29 September 2015

Being ‘brought … near to an
innumerable company of angels’

The Archangel Michael … an icon by Adrienne Lord in an exhibition in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

Today in the calendar of the Church is the Feast of Saint Michael and all Angels [29 September].

The churches in the Church of Ireland dedicated to Saint Michael include Saint Michael’s, Athy, Co Kildare (Diocese of Glendalough), Saint Michael and All Angels, Clane (Diocese of Kildare), Saint Michael and All Angels, Abbeyleix, and Saint Michael’s, Aghold (both in the Diocese of Leighlin), Saint Michael and All Angels, Whitegate (Cloyne), Saint Michael and All Angels, Waterville, and Saint Michael’s, Killorgin, Co Kerry (both in Ardfert and Aghadoe), Saint Michael’s, Craven Street, Belfast (Diocese of Connor), Saint Michael’s, Blackrock (Cork), Saint Michael’s, Ballina (Killala), Saint Michael’s, Derrybrusk (Clogher), Saint Michael’s, Clonoe and Donoghnore (both in the Diocese of Armagh), Saint Michael’s, Ballina (Killala), and Saint Michael’s in Limerick.

But many of the old mediaeval parishes dedicated to Saint Michael in old towns such as Wexford, Waterford and Dublin have long disappeared from memory.

Saint Michael’s Church in Wexford was of Danish origin but stood outside the town walls. It was situated in Castle Hill Street and gives its name to the Cemetery in that street which was used until the opening of Saint Ibar’s Cemetery in Crosstown in 1892.

The dedication of this little church to Saint Michael the Archangel had a peculiar significance, for the Vikings regarded Saint Michael as the protector of those at sea. They built churches dedicated to him near their port towns, always on high ground overlooking the sea, often with a beacon beside the church was a beacon, which was the last speck to disappear from their view as their ship moved beyond the horizon and the first sign on land that greeted them as they were homeward bound.

However, like the Church of the Holy Trinity, the ruins of Saint Michael’s in Wexford were used to repair the damaged castle walls.

In Waterford, Saint Michael’s Church is remembered in the name it has given to a street and a parish. This too was possibly a Viking church, because of its dedication to Saint Michael the Archangel. But the earliest documentary reference to the church is 1449. A large cemetery attached to Saint Michael’s was used long after the church fell into ruins until the closure of the city’s cemeteries in 1860, perhaps even beyond that date. The campanile is all that remains of the church

Interestingly, the preacher at the Ordination of priests in Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday [27 September 2015] was Canon David Moynan, who retires as Rector of Kilternan and Prebendary of Saint Michael’s tomorrow [30 September 2015].

Earlier in the day, at the Cathedral Eucharist on Sunday morning, the Cathedral Choir sang a Communion Motet that recalled the story of Saint Michael, anticipating today’s feast day:

Factum est silentium in coelo dum committeret bellum draco, cum Michaele Archangelo audita est vox milia milium dicentium. Salus, honor et virtus, omnipotenti; Deo. Alleluia.

“There was silence in heaven whilst the dragon joined battle with the Archangel Michael. A cry was heard – thousands of thousands saying: ‘Salvation and honour and power be to almighty God’. Alleluia.”

This Antiphon to Benedictus at Lauds on Michaelmas Day was sung to a setting by the English Renaissance and Baroque composer Richard Dering (ca 1580-1630). Despite being English, he lived and worked most of his life in the Spanish-dominated South Netherlands owing to his Roman Catholic faith.

Dering earned a BMus at Christ Church, Oxford, in 1610, and became a Roman Catholic during a visit to Italy in his early 30s. In 1612-1616, he travelled with the British ambassador to Venice, and in 1617 he was the organist to the community of English Benedictine nuns in Brussels. He returned to England in 1625 as organist to Queen Henrietta Maria, the Catholic wife of Charles I, and “musician for the lutes and voices” to Charles I.

Dering wrote three books of motets with continuo, two of canzonets and one of continuo madrigals. His music shows varying degrees of Italian influence. Much of it was brought out by an Antwerp publisher, Pierre Phalèse the Younger, between 1612 and 1628. Some of his composition sung in Queen Henrietta’s chapel were used for private devotion during the Commonwealth, and, ironically, were reputedly Oliver Cromwell’s favourite music.

The Synod Hall (left), to the west of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (right), stands on the site of Saint Michael’s Church and incorporates the church tower (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Michael’s Church on High Street, Dublin, which gave its name to one of three prebendal stalls in Christ Church Cathedral, was originally the domestic chapel of Bishop Donogh, who is traditionally said to have founded Christ Church Cathedral.

Saint Michael’s became a parish church in 1417. From 1541, the Rectors of Saint Michael’s were Prebendaries in Christ Church Cathedral and they were also Dean’s Vicar in the cathedral from 1541 to 1604.

Saint Michael’s was rebuilt in 1676, but in 1807, the Visitation Book describes Saint Michael’s as being in ruins, and the parish services were being held in the Lady Chapel in Christ Church Cathedral.

The rectors and prebendaries of Saint Michael’s in the 18th century included the Canon Robert Law (1730-1789), whose son the Revd Francis Law (1768-1807), married Belinda Isabella Comerford, daughter of Patrick Comerford of Summerville, Cork, and was the father of the Revd Patrick Comerford Law.

The church was rebuilt yet again in 1815. When the Church of Ireland was disestablished, the rectors of Saint Michael’s ceased being prebendaries in the cathedral, although their title has been retained in the chapter.

Rectors and prebendaries of Saint Michael’s in the 19th century included Canon Thomas Percival Magee (1797-1854), father-in-law and uncle of Archbishop William Magee of York; the hymn-writer Thomas Bewley Monsell; and Canon William O’Neill, 1st Baron O'Neill (1813-1883), who was at Saint Michael’s from 1845 to 1859.

O’Neill was born William Chichester, a younger son of Canon Arthur Chichester, Chancellor of Armagh. He changed his surname to O’Neill in 1855 when he succeeded to the large O’Neill estates in Co Antrim at the death of his distant cousin John O'Neill, 3rd Viscount O’Neill. The O’Neill title was revived in 1868 when he was made a peer as Baron O’Neill, of Shane’s Castle, Co Antrim.

Two of his descendants were prominent in politics in Northern Ireland. His grandson, Robert William Hugh O’Neill, was Speaker of the Northern Ireland House of Commons and was given the title Baron Rathcavan. His great-grandson Terence O'Neill was Prime Minister of Northern Ireland and became Baron O’Neill of the Maine in 1970.

When Christ Church Cathedral was being rebuilt in 1870-1878, Saint Michael’s Parish was amalgamated with Saint Audeon’s in 1872, the church was demolished, and the Synod Hall was built on the site. The new Synod Hall incorporated parts of the later church, including the church tower.

The last Rector of Saint Michael’s in Dublin was Canon Edward Seymour, who held office until 1872. He later became Precentor of Christ Church Cathedral.

Saint Michael’s Churchyard in Lichfield is one of the largest and one of the oldest burial grounds in England (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Earlier this year, during one of my frequent return visits to Lichfield, I revisited Saint Michael’s parish church on Greenhill, which is believed to be one of the oldest and one of the largest burial grounds in England.

Although much of the present church dates from rebuilding projects in the 1840s, there has been a church on this high ground since at least 1190, and the church stands on the site of one of the earliest settlements in Lichfield, and on a significant burial ground.

There is a legend that this was the burial place of 999 early Christian martyrs who were the followers of the legendry Saint Amphibalus, who had converted Saint Alban to Christianity in the third or fourth century. There is no evidence to support the legend of those martyrs in the year 300 during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian. But the legend became so popular that it was often said that the name Lichfield actually means “field of the dead.”

This tradition develops a mediaeval story created by Geoffrey of Monmouth, and was exaggerated from the 12th century on after Lichfield became an important stopping place on pilgrim routes.

The legend was largely been forgotten by the 1500s, but it was revived later that century when Lichfield was incorporated as a borough in 1548. The new civic council needed an image for its seal but wanted to break with the pre-Reformation image of Saint Chad. The corporation decided to use the story of the 999 martyrs on its seal, and so gave new life to a dead and unfounded story.

It may be that this legend led to George Fox, the founding Quaker, to cry out in the Market Square, as he stood barefoot in the snow: “Woe unto the bloody City of Lichfield.”

Fox later said he had a vision of a channel of blood running through the streets of Lichfield and that the market place was a pool of blood. He said later he believed that God wanted him to preserve the memory of the thousand Christians martyrs from the reign of Diocletian.

A few decades later, the Staffordshire historian Robert Plot claimed the nearby area now known as Christian Fields was the site of their martyrdom and it has borne the name ever since. Of course, no archaeological evidence was ever found to support these stories from Geoffrey of Monmouth and Robert Plot. Today Christian Fields is a nature reserve south of Eastern Avenue, between Dimbles Lane and Curborough Road.

The legendary story of the Lichfield martyrs inspired the design for a seal of Lichfield, illustrated on a carving on the Guildhall, restored in Beacon Park in 2010 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Despite the false foundations for this legend and the religious impulses it has inspired, Saint Michael’s and its churchyard were still worth revisiting earlier this year.

Local legend also says the first church on the site was consecrated by Saint Augustine. Other accounts say it was because the site was so well known that Saint Chad was attracted to Lichfield, making it the centre of his new diocese in Mercia.

However, the first church at Saint Michael’s is not recorded until 1190, and the oldest remaining parts of the church date from the 13th century.

From the late 17th century, Saint Michael’s was associated with the family of Lichfield’s most famous writer, Samuel Johnson (1709-1784). Dr Johnson visited Lichfield for the last time in the autumn of 1784. He returned to London on 16 November, and composed an inscription for a floor slab in the centre of the nave to commemorate his immediate family.

On 2 December, he wrote two letters to Lichfield giving explicit directions for epitaphs to be placed over the middle aisle of Saint Michael’s Church, where his father Michael Johnson (died 1731), his mother, Sarah Johnson (died 1759), and his brother, Nathaniel Johnson (died 1737), were buried.

Within a fortnight, Johnson died quietly on 13 December 1784. He was buried not in Saint Michael’s but in Westminster Abbey on 20 December.

The original stone Johnson commissioned was removed when Saint Michael’s was repaved in the late 1790s, and much of the mediaeval fabric of the church was lost when the church was restored in the 1840s by a local architect Thomas Johnson and the London-born architect Sydney Smirke.

Johnson’s stone, with the same inscription, was replaced in 1884 to mark the centenary of Samuel Johnson’s death. The church we see today includes further architectural renovations designed in the 1890s by John Oldrid Scott.

The graves in the churchyard include an unusual “saddle-back” tomb and the graves of members of the family of the poet Philip Larkin.

Inside Saint Michael’s Church, Lichfield … the interior has been altered radically in the last two centuries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

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


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.

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