07 September 2018

The joys of academic
research in CITI return at
an interfaith consultation

The Church of Ireland Theological Institute … the venue for today’s Interfaith Consultation

Patrick Comerford

It is more than a year since I left the staff of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. But I was back in CITI in Dublin today [7 September 2018] to take part in an interfaith Consultation organised by the Interfaith Working Group of the Church of Ireland.

The main speaker was Bishop Toby Howarth, Bishop of Bradford, who has worked extensively on interfaith relations in the Church of England. He spoke in the morning on the report Generous Love: the truth of the Gospel and the call to dialogue, produced by the Anglican Communion Network for Inter Faith Concerns (Nifcon) and discussed how the Church of England approaches interfaith issues.

Bishop Toby Howarth has worked extensively on interfaith relations in the Church of England. He was born in Kenya, and before his appointment as Bishop of Bradford, he worked in Pakistan, was a tutor at Crowther Hall and the Selly Oak colleges in Birmingham, Inter-Faith Adviser to the Bishop of Birmingham, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Secretary for Inter-Religious Affairs and the National Adviser for Inter-Religious Affairs for the Church of England.

After lunch, I was invited to chair the session at which the Revd Suzanne Cousins, of Moville, Co Donegal, presented her MTh dissertation, Generous Love in Multi-Faith Ireland, which was published earlier this year and was launched by Archbishop Michael Jackson in CITI [14 March 2018].

I had the privilege of supervising Suzanne’s research at CITI and TCD, and it is always a supervisor’s particular joy when a student’s dissertation is recommended for publication as a book by both the external examiner – in this case the Revd Dr Adrian Chatfield of Ridley Hall, Cambridge – and the Court of Examiners.

While she was working on this dissertation in 2015-2016, Suzanne also received the Oulton Prize for Patristics, which enabled her to join me at the summer school in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies. The topic for the summer school that year was ‘Christian Faith, Identity and Otherness: Possibilities and Limitations of Dialogue in Ecumenical and Interfaith Discourse’ [31 August to 2 September 2015].

She quotes me in a number of places in her book, and she is generous when she says in her acknowledgements when she says: ‘I am especially grateful to my academic supervisor, the Revd Canon Patrick Comerford, for generously sharing with me his time, wisdom and expertise, and for his example of living engagement’ (p 5).

Her book identifies theological and pastoral challenges and concerns for clergy assisting their parishioners in everyday Christian-Muslim relationships. It is the eighth in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute’s ‘Braemor Studies’ series and is published by Church of Ireland Publishing (CIP).

This dissertation was a journey for both of us. It took Suzanne to many places I too enjoy, from Istanbul to Cambridge. Reading it once again this week in preparation for today’s consultation.

Listening to her presentation this afternoon also brought back many memories of the process of supervision, many cups of coffee in Dublin, and even discussions in Sidney Sussex College and in cafés in Cambridge.

Earlier this morning, at our opening worship, I was asked to read from the Old Testament: ‘For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering; for my name is great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts’ (Malachi 1: 11).

Later in the afternoon, the consultation discussed and ways forward for the Church of Ireland in the area of interfaith work, and we explored ways we can move forward towards a better future for all.

Today’s consultation was organised by the Church of Ireland Interfaith Working Group, which is chaired by the Bishop of Limerick and Killaloe, the Right Revd Kenneth Kearon. It had been planned for last March but was rescheduled because of severe weather problems.

The report Generous Love, which was central to our discussions today, is available HERE.

A book brings back memories of many cups of coffee and discussions in cafés in Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Exploring the monastic ruins
at the abbey founded by
Saint Canice in Aghaboe

The ruins at Aghaboe Abbey, Co Laois, seen from the west (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Although many Irish counties have a number of cathedrals – Cork has five and Galway has six – Laois, Leitrim, Louth and Wicklow are the only counties in Ireland without working cathedrals. But Louth has Saint Patrick’s in Dundalk which is known as a pro-cathedral, and Wicklow has the cathedral and monastic ruins at Glendalough.

So, on the way from Kilkenny to Limerick last week, two of us stopped at the monastic ruins at Agahboe Abbey, once one of the most important abbeys and priories in Co Laois, and for a brief few years the cathedral of the Diocese of Ossory.

Entering the main church building through the west door (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Saint Canice founded an abbey at Aghaboe around 576 or 577. It was in the Kingdom of Ossory whose first king, Óengus Osrithe, lived in the second century. In his Vita Sancti Columbae (Life of Saint Columba), Adomnán refers to the abbey, saying that its name means ‘a little field of the cow.’

In time, the abbey at Aghaboe developed into a major centre of learning, commerce and agriculture. Monks from the abbey included Saint Virgilius (Feargal), who was Abbot of Aghaboe before he left Ireland and built the first cathedral in Salzburg in the eighth century. He was canonised in 1233.

The Annals of Inisfallen note that ‘Scandlán, grandson of Tadc, abbot of Achad Bó,’ died in year 782.

Aghaboe was plundered by the Vikings in 913 and rebuilt in 1052, when the relics of Saint Canice were enshrined in the abbey.

The monks of Aghaboe founded a second house in Kilkenny, the capital of Ossory. When the Synod of Rathbreasail first divided Ireland into territorial dioceses in 1111, both Aghaboe and Kilkenny were included in the Diocese of Ossory, with the bishop’s seat in Kilkenny, where the church became Saint Canice’s Cathedral.

The decorated piscina in the main church in Aghaboe (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The abbey was burned again burned in 1116. The abbey was rebuilt in 1189. The monastery was burned again in 1234, and was rebuilt as an Augustinian priory.

Aghaboe was destroyed again in 1346 during an attack on the Norman castle on the adjoining motte. The records say ‘the one-eyed Diarmaid Mac Giollaphádraig (Dermot FitzPatrick) ... aided by the Uí Céarbhail ... burned the town of Aghaboe and the cemetery and church and cruelly forsaking Saint Canice, abbot, patron of the neighbourhood and found of the place, he, like a degenerate son to his father, burnt and completely destroyed with the cruelest fire, the saint’s shrine with his bones and relics.’

However, this burning may have been accidental. Aghaboe Abbey had been long under the protection of the FitzPatricks of Upper Ossory and it way have been burned during a FitzPatrick attack on Norman fortifications next to the abbey.

An ogee-shaped recess in the south transept in Aghaboe (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The ruins seen on the site today are part of a Dominican friary founded in 1382 by Finghan FitzPatrick, Lord of Upper Ossory. The friary was suppressed in 1540 with the dissolution of the monastic houses at the Reformation.

The ruined friary church has a carved, three-light window at the east end, and despite the stark appearance of the ruins, carved ogee recesses and piscinas have survived in the main church and the south transept.

In the ruins of the church in Aghaboe (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The ruins were restored in 1984. That year, Dr Jakob Mayr, Bishop of Salzburg visited the abbey in honour of Saint Vergilius. President Mary McAleese visited the abbey in 1994, and the Austrian ambassador, Dr Paul Leifer, visited in 2001.

Saint Canice’s Church was built in 1818 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Saint Canice’s, the Church of Ireland parish church, is a detached, four-bay, Georgian Gothic church built beside the abbey ruins 200 years ago in 1818. It stands where that priory once stood, and incorporates fragments salvaged from the Augustinian and Dominican buildings, including a mediaeval carved limestone head on the east side of the doorway.

The small bell-tower has the same proportions as one from the 1200s, and the upper stage is on an octagonal plan. A mediaeval octagonal font is also on the site. Nearby are the tree-covered remains of a Norman motte.

Aghaboe is part of the Rathdowney Union of Parishes in the Diocese of Ossory (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory) in the Church of Ireland, and the Revd Richard Seymour-Whiteley has been the Rector since 2015.

Portion of a mediaeval baptismal font in Saint Canice’s Churchyard (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

But, was Aghaboe ever a cathedral?

There are claims that the Diocese of Ossory was originally based at Aghaboe and that it was later transferred to Kilkenny, or that Aghaboe was the cathedral of the diocese from 1111 to 1200.

However, the historian John Bradley argues convincingly that these claims are based on a 16th century misinterpretation of a transfer of property in the 13th century.

So, it seems Laois never had a cathedral, and both Laois and Leitrim remain the only counties in Ireland without a cathedral, whether functioning or in ruins.

The tower of the parish church seen through the East Window of the ruined friary church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)