Sunday, 4 April 2021

An Anglican missionary
nun and martyr in Korea
who was born in Ireland

Mother Mary Clare, an Irish-born Anglican martyr, is remembered in a room at Saint Columba’s House, Woking (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

After a year of pandemic lockdowns and partial lockdowns, I may be on the brink of being ‘all-Zoomed-out’ … but for the fact that many Zoom meetings introduce me to amazing and committed people I might not meet otherwise.

Recently, I was involved in a ‘virtual meeting’ arranged by the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) with Anglican priests and bishops from the Philippines and from South Korea. The meeting with four Korean priests reminded me of the Whitty sisters from Ireland, including an Anglican nun who died a martyr’s death during the Korean War.

Mother Mary Clare (1883-1950) was born Clare Emma Whitty in Fenloe, near Newmarket-on-Fergus, during one of many family holidays in Co Clare. Her sister, Sophia Angel St John Whitty (1877-1924), was born in Dublin and was a celebrated artist and woodcarver.

Their father, Dr Richard Whitty (1844-1897), was from Rathvilly, Co Carlow. At least three members of the Whitty family were Church of Ireland priests in Rathvilly; another branch of the family included three Rectors of Kilrush, Co Clare.

The Whitty sisters were cousins of Catherine O’Brien (1881-1963), the stained-glass artist; the Irish nationalist historian Alice Stopford-Green (1847-1929); and the controversial hymnwriter Stopford Brooke (1832-1916).

The two Whitty sisters spent much of their childhood at Hillcot in Whitechurch, Co Dublin, but family holidays were spent in Co Clare. When they were still children, Dr Whitty qualified as a medical doctor, the family moved to Limerick, and the family lived at No 11 The Crescent before moving to Essex later.

No 11 The Crescent, Limerick … for a few years the childhood home of the Anglican martyr and missionary nun Mother Mary Clare and her sister the artist Sophia Angel St John Whitty (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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Clare Emma Whitty studied in Paris and became a teacher in Birmingham. She joined the Anglican Community of Saint Peter in Kilburn and took her vows in 1915 as Sister Mary Clare. Bishop Mark Trollope (1862-1930), the Anglican Bishop of Korea, invited her to start a society of Korean sisters, and she founded the Society of the Holy Cross in Seoul in 1925. She became the first Mother Superior in 1929, and after spending World War II in exile in England, returned to Korea in 1947.

On the outbreak of the Korean War, she remained in Seoul. When the North Koreans captured Seoul in June 1950 she was interned, and as they retreated Mother Mary Clare and other missionaries were force-marched into North Korea. The ‘Death March’ was over 100 miles in winter, with little food or warm clothing. Mother Mary Clare died on 6 November 1950 was buried in the north-west part of North Korea by five French-speaking Roman Catholic sisters who dug her shallow grave.

Mother Mary Clare’s sister, Sophia St John Whitty, was a leading figure in the Arts and Crafts movement. She designed carved walnut figures for Christ Church, Bray, including two angels and Saint Patrick. She died in 1924 and was buried in Powerscourt.

Mother Mary Clare’s former community now runs Saint Columba’s House, a retreat house and conference centre in Woking where I have stayed during a meeting of USPG trustees. There, one of the guest rooms remembers her with the name ‘Mary Clare.’

By the 1880s, the Whitty family had moved to The Crescent, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

A racist fraudster
from Rathmines


I have written in recent months about the bogus and competing claims made by Victorian clergy in Ireland to be chiefs of the O’Hanlon Clan and to hold the title of ‘The O’Hanlon,’ and about Lady Fitzgerald who lived in Victorian Lichfield, whose husband and sons used an Irish title to which they had no legitimate claims.

But the most preposterous charlatan and conceited claimant to titles I have come across must be Robert Gair or Gayre (1907-1996), the Rathmines-born son of a pastry baker who claimed he was a Scottish clan chief and laird.

This pretender was neither Scottish nor a clan chief. He was born in Dublin, was a charlatan and confidence trickster who invented his own Scottish clan and his own genealogical charts and orders of chivalry. He set up and edited his own pseudo-scientific journals, The Armorial and Mankind Quarterly, to advance his claims in subjects as diverse as heraldry and anthropology.

Robert Gayre was actually born George Robert Gair on 6 August 1907 at 4 Woodland Villas, Rathmines. His father, Robert William Gair (1875-1957) from Shelbourne Road, and his mother, Clara Hart from Serpentine Avenue, had been married in Dublin on 28 July 1906.

Robert Gair, or Gayre, who was born in Dublin in 1907, spent decades embellishing his pedigree and acquiring heraldic accessories and concocting colourful but bogus pedigrees and genealogical claims.

George Robert Gair, aka Robert Gayre of Gayre and Nigg … born in Rathmines, he held preposterous and racist views

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Robert Gair studied anthropology at Exeter College, Oxford, but there is no record that he received a degree at Oxford. Later, he claimed three doctorates from three Italian universities, all dating from 1943-1944, when Britain was at war with Fascist Italy, and after World War II he assumed the rank of ‘lieutenant-colonel.’

In 1947, he self-published Gayre’s Booke: Being a History of the Family of Gayre. There, he set out a bogus ancestry that he claimed established him as the chieftain of the Clan of Gayre. However, no clan or sept by that name is mentioned in any record prior to Gayre’s claims.

At 50, he changed his surname from Gair to ‘Gayre of Gayre and Nigg’ in 1957, bought a castle in Scotland, and assumed the fraudulent and fictitious feudal title of Baron of Lochoreshyre. He claimed knighthoods, roles, medals and gongs in a diverse range of chivalric orders with differing grades of legitimacy and credibility.

But he also held extreme views that made him an undisguised anti-Semitic racist. He nurtured links with the National Front, former members of Mosley’s blackshirts, Nazi supporters and advocates of apartheid, and he regularly visited South Africa and Ian Smith’s Rhodesia. When he was challenged, he lost libel actions against the New Statesman and the Sunday Times.

He engaged in Ruritanian intrigues with pretenders to the throne of France, the would-be head of the House of Bourbon-Two-Sicilies, and the deposed king of Yugoslavia. The scope and magnitude of his fraudulent claims did not come to light until after he died on 10 February 1996.

The pretentious coat-of-arms used by George Robert Gair after he changed his name to Robert Gayre or Gayre and Nigg

A USPG bishop who
challenged apartheid


At the end of each meeting of USPG trustees, we remember in prayer former missionaries, staff members and supporters who have died since the previous meeting. At our latest ‘virtual’ meeting, those we remembered included the Revd James Potts, who had been a missionary in Tanzania, and Bishop Humphrey Taylor, a former USPG general secretary.

James Potts was a missionary in Tanzania for 12 years, where he was involved in theological education. He later lived in retirement in Lichfield, and I got to know him at Lichfield Cathedral, where he regularly presided at the mid-day Eucharist in the cathedral, in the Lady Chapel or at the High Altar.

In retirement, he was also the chaplain of Dr Milley’s Hospital on Beacon Street, Lichfield. We last met at the mid-day Eucharist in Lichfield Cathedral many months ago. He died on 8 February at the age of 90.

Bishop Humphrey Taylor (1938-2021) was a former USPG general secretary (1984-1991) and later the Suffragan Bishop of Selby.

He went with SPG to Malawi, where he was the Rector of Saint Peter’s, Lilongwe. But President Hastings Banda expelled the Humphrey family from Malawi in 1971. Back in England, he was chaplain at Bishop Grosseteste College in Lincoln and worked for the General Synod Board of Education.

Dr Milley’s Hospital, Lichfield … the Revd James Potts was appointed chaplain in 2010 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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Humphrey Taylor returned to USPG as Missions Programmes Secretary in 1980 and General Secretary in 1984. He visited South Africa on behalf of USPG in 1982, with Geoffrey Cleaver and Roger Symon, visiting 15 Anglican dioceses and people and groups, from parish level to the Provincial Standing Committee of the Anglican Church.

Their joint report expressed admiration for a Church that was ‘strong in numbers, rich in talent, efficiently led, active in evangelism, powerful in stewardship, deeply involved in social concern.’ But they were also worried that the Church was part of the status quo and pointed out: ‘Despite the black majority (80%) in its church membership, of seventeen diocesan bishops … only six were black.’

The close links between USPG and the Anglican church in South Africa made USPG a respected source of information for the media, and USPG was instrumental in setting up the South Africa Crisis Information Group.

When the life of Bishop Simeon Nkoane was threatened in 1986, Humphrey Taylor and USPG arranged a high-profile visit to South Africa by Bishop Keith Sutton of Lichfield as the representative of Archbishop Robert Runcie of Canterbury.

Humphrey Taylor accompanied Archbishop Runcie to the enthronement of Archbishop Desmond Tutu in Cape Town, and it is said Bishop Taylor wrote Archbishop Runcie’s sermon on the occasion.

Archbishop Tutu made Humphrey Taylor a Provincial Canon of Southern Africa in 1989 for his ‘inestimable contribution’ to the life and work of the Church there. After 11 years at USPG, he became Suffragan Bishop of Selby in 1991. He died on Ash Wednesday, 17 February, at the age of 82.

Bishop Humphrey Taylor … instrumental in the USPG response to apartheid in South Africa

This two-page feature was published in April 2021 in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough

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