31 December 2022

A year of war and peace,
an end to old certainties
and of new beginnings

The Lichfield Peace Walk outside Lichfield Cathedral in August (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

So this is Christmas
And what have you done?
Another year over
And a new one just begun

John Lennon was the first Beatle to release a Christmas song after the breakup of the Beatles. After two years of activism by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, this song became a powerful protest song against the Vietnam War. The backing vocals come from the Harlem Community Choir, and was a powerful choice of children’s voices to deliver an anti-war message.

The release of the single ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’ was delayed in Britain until November 1972, and it peaked at No 4 50 years ago. In a poll by ITV ten years ago in December 2012, it was voted ‘The Nation’s Favourite Christmas Song.’

Despite John Lennon’s yearning half a century ago, war is not over. Another year is over and a new one is about to begin. But the past year has been dominated by the war that began with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and it looks like continuing for the coming year, if not for years to come.

During the past year, I attended demonstrations against the war in both Wexford and Dublin, spoke at anti-war protest in Milton Keynes, and continued to be involved in CND and the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship.

The war is affecting every aspect of life. Russia banned entry to the Taoiseach Micheál Martin and more than 50 other senior officials in response to Western sanctions over Ukraine. Governments throughout Europe are seeking to shift the blame for the rising costs of food and fuel onto the war. Every town and parish on these islands has been challenged to respond to the needs of Ukrainian refugees, and I hope to visit Budapest and Helsinki in the coming weeks to see the response to Ukrainian refugees by the Anglican mission agency USPG and other church agencies.

The past year in Britain saw the collapse of Boris Johnson’s political career – and perhaps even the collapse of the Tory vote and the implosion of the Conservative party – after private parties in Downing Street that ignored Covid lockdown restrictions. This has been the year of three Prime Ministers: Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak. In Ireland, it has been the year of two Taoisigh: Leo Varadkar took over as Taoiseach from Micheál Martin on 17 December.

The platinum jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II was soon followed by her death and the accession of King Charles III. It is interesting that the values he chose to emphasise in his first broadcast Christmas address include cultural diversity, inter-religious co-operation, the value of the NHS and the role of volunteers in food banks, homeless shelters and care homes.

This was also the year when everyone became aware of the imminent and looming threats posed by climate change. In Britain, this was a summer with record-breaking 40°C heatwave, while winter is chilly, windy, wet and sometimes snowy.

The cost of living crisis, marked by high inflation and rising energy bills and food prices, and the problems of households needing more air conditioning in summer and heating in winter, create a toxic cocktail that exacerbates both poverty and climate change.

It was a year too for taking the knee because Black Lives Matter. The statue of Edward Colston was toppled in Bristol, and it was good to observe personally how the statue of Cecil Rhodes has become an embarrassment in Oxford and the bust of Sir John Cass has been removed from an alcove in Saint Botolph without Aldgate Church in London.

Covid-19 is a continuing presence globally, and I fell a victim to the pandemic in March.

This was also the year of the World Cup. Yet despite the promises from all media outlets that this would provide them with an opportunity to expose Qatar and its abuse of human rights, including the rights of women, migrant workers and political dissenters, those promises were not delivered.

Nor should the World Cup overshadow other exciting sporting moments this year: on 5 November, the Irish rugby team had a 19-16 win over the reigning world champions South Africa in the Aviva Stadium in Dublin.

This year saw the death of Vicky Phelan, who died at the age of 48 on 14 November after a long and brave public campaign on cervical cancer checks.

Listening to John Lennon’s song from 50 years ago I am reminded that this was a year of anniversaries too: the centenary of the birth of the modern Irish state as the Irish Free State on 6 December 1922; the centenary of the publication of both James Joyce’s Ulysses and TS Eliot’s The Waste Land in 1922, and of the birth of the poet Philip Larkin that year; and the 50th anniversary of the death of Thomas Merton.

This year also brought an announcement of plans to reopen the Limerick to Foynes railway line for 2025. During my five years in West Limerick, I was vocal in advocating for this. It is a pity the line never reopened in time for me to enjoy its benefits while I was living in West Limerick.

With Canon John Bartlett in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

I retired from parish ministry on 31 March after more than five years as Priest-in-Charge of the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes, which includes Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Castletown Church, Kilcornan, and Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, Co Limerick, and Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin (Tarbert), Co Kerry.

At the same time, I retired as Precentor of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, Saint Flannan’s Cathedral, Killaloe, Co Clare, and Saint Brendan’s Cathedral, Clonfert, Co Galway, as Diocesan Director of Ministerial Education, and as a member of the General Synod of the Church of Ireland and the Interfaith Working Group. Compassionate leave in March forced me to cancel a commitment to preaching in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, on Saint Patrick’s Day.

My parish ministry included being chaplain to hospitals in Newcastle West, Co Limerick, and Listowel, Co Kerry, chairing the board of Church Street School in Rathkeale, and membership of the secondary school boards in Coláiste Mhuire (Saint Mary’s College), Askeaton, Coláiste na Trócaire, Rathkeale, and Hazelwood College, Dromcolliher.

Before retiring, I was a member of the Episcopal Electoral College that elected Bishop Michael Burrows as Bishop of the newly-united diocese of Tuak, Limerick and Killaloe.

I celebrated my 70th birthday in Birmingham in January. But my health took a turn for the worse in March when I suffered a stroke in Milton Keynes. It was the gravest health scare I have experienced since I was diagnosed with pulmonary sarcoidosis. I was also diagnosed Covid positive in hospital in Milton Keynes. From Milton Keynes University Hospital I was transferred to John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, and later had a post-stroke procedure in hospital in Sheffield following an earlier consultation there.

These experiences through the year enhanced my appreciation of the NHS, but also intensified my feelings about how the NHS is not being properly funded and resourced by a government that prefers to give tax breaks to the rich and the corrupt.

I have settled into life in Stony Stratford, on the edges of Milton Keynes, since April. I am now up-to-date with my Covid-19 vaccinations, and am recovering well from my stroke thanks to loving attention and care.

I have travelled back and forth between England and Ireland throughout the year, with my last visit to Dublin shortly before Christmas to see family members.

Circumstances mean planned visits to Crete in April and Croatia ind May wer cancelled, and this is one of the few years – apart from the years of travel restrictions introduced by Covid – that I have not been in Greece since the late 1980s.

However, there was a mid-week break in Malta in January ahead of my birthday, and two days in Venice with Charlotte in July.

In Ireland, I have stayed in Askeaton, Dublin and – due to missed flights in Dublin – in Belfast. There were a few return visits to Wexford, and visits too to Galway, Co Clare and Co Kerry.

A return visit to the chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield, this year (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

There were two return visits to Lichfield and Tamworth, when Charlotte and I stayed in the Hedgehog Vintage Inn in Lichfield and in the Castle Hotel in Tamworth, and I stayed with a friend in Lichfield.

In Lichfield, I visited Lichfield Cathedral and the Chapel in Saint John’s Hospital, which have been my ‘spiritual homes’ since my teens, and Saint Chad’s Church and Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Farewell. In Tamworth, Charlotte and I were given a personalised guided tour of the Moat House, the former Comberford family home on Lichfield Street, and we visited the Comberford Chapel in Saint Editha’s Church.

Throughout the year there have been about half a dozen visits to Birmingham, more than a dozen visits to London, and visits to Oxford, Sheffield and York, with visits to the cathedrals in Oxford, Southwark, Birmingham, Lichfield and Sheffield and to York Minster.

Stony Stratford and Milton Keynes, with their public transport connections, have provided opportunities to explore neighbouring villages, towns and cities, and to travel through the surrounding countryside. Apart from my stay in the John Radcliffe Hospital in March and April, I have been in Oxford to visit Christ Church, Pusey House, Oxford Synagogue, the Ashmolean Museum, a number of Oxford colleges and college chapels and for lunch with a visiting friend from Pakistan.

My country walks in England this year have included walks by the River Ouse, the Balancing Lakes and Willen Lake, and exploring the neighbouring towns, villages and churches of Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire and Oxfordshire, including Cosgrove, Passenham, Winslow – where I visited Comerford Way – Old Stratford, Calverton, Wolverton, Bletchley, Newport Pagnell, Aylesbury, Buckingham, Banbury and Bloxham, where I visited Cumberford. During one visit to Lichfield, I also walked along Cross in Hand Lane through the countryside of south Staffordshire, to Farewell.

In Ireland, there were walks on the beach in Bray and Wicklow town in Co Wikclow; Courtown, Kilmuckridge and Morriscastle, Co Wexford; Loughshinny and Skerries, Co Dublin; Lahinch, Fintramore, Drumcreehy, and the Cliffs of Moher in Co Clare. There were walks along the quays in Wexford and Galway, by the River Dodder in Firhouse and Rathfarnham and the Liffey in Dublin, by the River Slaney in Ferrycarrig and Wexford, by the Shannon in Limerick, the Deel in Askeaton and Rathkeale, and the River Arra in Newcastle West, Co Limerick, by the Corrib in Galway, by the Falls and Cascades in Ennistymon, Co Clare, and by the shoreline in Kinvara, Co Galway.

With Metropolitan Kallistos Ware at an IOCS summer school in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, a few years ago

The world paid attention to the deaths of Queen Elizabeth II, Pele and former Pope Benedict this year. For me, a number of friends and colleagues died this year. Friends from CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) who died this year included Bruce Kent, who I have known since 1976, Bill McSweeney, who also supervised my post-graduate research at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Rhoda MacManus, who I have known since she lived in Wexford in the 1970s, and who was an early supporter of CND.

Academic friends and colleagues who died this year include Canon John Bartlett, who was the Principal of the Church of Ireland Theological College when I was training for ordination in 1999-2000 and later a colleague on the chapter of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin; Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) of Oxford, who was one of my lecturers in Cambridge at the Institute of Orthodox Studies; and Dr Christine Mangala Frost, who taught on several seminars at IOCS.

Friends from Wexford who died this year include Gerry Breen, Nicky Furlong, Hilary Murphy – I worked with all three in the Wexford People and all three were colleagues too as Wexford historians. Dr Jane Lyons, the Co Laois genealogist, also died this year.

Norman Watson, Hugh O’Shaughnessy, Dervla Murphy and Peter Byrne who died this year all worked for and wrote for The Irish Times during my many years there.

Tom McNamara of the Boley House, Keel, was a generous and genial friend for many years on Achill Island.

Along with Canon John Bartlett and Metropolitan Kallistos, other clerical friends and colleagues who died this year include Canon Cecil Wilson, who worked with during my four years at CMS; the Revd Trevor Kelly, one of my former students; the Very Revd George Chambers, former Dean of Limerick (1981-1986); the Ven Malcolm Shannon, former Archdeacon of Limerick (2001-2009); the Very Revd Alistair Grimason, Dean of Tuam and a member of the Episcopal Electoral College with me this year; and Bishop Brian Hannon, who once conducted a wedding in Tallaght when I was reader there.

Other deaths this year included the journalists Colm Keane, Jim Fahy, Paddy Murray, John Kelly, the broadcaster historian and journalist Eamon Phoenix, and the artist Pauline Bewick.

Recording my Hiroshima Day address for Irish CND at the Japanese Peace Pagoda at Willen Lake in Milton Keynes (Photograph: Charlotte Hunter, 2022)

Regrettably, after more than two decades, the editor has called time on my monthly column in the Church Review, the monthly magazine in the Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough. However, I continue to write, and my publications this year include:

1, ‘Barbara Heck and Philip Embury: Founders of American Methodism’, pp 109-111, in David Bracken, ed, Of Limerick Saints and Sinners (Dublin: Veritas, 2022, ISBN: 9781800970311), 266 pp.

2, ‘Mother Mary Whitty: Sign of the Cross in Korea’, pp 213-215, in David Bracken, ed, Of Limerick Saints and Sinners (Dublin: Veritas, 2022, ISBN: 9781800970311), 266 pp.

3, ‘For the Life of the World: Toward a Social Ethos of the Orthodox Church’ Studies in Christian Ethics, 35 (2), May 2022 (SAGE: Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore, Washington DC, Melbourne, ISBN 0953-9468), pp 342-359.

4, ‘Saint Patrick: the myths, the legends and his relevance to Ireland today,’ Reality (Redemptorist Communications), March 2022 (Vol 88 No 2 ISSN 0034-0960), pp 12-16.

5, ‘Study 4: Celtic Spirituality: A View from the Church of Ireland’, Living Stones, Living Hope, USPG Lent Study Course 2022 (London: USPG, 2022), pp 29-34.

6, Book Review: Fifty Catholic Churches to See Before You Die. By Elena Curti. Leominster: Gracewing, 2000. Pp 280. Price £14.99 (pbk). ISBN 978-0-85244-962-2, in The Irish Theological Quarterly (Maynooth), Vol 87 No 1 (February 2022), pp 78-80.

It was good to write once again for the Wexford People group of newspapers this year, almost half a century after I worked there, with features and a news report in the Wexford People, the Enniscorthy Guardian, the Gorey Guardian and the New Ross Standard on the Wexford family roots of Penny Mordaunt at the time she was making a bid for the leadership of the Tory Party.

I have continued to contribute occasional seasonal pieces to The Irish Times, 20 years after I took early retirement there in 2002. In addition, three photographs of mine appeared in the Clare Echo this year: one of the railway bridge in Ennistymon in September, and photographs of Corpus Christi Church in Lisdoonvarna and a shopfront in Ennistymon earlier this month.

I have been invited to contribute to a book next year on Christmas and the Irish edited by my friend and colleague, Professor Salvador Ryan of Maynooth, to a book on life in the Church of Ireland during the War of Independence for a planned book in Limerick, and to the Old Limerick Journal on the Sephardic and Limerick roots of the Irish-born scientist JD Bernal.

I have worked on liturgical and preaching resources for USPG for Advent and Christmas, and I have been involved in USPG in planning and editing a course for Lent 2023.

My blog has reached almost 6.5 million people by today, and on YouTube one video clip alone from the Lichfield Peace Walk four months ago has had about 33,000 views.

I remain involved in USPG, recording a Lenten reflection on Celtic Spirituality for USPG in the Franciscan Abbey in Askeaton, and taking part in the annual conference in High Leigh in July and in the USPG reunion in London in September.

I continue to be involved involved in interfaith issues, now in Milton Keynes and the Diocese of Oxford, and have visited synagogues in Dublin, Milton Keynes, Oxford, London, and Oxford.

I recorded my annual address for Irish CND’s Hiroshima Day commemorations in Dublin at the Japanese Peace Pagoda at Willen Lake. I visited th pagoda a few times this year, and I took part in the Hiroshima Day commemorations there on 6 August. I recorded a reflection for the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship on Saint Patrick’s Day. I also took part in the first stage of the Lichfield Peace Walk from Saint Chad’s Church and Lichfield Cathedral in August, accompanying the Thai Buddhist monks from King’s Bromley along Cross in Hand Lane as far as Farewell.

Sadly, both distance and health considerations mean I have decided to stand down as President of Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

My change in life circumstances means that I have also lost many of my friends among my clerical colleagues in Ireland.

But, of course, I am looking forward to 2023 and to the future. Despite my stroke last March, my first attack of Covid-19, and living with Sarcoidosis and regular B12 injections, I am fully vaccinated, I feel healthy and I am well looked after with tender and loving care.

My immediate plans include visits Hungary and Finland in the New Year to see work in the Diocese of Europe with refugees from Ukraine, supported by USPG, and Charlotte and I are planning to visit Kuching some time in 2023, when I look forward to learning about life in Sarawak and Malaysia.

My hopes for the New Year include returning to ordained ministry and to continue to enjoy life in Stony Stratford and Milton Keynes.

A very merry Christmas
And a happy new year,
Let’s hope it’s a good one
Without any fear

Happy New Year

A post-stroke hospital procedure in Sheffield (Photograph: Charlotte Hunter, 2022)

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