06 March 2016

Exploring the story of Captain Robert
Halpin in the streets of Wicklow

Wicklow Harbour … an invitation to explore the story of Captain Robert Halpin and his pioneering work (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

After a long working weekend, two of us headed into Co Wicklow and the Garden of Ireland this afternoon. After coffee in Mount Usher Gardens, we decided to visit Wicklow Town, and parked at the quays which are a reminder of the long history of the town as a port.

After walking around the harbour and along the pebble-strewn shoreline, we decided to explore the town and the story of its most famous son, Robert Charles Halpin (1836-1894), a pioneering figure in the world of telegraphy and communications.

The seven-arch stone bridge was built in two phases in the 17th and 19th centuries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

From the harbour, we walked up Bath Street, and crossed the seven-arch stone bridge spanning the Vartry River at the point where it is known as the Leitrim River. This is an impressive bridge that was built in two phases. It was first built ca 1690, and in 1837 – a year after Robert Halpin was born – Lewis refers to an eight-arch bridge. However, it appears that one arch was later blocked and the bridge was widened to the north in 1862.

The older part of the bridge shows the rough-hewn stone and simple form of its time, while the 19th century shows more articulation and formal definition with a string course and voussoirs of cut stone. Henry Brett, previously county surveyor of King’s County (Offaly), Co Mayo and Co Waterford, was responsible for the 19th century works.

The Bridge Tavern … Robert Halpin was born here in 1836 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Halpin was born in 1836 close to the bridge, in the Bridge Tavern. This was established in 1759, when it probably replaced an earlier “sheebeen” or drinking house that stood on the same site. In the 19th century, it was known as Halpin’s Bridge Hotel, and was owned by James and Anne Halpin. Robert Halpin was born here in 1836, the youngest of their 13 children, and must have grown up on sailors’ stories of life at sea.

Robert received as early education in a private school at Leitrim House at No 9 Leitrim Place, across the bridge from the hotel where he was born. This is an unusual and striking mid-terrace building, with a pediment and portico we would associate more with public and civic architecture than with domestic buildings.

Although Leitrim House was extensively renovated internally in 1995, when it lost its original fabric, it still retains its form, scale and character and with the other terraces on Leitrim Place, the house forms an important architectural set piece in the town. Its position facing the river makes it a highly visible feature in Wicklow.

Robert Halpin received his early education in a school in Leitrim House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Leitrim House was built ca 1835, and is said to have housed army officers before being used as a school. It is a terraced, five-bay, two-storey over basement pedimented house with attic and with an impressive Doric tetrastyle entrance portico.

The house has a pitched tiled roof, a rendered chimneystack with clay pots and a rendered pediment. There are lined-and-ruled rendered walls, with cut granite quoins and string course. There are square-headed openings with a sill course to the first floor, and granite sills to the ground floor, although the windows are recent replacements.

The round-headed door opening has a replacement timber door and a plain over-light. The carved granite portico has Doric pilasters, piers and columns supporting an entablature with plain frieze. There are granite steps to the portico.

There is a concrete balustrade to the basement area, a cast-iron pedestrian gate with rendered piers, and matching railings on a rendered plinth wall.

The houses on each side of Leitrim House in Leitrim Place include an impressive terrace on the north side of four three-bay two-storey houses built ca1840. They were first used to house army officers, and despite alterations that has seen them lose their original fabric, these houses retain their form, scale and character.

The Halpin Trail is well marked around Wicklow (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

At the age of 11, Robert Halpin followed his older brothers, Thomas and Richard, when he went to sea in 1847 as the youngest member of the crew of the brigantine Briton, and his first mentor at sea was Captain Thomas Lightfoot.

His father died that year and his mother died in 1849. A year later, in 1850, while he was still only 14, Robert survived the shipwreck of the Briton off the coast of Cornwall. But between 1847 and 1857, Halpin sailed the world. He sailed to Australia aboard the barque Henry Tanner, and there he experienced the Kalgoorlie Gold Rush. He was third mate on the wool clipper Boomerang which plied its trade from Liverpool to Melbourne, returning home by Peru and Cape Horn.

By 1857, at the age of 21, he completed his nautical training and qualified as a ship’s captain. That year, he became the first officer on the steamship Khersonese and later that same year took command of the new steamship Circassian.

When the Atlantic Steam Navigation Co. (Galway/Lever Line) was formed in 1858, Halpin joined the new company and in 1859 he took command of the company’s new steamship the Argo. However, on its maiden return voyage from New York the ship ran aground on the coast of Newfoundland. A Board of Inquiry found Halpin negligent and suspended his master’s ticket.

Having lost his right to captain a vessel, Halpin learned that the Confederate States in the American Civil War would richly reward those who could supply food and arms, and he found a new role running the blockades.

The SS Eugenie made 10 successful runs through blockades between May 1863 and January 1864, and in April 1864 Halpin and the steamship Virgin broke through the blockade of Mobile, Alabama.

In 1865, he became first officer on the Great Eastern, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and then the largest ship in the world. The Great Eastern took four years to build and was launched in 1858. It weighed 22,000 tons, was five times larger than the largest ship at the time and was built to carry over 3,000 passengers in first class luxury.

Although it was a financial failure, the Great Eastern was the ideal ship to carry the enormous spools of telegraphic cable necessary to cross the Atlantic. With the magnificent state rooms and luxurious cabins removed to make way for the thousands of miles of cable needed, it began its voyage, from Valentia, Co Kerry, in July 1865, with Halpin as first mate.

However, disaster struck on 1 August when the cable snapped and sank to the bottom of the ocean. Unable to retrieve it, the Great Eastern was forced to return to port and the mission was regarded as a failure.

But a new attempt was undertaken a year later, in 1866, and the Great Eastern set out once again from Valentia. This time Halpin laid the Trans-Atlantic cable successfully to Heart’s Content, Newfoundland, reaching his destination on 27 July.

The Great Eastern had carried extra cable and set out from Newfoundland on 9 August in an attempting to lay a second cable. On this journey, Halpin found the cable that had been lost the previous year. The cables were spliced together and the Great Eastern returned home to great acclaim. Over the next decade, as captain of the Great Eastern, Halpin successfully laid cables in oceans around the world until he retired from the sea in the mid-1870s.

In 1871, Halpin was charged in Washington, with blockade running but was found not guilty because of insufficient evidence.

The Halpin family lived at Leitrim Lodge while Tinakilly House was being built (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Meanwhile, while he was in Newfoundland in 1866, Halpin met Jessie (Teresa) Munn. They were married in 1873, and their daughter Ethel was born in 1874, followed by Belle Louisa (1876) and Edith (1879). The family lived at Leitrim Lodge on Bachelor’s Walk in Wicklow, close to the Bridge House where he was born and opposite Leitrim House where he went to school.

Early in 1876, Halpin bought 300 acres at Tinakilly for £12,000, and spent four years building Tinakilly House, which was designed by the architect James Franklin Fuller. The house was completed in 1880 and it is said the stairs and landing were built to resemble the bridge of the Great Eastern.

Happy to be back at home in Wicklow, Halpin helped to organise Wicklow’s first official regatta in 1878 and for many years was a member of the Harbour Board. Against his better judgment, he was persuaded to stand in 1892 election as a Parnellite candidate for East Wicklow. But Halpin was defeated by the anti-Parnellite candidate, John Sweetman (1844-1936).

Then, late in 1893, while cutting his toe-nails, he accidentally nicked a toe. An infection set in, his health deteriorated, and he died from septicaemia on 20 January 1894. Flags were flown at half-mast throughout the town, and ships and fishing boats in the harbour paid their tribute.

On 23 January, his coffin was taken from his home at Tinakilly in an open, horse-drawn carriage to the Church of Ireland parish church in Wicklow. The cortege was one of the largest ever seen in the town, the funeral was conducted by the Rector of Wicklow, Canon Henry Rooke (later Archdeacon of Glendalough) and he was buried in the churchyard, overlooking the town and the sea.

The obelisk in Fitzwilliam Square is Halpin’s memorial in the centre of Wicklow Town (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The granite obelisk in Fitzwilliam Square in the centre of the town was erected in 1897 on a piece of ground provided by Halpin’s friend, Lord Fitzwilliam. The monument honouring Halpin and recognising his contribution to the world of telegraphy was unveiled with great pomp and ceremony on 23 October 1897.

The inscription reads Civi Emerito Civitas Genetrix, “The state is mother to the worthy citizen.”

Tinakilly House remained in the Halpin family until the mid-20th century and the death of his daughter Belle Louisa.

More stories to read … a sign over the bookshop opposite the house where Robert Halpin was born (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Dispelling the myths
while we remember
the events of 1916

Christ Church Cathedral … closed for Easter Day 2016 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The calendars of the state and of our schools, popular events and television programmes, are revolving around events marking the centenary of the 1916 Rising.

The Easter Rising began on Monday 24 April 1916, which was neither Easter Day nor in March. But this year’s main centenary events are taking place on Easter Day, Sunday 29 March 2016. The most important day in the Christian calendar has been taken over so that on Easter Day most churchgoers in Dublin are not going to get to the church or cathedral of their choice in the city centre.

Despite representations from the Churches, a lockdown in Dublin is going to keep people away from Christ Church Cathedral, Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Saint Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, and many more churches. But this is not the first time that the Christian message of Easter has been hijacked for political purposes.

Saint Patrick’s Cathedral … also closed for Easter Day this year (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Roots of nationalism

The GPO in O’Connell Street, Dublin … neither Sinn Féin nor the IRA was involved in organising the Easter Rising in 1916 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

We revel in our myths, so who is going to point out that neither Sinn Féin nor the IRA took part in the events of Easter Week, or that Patrick Pearse did not lead the rising?

The three organisations named in the Easter Proclamation are the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army, and the IRA was not formed until 1917.

Instead, modern Irish nationalism begins with the revival of the Irish language. The leading figures in that revival include Dr Douglas Hyde, the son of a Cork-born Church of Ireland rector, Canon Arthur Hyde, and Dr Eleanor Hull, who wrote hymns such as Be thou my vision – although it is often forgotten that she was born in England and died there too.

The Abbey Theatre, central to the Irish cultural revival, was founded by Lady Gregory, WB Yeats and George Russell (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The new nationalism found its expressions in the Abbey Theatre, founded by Lady Gregory, WB Yeats and George Russell (AE), in the poetry of Yeats and the plays of Sean O’Casey – all members of the Church of Ireland.
Dispelling myths

The Children of Lir … part of the monument to the 1916 leaders in Parnell Square (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Since 1916, the leaders of the Easter Rising have been transformed into either working class heroes or the personification of what it is to be Green, Gaelic, Catholic and Irish. But the truths of history are different.

Pádraig Pearse was born Patrick Henry Pearse, the son of James Pearse, a Birmingham Unitarian who came to Dublin with the Victorian arts-and-crafts movement. Pearse was never a member of Sinn Féin or the IRA, and despite romantic portrayals linking him to Connemara, his mother was born in Dublin.

Other myths surrounding Pearse include one that he was “President of the Provisional Government,” a post that was held instead by Thomas Clarke. Thomas Clarke was not born in Ireland but in an army barracks on the Isle of Wight, where his father was a soldier in the British Army. Thomas MacDonagh had a middle class education in Rockwell College, Co Tipperary, and was a lecturer in English in UCD. In 1912, he married Muriel Gifford, a member of a well-known Church of Ireland family in Dublin. Éamonn Ceannt, an accountant, was born Edward Thomas Kent, the son of an officer in the Royal Irish Constabulary.

James Connolly was born in Edinburgh, and spoke with a Scottish accent all his life. After joining the British Army at the age of 14, he spent seven years with the army in Ireland. In 1890, he married Lillie Reynolds, a member of the Church of Ireland who was born in Co Wicklow.

Joseph Mary Plunkett was the son of Count George Noble Plunkett, and his distant cousin, Sir Horace Curzon Plunkett, was a prominent lay member of the Church of Ireland and a Home Rule MP. The poet was educated by the Jesuits at Belvedere and Stonyhurst, a public school in Lancashire. Hours before his execution, he married Grace Gifford, who, like her sister Muriel MacDonagh, had been born into a Church of Ireland family.
Sean O’Casey, the playwright of the Rising, was a member of the Church of Ireland

So, two of the seven signatories were not born in Ireland, one was the son of an Englishman, one had served in the British army, one was the son of an RIC officer, one was born in a British army barracks, one was a titled aristocrat who went to an English public school, and at least three married women who were born into the Church of Ireland.

The rebel garrison in City Hall in Easter Week was commanded by Dr Kathleen Lynn (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

These backgrounds were similar to those of many prominent figures on the Republican side after 1916. For example, Liam Mellows, later executed in 1922 during the Civil War, was born William Joseph Mellows in an army barracks in Manchester, and his father was born in a British army barracks in India.

While the Rising was being planned, Arthur Griffith and Sinn Féin favoured establishing a form of dual monarchy linking Ireland and Britain, similar to the dual monarchy in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Sinn Féin did not support the Rising.

Church of Ireland members

Countess Markievicz, the suffragette and a leader of the Irish Citizen Army, was born Constance Gore-Booth

Many of the women who had prominent roles in the Rising were members of the Church of Ireland: Countess Markievicz, the suffragette and a leader of the Irish Citizen Army, was born Constance Georgine Gore-Booth in Buckingham Gate, London, the daughter of Sir Henry Gore-Booth of Lissadell House, Co Sligo. She and her younger sister, Eva Gore-Booth, were childhood friends of Yeats.

Dr Kathleen Lynn, a founding member of the Irish Citizen Army who commanded the rebel garrison in City Hall in Easter Week, remained a pious member of the Church of Ireland until her death in 1955.
The grave in Whitechurch of the Revd Robert Malcolm Gwynn, a founding member of the Irish Citizen Army (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Indeed, the first informal meeting to form the Irish Citizen Army took place in Trinity College Dublin in the rooms of the Revd Robert Malcolm Gwynn. He attended Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, until his death in 1962, and is buried in Whitechurch Churchyard. One of his brothers, Brian Gwynn, was father-in-law of the late Archbishop George Simms. Through their mother, the Gwynns were grandsons of William Smith O’Brien, the exiled 1848 revolutionary.

Howth Harbour … the Howth gunrunning involved many prominent members of the Church of Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In 1914, members of the Church of Ireland were among the most prominent organisers of the Howth gunrunning. Erskine Childers, a cousin of the Bartons of Glendalough House, sailed the Asgard into Howth. The organisers included his wife Molly Childers, Sir Roger Casement, Alice Stopford Green and Mary Spring Rice – all Church of Ireland members, as were many of those waiting for them on the pier, including Countess Markievicz, Douglas Hyde and Darrell Figgis.

Edward Conor Marshal O’Brien (1880-1952), skipper of the Kelpie, one of the yachts involved in the gunrunnings, was a member of the Church of Ireland from Limerick and a first cousin of the Gwynn brothers.

A monument to Sir Thomas Myles in Kilcoole, Co Wicklow (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The equally dramatic Kilcoole gunrunning in Co Wicklow was organised by the skipper of the Chotah and the King’s Surgeon in Ireland, Sir Thomas Myles (1857- 1937), who was baptised in Saint Michael’s Church of Ireland parish church in Limerick. He was the son-in-law of the Revd George Ayres (1825-1881), as a Church of England clergyman, and his brother, the Very Revd Edward Albert Myles (1865-1951), was Dean of Dromore. Sir Thomas Myles was knighted at King Edward VII’s coronation and after World War I began he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and became an honorary surgeon to the King in Ireland.

More than 15 deaths

In the weeks to come, considerable attention will focus on the 15 leaders of the Rising who were executed. However, research by Glasnevin Cemetery shows that 485 people were killed in the Easter Rising. The majority of these casualties were civilians, with 184 killed in Easter week. A quarter of those who were killed were soldiers (107), many of them Irish, while the rebel forces accounted for 16 per cent of deaths (58). Four per cent of the casualties were among the police (13). Almost one in five of those killed was under the age of 19. The RTÉ broadcaster Joe Duffy tells the story of the 40 children killed in the Rising in his book, Children of the Rising.

If the myths surrounding 1916 are in danger of writing members of the Church of Ireland and their roles out of history, then we must also remember that more Irish soldiers – Catholic and Protestant – died at the Gallipoli landings in 1915 or at the Somme in 1916 than died in the Easter Rising.

After 1916, Irish identity was so changed for ever and violently that the lines by Yeats about the leaders of the Rising speak too of the whole island:

All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Sinn Féin was not involved in the Rising. Indeed, the party was in such disarray at the time that it was insolvent and unable to pay the rent on its Harcourt Street premises. Its leader, Arthur Griffith, was then a monarchist, advocating a dual monarchy for Britain and Ireland.

It was not until late in 1916 that Éamon de Valera joined Sinn Féin, and the party almost split between its monarchist and republican wings at its 1917 Ard Fheis until a compromise motion was tabled favouring the establishment of an independent Ireland, leaving the people to decide between a monarchy and a republic.

Like so many empires, Griffith’s idealised Austro-Hungarian Empire, came to an end with World War I. The world was so changed and transformed that Yeats could open his poem The Second Coming with these lines:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

‘No petty people’

Archbishop JAF Gregg with Eamon de Valera

When the Treaty was signed in December 1921, Archbishop JAF Gregg of Dublin said in a sermon: “It concerns us all to offer the Irish Free State our loyalty. I believe there is a genuine desire on the part of those who have long differed from us politically to welcome our co-operation. We should be wrong politically and religiously to reject such advances.”

In 1922, after many Protestants were forced from their homes and some had been murdered in Co Cork, a delegation of southern members of the General Synod met Michael Collins and WT Cosgrave, and asked whether the government was “desirous of retaining” the Protestant community. The new government readily gave the assurances sought.

WB Yeats: “We … are no petty people”

A few years later, describing himself as a “typical” member of a proud minority, WB Yeats declared in the new Senate: “We … are no petty people. We are one of the great stocks of Europe. We are the people of Burke; we are the people of Grattan; we are the people of Swift, the people of Emmet, the people of Parnell. We have created the most of the modern literature of this country.”

In the decade that followed, Douglas Hyde became the first President of Ireland under the 1937 Constitution.

Douglas Hyde, the son of a Cork-born Church of Ireland rector, became the first President of Ireland in 1937

Canon Patrick Comerford lectures in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This feature was first published in the ‘Church Review’ (Dublin and Glendalough) and the ‘Diocesan Magazine’ (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory) in March 2016.

The Life of Saint Patrick and his Message for us
Today – Reader Mini Retreat Conference

This news item and photograph is published in the March 2016 edition of the ‘Church Review’ (Dublin and Glendalough), p 19:

The Life of Saint Patrick and his Message for us
Today – Reader Mini Retreat Conference

The Lay Training Department of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute has announced its first Reader ‘mini-retreat’ conference for 2016.

Facilitated by Canon Patrick Comerford, Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History (CITI), Diocesan and Parish Readers are warmly invited to hear Patrick lead our thinking and learning on “The Life of Saint Patrick and his message for us today”. Topics to be covered during the mini-retreat will include “Who is Saint Patrick?” “Saint Patrick’s writings and message” and “Celtic Spirituality, is there something there…?”

Running from 6.00 pm on March 11 to 3.30pm on March 12, this ‘mini-retreat’ will provide an informed and challenging look at the life of our Patron Saint and the importance of his message for the Church (and society today). The ‘mini-retreat’ will also include times of worship, prayer and fellowship for those engaged in Reader ministry from across the Church of Ireland.

The retreat takes place in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Braemor Park, Churchtown, Dublin 14. The cost €65 on a Residential basis (Evening meal, B and B, lunch) or €30 on a non-residential basis (including all meals). (Evening meal, B and B, lunch).

To book a place on the Saint Patrick ‘mini-retreat’ please email: davidbrown@theologicalinstitute.ie

Where was the Prodigal Son’s
Mother on Mothering Sunday?

The distress of refugee Syrian mothers and fathers seen by the artist Kaiti Hsu

Patrick Comerford,

Church of Ireland Theological Institute,

Sunday 6 March 2016,

The Fourth Sunday in Lent (Mothering Sunday).

Joshua 5: 9-12; Psalm 32; II Corinthians 5: 16-21; Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32.

In the name of the + Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

I grew up on a solid diet of English boys’ comics, graduating from the Beano and the Dandy in the 1950s to the Victor, the Valiant and the Hotspur in the 1960s.

There were limited storylines, and the characters never had any great depth to them.

In those decades immediately after World War II, Germans were caricatures rather characters, portrayed as Huns who had a limited vocabulary.

And I remember how they always referred to the Vaterland. Somehow, seeing your country as the Father-land made you harsh, unforgiving, demanding and violent. While those who saw their country as a mother, whether it was Britannia or Marianne, or perhaps even Hibernia, were supposed to be more caring, empathetic and ethical, endowed with justice and mercy.

These images somehow played on, pandered to, the images a previous generation had of the different roles of a father and a mother.

So, culturally it may come as a surprise, perhaps even a cultural challenge, to many this morning, that the Gospel reading on Mothering Sunday is a Parable that tells us what it is to be a good father.

Culturally we are predisposed to thinking of this parable as the story of the Prodigal Son. But this is not a story telling us to be wayward children. The emphasis is three-way: the wayward son, the unforgiving or begrudging son, and the loving Father.

Who is missing from this story? … the Mother of these two sons.

The people who first heard this parable – eager tax collectors and sinners, grumbling Pharisees and Scribes – may well have been mindful of the Old Testament saying: “A wise son makes a glad father, but a foolish son is a mother’s grief” (Proverbs 10:1).

Or inwardly they may have been critical of the father, recalling another saying in the Book of Proverbs: “Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray” (Proverbs 22: 6).

We all know what bad parenting is like. I know myself. I know what it is to have two sets of parents, and four sets of grandparents, who came with different gifts and different deficiencies. But I am also aware of my own many failings as a parent too, and hope on this Mothering Sunday that where I have failed as a father, a loving mother has been more than compensation.

But in this morning’s Gospel reading, Christ rejects all the dysfunctional models of parenting we have inherited and received.

Those first listeners to this parable may well have had wayward sons and jealous sons, and the story, initially, would have been no surprise, would have been one they knew only too well.

But they no longer need to be challenged as adult children. The challenge they need is about their own parenting skills. And they may well have been distressed as they hear a story about a man who behaves not like a father would be expected to behave but like a mother.

Where was the mother of the prodigal son? Did she have a role in this family drama?

Had she been praying ever since her wayward son left home, asking God to keep him safe, to bring him home? Perhaps it was her prayers that reached him in some way and reminded her son of home?

I think, for example, of Saint Monica, the mother of Saint Augustine, who was anything but a saint in his youth. Although he gave Monica much grief, she persisted with her prayers and prayed her son into sainthood. She was looking out for him in oh so many ways.

But the Father in this morning’s parable is both Father and Mother to the Son.

He behaves just like a mother would in these circumstances.

He is constantly looking and waiting and watching for him until the day he sees him.

And when he sees him, instead of being the perfectly behaved gentleman he is filled up with emotions, he runs, he hugs, he kisses. He finds him clean clothes, he finds clean shoes, he feeds him. And like a good mother, he probably also tells him his room is made up, it has always been there for him.

The father in this morning’s parable bucks all the images of parenting we have inherited, he is both mother and father to his children.

‘A well-sculpted eulogy, carved with all the beauty, precision, delicacy and impact of a Pieta being sculpted by a Michelangelo’

The sufferings and compassion of three images in recent times illustrate for me how loving parents can be reflections of divine majesty and grace.

I think of the pregnant mother, a qualified solicitor who had been homeless, told Valerie Cox on RTÉ radio a few days ago how she is forced to walk the streets of Dublin because she the hostel where she stays does not allow her in until 7.30 in the evening.

Like the Prodigal Son, no one gives her anything and she has no proper bed at night. She is 6½ months pregnant, has an eight-year-old daughter, and Mother Ireland has betrayed her.

Or I think of Syrian mothers who are refugees crossing the Aegean Sea between Turkey and the Greek islands. Our media have largely forgotten this story today, unless they report it as an emergency crisis for Europe and the European Union.

We see it as our problem rather than seeing as a problem for the people fleeing war and savage violence. But there are harrowing stories in Greek newspapers each every day of Syrian mothers who are separated from their children: mothers who make the journey only to find their children have been turned back, or mothers see their children drown just they reach the shores of Greece.

Or I think of Nuala Creane who spoke movingly at the funeral of her son Sebastian who was murdered in Bray in August 2009. At his funeral, she told her story, telling all present that “my story, my God is the God of Small Things. I see God’s presence in the little details.”

It was a beautiful and well-sculpted eulogy, carved with all the beauty, precision, delicacy and impact of a Pieta being sculpted by a Michelangelo. She spoke of how the God of Small Things had blessed her with a sunny child, “was saying, is saying, let the child inside each of us come to the surface and play.”

She understood generously and graciously, and with majesty, the grief of those who loved the young man who had killed her son and then killed himself, believing these young men “both played their parts in the unfolding of God’s divine plan.”

She spoke of the heartbreak and the choice that faces everyone confronted with the deepest personal tragedies, asking herself: “Do we continue to live in darkness, seeing only fear, anger, bitterness, resentment; blaming, bemoaning our loss, always looking backwards, blaming, blaming, blaming, or are we ready to transmute this negativity? We can rise to the challenge with unconditional love, knowing that we were born on to this earth to grow ... Our hearts are broken but maybe our hearts needed to be broken so that they could expand.”

Broken hearts, expanding hearts, rising to the challenge with unconditional love … this is how I hope I understand the majesty and the glory of Christ, at the best of times and at the worst of times.

How as a society – whether it is our local community, this island, or in Europe, are we mothers to mothers in need?

How, as a Church, so often spoken of lovingly as Mother Church,” do we speak up for God’s children in their time of need and despair?

I suppose, this Mothering Sunday, that Jesus had good experiences of mothering as he was growing up. Just a few verses before this parable, he uses a most maternal image as he laments over Jerusalem and declares: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem … How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings …”

The Christ Child, when he was born, was cradled in the lap of a loving mother who at the time could never know that when he died and was taken down from the cross she would cradle him once again in her lap.

But the experience of a mother’s loss and grief that comes to mind in Lent is given new hope at Easter.

This Mothering Sunday, we move through Lent towards Good Friday and Easter Day, I pray that like Christ, and that like so many suffering mothers, we grow to understand those who suffer, those who grieve, those who forgive.

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

This sermon was prepared for the Community Eucharist in the chapel of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute on Sunday 6 March 2016.


Lord God
whose blessed Son our Saviour
gave his back to the smiters
and did not hide his face from shame:
Give us grace to endure the sufferings of this present time
with sure confidence in the glory that shall be revealed;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.


God of compassion,
whose Son Jesus Christ, the child of Mary,
shared the life of a home in Nazareth,
and on the cross drew the whole human family to himself:
Strengthen us in our daily living
that in joy and in sorrow
we may know the power of your presence
to bind together and to heal;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

through your goodness
we are refreshed through your Son
in word and sacrament.
May our faith be so strengthened and guarded
that we may witness to your eternal love
by our words and in our lives.
Grant this for Jesus’ sake, our Lord.


Loving God,
as a mother feeds her children at the breast,
you feed us in this sacrament with spiritual food and drink.
Help us who have tasted your goodness
to grow in grace within the household of faith;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32

1 Hσαν δὲ αὐτῷ ἐγγίζοντες πάντες οἱ τελῶναι καὶ οἱ ἁμαρτωλοὶ ἀκούειν αὐτοῦ. 2 καὶ διεγόγγυζον οἵ τε Φαρισαῖοι καὶ οἱγραμματεῖς λέγοντες ὅτι Οὗτος ἁμαρτωλοὺς προσδέχεται καὶ συνεσθίει αὐτοῖς. 3 εἶπεν δὲ πρὸς αὐτοὺς τὴν παραβολὴν ταύτην λέγων,

11 … Ἄνθρωπός τις εἶχεν δύο υἱούς. 12 καὶ εἶπεν ὁ νεώτερος αὐτῶν τῷ πατρί, Πάτερ, δός μοι τὸ ἐπιβάλλον μέρος τῆς οὐσίας. ὁ δὲδιεῖλεν αὐτοῖς τὸν βίον. 13 καὶ μετ' οὐ πολλὰς ἡμέρας συναγαγὼν πάντα ὁ νεώτερος υἱὸς ἀπεδήμησεν εἰς χώραν μακράν, καὶἐκεῖ διεσκόρπισεν τὴν οὐσίαν αὐτοῦ ζῶν ἀσώτως. 14 δαπανήσαντος δὲ αὐτοῦ πάντα ἐγένετο λιμὸς ἰσχυρὰ κατὰ τὴν χώρανἐκείνην, καὶ αὐτὸς ἤρξατο ὑστερεῖσθαι. 15 καὶ πορευθεὶς ἐκολλήθη ἑνὶ τῶν πολιτῶν τῆς χώρας ἐκείνης, καὶ ἔπεμψεν αὐτὸν εἰςτοὺς ἀγροὺς αὐτοῦ βόσκειν χοίρους: 16 καὶ ἐπεθύμει χορτασθῆναι ἐκ τῶν κερατίων ὧν ἤσθιον οἱ χοῖροι, καὶ οὐδεὶς ἐδίδου αὐτῷ. 17 εἰς ἑαυτὸν δὲ ἐλθὼν ἔφη, Πόσοι μίσθιοι τοῦ πατρός μου περισσεύονται ἄρτων, ἐγὼ δὲ λιμῷ ὧδε ἀπόλλυμαι. 18 ἀναστὰςπορεύσομαι πρὸς τὸν πατέρα μου καὶ ἐρῶ αὐτῷ, Πάτερ, ἥμαρτον εἰς τὸν οὐρανὸν καὶ ἐνώπιόν σου, 19 οὐκέτι εἰμὶ ἄξιοςκληθῆναι υἱός σου: ποίησόν με ὡς ἕνα τῶν μισθίων σου. 20 καὶ ἀναστὰς ἦλθεν πρὸς τὸν πατέρα ἑαυτοῦ. ἔτι δὲ αὐτοῦ μακρὰνἀπέχοντος εἶδεν αὐτὸν ὁ πατὴρ αὐτοῦ καὶ ἐσπλαγχνίσθη καὶ δραμὼν ἐπέπεσεν ἐπὶ τὸν τράχηλον αὐτοῦ καὶ κατεφίλησεναὐτόν. 21 εἶπεν δὲ ὁ υἱὸς αὐτῷ, Πάτερ, ἥμαρτον εἰς τὸν οὐρανὸν καὶ ἐνώπιόν σου, οὐκέτι εἰμὶ ἄξιος κληθῆναι υἱός σου. 22 εἶπεν δὲὁ πατὴρ πρὸς τοὺς δούλους αὐτοῦ, Ταχὺ ἐξενέγκατε στολὴν τὴν πρώτην καὶ ἐνδύσατε αὐτόν, καὶ δότε δακτύλιον εἰς τὴν χεῖρααὐτοῦ καὶ ὑποδήματα εἰς τοὺς πόδας, 23 καὶ φέρετε τὸν μόσχον τὸν σιτευτόν, θύσατε καὶ φαγόντες εὐφρανθῶμεν, 24 ὅτι οὗτος ὁυἱός μου νεκρὸς ἦν καὶ ἀνέζησεν, ἦν ἀπολωλὼς καὶ εὑρέθη. καὶ ἤρξαντο εὐφραίνεσθαι.

25 Hν δὲ ὁ υἱὸς αὐτοῦ ὁ πρεσβύτεροςἐν ἀγρῷ: καὶ ὡς ἐρχόμενος ἤγγισεν τῇ οἰκίᾳ, ἤκουσεν συμφωνίας καὶ χορῶν, 26 καὶ προσκαλεσάμενος ἕνα τῶν παίδωνἐπυνθάνετο τί ἂν εἴη ταῦτα. 27 ὁ δὲ εἶπεν αὐτῷ ὅτι Ὁ ἀδελφός σου ἥκει, καὶ ἔθυσεν ὁ πατήρ σου τὸν μόσχον τὸν σιτευτόν, ὅτιὑγιαίνοντα αὐτὸν ἀπέλαβεν. 28 ὠργίσθη δὲ καὶ οὐκ ἤθελεν εἰσελθεῖν. ὁ δὲ πατὴρ αὐτοῦ ἐξελθὼν παρεκάλει αὐτόν. 29 ὁ δὲἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν τῷ πατρὶ αὐτοῦ, Ἰδοὺ τοσαῦτα ἔτη δουλεύω σοι καὶ οὐδέποτε ἐντολήν σου παρῆλθον, καὶ ἐμοὶ οὐδέποτεἔδωκας ἔριφον ἵνα μετὰ τῶν φίλων μου εὐφρανθῶ: 30 ὅτε δὲ ὁ υἱός σου οὗτος ὁ καταφαγών σου τὸν βίον μετὰ πορνῶν ἦλθεν,ἔθυσας αὐτῷ τὸν σιτευτὸν μόσχον. 31 ὁ δὲ εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Τέκνον, σὺ πάντοτε μετ' ἐμοῦ εἶ, καὶ πάντα τὰ ἐμὰ σά ἐστιν: 32 εὐφρανθῆναι δὲ καὶ χαρῆναι ἔδει, ὅτι ὁ ἀδελφός σου οὗτος νεκρὸς ἦν καὶ ἔζησεν, καὶ ἀπολωλὼς καὶ εὑρέθη.

1 Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’

3 So he told them this parable:

11 … ‘There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands’.” 20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” 22 But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe – the best one – and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.

25 ‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” 31 Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found”.’

A journey through Lent 2016
with Samuel Johnson (26)

Lichfield’s Market Square and Johnson’s statue viewed from Johnson’s house in Lichfield last week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

During Lent this year, I am taking time each morning to reflect on words by Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), the Lichfield lexicographer and writer who compiled the first authoritative English-language dictionary.

This morning [6 March 2016] is the Fourth Sunday in Lent, and is also Mothering Sunday.

Samuel Johnson’s mother, Sarah (1669-1759), was the daughter of Cornelius Ford and came from a middle class milling family. She was born in King’s Norton in 1669, and married Michael Johnson (1656-1731) in 1706. Their son Samuel was named after her brother, Samuel Ford.

When Sarah died in 1759 she was buried with her husband in Saint Michael’s Church, Lichfield. The inscription on their gravestone, composed by their son Samuel, describes her as “a descendant of the ancient Ford family. Industrious in her home, though known to few outside it; the enemy of none, she was distinguished by a keen intellect and a shrewd judgement. Always sparing others, but never herself, with her thoughts ever fixed on Eternity, she was graced by every description of virtue.”

Samuel Johnson’s ‘Last Letter to his Aged Mother,’ written on 20 January 1769, reads:

Dear Honoured Mother:

Neither your condition nor your character make it fit for me to say much. You have been the best mother, and I believe the best woman, in the world. I thank you for your indulgence to me, and beg forgiveness of all that I have done ill, and all that I have omitted to do well. God grant you his Holy Spirit, and receive you to everlasting happiness, for Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen. Lord Jesus receive your spirit. Amen.

I am, dear, dear Mother,
Your dutiful Son,
Sam. Johnson.

Yesterday’s reflection.

Continued tomorrow.