Tuesday, 4 October 2016

The Eucharist: an introduction
for the Dearmer Society

‘... to preside in the very deed that so expands the life of creatures is a function of unquestionable beauty and dignity,’ according to Robert Hovda

Patrick Comerford,

The Dearmer Society,

4 October 2016


Opening Prayer

The Lord be with you
and also with you.

Today [4 October] is the Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi, Friar, Deacon and Founder of the Friars Minor (1226). The Collect in Common Worship (the Church of England) prays in these words:

O God, you ever delight to reveal yourself
to the childlike and lowly of heart:
grant that, following the example of the blessed Francis,
we may count the wisdom of this world as foolishness
and know only Jesus Christ and him crucified,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.


Introduction

During our training, preparation and placements, many of us are filled with a natural human anxiety, worrying about the first time we stand at the Altar, before a congregation, about to celebrate or preside at the Eucharist. So much so, that we may be in danger of forgetting that we too are present among the congregation, to be enriched and fed spiritually as we meet Christ, present in Word and Sacrament.

We all know what it is to ask: ‘Will I get it all right when it comes to my turn?’

This evening, we have an opportunity, instead, to ask not about ourselves, but about the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper itself. This evening, we ask not ‘What am I doing?’

Rather, we ask: ‘What are we doing together?’

And we ask: ‘What is Christ doing with me, with us?’

But there are other questions and dialogues too.

At one level, there is the simple dialogue about the language and vocabulary we use. Do we call this [pointing] an altar or a table?

At the epiclesis, who re we invoking the Holy Spirit on: on the offering of bread and wine? On those present? On the Church? On all three?

These questions of language and vocabulary are often cultural rather than theological, delimiting or setting out our tribal boundaries and barriers rather than discussing central theological truths.

But there two other languages that we may want to discuss this evening too.

The first is body language.

Non-verbal communications include facial expressions, the tone and pitch of the voice, gestures displayed through body language (kinesics) and the physical distance between the communicators (proxemics).

These non-verbal signals can give clues and additional information and meaning over and above the spoken or verbal communication.

Professor Albert Mehrabian of UCLA came up with the now famous – and famously misused – rule that verbal communication is only 7 per cent verbal and 93 per cent non-verbal. The non-verbal component was made up of body language (55 per cent) and tone of voice (38 per cent).

So how I process into a church, how I stand at the altar, how I stand at the Creed, how I use my hands, whether I lift up the bread and wine, whether I lift up my eyes … all those nonverbal forms of communication are important for the person who is celebrating or presiding at the Eucharist.

Part of this too is how I use space, how we use colour, where we sit, how we use the presidential space, how I treat the sacred elements and the sacred vessels, what we place or do not place on the altar, how we treat the remaining sacred elements and sacred vessels after all have received the Sacrament.

But none of this, of course, gets us away from how we use the words of the Liturgy too: the parts I delete, and the parts I interpolate or add in …

The second is a language that has come into play in recent years.

This is the discussion about form and content. In the debate about Fresh Expressions, Andrew Davison and Alison Milbank argue coherently that in losing the form of liturgy we are in danger of losing the vehicle by which we convey the tradition, that we are in danger of losing the content.

If we stop seeing the Church as being the Church of Word and Sacrament, and then reduce the Word to how we promote our own interpretation of what we decide is ‘the Gospel message,’ then we become one more discussion forum and stop being Church.

Simon Reynolds has also introduced a discussion about the way Liturgy is often reduced to what passes for worship, but the content of this worship is often determined by its entertainment value.

Language and vocabulary

The Eucharist is the great thanksgiving – eucharistia (εὐχαριστία) – for the great goodness of God. Whether we call this ‘The Eucharist,’ ‘The Holy Communion,’ ‘The Sacrament,’ or ‘The Lord’s Supper,’ this is the central act of Christian worship where Christ encounters and feeds his faithful ones.

As the first of the General Directions for Public Worship in The Book of Common Prayer, and as Bishop Harold Miller says, ‘The Holy Communion is the central act of worship in the church.’ Bishop Miller says it is the most normative and complete act of Sunday worship. He says: ‘The Holy Communion gives us a window into all that is most vital in our regular worship.’

As we have it, this service is not simply the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Communion, or the Eucharist. It is a combination of both a Liturgy of the Word, a Prayer Service, and a Liturgy of the Sacrament.

The President’s Role at the Eucharist is defined at six specific points:

1, The Opening Greeting;
2, The Collect of the Day;
3, The Absolution;
4, introducing the Peace;
5, praying the Eucharistic Prayer;
6, the Dismissal.

The Gathering of God’s People

So as we are gather the candles are lit, and the altar is prepared for our celebration. It is covered with a fair linen cloth (see The Book of Common Prayer, p 77). On this, in the centre, we place the corporal, a square white cloth. On this stand the chalices and the paten, covered by a burse and veil in the appropriate liturgical colour.

In addition, there are two purificators for the administration of the chalices. The pocket of the burse has the chalice corporal inside it, with the pocket facing where the presiding priest is going to stand for the Eucharistic Prayer. This chalice corporal is used to cover the communion vessels after we have all received.

The Greek work ἐκκλησία (ekklesía), which we translate as ‘Church,’ refers to the gathering of the people, the calling out of the world and into the assembly.

Before the arrival of the priest, the congregation gathers. We are there first and foremost as the gathered or assembled church, believers. Others may be guests, and welcomed guests, but it is not a secular gathering, on the one hand; nor, on the other hand, is it a meeting for evangelism. The presumption first and foremost is that those present are baptised believers.

We meet in his name, and we do as he commanded us.

We meet not as a collection of neighbours, or as a collection of individual Christians, but as the One Body of Christ, and in the power of the Spirit. The liturgy is essentially what we do – it is truly our ‘Common Prayer.’

Green is the liturgical colour for ‘Ordinary Time’

The candles are lit, the lectern is dressed in the liturgical colours of the season: which is green in Ordinary Time, including this time from the day after Pentecost and the beginning of Advent.

In the vestry or sacristy, the priest may say prayers such as the familiar third collect at Morning Prayer:

Go before us, Lord, in all our doings, with your most gracious favour,
and further us with your continual help;
that in all our works begun, continued and ended in you,
we may glorify your holy name,
and finally by your mercy attain everlasting life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


The memory of the silent prayers said by the priest before presiding or celebrating is retained in Holy Communion 1 in The Book of Common Prayer, where it says ‘The priest stands at the Lord’s Table. The people kneel.’ And then the priest prays the Lord’s Prayer – without the doxology – alone.

We too should be silent as we gather our thoughts, our minds, ourselves as we prepare to celebrate.

In common language, we normally use the words ‘celebration,’ ‘celebrating’ and ‘celebrant’ for the person presiding at the Eucharist or the Holy Communion.

But when we celebtate, we are all celebrating, celebrating together; we are all co-celebrants, and the person who presides is the one who seeks to bring it alive, to animate what is happening, to see that it truly is the liturgy, the work of the people, and not something we are present at as spectators.

As the people gather, the many come together to be one body.

We are social and sociable. We chat with one another.

But we are not collected individuals, and small groups of twos or threes.

We are gather together as one people.

The priest who is presiding is the last to enter, and we stand – in silence or singing a hymn – ready to be gathered together as one body, and the priest joins us before the altar or table.

Our worship does not open or begin with the processional hymn. It opens or begins when we are gathered together as one body when the presiding priest stands at the president’s chair and calls us together in the opening liturgical greeting.

The liturgical greeting is not the same as Good Morning. And it establishes who is presiding, the presidency, so it should not be left to a Reader or an assistant.

The opening greeting is:

The Lord be with you
and also with you.

Although from Easter Day until the Day of Pentecost, for example, it varies from this.

A sentence of scripture may be read, and the presiding minister may introduce the liturgy of the day.

As The Book of Common Prayer reminds us (p. 18): ‘All Sundays celebrate the paschal mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ … On these days it is fitting that the Holy Communion be celebrated in every cathedral and … church …’

Christ is present among us in so many ways: in word, in sacrament, and in the gathered Body of Christ. And so, in awe and reverence, we draw our hearts and minds together and prepare to enter fully into worship, praying the Collect for Purity.

This prayer comes to us as an inheritance of Sarum Use, and was so loved that it has survived in The Book of Common Prayer ever since 1549.

Almighty God,
to whom all hearts are open,
all desires known,
and from whom no secrets are hidden;
Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts
by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit,
that we may perfectly love you,
and worthily magnify your holy name;
through Christ our Lord. Amen
.

Penitence as part of the gathering of the people has been an integral part of Anglican liturgy since 1556. The Confession is introduced with appropriate words, such as:

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son Jesus Christ, to save us from our sins, to intercede for us in heaven, and to bring us to eternal life.

Let us then confess our sins in penitence and faith,
firmly resolved to keep God’s commandments
and to live in love and peace:


Then there is silence to think about this.

We might then use the traditional words of confession, that begins with the words, ‘Almighty God, our heavenly Father …,’ or, use seasonal Penitential Kyries. The Kyrie responses are a Trinitarian acclamation and among the oldest prayers in the Church. In their Greek form they are the oldest surviving Greek prayers in the Western church:

Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison.

We are then assured of God’s forgiveness as the priest pronounces the absolution:

Almighty God,
who forgives all who truly repent, have mercy on you,
pardon and deliver you from all your sins,
confirm and strengthen you in all goodness,
and keep you in eternal life,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


The canticle Gloria in Excelsis may be omitted in Advent and Lent and on weekdays that are not holy days. In Holy Communion 1, the canticle Gloria comes after receiving Communion. Its present place restores Gloria to its place in 1549. We have been forgiven, then – like the angels and shepherds – we can give Glory to God who comes among us.

When we use Gloria, we should use it joyfully, it is full of images that children love. Resonances of its words can be found in some form in almost all Christmas carols, for example, and children delight in its images, its words and its pictures.

Then comes the Collect. Once the meaning of a collect has been explained, people rarely forget, because we all know what is to ask for our basic needs to be met. That is natural … I need, I need, I need, I feed, I feed, I feed … therefore I am? A collect is literally a collection of all the intentions and favours we seek, for the Church, for ourselves, for the world.

We are all asking for something … and we should give people time to think of what they need before praying the Collect of the Day.

In our worship, the Church of Ireland seeks a balance between Word and Sacrament. Both are important places for Christ being made present for us, for us presenting ourselves before Christ.

Colin Buchanan has summarised the Eucharist as ‘A Bible study, followed by a prayer meeting, followed by a meal.’ And so, Proclaiming and Receiving the Word is not preliminary to, or preparation for the Eucharist. It is both proclaiming and receiving. It is an essential part, an indispensable element of every celebration.

Properly, the full Word of God should be proclaimed … Old Testament, Psalm or Biblical Canticle, New Testament and Gospel. Otherwise, we have to ask, are we saying the Old Testament has lost its validity or – even worse – suggesting the God of the Old Testament is not quite the same as the God of the New Testament?

The doxology, ‘Glory to the Father ...’ may be omitted at the end of Psalm in the Eucharist, for the Psalms are valid Biblical prayers without having to be ‘Christianised,’ and on Sundays we have given our glory to God in singing Gloria. It is traditional to omit to doxology at the end of the Psalms during Lent and Advent.

After the New Testament reading, we often sing a canticle, psalm, hymn, anthem or acclamation as a gradual before proclaiming and receiving the Gospel. And that leaves us standing to receive the Word of God, facing the Gospel, which is best proclaimed and received, not from the table or the altar but among the people.

If the Gospel reader marks three Crosses on the forehead, lips, and heart, all that is being said is simply: ‘Please help me to love your word with my mind, keep it on my lips, and hold it in my heart.’

The Word is not just proclaimed but is received, and we must take it for granted that at every celebration of the Eucharist there is an exposition of the Word, so people can receive it, so we can own it, so we can integrate it into our faith.

And the Liturgy of the Word then naturally reaches its climax when we share in the common confession of the faith of the universal Church, the Nicene Creed. We may use other creeds in other forms of worship, but The Book of Common Prayer insists on the Nicene Creed alone in the Eucharist, and on Sundays and Principal Holy Days.

The Prayers of the People

The intercessions normally include: prayers for: the universal Church; the nations of the world; the local community; those in need; and remembrance of, and thanksgiving for, the faithful departed.

But each petition should be brief, and we should avoid making intercessions appear like a series of collects. They should be addressed directly to God, and not to the people – this is not the place for another sermon.

But bear in mind, firstly, that these are the prayers of the people, not of the priest, and secondly, that you do not need to pray for all things at all services. Brevity and simplicity are important, corporate silence is important, and we should not hijack the prayers of others, the piety of others, and we should not displace the importance of the Great Thanksgiving, for the Eucharist itself is the Thanksgiving par excellence, and this should never be obscured by the content of the intercessions.

Lord, in your mercy:
hear our prayer.

The Peace

We have been gathered together, we have heard God’s word together, we have found we share the same faith, we have prayed together. To draw on Colin Buchanan’s imagery, we have had our Bible study and our prayer meeting. Now, before we share the meal … are we at peace with one another?

The Peace is still objected to in some parishes. How it is introduced will shape whether it is acceptable and whether it is liturgical. In the Communion we are being reconciled with God and with one another, so this should not be any old peace.

In him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

The peace of the Lord be always with you
and also with you.

Let us offer one another a sign of peace.

Celebrating at the Lord’s Table

But we have more to offer. Most people think of the offertory as the collection. But it is not, at all. It is about offering God back what God has offered us … food and drink to nourish us, transformed by our labour, the fruits of our labour, our sweat and toil.

And we offer that as we prepare to eat together.

Now is the time to eat together, and so before the meal we prepare the table.

Once again, The Book of Common Prayer (p. 77) is very specific:

The bread to be used shall be the best and purest bread that can be obtained. Care is to be taken that the wine is fit for use.

In families, children love preparing the family table, love the idea of gifts being given and received. There’s not much chance of that happening at this point in a parish church if they have been sent out to Sunday school beforehand.

If the priest washes his or her hands at Lavabo, it is good table manners. Remember how over and over again, the Church uses water as a sign of purity and purification.

If children are preparing the altar, they would love to hear these appropriate words:

Wise and gracious God,
you spread a table before us;
nourish your people with the word of life,
and the bread of heaven. Amen.


Or when the gifts are brought forward – and the most important gifts are not money but food and drink that sustain us – we might also include gifts made by the children who have come in from the Sunday School. It is more likely we are going to hear traditional words such as: ‘Lord, yours is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty; for all things come from you and of your own we give you.’

The Eucharist is not just words. It comes alive in action. And so there are four identifiable movements or actions we should watch out: taking, blessing, breaking and giving.

First we have the Taking of the Bread and Wine.

The bread and wine are the gifts of God and the work of our hands has turned wheat and grapes and water into bread and wine ... we offer to God what God has offered to us

We sometimes get this so wrong. How often do we find the bread and wine are already on the table or altar, or on a credence table at the side where no-one can see them? If the bread is little bits of sliced pan already cut into tiny squares, how are we going to break the bread together?

And those who preside should show they are taking this bread and wine – and this is not about elevation. Only the bishop or priest then may say: ‘Christ our Passover …’ This is one of the roles of the president, and cannot be delegated.

Like the opening greeting, this too states clearly what we are about to do. This is no longer bread and wine for secular use. What God has given to us for our sustenance we now offer to God.

The Eucharist ... the word simply means thanksgiving

Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us
therefore let us celebrate the feast.

The word Eucharist simply means thanksgiving. In a sense we are all lifting that Bread and Wine and saying thanks you for God’s gifts of life and what sustains life.

The Great Thanksgiving

There are three Great Thanksgiving Prayers in The Book of Common Prayer.

For example, Prayer 3 looks back to the past, looks to the present, and looks to the future. It is remembrance and anticipation of the beginning and the fulfilment of Creation. There is a true epiclesis or calling down of the Holy Spirit on us and on our gifts, it is fully Trinitarian, and its responses and refrains reminds us that Liturgy is the Work of the People, that we are all celebrating together.

The spirit of each of these three prayers is thanksgiving. It is not supposed to be quiet, or penitential, or singular. The appropriate posture is that we are all standing, for all are celebrating. But how many people when they are leading the liturgy change this by asking people to kneel, or by asking them to kneel for Sanctus. The only rubric for posture in Holy Communion is ‘Stand’, and, as Bishop Harold Miller says, the normal place for presiding is behind the altar/table, with hands out-stretched throughout the prayer.

The whole prayer, and not merely the Biblical words recalling the Last Supper, is the Eucharistic Prayer. If after those words the bread and wine are raised up, it is in giving thanks. But it is the whole prayer that is what we may call the ‘consecration,’ it is all the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Communion.

Sieger Koder … ‘The breaking of the bread’

In this chapel, when two people stand beside the celebrant or presiding priest, they are not there primarily to assist him/her, but to symbolise that we are all gathered around together. It is not that they are assisting the priest, but that the priest is assisting us to celebrate. He/she is the servant at the Table. This is Christ’s meal … and, as the Body of Christ, it is our meal. Notice the plural language that we use:

The Lord is here.
His Spirit is with us.

Lift up your hearts.
We lift them to the Lord.

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give our thanks and praise.

Father, Lord of all creation,
we praise you for your goodness and your love.
When we turned away you did not reject us …

And so on.

Notice the four-fold movement of taking, blessing, breaking and giving. Earlier, we had the taking of the gifts of bread and wine. In the thanksgiving, in the invocation of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, we have the blessing.

Taking, blessing … then we have the breaking and the giving. And we prepare for this in the words of The Lord’s Prayer.

As our Saviour Christ has taught us, we are bold to say:

Then we have The Breaking of the Bread, what is also called the Fraction.

The bread which we break
is a sharing in the body of Christ.
We being many are one body,
for we all share in the one bread
.

We break, we share. There is no point in a meal where the food is not served. And so the fourth essential movement, after taking, blessing and breaking, is the giving … the giving and receiving. And at The Communion there is an invitation to each and every one of us, collectively and individually:

Draw near with faith.
Receive the body of our Lord Jesus Christ which he gave for you,
and his blood which he shed for you.
Remember that he died for you,
and feed on him in your hearts by faith with thanksgiving.

Only when the invitation has been given, should the altar party receive Communion. It would be wrong for them to receive first and then invite others; this is work of the whole Church, and there are not two categories or classes of baptised and communicant members. The rubric states specifically: the presiding minister and people receive communion, and states this after the invitation.

And if you were at a meal, how appropriate it would be for us all to serve one another, to look after each other’s needs.

At the reception, our ‘Amen’ is our Amen to Christ present to us and among us in so many ways this morning … in Word, in Sacrament, and in us collectively as the Body of Christ.

What happens to the sacred elements and the sacred vessels afterwards?

The Book of Common Prayer in the Church of Ireland is very directive and specific about what should happen. It says (p. 77):

Any of the consecrated bread and wine remaining after the administration of the communion is to be reverently consumed.

And:

After the communion the vessels shall be carefully and thoroughly cleansed with water.

The Great Silence

When all have received Communion, all keep silence, not for some imposed act of piety, but for reflection on this awe-filled meeting with God. As the Bible reminds us constantly, the Fear of the Lord is the beginning of all Wisdom.

The Blessing and Dismissal

When we have been gathered, we have had our Bible study, we have had our prayer meeting, and we have our meal together, we are ready for Going out as God’s People. We are ready for a Blessing to send us out into the world in mission.

Firstly, we are prepared for that with an appropriate Post-Communion Prayer. Then we think on what has happened in the past hour, and look forward to the coming week:

Almighty God,
we thank you for feeding us with the spiritual food
of the body and blood of your Son Jesus Christ.
Through him we offer you our souls and bodies
to be a living sacrifice.
Send us out in the power of your Spirit
to live and work to your praise and glory. Amen.


To do that we expect God’s blessing:

The peace of God,
which passes all understanding,
keep your hearts and minds
in the knowledge and love of God,
and of his son Jesus Christ our Lord;
and the blessing of God almighty,
the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,
be among you and remain with you always. Amen.

And then that’s it, Let’s go!

Go in peace to love and serve the Lord
in the name of Christ. Amen.

And we go.

Material from The Book of Common Prayer of the Church of Ireland (2004) © RCB 2004.

Some reading:

Rosalind Brown, Christopher Cocksworth, On Being a Priest Today (Cambridge MA: Cowley, 2002).
Stephen Burns, Liturgy (London: SCM Press, 2006).
Andrew Davison, Why Sacraments (London: SPCK, 2013).
Andrew Davison, Alison Milbank, For the Parish, A Critique of Fresh Expression (London: SCM, 2010).
Mark Earey, Liturgical Worship: a fresh look, how it works, why it matters (London: Church House Publishing, 2002).
Howard E. Galley, The Ceremonies of the Eucharist, A Guide to Celebration (Cambridge MA: Cowley Publications, 1989).
Richard Giles, Creating Uncommon Worship: transforming the liturgy of the Eucharist (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2004).
Robert Hovda, Strong, Loving and Wise: Presiding in Liturgy (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1976).
Harold Miller: The Desire of our Soul: a user’s guide to the Book of Common Prayer (Dublin: Columba, 2004).
Cyril E Pocknee, The Parson’s Handbook, the work of Percy Dearmer (London: Oxford University Press, 1965).
Simon Reynolds, able Manners, Liturgical Leadership for the Mission of the Church (London: SCM, 2014).
Benjamin Gordon-Taylor and Simon Jones, Celebrating the Eucharist, A Practical Guide (London: SPCK, 2011 edition, Alcuin Liturgy Guides 3).
Benjamin Gordon-Taylor and Simon Jones, Celebrating Christ’s Victory, Ash Wednesday to Trinity (London: SPCK, 2009, Alcuin Liturgy Guides 6).

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy, and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute and chaplain of the Dearmer Society Ireland. These notes were prepared for a discussion at the first meeting in the new academic year 2016-2017 of the Dearmer Society in the institute chapel on 4 October 2016.

An insight into how Gormanston Castle has
seen many changes over the centuries

Gormanston Castle ... home of the Preston family for 600 years until it was sold to the Franciscan order (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

On Saturday afternoon [1 October 2016], I was part of a small group of people associated with Gormanston College, Co Meath, who were brought on a private tour of Gormanston Castle by Father Ulic Troy, the Rector of Gormanston, following a lecture by the local historian, Brendan Matthews.

As a schoolboy in Gormanston the 1960s, I had been in the castle a few times, and while I never got beyond the ground floor, I was able to admire the great hall and many of the once elegant rooms in the Gothic fantasy built at the end of the 18th century by the Preston family who hold the title of Viscount Gormanston and who lived there from the 14th century.

Gormanston, Co Meath, lies off the M1 between Drogheda and Balbriggan, about 30 km north of Dublin, near the mouth of the River Delvin and close to the border of Co Meath and Co Dublin.

The group of passage graves on either side of the mouth of river Delvin known as the Bremore and Gormanston group is believed by most experts on the passage grave culture in Ireland to mark the arrival of that culture from the Iberian peninsula and to be the precursor of later developments such as the Newgrange cluster.

The Gormanston area is rich in artefacts from the neolithic and later periods. When a gas pipeline was being built between Britain and Ireland, a seven-metre prehistoric dugout was found just offshore at Gormanston strand. Unlike other ancient Irish boats, the Gormanston boat seems to have been of outrigger construction.

Brendan Matthews spoke of how mythology associates the area the stories of Cuchalainn and Emer, and how he had slain 100 men at the river crossing on the Delvin while he was escaping from her father’s fortress at Lusk. Legend also associates the site with the first landings of Saint Patrick.

The first Anglo-Norman lords of the area were the powerful de St Amand family. Alemricus de St Amand bought the land confiscated from the O’Gorman family ca 1230, and his family built the Bridgefoot bridge over the River Devlin that separates Meath and Dublin.

From the 14th century, Gormanston Castle was the seat of the Preston family (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

From the 14th century, Gormanston Castle was the seat of the Preston family, a wealthy merchant family who took their name from Preston in Lancashire, and who first arrived in Ireland in the 14th century.

The earliest Preston of note, Roger de Preston, was appointed a judge in the reign of Edward III. he followed his brothers, William and Richard, to Ireland. His son, Sir Robert de Preston, was knighted in 1361, and became the first Lord Gormanston after he bought the Manor of Gormanston in Co Dublin and Co Meath from Almeric de St Amand. Robert de Preston also owned an estate at Carberry, Co Kildare, which was his main residence. He became Lord High Chancellor of Ireland and died in 1396.

His descendent, Sir Robert Preston, was appointed Deputy to Sir John Dynham, the Lord Chancellor of Ireland and Deputy to Richard, Duke of York, the son of Edward IV. He was given the title of Viscount Gormanston in 1478, making this the premier or oldest title of viscount in the Irish Peerage.

When he died in 1503, his son William Preston succeeded as 2nd Viscount Gormanston. He was Deputy to the Lord Treasurer, Sir James Butler, and was appointed Lord Justice of Ireland in 1525.

His eldest son, Jenico Preston, who became 3rd Viscount Gormanston, married Lady Catherine FitzGerald, daughter of Gerald FitzGerald, 9th Earl of Kildare. The FitzGerald family was almost completely wiped out after the Kildare rebellion led by Lady Catherine’s brother, ‘Silken’ Thomas FitzGerald. ‘Silken’ Thomas and seven of Catherine’s uncles were executed in the Tower of London. Shortly afterwards Jenico Preston voted in Parliament for the Crown of Ireland Act 1542, which declared Henry VIII King of Ireland.

Jenico Preston was succeeded by his son Christopher Preston as 4th Viscount Gormanston. Christopher’s second son, Thomas, was made 1st Viscount Tara. When Thomas Preston, 3rd Viscount Tara, was killed by Sir Francis Blundell the title died with him.

Following the Battle of Kinsale in 1601, Jenico Preston, 5th Viscount Gormanston received additional estates. He married Margaret, daughter of Nicholas St Lawrence, 8th Baron Howth. He died in 1630 and his titles and estates passed to his son, Nicholas Preston, 6th Viscount Gormanston.

In the Irish Rebellion of 1641, the Preston family supported Charles I and then the Gaelic lords supported them. At the Catholic Confederation in 1642, Nicholas Preston, 6th Viscount Gormanston, was commander of the Catholic forces and his uncle, Thomas Preston, 1st Viscount Tara, was a Confederate general.

Cromwell’s Avenue is said to mark his route from the shore to the doors of Gormanston Manor(Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Nicholas died during the war and was succeeded by his son, Jenico Preston as 7th Viscount Gormanston. When the Royalist and Confederate forces were defeated by the Cromwell’s forces, Jenico went into exile with Charles II and his lands were confiscated.

Legend associates the mouth of the River Devlin with the first landing of Oliver Cromwell, and the line of trees known as Cromwell’s Avenue is said to mark his route from the shore to the doors of Gormanston Manor, demanding its surrender, before marching on to Drogheda in 1649.

The Yew Tree Walk at Gormanston, leading from the castle to the monks’ graveyard (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

After the restoration of Charles II, Jenico Preston, 7th Viscount Gormanston, returned to Ireland and recovered his lands. The Yew Tree Walk, which is over 300 years old, probably dates from around this time. Local legend and popular tales given currency in my days by schoolboys say Lord Gormanston created this sculpted yew walk as a triangular-shaped cloister in the late 17th century to appease his daughter and to persuade not to become a nun.

In 1690, the 7th viscount supported King James II and fought at the Battle of the Boyne and defended the city of Limerick.

Jenico died in Limerick on 17 March 1691; a month later, on 16 April 1691, he was posthumously declared a traitor. He was indicted for high treason and his lands were forfeited. He had been married twice and had one daughter, Mary, but had no sons. After his death, the title passed to his nephew, Jenico Preston, who used the title of 8th Viscount Gormanston, although this title was not officially recognised.

Like his uncle, this Jenico had no sons and the now outlawed title was passed to his brother, Anthony Preston, 9th Viscount Gormanston, who recovered the family’s possession of the majority of the Gormanston estate under provisions in the Treaty of Limerick. The largest portion of the Gormanston estate papers relate to actions taken against the 9th viscount for money he owed to various parties, including one case about money he borrowed from his uncle and cousin by marriage.

This Anthony Preston married his cousin, Mary Preston, daughter of Jenico, the 7th viscount. Their son Jenico, unofficially inherited the family title as 10th Viscount Gormanston in 1716.

Jenico married Thomasine, daughter of John Barnewall, 11th Baron Trimlestown, and their eldest son, Anthony became 11th Viscount in 1757.

Anthony married Henrietta Robinson from Denston Hall, Suffolk. She was known in the family as Harriot and she signed legal documents by that name. The family papers show the marriage was acrimonious and the couple separated. They moved into separate houses and her husband was given custody of their son Jenico Preston.

When Anthony died in England in 1786, Harriot tried to abduct their 11-year-old son, who had become the 12th Viscount, in order to bring him to England and raise him as a Protestant. Instead, the Preston family secretly sent the child to Liège in Belgium and a custody battle ensued, and Anthony’s brother, John Preston, became the legal guardian of the young viscount.

The Preston family eventually succeeded in having Jenico Preston returned to Gormanston and he remained a Roman Catholic. It said that the Catholic Mass was celebrated in the chapel at Gormanston Castle throughout the Penal Times.

In the former dining room in Gormanston Castle, built in 1790-1820 on the site of the first castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

In 1800, the titles were officially restored to the Preston family and and the 12th Viscount took his seat in the Irish House of Lords on 2 August 1800. Meanwhile, the present Gormanston Castle was built ca 1790-1820 on the site of the castle first built in 1372. At the same time, the family also built Whitewood House, near Nobber, Co Meath.

The 12th viscount also built Silverstream House at Stamullen, Co Meath, for his youngest son, Thomas Preston, ca 1840. Like his father, this Jenico Preston was an active campaigner for Catholic Emancipation. He died in 1860.

In 1794, he married Margaret Southwell, daughter of Thomas, 2nd Viscount Southwell and Sophia (née Walsh). Their eldest son, Edward Preston, became the 13th Viscount Gormanston and was given a seat in the British House of Lords when he was given a new title of Baron Gormanston in 1868. At different times, he was Sheriff of Co Meath and Co Dublin. He married Lucretia, daughter of William Jerningham and their eldest son Jenico Preston, an army officer, succeeded as the 14th Viscount Gormanston.

The 14th viscount was the Governor of various colonies including Tasmania, British Guiana and the Leeward Islands. He also fought in the Indian Mutiny as a lieutenant in the 60th Rifles. Back in Ireland, he was a Commissioner for National Education, High Sheriff of Co Meath and Co Dublin, a Justice for the Peace a Deputy Lieutenant. In 1870, the first authentic game of polo in Ireland was played on Gormanston Strand involving members of the 9th Lancers, who stationed nearby.

He married Ismay Louisa Bellew, daughter of the 1st Baron Bellew, in 1861. She died in 1875 and in 1878 he married his second wife, Georgina Jane Connellan from Co Kilkenny. She carved the large oak piece on the chimney breast in the Great Hall, decorated with the coats-of-arms of the families who were intermarried with the Prestons of Gormanston. The shield immediately above the Gormanston coat-of-arms is flanked with her initials, ‘GG.’

Georgina Gormanston carved the large oak piece in the Great Hall with the coats-of-arms of families who intermarried with the Prestons of Gormanston (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

In 1883, the Gormanston estate totalled almost 11,000 acres, of which almost 10,000 acres were in Co Meath, generating an annual income of £9,364. But with the passage of several Irish Land Acts, the 14th viscount was forced to divide up the estate and to sign over land to the tenants.

When the14th viscount died in 1907, the castle and titles passed to his son, also Jenico Preston, as 15th Viscount Gormanston. He too was a Justice for the Peace and Deputy Lieutenant for Co Meath. During World War I, he was a captain in the Royal Irish Fusiliers.

In 1911, this Jenico Preston married Eileen Butler, daughter of General Sir William Butler of Bansha Castle, Co Tipperary. Her mother, Elizabeth Butler (née Thompson), was the famous military painter, Lady Butler. Lady Butler is one of the few female painters to achieve fame for history paintings. She specialised in painting battle scenes, including the Crimean War and the Battle of Waterloo. Her better-known works include The Roll Call, bought by Queen Victoria, The Defence of Rorke’s Drift, and Scotland Forever!, showing the Scots Greys at the Battle of Waterloo and now in Leeds Art Gallery.

During the Irish Civil War, many of her paintings, including a set of water-colours painted in Palestine, were transferred to her daughter in Gormanston Castle for safe keeping. She died at Gormanston Castle in 1933, shortly before her 87th birthday. Lest anyone think Lady Butler was glorifying war in her paintings, in her autobiography in 1922 she wrote about her military paintings: ‘I never painted for the glory of war, but to portray its pathos and heroism.’ She died at Gormanston Castle in 1933.

Meanwhile, Jenico and Eileen were the parents of three sons. The estate dwindled away after the Irish Free State Land Act was imposed in 1923. When the 15th viscount died in 1925, his eldest son, Jenico Preston, succeeded as the 16th viscount at the age of 14. The estate papers, from the early 20th century up to 1931, show the precarious financial state of the Gormanston estate and discuss its possible sale.

The 16th viscount was educated at Downside and had a military career. He was a second lieutenant in World War II and was killed in action at Dunkirk on 9 June 1940. His only child, also Jenico Preston, was born on 19 November 1939 and inherited the title when he was only a few months old. He is the present and 16th Viscount Gormanston, and now lives in London.

The coat of arms of Lord Gormanston carved by Georgina Gormanston in the great hall includes a fox as the crest and as a supporter (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The coat of arms of Lord Gormanston carved by Georgina Gormanston in the great hall includes a fox as the crest and as one of the supporters. According to legend, when the head of the family is in his final hours, the foxes of Co Meath, except for nursing vixens, make their way to the door of Gormanston Castle to keep vigil until he has died, in thanksgiving for the deliverance and protection from marauding predators of a vixen and her young by an earlier Lord Gormanston in the 17th century. They are said to have made their appearance on the castle lawns prior to the deaths of the 12th, 13th and 14th viscounts.

Gormanston Castle was built by the Preston family in 1790-1820 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Gormanston Castle, which was built by the Preston family in 1790-1820, is an impressive, three-storey castellated building with a quadrangular plan and with a tower at each corner except the north-west corner. The central part of the frontage is flanked by two narrow castellated towers on either side of the entrance.

Gormanston Castle remained the seat of the Preston family until 1947.The writer Evelyn Waugh, author of Brideshead Revisited, planned to buy the castle until he read in the Evening Mail of Billy Butlin’s plans to build a holiday resort at the nearby beach at Mosney.

Waugh did not feel ‘entirely at ease in the role of nouveau riche invader of an historic property.’ But the Irish aristocracy still had a few surprises for this English writer. When he visited Gormanston Castle, he said: ‘It’s sad to think of this place changing hands after so many centuries.’ He claims a worker replied: ‘Ach, his lordship never came to this place but to kill somebody.’

Waugh described Gormanston as ‘a fine, solid, grim, square, half-finished block with tower and turrets.’ In his diaries, he continues:

‘The ground floor rooms were large and had fine traces of Regency decoration. Pictures by Lady Butler were everywhere. There were countless bedrooms, many uninhabitable, squalid plumbing, vast attics. On the whole I liked the house; the grounds were dreary with no features except some fine box alleys. The chapel unlicensed and Mrs O’Connor evasive about getting it put to use again.’ Pamela O’Connor was the widowed Lady Gormanston, and had married Maurice O’Connor after her first husband was killed in the war.

The castle was valued at £13,000, with another £5,000 needed for repairs. Waugh authorised his agent to put in a bid.

However, on learning that Sir Billy Butlin (1899-1980) was planning to open a holiday camp at Mosney on the beach beside Gormanston, he promptly changed his mind. He explains in his Diaries: ‘On boarding the ship [for England] I bought a local evening paper and read that Butlin had acquired a stretch of property at Gormanston and was planning a holiday camp there. This announcement made us change all our intentions. It came just in time for us, disastrously for Mrs O’Connor.’

The castle and the estate were then sold the Franciscans, who opened Gormanston College in 1954. My brother arrived at Gormanston as a schoolboy in 1959, and I followed in the 1960s.

Since 2015, the school has been managed by Meath VEC under Franciscan trusteeship and is now a co-educational day school. The sports facilities and accommodation is separately managed by a new company, Gormanston Park, which plans to reopen the refurbished swimming pool to the general community.

In the autumn countryside of Co Meath outside the gates of Gormanston Castle and Gormanston College (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The Gormanston family papers were originally deposited on loan to the National Library in 1964, and were bought in 2002. The majority of the papers comprises estate papers including title deeds, leases and agreements dating back to the early 17th century. Earlier documents relating to the estate from the 12th century are in the Gormanston Register, also housed in the National Library. They also include architectural drawings of Gormanston Castle and Whitewood House.

At the end of my visit to Gormanston Castle on Saturday, I walked through the Yew Tree Walk that leads down to the graveyard, where several of the priests and some former students are buried, including one boy who died at the age of 15 during my final year at school, and I then walked out the main gates into the autumn countryside, through fields that were once part of the vast Gormanston estate, where the trees and the fields are changing colour.

Today is the feastday of Saint Francis of Assisi [4 October 2016]. Times have changed for the Preston family at Gormanston in the past century, and now they are changing for the Franciscans at Gormanston too.

In the graveyard at Gormanston (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)