18 October 2022

Saints, seekers and many
more stories of religious
life and lives in Limerick

‘Of Limerick Saints and Seekers’, edited by David Bracken … I have two contributions in this new book

Patrick Comerford

A new book is on its way in the post, I hope. I am one of the contributors to Of Limerick Saints and Seekers, edited by David Bracken and published in Dublin last month by Veritas.

In this new book, David Bracken invites readers to journey with him and over 50 other scholars through a millennium and a half of Limerick church history with saints and scribes, poets and preachers, martyrs and missionaries, and founders of churches, monasteries and religious communities.

The book spans the whole period of Church History in Co Limerick and the Diocese of Limerick, from early Ireland to present day, with a collection of the lives and stories of extraordinary people from a variety of faith traditions and backgrounds, from well-known saints to unknown and unsung religious. There are Jesuit and Methodist missionaries, martyrs and mundane saints who lived a good life.

The book is introduced by Bishop Brendan Leahy of Limerick, who in the past collaborated with Professor Salvador Ryan and their other colleagues in Maynooth on similar books, to which I have also contributed.

The contributors include academics and archaeologists, editors and archivists, bishops and poets, theologians and pastoral workers, priests and lay people, drawn from a wide range of academic institutions and backgrounds on both sides of the Atlantic.

These are 50 or more fast-moving papers, each a concise, compact and focussed contribution that seeks to get beyond myth and legend to present the real lives of their subjects. This book illuminates the diverse richness of Limerick’s story by highlighting the saints and seekers who have shaped its history.

The early saints include Saint Íte or Ita, described by Maeve Callan as the foster mother of the saints, Munchin, the ‘ little monk’ (Elva Johnston), Nessan of Mungret (Elizabeth Boyle), and Gille, who was Limerick’s first bishop and ‘the architect of the Mediaeval Church’ (John Fleming).

The dedication of the cathedral in Limerick to Saint Mary is discussed by Catherine Swift, and Pádraig Ó Macháin looks at the Black Book of Limerick and its unknown scribe.

The story of the mediaeval Askeaton Madonna is told by Colleen Thomas, and her ‘homecoming’ to the Askeaton by the parish priest Seán Ó Longaigh, who was my colleague in Askeaton for many years.

The stories of these Co Limerick saints stray across the diocesan boundaries in David Bracken’s own contribution, telling of Terence O’Brien, Bishop of Emly, and his confrontation with Cromwell’s General Ireton. Thady Lee, a Vincentian from Tough near Adare, had his skull smashed by Cromwell’s troops (Alison Forrestal).

My friend and colleague Professor Salvador Ryan of Maynooth tells the story of Archbishop Dermot O’Hurley, and Margo Griffin-Wilson writes about the poet Dáibhí Ó Bruadair, the bard who lived at Springfield Castle.

We are brought on a whistle-stop from the US and Peru, to Soviet-era Ukraine and war-torn Iraq, to India, China, Japan and Korea, and to Australia and New Zealand.

Father Timothy Leonard (1893-1929), a Columban priest from Ballysimon, was killed by Communists in China after they invaded his Church and scattered the Blessed Sacrament to the ground, prompting him to berate them: ‘You are bad men; you are bandits who have insulted and desecrated my Lord.’ Neil Collins tells how he was promptly ran a sword through his back when he refused to kneel to his assailants, telling them, ‘I kneel only to Our Lord Jesus Christ.’

The book also honours the contribution of women to the life of the Church in Limerick. Eileen Lenihan paints portraits of the seven Cotter sisters of Killeady, daughters of Ellen McCarthy and John Cotter. All joined religious orders between 1920 and 1987, and all seven ended up as nuns in Australia and New Zealand.

Sister Angela Fitzgerald (1890-1980) was once a nun in Drishane Castle, Millstreet, Co Cork, later tutored the future Empress of Japan, Michiko, wife of Akihito, in 1938 using the chant ‘Brian, Betty and Bunny on the beach of Ballybunion’ to teach the letter B. Later, Maurice Egan writes, she survived earthquakes, war and internment in Japan.

Mother Elizabeth Moore and her Sisters of Mercy set up soup kitchens for the poor and orphanages across Limerick, while treating people in the cholera outbreak in the 1830s that killed tens of thousands across Ireland (Sharon Slater).

Mother Francis Bridgeman almost attained the fame given to Florence Nightingale: Marianne Cosgrave tells how together they provided care to the dying and wounded in the Crimean War, but later had their differences.

Mother Mary McKillop founded the Sisters of Saint Joseph, a congregation that brought 800 Irish missionaries to Australia and New Zealand, including 76 from Limerick (Clare Ahern).

The story of the Little Company of Mary, told by Niamh Lenahan, is an example of the contribution of religious to advancing and providing healthcare in Ireland, from hospitals to nursing homes and hospice provision in the 19th century.

The late Father Gerry Reynolds, was a pioneering ecumenist and Redemptorist priest who crossed many traditional sectarian boundaries. He claimed we were related on my mother’s side of the family, and he is hailed as the ‘Unity Pilgrim’ by Tríona Doherty, editor of Reality, the Redemptorist magazine to which I have also contributed.

Doubtless, Gerry would have been pleased with the ecumenical scope and breadth of this book, including not only Catholics, Anglicans and Methodists, but Jews and Sikhs too.

The contributions from the Church of Ireland include the life of Bishop John Jebb, told by Niall Sloane, Dean of Limerick, Mother Harriet Monsell of Clewer (Timothy Collins), and the poet Aubrey Vere, who is buried in Saint Mary’s Churchyard, Askeaton (Chris Morash).

The Methodist historian Robin Roddie, who hosted my student placement with Shankill Road Methodist Church in Belfast in the 1980s, looks at John Wesley and Limerick’s Methodists.

Rabbi Elias Bernard Levin (1863-1936) came to Limerick from Lithuania, and brought together the Jewish community in the Colooney Street or Wolfe Tone Street area. But, Seán William Gannon tells readers, the Limerick ‘pogrom’ eventually forced him to leave and settle in Leeds, where he died.

Max Arthur Macauliffe (1838-1913), from Templeglantine in rural West Limerick, was first introduced to the Sikh religion through a colonial posting to Amritsar. Patricia Kieran tells how he became a renowned scholar of Sikh theology and scriptures, and produced a massive six volume work, The Sikh Religion: Its Gurus, Sacred Writings and Authors in 1909.

Nor does this book shy away from the present controversies besetting the Church in Ireland. Daithí Ó Corráin recalls the grim story of young Gerard Fogarty in Glin Industrial School. And how Councillor Martin McGuire sought to hold the state accountable for the young child’s flogging only to be rebuffed at every turn.

My two contributions to this book look at Barbara Heck and Philip Embury from Rathkeale, the founders of American Methodism, and the Anglican nun Sister Mary Clare Whitty, who grew up on the Crescent in Limerick and was martyred in Korea during the ‘Long March.’ But more about these stories at another time.

The editor, David Bracken, is the archivist for the Diocese of Limerick and edited The End of All Things Earthly: Faith Profiles of the 1916 Leaders (Dublin: Veritas, 2016). Now he offers a journey through Limerick’s rich tapestry of history. In his acknowledgements, he thanks me ‘for his suggestions which expanded the scope of the project.’

• Of Limerick Saints and Seekers, edited by David Bracken (Dublin: Veritas Books, September 2022), 266 pp, ISBN 9781800970311.

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