Friday, 22 September 2017

A friary that remains
part of the Pugin
legacy in Killarney

The Franciscan Friary on College Street is part of the Pugin legacy in Killarney (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

At the beginning and the end of our journey out into the Dingle Peninsula in Co Kerry this week, I stopped briefly to admire the Franciscan Friary on College Street in Killarney, which was completed 150 years ago and is one of the few works in Ireland by AWN Pugin’s son, Edward Welby Pugin (1834-1875).

Following the death of his father in 1852, Edward Welby Pugin was involved in completing some of AWN Pugin’s works in Ireland, including the High Altar and reredos (1854) in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Killarney.

He returned to Killarney a decade later to design the Franciscan Friary, where work in 1854. On the feast of Saint Patrick, 17 March 1864, Bishop Moriarty laid the foundation-stone of the church. The stone was taken from the ruins of Muckross Abbey and was carried through the streets of Killarney by young boys wearing the Franciscan habit.

The site was cleared for the Friary in 1865, with many local people volunteering for the digging, excavating and levelling work. In one week alone, more than 200 men were engaged in such generous work.

By the end of July 1867, the church was ready for use, and a Solemn High Mass was celebrated Pugin’s new friary church on the feast of the Portiuncula, 2 August 1867. The liturgical life of the Friary had begun.

However, the church was not consecrated not until the following year, on l8 February 1868, when Bishop Moriarty was assisted by the Bishop Butler of Limerick. The new church was dedicated to the Most Holy Trinity, the title of the old Muckross Abbey.

The church is simple in style with a lofty arched ceiling and strong oak panelling. The ornate high altar is Flemish in style. It was designed by J Janssen of St Trond, Limbourg, Belgium, and was erected in 1871 in memory of Father Patrick Verherstraeten, the first Guardian of the Friary.

The two side-altars, erected in 1872, are the work of the same Belgian craftsman. He also designed the communion-rail that was presented the friary as a gift by the women of Killarney. The church also has a window from the Harry Clarke Studios dated 1930.

Meanwhile, Edward Pugin formed two successive partnerships with Irish architects: the first around 1857-1858 with James Murray as Pugin and Murray, and the second in 1860 with George Coppinger Ashlin as Pugin and Ashlin. Ashlin married Pugin’s sister Mary in 1867, and opened an office in Dublin and managed the firm’s Irish business. However, the partnership of Pugin and Ashlin was dissolved late in 1868.

Although severe damage has been done to the integrity of Pugin’s work at Saint Mary’s Cathedral in Killarney in a wave of liturgical enthusiasm after Vatican II, the friary in Killarney remains an interesting part of the Pugin legacy in Ireland.

A short visit to a church
with Pugin’s fingerprints

The chancel arch and rood screen in Holy Trinity Abbey Church, Adare, are probably the work of AWN Pugin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

One of my favourite churches in Ireland, undoubtedly, is the Holy Trinity Abbey Church, now the Roman Catholic parish church in the centre of Adare, Co Limerick. Six of us were waiting in Adare on Wednesday morning [20 September 2017] to begin a tour of the Dingle Peninsula, and as a group we found time for an early morning visit to this church.

Although, there were about 20 Trinitarian foundations in England and Scotland, Holy Trinity Abbey in Adare is the only example of a church of the Trinitarian order in Ireland. The Trinitarian Order was founded in 1198, when Pope Innocent III was in office. The order was founded by Saint John de Matha and Saint Felix de Valois, a grandson of the King of France. The order engaged in ransoming and freeing Christian captives during the Crusades.

Saint James was the patron saint of the abbey. The foundation date of Trinitarian order at Adare is unknown. But there was a church here by 1226, when Geoffrey de Marisco received a grant to hold a fair at Adare during the eight days following the feast of Saint James.

Geoffrey de Marisco ended his days in exile in France, and John FitzThomas Fitzgerald, 1st Earl of Kildare, endowed the abbey in the late 13th century.

At the Reformation, the abbey was dissolved in 1539. Thady Quin (1645-1725), a lawyer and a descendant from the O’Quins of Inchquin, Co Clare, was granted the abbey in 1683 by the Earl of Kildare.

According to a local tradition, there were plans to turn the ruined monastery as a market house. But one day in 1811, as the first Earl of Dunraven was passing by, he stopped for a few minutes gazing at the ruins. As he moved away he was heard to remark, ‘I never will allow it to be a den of thieves.’ He proceeded to restore the ruins as a parish church.

His son, Wyndham Quin (1782-1850), 2nd Earl of Dunraven, gave the ruined abbey to the Roman Catholic parish of Adare in 1824 and began a programme of restoration that was continued by his family.

The abbey was renovated and enlarged in 1852 by Edwin Richard Wyndham-Quin (1812-1871), 3rd Earl of Dunraven, who engaged English architect Philip Charles Hardwick (1820-1890) for the task, while taking care to maintain the fabric of the church.

However, this work may have been carried out by AWN Pugin when he took over from Hardwick in restoration of Adare Abbey. Phoebe Stanton, who is an authority on AWN Pugin, says he ‘added a new roof and stained-glass windows to the village church, which he probably also totally restored.’ Roderick O'Donnell says this work was for former Trinitarian Abbey. In addition, the encaustic tiles in the sanctuary are further evidence of any work by Pugin on this church.

Encaustic tiles in the sanctuary of the restored church in Adare (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The abbey was radically extended in 1856 in a building programme that lasted until 1884.

The 3rd Earl of Dunraven was an antiquarian and historian, who had become a Roman Catholic. He had the nave lengthened by 12 ft, the porch erected, and the Lady Chapel built, at the east end. One of the features of this enlargement is a bronze screen designed by AWN Pugin. This separates the Lady Chapel from the Sanctuary and was the gift of Windham Thomas Quin, 4th Earl of Dunraven, in 1884.

The church we see today is a fusion of the mediaeval remains and 19th century Gothic Revival architecture. For example, during the 19th century restoration, care was taken to preserve the two piscinas, one in the nave, the other in the chancel of the original church. There, the sacred vessels were cleaned after the Eucharist.

The mediaeval features include the tower, nave and part of the choir, while the timber roofs, the sacristy and the Lady Chapel were designed by Hardwick. There is a restored columbarium or dovecote beside the church, and nearby Our Lady’s Abbey School, originally a convent of the Sisters of Mercy, incorporates part of the original cloister.

‘The Way,’ a modern bronze designed by John Blakeley, depicts the hill in Jerusalem (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

A modern bronze sculpture in the church, ‘The Way,’ was designed by John Blakeley, and depicts the hill in Jerusalem. The centrepiece of the sculpture is a five-million-year-old piece of marble from Jerusalem.

The Stations of the Cross are the work of Meyers of Munich, commissioned in 1884 by the then Parish Priest, Father John Stanislaus Flanagan, who died in 1905 and is buried in front of the main altar.

Our visit on Wednesday morning to this church was brief, and we had little time to do anything more than say or morning prayers and delight in the beauty that enfolded us. Within an hour or two we were in Killarney, and from there we moved on to Inch Strand, Dingle, and the end of Ireland and of Europe at Ventry and Dunquin.

Holy Trinity Abbey Church in Adare, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Thursday, 21 September 2017

USPG seeks help for work in
Caribbean and Bangladesh

USPG is seeking support for its work with over 32 million people in the Caribbean (Photograph; USPG)

Patrick Comerford

Over 32 million people in the Caribbean have been exposed to high wind zones. Some islands, such as Anguilla, have reported critical damage with up to 90 per cent of infrastructure being damaged.

Hurricane Irma made landfall on the northeast Caribbean islands in the early hours of 6 September.

Irma has been classified as a Category 5 storm – the strongest and most destructive category of hurricane – and it is considered the most powerful hurricane to be ever recorded over the Atlantic Ocean.

The intensity of hurricanes is linked to the surface temperature of the sea. As such, there is concern the warming of the oceans due to climate change is contributing to these high intensity storms.

Over 32 million people in the Caribbean have been exposed to high wind zones. Some islands, such as Anguilla, have reported critical damage with up to 90 per cent of infrastructure being damaged.

The Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) is in close contact with the Archbishop and Bishops of the Church of the Province of the West Indies (CPWI).

USPG is standing with them in solidarity at this time, offering financial support and holding them closely in our prayers during this season of hurricanes.

You can donate to USPG’s Caribbean relief fund here.

Bishop Charles of Guyana has written: ‘Many thanks for your concern, prayers and financial support’ (7 September 2017).

Archbishop John of Barbados says: ‘Thanks for this note of concern and support. Some of the islands in the Diocese of the North-East Caribbean and Aruba suffered significant damage. Do continue to pray for us. Will keep in touch’ (7 September 2017).

A USPG emergency grant is also helping the Church of Bangladesh reach out to communities after monsoon rains caused flooding in Bangladesh and neighbouring countries that has claimed more than 250 lives.

The grant, from USPG’s Rapid Response Fund, will provide some of the worst-affected communities with food, clothes, medicine and safe drinking water.

Bishop Paul Sarker, Moderator of the Church of Bangladesh, told USPG: ‘The flood has taken hundreds of lives and washed away many houses, crops and cattle.

‘The government is speaking very loudly – there is a national election next year so the political parties want to use this situation to their advantage – but they are not doing much for the victims.

‘NGOs are observing the situation and waiting for a green light from the Bangladesh government. The church is also on alert and hope to do some work in those areas that we can access most easily. Please pray for us.’

You can donate today through USPG’s Rapid Response Fund here.

An edited official report from the Church of Bangladesh reads:

‘This deluge has created a devastating situation for the people of Bangladesh. This flood may prove to be the most devastating since flooding in 1988 inundated more than 70 per cent of land, including Dhaka city.

‘Heavy rain in China, India and Nepal has resulted in rivers that pass through Bangladesh crossing the danger level. Lands that are already saturated can soak in no more water.

‘As well as claiming lives, more than five million people have lost homes and properties and, of those, only a minimal 30,000 have found a place in a flood shelter. The situation for women and children is particularly harsh.

‘As I write, the flood is located upstream in the country, but soon the flood will find its way into the middle and south of the country before draining into ocean, which means areas will remain severely flooded for around two weeks, which will create further enormous loss and damage to life, properties, water and sanitation, crops and livelihoods, with both immediate and longer-lasting effects.

‘The Church of Bangladesh is worried about the upcoming situation and is preparing to support victims with shelter and emergency support, including food, clothes, medicines and clean water.

‘It is estimated in the vicinity of our 14 churches in the middle and southern parts of Bangladesh around 200,000 people are in need of immediate help.

‘The church will work with other agencies, but will focus on the poorest of the poor, primarily women and children, and later we will try to rehabilitate families as much as we can.

‘Please join with the Church of Bangladesh to support those who are distressed.’

A return visit to
Bunratty Castle
and its attractions

Bunratty Castle stands out on the the landscape in south Co Clare, close to the estuary of the River Shannon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

For many years, Bunratty, Co Clare, was a favourite venue for a New Year break for an extended, wider family circle.

Earlier this week, while two of us were meeting members of the wider family at Shannon Airport, we stopped on our way back to Askeaton at Bunratty for coffee and to visit Bunratty Castle.

Bunratty Castle is a large 15th-century tower house in Bunratty village, off the road between Limerick and Ennis, near both airport and Shannon Town.

The name Bunratty (Bun Ráite, or Bun na Ráite) refers to either the ‘river basin,’ or the River Ratty, the river that runs alongside the castle and flows into the Shannon Estuary at this point.

The first recorded settlement at the site may have been a Norse settlement or trading camp that is recorded in the Annals of the Four Masters and said to have been destroyed by Brian Boru in the year 977. Local tradition says this camp stood on a rise south-west of the present castle, although there is no evidence to support this claim.

Around 1250, Henry III granted the area to Robert de Muscegros, who cut down around 200 trees in the King’s wood at Cratloe about a year later. He may have used these trees to build a motte and bailey castle that was the first castle at Bunratty, although its exact location is unknown. Later, in 1253, Robert de Muscegros was granted the right to hold markets and an annual fair at Bunratty.

The lands later returned to Henry III, and they were granted to Thomas de Clare, a descendant of Strongbow, in 1276. Thomas de Clare built a second castle that was the first stone castle in Bunratty. This large stone tower stood from about 1278 on or near the site of the present Bunratty Castle.

In the late 13th century, Bunrattty had about 1,000 inhabitants. The castle was attacked several times by the O’Briens and their allies. While Thomas de Clare was away in England, the site was captured and destroyed in 1284.

When Thomas de Clare returned to Ireland in 1287, he rebuilt the castle with a 130-metre fosse around it. The castle was again attacked but it did not fall until 1318, when Thomas de Clare and his son Richard were killed at Dysert O’Dea during the Bruce Wars in Ireland. Bunratty Castle and the village were burned down and Lady de Clare fled to Limerick. The de Clare family never returned to Bunratty and the remains of the castle collapsed, leaving no traces or remains of this second castle.

In 1353, Sir Thomas de Rokeby led an army against the MacNamaras and the MacCarthys, and a third castle was then built at Bunratty, perhaps on the site of the later Bunratty Castle Hotel. However, around 1355, the new castle fell into the hands of Murtough O’Brien while Thomas Fitzjohn Fitzmaurice was the Governor or captain of Bunratty.

The present Bunratty Castle is the fourth castle on the site and was built by the MacNamara family around 1425.(Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The present castle was the fourth castle on the site and was built by the MacNamara family around 1425.

Bunratty Castle came into the hands of the O’Briens family, the most powerful clan in Munster and later Earls of Thomond, around 1500.

In 1558, Bunratty Castle as taken by the Lord Deputy of Ireland, Thomas Radclyffe (1525-1583), 3rd Earl of Sussex, from Donal O’Brien of Duagh, the last King of Thomond, who died in 1579. Radclyffe’s second wife, Frances Sidney (1531-1589), Countess of Sussex, was a daughter of Sir William Sidney of Penshurst, and was the founder of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, which she endowed in her will.

Meanwhile, Bunratty Castle was given to Donal O’Brien’s nephew, Connor O’Brien. His son, Donogh O’Brien, may have moved his family seat from Clonroad in Ennis to Bunratty, and his improvements to the castle included a new lead roof on it.

During the Confederate Wars in Ireland in the 1640s, the Cromwellian commander Lord Forbes took Bunratty Castle in 1646. Barnabas O’Brien, who tried to play off the royalists against both the Irish rebels and the Roundheads, left for England, where he joined King Charles I.

The defence of the River Shannon and Bunratty Castle gave the forces holding the castle a position to blockade access from the sea to Limerick. The castle was held then by Admiral Sir William Penn (1621-1670), father of William Penn (1644-1718), the Quaker founder of Pennsylvania. After a long siege, Penn surrendered the castle to the Irish Confederates and sailed away safely to Kinsale, Co Cork.

After the Civil War in the 1640s and 1650s, Bunratty Castle returned to the O’Brien family, and in the 1680s the castle was the principal seat of the Earls of Thomond. In 1712, Henry O’Brien (1688-1741), the 8th and last Earl of Thomond, sold Bunratty Castle and 191 ha of land to Thomas Amory for £225 and an annual rent of £120. Amory in turn sold the castle to Thomas Studdert who moved in around 1720.

When the Studdert family left the castle, it to fall into disrepair and they moved into Bunratty House, which they built in 1804.

For some time in the mid-19th century, the castle was a police barracks used by the Royal Irish Constabulary. The Studdert family returned to Bunratty Castle at the end of the 19th century, and Captain Richard Studdert was living there in 1894. But the roof of the Great Hall collapsed in the late 19th century.

In 1956, Bunratty Castle was bought and restored by the 7th Viscount Gort, with the support of the Office of Public Works. He reroofed the castle and saved it from ruin. The castle was opened to the public in 1960, decorated and filled with furniture, tapestries and works of art dating from the 17th century.

Today, Bunratty Castle is a major tourist attraction, along with Bunratty Folk Park, and both the castle and Bunratty House are open to the public. The castle and the adjoining folk park are run by Shannon Heritage as tourist attractions.

Bunratty Castle is known for its mediaeval banquets, and Bunratty Folk Park is an open-air museum with an array of about 30 buildings, including traditional farmhouses, churches, schoolhouses and a pub.

A September afternoon close the Shannon Estuary by the river at Bunratty (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

The old bridges, mills
and ducks on the river
at Sixmilebridge

Sixmilebridge, with it wide streets and large squares that were laid out by the O’Brien family from the 17th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017; click on image for full-screen view)

Patrick Comerford

On our way to Shannon Airport earlier this week to meet family members who are staying at the Rectory in Askeaton, two of us stopped for lunch in the pretty small town of Sixmilebridge in Co Clare, half-way between Limerick and Ennis.

The village is a just off the main N18 road, but is on the old ‘back road’ between Limerick and Ennis. If you think this is a pretty, sleepy village, then perhaps this is because Sixmilebridge is also a dormitory town for Limerick, Ennis and Shannon.

The village of Kilmurry is also part of the Sixmilebridge parish. But the commercial core of Sixmilebridge has tripled in size in recent years, with many new retail units and businesses, along with hundreds of new houses too.

Sixmilebridge is often referred to locally as ‘The Bridge’ and the full time in Irish is Droichead Abhann Uí gCearnaigh (‘Bridge of the River of O’Kearney’). The ‘six-mile’ part of the name alludes to the fact that this place is about six Irish miles from Thomondgate in Limerick.

Archaeological evidence points to prehistorical settlement here from as early as the Bronze Age, with ringforts, mounds, enclosures and wedge tombs in the area.

The Mills on the O’Garney River at Sixmilebridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The original village grew up around a crossing place on the O’Garney River, which flows through the village. Donough O’Brien, 4th Earl of Thomond, built the bridge in 1610 – and from then until 1804, when the bridge at Bunratty was built, traffic between Limerick and Ennis passed through Sixmilebridge.

The village has wide streets and large squares that were laid out by the O’Brien family from the 17th century. By the end of the 17th century, development here was linked to the industrialisation of the area as people of Dutch origin found the river very suitable for milling. The east of the village was once its commercial part, with water powered mills, a brewery, a market house and a fair green.

Sixmilebridge became a river port where goods including rape seed oil and soap were exported and imported by boat from the mills just south of the village. Boats from Amsterdam sailed up the river almost as far as the town in the 17th and 18th centuries. But by the early 18th century the town had gone into decline and the river trade came to an end in 1784 when Henry d’Esterre built a toll bridge at Rosmanagher.

According to local tradition, the duel between Daniel O’Connell and John d’Esterre in 1815 arose from Daniel O’Connell’s refusal to pay the toll. However, the duel arose from a speech by O’Connell to the Catholic Board in 1815, when he described the Dublin Corporation as beggarly. At the time, d’Esterre was near bankruptcy and took this as a personal insult. He challenged O’Connell, and died two days after the duel at Bishop’s Court, Kildare.

In 1852, a magistrate and eight soldiers of the 31st Regiment escorted 18 people to Sixmilebridge to vote for Colonel Vandeleur, the conservative candidate in the Co Clare. In the ensuing affray, six people were killed and eight were wounded, one of whom later died.

One side of Sixmilebridge is in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Killaloe, while ‘the Little Church’ on the Limerick Road is in Cratloe Parish and the Diocese of Limerick.

The remains of the quay walls, warehouses, soap factory and stone mill wheels can still be seen. Many of the old buildings in the village have been preserved and have found new uses.

Kilfinaghty Church, with a tower designed by the Pain brothers, is now a library (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The former Church of Ireland parish church of Kilfinaghty dates from 1810. It has a four-bay nave and a later three-stage entrance tower designed by the Pain brothers. It was restored in 2001 and is now an award-winning library.

The Old House Bar … the birthplace of Dr Brenan O’Regan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The Old House Bar on Fair Green is a corner-sited detached three-bay two-storey house, built around 1775, with gablets over the first-floor windows. A plaque on the wall is inscribed ‘George’s Street 1733.’

This was the birthplace in 1917 of Dr Brendan O’Regan, who had the vision for developing much of the Shannon Region.

Ieverstown House on Fair Green was built around 1840 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Ieverstown House, on the opposite corner of Fair Green, is a detached five-bay two-storey house with dormer attic, built around 1840, that seems to be crumbling but must have been an attractive townhouse in the past.

The Mill Bar on Frederick Square dates from around 1770 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The Mill Bar on Frederick Square dates from around 1770, but has a stone plaque reading ‘Frederick Square 1733.’

The former woollen mills are now apartments.

The Miller Returns, a sculpture by Shane Gilmore, stands in the O’Garney River below the bridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The Miller Returns, a sculpture by Shane Gilmore, stands in the O’Garney River below the bridge. The sculptor claims this ‘is probably the manliest sculpture in Ireland.’ This is a shirtless, limestone man marching unimpeded through the waters of the river, carrying the heavy tools of millwork, recalling the 17th century settlers of Dutch origin who started the mill on the river.

Shane Gilmore points out that the strongman proved his brawn in 2009 when the statue held its ground as flood waters threatened to take the artwork downstream.

An attractive, novel feature in Sixmilebridge is the highly decorated but functional ‘duck inn’ on the O’Garney River. This is a floating raft with glass windows and painted walls that houses a large population of very happy ducks.

A highly decorated but functional ‘Duck Inn’ on the O'Garney River, occupied by a thriving population of ducks. The duck inn is a floating raft with glass windows and painted walls. It houses the ducks during winter and is also where their locally consumed eggs are hatched and collected. It forms part of the tourist trail of Sixmilebridge.

The ducks and the ‘Duck Inn’ on the O'Garney River (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Victorian relics of
the town gas
industry in Limerick

The Victorian gas meter at Limerick School of Art and Design looks like a Georgian-era classical temple (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

As I wandered around the grounds of the Limerick School of Art and Design and the former Good Shepherd convent and Magdalene laundry last week, I came across a series of artefacts that are reminders of another aspect of life in Victorian Limerick.

The end of the manufacture of town gas in Limerick and the arrival of the national gas network 30 years ago brought many changes to life in Limerick. But for almost 200 years, the people Limerick had been supplied with town gas.

At first, this town gas was produced at West Water Gate, beside Broad Street. But for the most part, it was produced at the gasworks in Dock Road, between Alphonsus Street and O’Currry Street.

In 1878, under the terms of the Limerick Corporation Gas Act, Limerick Corporation acquired Limerick Gas Company. The Retort House was rebuilt in Limerick in 1897, and the Gas Committee involved were Michael Cusack, Mayor of Limerick, Alderman P Riordan, Alderman Stephen O’Mara, JF Bannatyne, William Lloyd and William Spillane, manager.

Dock Road was an ideal location for the production of town gas: it was close to the docklands, making it easy to import and access supplies of coal, which was the raw material for producing town gas until 1975. After 1975, naptha, a petroleum product was used to manufacture town gas.

Limerick Gas Company was still responsible for this production until 1986, when it came under the ownership and brand of Bord Gáis, and natural gas began to replace town gas in Limerick.

The city’s gas was made from coal and later from naptha at the Dock Road site in Limerick from 1880 until 1987. Since the late 1980s, Limerick’s gas supply was switched from coal to natural gases.

The old distribution system, mainly manufactured in cast iron, was replaced gradually with a polyethylene system. But there was a danger that some of the old Victorian artefacts associated with the early system would be lost.

A 12-month period of careful restoration began, with James O’Donnell Engineering working on a project to commemorate the story of Limerick’s 300-year gas manufacturing industry. Key artefacts from the town gas manufacturing process were expertly restored, including a gas meter and a steam-operated tar pump dating from the 1890s.

The project was supported by Limerick Institute of Technology, Limerick Civic Trust, Limerick City Council and the Bord Gáis Networks. When the restoration was completed, the artefacts were moved to a site in the gardens of the Limerick School of Art and Design.

On 22 May 2012, the Mayor of Limerick, Councillor Jim Long, and the chair of Bord Gáis, Rose Hynes, officially unveiled the cast iron gas meter along with the steam-operated tar pump in the grounds of the former Good Shepherd Covent and former Lancastrian School on Clare Street.

The cast iron gas meter, which was restored in 2012, was built in 1880 by J&J Braddock of Oldham (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The cast iron gas meter, which was restored in 2012, was built in 1880 by J&J Braddock of Oldham. This meter was used to measure gas levels in Limerick City from the late 1880s to 1987.

The gas meter is 8 ft square, built of cast iron and it is designed in the style of a Georgian-era classical temple. It is believed to be a one of a kind built in that era as there is no other known meters like this in Ireland.

This large-scale gas meter measured gas as it was issued from the gas works into the mains. It was used by the gasworks to balance the amount of gas issued against the amount of gas paid for. It was coupled with a dynamic regulator to keep pressure constant, or to modulate the pressure at specified times through a series of rapid pressure spikes for use in street-lamps.

After its construction, the gas supplied was infused with naphta, and an anti-naphthalene minor carburettor was added to inject a fine mist of naphtha into the outgoing gas to avoid the crystallisation of naphthalene in the mains, and their consequent blockage.

The steam-operated, double-acting tar pump was a key element of the gas manufacturing process (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Tar was a useful by-product of the process, and the restored artefacts include a steam-operated, double-acting tar pump that was a key element of the gas manufacturing process.

These Victorian artefacts are reminders of a bygone age and their style and decoration make them beautiful curiosities from the city’s industrial past. Standing in gardens of the Limerick School of Art and Design, they provide a sharp contrast with the bleak chimney-stack of the Magdalene Laundry, which dates from a similar period, and its dark and gloomy past.

The dynamic regulator kept pressure constant modulated pressure at specified times (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

To praise eternity in time and place …
searching for a spirituality of place

Patrick Comerford

I have maintained a family history website that connects me with people across the globe who share my surname and its variants, including Comerford, Commerford and Comberford. This website allows many people to develop a shared identity, not only because of a shared family name, but because they believe that they have found an identity that is rooted in time and place.

Many of us feel rootless both in time and place. We do not know where we are because we do not know where we have come from, and so question where we are going. Despite a shared, common European culture, that has many similar and familiar expressions, identity with place is a feeling that varies from one country to the next.

For Irish people, the county can be a key indicator of identity. In the Irish sporting calendar, September is the month of the All-Ireland hurling and football cup finals. County identity becomes a key expression of personal and communal identity throughout this month, with people wearing their country colours in a variety of ways and flying county flags from homes and cars, at workplaces and schools.

Grand schemes for extending local government boundaries, to take account of the suburban expansion of Waterford city into neighbouring Co Kilkenny or Limerick city across the River Shannon into Co Clare, generally fall at an early because county identity so much a part of personal identity in Ireland. It is an expression of identity that Irish people take with them as exile and emigrants, and bars and pubs from Boston and New York to Sydney and Melbourne take on hues in September that can only be understood by people who understand the nuances of Irish identity.

It bears no comparison with the colours and clothing worn by English football fans. Manchester United fans are more likely to live outside Manchester than in it, and Irish sports fans who identify with their county and have a strong sense of place find it paradoxical, for example, that Chelsea plays in Fulham.

The nearest equivalent to this expression of identity in England is probably found in Yorkshire, or perhaps in the red rose, white rose identity that comes to the fore in cricket matches between Lancashire and Yorkshire. But the expressions of identity found at the Galway v Waterford final would never find an equivalent at a cricket match between, say, Middlesex and Surrey.

Asking someone from England where they are from often elicits answer that names where someone is living or working at present, rather than where they were born or where they have deep family roots. Indeed, in many cases people do not know where their family roots might be found.

I have observed how in social conversation and political discourse that English people can confuse the geographical identities of England, Britain and the United Kingdom. It explains why English people cannot understand Scottish demands for independence, and why Irish people are deeply hurt by the ‘Brexit’ vote and why Irish people feel that for English partners in any dialogue, the Irish are like people from Yorkshire – English, but with a difference.

For Irish people, where you are from is not necessarily about where you were born. It may be where one or both your parents are from, where you spent most of your childhood, or perhaps even your grandparents’ home where childhood identities were shaped over long, successive childhood summer holidays. It is a question of identity that has both emotional and spiritual dimensions.

The nearest equivalent with which I can compare this sense of identity is found in Greece. People living in large cities, such as Athens, Thessaloniki or Iraklion, can still identify their home village, and there they may return for holidays and to vote, to marry, have their children baptised and even to be buried.

Spiritual health rooted in place

A balanced understanding of belonging in space and time is an essential ingredient in creating a positive sense of identity that enhances an individual’s spiritual health. But the search for an identity with place often leads the city-dweller into the countryside, and fails to accept that the city too may be a place of spiritual identity, comfort and growth.

I moved around a lot as a child and a young adult, so that often I feel that I am not at home in any one place, and wonder where I am going to find myself living next. Although I was born in south Dublin and for the past three decades have had a house that is almost within walking distance of where I was born, there are times that are unsettling when I realise I am asking myself where do I truly feel at home.

There is a traditional American spiritual song, once adapted and recorded by Jim Reeves, that claims in the original version:

This world is not my home, I’m just passing through.
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.
The angels beckon me from Heaven’s open door
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.


And the words of the chorus are:

O Lord you know I have no friend like you
If Heaven’s not my home, then Lord what will I do?
The angels beckon me from Heaven’s open door
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.


Yet, the places that shaped me from birth to where I am in life now are the places that make me who I am now and not only can I rightly call them home, but they have formed and shaped the person I am today.

I was born in south Dublin, spent formative years in my early childhood on my grandmother’s farm in West Waterford, went to school near Drogheda, and in those late teen and early adult years that shape our mature identity I was spending time in both Lichfield in the English Midlands and Wexford in south-east Ireland, places that I was first attracted to because of paternal ancestral roots.

To this day, I can often say that I feel comfortably at home in Dublin, Wexford, and Lichfield, and even in Crete. I have been shaped spiritually in these places, nurtured in them spiritually, and these are places where I have encountered the living God and where I feel I am standing on holy ground. I can truly say that I have been born in these places, at least spiritually, and that my spirituality has been formed and matured through my experiences there.

‘You stand on holy ground’

The chapel in Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield … ‘the intersection of the timeless moment’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

As I write, we are working our way in the Lectionary readings through the Exodus story. When Moses encounters God in the burning bush on the mountain, he is told, ‘Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground’ (Exodus 3: 5).

The ground on which we stand when we are in places that have shaped us and that have made us who are today can be holy ground on which we have an encounter the Living God who created us and who shaped us into who we are today. In my late teens, I regularly visited Comberford, between Lichfield and Tamworth, attracted by family roots that had earlier inspired the work of my great-grandfather. Late one summer afternoon in 1971, I first felt filled with the light and the love of God when I accidentally walked into the chapel of Saint John’s Hospital in Lichfield. Over 40 years later, I return there regularly in quiet pilgrimage and humble homecoming.

I still feel spiritually moved ‘in place and time,’ as I imagine TS Eliot felt when he arrived at Nicholas Ferrar’s small church in Little Gidding:

… You are here to kneel …
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.


‘To praise eternity contained in Time’ and place … the Chapel of King’s College Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

John Betjeman could express similar thoughts after finding himself in the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge:

And countless congregations as the generations pass
Join choir and great crowned organ case, in centuries of song
To praise eternity contained in Time and coloured glass.


When the slaves are freed from oppression in Egypt, they spend forty long years straying in the wilderness – a span of time that is greater than a generation – looking back to fleshpots of Egypt, yet looking forward to the Promised Land.

This promised land is to be symbolised not in a rural idyll but in the city (Isaiah 26: 1-2), and when the people are in exile in Babylon, their concern is for the destruction of the city of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 1: 3) and the first task is to rebuild and restore the city (Nehemiah 2: 11-20).

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews describes the church (ekklesia) as coming ‘to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem’ (Hebrews 12: 22-23).

The description of England as a ‘green and pleasant land’ by William Blake in his poem ‘And did those feet in ancient time’ (best known today as ‘Jerusalem’) has become a trope to romantically describe an England that may never have existed but that we constantly year for and hanker after.

A ‘green and pleasant land’?

‘Green and pleasant England’ in Wyatt’s Weeford is a sharp contrast with the dark mills Samuel Wyatt built in London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Blake portrays this ‘green and pleasant land’ as the stark opposite to the city in industrialised England, typified by the ‘dark Satanic Mills.’ The inspiration for this image may have been provided by the Albion Flour Mills, the first major factory in London, designed by John Rennie (1761-1821) and Samuel Wyatt (1737-1807). The factory was built on land in Southwark bought by Wyatt, who was born in Weeford, outside Lichfield – a place that almost three centuries later is still part of the ‘green and pleasant land’ of rural Staffordshire and on the edges of major urban and industrial development.

From public schools to political party conferences, from the Last Night at the Proms to the London Olympics, Hubert Parry’s interpretation of Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ has become England’s unofficial anthem. But Blake’s words are not harkening back to a place that was once rustic and outside Jerusalem, but looking forward in a visionary way to the New Jerusalem that can emerge in the city.

The theme of Blake’s hymn is linked to the image of the Second Coming, when Christ establishes a new heaven and a new earth in which the holy city, the New Jerusalem, symbolises the place of universal love and peace (see Revelation 3: 12 and 21: 2).

A recent Eurostat survey in 2016 found that only 12 per cent of people in Britain live in rural areas, the second lowest proportion in Europe, surpassed only by Malta (7 per cent. Despite the image of Ireland as country where the countryside is the ideal, green place, Slovenia (50 per cent), Lithuania (48 per cent) and Luxembourg (47 per cent) are the European countries with the highest proportion of people living in rural areas. More than one-third (35 per cent) of Ireland’s population lives in cities and almost a quarter of Irish people (23 per cent) live in towns and suburbs.

Culturally we often make an idyll of the countryside. In ‘East Coker,’ TS Eliot mourns the loss of the English countryside to urban expansion. John Betjeman, who famously said Slough was worth bombing, once referred to the suburban sprawls the spread across England before World War II as ‘red-brick rashes,’ and claimed the suburbs were ‘Bathed in the yellow vomit’ of sodium lamps. Yet in 1997 he spoke up for ‘a new beauty – the beauty of the despised, patronised suburb, the open heart of the nation.’

In the search for a sacred place that provide us with an identity that is rooted in place and spiritually nourishing, perhaps we should be comfortable about looking to urban and city places and not constantly yearning for the countryside of childhood holidays.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Priest-in-Charge, the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes, Precentor of Limerick, Killaloe and Clonfert Cathedrals, and a former lecturer in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This paper was first published in ‘Ruach’ No 4 (Michaelmas 2017), pp 50-56.

‘Ruach’ is a journal promoting spiritual growth and healing, edited by the Revd Dr Jason Philips, Parish Priest of Whittington, Weeford and Hints in the Diocese of Lichfield, and Ms Lynne Mills

Monday, 18 September 2017

Blackberry picking in autumn
in fields beside the rectory

Ripening blackberries above the rectory garden walls in Askeaton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

The blackberries are ripening in the fields in the glebe land behind and beside the Rectory in Askeaton.

Sunday afternoon [17 September 2017] was almost like a summer’s day, with warm, bright sunshine and blue skies. After two church services – in Saint Mary’s, Askeaton, and Saint Brendan’s, Kilnaughtin – two of us went picking blackberries in the warm autumn sunshine.

They are growing high on the other sides of the walls of the rectory garden, and many of them are now in full fruit, plump, juicy and ready for eating.

I was surprised earlier this summer when I was at High Leigh in Hoddesdon for the USPG conference, and noticed during my walks in the countryside that the blackberries were already ripening at that early stage on the laneways and by the roadside in East Anglia.

But as we were picking the blackberries yesterday, I was reminded of childhood days at this time of the year in the 1950s or the 1960s, picking blackberries in the laneways and narrow roads close to my grandmother’s farm outside Cappoquin, Co Waterford, and the childhood joys that stayed with me as an adult in more recent years picking blackberrries before Michaelmas and the end of the blackberry-picking season in Kilcoole or Greystones in Co Wicklow, or along Cross in Hand Lane in Lichfield.

I was reminded too of the poem ‘Blackberry-Picking’, written in the 1960s by the late Seamus Heaney for Philip Hobsbaum.

Blackberry-Picking, by Seamus Heaney

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.

We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

Source: Death of a Naturalist (1966)

Soon it will be Michaelmas, when blackberry-picking ceases (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

New college campus in
Limerick preserves earlier
Gothic chapel and convent

The Gothic Revival chapel at Mount Vincent … designed for the Sisters of Mercy by John Neville (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Last week I visited the Mount Vincent campus of Mary Immaculate College on O’Connell Avenue in Limerick. The expansion of the college on this campus gives Limerick’s oldest third-level institution a physical imprint that extends from the Dock Road to the main city thoroughfare.

The buildings at Mount Vincent, backing onto the MIC buildings on the South Circular Road, are the former Sisters of Mercy Mount Vincent convent complex, a landmark 19th century building in Limerick.

The new space, now named the John Henry Newman Campus, recalls the 19th century Tractarian and cardinal who was the author of the seminal The Idea of the University and who preached a mission in Saint Michael’s Church, Limerick, for establishing Mount Vincent as an orphanage run by the Sisters of Mercy.

Mount Vincent takes its name from the French Saint Vincent de Paul, but the site was known as Mount Kenneth before the convent was built here in 1851. The Sisters of Mercy were founded by Mother Catherine McAuley in 1831, and first came to Limerick in 1838, with the support of Bishop Ryan of Limerick. They flourished in the city and county, and had convents in Limerick, Newcastle West, Rathkeale and Adare.

The new convent, chapel and orphanage at Mount Vincent were designed for the Sisters of Mercy by John Neville (1813/1814-1889) in the Early English and Tudor styles.

At the time, Neville was also the county surveyor for Co Louth (1840-1886). He was born in in Co Limerick in 1813 or 1814, and seems to have been the son of John Neville, the architect who was employed by Sir Vere Hunt, in 1813-1814 to work at Curragh Chase, near Askeaton, Co.Limerick, and on the new town Hunt planned at New Birmingham, Co Tipperary.

The training and early career of the younger John Neville is not known. He was living in Clonmel, Co Tipperary, in 1836 but seems to have returned to Limerick and worked on the Shannon navigation in 1836-1838 and as a road contractor in 1838-1840.

He was appointed county surveyor for Co Louth in 1840, and he remained in office for 46 years. He was also the borough surveyor for Drogheda (1852-1869) and Dundalk (1861-1871), and engineer-in-chief to Dundalk Harbour Commissioners (1864-1886).

Although Neville was a Roman Catholic, he was also a prominent Freemason. In 1849, he married Constance Cox, a daughter of John Cox, of Bruree, Co Limerick, a member of the Church of Ireland, in Bruree Parish Church.

Neville also ran his own private practice, and his pupils and assistants included William Sidney Cox, James Gaskin and Eugene O’Brien McSwiney. His other works included the O’Connell Monument in Ennis, Co Clare, the Convents of Mercy in Limerick, Ardee, Dundalk and Roscommon, and the Loreto convent in Omagh.

A year after the Mercy sisters moved into his convent at Mount Vincent, Neville was seriously injured in a railway accident near Straffan, Co Kildare, in 1853, when 16 people were killed and many more were injured. He was the subject of strong criticism in the Dundalk Democrat in 1881 when he evicted tenants from land he held in Crossmaglen, Co Armagh.

Neville resigned as Louth county surveyor in 1886 because of ill-health and went to live with his eldest son, Dr William Neville, a gynaecologist, at 71 Lower Baggot Street, Dublin. He died there on 10 June 1889 aged 76. His two daughters, Barbara and Mary, both became nuns.

The former Mercy Convent designed by John Neville is the principal building on the John Henry Newman campus (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)


Neville’s convent is the principal building within the complex at Mount Vincent. The convent and former female orphanage buildings are typical of the institutional architecture of the mid-19th century, with Gothic Revival flourishes to suggest their religious use, without distracting from the serious purpose of the composition.

The foundation stone of the convent was laid on 5 July 1851, and the Sisters of Mercy had moved in by November 1852. The building contractors were Duggan and McLean and the total cost was estimated at about £6,000.

The convent building itself is a nine-bay, three-storey over basement limestone building, with two-bay three-storey gabled breakfront end bays, and a centrally-placed entrance porch with cruciform finial to apex.

The orphanage at Mount Vincent dates from 1852 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The former female orphan school is 17-bay three-storey over basement building linked to the convent by a six-stage square-plan campanile, and distinguished by a gabled entrance breakfront.

Look out for the gabled front door porch with angle corner buttresses and a cruciform recess to the gable with profiled limestone coping surmounted by a cruciform finial. There are Tudor-arched door openings, Gothic paned lights, Gothicised timber doors and panels, trefoil-arched panels, timber ceilings, timber door architraves, marble chimney-pieces, timber staircases with Gothicised tread ends, and encaustic tiles.

The convent chapel was built in 1861. This is a four-bay double-height limestone chapel, built in the Gothic Revival style on a T-shaped plan, with transepts, a three-stage tower and an octagonal spire.

There are corner buttresses, corbelled eaves, pointed arch nave windows, Perpendicular Gothic limestone tracery at the nave side elevations, curvilinear tracery to the chancel and entrance elevation, encaustic tiles and leaded stained-glass windows. porch platform.

Although I did not get inside the chapel last week, I understand the decorative work includes male busts crowned with bishops’ mitres, plastered walls, a timber-framed choir gallery, a cast-iron spiral stairs, an exposed timber roof, Tudor-arched door openings, and marble reredos with a pinnacled tabernacle.

The convent chapel was completed by 1863, and the spire can be seen from afar contributing to the skyline of spires in Limerick. The convent and orphanage buildings now form the John Henry Newman Centre, and part of Mary Immaculate College (MIC).

A pathway leads from the John Henry Newman Campus at Mount Vincent to the main campus of Mary Immaculate College, between the South Circular Road and the Dock Road.

MIC was founded in 1898 by the Sisters of Mercy and the Bishop Edmund T O’Dwyer, and is the oldest third level-institution in Limerick. When the foundation stone was laid on 8 December 1898, the plan was to provide professional training for female teachers for Catholic national schools.

The architect was WH Byrne, who also designed the Church of the Holy Name on Beechwood Avenue in Ranelagh, Dublin. His son, Ralph Henry Byrne (1877-1946), designed the chapel at the Good Shepherd Convent and Magdalene laundry on Clare Street, Limerick, inspired, to a greater or lesser degree, by Baldassare Longhena’s plans for the octagonal Church of Santa Maria della Salute on the Grand Canal in Venice (1630).

Mary Immaculate College was built at an estimated cost of £18,501, and 75 young women were enrolled as trainee teachers in 1901. Today, this is a Catholic college of education and the liberal arts, offering programmes at undergraduate and postgraduates level to over 3,000 students.

Mary Immaculate College was founded in 1898 and was designed by WH Byrne (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Sunday, 17 September 2017

‘The Angel of Death has been
abroad throughout the land
… but no good came’

Forgiveness and love in the face of death and mass murder … a fading rose on the fence at Birkenau (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 17 September 2017,

The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity,


11.30 a.m., Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin (Tarbert), Co Kerry, the Parish Eucharist.

Readings: Exodus 14: 19-31; Psalm 114; Romans 14: 1-12; Matthew 18: 21-35.

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

I have to admit to having some difficulties sitting, listening to our readings from the Book Exodus over these past few weeks.

It was fine two weeks ago, when Moses meets God on Mount Sinai, and has to take off his sandals because he is standing on holy ground.

But then last week we had very specific details about how the Passover Lamb is to be killed and cooked, with splattering of blood on doorposts and lintels, specific details about how to cook the lamb and how to eat it – tough going, and not only for this vegetarian.

And then we had the warning that the first born are going to be slain. It is an image of God that is terrifying. And then it is followed up this morning with a story in which we meet the Angel of the Lord or the Angel of Death.

The Angel of Death plays a very terrifying role in an oratorio written by the great English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), Dona nobis pacem.

The fifth movement in this oratorio is called ‘The Angel of Death.’ Vaughan Williams derived his text for this movement from a speech in the House of Commons in 1855 by the great Victorian politician and reformer, John Bright, in which he condemned the Crimean War.

John Bright (1811-1889) was almost a lone voice in opposing the Crimean War. In that speech, he drew on images in the Passover story in the Book Exodus, where the Angel of Death kills the firstborn children of Egypt, but spares any Israelite where the lintels and the door posts have been painted with the blood of the lamb (see Exodus 12: 21-32).

Of course, the Exodus story makes no mention of the ‘Angel of Death’ as the author of this final plague. But John Bright’s eloquence helped to popularise this image.

However, his speech did not stop the Crimean War, and 600,000 people were left dead.

When Vaughan Williams was writing his oratorio, Bright’s speech was finding new relevance in England with the rise of Nazism and Fascism on Continental Europe, and a fear of yet another great war.

Vaughan Williams uses these words to create an atmosphere of anxiety and expectation, which leaves us wondering whether the war will ever end, whether we shall ever find peace.

The fifth movement begins with John Bright’s words: ‘The Angel of Death has been abroad throughout the land ...’ In the final movement, the fearful news of the presence of the Angel of Death causes the chorus to burst into another cry for peace, but only more trouble follows: ‘We looked for peace, but no good came ... The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved ...’

These words have relevance once again today as we worry about war and threats of nuclear war involving North Korea or the slaughter of refugees fleeing Myanmar. And they may have more relevance if the European project, having saved much of Europe from the horrors of war for over two generations, collapses.

But if the image of the Angel of Death in this morning’s reading disturbs us, we are not the first.

Not only do I find myself asking why Pharaoh and his army had to drown. Why could events not take another turn so that they arrive late, after the people cross and after the waters return?

To make matters worse, Moses and the Israelites later sing a triumphant song of gratitude to God for wiping out their enemies, declaring: ‘God is a Man of War’ (see Exodus 15:3). The Bible does not get any more masculine and militaristic than that.

Why is this Shirat Hayam (‘Song of the Sea’) so violent and unforgiving?

Where is God’s compassion and mercy?

This story is part of a longer Biblical passage known to Jews as Beshalach (בְּשַׁלַּח‎ – ‘when he let go).’ It is read in synagogues on a Saturday around January or February, a Saturday that is known as Shabbat Shirah, after the ‘Song of the Sea.’

The reading calls up the contrasting images of God parting the waters of Creation (Genesis 1: 6) and God promising after the Flood that the world would never be flooded or drowned again (Genesis 9: 11). So, this is a reading that we need to search through for promises of new creation and God’s redemption.

Traditional Jewish commentaries have been sensitive to the ethical problems this story creates. The Talmud says that when they see the Egyptians drowning, the angels are about to break into song. But God silences them declaring, ‘How dare you sing for joy when my creatures are dying’ (Talmud, Megillah 10b, Sanhedrin 39b).

Rabbi Johanan says that when the Egyptians are drowning in the sea, the angels want to sing a song of rejoicing. But God rebukes them, asking them rhetorically: ‘The work of my hands is being drowned in the sea, and you want to sing songs?’

The Talmud reminds us that our personal elation should never make us forget the misfortunes afflicting others (Berachot 31a). The mediaeval commentaries, the Tosafot, say this is the source for the Jewish custom of breaking a glass at the end of a wedding ceremony. And this is also given as the reason why Jews spill out drops of wine on Seder night, the night of the Passover meal, as a reminder that the cup of deliverance and celebration cannot be full when others have to suffer.

The mediaeval rabbis point out that God continues to pour out pity and mercy for the rest of life even while wrongdoers are destroyed. Even when the oppressors engage in gross evil, God is open to forgiveness.

When DreamWorks made the movie Prince of Egypt (1998), they realised it was not politically correct to show the Israelites singing for joy at the death of their foes, so they had them begin to sing the ‘Song of the Sea’ as soon as they left Egypt. The song ‘When You believe,’ which became a hit single, refers to God’s power but conveniently avoids any mention of violence.

‘The Song of the Sea,’ or ‘The Song of Miriam’, is so challenging, so disturbing, that the General Synod dropped it from the canticles in the edition of the Book of Common Prayer published by the Church of Ireland in 2004.

There is a dichotomy. If we are not happy that evil has been punished, then we do not care enough. But if we are not sad at the loss of life, then our humanity is weakened. The Prophet Ezekiel reminds us: ‘As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live’ (Ezekiel 33: 11).

Perhaps the two shores of the sea represent two sides of the one story. Perhaps, for us, we must pass through the middle, preserving and valuing life, yet not drowning in war and hate. The middle path between justice and mercy is a difficult one to tread and at any moment we can be washed away. We need to tread carefully and try not to get wet.

These are dilemmas that lead us to the ethical problems in our New Testament readings this morning, in the Epistle (Romans 14: 1-12) and in the Gospel (Matthew 18: 21-35).

I often find the call to forgive a much greater moral dilemma than some of the questions I ask about our Old Testament reading.

The Apostle Paul challenges us: ‘Why do you pass judgement on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgement seat of God’ (verse 10).

And in our Gospel reading, Christ calls us to forgive in a way that is so difficult that I am still wrestling with it.

Clergy in the Church of Ireland like to joke – when we step outside the rule books and do things that our bishops might not approve of – that it is easier to ask for forgiveness afterwards than permission beforehand.

Many of us grew up with language that chided us, so that when we did something wrong and said sorry, we were told, ‘Sorry is not enough,’ ‘Sorry doesn’t fix anything,’ or ‘Sorry is only a word.’ These are phrases that allow a hurt person to withhold forgiveness, to find a form of comfort in their own hurt, to control us in a way that allows us to know mercilessly how much we are in need of mercy.

But we now live in a culture of half-hearted apologies that are difficult to forgive. Politicians claim they are accepting responsibility for their decisions by resigning – which means they never have to answer for their actions. Public figures who are loose with their words later apologise half-heartedly – ‘I am sorry if I have offended you’ – so that those who are hurt now feel that they need to apologise for their response, for their reaction, for being hurt.

There are times that I have no right to forgive, when it is not my place to forgive. I cannot forgive the perpetrators of the Holocaust, because, no matter how many times I have visited places that are an intimate part of the Holocaust story, I am not one of the victims.

I cannot forgive the slaveholders or the mass murderers in wars and killing fields, because I am not one of their victims. On the other hand, perhaps, because I am not a victim, I might find it is not so difficult.

The true difficulties arise in my own personal life. The members of my own family, lost friends, near neighbours, former colleagues I think have hurt me in the past. I walk around with perceived slights, insults and hurts, as if they are some sort of crutch that helps the wounded, broken me to walk through this broken and hurting world.

But then I am reminded, time and again, by the Christ who loves me so much, of what ‘my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’

I try, and I fail, and I try again, because I too need to tread carefully between the divided waters of mercy and justice and try not to get wet, so that I may turn from my ways and live.

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

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Priest-in-Charge, the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes. This sermon was prepared for Sunday 17 September 2017.

‘The Falling Angel,’ Marc Chagal (1947)

Collect:

Almighty God,
whose only Son has opened for us
a new and living way into your presence:
Give us pure hearts and steadfast wills
to worship you in spirit and in truth,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post-Communion Prayer:

Lord God,
the source of truth and love:
Keep us faithful to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship,
united in prayer and the breaking of bread,
and one in joy and simplicity of heart,
in Jesus Christ our Lord.


‘Dona nobis pacem’ with the Eastman-Rochester Chorus, the Eastman School Symphony Orchestra and Michaela Anthony, soprano

‘As I live … I have no pleasure
in the death of the wicked’

‘The Falling Angel,’ Marc Chagal (1947)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 17 September 2017,

The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity,


9.30 a.m., Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick, Morning Prayer.

Readings: Exodus 14: 19-31; Psalm 114; Romans 14: 1-12; Matthew 18: 21-35.

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

I have to admit to having some difficulties sitting, listening to our readings from the Book Exodus over these past few weeks.

It was fine two weeks ago, when Moses meets God on Mount Sinai, and takes off his sandals because he is standing on holy ground.

But then last week we had very specific details about how the Passover Lamb is to be killed and cooked, with splattering of blood on doorposts and lintels, specific details about how to cook the lamb and how to eat it – tough going, and not only for this vegetarian.

And then we had the warning that the first born are going to be slain. It is an image of God that is terrifying. And then it is followed up this morning with a story in which we meet the Angel of the Lord or the Angel of Death.

The Angel of Death plays a very terrifying role in an oratorio written by the great English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), Dona nobis pacem.

The fifth movement in this oratorio is called ‘The Angel of Death.’ Vaughan Williams derived his text for this movement from a speech in the House of Commons in 1855 by the great Victorian politician and reformer, John Bright, in which he condemned the Crimean War.

John Bright (1811-1889) was almost a lone voice in opposing the Crimean War. In that speech, he drew on images in the Passover story in the Book Exodus, where the Angel of Death kills the firstborn children of Egypt, but spares any Israelite where the lintels and the door posts have been painted with the blood of the lamb (see Exodus 12: 21-32).

Of course, the Exodus story makes no mention of the ‘Angel of Death’ as the author of this final plague. But John Bright’s eloquence helped to popularise this image.

However, his speech did not stop the Crimean War, and 600,000 people were left dead.

When Vaughan Williams was writing his oratorio, Bright’s speech was finding new relevance in England with the rise of Nazism and Fascism on Continental Europe, and a fear of yet another great war.

Vaughan Williams uses these words to create an atmosphere of anxiety and expectation, which leaves us wondering whether the war will ever end, whether we shall ever find peace.

The fifth movement begins with John Bright’s words: ‘The Angel of Death has been abroad throughout the land ...’ In the final movement, the fearful news of the presence of the Angel of Death causes the chorus to burst into another cry for peace, but only more trouble follows: ‘We looked for peace, but no good came ... The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved ...’

These words have relevance once again today as we worry about war and threats of nuclear war involving North Korea or the slaughter of refugees fleeing Myanmar. And they may have more relevance if the European project, having saved much of Europe from the horrors of war for over two generations, collapses.

But if the image of the Angel of Death in this morning’s reading disturbs us, we are not the first.

Not only do I find myself asking why Pharaoh and his army had to drown. Why could events not take another turn so that they arrive late, after the people cross and after the waters return?

To make matters worse, Moses and the Israelites later sing a triumphant song of gratitude to God for wiping out their enemies, declaring: ‘God is a Man of War’ (see Exodus 15:3). The Bible does not get any more masculine and militaristic than that.

Why is this Shirat Hayam (‘Song of the Sea’) so violent and unforgiving?

Where is God’s compassion and mercy?

This story is part of a longer Biblical passage known to Jews as Beshalach (בְּשַׁלַּח‎ – ‘when he let go).’ It is read in synagogues on a Saturday around January or February, a Saturday that is known as Shabbat Shirah, after the ‘Song of the Sea.’

The reading calls up the contrasting images of God parting the waters of Creation (Genesis 1: 6) and God promising after the Flood that the world would never be flooded or drowned again (Genesis 9: 11). So, this is a reading that we need to search through for promises of new creation and God’s redemption.

Traditional Jewish commentaries have been sensitive to the ethical problems this story creates. The Talmud says that when they see the Egyptians drowning, the angels are about to break into song. But God silences them declaring, ‘How dare you sing for joy when my creatures are dying’ (Talmud, Megillah 10b, Sanhedrin 39b).

Rabbi Johanan says that when the Egyptians are drowning in the sea, the angels want to sing a song of rejoicing. But God rebukes them, asking them rhetorically: ‘The work of my hands is being drowned in the sea, and you want to sing songs?’

The Talmud reminds us that our personal elation should never make us forget the misfortunes afflicting others (Berachot 31a). The mediaeval commentaries, the Tosafot, say this is the source for the Jewish custom of breaking a glass at the end of a wedding ceremony. And this is also given as the reason why Jews spill out drops of wine on Seder night, the night of the Passover meal, as a reminder that the cup of deliverance and celebration cannot be full when others have to suffer.

The mediaeval rabbis point out that God continues to pour out pity and mercy for the rest of life even while wrongdoers are destroyed. Even when the oppressors engage in gross evil, God is open to forgiveness.

When DreamWorks made the movie Prince of Egypt (1998), they realised it was not politically correct to show the Israelites singing for joy at the death of their foes, so they had them begin to sing the ‘Song of the Sea’ as soon as they left Egypt. The song ‘When You believe,’ which became a hit single, refers to God’s power but conveniently avoids any mention of violence.

‘The Song of the Sea,’ or ‘The Song of Miriam’, is so challenging, so disturbing, that the General Synod dropped it from the canticles in the edition of the Book of Common Prayer published by the Church of Ireland in 2004.

There is a dichotomy. If we are not happy that evil has been punished, then we do not care enough. But if we are not sad at the loss of life, then our humanity is weakened. The Prophet Ezekiel reminds us: ‘As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live’ (Ezekiel 33: 11).

Perhaps the two shores of the sea represent two sides of the one story. Perhaps, for us, we must pass through the middle, preserving and valuing life, yet not drowning in war and hate. The middle path between justice and mercy is a difficult one to tread and at any moment we can be washed away. We need to tread carefully and try not to get wet.

These are dilemmas that lead us to the ethical problems in our New Testament readings this morning, in the Epistle (Romans 14: 1-12) and in the Gospel (Matthew 18: 21-35).

I often find the call to forgive a much greater moral dilemma than some of the questions I ask about our Old Testament reading.

The Apostle Paul challenges us: ‘Why do you pass judgement on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgement seat of God’ (verse 10).

And in our Gospel reading, Christ calls us to forgive in a way that is so difficult that I am still wrestling with it.

Clergy in the Church of Ireland like to joke – when we step outside the rule books and do things that our bishops might not approve of – that it is easier to ask for forgiveness afterwards than permission beforehand.

Many of us grew up with language that chided us, so that when we did something wrong and said sorry, we were told, ‘Sorry is not enough,’ ‘Sorry doesn’t fix anything,’ or ‘Sorry is only a word.’ These are phrases that allow a hurt person to withhold forgiveness, to find a form of comfort in their own hurt, to control us in a way that allows us to know mercilessly how much we are in need of mercy.

But we now live in a culture of half-hearted apologies that are difficult to forgive. Politicians claim they are accepting responsibility for their decisions by resigning – which means they never have to answer for their actions. Public figures who are loose with their words later apologise half-heartedly – ‘I am sorry if I have offended you’ – so that those who are hurt now feel that they need to apologise for their response, for their reaction, for being hurt.

There are times that I have no right to forgive, when it is not my place to forgive. I cannot forgive the perpetrators of the Holocaust, because, no matter how many times I have visited places that are an intimate part of the Holocaust story, I am not one of the victims.

I cannot forgive the slaveholders or the mass murderers in wars and killing fields, because I am not one of their victims. On the other hand, perhaps, because I am not a victim, I might find it is not so difficult.

The true difficulties arise in my own personal life. The members of my own family, lost friends, near neighbours, former colleagues I think have hurt me in the past. I walk around with perceived slights, insults and hurts, as if they are some sort of crutch that helps the wounded, broken me to walk through this broken and hurting world.

But then I am reminded, time and again, by the Christ who loves me so much, of what ‘my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’

I try, and I fail, and I try again, because I too need to tread carefully between the divided waters of mercy and justice and try not to get wet, so that I may turn from my ways and live.

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

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Priest-in-Charge, the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes. This sermon was prepared for Sunday 17 September 2017.

Forgiveness and love in the face of death and mass murder … a fading rose on the fence at Birkenau (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Collect:

Almighty God,
whose only Son has opened for us
a new and living way into your presence:
Give us pure hearts and steadfast wills
to worship you in spirit and in truth,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.


‘Dona nobis pacem’ with the Eastman-Rochester Chorus, the Eastman School Symphony Orchestra and Michaela Anthony, soprano