06 July 2020

White horses on the sea
at Ballybunion and ponies
and riders in the water

White horses, with ponies and riders on the shoreline at Ballbunion, Co Kerry, on Sunday afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

One of the pleasures I miss from the each coast in recent years is the excitement that builds up around the annual races on the beach at Bettystown and Laytown, three miles of golden beach on the ‘Gold Coast’ of Co Meath. These races are colourful, exciting and unique, and this is the only race event in Ireland that is run on a beach under the Rules of Racing.

The first recorded meeting was over 250 years ago in 1868, when races were run as a side show to the Boyne Regatta, with the rowing competition taking place on the high tide and the racing later at low tide. The Home Rule leader, Charles Stuart Parnell, was one of the first stewards at these races.

At one time, strand races were common throughout Ireland: they were run at Milltown Malbay, and at Baltray and Termonfeckin in Co Louth, and even feature in the movie The Quiet Man.

I was reminded of these colourful races on Sunday afternoon when I went for a walk on the beach at Ballybunion after our first services in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, and Saint Brendan’s Church, Tarbert, with the easing of restrictions during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown.

There was a strong wind, and the sea breeze was blowing sand into our eyes as we walked from the South Beach to the North Breach.

Despite a red flag warning of the high waves, some surf boarders were braving the water and the white horses, under the watch of lifeguards.

And, as we walked, three ponies and their riders came into view below the cliffs, enjoying an afternoon canter at the point where the waves meet the sand.

There is a classical Japanese phrase, Jinba ittai, expressed in a four-character compound (人馬 – 体) and describing how a horse and rider become one.

The phrase was used some years ago in an advertising campaign by Mazda to describe a driver and car. But this description of the unity of horse and rider as one, which comes from Japanese mounted archery, could have described the scene out of time on the shoreline at Ballybunion on Sunday afternoon.

On the other hand, horses and riders must have seemed as one to slaves fleeing Egypt when Pharaoh’s pursuing troops and horses were drowned as the waters of the Red Sea closed again.

In the story in Exodus, Moses and the people sing to God:

‘I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea’ (see Exodus 15: 1 ff).

This song is known as the ‘Song of Moses and Miriam,’ the ‘Song of the Sea,’ or as the ‘Song of Miriam,’ to distinguish it from the ‘Song of Moses’ (see Deuteronomy 32). It was deleted from the Canticles in the Book of Common Prayer (2004) when it was revised in the Church of Ireland almost 20 years ago.

In the Talmud, in Megillah 10b, Pesachim 64b, and Sanhedrin 39b, the rabbis tell a corrective story about this song. In the story, attributed variously to Rabbi Yochanan or Rabbi Yonatan, God hears the angels singing and rejoicing, and asks, ‘Why are you rejoicing?’

The angels reply, ‘Your children, the Hebrew children, were saved today.’

God then rebukes the angels as he asks, ‘Did you not know that the Egyptians who died today were also my children? My children are drowning and you would sing my praises?’

Meanwhile, the next Laytown races are planned for 1 September 2020.

White horses in the water at Ballybunion on Sunday afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

I don’t know if I have
told you, but Luther was
one of my predecessors

Ballycahane Church, near Croom, Co Limerick … Canon George Minchin Luther was once Prebendary of Ballycahane, a stall now held by the Precentor of Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I can say truly – although, perhaps, with tongue in cheek – that Luther was once one of my predecessors. Not Martin Luther, I hasten to add, but Canon George Minchin Luther, who was once Prebendary of Ballycahane in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, and who was one of three members of the Luther family who served as priests in the Diocese of Limerick in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries.

A Luther family has been living in Ireland for almost 400 years. They originated in Essex, but claim kinship with Martin Luther and that they moved to England during the reign of Henry VIII. It seems more likely, however, that their surname was a toponymic, derived from a house with ‘lutherns’ or dormer windows.

Their main house in Essex was Great Myles, which was demolished in the early 19th century. However, a house named Luthers, is still standing near Waltham Abbey, and its residents included Sir Roger Casement, who was a tenant there from 1912 until his execution in 1916.

The Luther family spread from Essex to Somerset, and the first Luther to arrive in Ireland was John Luther, born in Somerset in 1623. He moved to Ireland ca 1650, and settled in Youghal, Co Cork. He was the Bailiff of Youghal in 1659.

A vault recently discovered in Saint Mary’s Collegiate Church, Youghal, is dated February 1661, and contains the remains of John Luther, an alderman of the town and his wife, Elizabeth.

Another John Luther was Mayor of Youghal in 1666 and 1681. He built a large house at Windmill Lane, Youghal, with an impressive oak staircase, but was demolished in the 1980s. He died in 1697 and was the father of Henry Luther, MP for Youghal (1703-1713), who married into the Moore family from Clonmel, Co Tipperary.

Another member of the family, Thomas Luther, moved to Clonmel about 1726 and became a freeman of the borough. His son, Thomas Luther, was Mayor of Clonmel in 1756-1759, and a successful merchant. When Thomas Luther died in Clonmel, his son Samuel Luther inherited an estate worth £1,000 a year.

Thomas Luther appears to have been the father of the Revd Guy Luther (1737-1799), who was the Rector of Derrygalvin in Co Limerick (1773-1792) and the Vicar of Bruff and Kilbreedy Minor in Limerick (1792-1799) until he died in 1799.

Anthony Guy Luther of Anne Street, Clonmel, married Catherine Minchin Crofton, (1769-1851). She was widowed and living at Altavilla, the Crofton family home in Co Laois, when she died in 1851.

Guy Luther, who was living at Altavilla at the time of Griffith’s Valuation, was the father of another Guy Luther, who married Alicia Maria Fitzmaurice (1810-1886) in Carlow in 1832. This Guy Luther died in 1891, and is buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery, Dublin.

Guy and Alice Luther were the parents of two Church of Ireland priests, Canon John Fitzmaurice Luther (1835-1907) and Canon George Minchin Luther (1846-1911), who were born in Dublin, and who both served in the Diocese of Limerick in the end late 19th and early 20th century.

Canon John Fitzmaurice Luther was educated at TCD and was ordained deacon (1858) and priest (1859) for the Diocese of Killaloe. His was the curate in Kilrush, Co Clare, in 1861 when he married Jane Mary Litton, daughter of Daniel Litton of 9 Waterloo Road, Dublin, on 2 March 1861 in Saint Peter’s Church, Dublin. He was later a curate in Cahirciveen, Co Kerry, and for over 30 years, until he died in 1907, he was the Rector of Kilflynn in the Diocese of Limerick and the Prebendary of Dysart in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick.

His son, Dr John Fitzmaurice Guy Luther (1870-1915), was born in Donnybrook, and was a captain in the Australian army when he was killed in action at Gallipoli during the Anzac landings on 25 August 1915 by a single sniper shot to the head.

Canon George Minchin Luther was born in 1846 at Upper Leeson Street, Dublin, and was baptised in Saint Mary’s Church, Crumlin. He married Emma Fitzmaurice Dixon, daughter of Samuel Dixon and Emma Frances Fitzmaurice. For 38 years (1873-1911) he was the Rector of Cahernarry in Co Limerick, and he was the Prebendary of Ballycahane in Saint Mary's Cathedral, Limerick, from 1899 until he died in 1911.

The position of Prebendary of Ballycahane is now nominally held by the Precentor of Limerick – so, I could ask, in a jocular sort: did you know Luther was one of my predecessors?

It must be difficult for ordinary people who carry the names of great figures from the past. There must be plenty of O’Connell couples who named their son Daniel, or Fitzgeralds who named their son Edward.

I found out some years ago that one member of the Luther family in Clonmel in the 19th century actually named his son Martin. It must be difficult having the same name as prominent figure in history – and it must have been even more difficult for this young Martin Luther, you was brought up a Roman Catholic and already had a famous uncle: he was a nephew of Charles Bianconi (1786-1875), the Italian-born founder of public transport in Ireland who was four times Mayor of Clonmel.

But then, perhaps, young Martin Luther from Clonmel was not embarrassed in any way, for was one the Irishmen who fought on the Pope’s side during the Italian War of Unification. Martin Luther fought at Spoleto as a captain in the Battalion of Saint Patrick before being ordered to Perugia, where he ‘won the universal admiration of his men by his coolness under fire.’

Luther later went to North America, and was a captain during the American Civil War … although I have yet to find out on which side.

Stalin may have wondered how many battalions the Pope had. I imagine he never thought that Martin Luther was among them.

Saint Senan’s Church, Kilrush, Co Clare … Canon John Fitzmaurice Luther was curate in 1858-1861 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)