Saturday, 23 January 2021

Charles Gray-Stack (1912-1985): a former
Dean of Ardfert and Precentor of Limerick

Nantenan Glebe near Askeaton … Charles Gray-Stack lived there in the 1950s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The death of the Revd Martha Gray-Stack (1935-2021) earlier this week reminded me that her late husband, Dean Charles Gray-Stack (1912-1985), was one of my predecessors as Precentor of Limerick, and long before me had been in ministry in the Rathkeale Group of Parish in the 1940s and 1950s. He was also a well-known contributor to the The Irish Times in the 1950s and 1960s.

When a project looking at my predecessors as Precentors of Limerick was postponed some months ago due to pandemic limits on public events, I thought it might still be interesting to continue looking at past precentors in a number of blog postings.

In earlier postings, I recalled some previous precentors who had been accused of ‘dissolute living’ or being a ‘notorious fornicator’ (Awly O Lonysigh), or who were killed in battle (Thomas Purcell). There were those who became bishops or archbishops: Denis O’Dea (Ossory), Richard Purcell (Ferns) and John Long (Armagh).

There was the tragic story too of Robert Grave, who became Bishop of Ferns while remaining Precentor of Limerick, but – only weeks after his consecration – drowned with all his family in Dublin Bay as they made their way by sea to their new home in Wexford (read more HERE).

In the 17th century, two members of the Gough family were also appointed Precentors of Limerick. In all, three brothers in this family were priests in the Church of Ireland and two were priests in the Church of England, and the Rathkeale branch of the family was the ancestral line of one of Ireland’s most famous generals (read more HERE).

In the mid to late 18th century, two members of the Maunsell family were Precentors of Limerick: Richard Maunsell (1745-1747) and William Thomas Maunsell (1786-1781) (read more HERE).

They were related to Canon John Warburton who was, perhaps, the longest-ever holder of the office, being Precentor of Limerick for 60 years from 1818 until he died to 1878 (red more HERE).

Earlier this week, I looked at Warburton’ successor, Canon Frederic Charles Hamilton, who provides an interesting links with both this group of parishes, with the Mariners’ Church in Dún Laoghaire and the Anglican mission agency SPG, now USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), of which I am a trustee. (see HERE).

As I move to the end of the 19th and the early 20th century, Hamilton’s successor as Precentor, Francis Meredyth, was a published poet and dramatist, and some of the Precentors of Limerick were also among the last Deans of Ardfert, including Robert Archibald Adderley (1870-1946), who also served in Listowel and Ballybunion (see HERE).

Charles Maurice Gray-Stack was born in Armagh, the son of the Revd William Bagot Stack (1878-1953), a grandson of Charles Maurice Stack (1825-1914), Bishop of Clogher (1886-1902), and a descendant of the Stack family of Stackstown and Crotta, Co Kerry.

The Stacks were a prominent clerical family in the Church of Ireland. The bishop’s father, the Revd Edward Stack, and grandfather, Canon Walter Bagot, were both priests, while his brothers included Canon Thomas Stack (1810-1871) was an SPG missionary in New South Wales before moving to Sydney; and the Revd Richard Stack (1815-1851), curate of Saint Peter’s and known for his work as a ‘slum priest’ in Dublin.

The Revd William Bagot Stack (1878-1953) had worked in British colonial administration in Central Africa and was a lieutenant in the Royal Irish Fusiliers before being ordained deacon in 1907 and priest in 1908. Later in life he was the Rector of Dundalk (1934-1941) and Rector of Inistioge, Co Kilkenny (1941-1946) in the Diocese of Ossory.

He was educated at Campbell College Belfast and Trinity College Dublin (BA, MA), and was ordained deacon in 1937 and priest in 1939. He served his first curacies in Birr (1937-1938) and then in the dioceses of Ferns and Ossory – Ardamine (1938-1940), Kilnehue and Kilpipe (1940-1941) and Inistioge (1941-1944), where his father was the rector.

He then moved to the Diocese of Limerick and Ardfert, and for five years was the diocesan curate in Ardfert and Aghadoe and curate of Killarney (1944-1949). While he was there, he obtained a confirmation of the coat of arms of Bishop Charles Maurice Stack for the bishop’s descendants in 1948.

He moved to the Rathkeale and Nantenan Union of Parishes as curate in 1949, when Maurice Talbot, a future Dean of Limerick, was the rector, and lived for five years at Nantenan Glebe. During his time here, he changed his surname from Stack to Gray-Stack, recalling his maternal grandfather, Dr Robert Gray of Armagh.

He moved to Co Kerry as a parish rector in 1953, first in Kilgobbin (1953-1961), which included Dingle from 1957, and then in Kenmare and Sneem (1961-1985), which included Waterville and Valentia from 1984.

In the cathedral chapter, he was Prebendary of Ballycahane (1962-1963), Precentor of Limerick (1963-1966), and Chancellor of Limerick, Prebendary of Kilpeacon and Dean of Ardfert (1966-1985). Of course, the title of Dean of Ardfert was an honour or sinecure, often offered to the most senior rector in the Diocese of Ardfert: the cathedral in Ardfert had ceased to function for a long time, and the church there closed in the 1940s.

He married Martha Mary Stewart-Clarke from Castledawson in Saint George’s Church, Belfast, in 1959.

Charlie Gray-Stack became a national figure for his regular contributions to The Irish Times and to RTÉ. He was known as a liturgist and for his engagement in social affairs. He was prominent in ecumenical activities, especially the Glenstal and Greenhills ecumenical conferences.

When he died on 25 July 1985, he was still Rector of Kenmare and Dean of Ardfert, and his funeral at Saint Patrick’s Church, Kenmare, was featured on the RTÉ news.

His widow, Martha-Gray Stack, was ordained deacon in 1990 and priest in 1991. She was an NSM curate in Saint Mary’s Cathedral and Saint Michael’s Church, Limerick (1990-1993), Rector of Clara (1993-2000), and the chaplain of Kingston College (2000-2010) in Mitchelstown, Co Cork. She died earlier this week (21 January 2021).

Saint Brendan’s Cathedral, Ardfert, Co Kerry … Charles Gray-Stack was the Dean of Ardfert in 1966-1985 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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