30 July 2017

‘Westward Ho!’ takes me
from Mungret to Kilcoole
and childhood reading

‘Westward Ho!’ in Mungret, Co Limerick … on the road back to memories of early childhood reading (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

On the road from Limerick to Askeaton, Mungret is an attractive village that is quickly being absorbed into the city as a suburb. Mungret, Co Limerick, has a large, historic monastic site, and is also known for the former Jesuit college that still dominates the skyline.

But for some years Mungret has had only one pub, known as Westward Ho!, and this is now on the market to lease as ‘a substantial pub/restaurant.’ It includes a large lounge area, bar area, four rooms on the first floor and large afrea suitable for a beer garden.

But it was not the pub or its location that first caught my imagination.

For many people on their way from Limerick heading west to the port at Foynes or the beach at Ballybunion, the name may seem appropriate. But the name is also a reminder of Westward Ho!, the historical novel by Charles Kingsley published in 1855.

I still remember first reading Westward Ho! when I was a boy of 8. We were spending the summer in a house in Kilcoole, Co Wicklow, and I remember the year because it was the year of the Rome Olympics.

It was a house with a sunny veranda, close to the coast, filled with books and the only house my parents ever found that also had a piano. Nearby were the ruins of an old house with bats that provided interesting watching as those summer days came to a close.

I have often tried to locate that house as an adult, but I have never managed to find it. Perhaps it has been rebuilt beyond recognition, or is hidden behind high walls.

The house was close enough to Dublin so that it allowed my father to commute into work during the day, while he seemed to spend the summer evenings and the weekends playing golf. The beach was close by, and we had no fear of crossing the Dublin-Wexford railway line on our way to the shore. On those sunny days, we also enjoyed picking blackberries on the way to and from the beach, so it must have been about this time of the year.

I can still recall playing in the gardens in front of this house, with a small brook running by a tall stone wall. And I still have a clear memory of the books in the house I read that summer as an eight-year-old: Westward Ho! by Charles Kingsley, Kidnapped and Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, which was attractive to someone of my age not because of its religious fervour but because its ghoulish illustrations had a certain hold over a boy’s imagination, as had the adventures described by Charles Kingsley in Westward Ho!.

As my sisters and cousins were reading Little Women and The Water Babies, or learning to pick out ‘Chopsticks’ on the piano, I was enthralled by the books in the house, and even ventured into my first reading of the King James Version of the Bible.

Westward Ho! was written by Charles Kingsley eight years before The Water-Babies (1863), a tale about a chimney sweep, and ten years before Hereward the Wake (1865), which was regularly serialised in boys’ comics during my childhood.

If my parents were ever aware of Kingsley’s alleged racism in his descriptions of Irish people, they never alluded to it, and they never stopped us reading his books. Perhaps they had little care about what we read, just as they cared little whether we had any musical education yet never stopped us playing on the piano in the house in Kilcoole.

Kingsley wrote in a letter to his wife from Ireland in 1860, telling her: ‘I am haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along that hundred miles of horrible country ... to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black one would not see it so much, but their skins, except where tanned by exposure, are as white as ours.’

The vile anti-Irish images continue in The Water-Babies. There is the fisherman Dennis, who always tells his masters pleasant lies, ‘but, instead of being angry with him, you must remember that he is a poor Paddy, and knows no better.’ There are the ‘wild Irish’ who ‘would not learn to be peaceable Christians,’ but prefer to ‘brew potheen ... and knock each other over the head with shillelaghs, and shoot each other from behind turf-dykes.’

There are the simian-like Doasyoulikes, an indolent and lazy people who ‘lived very much such a life as those jolly old Greeks in Sicily, who you may see painted on the ancient vases.’ But they may be an offensive, thinly-veiled metaphor for the Irish, whose ugliness is explained by their diet, for ‘when people live on poor vegetables instead of roast beef and plum-pudding, their jaws grow large, and their lips grow coarse, like the poor Paddies who eat potatoes.’

In Hereward the Wake, the hero finds refuge in Ireland among the Vikings, who are civilised and live in cities like Dublin, Waterford and Limerick, while the native Irish are deceitful, dishonest and treacherous.

It was only later in life that I realised Westward Ho! was also a lesson in what Kingsley saw as the faults and failings of Roman Catholicism in the Reformation period. Kingsley was also highly critical of Cardinal John Henry Newman, accusing him of untruthfulness and deceit, which prompted Newman to write his Apologia Pro Vita Sua.

And so, given a strong Irish perception of Kingsley as a writer who was prejudiced against Irish people and against Roman Catholics, it surprised me that a popular pub in Ireland could be called ‘Westward Ho!’ It is even more surprising as the pub is so close to a former Jesuit college and the novel repeatedly attacks the worst excesses of the Spanish Jesuits and the Inquisition.

But my childhood excitement at reading Kingsley’s Westward Ho! over half a century ago still returned with joy to my memory when I noticed the name of the pub in Mungret, and I have had a life-long affection and respect for many of the political and theological values of the Revd Charles Kingsley (1819-1875).

Kingsley was an Anglican priest, university professor, social reformer, historian and novelist. He is particularly associated with Christian Socialism, the working men’s college, and labour co-operatives that led to the working reforms of the progressive era.

Kingsley was born in Holne, Devon, the elder son of the Revd Charles Kingsley, and he spent his early childhood in Clovelly, Devon, where his father was the curate (1826-1832) and later the rector (1832-1836). He entered Magdalene College, Cambridge, in 1838 and graduated in 1842.

From 1844, he was Rector of Eversley, Hampshire. In 1860, he became Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge. Kingsley resigned from Cambridge in 1869 and from 1870 to 1873 he was a canon of Chester Cathedral. In 1873, he was made a canon of Westminster Abbey. When he died in 1875, he was buried in Saint Mary’s Churchyard, Eversley.

Kinglsey was a friend of prominent Victorians such as Charles Darwin, John Ruskin, Thomas Carlyle, Charles Dickens and Alfred Lord Tennyson. He was one of the first public figures to welcome Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859, and had a lengthy correspondence with Thomas Huxley about Huxley’s early ideas on agnosticism. Darwin added an edited version of Kingsley’s remarks to the next edition of On the Origin of Species, and when a heated dispute developed over human evolution, Kingsley gently satirised the debate, known as the Great Hippocampus Question, as the ‘Great Hippopotamus Question.’

His books include The Heroes (1856), a children’s book about Greek mythology, and several historical novels, including Hypatia (1853), Hereward the Wake (1865) and Westward Ho! (1855).

The Water-Babies (1863), a tale about a chimney sweep, illustrates Kingsley’s concern for social reform. Kingsley’s social and political values were influenced by Frederick Denison Maurice.

Westward Ho! is based on the adventures of an Elizabethan corsair Amyas Preston, who becomes Amyas Leigh in the novel. The book celebrates England’s victories over Spain in the Elizabethan era and is based on the real-life Preston Somers Expedition in 1595. This was a daring raid in which the Spanish inland colonial city of Caracas in South America was captured and plundered by English privateers led by Amyas Preston and George Somers.

In Westward Ho!, Amyas sets sail with Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh and other privateers to the New World, where they battle with the Spanish. Amyas is an unruly child and as a young man he follows Sir Francis Drake to sea. Amyas loves local beauty Rose Salterne, as does almost everyone else, and much of the novel involves the kidnap of Rose by a Spaniard.

Amyas spends time in the Caribbean coasts of Venezuela seeking gold, and eventually returns to England at the time of the Spanish Armada, finding his true love, the beautiful Indian maiden Ayacanora, in the process. Yet fate had blundered and brought misfortune into Amyas’s life, for not only had he been blinded by a freak bolt of lightning at sea, but he also loses his brother Frank Leigh and Rose Salterne, who were caught by the Spaniards and burned at the stake by the Inquisition.

The title of Charles Kingsley’s ‘Westward Ho!’ recalls from the traditional calls of boat taxis on the River Thames (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

A prominent theme of the novel is the 16th-century fear of Roman Catholics, and it repeatedly shows the Protestant English correcting the worst excesses of the Spanish Jesuits and the Inquisition.

The full title of the book is Westward Ho! Or The Voyages and Adventures of Sir Amyas Leigh, Knight of Burrough, in the County of Devon, in the reign of Her Most Glorious Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, Rendered into Modern English by Charles Kingsley. It is an elaborate title intended to reflect the mock-Elizabethan style of the novel.

But the title also recalls from the traditional call of boat taxis on the River Thames, which would call ‘Eastward Ho!’ and ‘Westward Ho!’ to show their destination and to attract passengers. The title is also recalls the play Westward Ho! (1604) by John Webster and Thomas Dekker, who satirised the perils of the westward expansion of London.

The tomb of Bishop George Augustus Selwyn in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Kingsley dedicated the novel to Sir James Brooke, Rajah of Sarawak, and Bishop George Selwyn, two leading Victorians he saw as representatives of English heroic values that harkened back to the Elizabethan era.

George Augustus Selwyn (1809-1878) was the first Anglican Bishop of New Zealand. He was Bishop of New Zealand (including Melanesia) from 1841 to 1858, and then Primate of New Zealand from 1858 to 1868. After returning to England, Selwyn was Bishop of Lichfield from 1868 until he died in 1878. He gave his name to Selwyn College in Cambridge. Sir James Brooke (1803-1868), was a born under the British Raj in India, who became the first White Rajah of Sarawak in Borneo.

Westward Ho! is set in Bideford in North Devon during the reign of Elizabeth I, and so became the inspiration for the unusual name of Westward Ho!, a seaside village near Bideford and the only place name in Britain to include an exclamation mark.

Because of the success and popularity of Kingsley’s novel and a growing Victorian fashion for seaside holidays, entrepreneurs in Bideford realised the opportunity to develop tourism in the area. The Northam Burrows Hotel and Villa Building Company was formed in 1863, and was chaired by Isaac Newton Wallop (1825-1891), 5th Earl of Portsmouth and the landlord of Enniscorthy, Co Wexford.

The company prospectus admitted ‘the recent publication of Professor Kingsley’s Westward Ho!’ had ‘excited increased public attention to the western part, more especially, of this romantic and beautiful coast. Nothing but a want of accommodation for visitors has hitherto prevented its being the resort of families seeking the advantages of sea bathing, combined with the invigorating breezes of the Atlantic …’

The hotel built by the company was named the Westward Ho! Hotel, and the adjacent villas were also named after the book. As the development expanded, the settlement also became known as Westward Ho! … with the exclamation mark.

The United Services College was founded in the village in 1874. Rudyard Kipling spent several of his childhood years at Westward Ho!, attending the United Services College, which has since been absorbed by Haileybury College, now in Hertfordshire. His collection of stories, Stalky & Co (1899), is based on his school days there.

The village has become more residential as holiday camps closed and houses and flats were built. Today, Westward Ho! is known for its surfing seas and the long expanse of clean sand. The seaward part of the village lies within the North Devon Coast, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

So, in some remote way, Westward Ho! not only brings me back to my childhood and early reading, but also has connections with Enniscorthy, Lichfield and Cambridge.

The Westward Ho! pub in Mungret first opened in 1896, and there was widespread concern when it closed its doors two years ago.

However, the management insisted at the time that it was ‘business as usual’ at the bar and that the premises had closed only to carry out renovations. It is the last remaining pub in Mungret village. The only bar facility in Mungret is the local GAA club, but it is often booked out for private events.

Catching glimpses of what
the Kingdom of Heaven is like

Evening lights at Stowe Pool and Lichfield Cathedral ... ‘a little snatch of heaven’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Saint Mary’s Rectory,
Askeatron, Co Limerick

30 July 2017

The Seventh Sunday after Trinity

11 a.m.:
The United Parish Eucharist

Readings: Genesis 29: 15-28; Psalm 105: 1-11, 45b or Psalm 128; Romans 8: 26-39; Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52.

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

Have you ever found yourself lost for words when it comes to describing a beautiful place you have visited?

If you have ever been to the Bay of Naples or Sorrento, how would you describe what you have seen to someone who has never travelled beyond Limerick and Kerry?

You might try comparing the first glimpse of Vesuvius with looking at the Galtymore Mountain or even Carrauntoohil … but even Carrauntoohil is not as high as Vesuvius, and it would hardly describe the experience of climbing the rocky path, looking into the caldera, or the overpowering whiffs of that sulphuric smell.

For someone who has been as far as Dublin, and been on the DART, you might want to compare the Bay of Naples with the vista in Dalkey or Killiney … but that hardly catches the majestic scope of the view.

You might want to compare the church domes with the great copper dome in Rathmines … but that goes nowhere near describing the intricate artwork on those Italian domes.

You might compare the inside of the duomo in Amalfi with the inside of your favourite parish church … but you know you are getting nowhere near what you want to say.

And as for Capri … you are hardly going to write a romantic song about Tarbert or Aughunish Island, or even the stacks off Kilkee.

Comparisons never match the beauty of any place that offers us a snatch or a glimpse of heaven.

And yet, we know that the photographs on our phones, no matter how good they seem to be when we are taking them, never do justice to the places we have been once we get home.

We risk becoming bores either by trying to use inadequate words or inadequate images to describe experiences that we can never truly share with people unless they go there, unless they have been there too.

I suppose that helps to a degree to understand why Jesus keeps on trying to grasp at images that might help the Disciples and help us to understand what the Kingdom of God is like.

He tries to offer us a taste of the kingdom with a number of parables in this morning’s Gospel reading:

● The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed … (verse 31).

● The kingdom of heaven is like yeast … (verse 33).

● The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field … (verse 44).

● The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls … (verse 45).

● The kingdom of heaven is like a net in the sea … (verse 47).

‘Do they understand?’ They answer, ‘Yes.’ But how can they really understand, fully understand?

Some years ago, after a late Sunday lunch at the caf√© in Mount Usher in Co Wicklow, I posted some photographs of the gardens on my website. An American reader I have never met commented: ‘A little piece of heaven.’

We have a romantic imagination that confuses gardens with Paradise, and Paradise with the Kingdom of Heaven. But perhaps that is a good starting point, because I have a number of places where I find myself saying constantly: ‘This is a little snatch of heaven.’ They include:

● The road from Cappoquin out to my grandmother’s farm in West Waterford.

● The journey along the banks of the River Slaney between Ferns and Wexford.

● The view from the east end of Stowe Pool across to Lichfield Cathedral at sunset on a Spring evening.

● The Backs in Cambridge.

● Sunset behind at the Fortezza in Rethymnon on the Greek island of Crete.

● The sights and sounds on some of the many beaches I like to walk on regularly … here, I have introduced myself to Ballybunion, Beal and Kilkee, and there are the beaches along the east coast that I still return to, beaches in Achill, Crete … I could go on.

Sunset on the beach in Rethymnon earlier this month (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Already this year, I have managed to get back to many of these places.

At times, I imagine the Kingdom of Heaven must be so like so many of these places where I find myself constantly praising God and thanking God for creation and for re-creation.

But … but it’s not just that. And I start thinking that Christ does more than just paint a scene when he describes the kingdom of heaven. Looking at this morning’s Gospel reading again, I realise he is doing more than offering holiday snapshots or painting the scenery.

He tries to describe the Kingdom of Heaven in terms of doing, and not just in terms of being:

● Sowing a seed (verse 31);

● Giving a nest to the birds of the air (verse 32);

● Mixing yeast (verse 33);

● Turning small amounts of flour into generous portions of bread (verse 34);

● Finding hidden treasure (verse 44);

● Rushing out in joy (verse 44);

● Selling all that I have because something I have found is worth more – much, much more, again and again (verse 44, 46);

● Searching for pearls (verse 45);

● Finding just one pearl (verse 46);

● Casting a net into the sea (verse 47);

● Catching an abundance of fish (verse 47);

● Drawing the abundance of fish ashore, and realising there is too much there for personal needs (verse 48);

● Writing about it so that others can enjoy the benefit and rewards of treasures new and old (verse 52).

So there are, perhaps, four or five times as many active images of the kingdom than there are passive images.

Are our images of the kingdom passive or active? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

One of my favourite T-shirts, one I saw in the Plaka in Athens some years ago, says: ‘To do is to be, Socrates. To be is to do, Plato. Do-be-do-be-do, Sinatra.’

The kingdom is more about doing than being.

At the annual conference of the Anglican mission agency USPG the week before last I heard about a number of activities that, for me, offer snatches of what the kingdom is like:

1, Bishop David Hamid spoke about the work of Saint Paul’s Church, the Anglican Church in Athens, in partnership with USPG, working with refugees and asylum seekers who continue to arrive in desperate and heart-breaking circumstances on the Greek islands.

2, Bishop Margaret Vertue, from the Diocese of False Bay in the Western Cape, who spoke in her Bible studies each morning of how the Bible relates to the work of the Anglican Church in South Africa with victims of gender-based violence and people trafficking.

3, Rachel Parry, a USPG staff member, who spoke of Bishop Carlo Morales, Bishop of Ozamis in the Philippines who was arrested at gunpoint in May and is still languishing in jail, simply because of his commitment to working with the peace process in his own country.

4, Jo Musker-Sherwood, Director of Hope for the Future, who shared how her experience in mission with USPG has led her to work at lobbying politicians and empowering churches in the whole are of climate change.

5, Carlton Turner, who has moved from the Bahamas and the West Indies to Bloxwich in the Diocese of Lichfield as a vicar, and who talked about how God creates out of chaos, how God’s pattern for growing the Church is about entering chaos and bringing about something creative, something new.

Throughout that week, we were offered fresh and engaging signs of the ministry of Christ as he invites us to the banquet, as he invites us into the Kingdom – works that are little glimpses or snatches of what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.

This morning’s Eucharist, and the barbecue we are sharing afterwards, should, in their own ways, be glimpses of, snatches, of the heavenly banquet.

And this afternoon, this evening, whenever you go home after the barbecue, I challenge you to think of three places, three gifts in God’s creation, that offer you glimpses of the Kingdom of Heaven, and to think of three actions that for you symbolise Christ’s invitation into the Kingdom of Heaven.

Give thanks for these pearls beyond price, and share them with someone you love and cherish.

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

On the Backs in Cambridge at Sidney Sussex College Boathouse (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


Lord of all power and might,
the author and giver of all good things:
Graft in our hearts the love of your name,
increase in us true religion,
nourish us with all goodness,
and of your great mercy keep us in the same;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post-Communion Prayer:

Lord God,
whose Son is the true vine and the source of life,
ever giving himself that the world may live:
May we so receive within ourselves
the power of his death and passion
that, in his saving cup,
we may share his glory and be made perfect in his love;
for he is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
now and for ever.

Christ ‘is the true vine and the source of life, ever giving himself that the world may live’ … an icon of Christ the True Vine in the parish church in Piskopian√≥ in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Priest-in-Charge of the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes in the Diocese of Limerick, Killaloe and Ardfert. This sermon was prepared for the United Parish Eucharist in Askeaton on Sunday 30 July 2017.