10 June 2024

Daily prayer in Ordinary Time 2024:
32, 10 June 2024

Holy Trinity Church, Inishbiggle, off Achill Island, Co Mayo, was dedicated in 1896 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

This week began with the Second Sunday after Trinity (Trinity II, 9 June 2024).

In the two weeks after Trinity Sunday, I illustrated my prayers and reflections with images and memories of cathedrals, churches, chapels and monasteries in Greece and England dedicated to the Holy Trinity. I am continuing this theme this week, with images and memories of churches I know in Ireland that are dedicated to the Holy Trinity.

Before today begins, I am taking some quiet time this morning to give thanks, for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, today’s Gospel reading;

2, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary;

3, the Collects and Post-Communion prayer of the day.

Inside Holy Trinity Church, Inishbiggle … crowded for a history lecture and poetry reading (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 5: 1-12 (NRSVUE):

5 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 And he began to speak and taught them, saying:

3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Looking from Bullsmouth across to Inishbiggle … Frederick MacNeice left his family at Bullsmouth watching the sunset while he took the Sunday afternoon service in Holy Trinity Church, Inishbiggle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Holy Trinity Church, Inishbiggle, Co Mayo:

It is some years since I was invited to take part in leading a guided tour of the tiny island of Inishbiggle as part of the Annual Heinrich Böll Memorial Weekend on Achill Island, and to speak in Holy Trinity Church.

The channel between Bullsmouth, on the eastern shores of Achill Island, and Inishbiggle has one of the strongest and most treacherous currents in Europe. Those currents are unpredictable, often making Inishbiggle inaccessible. Yet, against all expectations, 80 or more people made the morning crossing that morning in 2013 in relays on currachs and with Coast Guard volunteers.

Tiny Inishbiggle is squeezed between Achill and the Mayo mainland. It measures only 2.5 km by 1.5 km, with a land area of 2.6 sq km. In recent years, the population has dwindled to about 20, and the school and post office have been closed for some years. The only church on the island, Holy Trinity Church, belongs to the Church of Ireland.

Sheila McHugh led the guided walk, and we were offered morning coffee and tea in the island school, now used for Sunday Mass and as a doctor’s clinic. From there, it was a short walk to Holy Trinity Church, where I spoke on the history of the Church of Ireland on Inishbiggle.

Both the church and the island are unique, for Inishbiggle is the only island with only a Church of Ireland church. Inishbiggle is also a new island, for it has been inhabited continuously for less than two centuries.

The island was once part of the Mayo estates of the Ormond Butlers, whose claims were confirmed to Thomas Butler, Earl of Ormond, in 1585, and again by King James I in 1612. The Butler lordship, including Achill and Inishbiggle, continued until 1696, when they leased their Mayo estates first to Sir Thomas Bingham and then to Thomas Medlycott.

At the end of the 18th century, the estate, including Achill and Inishbiggle, was bought by John Browne, 1st Earl of Altamont, and then in 1785 by Sir Neal O’Donel of Newport House – for £33,598 19s 4d.

But Inishbiggle remained uninhabited until 1834. In 1837, there was no church on either Achill Island or Inishbiggle, and the Rector, Canon Charles Wilson, reported that Sunday services were held in a private house. By 1838, a few buildings had started to appear on Inishbiggle, and in 1839 the Revd Caesar Otway visited Inishbiggle. He suggested it was an ideal island for growing wheat and for a mill, but his proposals came to nothing.

The Revd Edward Nangle saw Inishbiggle as an opportunity to extend the work of his Achill Mission, and by 1841 Inishbiggle had a population of 67. During the Famine, Inishbiggle developed slowly, with the arrival of both Protestant and Catholic tenants from Achill and from mainland Co Mayo, attracted by lower rents and hoping for better living conditions.

In March 1848, hundreds of people from Dooniver, Bullsmouth and Ballycroy approved a declaration thanking Nangle for supplying them with potatoes and turnips from a mission farm on Inishbiggle. Without the food, they said, they would have starved.

The first schoolhouse was built on Inishbiggle that year. But by 1851, the population had dropped to 61. A year later, Nangle and the trustees of the Achill Mission bought Inishbiggle from Sir Richard O’Donel. The other trustees were the Hon Somerset Richard Maxwell, the Right Hon Joseph Napier and George Alexander Hamilton.

Somerset Maxwell, who had briefly been the Tory MP for Co Cavan (1839-1840), was a grandson of Henry Maxwell, Bishop of Meath, who built Saint Mary’s Church, Newtownbarry (Bunclody), Co Wexford, and a son of the Revd Henry Maxwell, 6th Lord Farnham. Somerset Maxwell eventually succeeded as the 8th Lord Farnham. His influence may have brought a number of Cavan Protestant families to Achill, including the Sherridan family. George Alexander Hamilton MP was a son of the Revd George Hamilton of Hampton Hall, Balbriggan, Co Dublin. But, despite the trustees’ strong Church links, Inishbiggle remained without a church until the end of the 19th century.

There were 18 families living on Inishbiggle in 1855: their family names were Cafferky, Campbell, Cooney, Fallon, Henery (Henry), Landrum, McDermott, McManmon, Mealley (Malley or O’Malley), Molly (Molloy), Nevin, Reaf and Sweeny. By 1861, Inishbiggle had a population of 145. By 1871, there were 154 people, and by 1881, 171 people.

But by the 1880s, emigration was taking its toll on the Church of Ireland community. The Rector of Achill, the Revd Michael Fitzgerald, wrote: ‘During the months of April and May 1883, and within the last ten days, I have lost by the rapid tide of free emigration to Canada, the United States of America, and Australia, forty-two members of my flock, thirty-six of whom belong to Achill Sound, and six to the island of Inishbiggle.’

It was a steep decline. By 1891, the population of Inishbiggle had fallen to 135. In 1901, it was still 135. Of these, 39 (29 per cent) were members of the Church of Ireland. Their family names were Brice, Calvey, Gallagher, Henry, McManmon, Malley, Miller, McManmon and Sheerin,

Ten years later, in 1911, the Church of Ireland islanders on Inishbiggle had dropped in number to 36, while the general population of the island had risen to 149. The Church of Ireland population was now 24 per cent – the island’s population was rising, but the Church of Ireland population was dropping, and that decline would have been greater but for the arrival of John Tydd Freer, a school teacher, and his family.

The family names of the Church of Ireland islanders were: Bryce, Calvey, Freer, Gallagher, Henry, McManmon, O’Malley and Sheerin. These names indicate that the members of the Church of Ireland on the island shared the social backgrounds of their neighbours, and there was an interesting degree of inter-marriage between Church of Ireland and Roman Catholic families.

By the beginning of the second decade of the 20th century, the community was in decline. A higher standard of literacy and education made it easier for their children to emigrate, because they had higher job prospects.

By 1971, Charles Crawford Freer, by then Press Officer for the Church of Ireland, reported that the Church of Ireland population of Inishbiggle had fallen from 15 to five. The Church of Ireland community on Inishbiggle was never large enough to give hope to a sustainable parish developing on the island. When I visited in 2013, the number had fallen to one. Now there are none.

Although one diocesan history states Holy Trinity Church was built by the Achill Mission, the Achill Mission had long closed by the time the church was built in the 1890s with a generous bequest from Miss Ellen Blair of Sandymount, Dublin.

In 1893, Bishop James O’Sullivan of Tuam, the Rector of Achill, the Revd Michael Fitzgerald, and the diocesan architect, John G Skipton, came to Inishbiggle by boat on a five-mile journey from Achill Sound to select a site for the new church. In 1895, Bishop O’Sullivan, his wife and the rector returned to lay the foundation stone for Holy Trinity Church.

The building work was carried out by local labour. It is told that during this building work a heavy piece of wood crashed to the ground, just missing Patrick O’Malley, who was rescued thanks to the hasty intervention of Patrick Nevin. The building was completed by 1896, and Bishop O’Sullivan came to Inishbiggle on ‘a sunny day,’ with a large number of people in rowing boats, for the consecration of the new church.

Holy Trinity Church is built of stone with a natural pebble-dash finish, a small tower with a bell and cross. In summer, the church is even prettier as pink rhododendrons surrounding come into bloom, forming an archway. The simple, plain, white-painted interior has a small organ, five rows of wooden pews, a small pulpit, a chancel arch, a sanctuary area and a tall, three-light East Window, with a small vestry off the sanctuary area.

As a mark of gratitude, Patrick O’Malley later built a stone wall around the small churchyard or cemetery. However, the cemetery has not been used for burials for 80 or 90 years.

A school was built in 1870, replacing the first school dating from the 1840s. The teacher’s cottage beyond the church on the edge of the island is now roofless and is falling into ruins.

Successive Bishops of Tuam, including Bishop John Neill and Bishop Richard Henderson, had a generous ecumenical vision for the future of the church, and in 2003 the church was rededicated to serve the Church of Ireland and Roman Catholic islanders. But the church was later returned to the Church of Ireland.

Last year, I asked in July whether there was was a future for Holy Trinity Church, Inishbiggle. Then, four months later, on 12 November 2023, Bishop Michael Burrows and the Rector of the Westport Group of Parishes, the Revd Suzanne Cousins visited the church and Inishbiggle, as the very beginning of the bishop’s programme to visit every church in the diocese.

The pulpit in Holy Trinity Church, Inishbiggle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayers (Monday 10 June 2024):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Estate Community Development Mission, Diocese of Colombo, Church of Ceylon.’ This theme was introduced yesterday with a programme update. The Church of Ceylon is one of USPG’s Partners in Mission (PIM).

The USPG Prayer Diary today (10 June 2024) invites us to pray:

Lord God, we praise you for the work of the Diocese of Colombo, Church of Ceylon with the tea plantation communities. Thank you that your Spirit drives us to care for those on the margins.

An open door and a welcome in Holy Trinity Church, Inishbiggle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Collect:

Lord, you have taught us
that all our doings without love are nothing worth:
send your Holy Spirit
and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of love,
the true bond of peace and of all virtues,
without which whoever lives is counted dead before you.
Grant this for your only Son Jesus Christ’s sake,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

Loving Father,
we thank you for feeding us at the supper of your Son:
sustain us with your Spirit,
that we may serve you here on earth
until our joy is complete in heaven,
and we share in the eternal banquet
with Jesus Christ our Lord.

Additional Collect:

Faithful Creator,
whose mercy never fails:
deepen our faithfulness to you
and to your living Word,
Jesus Christ our Lord.

Collect on the Eve of Saint Barnabas:

Bountiful God, giver of all gifts,
who poured your Spirit upon your servant Barnabas
and gave him grace to encourage others:
help us, by his example,
to be generous in our judgements
and unselfish in our service;
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.

Is there a future for Holy Trinity Church, Inishbiggle? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

A plaque in Holy Trinity Church, Inishbiggle, recalling the generosity of Ellen Blair from Sandymount (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition copyright © 2021, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

The cemetery wall was built by Patrick Malley as a thank offering after surviving an accident when the church was being built (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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