funeral and burial customs.

We are all brothers and sisters, not because we live similar lifestyles, eat the same food, or even because we share similar belief structures and ways of worshipping God. No, we are sisters and brothers because we are all, each and every one of us, made by God: a God who welcomes us.

And we must not discriminate against others because it’s going to bring us benefits. How often I hear people arguing against discrimination because it will help introduce social calm, create a good economic environment, build social solidarity.

But for the Apostle Paul, we must be on our guard against discrimination because God does not discriminate. We should welcome all people, in all their varieties and with all their differences, because God welcomes them – the Greek word in the original text conveys the idea of welcoming and receiving, in other words, not merely tolerating the presence of, but bringing into the household people who are different, people who find us different.

If the Apostle Paul was writing to the Church in Dublin, in Ireland, today, he would be warning us against the dangers of not welcoming the Africans, Central Europeans, people from the Mediterranean and the Indians Asians among us, because God welcomes and receives them, as well as us.

Welcoming and receiving where? Into the Kingdom of God! And if the Church is to be a symbol, a sign, an icon, a sacrament of the Kingdom of God, then we cannot just give a wet handshake to people we once saw as being different, we cannot just welcome and receive them, we have to show society how to welcome and receive them, because that’s how God builds the Kingdom of God.

And then when we turn to today’s Gospel story, I find it so relevant to the Ireland of today: the post-famine, post-Celtic Ireland, but nonetheless the Ireland that seems to have turned true values on their head. We are obsessed with celebrity, status, income, and all the trappings of prosperity. But, according to Amárach Research in the last week, while we profess to have positive attitudes to immigration, we are willing to send our immigrants back if the economy gets worse.

What this says to me is we want to hold onto all we have even if this means sending back our immigrants: not just those who worked hard on building sites, built up their own businesses, added to the variety of our city streets, supermarket shelves, music, drama and the variety of languages and lunchboxes in our schoolyards, but also those who came here because of genuine difficulties at home.

Of course there were Irish emigrants who left to build on their skills and to grow richer on foreign shores. But the famine emigrants were, by and large, economic migrants who fall into the category of immigrants that most of us would be happy to send home now in these straitened economic times.

How that Amárach Research survey makes us look like the slave who had been forgiven, who soon forgot, and who then went on to enslave others.

When some people use words like “deluge” and “swamp”, we need to be reminded about those 30,000 Irish refugees in Toronto. When we talk about sending people home, we need to remember the number of children during the famine who died alone and were buried in workhouse pits.

When we hear the story of the slave who became the slave master, just take a look at the conditions and wages of many of our immigrants who work as casual labourers, demeaned cleaners, as cheap counter staff, and ask will their conditions of modern slavery be relieved or become more pitiable with the proposals to amalgamate and run-down government agencies with a mandate to investigate, challenge and eradicate discrimination, unfair employment and injustice?

Racism is on the rise throughout Europe, most notably in Italy. But let me be forthright about my own country, let me blunt about this Ireland.

We live in a society where racism is officially sanctioned, approved and legislated for. In a society where a Nigerian priest, visiting a family member legally, is stopped at Dulin airport on Tuesday night, his passport confiscated, arrested, taken to prison, forced to stand naked in front of other prisoners, and served with a deportation order ... all because officials don’t understand the way Nigerians use, the way we as Christians should use terms like brother and cousin. The Garda National Immigration Bureau says everything that happened on Tuesday night was lawful and appropriate. We only know of this one event because the man is a priest and because this has caused a diplomatic incident.

What about the countless others we don’t hear about ... humiliated, stripped, deported, because they’re black, Roma, because they come from countries where the Irish originated ... East Africa, the Mediterranean or Central Europe? The state says it is legal and appropriate. I say I am ashamed and I ask forgiveness.

At the beginning of our Gospel reading, we are told to be prepared to forgive “seventy-seven times.” The original Greek says seventy times seven. Why? Because the number seven is supposed to be perfect, and “seventy times seven” represents infinity, what is limitless and unfathomable.

Here Jesus is directly reversing the revenge of Lamech in the Old Testament who wanted revenge seventy times seven (Genesis 4: 24). Jesus’ teaching is an obvious reversal of the law of revenge found in Genesis 4: 24, which says: “If Cain is avenged seven fold, truly Lamech seventy-seven fold.”

We are to forgive, and to forgive perfectly, limitlessly, just like God forgives. And this applies not just to forgiveness but to how we make sure people do not feel indebted to us.

The Greek word for forgiveness here means to “let go.” We are to “let go” of feelings of resentment, rage, wrath, revenge, retaliation, retribution when someone has hurt you or me.

If we start thinking people are taking our jobs, or our place in society, we need not so much to forgive them but to let them go, let them be, let them not become the victims of our feelings of resentment or our desire to control who should benefit from the diminishing financial benefits and returns available to our society.

We should let go of those feelings, not just now, but seven times seventy, for the rest of our lives. Not because in return God might reward us with the return of economic prosperity. But because that’s what the Kingdom of God is like, that is what God is like, and therefore that is what the Church should be like and what the Church should be calling society to be like.

If we do not challenge the racism and discrimination that I fear could quickly gather pace in Ireland under the present political and economic circumstances, then how can we convince others that we believe in Christ and in the Kingdom he proclaimed?

And so, may all we think say and do be to the honour and glory of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Canon Patrick Comerford, Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, is the author of Embracing Difference. This sermon was preached at a Service for Racial Justice Sunday at 11.15 a.m. on Sunday 14 September 2008, in Saint George’s and Saint Thomas’s Church, Cathal Brugha Street, Dublin. The service was followed by a meal, prepared by parishioners of the Indian Orthodox Church.