04 October 2020

Religious diversity and pluralism
in a time of pandemic lockdown

Sandy’s Row Synagogue in London … antisemitism is a virus without a vaccine (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

I have a little (just a little) twinge of guilt in realising that during the pandemic lockdown I have bought so many books online. My eclectic buying ranges from Strangest Genius, the book by Lucy Costigan and Michael Cullen on the stained glass of Harry Clarke; to Jewtown, a collection of poetry by Simon Lewis, inspired by stories of the Jewish community in Cork.

In Catholic Staffordshire, Michael Greenslade shows how Roman Catholicism survived in Staffordshire more strongly than anywhere else in post-Reformation England except Lancashire. Prominent Recusant families in post-Elizabethan Staffordshire included the Aston, Biddulph, Clifford, Comberford, Draycott, Fitzherbert, Fowler, Giffard, Harcourt, Howard, Littleton, Perry, Stafford, Stanford, Sutton, Talbot, Weld and Whitgreave families.

Later members of the Wolseley family also became Roman Catholics through marriages with some of these families. Some early Irish connections with these Staffordshire Catholics include the marriages between the Dillon family and the heirs of the Stafford family and of the Lee family, Earls of Lichfield.

John Talbot (1791-1852), 16th Earl of Shrewsbury, who lived at Alton Towers and commissioned AWN Pugin to build many churches in Staffordshire, including Saint Giles’s Church in Cheadle, was once ‘the most prominent British Catholic of day.’

Lord Shrewsbury extended his family’s Irish connections when he married Maria Theresa Talbot, daughter of Thomas William Talbot of Castle Talbot, Co Wexford – an Irish branch of the Talbot family that were patrons of Pugin too.

The arms of the Talbot family, Earls of Shrewsbury, represented on the doors of Saint Giles’s Church in Cheadle, Staffordshire (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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Despite Irish connections by marriage and descent, the perceived wealth and social status of the Dillon-Lee, Fitzgerald, Talbot, Wolseley and other recusant families in Staffordshire, isolated them from the Irish silk weavers who arrived in the early 19th century, and the impoverished Irish immigrants who arrived in from the mid-19th century on.

The composition of Father John Kirk’s parish in Lichfield, for example, changed as a large number of Irish people moved into the Sandford Street area by the mid-19th century. New Irish workers were attracted to the Potteries by expanding local industries in the 1840s.

The Rugeley mission was described in 1847 as ‘paralysed with poverty.’ At Walsall, the priest said an early mass on Sunday mornings in 1851 ‘for poor people who from want of proper clothes do not like to appear out of doors at a later period of the day.’

The people who arrived in Staffordshire in a new ‘influx of Irish’ in the early 1850s were described by one priest as ‘mostly very destitute.’ Mother Margaret Hallahan, a Dominican nun who moved to Stone in 1853, described the area as ‘a complete range of dust hills. The people say it is the fag-end of the Potteries; I think it is the fag-end of the world.’

The old recusant families had become a minority within the Roman Catholic population of Staffordshire by the mid-19th century, and immigrant Irish families were becoming the majority. Today, the Roman Catholic population of Staffordshire is much more diverse, and descendants of those poor Irish immigrants are completely integrated into English life.

The Irish population in Lichfield in the mid-19th century was living mainly in the Sandford Street area (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

An Irish king of Albania?

Back in the 1980s, there was an old joke among journalists that it was a sure sign of folly to be the pretender to the throne of Albania; it was an even greater folly to go to Albania to claim that throne. But an Irish peer was offered the throne of Albania, possibly on three occasions, in the 1920s.

Lord Headley was one of the most prominent early converts to Islam in England, generations before Muslims arrived in significant numbers from India and Pakistan, and he was an early member of the Shah Jahan Mosque in Woking.

The mosque was built in 1889 as the first purpose-built mosque in Britain and is now an architectural treasure. It was the inspiration of a German-born orientalist, Gottlieb Wilhelm Leitner (1840-1899), and was built in the grounds of Leitner’s Oriental College.

The mosque was built in a ‘Persian-Saracenic Revival’ style, with a dome, minarets and a courtyard. It is described by the Pevsner Architectural Guides as ‘extraordinarily dignified.’ It was funded mainly by Shahjehan, Begum of Bhopal (1868-1901), one of only four women to become the Muslim royal ruler of Bhopal.

A prominent early member of the mosque in Woking was the Irish peer Rowland George Allanson Allanson-Winn (1855-1935), 5th Baron Headley. The title of Lord Headley, Baron Allanson and Winn, of Aghadoe in Co Kerry, dates back to 1797.

The Shah Jahan Mosque in Woking … Britain’s first purpose-built mosque (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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Lord Headley qualified as a barrister but later became a civil engineer. As an engineer, he superintended coastal defence works at Youghal, Co Cork, and Glenbeigh, Co Kerry, and carried out similar work north of Bray Harbour, Co Wicklow. When he stood as the Conservative candidate in South Kerry in 1892, he received only 86 votes. Later, he worked on building roads in India, and in 1902 and 1903 he won the Silver Medals of the Institute of Civil Engineers of Ireland.

The Arklow Harbour Commissioners appointed him the chief engineer for extending the south breakwater of the harbour in 1906. But his plans were abandoned the following year in favour of a different scheme by John Purser Griffith.

Lord Headley’s homes in Ireland were at Inseidin, Coliemore Road, Dalkey, and Glenbeigh, Killarney. When he inherited his family title in 1913, he also inherited the family estates in Co Kerry. That year, he converted to Islam and took the Muslim name Shaikh Rahmatullah al-Farooq. He set up the British Muslim Society, was the author of several books on Islam, and twice made the Hajj to Mecca.

Headley was declared bankrupt in 1922. A year later, he was offered the throne of Albania, along with $500,000 and an annual income of $50,000, but turned down the offer. He claimed to have been offered the throne of Albania on three occasions, but turned down each invitation, saying ‘the only thing that goes with it is trouble and the almost certainty of assassination.’

Lord Headley died on 22 June 1935, and was buried in Brookwood Cemetery, near Woking.

Inside the Shah Jahan Mosque in Woking … Lord Headley, an Irish peer from Co Kerry, was a prominent early member (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The virus without a vaccine

As we learn to live with the Covid-19 virus, there is another virus with no vaccine that has been spreading virulently across the world: the virus of antisemitism, ‘an ancient virus without an antidote or vaccine.’

This virus is described and analysed by Rabbi Julia Neuberger in her new book, Anti-Semitism: What it is. What it isn’t. Why it matters (Weidenfeld and Nicolson).

Julia Neuberger is known to many people in Ireland. She was Britain’s second female rabbi, has a house in west Cork and is a life peer. She points out that antisemitism runs deeply and more perversely that most religious prejudice, with catastrophic results. There are signs of a recent resurgence not only in Trump’s America but across Europe too.

In Europe this year, we have been marking the 75th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust. But antisemitism continues to find new expressions in every generation. After Michael Cohen’s incriminating testimony before Congress, Donald Trump is reported to have found a new way to fall back on a centuries-old trope when he said, ‘Jews always flip.’

The Labour Party once seemed to be the natural home for Jewish voters in Britain. But the exposure of antisemitism at many levels throughout the party, and Jeremy Corbyn’s perceived inability or unwillingness to deal with it was one of the contributing factors to Labour’s defeat at the general election last December.

The Jewish Chronicle devoted an entire front page to an appeal to non-Jews not to vote Labour for as long as it was led by Corbyn, and 24 public figures wrote to the Guardian saying they would not vote Labour because of the party’s problems with antisemitism.

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In Trump’s America, Jews have been shot to death at Shabbat prayer in synagogues by hate-filled white nationalists in Pittsburgh and Poway, California; and visibly Orthodox men and women have been violently attacked in Brooklyn and Monsey, New York, and shot down next door to a synagogue in Jersey City. The past year has brought the third-highest spike in antisemitism in the US on record.

In a speech to the Israeli American Council, Trump made several comments that drew criticism from the American Jewish Committee and other Jewish organisations for his ‘money references that feed age-old and ugly stereotypes.’

Trump’s language about immigrants and minorities; his reluctance to condemn white supremacists; and his opinion that there were ‘very fine people on both sides’ of the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia, combine to create an ugly climate.

In her book, How to Fight Anti-Semitism, Bari Weiss of the New York Times decries Trump’s ‘shameless and savage style of politics.’ Trump, she writes, ‘dismissed civility and decency as virtues for chumps, and cultivated a climate of rage and paranoia that has already proven deadly.’

The virus without a vaccine is just one more reason to watch next month’s presidential election with a mixture of hope and fear, anticipation and trepidation.

Bevis Marks Synagogue in London … antisemitism contributed to Labour’s defeat and the fall of Jeremy Corbyn (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Canon Patrick Comerford blogs at www.patrickcomerford.com. This feature was first published in the October 2020 edition of the ‘Church Review,’ the Dublin and Glendalough diocesan magazine.

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