Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Three memorials provide
a mosaic of life in Tarbert

The Shannon Boating Tragedy memorial in Tarbert, Co Kerry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

I was in Tarbert, Co Kerry, earlier today [15 August 2017] to take part in the annual memorial service for the Shannon Boating Tragedy in 1893.

I was invited to speak briefly and to lead some short prayers at the commemoration, which takes place each year at the Memorial Plaza in Tarbert.

For many years, 15 August was both a church holiday and a welcome holiday at the end of the harvest season in West Limerick and North Kerry, and at the end of the 19th century the new West Clare Railway offered an additional attraction for young workers planning a day off and a day’s fun.

We were reminded this morning how 124 years ago, on 15 August 1893, a party of young people from Tarbert – 10 men and seven women with an average age of 24 – decided to spend the day’s holiday in West Clare. It was a beautiful fine morning, and planned to cross the River Shannon in two boats sailing from Tarbert to Kilrush, to spend the day in Kilkee and to return later that evening on the same three-mile boat journey.

However, when they arrived at their point of embarkation at Coolnanoonagh there was no second boat for the crossing. There and then, the 17 day-trippers decided to crowd into Maurice Murphy’s 17-ft-long fishing boat. When they arrived at Moyne Quay in Co Clare, they expressed concern that the boat was overloaded and in an unseaworthy condition. The women complained that the hems of their skirts were getting wet, while the men described bailing out water with their boots.

Spirits were high, and the 17 enjoyed the afternoon in Kilrush and Kilkee. Towards evening, they returned to Moyne Quay for the journey back to Tarbert. Despite pleas and warnings, the whole party decided to make the return boat trip. There was a strong current and only two oars to steer the boat.

They appeared to have crossed the Tarbert Race, a strong choppy bit of current running down the middle of the estuary. But they were about 300 yards from the Tarbert shoreline and darkness was falling when disaster struck. Some of the group may have stood up in the boat looking out for their landing place, and this may have caused the boat to overturn, plunging them into the sea.

Despite frantic searches the next day, there was no sign of boat or bodies. By the end of September, 12 bodies had been recovered and buried in family graves. But five bodies were never recovered – the River Shannon remains their grave.

The Scanlon family of Kilpadogue suffered the greatest loss with the death of four of the eldest in a family of 14. Two inquests later found that the boat was overcrowded and not in a seaworthy condition. At least four of the 17 who drowned were Church of Ireland parishioners.

The 17 who died were: Maurice Murphy, Patrick Murphy, Michael Scanlon, Mary Scanlon, Kate Scanlon, Bridget Scanlon, Mary Lyndon, Patrick Lyndon, John Holly, Michael Bovenizer, Thomas Bovenizer, Nora Fitzgerald, Hannah O’Sullivan, Thomas Glazier, Johanna McGrath, William Naughton and Richard Allen.

The 15 August 1893 boating tragedy remains the biggest loss of life on the lower River Shannon, and the memorial to the 17 who died was erected by the people of Tarbert in 1988.

In my short address, I recalled that Sunday’s Gospel reading (Matthew 14: 22-33) was about Saint Peter stepping out of the boat when he saw Christ walking on the water, panicked, and reached out his hand. I said we needed in the face of tragedies to reach out to those who suffer, and to those who carry memories, sadness and fears for generations.

The War Memorial in Tarbert recalls the dead of two World Wars (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Beside the memorial for this tragedy, the War Memorial is a limestone memorial in scroll format remembering 14 young men from Tarbert who fought and died in two World Wars.

Ten of those who died in World War I (1914-1918) fought in Irish-based regiments and two men named fought in the US army. Seven of them were under 30, including two who enrolled in the Tralee-based Royal Munster Fusiliers.

The 10 are: Robert Murray (1915), John Liston (1915), Duncan Hunter (1916), Michael Lynch (1916), Thomas Whitaker (1916), Henry de Courcy (1917), Gerald Harris (1918), William Fitzmaurice (1918), John Donovan (1918), Desmond Quinn (1918), Michael Pattwell (1918), and Stephen Cregan (1918).

Stephen Cregan, who was in the 308th US infantry regiment, may have been the last Kerry man to die in World War I. He was killed on 9 November 1918, two days before the Armistice was signed at 11 a.m. on 11 November 1918.

The two men from Tarbert who died in World War II (1939-1945), Maurice (‘Mossie’) Langan (1940) and Eamon Brandon (1944), were killed while serving with the Royal Navy.

The lines of poetry at the base of the memorial were written by a local poet, Thomas MacGreevy (1893-1967) of Tarbert, who was wounded twice at the Somme offensive 100 years ago in 1917:

Those who live between wars may not know,
but we who die between peace know
whether we die or not.


Thomas MacGreevy was one of Ireland’s first modernist poets and was also Director of the National Gallery of Ireland (1950-1963). During World War I, he was a second lieutenant in the Royal Field Artillery. His training lasted nearly 20 months, and by Christmas 1917 he was at the Somme.

During his lifetime, MacGreevy wrote hundreds of articles on art, literature, dance, and religion, an unpublished novel, and several plays. Although he published only one volume of poetry during his lifetime, his strikingly original verse paved the way for younger poets and playwrights, such as Samuel Beckett, Brian Coffey and Denis Devlin, to emerge from under the shadow of WB Yeats.

In London, he met TS Eliot, who as the editor of The Criterion, who took him on as a reviewer. It was possibly Eliot’s poetry that had the most profound effect on MacGreevy’s own style. MacGreevy’s long ‘cab’ poem, Crón Tráth na nDéithe, is greatly indebted to The Waste Land.

It said that in Paris MacGreevy introduced Samuel Beckett to James Joyce. Later, he was the Art Critic of The Irish Times (1941-1944). He died 50 years ago on 16 March 1967.

A few steps away, the left of these monuments, a third memorial recalls the 1916 rising, with images of a harp and the seven signatories of the 1916. The inscription on the plinth includes a quotation from Tom Fitzgerald from Tarbert at this trial in 1918 for the drilling of rebels: ‘As long as the grass grows and water flows, there will be men to do and dare for Ireland.’

All three memorials represent tragic stages in the history of Tarbert. In their diversity, they help to present this Memorial Plaza as a mosaic of the past in Tarbert to those who live there today.

The 1916 Memorial at the Memorial Plaza in Tarbert (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The Dormition and exploring
Martin Luther’s views on
traditional Marian teachings

Saint Mary’s Church Askeaton, with the ruins of the earlier mediaeval church and the Templar Tower (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Today is known in the Orthodox Church is the Feast of the Dormition, and in the Western Church it is known as the Feast of the Assumption.

In the Orthodox Church, the Dormition of the Mother of God (Η Κοίμησις τησ Θεοτόκου, Koímēsos tis Theotokou) is a Great Feast and recalls the ‘falling asleep’ or death of the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos, and her body being taken into heaven. In the Greek of Scripture and Orthodoxy, death is often called a ‘sleeping’ or ‘falling asleep.’

This day [15 August] is marked in the Calendar of Common Worship in the Church of England, this is a Festival of the Virgin Mary, without any reference to either the Dormition or the Assumption. Other Anglican churches, including the Scottish Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada, mark this day as a commemoration of ‘The Falling Asleep of the Blessed Virgin Mary,’ and in the Episcopal Church in the United States of America it is observed as the holy day of ‘Saint Mary the Virgin, Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ.’

Surprisingly, she is perhaps the only New Testament saint who is not remembered in the Calendar of Church of Ireland on the traditional or supposed day of death.

I spent the morning yesterday [14 August 2017] finishing the last in a series of features on Martin Luther for the diocesan magazine, Newslink, marking the 500th anniversary of his posting his 95 Theses in Wittenberg on 31 October 1517. Later in the afternoon, as I walked around the churchyard of Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, I wondered about Luther’s theology of the Virgin Mary.

Martin Luther’s Marian theology was developed out of the deep Marian devotion he experienced in his childhood and in his training for the priesthood. Later, it became an integral part of his theology and piety.

Luther asserted dogmatically what he considered firmly established biblical doctrines, including the divine motherhood of Virgin Mary and held to what were then pious opinions about the Immaculate Conception and the perpetual virginity of Mary, although they only became dogmatic teachings of the Roman Catholic Church as recently as the 19th and 20th centuries.

But Luther also taught that all doctrine and piety should exalt and not diminish the person and work of Jesus Christ. He emphasised that the Virgin Mary was a recipient of God’s love and favour, but could not see her as a mediatrix of intercession or redemption.

Luther accepted the Marian decrees of the ecumenical councils and the dogmas of the Church, and held to the belief that the Virgin Mary was a perpetual virgin and the Theotokos, the Mother of God.

Luther accepted the popular view of the Immaculate Conception, over three centuries before Pope Pius IX declared it a dogma in 1854, and he believed in the Virgin Mary’s life-long sinlessness. Although he pointed out that the Bible says nothing about the Assumption of Mary, he believed that Virgin Mary and the saints live on after death.

In his Commentary on the Magnificat (1521), Luther extolled the magnitude of God’s grace towards the Virgin Mary and her own legacy of Christian instruction and example demonstrated in this canticle of praise.

Throughout his life, Luther also believed in the perpetual virginity and sinlessness of the Virgin Mary. He wrote a number of pious poems that focus on her virginity, and translated into German old devotional Latin hymns about her. In his interpretation of the Magnificat of Mary, he maintains traditional Marian piety.

Many Lutheran communities in Germany continued to sing the canticle Magnificat in Latin. In the Church Order in Brandenburg and other places, the Lutheran Church maintained three Marian feast days.

Lurther approved keeping Marian paintings and statues in churches, said ‘Mary prays for the Church,’ and advocated the use of the portion half of the ‘Hail Mary.’

Throughout his life, Luther called the Virgin Mary by the title Theotokos, Mother of God. He believed that as Christ was conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary and was ‘born of the Virgin Mary,’ then she is the Theotokos, the God-bearer. He wrote:

[S]he became the Mother of God, in which work so many and such great good things are bestowed on her as pass man’s understanding. For on this there follows all honour, all blessedness, and her unique place in the whole of mankind, among which she has no equal, namely, that she had a child by the Father in heaven, and such a Child … Hence men have crowded all her glory into a single word, calling her the Mother of God … None can say of her nor announce to her greater things, even though he had as many tongues as the earth possesses flowers and blades of grass: the sky, stars; and the sea, grains of sand. It needs to be pondered in the heart what it means to be the Mother of God.

This belief is officially endorsed in the Lutheran Formula of Concord, which declares:

On account of this personal union and communion of the natures, Mary, the most Blessed Virgin, did not conceive a mere, ordinary human being, but a human being who is truly the Son of the most high God, as the angel testifies. He demonstrated his divine majesty even in his mother’s womb in that he was born of a virgin without violating her virginity. Therefore she is truly the mother of God and yet remained a virgin.

The Dormition of the Theotokos … an icon completed last year by Alexandra Kaouki for a church in the old town of Rethymnon © Alexandra Kaouki

The title Theotokos (Θεοτόκος) is translated as ‘Mother of God’ or ‘God-bearer.’ The Council of Ephesus decreed in 431 that the Virgin Mary is the Theotokos because her son Jesus is both God and man: one divine person with two natures (divine and human) intimately and hypostatically united.

The word Theotokos is an adjectival compound of two the Greek words Θεός, God, and τόκος, childbirth, parturition; offspring.’ A close paraphrase is ‘[she] whose offspring is God’ or ‘[she] who gave birth to one who was God.’

The full title of the Virgin Mary in Greek is Ὑπεραγία δεσποινίς ἡμῶν Θεοτόκος καὶ ἀειπαρθένος Μαρία, ‘Our Most Holy Lady Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary.’

The theological dispute over the term revolved around the use of words Θεός, God, against Χριστός, Christ, and τόκος, bearer, against μήτηρ (mater, mother). The two terms have been used as synonyms throughout Christian tradition, but the word Θεοτόκος was preferred to reject the views of Nestorius without implying that the Virgin Mary was the Mother of God from eternity.

The status of the Virgin Mary as Theotokos was decreed at the Council of Ephesus in 431 because her son Jesus Christ is one person who is both God and man, divine and human. Nestorius argued that divine and human natures of Christ are distinct, and while the Virgin Mary is evidently the Christotokos or ‘bearer of Christ,’ it could be misleading to describe her as the ‘bearer of God.’

At the heart of this debate is the Orthodox understanding of the Incarnation, and the nature of the hypostatic union of Christ’s human and divine natures between Christ’s conception and birth.

In Article 2 of the 39 Articles, Anglican tradition reaffirms this understanding of the Incarnation and rejects Nestorianism, when it states:

The Son, which is the Word of the Father, begotten from everlasting of the Father, the very and eternal God, and of one substance with the Father, took Man’s nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin, of her substance: so that two whole and perfect Natures, that is to say, the Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one Person, never to be divided, whereof is one Christ, very God, and very Man; who truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile his Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for actual sins of men.

An icon of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child … a present from a friend in Crete last year (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Collect (Common Worship):

Almighty God,
who looked upon the lowliness of the Blessed Virgin Mary
and chose her to be the mother of your only Son:
grant that we who are redeemed by his blood
may share with her in the glory of your eternal kingdom;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

God most high,
whose handmaid bore the Word made flesh:
we thank you that in this sacrament of our redemption
you visit us with your Holy Spirit
and overshadow us by your power;
strengthen us to walk with Mary the joyful path of obedience
and so to bring forth the fruits of holiness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton … a walk in the churchyard yesterday focused attention on the Dormition and Martin Luther’s Marian teachings (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)