30 October 2016

Talking about the ‘Pickled Earl’ and bringing
the bodies home on ‘The History Show’

Palmerstown House, near Johnstown, the family home of the Earls of Mayo outside Naas, Co Kildare (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

I have contributed two essays to a new book on death and the Irish, which has been edited by my friend and colleague, Salvador Ryan, Professor of Church History in Maynooth. Death and the Irish: a miscellany is published by Wordwell, and is being launched next week [10 November 2016] in the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin. I was interviewed by Louise Dervin in Christ Church Cathedral and Saint Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, yesterday about these chapters for The History Show, presented by Myles Dungan and which goes out on RTÉ Radio 1 at 6.05 p.m. this evening [30 October 2016].

In one chapter, ‘Bringing the bodies home,’ I tell the story of the difficulties faced by the families of Jeremiah James Murphy and the 6th Earl of Mayo when it came to bringing their bodies home after their tragic deaths abroad in the 1850s and the 1870s.

Air travel has reduced the stress when grieving Irish families have to arrange to bring home the bodies of loved ones, but it was not so easy in Victorian days. Families either had to accept someone was going to be buried overseas and or had to find innovative, sometimes even irreverent, ways to bring home the bodies for burial.

Jeremiah James Murphy (1795-1851), of Lota Park, outside Cork, was in his 50s when he went on the grand tour of Italy. He died in Pisa on 29 November 1851, but getting his body home to Ireland proved difficult for his family. The sailors at Naples feared taking the coffin on board would bring them bad luck at sea. The Murphy family, however, out-witted the sailors by putting his body in an upright piano which they then shipped back to Ireland. He was buried almost two months later on 18 January 1852 in Carrigrohane, Co Cork ... still in the upright piano.

Richard Southwell Bourke (1822-1872), of Palmerstown House, Co Kildare, was the 6th Earl of Mayo. He was murdered in India in 1872 and is buried in Johnstown Churchyard, near Naas, Co Kildare. He is known as the ‘Pickled Earl’ since his body was preserved in a vat of rum on the long journey back to Ireland following his assassination.

When he became the Viceroy and Governor-General of India in 1869, .he gave instructions that should anything happen to him his body was to be brought back for burial in Johnstown. He was visiting a convict settlement in the Andaman Islands when he was attacked by an Afghan convict, Sher Ali Afridi, who murdered him on 8 February 1872. His partially-embalmed body was shipped home to Ireland, but in order to delay decomposition, his body was placed in a rum-filled cask ... and so he became known as the ‘Pickled Earl.’

To add spice to the story, when the cask was opened the body was there but there was no rum. Had it leaked out? Had it evaporated? Had it been drained off by the crew?

The memorial window in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, commemorating Richard Burke, 6th Earl of Mayo, and his murder in India (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

In my second contribution to the book, I tell the story of ‘Abide with Me,’ one of the most popular funeral hymns in the English-speaking world. It is said to have been a favourite of a wide range of people, from George V to Gandhi, it was played by the band on the deck as the Titanic was sinking, and Nurse Edith Cavell repeated its words as she faced her firing squad. Since 1927, this hymn has been sung at every FA Cup Final in Wembley.

This perennially popular funeral hymn was written as he was dying by a priest of the Church of Ireland, the Revd Henry Francis Lyte (1793-1847). Although born in Scotland, Lyte was brought to Ireland, and was educated in Portora and Trinity College Dublin.

After his ordination, Lyte’s first appointment was as curate of Saint Munn’s Church, Taghmon, Co Wexford. He described his 18 months in Taghmon as a ‘dreary curacy.’ Taghmon was too remote from town life, and he bemoaned the loss of ‘the comfort, the society and the carelessness’ of constant intrusions, the long dinner parties, and the time he had to give to neighbours and parishioners.

But the spiritual outlook and religious values of the unhappy curate were changed as he watched the death of a neighbouring rector, the Revd Abraham Swanne, and took over his duties in the parish of Killurin, on the banks of the Slaney, between Wexford and Enniscorthy.

Lyte’s health never recovered fully after his experiences in Taghmon and Killurin. In September 1847, he preached his farewell sermon, on the subject of the Eucharist, returned to his vicarage and that evening wrote ‘Abide with Me.’ The hymn is marked in part by Lyte’s experience of comforting the dying Abraham Swanne, who kept repeating the words ‘Lord, abide with me.’

Lyte died in Nice on 20 November 1847 and was buried in the English Cemetery there. He is commemorated by plaques in Saint Munn’s Church in Taghmon, Co Wexford, but ‘Abide with Me’ is his greatest memorial.

The History Show seeks to bring the past to life and to explain ourselves to ourselves, searching out fresh angles on familiar topics, with informative, reflective, stimulating and entertaining radio. It is broadcast on Sundays from 6.05 p.m. on RTÉ Radio 1.

Henry Francis Lyte’s first appointment was as curate of Saint Munn’s Church, Taghmon, Co Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)


Unknown said...

That is quite fascinating! Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Reading you from my comfy chair in Winnipeg, Manitoba CANADA. Interesting info on both the hymn, and the burials. Thx.