29 September 2014

How shall I sing that majesty
which angels do admire?

Cattle grazing on Coe Fen in the late summer sunshine (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

Monday 29 September 2014

Saint Michael and All Angels

5 p.m., The Eucharist

Genesis 28: 10-17; Psalm 103: 19-22; Revelation 12: 7-12; John 1: 47-51.

May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Earlier this month, during a week of intense study and work, I took a much-needed break one afternoon and went for a walk across Coe Fen, a large expanse of meadowland on the east bank of the River Cam, in the heart of Cambridge.

Coe Fen means “Cows’ Fen.” Cows are grazing on the grassland, and so you must be careful where you step. I was only a few steps away from the Fitzwilliam Museum and many of the colleges, and still out of earshot of the tourists and the punts. The neighbouring piece of meadow on the other side of the river is known as Sheep’s Green.

It was easy to imagine I was in rural England, in the Fens of East Anglia.

Perhaps because of that remote feeling, one of the bridges and one of the islets on this stretch of the river are known as Crusoe Bridge and Crusoe Island.

Robinson Crusoe Island is a tiny islet in Cambridge where the River Cam splits between Coe Fen and Sheep’s Green (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Another small bridge links Coe Fen with the Leys School, where the music master was once Kenneth Naylor (1931-1991), who wrote the tune for our hymn this evening, How shall I sing that majesty? (Irish Church Hymnal 468, New English Hymnal, 373).

Naylor called this tune Coe Fen. And as I strolled across Coe Fen that sunny, sun-kissed afternoon, lifted up by the splendour of God’s creation, I realised why he had chosen the name Coe Fen for his setting for a hymn that praises God for the wonders of God’s creation – in which we are lifted up by the beauty of God’s creation and join the “celestial choir” in praising God.

Because of Naylor’s setting, this hymn became No 1 in the ‘Top 5 Hymns’ listed in the Church Times/RSCM survey.

The hymn, by John Mason (1645-1694), is based in part on today’s psalm, Psalm 103. The writer contrasts God’s heavenly glory, splendour and majesty with our inadequacies and frailties, and reminds us how, when we attempt to sing of God’s glory, all our human efforts appear feeble and pathetic.

John Hutton’s ‘Screen of Saints and Angels’ at the entrance to Coventry Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

How do you imagine, envisage, that “celestial choir”? What is your image of an angel?

Is an angel a fluffy little cherub with white wings and pudgy cheeks, floating above the earth on white fluffy clouds?

Is an angel some “new age” figure, easily dismissed because of those angel books on the “Mind and Spirit” shelves in bookshops?

Is Saint Michael the patron saint of shoppers at Marks and Spencer and all others who have made the shopping malls their earthly cathedrals?

Or is an angel for you like the Archangel Michael, depicted, for example, by Jacob Epstein’s bronze sculpture, Graham Sutherland’s tapestry, and John Hutton’s ‘Screen of Saints and Angels’ in Coventry Cathedral, inviting you to reflect on our values today, to enter into the triumph of good over evil, to join Christ in Glory?

Sir Jacob Epstein’s bronze statues of Saint Michael and the Devil on the wall outside Coventry Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Where the Archangel Michael is mentioned by name in the Bible, in the Book of Daniel, the Epistle of Saint Jude and the Book of Revelation, he represents relying on the strength of God and the triumph of good over evil.

Saint Michael’s traditional virtues were standing up for God’s people and their rights, taking a clear stand against manifest evil, firmly opposing oppression, violence and corruption, while seeking forbearance and mercy, clemency and justice – virtues we must keep before us in ministry and mission as messengers of God.

His name Michael (Hebrew, מִיכָאֵל; Greek, Μιχαήλ) asks the question: “Who is like El (the Lord God)?”

In today’s world, where angels and archangels are often the stuff of fantasy, science fiction and new-age babble, we need a reminder that angels are nothing more than – but nothing less than – the messengers of God, the bringers of good news, who invite us to join in the triumph of good over evil and to enter into and become wrapped up in God’s glory:

ten thousand times ten thousand sound
thy praise; but who am I?

“Who am I?” It is a question we all ask ourselves when we first hear God’s call to mission and ministry.

But we do not struggle alone, like some Robinson Crusoe stranded on his own tiny island. Even when we feel alone and vulnerable, we are part of the great heavenly host of archangels and angels, patriarchs and prophets, apostles and saints, martyrs and missionaries.

I may not feel as powerful and agile as the Archangel Michael in battling for the world and confronting evil. But we do this in the company of the great heavenly host, strengthened by God alone. For we should always be prepared, like Michael and the angels, to ask and to answer the question: “Who is like the Lord God?”

And the story of the Archangel Michael, whose name asks: “Who is like El (the Lord God)?” invites me and invites you this afternoon to consider who we are as we stand before the throne of God the Creator, in all his majesty and glory, now and for ever more.

And so may all we think say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.


Everlasting God,
you have ordained and constituted the ministries
of angels and mortals in a wonderful order:
Grant that as your holy angels always serve you in heaven,
so, at your command,
they may help and defend us on earth;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

Lord of heaven,
in this eucharist you have brought us near
to an innumerable company of angels
and to the spirits of the saints made perfect.
As in this food of our earthly pilgrimage
we have shared their fellowship,
so may we come to share their joy in heaven;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Saint Michael above the main door into Saint Michael’s in Lichfield … what does this story say to you today? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

How shall I sing that majesty (ICH, 468; NEH, 373)

1 How shall I sing that majesty
which angels do admire?
Let dust in dust and silence lie;
sing, sing, ye heavenly choir.
Thousands of thousands stand around
thy throne, O God most high;
ten thousand times ten thousand sound
thy praise; but who am I?

2 Thy brightness unto them appears,
while I thy footsteps trace;
a sound of God comes to my ears,
but they behold thy face.
They sing, because thou art their Sun;
Lord, send a beam on me;
for where heav’n is but once begun,
there alleluias be.

3 Enlighten with faith’s light my heart,
inflame it with love’s fire;
then shall I sing and bear a part
with that celestial choir.
I shall, I fear, be dark and cold,
with all my fire and light;
yet when thou dost accept their gold,
Lord, treasure up my mite.

4 How great a being, Lord, is thine,
which doth all beings keep!
Thy knowledge is the only line
to sound so vast a deep.
Thou art a sea without a shore,
a sun without a sphere;
thy time is now and evermore,
thy place is everywhere.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This reflection was shared at the Michaelmas Eucharist in the institute chapel on Saint Michael’s Day, 29 September 2014.

Liturgy 2.2 (2014-2015): the theology of
space and the use of church buildings

A procession moves freely into Philadelphia Cathedral, which was re-ordered in recent decades by Dean Richard Giles

Patrick Comerford

TH8824: Liturgy, Worship and Spirituality

Year II, 14:00 to 16:30, Thursdays, Hartin Room:

3.00 p.m., 29 September 2014

Liturgy 2.2:
The use of church buildings in relation to the mission of God expressed through the Church (Seminar, based on readings from Richard Giles, Re-pitching the tent, Norwich: Canterbury Press, 3rd ed, 2004).

Chapter 8: pp 53-58.

Chapter 14: pp 103-108.

Introduction to the readings:

The Church of the Savior was built in 1898

The Diocese of Pennsylvania was established 1784, making it the second oldest Episcopal diocese in the United States and in the Episcopal Church (TEC). However, Philadelphia has one of the newest Episcopal cathedrals in the US. The Church of the Savior was first built in 1898 to a design in the Italianate style by Charles W. Burns, and was rebuilt in 1906 after a disastrous fire.

Its crowded and ornate interior – typical of the period – survived until the 1990s, when the rigidity of its layout was recognised as a severe handicap in the building’s new role as a cathedral. During this time, the number of pews was steadily reduced to create more space.

In 1992, the Diocese of Pennsylvania designated the church as its cathedral and set about reordering the ornate Italianate interior to reflect the life and theology of the people of the diocese today.

Dean Richard Giles blesses a young worshipper

In 1999, the Very Revd Richard Giles, an Anglican priest from the Church of England with a background in town planning, and the author of Re-pitching the Tent: Re-ordering the Church Building for Mission and Worship, was appointed Dean of the Cathedral, with a mandate to completely rethink the liturgical space.

Working with the architect George Yu, Dean Giles completed a comprehensive renovation of the cathedral’s interior in 2002. The original building by Burns was a basilica in shape, though not in internal layout, and the renovation sought to remedy this. The basilica was the first form of Christian church building, adapted from the public assembly hall of the Roman Empire. The cathedral interior now replicates the layout of a place of Christian worship in the 4th century. An Orthodox visitor described the space using a phrase from the Orthodox Rite of Burial; “homeland of my heart’s desire.”

Richard Giles’s vision for re-ordering churches, influenced by the Cistercians, favours a clean, austere space with architecturally strong lines. Furniture is spare and movable to allow for various seating configurations.

Much thought is given to light, both the natural light available through clear windows and illumination for evening use. In contrast to Saint Gregory’s abundant, almost riotous, variety in texture, colour, and iconography, which speaks powerfully of the rich diversity of God’s creation, Richard Giles worked to achieve a single focus – one crucifix, one icon.

This focus is in keeping with his insistence on one table, one ambo or reading desk, one baptismal font, and one cathedra, or bishop’s chair.

He created a space that comes most fully to life only with the addition of the real church: the gathered assembly.

Layout and Design

Each component in the renovated cathedral teaches us about who we are and where we have come from in our Christian journey. The space articulates with clarity the basic elements of Christian liturgy, giving prominence to the four basic elements – initiation, word, sacred meal, and episcopal presidency. Each of these is expressed by a single item of liturgical furniture, without duplication.

The Font

The baptistery is given special prominence, as a sign of our common baptismal covenant. The cathedral is essentially an assembly hall for the baptised. The font incorporates the old font from the former Church of the Savior together with a new pool to allow baptism by immersion (rather than submersion), water flowing continually between them. In this way the fusion of the old and new, past and future, is symbolised.

Around the edge are inscribed words from Revelation 22: 3: “The angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and the lamb, through the middle of the street of the city.” The font is a gift from the people of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), partners with the Episcopal Church since 2001 in the Call for Common Mission.

The Ambo

The ambo is the place from which God’s word in the sacred scriptures is proclaimed. In the first Christian buildings, the ambo served as both the lectern and the pulpit, the functions of which became separated in a later era. The design is based on the bema or reading desk of the synagogue, at which Jesus himself would have read the Scriptures (Luke 4: 16-17).

The ambo, like the altar-table, is set in the midst of the assembly. In this way it is a reminder that the people of God are fed at the two central tables – Word and Sacrament. The ambo is set on the central axis at the west end of the nave, facing east, as it would have been placed in the Christian basilicas in the early centuries. The ambo is inscribed in Hebrew with words from Psalm 16: 8: “I am ever aware of the presence of the Eternal.”

The Altar

The entire congregation gathers around the altar-table during the Eucharistic prayer

The altar-table is the central liturgical focus in Christian worship, for it is symbolically both a place of sacrifice (where we recall the sacrifice of Christ and offer ourselves sacrificially to God), and a place of communion (where we gather to celebrate the presence of the Risen Lord in the breaking of the bread).

It is square in shape, symbolising the centring of the community, and indicative of the equal access to God’s table enjoyed by all members of the household of faithful. It is set in the midst of the assembly of faith, not set apart at the east end, to symbolise the rediscovery of the Eucharist as a participatory sacred meal, instead of a distant ritual celebrated exclusively by the ordained.

The Sanctuary, Philadelphia Cathedral

It is neither fenced off by rails, nor distanced from the worshipers by steps, for it belongs to the whole people of God. It is movable, reminding us that we are a pilgrim people like our spiritual forebears the Jews who carried the ark with them, and to allow for many different configurations in the same place.

The Cathedra

Drawing on ancient tradition, the cathedra, the seat of the Bishop of Pennsylvania is not a separate chair, but set in the midst of a presbyterium or synthronos, the semi-circular stone bench on which the bishop was seated among his priests and deacons), symbolic of shared oversight. This was its place in the first Christian buildings of the fourth century.

The bishop’s cathedra dominates the layout of the space, but with simple dignity rather than with ostentation.


Our excerpts for study this afternoon are from Richard Giles’s book, Re-pitching the Tent.

Richard Giles retired as Dean of Philadelphia in 2008. On his return to England, he became a Visiting Fellow of Saint John’s College, Durham. He continues to work as a consultant in liturgical design, and lives in Tynemouth. His work and his books remain influential in understanding the use of church buildings and liturgical space.

His particular expertise in the design of liturgical space bore fruit in the publication of Re-Pitching the Tent, now in its third edition, Creating Uncommon Worship (2004) and Times and Seasons (2008). His other works include Mark My Word, daily meditations on Saint Mark’s Gospel, How to be an Anglican, a light-hearted introduction to Anglican belief and practice, and Here I Am, reflections on the ordained life, all published by Canterbury Press.

In Re-Pitching the Tent, Richard Giles says that when it comes to the environment of worship, we should never underestimate the influence of our building upon the way we think about God, about each other, and about the relative importance of the activity we have come together to engage in. Our buildings need to speak clearly to us of what we are about as the people of God.

Throughout Christian history, every fresh insight into the nature and love of God, every reform or revival, has been worked out in bricks and mortar as well as in tracts and texts.

The re-ordering of the church building can be the catalyst by which a parish community is recalled to the pilgrim path, to the adventure of going with Jesus into the unknown, to essential Christianity. … Like the house-churches of the early centuries, our buildings should provide us houses which can become homes for the Christian assembly, showing us how to be fully human in order that we may become more fully church.

At the heart of Christian worship lies the mystery of the transformation of the people of God themselves into temples of the Holy Spirit, and the task of transferring this truth to the drawing board is not an easy one.

The people who stay outside our buildings vastly outnumber those who venture inside. … For those outside, our ecclesiastical world remains alien territory requiring considerable effort and courage to penetrate. Our task as Christians with a welcome to give and a story to tell is to remove one by one every obstacle which might just conceivably deter anyone from taking a closer look at who we are and what we are doing.

We are above all designing for mystery, for something beyond that which we can contrive or control.

Movement both recalls us to our nomadic roots as God’s journeying people and helps us in a practical way to involve all those present at worship to participate in the liturgical action. … Movement is the hallmark of a community which knows it has not arrived, but is in transit, discovering God not at the end of the journey but in the journeying. We move because we must.

We are beings-in-relationship rather than creatures in ourselves, and our buildings should demonstrate the corporate nature of our worship.

Next week:

Liturgy 3.1:
Creation, Trinity and theologies of worship and prayer.

Liturgy 3.2: Traditions of prayer (1): seminar with readings on Benedictine and Franciscan prayer.

Columba Stewart, Prayer and Community: The Benedictine Tradition (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1998), pp 31-52.

Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century (2nd edition, New York: Cross Road, 2010): Chapter 16, ‘The Celebration of the Divine Office During the Day’ (pp 119-121); Chapter 20, ‘Reverence in Prayer’ (pp 132-133).

Brother Ramon, Franciscan Spirituality, Following Saint Francis Today (London: SPCK, 1994), pp 111-125.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These notes were prepared for a lecture on the MTh module, TH8824: Liturgy, Worship and Spirituality, on 29 September 2014.

Liturgy 2.1 (2014-2015):
The theology of space

How we arrange and use liturgical space shapes our priorities in liturgy and public worship (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

TH 8824: Liturgy, Worship and Spirituality

Year II, 14:00 to 16:30, Mondays, Hartin Room:

Liturgy 2.1: 29 September 2014

Liturgy 2.1:
The theology of space, and its implications for church buildings.

Liturgy 2.2: The use of church buildings in relation to the mission of God expressed through the Church (Seminar, based on readings from Richard Giles, Re-pitching the tent, Norwich: Canterbury Press, 3rd ed, 2004).

2.1: The theology of space and its implications for church buildings:


Last week, we looked at the origins of liturgy, looked briefly at the meaning of ‘signs’, ‘icons’ and ‘indexes’, and looked for liturgical or ritual expressions in various secular spheres, including theatre, cinema, sport and civic life and in domestic life too. This week, I want us to look particularly at space and its role in the liturgy: liturgical space as liturgical icon and liturgical sign.

But first of all, I want us to be aware of two problems as we think of some of these issues.

Identifying problem areas with liturgical space and sign:

1, Since the European Reformations, there has been a commitment to the language of the people and moves towards a commitment to ordinariness in language.

If we reduce worship to language, there is a danger of reductionism when it comes to signs and understanding, for example, when it comes to symbols, icons and manual action.

Many people regret the every-day style of language introduced in the Alternative Prayer Book in 1984. It lacked the language of poetry and drama associated with the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, the King James Version of the Bible, the English of Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays.

This problem is addressed in The Book of Common Prayer (2004), which has tried to restore poetry, drama and beauty to the language of the liturgy, recognising that vernacular idioms of speech pose problems.

How do we bridge the gap between us and God?

How do we move from the chatter in the pews to the language of awesomeness, language that makes me feel I am in the presence of God?

Since the Reformation, we have been dependent on the primacy of language. By this, I mean there has been a singular dependence on the medium of verbally constructed language.

The interior of Pugin’s church at Saint Giles, Cheadle, Staffordshire … Is there a conflict between liturgical tradition? …

... and the needs for a worship that engages with contemporary society? The modernised interior of a chapel in Maynooth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

2, Secondly, since the Reformations there has been a commitment to the primacy of the individual, of the believer, and of individual faith.

This has been coupled with a triumph of informality over convention – in dress, clothing, manners, formality, music, &c – so that popular entertainment becomes more important than high culture.

This is reflected then in the use of space.

How do we make a multifunctional hall a sign of the kingdom, of heaven?

Do we want to?

And if we do not want to, how do we use appropriate language for people who are gathered to approach the heavenly throne in awe and in reverence?

Does Gospel music mean hymns whose only difference from modern music is words?

Is there a danger of creating a God who is immediately accessible and losing the ‘otherness’ and ‘awesome-ness’ of God.

If God is not different, then why do we worship God?

These are questions that I hope we can ask and seek answers for this week as we discuss a theology of space, and its implications for church buildings, and the use of church buildings in relation to the mission of God expressed through the Church.

Exercise 1:

Close your eyes; create an image of a church that was important at a key stage in your life: perhaps when you were a child, or when you reached a particular stage in faith; or one from your holidays, or where you were married.

Just pick one church, enter it, and tell me:

What is the first thing you see there?

The altar/table?

The pulpit?

The font?

A stained glass window?

A monument to a local landed family?

A rood screen that separates the chancel from the people?

What we see first is not an accident of church architecture. It faces us immediately because it reflects not just the priority of the architect, but those who told the architect what they wanted.

The chapel of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge ... designed so the altar is seen immediately on entering the chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Church of Ireland parish church in Collon, Co Louth, is a replica of the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

1, The altar: Many collegiate style churches have the seating along each side wall (north and south), so that the altar at the east end is the first to catch your eye. This is so the chapel in Trinity College Dublin, in many college chapels in Cambridge and Oxford, and in some churches in Ireland too, such as the Church of Ireland parish churches in Collon, Co Louth (Diocese of Armagh), based on the plans for King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, and Glenealy, Co Wicklow (Diocese of Glendalough), based on the Chapel of Saint John’s College Chapel, Cambridge, and one of Pugin’s great Gothic Revival chapels, the chapel in Saint Peter’s College, Wexford.

Pugin’s great Gothic Revival Chapel in Saint Peter’s College, Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

What is the liturgical priority here in terms of use of space?


Consider how many altars or tables are placed in a separate chancel area; from the outside, you can see it is a separate part of the building; inside it may have steps up to, be railed off, be surrounded by sacred images, have attention drawn to it by candles, a dramatic window or painting above it, special seating around it, or a chancel arch that marks the transition from the place of the laity to the place of the clergy.

What does this say about the roles of the clergy and the roles of the people?

What is being said, on the other hand, if the altar is in the centre of the building?

This may force an arrangement so that everyone is looking in rather than out, that gives the impression of introspection rather than a people being equipped for mission.

2, The pulpit:

The Comerford pulpit from Carlow Cathedral

The pulpit is usually to the side nowadays. But in the past, this may have been the first object you would have seen in a church, especially in the day when the triple-decker pulpit was common in churches in the Church of Ireland and the Church of England.

The pulpit may still be the dominant feature in many Presbyterian and Methodist churches.

What is the liturgical priority here in terms of use of space?


Do you feel comfortable about going into the pulpit?

Or do you feel self-conscious, that you’re towering over people or even looking down on them?

Does it say Word is more important than Sacrament?

What do they expect from someone who preaches from the pulpit?

What is being said when you preach from the chancel steps or from the nave?

If you remember the previous layout of the chapel here, you may remember the way we emphasised the balance between word and sacrament, between pulpit and altar, between proclamation and celebration.

Inside the Benedictine Abbey Church in Ealing ... the Font is the first feature first-time visitors notice when they enter the church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

3, The font

The Baptistery and baptismal font in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Is anyone from a parish where the church has a separate baptistery?

In some churches, the font is near the door, and so if you are a child entering a church, and your eyes are at a level much lower than an adult’s, then this may be the first thing you see.

What is the liturgical priority here in terms of use of space?


Does the place of the font link it with the concept of welcome?

What about the distance between font and table?

Does this convey something about the pilgrimage of faith, the journey of the Christian life, from being incorporated into the Body of Christ to being invited to the Heavenly Banquet?

The Baptismal pool in CORE in inner-city Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In some Baptist and Brethren churches, and also in CORE in inner-city Dublin, instead of a font there is a pool or large water tank, often hidden under the floorboards.

4, The rood screen

The rood screen is an important feature of Pugin’s design for Saint Giles’ Church in Cheadle, Staffordshire (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

When you go into a Gothic or mediaeval cathedral, the rood screen separating the choir from the nave may be first thing you notice.

What function do you think it serves?

What is it saying about sacred space and secular space?

The icon screen plays a role in Orthodox churches that differs from the role of communion rails in Western churches (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

[Discussion. Compare with the function and role of Communion rails, and the function of the iconostasis in Orthodox churches.]

The vaulted roof of Southwark Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

5, The roof:

A vaulted roof may look like the hull of a boat or an ark; we are like the disciples in the boat, who find new direction, new meaning, when, in the darkness of their fear, they realise that Christ is with them as their captain, that Christ is in control.

6, The rector’s prayer desk?

Does your rector move from the prayer desk to the altar/table when it comes to celebrating Parish Communion?

I remember this as being a normal movement during what was known as “mangled matins” followed by short Holy Communion.

But what are we saying when we do this?


But is the ministry of word more or less sacred than the ministry of sacrament?

7, A monument to an old family?

An 18th century monument to an old family in Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Is the place of respect we give to old families taking away from the attention to the living today?

Is it a reason for people not wanting to worship in neighbouring churches?

Is it harkening back to the kingdoms of the past instead of looking forward to the Kingdom of God?

A personal experience

The backs of people ...is this the welcome we offer visitors? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I first carried out this exercise with my sons when they were small children.

One answered: “The backs of people.”

As a small boy walking into that church, the first thing he could see was people already seated in the pews with their backs turned to him.

Is this the sort of welcome your parish church offers to first-time visitors or to children?

Christ Pantokrator in the dome of Agia Barbara Church in Rethymnon, Crete (Photograph, Patrick Comerford, 2013)

My other son immediately answered: “Jesus!”

I was taken aback. I even thought for one moment he was joking.

But he recalled being taken by the hand into a small village church on a Greek island. And he explained that as he entered a church that seemed to be in darkness, in contrast to the bright sunshine outside, his eyes were immediately drawn up to the light in the dome surrounding the image of Christ Pantokrator found in the dome of so many Greek churches.

How many of us can see that the first thing a stranger sees when they come into our church is Jesus?

Can they say that about your church?

Or is the first thing they see a monument to a dead general or member of the landed aristocracy?

Or the screen for the power point presentation of hymns?

The use of liturgical space

How space allows or facilitates, directs or restricts, movement during liturgy; how furniture is placed in relation to liturgical action and in relation to other pieces of liturgical furniture; how we use these freely or feel restricted; all these are key considerations.

Consider how there has been a crisis of liturgical space in the adaptation of some Roman Catholic cathedrals and churches built in the Gothic Revival style. When the tabernacle was moved to a side chapel, the eyes focussed on the bishop’s throne, and many people felt they were entering a church that had been emptied, left vacant, left without a focus for worship.

But this also raises questions about the chair for the minister who presides at the liturgy.


The mediaeval sedilia in Saint Laserian’s Cathedral, Old Leighlin, Co Carlow (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The sedilia in the Pugin chapel in Edermine House, Co Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

How do we reflect our theological priorities in the use of space in our churches?

The architecture of a church building says different things to different people:

● Byzantine
● Gothic
● Classical
● Modern
● Simple meeting house.
● A college chapel.

There is no neutral space. All church buildings tell a story, but they tell them in different ways, with different emphases

They convey, communicate different visual theologies. For example, a long church building, such as a cathedral, with long naves, rows and rows of seats, and everyone facing the same way can symbolise that we are all heading in the same direction. With a focus that is before and ahead of us, this layout can give us a sense of the glory and transcendence of God. They also make processions and movement to the front straightforward.

Can you think of some problems created by this layout?


If you want to proclaim the Gospel from among the people, and arrange a Gospel procession to the centre of the church, can the reader be heard? If there is no microphone, having a Gospel procession undermines the Gospel reading rather than enhancing it.

Sharing the peace can be clumsy and difficult with this arrangement.

The font at the back corner, near the south porch or the west door is in danger of being out of sight and out of mind. And if it is being used during the main Sunday service, can people turn with ease to see and affirm and own what is happening?

On the other hand, a worship space arranged in a circle, in an ellipse, or in the way we have the chapel at present, makes it easy for the worship leaders, readers and preachers to engage with everyone who is present. Sharing the peace becomes easier, and it is easier to create a feeling of being gathered together around one table for sharing on Communion.

Can you think of some problems created by this layout?


Some people feel that there has been a loss of reverence, a loss of the sense of awe and mystery.

Is it more difficult to adopt appropriate body postures for prayer?

Can a bride walk down the aisle, or a coffin be carried in and out at a funeral?

Where do you place the font?

There is an inner circle, but how do create a sense of looking out into the world?

So, what the eye sees may be as important as what the hear ears, the tongue says, the heart feels.

Space and symbol together contribute to the meaning of liturgy, convey theology, convey suppositions about belief and even express belief too.

And this is important to grasp in order to see liturgy as not just about texts and reading texts.

The architecture and the internal use of and priorities in space strongly influence and shape the way liturgy is played out in these settings:

● What kind of ceremonial is possible?
● What kind of ceremonial is appropriate?
● How may people take part?

Church buildings can be meaningful for us, in both negative and positive sense of meaning.

They are signs to us, and not always signs of the Church: they tell us whether the interiors reflected the social as well as the liturgical values of the people who built them, or the people they were built for.

Are church buildings so rigid, such a strait-jacket, that they cannot serve our liturgical needs without distorting what we want to say and do, think and pray?

What are the problems of having the font where we traditionally place it?

How flexible can we be with traditional church layouts?

Do pews make it difficult to move around and to shape the liturgy?

Do we clutter our churches so much that it is difficult for people to realise the significance of space and place in our public worship?

In other words, is the liturgy at the service of church architecture and furnishings or are church furnishings and architecture at the service of our liturgical needs?

The nave altar in Lichfield Cathedral can be raised and lowered according to the liturgical needs of the cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

[Discussion; examples: moving in front of the choir screen in Christ Church Cathedral to create a nave altar; changing seating in the cathedral; altar than be raised and lowered to be flush with the floor in Lichfield Cathedral.]

Non-liturgical use of churches

We need to remember too what goes on inside churches:

Churches may have a variety of uses, not all of which can be seen as liturgy.

People come in to look at churches because they love looking at cathedrals and churches.

The Butler Bread Shelves in Saint Ann’s Church, Dawson Street, Dublin ... a city charity that has continued for almost three centuries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Others come in for particular hobbies: they collect brass rubbings, they are tracing their family trees, they are interested in stained glass windows. You may have an unusual painting, tomb, monuments, charity plaques, organ … There is one church in Dublin that holds on to a curious 18th century fire engine, another with a bread shelf for distributing daily breads to the hungry poor in the inner city.

One of the main ways people use our churches and the space in them, at some stage, is for musical recitals.

These have their own rituals around them.

What time do they take place at?

Where they are staged – on the chancel steps?

If you have choral recitals, are the choirs placed in the same place as the choir or music group on Sundays?

If not, what is being said?

The use of space, place and time signify the meaning that each event has on its own.

You then don’t have to say at the beginning: “Welcome everyone to Saint Gilbert’s, this evening we are having an organ recital by an organist …” or “Good evening, welcome to Saint Philbert’s, this evening we have a visiting choir who are going to give us a choral recital.”

It is obvious, is it not, from the notices that have gone out before, from the way the church has been lit, the way people have got tickets beforehand or been handed programmes as they came in.

They are not arriving:

• expecting Evening Prayer I,
• or to be handed The Book of Common Prayer at the door,
• or during the choral finale to Beethoven’s 9th to find a collection plate going round for the offertory as if this were the last hymn.

We use space and sign and timing to give different meanings to different events in our life, and when we become confused, when the lines and signs become blurred, then we cannot enter into events in all our fullness, and get the best:

• out of me,
• and out of the event.

The timing and the use of space, and the signs we use are important:

• for building up our expectations;
• for delivery when it comes to the realisation of those expectations;
• and for those experiences to carry on having significance in the future for us.

And we all have experience of this in everyday life, whether or not we are particularly involved in church life.

Exercise 2:

Centuries of tradition have created the layout of our cathedrals and churches today

In groups, sit and list essential elements of a church, and then try to sketch out that ideal church.

Space as icon:

It is possible, and all too often frequent, for worshippers to come away with little sense of having encountered anything like:

• the human/divine frontier,
• the edge of chaos,
• the sources from which something fills my being with its possibilities.

In these cases:

• an iconic dimension in the liturgy’s signification was either deficient or absent;
• or the transaction of worship seemed mostly continuous with everyday events:

1, the sermon was scarcely distinguishable from other exhortations to altruism;
2, the ‘fellowship’ could have been replicated in any social gathering.

When worship is successful, it is capable of great illumination:

• Of that of which it is the sign
• Of the other at which we might guess.
• Of our lives on ‘this side’ of the frontier
• Of the reality before this great horizon against which our lives must be measured:
• their limitations and
• their transcendental possibilities.

The notion of ‘frontier’:

The notion of ‘frontier’ is helpful in considering what we are doing in Liturgy (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

The notion of ‘frontier’ carries within it a number of connotations:

• Space,
• Time,
• Embodiment,
• Movement

So you can:

• Come to a frontier
• Pass beyond it
• And return

In other words:

• One comes to a frontier at specific times
• There is a duration of time between coming to and moving back from.

Time and space are key to understanding this:

• The body moves,
• There is the time of movement

It is important in liturgy to provide iconic signs of:

• Boundary
• Frontier
• The other

There is a frontier between ‘God’ and ‘humanity’

Imagery in worship needs to be heavily impregnated with imagery that takes account of:

• Spatial;
• Temporal
• Movement;

And it also has actual, physical movement and direction.

Good planning of liturgy knows how best to use the physical and to rely properly on image.

Good planning of liturgy knows the differing between reality and imagination.

Good planning of liturgy knows the differing between making and finding

How do we mark the differences between these three scenarios in liturgy or worship:

• Entrance into the presence of God?
• Being in the presence of God?
• Departure from God’s presence?

We use icons, space, timing, special language and signs to do this. Take for example the problems with entrance:

People come into the church, chatter, shake hands, take off their jackets, &c.

Then they come into the presence of God?

How do we move from one stage to the next?

How do you create that sense of movement if:

• you are one of the first individuals arriving?
• and you then find yourself as part of those who are being gathered as God’s people?

How do we indicate that our direction is now focused not just on one another, but on God?

If we use secular signs to open worship, we can destroy that movement:

• There is a purpose and meaning to opening with ‘The Lord be with you,’ rather than ‘Good morning.’
• That is the purpose of liturgical entrance too.
• The arrival of the last of the people ought to be the arrival of those who are going to gather those who have arrived into the worshipping community, the congregation, the Body of Christ.
• This can be signified in the movement from the back of the church to the front, which also signifies our preparedness to move even beyond that, into the gap between us and God that is bridged in our worship, in our liturgy.

The exact counter to that is the preparing of people to cross the boundary again, to cross from the sacred back into the secular with the Gospel, the commission:

• The blessing
• The dismissal – especially at the door.

Between those two spaces, liturgy is truly a dialogue between God and his people:

• God speaks to us through word and sacrament
• And we speak to God through prayer and praise, and in reception.

So there are two directions in liturgy.

Yet, there are built-in ambiguities in liturgical direction:

• Is Christ supposed to speak for us, from the people’s side?
• Or is Christ as mediator speaking God’s grace and favour to the people?
• Is the leader in place of Christ, and acting on which side of the frontier?
• Examples are found in confession and absolution.
• We are both the People of God and the Body of Christ.
• Prayer is addressed to God is also addressed to us.
• Prayer is addressed to God, but even though it is not really for our consumption, we must also listen to the prayer, and then we assent with Amen.
• And whether the leader of liturgical worship is speaking on our behalf to God, or on God’s behalf to us, we must be able to both hear and respond.

There is a near-universal shape to liturgical worship.

The four components of liturgical worship – watch for them especially at the Wednesday Eucharist in the chapel:

• The Gathering (opening or introductory rite)
• The Word
• The Eucharist
• The Dismissal or Sending

Or Roman Catholic liturgists might say there are six component movements:

• Introductory rites
• The liturgy of the word
• The preparation of the gifts and the altar
• The Eucharistic prayer
• The Communion rite
• The conclusion

Each needs its space, and without respecting that space, people may not engage and participate it in an appropriate way. If this happens, then we fail in our liturgical task.

Appendix 1, Case Study:

Posted two years ago [4 October 2012] on the Facebook Page, “The Church of England’s Diocese of Lichfield” by the Revd George Fisher, Director of Mission in the Diocese of Lichfield:

This is what happened to two people I know visiting a church in another Diocese. Of course it would never happen in Lichfield Diocese, would it??????

Well me and Ange decided to use a voucher we’d been given, and go away for her birthday. After booking into the hotel we went to have a mooch round the nearby village.

There we found St Mary’s, a beautiful old church. We went to have a look inside and Angie picked up one of their notice sheets and saw that there was a prayer service that evening (Sunday) at 6 p.m. so we thought it would be nice to go along - when we saw that the choir attended on the first Sunday of the month (which it was) that sealed the deal.

We turned up just before 6pm and were met by a gentleman (presume he was a Warden) we told him we had come along for the service and he gave us prayer books – quite thick ones which we’d never seen before.

There were rows and rows of fully enclosed pews, but the Warden told us the service was held at the front where chairs had been set out. At the front we found three rows of chairs - so being good Anglicans we sat on the back row, with the warden sitting in the front. We were joined by a lady who opted for the middle row.

Smack on 6pm the vicar arrived through a side door which led him straight on to where he sat to the right of the altar. If you include the Warden, me and Ange made up 50% of the congregation.

After welcoming everyone he launched into the service which consisted of ‘Question and answer’ type prayers read directly from the book. The problem was he didn’t give us a clue what page we were starting on. The other half of the congregation seemed to know but we were lost.

Eventually we stumbled on the right page and managed to join in with the last section. Then the vicar announced that we were going to read a psalm – and in this church it was customary that he read the odd verses and the congregation responded with the even. No, nothing in the book was in order, and again no clue was given as to where to find said psalm. About half way through Angie found it and again we joined in.

By now it must have been apparent

1. We wanted to be involved as we were joining in when we could.

2. We didn’t know our way round the book/their service and needed some guidance.

Then he announced that we were going to say together the Magnificat – without any further clues he plunged into it.

I have to admit by now I was feeling rather angry at the situation and considered asking him in the middle of the service to help us – but decided that instead, at the end I would give him some gentle, light hearted, feedback. No, this man was far too clever and slick for me.

At the end of the service we all said together The Peace (but not shared it).

Then came a brilliantly executed manoeuvre which left us two amateurs gasping in admiration and amazement. The vicar looked across to me and Angie and said ‘Thank You.’ The lady from the middle row scuttled off and out.

The vicar strode across to the Warden, and the two walked off talking, straight out through a side door into another part of the church leaving me and Angie sitting together feeling like we'd just intruded on a private meeting.

We literally walked out in silence and were leaving the church grounds before either of us could speak – but then we made up for it.

Incidentally, the choir never did turn up.

Next: Liturgy 2.2:

The use of church buildings in relation to the mission of God expressed through the Church (Seminar, based on readings from Richard Giles, Re-pitching the tent, Norwich: Canterbury Press, 3rd ed, 2004).

Next week:

Liturgy 3.1: Creation, Trinity and theologies of worship and prayer.

Liturgy 3.2: Traditions of prayer (1): seminar with readings on Benedictine and Franciscan prayer.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes for a lecture on the MTh module, TH 8824: Liturgy, Worship and Spirituality, on 29 September 2014.

28 September 2014

A cruise in the late autumn evening
sunshine around Dalkey Island

Sailing out of Dun Laoghaire Harbour on the St Bridget on Saturday evening (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

The sunny summer-like weather that has taken everyone by surprise at the end of September continued throughout the weekend. On Saturday evening, two of us boarded the St Bridget, a 26 metre steel hull vessel owned by Dublin Bay Cruises for a 70-minutes cruise from Dun Laoghaire to Dalkey.

Initially, we had planned a cruise with Dublin Bay Cruises early last month from Howth to Dublin city centre, but ended up visiting Ireland’s Eye instead.

Dublin Bay Cruises is a family-owned business. Eugene Garrihy, his wife Clare and their three daughters run cruises between Dun Laoghaire, Dublin Port and Howth Harbour. Although the St Bridget can take 120 passengers, there was perhaps no more than two dozen people on board as we sailed from the East Pier in Dun Laoghaire on a clear, bright, sunny evening, with Howth Head to the north.

From 1821 to 1921, this was known as Kingstown. It is said the harbour is the largest “man-made” harbour in Western Europe, and for over a century it was the starting point for the main sea route from Ireland to Britain.

The coast line south of Dun Laoghaire is like the shoreline on an Italian lakeside in the autumn sunshine (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

We left shortly after 5.30 and headed south past the James Joyce Martello Tower at Sandycove, the Forty Foot swimming area, Bullock Harbour, Dalkey Island and Collimore Harbour, Sorrento Point and Killiney Bay, before turning back around Dalkey Island to return to Dun Laoghaire.

Coliemore Harbour served as a port for Dublin between the 14th to 17th centuries, when the River Liffey had silted up. Today it is often used for short hops to Dalkey Island.

The first islands we came to are three small islands to the north of Dalkey Island, known as Lamb Island, Clare Island and Maiden Rock.

Dalkey Island was first inhabited over 6,000 years ago … but it has no residents today (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Dalkey Island is just 300 metres offshore and has an area of 9 hectares (22 acres), 450 metres long and 250 metres wide. Its name comes from the Irish deilg (“thorn”) and the Old Norse øy (“island” – as in Ireland’s Eye). The island has no residents, but we could see the remains of a church, houses, fortifications and a Martello Tower.

Archaeological evidence shows that the first residents lived on Dalkey Island in the Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age, and that it was inhabited in the 4th millennium BC or 6,000 years ago. There are remains of an Iron Age fort at the north of the island, but only the ditch is noticeable today.

People continued to live on the island through the Iron Age to the Early Christian period, and there are suggestions that the island was a trading centre during Roman and Viking times.

The ruined stone church, named after Saint Begnet, was built in the ninth or tenth century, but there may have been older wooden church on the site. The church was probably abandoned when the Vikings used the island as a base to form part of the busiest port in Ireland at the time.

In 1804, the Admiralty built a Martello Tower and a gun battery on the island as part of an early warning system in the face of a threatened Napoleonic invasion. It is one of eight Martello Towers dotted along the Dun Laoghaire coastline.

The builders of the Martello Tower used the church ruins as living quarters, and altered the east side of the church, adding windows and a fireplace.

The Muglins are attractive to scuba divers but a danger to shipping (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Bray Head was to our south as we turned to sailed around to the east side of Dalkey Island, and then heading north between the island to our west and to our east the rocks known as “The Muglins.” They are a danger to shipping and have been fitted with a distinctive beacon.

The sun was setting as we rounded the small islets to the north of Dalkey and sailed back into Dun Laoghaire Harbour at about 6.45.

Dalkey Island, with Bray Head to the south (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

27 September 2014

‘I believe there’ll come a day when the lion
and the lamb will lie down in peace together’

Buying ‘Popular Problems’ in Tower Records earlier this week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

Culturally, the week was book-ended by Leonard Cohen and Joan Baez, so to speak.

I woke early on Sunday morning [21 September 2014] to listen to Cathal Murray’s two-hour programme on RTÉ, The Weekend on One, from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m., marking Leonard Cohen’s eightieth birthday.

He played classic numbers from many Leonard Cohen’s albums, with seven alone from The Essential Leonard Cohen: ‘So Long Marianne,’ ‘Tower of Song,’ ‘Take this Waltz,’ ‘Closing Time,’ ‘In my Secret Life,’ ‘Anthem,’ and ‘Suzanne.’

But there were interpretations of Leonard Cohen by other artists too, including Jeff Buckley (‘Hallelujah’), Rufus Wainwright (‘Chelsea Hotel No 2’), Antony (‘If It Be Your Will’), Trisha Yearwood (‘Coming Back to You’) and Jennifer Warnes (‘Bird on a Wire’).

He also played ‘You Got Me Singing,’ a track from Leonard Cohen’s new album, Popular Problems, which was released on Sunday.

Between the Cathedral Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday morning and the ordination of five deacons in the cathedral on Sunday afternoon, I was in Dawson Street at lunchtime, and bought Popular Problems in Tower Records.

Popular Problems is Leonard Cohen’s second album in the past two years, and follows the success of Old Ideas in 2012.

Behind Popular Problems are the perfect background voices of singers Charlean Carmon, Dana Glover and Donna Delroy, strings played by Joe Ayoub (bass) and Alexandru Bublitchi (violin), James Harrah on guitar, Brian Macleod on drums, and trumpets made of computer sounds.

Once again, Cohen has found his perfect way in his poetry and his voice, in filling sadness with triumph and filling triumph with sadness, in being weary while being optimistic, in suffering while renewed, in finding a light touch to conceal the deep and the serious. But he is at a more sedate pace this time, his gravitas underlined by his whispery baritone voice that at times slows from singing to talking.

The songs here – including ‘Almost Like the Blues,’ ‘Samson in New Orleans’ and ‘Born in Chains’ – deal again with the great Cohen themes of love pursued and love spurned, doubt and faith, war and genocide, his Judaism and his questioning engagement with Christianity, sensuality and spirituality, being naked before those he loved and being naked before God:

There is no G-d in heaven
And there is no Hell below
So says the great professor
Of all there is to know.
But I’ve had the invitation
That a sinner can’t refuse
And it’s almost like salvation
It’s almost like the blues.

The reverential spelling of the name of G-d in the sleeve notes for ‘Almost Like the Blues’ indicates his respect for the traditions of Orthodox Judaism. In ‘Born a Slave,’ he examines his Jewish roots:

I was born in chains
But I was taken out of Egypt
I was bound to a burden
But the burden it was raised
Lord I can no longer
Keep this secret
Blessed is the Name
The Name be praised

In ‘Nevermind,’ he shows his compassion for the plight of refugees and displaced people, and with a flourish of Arabic singing hints at his wider compassion.

Popular Problems is Leonard Cohen’s second album since his return to the stage in 2008. Since then, I have been at concerts on each of his return visits to Ireland. It is not clear yet whether or not he will support Popular Problems with a tour.

Although he has indicated that he will not be doing any shows in 2014, hopefully he is planning to be back in Ireland soon.

UFO at the Leonard Cohen birthday tribute in the Hot Spot Music Club in Greystones (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Later on Sunday evening, we were in the Hot Spot Music Club above the Beach House Pub at Greystones Harbour for a tribute evening marking Leonard Cohen’s eightieth birthday, when the UFO Band paid tribute to the Canadian poet and author, singer and songwriter.

Hot Spot is home to the Universal Funk Orchestra (UFO) who perform regular gigs there covering David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Fleetwood Mac. The first half of the show on Sunday included 12 numbers, mainly from the classic Best Of album from 1976, followed in the second half with eight other Cohen numbers – including ‘Slow,’ a track from Popular Problems, before closing to an encore, almost inevitably and predictably, with ‘Closing Time.’

Joan Baez on stage in Vicar Street on Thursday night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

If we don’t know when Leonard Cohen is returning to Ireland, then Joan Baez was back in Dublin later in the week for three intimate nights at Vicar Street on Wednesday, Thursday and tonight [24, 25 and September 2014].

Back in 2008-2009, she celebrated the fiftieth anniversaries of her debut residency in 1958 at Club 47 in Cambridge, and her debut appearance the following year at the Newport Folk Festival in 1959. She began her recoding career in 1960 at the age of 19, and it was she who introduced Bob Dylan to the world in 1963.

In the 1960s, she marched with Martin Luther King, inspired Vaclav Havel, played at Woodstock and sang on the first Amnesty Interna¬tional tour. She took to the fields with Cesar Chavez and marched against the Vietnam War.

Later she stood with Nelson Mandela at his 90th birthday in Hyde Park, London’s, and saluted the Dixie Chicks for their courageous protest against the Iraq war. Amnesty International honoured her in 2012 with the naming of the Joan Baez Award for Outstanding Inspirational Service in the Global Fight for Human Rights.

As she told us on Thursday night, she is still marching.

She is the daughter of pacifist parents: her father, Professor Albert Baez, was the son of a Mexican-born Methodist minister, her Scottish-born mother – Joan (Chandos Bridge) Baez, who died last year – was the daughter of an Anglican priest, the Revd William Henry Bridge, curate of Saint John’s Episcopal Church at Edinburgh’s West End (1910-1913), where she was baptised, before emigrating to Canada. They became Quakers, and although she was raised a Quaker she says today: “Living is my religion.”

The “Evening with Joan Baez” was a journey through her past and her interpretation of folk music and ballads over the past fifty years or more, with tributes to Bob Dylan as well as some of her long-time favourites, including ‘Farewell Angelina’, ‘Baby Blue,’ ‘Joe Hill,’ ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot,’ ‘The Night they drove Old Dixie down’ and ‘God is God.’

She recalled with emotion her tours of South America and her feelings for the people of Argentina and Nicaragua.

She paid tribute to Violeta Parra and Mercedes Sosa when she sang their hymn ‘Gracias a la Vida.’ And she sang ‘Mi Venganza Personal’ (‘My personal revenge’), written by a founding Sandinista, Tomás Borge in the 1980’s as his response to being asked what would be his personal vengeance on those who had tortured him in prison:

“After having been brutally tortured as a prisoner, after having a hood placed over my head for nine months, after having been handcuffed for seven months, I remember that when we captured these torturers I told them: ‘The hour of my revenge has come: we will not do you even the slightest harm. You did not believe us beforehand; now you will believe us.’ That is our philosophy, our way of being.”

Some of those themes that recur in Leonard Cohen albums were there too in her songs. But the living legacy of her mixed Quaker/Anglican upbringing was also to the fore in the lyrics of many of her songs.

I believe in prophecy

I believe in prophecy
Some folks see things not everybody can see
And once in a while they pass the secret along to you and me
And I believe in miracles
Something sacred burning in every bush and tree
We can all learn to sing the songs the angels sing
Yeah, I believe in God and God ain’t me.

I’ve travelled around the world
Stood on mighty mountains and gazed across the wilderness
Never seen a line in the sand or a diamond in the dust
And as our fate unfurls
Every day that passes I’m sure about a little bit less
Even my money keeps telling me it’s God I need to trust
And I believe in God but God ain’t us.

God, in my little understanding don’t care what name I call
Whether or not I believe doesn't matter at all
I receive the blessings
That every day on earth’s another chance to get it right
Let this little light of mine shine and rage against the night
Just another lesson
Maybe someone’s watching and wondering what I got
Maybe this is why I’m here on earth and maybe not
But I believe in God and God is God.

Jerusalem (by Steve Earle)

I woke up this mornin’ and none of the news was good
And death machines were rumblin’ ’cross the ground where Jesus stood
And the man on my TV told me that it had always been that way
And there was nothin’ anyone could do or say.

And I almost listened to him
Yeah, I almost lost my mind
Then I regained my senses again
And looked into my heart to find

That I believe that one fine day all the children of Abraham
Will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem

Well maybe I'm only dreamin’ and maybe I’m just a fool
But I don’t remember learnin’ how to hate in Sunday school
But somewhere along the way I strayed and I never looked back again
But I still find some comfort now and then.

Then the storm comes rumblin’ in
And I can’t lay me down
And the drums are drummin’ again
And I can’t stand the sound.

But I believe there’ll come a day when the lion and the lamb
Will lie down in peace together in Jerusalem

And there’ll be no barricades then
There’ll be no wire or walls
And we can wash all this blood from our hands
And all this hatred from our souls.

And I believe that on that day all the children of Abraham
Will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem.

Seeking to value and not forget diversity
during this decade of commemorations

Saint Ann’s Church, Dawson Street ... the venue for this morning’s discussion of World War I and the decade of commemorations (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Saint Ann’s Church,

Dawson Street, Dublin 2

Saturday 27 September 2014

9 .a.m., Men’s Breakfast


Each month, I contribute a two-page photo-feature or photo-essay to the Dublin and Glendalough diocesan magazine, the Church Review. I cover a wide range of topics, from places I have travelled to, to developments in Church life, to my take on events in history, and so on. I have even written about why I still want to call our greatest rugby venue Lansdowne Road rather some commercially-dictated label … although that seems to be a losing battle

If you are a regular reader, then you know I also like travelling. I have written often about favourite places such as Lichfield and Cambridge in England, Crete and Thessaloniki in Greece, but I have written about places from Florida to Korea, and many places in between.

I suppose I am trying to provide the diocese with another window out into the world, or into the past, rather than allowing ourselves to be consumed with parochial issues and the pressures of present problems.

You may have notices a number of motifs or themes, or undercurrents in the way I write. There is a subtext, if you like. I want to challenge racism and prejudice, which in this country must also include Anglophobia; I want to confront the global problems of war, poverty and discrimination; I want to look at the beauty of other traditions and cultures; and I want to invite you as the reader to appreciate the beauty of God’s creation and to ask what we are doing to sustain and cherish that creation.

Naturally, in recent months, I have also been looking at the events that are being marked in what we are now calling this decade of commemorations, looking back at the events that have reshaped and redefined Ireland – and Europe – about 100 years ago.

I have written about Ireland’s involvement in World War I, the forgotten members of the Church of Ireland who took part in the events leading up to the 1916 Rising, and the Easter Rising itself.

The Revd Martin O’Connor invited me to speak here after some of you read my feature in the Church Review last July [2014]. He pointed out that there is a lot of interest in World War I, and that there around 100 names between the World War I memorials in Saint Ann’s, Saint Stephen’s and Saint Mark’s.

When he issued that invitation, Martin and Christine had just returned from a tour of the battlefields that brought them to the Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres/Ieper, the Passchendaele Museum, Tyne Cot Cemetery and the Menin Gate memorial.

He told me how they were moved and horrified at what they saw and how the number of names on the Memnin Gate, along with the more than 12,00 graves at Tyne Cot, brought home the suffering of war.

I am sure we all have family memories that are being brought to the fore since we embarked on this “Decade of Centenaries,” which includes World War I, but also the Ulster Covenant (1912), the Dublin Lockout (1912), the Easter Rising (1916), the Russian Revolution (1917), the War of Independence, and the formation of both the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland.

So this morning, I hope to share some of my thoughts on why the World War I commemorations and the 1916 commemorations are still relevant to us today, a century later, and not simply about collecting facts, figures and names.

The Redmond Memorial in the centre of Wexford Town ... World War I began as Ireland was divided by the Home Rule crisis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The events a century ago reshaped the map of Europe, but they also reshaped and redefined Irish identity too.

It was a decade marked by the demise of Chinese imperial dynasties, World War I, the Armenian Genocide, the Gallipoli landings, the Battle of the Somme, the Russian Revolution, the Balfour Declaration, the defeat of Germany, the fall of the Hapsburgs, the creation of the Weimar Republic and the Soviet Union, the first non-stop transatlantic flight, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the winning of women’s voting rights, and the rise of Communism and Fascism.

But it was the decade too that brought us the modern zipper, stainless steel, and the pop-up toaster. It was a decade that saw the publication of Einstein’s theory of relativity, the first US feature film, the debut of Charlie Chaplin, the publication of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers and Women in Love and TS Eliot’s The Waste Land.

For Irish people, this was the decade that saw the death of Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula, who was born into a Dublin Church of Ireland family. It was a decade that saw the publication of James Joyce’s Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Ulysses, and of Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw. And it was a decade too that was marked by the sinking of the Titanic and the Lusitania.

The commemorations to mark the centenary of World War I began two months ago, for World War I began on 28 July 1914. Over four years, more than nine million combatants were killed in the ‘Great War,’ making it one of the deadliest conflicts in history.

Despite the fears – and the justified fears of many – I believe the commemorations are never likely to descend into a glorification of war. Instead, they are likely to focus on the horrors of war, its impact on the lives of many millions of people, and a legacy that includes major changes that reshaped the political map of Europe.

The war is often been seen as a conflict between the jealous crowned heads of Europe and it brought about the downfall of many royal houses, including the Romanovs in Russia, the Habsburgs in Austria and Hungary, the Ottomans in Turkey, and the Prussian or Hohenzollern dynasty in Germany.

But its impact on the lives of ordinary people must never be forgotten: more than 70 million people were mobilised in a period that lasted long after the war ended.

The immediate trigger for the war was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, the heir to the throne of Austria, who was murdered in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 by Gavrilo Princip, a Serb nationalist. The murder set off a diplomatic crisis when Austria delivered the “July Ultimatum” to Serbia.

On 28 July 1914, Austria invaded Serbia, and Germany declared war on Tsarist Russia on 1 August, invaded France on 2 August, and neutral Belgium on 3 August. On 4 August, Britain declared war on Germany. In November, the Ottoman Empire joined the war; Italy and Bulgaria went to war in 1915, Romania in 1916, and the US in 1917. The last country to enter the war was Romania – albeit for the second time – on 10 November 1918, one day before the war ended.

War and the Home Rule crisis

In a speech at Woodenbridge, Co Wicklow, John Redmond called on the Irish Volunteers to enlist in Irish regiments (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Ireland was involved throughout the war as part of the United Kingdom. The war began as Ireland was embroiled in a major political crisis over Home Rule, but the crisis was temporarily defused when nationalist and unionist leaders alike initially supported Britain’s war efforts.

The Unionist leader, Edward Carson, offered his immediate support. On 3 August 1914, the Wexford-born leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, John Redmond (1856-1918), then MP for Waterford City, declared in the House of Commons that the British government could withdraw every soldier from Ireland and yet be assured that the coast of Ireland would be defended by Ireland’s armed sons.

The first British engagement in Europe involved the 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards when they met a German patrol near Mons on 22 August 1914, and Corporal Edward Thomas had the distinction of firing the first British soldier shot in Europe in the war.

World War I remembered in Enniskillen Cathedral ... this was the greatest deployment of armed manpower in Irish history (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The first major battle was the Battle of Mons. On 27 August, the 2nd Battalion Royal Munster Fusiliers formed the rearguard to cover the retreat of British forces and made an epic stand. The Irish Guards also suffered heavily at Mons, and the experience of the Munsters and the Irish Guards was typical of the first campaigns in France and Belgium.

Home Rule passed into law on 17 September, and in a speech at Woodenbridge, Co Wicklow, just over 100 years ago, on 20 September 1914, John Redmond called on the Irish Volunteers to enlist in Irish regiments. He believed Imperial Germany threatened the freedom of Europe and that it was Ireland’s duty, having achieved future self-government, “to the best of her ability to go where ever the firing line extends, in defence of right, of freedom and of religion in this war. It would be a disgrace forever to our country otherwise,” he said.

Irish enlistment

Major William Redmond’s memorial in Wexford ... he was one of five Irish MPs who enlisted in the British army (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Redmond’s son, William Redmond, then MP for East Tyrone, enlisted, as did his brother, Major Willie Redmond, then MP for Clare East and a former MP for Wexford Borough. Four other Irish MPs enlisted: Sir John Esmonde, MP for North Tipperary; Stephen Gwynn, MP for Galway and son of the Revd John Gwynn, Regius Professor of Divinity at Trinity College Dublin; and Daniel Desmond Sheehan, MP for mid-Cork. In addition, Tom Kettle, former MP for East Tyrone, enlisted, and Redmond’s call was supported by many parliamentary leaders, including William O’Brien, Thomas O’Donnell and Joseph Devlin.

A large majority of the Irish Volunteers followed Redmond’s call. In all, 206,000 Irishmen fought in the British forces during World War I. Of these, 58,000 had already enlisted in the army or navy before the war broke out. Half of the Irishmen who enlisted in the first year were from what is now the Republic of Ireland; the other half from what is now Northern Ireland. It was the greatest deployment of armed manpower in Irish military history.

The dead of World War I remembered in panels on the south porch in Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Some of Redmond’s Volunteers enlisted in regiments in the 10th and 16th Divisions, while many members of the Ulster Volunteer Force joined regiments in the 36th (Ulster) Division. However, most Irish recruits lacked military training to become officers, and with the exception of Major-General Sir William Bernard Hickie, from Terryglass, Co Tipperary, the 16th was led by English officers.

The 10th Division was the first Irish Division to take part in the war, under the command of General Sir Bryan Mahon, from Belleville, Co Galway. This division was sent to Gallipoli and took part on 7 August 1915 in the disastrous landing at Cape Helles and the August offensive. Irish battalions suffered extremely heavy losses among the Royal Munster Fusiliers, and the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. From Suvla, the division was moved in September to Thessaloniki, where it remained for two years.

The Royal Irish Regiment recalled in a plaque in Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In September 1917, the 10th moved to Egypt and fought in the Third Battle of Gaza, which broke Turkish resistance in southern Palestine. In 1918, the division was split between the Middle East and the Western Front.

The 16th Division spent most of World War I on the Western Front. At the 2nd Battle of Ypres in May 1915, the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers were nearly wiped out as a result of a German-initiated poison gas attack. Until March 1916, the 16th was commanded by General Henry Wilson, who had called them “Johnnie Redmond’s pets.” Hickie, who replaced Wilson, called them as “riff-raff Redmondites,” but was more diplomatic and tactful and later spoke with pride of his command.

In July 1916, the 16th suffered heavy casualties at the Somme. The battle began early on 1 July 1916 and the day ended with a total of 60,000 allied casualties, of whom 20,000 were killed in action. The 36th (Ulster) Division suffered 5,500 casualties and 2,000 of these were killed in action. The 1st Royal Dublin Fusiliers fought next to the 36th and counted 147 casualties – 22 killed and 64 missing in action. The 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers lost 14 of their 23 officers, and 311 out 480 in other ranks.

The battle continued until the following November. The former MP for East Tyrone, Tom Kettle, a barrister and Professor of Economics at UCD, was among those killed at the Somme. Irish soldiers also fought at the Somme in the Royal Irish Rifles, Royal Irish Fusiliers, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, Royal Irish Regiment, and four battalions of the Northumberland Fusiliers.

The pulpit in Saint Iberius’s Church, Wexford, serves as a World War I memorial (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In 1917, the 16th fought at the Battle of Messines alongside the 36th (Ulster) Division, and at Passchendaele and Ypres. Messines saw the largest-ever concentration of Irish soldiers on a battlefield. Among those killed in the advance was John Redmond’s 56-year-old brother, Major Willie Redmond. By mid-August, the 16th counted over 4,200 casualties and the 36th had almost 3,600 casualties, or more than 50 per cent of its numbers. The losses were so heavy that when the 16th was reconstituted in England the only original battalion left was the 5th Royal Irish Fusiliers.

The 36th included three existing Irish regiments: the Royal Irish Fusiliers, the Royal Irish Rifles and the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. The division fought on the Western Front throughout the war, and included men from all nine counties of Ulster. Apart from the Somme, the division’s other battles included Cambrai, Messines and two at Ypres (1917), Ypres (1918).

Irish regiments and VCs

Some of the names of the war dead on a memorial cross in Bray, Co Wicklow (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Irish regiments in the British army also included the Connaught Rangers, the Leinster Regiment, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, the Royal Irish Fusiliers, the Royal Irish Regiment, the Royal Irish Rifles and the Royal Munster Fusiliers. In addition, there were Irish regiments based outside Ireland, including the Royal Irish Dragoon Guards, the King’s Royal Irish Hussars, the Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars, the Irish Guards, the Liverpool Irish, the London Irish Rifles, the Royal Irish Artillery, the Royal Irish Lancers, the Royal Irish Rangers, the Tyneside Irish Brigade, the Royal Irish Regiment and the London Irish.

The war memorial in the churchyard at Saint John the Baptist in Clontarf, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In all, there were 37 Irish VCs in World War I. Lieutenant Maurice Dease from Coole, Co Westmeath, was the first British soldier to be awarded the VC in World War I – on 23 August 1914, the first day of engagement by the British army. He was killed as he continued to operate a machine gun despite being shot four times at the Battle of Mons.

One of the last Irish combatants to receive a VC was Sergeant-Major Martin Doyle from New Ross, Co Wexford. He was awarded a VC in September 1918, but later, when he returned home, he fought in the War of Independence.

A World War I memorial near the centre of Drogheda (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

By the end of the war, the attitude at home towards Irish soldiers in the British army had changed completely in the aftermath of the Easter Rising in 1916. The poet Francis Ledwidge, who died at Ypres in 1917, wrote after the Easter Rising: “If someone were to tell me now that the Germans were coming in over our back wall, I wouldn’t lift a finger to stop them. They could come!”

The Armistice on 11 November 1918 brought an end to World War I. But the war also brought about the fall of the German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, and the map of Europe was redrawn.

When the Irish divisions were demobilised, about 100,000 veterans returned to Ireland. But another 70,000-80,000 never returned home. There was high unemployment in Ireland, and the rising militant nationalism was hostile to the men who had served in the British forces.

Counting the dead

The war memorial in All Saints’ Church, Grangegorman, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The number of Irish deaths is officially recorded as 27,405. However, the numbers may be higher, and the National War Memorial at Islandbridge in Dublin is dedicated “to the memory of the 49,400 Irish soldiers who gave their lives in the Great War, 1914-1918.”

In 1927, the Irish government donated £50,000 in 1927 towards a Great War Memorial. But it was located in Islandbridge, outside the city centre, rather than in Merrion Square. It was not until 2006, on the 90th anniversary of the Somme, that the Irish state held an official commemoration for the Irish dead of World War I.

The Irish National War Memorial at Islandbridge was erected miles from the city centre (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

‘The centre cannot hold’

In that decade we are recalling this morning, the world was so changed and transformed that WB Yeats could open his poem The Second Coming with these lines about Europe in the aftermath of World War I:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Towards the end of that decade, the Church of Ireland was living with the consequences of a half century of disestablishment. But the Church was more concerned with social political upheaval on this island, and the way we were tearing ourselves apart as a people. Irish identity was changed violently over that ten-year period, so that the lines by Yeats about the leaders of the Easter Rising in 1916 could be applied to the whole island and the whole population:

All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

It was a decade that saw the reconstruction of Irish identity through the creation of myths that by-passed the facts, even as the main actors in those myths were still alive.

Language and identity

The Abbey Theatre contributed to the cultural expressions of Irish nationalism (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

It is forgotten that modern Irish nationalism had its incubation and gestation in the revival of the Irish language – a revival in which the main players included Dr Douglas Hyde, the son of a Church of Ireland rector, and Dr Eleanor Hull in hymns such as Be thou my vision (643).

Sean O’Casey, the playwright of the left, was born into the Church of Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The artistic expressions of the new nationalism were found in the Abbey Theatre, founded by Lady Gregory, WB Yeats and George Russell (AE), the poetry of Yeats and the plays of Sean O’Casey – all members of the Church of Ireland.

Since 1916, the leaders of the Easter Rising in Dublin have been transformed into either working class heroes or the personifications of what it is to be Green, Gaelic, Catholic and Irish. But the myths that have been created by those who have a blinkered vision of what it is to be Irish betray the truths of history.

The Garden of Remembrance treats the 1916 leaders as martyrs … but their backgrounds were diverse (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Who remembers today that Pádraig Pearse was born Patrick Henry Pearse, the son of a Birmingham Unitarian who had come to Dublin from England as part of the Victorian arts-and-crafts movement?

There are other myths surrounding Pádraig Pearse, including one that he was “President of the Provisional Government,” a post that may have been held instead by Thomas Clarke. There is no manuscript version of the 1916 Proclamation, but on all printed versions, the leaders’ names are not printed in alphabetical order, so that Pádraig Pearse’s name is listed fourth, after Thomas Clarke, Sean Mac Diarmada and Thomas MacDonagh.

Ironically, Thomas Clarke was not born in Ireland but in an army barracks on the Isle of Wight in England, where his father was a soldier in the British army.

Thomas MacDonagh had a middle class education in Rockwell College, Co Tipperary, and was a lecturer in English in UCD. In 1912, he married Muriel Gifford, a member of a well-known Church of Ireland family in Dublin. Éamonn Ceannt, an accountant, was born Edward Thomas Kent, the son of an officer in the Royal Irish Constabulary.

James Connolly was born in Scotland and married a member of the Church of Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

James Connolly was born in Edinburgh, and spoke with a Scottish accent all his life. After joining the British Army at the age of 14, he spent seven years with the army in Ireland. In 1890, he married Lillie Reynolds, a member of the Church of Ireland, who was born in Co Wicklow.

Joseph Mary Plunkett was the son of Count George Noble Plunkett, and his distant cousin, Sir Horace Curzon Plunkett, was a prominent lay member of the Church of Ireland and a Home Rule MP. The poet was born into a privileged family in Fitzwilliam Street, then an affluent suburb of Dublin, and was educated by the Jesuits at Belvedere and Stonyhurst, a Jesuit-run public school in Lancashire. Hours before his execution, he married Grace Gifford, who, like her sister Muriel MacDonagh, had been born into a prosperous Dublin Church of Ireland family.

In other words, two of the seven signatories were not born in Ireland, one was the son of an Englishman, one had served in the British army, one was the son of an RIC officer, one was born in a British army barracks, one was a titled aristocrat who went to an English public school, and at least three married women who were born into the Church of Ireland.

These backgrounds were similar to those of many prominent figures on the Republican side in 1916. For example, Liam Mellows, later executed in 1922 at the height of the Civil War, was born William Joseph Mellows in an army barracks in Manchester, and his father was born in a British army barracks in India.

It should be remembered too in the coming years that while the 1916 Rising was being planned, Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Féin still favoured establishing a form of dual monarchy linking Ireland and Britain, similar to the dual monarchy in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and that Sinn Féin did not take part in the 1916 Rising.

Voices for the oppressed

Dr Kathleen Lynn took command of the rebel position in City Hall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Many of the women who took prominent roles in the Rising were members of the Church of Ireland: Countess Markievicz, the suffragette and a leader of the Irish Citizens’ Army, was born Constance Georgine Gore-Booth in Buckingham Gate, London, the daughter of Sir Henry Gore-Booth of Lissadell House, Co Sligo. She and her younger sister, Eva Gore-Booth, were childhood friends of Yeats, who frequently visited their home and described them in one poem as “two girls in silk kimonos, both beautiful, one a gazelle.”

Dr Kathleen Lynn, a founding member of the Irish Citizen’s Army too, took command of the rebel garrison in City Hall in Easter Week 1916. She remained a pious member of the Church of Ireland until her death in 1955.

Jim Larkin … “The great appear great because we are on our knees: Let us rise.” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Alongside James Connolly, Jim Larkin, Countess Markievicz and Kathleen Lynn, the founding members of the Irish Citizens’ Army in 1913, included Captain Jack White, a Presbyterian from Broughshane, Co Antrim, and the son of Sir George Stuart White, a former Governor of Gibraltar.

Indeed, the first informal meeting to form the Irish Citizens’ Army was held in Trinity College Dublin in the rooms of the Revd Robert Malcolm Gwynn. He was a communicant at Saint Bartholomew’s until his death in 1962, and is buried in Whitechurch Churchyard in Co Dublin. One of his brothers, Brian Gwynn, was the father-in-law of the late Archbishop George Simms. Through their mother, the Gwynns were grandsons of William Smith O’Brien, the exiled 1848 revolutionary whose statue in O’Connell Street is close to the GPO and the statue of Jim Larkin.

The house in Rathgar where George Russell (AE) was living in 1913 during the Dublin lockout (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

In a letter of protest during the Dublin lockout, George Russell (AE) accused the employers of “refusing to consider any solution except that fixed by their pride” and he accused them of seeking “in cold anger to starve one-third of this city, to break the manhood of the men by the sight of the suffering of their wives and the hunger of their children.”

Howth Harbour ... the Howth gunrunning must have appeared almost like a Church of Ireland parish vestry meeting! (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

A year after the Dublin lockout, members of the Church of Ireland were among the most prominent organisers of the Howth gun-running. Erskine Childers, a cousin of the Bartons of Glendalough House, sailed into Howth on the Asgard and landed 2,500 guns.

The organisers included his wife Molly Childers, Sir Roger Casement, Alice Stopford Green and Mary Spring Rice – all Church of Ireland parishioners, as were many of those waiting for them on the pier, including Countess Markievicz, Douglas Hyde and Darrell Figgis.

Edward Conor Marshal O’Brien (1880-1952), skipper of the Kelpie, one of the yachts involved in the gunrunnings, was a member of the Church of Ireland from Limerick and his first cousin, Brian Gwynn, was the father of the late Mercy Simms, wife of Archbishop George Otto Simms.

Kilcoole, Co Wicklow ... the gunrunning organised by Sir Thomas Myles is often forgotten in the shadows of the Howth gunrunning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The accounts of the Howth gunrunning seem to overshadow the equally dramatic Kilcoole gunrunning in Co Wicklow, which was organised by the skipper of the Chotah and the King’s Surgeon in Ireland, Sir Thomas Myles (1857-1937), who was baptised in Saint Michael’s Church of Ireland parish church in Limerick City.

Sir Thomas Myles ... knighted by Edward VII

Nor can we dismiss Myles as a marginal member of the Church of Ireland: his father-in-law, the Revd George Ayres (1825-1881), was a Church of England clergyman; and his youngest brother was the Very Revd Edward Albert Myles (1865-1951), Dean of Dromore. Sir Thomas Myles was knighted at King Edward VII’s coronation while he was President of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.

After the Kilcoole gunrunning, when World War I began, he became an officer in the Royal Army Medical Corps and was later appointed one of the honorary surgeons to the King in Ireland.

Written in or written out?

The War Memorial Park in Islandbridge, Dublin, recalls the Irish dead of two world wars (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The myths that have accumulated over the past century have written members of the Church of Ireland, their consciences and their role out of the shared history of this island.

In these coming years, we must remember that more Irish soldiers – Catholic and Protestant – died at the Gallipoli landings in 1915 or at the Somme in 1916 than died in the Easter Rising.

Nor should we forget that more than 400,000 people on this island, including five bishops of the Church of Ireland, signed the Ulster Covenant, and in doing so were led by Sir Edward Carson, who was born in Harcourt Street, Dublin.

A divided family

A family divided ... Colonel Thomas Comerford on his wedding day; and his sister Marie Comerford

Many families in this part of the island – both Protestant and Roman Catholic – were totally divided when it came to loyalties at this time. Colonel Thomas James Comerford (1894-1959), who was raised in Co Wexford and Co Waterford, came from an interesting background. His grandfather, Colonel Thomas Esmonde (1831-1872), was decorated with the VC for his part in the Battle of Sebastopol in the Crimean War, his mother was three times tennis champion of Ireland, and his cousin, Sir John Lymbrick Esmonde, was one of those five Irish MPs who fought in the British Army in World War I. Thomas Comerford served in World War I, initially with the Royal Irish Regiment and later with the Royal Irish Rifles. He fought at Gallipoli in 1915, where he was wounded, and was at home in Dublin on sick leave in 1916 when the Easter Rising broke out.

The family story says he was taken out of Dublin immediately so he would not be compromised by the curious activities of his sister. He was wounded at the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917, and went on to spend 25 years in India, where he was married in Bombay in 1921 and where he was active in World War II, organising supplies for the Chindits.

His sister, the journalist and writer Mary (‘Máire’) Eva Comerford (1893-1982), was also raised in Co Wexford and in Co Waterford. She became involved in politics initially as a Redmondite Home Ruler activist in Wexford Town, but later became a life-long Republican activist, and took part in the 1916 Rising in Dublin. Little wonder that her brother had to be moved out of the city.

Post-independence dilemmas

Archbishop Gregg and Eamon de Valera together in the 1930s.

Archbishop JAF Gregg of Dublin said in a sermon in December 1921, the month the Treaty was signed:

It concerns us all to offer the Irish Free State our loyalty. I believe there is a genuine desire on the part of those who have long differed from us politically to welcome our co-operation. We should be wrong politically and religiously to reject such advances.

In 1922, after many Protestants were forced to leave their homes because of threats and some had been murdered in Co Cork, a delegation of southern members of the General Synod met Michael Collins and WT Cosgrave, and asked whether the government of the new Free State was “desirous of retaining” the Protestant community. The new government readily gave the assurances sought.

WB Yeats ... We are no petty people

A few years later, when the Irish Free State was poised to outlaw divorce, the poet WB Yeats delivered a famous speech in the new Senate of the Irish Free State on 11 June:

I think it is tragic that within three years of this country gaining its independence we should be discussing a measure which a minority of this nation considers to be grossly oppressive. I am proud to consider myself a typical man of that minority. We against whom you have done this thing, are no petty people. We are one of the great stocks of Europe. We are the people of Burke; we are the people of Grattan; we are the people of Swift, the people of Emmet, the people of Parnell. We have created the most of the modern literature of this country. We have created the best of its political intelligence. Yet I do not altogether regret what has happened. I shall be able to find out, if not I, my children will be able to find out whether we have lost our stamina or not. You have defined our position and have given us a popular following. If we have not lost our stamina then your victory will be brief, and your defeat final, and when it comes this nation may be transformed.

The Mansion House in Dublin, where the First Dáil held most of its meetings (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

‘No petty people’

Over these ten years, it is important that one single event should not dominate all the other centenaries and the memory of what has made the Ireland we know today. We should remember the Ulster Covenant, the lockouts, Gallipoli, the Somme, the men who rallied to Redmond’s call, and the poetry of Tom Kettle. Nor should we forget the diversity of contributions made by members of the Church of Ireland in those ten years.

For in the words of Yeats, we “are no petty people. We are one of the great stocks of Europe. We are the people of Burke; we are the people of Grattan; we are the people of Swift, the people of Emmet, the people of Parnell. We have created the most of the modern literature of this country. We have created the best of its political intelligence.”

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. These notes were prepared for a talk with Men’s Breakfast in Saint Ann’s Parish, Dawson Street, Dublin, on 27 September 2014.