08 December 2021

Finding the stories of real lives in
the churchyards of West Limerick

The ruins of Kilscannell parish church, between Rathkeale and Newcastle West, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

One of the downsides of not driving a car and living in an area with inadequate public transport is missing so many community events in the evening, including book launches. On the other hand, one of the advantages of living in an area like this in provincial Ireland is the large number of active local historians eager to continue their research and to publish their work.

I have missed two or three book launches in recent week, but recently two friendly neighbours brought around a copy of one of the books whose launch I had missed.

Mary Kury of Saint Kieran’s Heritage Association is a good example of historians like this. She recently published In Loving Memory: the Headstones in Clonagh, Coolcappa, Kilscannell and Rathronan Graveyards. I missed her book launch, but in the past week or two I have been poring over the signed copy she sent me.

Local historians mine reach seams and bring up the gems that provide the working material for academic historians. In this book, Mary Kury not only transcribes the gravestones and memorials in a number of churchyards and graveyards in West Limerick, but she also weaves through her text the stories of real-life people and their families.

Limerick was at the centre of the development of aviation and transatlantic air flights, as all who visit Foynes, or who have heard the story of Sophie Pierce, know. But Mary Kury also recalls the tragic story of a tragic air collision in Limerick almost 90 years ago. Sir Alan Cobham and ‘Cobham’s Flying Circus’ visited Limerick on 7 and 8 July 1933as part of a orld tour.

Tragedy struck when two planes collided, with the tail of lower plane being struck with Sir Alan’s plane. Cobham was unaware of the collision until he landed. The damaged plane spiralled to the ground, and the pilot, WR Elliott, and the passenger, 28-year-old William Ower, were killed. William Ower was the eldest son of William and Mary Ower of Newcastle West, and his father and his brother, who were in the queue waiting to go up, saw the tragedy unfold before their eyes. The two brothers are commemorated in Rathkeale, while their father William Ower is buried in Clonagh.

Patrick Hartigan, who is buried in Clonagh churchyard, was a local magistrate who lived in Reens. His two sons were killed in World War I: Luke Joseph Hartigan, of the 1st Battalion, Royal Munster Fusiliers, was killed in action on 15 August 1917; three months later, his brother Edward Patrick Hartigan, a second lieutenant in the 57th Squadron in the Royal Flying Corps, was killed in action on 20 November 1917 at the age of 22. Both brothers are commemorated in Rathkeale.

The Smith O’Brien Mausoleum in Rathronan churchyard (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Rathronan Church was built in 1822 on the site of an earlier, mediaeval church, and is known for its associations with the patriot William Smith O’Brien and his family of Cahermoyle House. The O’Brien and Massy families have large mausoleums in the churchyard, and members of the Goold family of Athea are also buried in Rathronan churchyard.

Thomas Goold bought the Athea estate from the Courtenay family of Newcastle West and Earls of Devon, in 1817. His son, Wyndham Goold (1812-1854), as MP for Co Limerick in 1850-1854, and his daughter Augusta Charlotte married Edwin Richard Wyndham-Quin (1812-1871), 3rd Earl of Dunraven, who became a Roman Catholic in 1855; he lived at Adare Manor and reported on the discovery of the Ardagh Chalice. Another son, Archdeacon Frederick Goold (1808-1877), owned almost 11,000 acres in Co Limerick when he died in 1877.

The church in Kilscannell, with its square tower, was rebuilt in 1823 with a grant from the Board of First Fruits. The Chancellors of Limerick, who were rectors of Rathkeale, also held the parish of Kilscannell, and usually appointed a separate curate to look after the church. The last such curate was probably the Revd Clement Richardson in 1859-1864. His first wife, Mary Anne Richardson, died in 1865, and is commemorated with a plaque in Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale. He later became a missionary in Canada with the Anglican mission agency SPG, now USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).

Canon Samuel Wills was the first rector of Rathkeale (1872-1905) who was not Chancellor of Limerick and who was without a curate in Kilscannell. During his time, the church in Kilscannell burned down on Easter Day 1895. The weather was cold that morning, and the Rector of Rathkeale, Canon Samuel Wills, asked the sexton, Dan Eaton, to stoke up the fire. According to Mary Kury, Eaton was annoyed at the manner in which he was instructed and built a large fire in the stove. The roof above the stove pipe caught fire and the flames spread quickly, fanned by a strong breeze.

The rector, the sexton and the large congregation all escaped unharmed, but the church burned down. Although the church was fully insured, it was never rebuilt, and its ruins by the side of the road near Ardagh are a sad and lonely sight.

Even when memorial stones are missing, Mary Kury has interesting stories to tell. The Gibbins family once had a tomb inside the front wall of Kilscannell Church. She recalls the local story of the Revd Thomas Gibbins (1870-1927), who ‘was courting a young lady who rebuffed his advances. As he left her home, he met another clergyman coming to visit the woman. He drew a pistol and threatened to shoot the man. The second clergyman avoided being shot by circling his horse until help arrived.’

Thomas was taken to hospital and died in an asylum in Enniscorthy, Co Wexford.

The memorial plaque to Mary Anne Richardson on the north wall of Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, is in three languages (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Praying in Advent 2021:
11, The Blessed Virgin Mary

A fresco of Saint Anne with her child, the Virgin Mary, with her child, the Christ Child, by the icon writer Alexandra Kaouki in a church in Rethymnon, Crete

Patrick Comerford

Storm Barra seems to have abated overnight, and today is probably going to be another busy day, continuing until late in the day with a meeting of a school board in Rathkeale later this evening.

Before this busy day begins, I am taking some time early this morning (8 December 2021) for prayer, reflection and reading.

Each morning in the Advent, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, Reflections on a saint remembered in the calendars of the Church during Advent;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

A statue of Saint Anne and the Virgin Mary in Nicker Church, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Many calendars in churches throughout the Anglican Communion name this day the Feast of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The same feast is a celebrated as liturgical holiday in the Orthodox Church and a number of Eastern Catholic Churches on 9 December. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the holy day was once called the Feast of Conception of Saint Anne.

This celebration only became known as the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in the Roman Catholic calendar in 1858. When I was younger and living in Wexford, this was a day when all shops closed, and was an opportunity for many people to go to Dublin for pre-Christmas shopping.

Of course, the Gospels do not mention the birth and infancy of the Virgin Mary. Nonetheless, early Christians thought that, like Saint John the Baptist, her birth too must have had something of the miraculous. This is reflected in the Protoevangelium of James, an apocryphal second century infancy gospel. A strong devotion to Saint Anne – and by extension to Saint Joachim – developed in the East, and a number of churches were dedicated to them.

By the mid-seventh century, the Conception of Saint Anne, or the Maternity of Holy Anna, had become a distinct feast day, celebrating the conception of the Virgin Mary by Saint Anne. It was first celebrated at the Monastery of Saint Sabas, later entered the liturgical calendar of the Byzantine Church, and eventually began to be observed in the West as the Conception of Mary. By the tenth century, the Feast of the Conception of Mary appeared in Irish liturgical calendars on 3 May, and Irish missionaries brought it to England, where it was celebrated at Canterbury from ca 1030, and later at Exeter.

After the Norman Conquest, the feast was suppressed when Archbishop Lanfranc of Canterbury reorganised the Church calendar.

In the early 12th century, Osbert de Clare, Prior of Saint Peter's Abbey, Westminster, tried to reintroduce this Anglo-Saxon feast at Westminster Abbey. A number of monks objected but the Council of London in 1129 decided in favour of the feast, and Bishop Gilbert of London adopted it for his diocese. Other abbeys and cathedrals followed, and the feast spread throughout England.

The Churches in the East and in the West focus on different aspects of the feast. On 9 December, the East celebrates the miracle of God taking away the barrenness of Anna’s womb, while on 8 December the Western Church emphasises the Virgin Mary’s purity from her conception. In the Greek Orthodox Church, this feast is called ‘the Conception by Saint Anne of the Most Holy Theotokos.

In the understanding of the Eastern Church, the Virgin Mary is conceived by her parents as all conceived. But, in her case, it is a pure act of faith and love, in obedience to God's will, as an answer to prayer:

Come, let us dance in the spirit!
Let us sing worthy praises to Christ!
Let us celebrate the joy of Joachim and Anna,
The conception of the Mother of our God,
For she is the fruit of the grace of God.

Pope Sixtus IV designated 8 December as the feast day of the Conception of Mary, and in 1476 issued the apostolic constitution Cum Praeexcelsa. In 1568, When Pope Pius V revised the Roman Breviary in 1568, he suppressed the office, substituting the word ‘nativity,’ although the Franciscans were allowed to retain the old form.

In the papal bull Commissi Nobis Divinitus, Pope Clement XI made this a Holy Day of Obligation in 1708. But it was not until Ineffabilis Deus in 1858 that Pope Pius IX declared the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary as a dogma.

While the Eastern Church recognises the exceptional holiness of the Virgin Mary, and celebrates her as immaculate (achrantos), it does not agree with the Roman Catholic understanding of the Immaculate Conception. Indeed, the Orthodox Church has never subscribed to notions of original sin and hereditary guilt taught by Augustine of Hippo.

The Feast of Saint Anne is celebrated on 26 July. When I was growing up in Cappoquin, Co Waterford, the two parish churches shared the one triangular piece of land: Saint Anne’s, the Church of Ireland parish church, and Saint Mary’, the Roman Catholic parish church.

In the Church of England and many other parts of the Anglican Communion – but not in the Church of Ireland – the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary may be observed as a Lesser Festival on 8 December.

Saint Anne’s Church, Cappoquin, Co Waterford … shares a church site with Saint Mary’s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Matthew 11: 28-30 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 28 ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (8 December 2021) invites us to pray:

We celebrate the power of education. May children and adults alike be provided with opportunities to learn throughout their lives.

Yesterday: Saint Columba

Tomorrow:The Revd Aeneas Francon Williams

An icon of Saint Anne with her child, the Virgin Mary, with her child, the Christ Child, in the Church of Saint Eleftherios and Saint Anna in Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org