17 March 2024

‘Dona Nobis Pacem’:
War and Peace in music
in Stony Stratford
during ‘troubled times’

‘War and Peace’ … the MK Chorale Spring Concert in Stony Stratford included Haydn’s ‘Nelson’ Mass and the Vaughan Williams cantata, ‘Dona Nobis Pacem’

Patrick Comerford

Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church in Stony Stratford was the venue last night (16 March 2024) for the MK Chorale Spring Concert, ‘War and Peace’. The programme included Haydn’s ‘Nelson’ Mass (Missa in angustilis) and the Vaughan Williams cantata, Dona Nobis Pacem.

MK Chorale was accompanied on Saturday evening by the Alina Orchestra, conducted by Mark Jordan, and professional soloists, Helen Groves (soprano) and Thom Isherwood (baritone), with Olivia Shotton (alto) and Jacob Cole (tenor). The concert also supported the work of MK Chorale’s charity of the year, Unity MK, a local charity offering practical and emotional support for people experiencing homelessness or who are at crisis point.

MK Chorale was founded by Hilary Davan Wetton in 1974. It has about 100 members. The patron, Jean Rigby, is a long-time principal with English National Opera, Glyndebourne and the Royal Opera House, and a former Stony Stratford resident.

MK Chorale in Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church, Stony Stratford, last night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Haydn’s reputation was at its peak in 1798 when he wrote his ‘Nelson’ Mass, but his world was in turmoil. Napoleon had won four major battles with Austria in less than a year, his armies had crossed the Alps and threatened Vienna itself, and Napoleon had invaded Egypt to destroy Britain’s trade routes through the Middle East.

When Haydn finished this Mass, he named it Missa in angustiis (‘Mass for troubled times’). But as he wrote the Mass, Napoleon was dealt a major defeat by Nelson at the Battle of the Nile, and the mass gradually became known as the ‘Nelson Mass’.

The Mass has six movements: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei, and reaches its climax with the plaintive plea for peace in Latin at the end of Agnus Dei:

Agnus Dei,
qui tolis peccata mundi,
miserere nobis.

Agnus Dei,
qui tolis peccata mundi,
miserere nobis.

Agnus Dei,
qui tolis peccata mundi,
dona nobis pacem

Lamb of God
who takes away the sin of the world,
have mercy on us.

Lamb of God
who takes away the sin of the world,
have mercy on us.

Lamb of God,
who takes away the sin of the world,
grant us peace.

Those dramatic, concluding words, dona nobis pacem (‘grant us peace’) prepared the way for the second part of the evening’s programme, Dona Nobis Pacem by Vaughan Williams.

‘Agnus Dei’ is the first section of the cantata ‘Dona nobis pacem’ … the Lamb of God in a Harry Clarke window in Mount Melleray Abbey, Co Waterford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) wrote Dona nobis pacem, a cantata for soprano and baritone soli, chorus and orchestra, in six continuous sections or movements.

Although Vaughan Williams is often best-remembered for collecting folk songs that he adapted as hymn tunes, he also wrote many works for chorus and orchestra, selecting and setting great texts for some of his finest works.

The oratorio Dona nobis pacem dates from the early 1930s and was written as a warning against war as another World War seemed to be looming on the horizons. The texts come from the Mass, the poet Walt Whitman, the Bible, and the politician and anti-war campaigner John Bright.

The work takes its name from the concluding phrase in the invocation to the Lamb of God sung or recited during the fraction at the Eucharist:

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, grant us peace.

The opening and closing movements take their names from the opening and closing words of this liturgical prayer, so Vaughan Williams, in this inter-war plea for peace, opens and closes this oratorio with the Paschal invocation of Christ, pleading for the peace that he offers to a broken world.

The spires of Lichfield Cathedral seen from the gates of the Garden of Remembrance in Lichfield … the lettering on the gates says: ‘Pax 1919’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

With the current war in Ukraine and the violence in Gaza, Israel and Palestine, that plea – Dona Nobis Pacem, ‘Grant us Peace’ – has a new urgency and a renewed poignancy.

The first German Zeppelin air raids hit England in January 1915. Vaughan Williams, who was then 42, enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps and was assigned to ambulance duties, working with the wounded on the front lines in Flanders.

After World War I, Vaughan Williams held to his belief that music was a means to preserve civilisation, even amid war. He formed a military chorus and went on to dedicate his life to teaching others to make music. He promoted a ‘United States of the World’ where ‘those will serve that universal state best who bring into the common fund something that they and they only can bring.’

His oratorio Sancta Civitas, ‘The Holy City’ (1923-1925) was filled with vision, sadness, and suffering, and the music was ahead of its time in its use of dissonance. His cantata Dona Nobis Pacem has its roots in that earlier oratorio, expressing his anguish over the worsening political situation in Europe that would lead again to war.

When Vaughan Williams was invited to provide a work for the centenary of the Huddersfield Choral Society in October 1936, he remembered an unpublished setting he had composed for Walt Whitman’s ‘Dirge for Two Veterans,’ a poem in Whitman’s collection Drum Taps (1865), written at the end of the American Civil War.

He now resurrected this composition as the centrepiece of his new work, preceding it with two further poems by Whitman in Drum Taps, ‘Beat! beat! drums!’ and ‘Reconciliation.’

He prefaces this group of Whitman poems with a setting of the liturgical text, Agnus Dei, and followed it with a passage from a speech given in Parliament by John Bright in 1855 during the Crimean War: ‘The Angel of Death has been abroad throughout the land; you may almost hear the beating of his wings …’ Indeed, Vaughan Williams claimed to be the only composer ever to have set a passage from the proceedings of the House of Commons.

In the last two sections, he uses a series of Biblical passages that together express optimism for future peace.

The text is rounded off with a verse from Saint Luke’s Gospel, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good-will toward men’ (Luke 2: 14) and a final repetition of the plea Dona nobis pacem, ‘Grant us peace.’

The whole work is welded together by his sense of urgency. As Vaughan Williams’s biographer, Simon Heffer, said, his main inspiration for Dona Nobis Pacem ‘is drawn not from the soil of England, but from the whole world going mad around him.’

Dona nobis pacem was first performed in Huddersfield on 2 October 1936, with the Huddersfield Choral Society and the Hallé Orchestra conducted by Albert Coates, and was performed at countless festivals and concerts in the anxious years leading up to World War II.

Dona Nobis Pacem also anticipates by 25 years Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, with its dramatic settings of Latin liturgical texts and poetry and its emphasis on reconciliation.

‘Beat! beat! drums! – Blow! bugles! blow!’ … the War Memorial on Horsefair Green in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Given its connections with both World Wars, this cantata seems appropriate to revive as the world lives with the catastrophic consequences of the Russian invasion of and war in Ukraine.

Vaughan Williams’s perspective is no longer bound to the geography of England. His empathy now enfolds a world faced with another war. In setting biblical and poetic texts to music, he pays a subtle tribute to Verdi’s Requiem, which he admired – for example, the drop of a semitone on the word dona, bass drum key-shifts by thirds, and wild brass fanfares.

Dona Nobis Pacem is scored for chorus and large orchestra, with soprano and baritone soloists. It opens with a heart-rending cry. This angelic cry from the soprano, Dona nobis pacem, is repeated at intervals, in different settings, punctuating the entire piece. From the beginning, the angel is the first to appear, soaring high and distant, beseeching peace against a choir alternatively gloomy with war, then echoing in serenity.

In the event, Vaughan Williams’s warnings and entreaties went unheeded, and the oratorio’s optimism turned out historically unjustified in the short run. Vaughan Williams devoted the years of World War II to helping refugees find shelter and work, providing food by planting huge vegetable gardens and keeping chickens, and helping to stage free lunchtime concerts.

Nor does the oratorio’s hope does not come cheap, and the humanitarian warmth and splendour of his vision remains. With Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, Dona nobis pacem remains one of the most satisfying musical answers to the questions posed by war itself. It fills a large canvas and its theme is anguished and impassioned on a cosmic scale as it pleads for peace, tolerance and understanding.

The six sections or movements are:

1, Agnus Dei

2, Beat! beat! drums! (Whitman)

3, Reconciliation (Whitman)

4, Dirge for Two Veterans (Whitman)

5, The Angel of Death (John Bright)

6, Dona nobis pacem (the Books of Jeremiah, Daniel, Haggai, Micah, and Leviticus, the Psalms, the Book of Isaiah, and Saint Luke’s Gospel)

‘The Falling Angel’, Marc Chagal (1947)

1, Agnus Dei:

The cantata opens with a soprano solo, one voice offering an apprehensive Agnus Dei, a well-known phrase in liturgical texts. She introduces the theme, singing it over the orchestra and choir.

The chorus joins in her fervent cry for peace. In answer, the drums of war are heard in the far distance, no longer a contagious dance rhythm of centuries past but, instead, the harbinger of war.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,
dona nobis pacem.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, Grant us peace.

2, ‘Beat! beat! drums!’

The second movement is a violent depiction of war and a furious setting of Walt Whitman’s poem ‘Beat! beat! drums!’

The words in this movement are based on a poem in Drum Taps written by the American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892). This poem was written after he had served as a volunteer nurse in the American Civil War. He was stunned by the death toll of over 600,000 in that war over the space of four years.

Whitman’s words describe the drums and bugles of war bursting through doors and windows. When war erupts, nothing and nobody is inviolate. Peaceful lives in schools and churches, of brides, farmers and sleepers, of old men and children are in turn swept aside by the warring sounds.

The setting of this movement is for choir, heralded by volleys of brass and rattling percussion. In the use of the bass drum and its key shifts by thirds, Vaughan Williams here recalls Verdi’s Dies irae.

The movement erupts with articulate fear, depicting a violence that destroys peaceful daily lives. In the examples – merchants and scholars disappearing while others pray, weep, and entreat – we sense the numbers of people being swept into war’s unremitting violence once again in the 1930s.

Beat! beat! drums!

Beat! beat! drums! – Blow! bugles! blow!
Through the windows – through the doors – burst like a ruthless force,
Into the solemn church, and scatter the congregation;
Into the school where the scholar is studying;
Leave not the bridegroom quiet – no happiness must he have now with his bride;
Nor the peaceful farmer any peace, ploughing his field, or gathering in his grain,
So fierce you whirr and pound, you drums – so shrill you bugles blow.

Beat! beat! drums! – Blow! bugles! blow!
Over the traffic of cities – over the rumble of wheels in the streets:
Are beds prepared for sleepers at night in the houses?
No sleepers must sleep in those beds;
No bargainers bargains by day – would they continue?
Would the talkers be talking? would the singer attempt to sing?
[Would the lawyer rise in the court to state his case before the judge?]
Then rattle quicker, heavier drums – you bugles wilder blow.

Beat! beat! drums! – Blow! bugles! blow!
Make no parley – stop for no expostulation;
Mind not the timid – mind not the weeper or prayer;
Mind not the old man beseeching the young man;
Let not the child’s voice be heard, nor the mother’s entreaties,
Make even the trestles to shake the dead where they lie awaiting the hearses,
So strong you thump O terrible drums – so loud you bugles blow.

3, Reconciliation

The heart of Dona nobis pacem is found in the third movement, ‘Reconciliation.’ In this movement, Vaughan Williams uses this heart-wrenching poem by Walt Whitman in its entirety.

Although Whitman’s long lines are not easily set to music, the words have an almost intolerable beauty, marked by truth and compassion in the face of the shocking carnage suffered by humanity.

‘Reconciliation’ transcends the threatening atmosphere with a striking, bitter-sweet moment. Set like a lullaby, Whitman’s text offers a promise to the dead enemy – ‘a man divine as myself’ – that time will wash away the awful deeds of war, a promise sealed with a kiss.

The text is matched in perfect spirit by the beautiful setting by Vaughan Williams, sung by the commanding yet gentle voice of the baritone soloist. The baritone introduces the first half of the poem, which the choir echoes and varies.

The baritone then continues with the rest of the poem, followed by the choir presenting a new variation of the first half.

At the end, the soprano repeats a variation of Dona nobis pacem, which we heard in the first movement, hauntingly soaring above the final lines of the chorus.

3, Reconciliation

Word over all, beautiful as the sky,
Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be utterly lost,
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly, softly,
Wash again and ever again this soiled world;
For my enemy is dead, a man as divine as myself is dead,
I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin – I draw near,
Bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.

4, Dirge for Two Veterans (Whitman)

Vaughan Williams based this movement on an earlier setting of the same words he had composed in 1914, before the outbreak of World War, and which he now incorporates into Dona nobis pacem.

This is a setting for a third poem by Walt Whitman (1819-1892), ‘Dirge for Two Veterans,’ from Drum-Taps (1865). The poem provides a second drum study for Vaughan Williams, but the drums this time are not the drums of war but the drums heard after war, the drums of death and burial, the drums of mourning and a funeral procession.

The drums and brass are transformed into instruments of noble commemoration; the strings and harp create a serene field filled by the choir fill with tender, loving words.

We are invited into a moonlit scene where we find a mother, highlighted by the moon, watching the funeral march for her son and her husband, both killed together in battle.

Her grief is symbolic of the grief shared by all families when lives are cut short one generation after another.

A compassionate world witnesses the scene with one heart, giving love as the moon gives light. The mourning turns to an outpouring of compassion and love as the wife and mother opens her heart and pours out her love for husband and son.

The moon gives you light,
And the bugles and the drums give you music;
And my heart, O my soldiers, my veterans,
My heart gives you love.

4, ‘Dirge for Two Veterans’

The last sunbeam
Lightly falls from the finished Sabbath,
On the pavement here, and there beyond it is looking,
Down a new-made double grave.

Lo, the moon ascending!
Up from the east the silvery round moon,
Beautiful over the house-tops, ghastly, phantom moon;
Immense and silent moon.

I see a sad procession,
And I hear the sound of coming full-keyed bugles;
All the channels of the city streets they’re flooding,
As with voices and with tears.

I hear the great drums pounding,
And the small drums steady whirring;
And every blow of the great convulsive drums,
Strikes me through and through.

For the son is brought with the father.

In the foremost ranks of the fierce assault they fell;
Two veterans, son and father, dropped together,
And the double grave awaits them.

Now nearer blow the bugles,
And the drums strike more convulsive;
And the daylight o’er the pavement quite has faded,
And the strong dead-march enwraps me.

In the eastern sky up-buoying,
The sorrowful vast phantom moves illumined;
(’Tis some mother’s large transparent face,
In heaven brighter growing.)

O strong dead-march you please me!
O moon immense with your silvery face you soothe me!
O my soldiers twain! O my veterans passing to burial!
What I have I also give you.

The moon gives you light,
And the bugles and the drums give you music;
And my heart, O my soldiers, my veterans,
My heart gives you love.

5, ‘The Angel of Death’

Vaughan Williams’s text for the fifth movement, ‘The Angel of Death,’ is derived from a speech on 23 February 1855 in the House of Commons by the great Victorian politician and reformer John Bright. In his speech, Bright condemned the Crimean War.

John Bright (1811-1889) was a leading Quaker, a Radical and Liberal statesman, and one of the greatest orators of his generation. The historian AJP Taylor says ‘John Bright was the greatest of all parliamentary orators … the alliance between middle class idealism and trade unionism, which he promoted, still lives in the present-day Labour Party.’ He is best remembered for his opposition to the Corn Laws, which came to an end in 1846.

Bright was an MP from 1843 to 1889, promoting free trade, electoral reform and religious freedom. He was almost a lone voice in opposing the Crimean War. In a speech in Birmingham in 1865, he became the first politician to refer to Westminster as the ‘Mother of Parliaments.’

Bright’s speech in 1855 draws on images in the Passover story in the Book Exodus, where the Angel of Death kills the firstborn children of Egypt, but spared any Israelite where the lintels and the door posts have been painted the lintels of his door posts with the blood of the lamb (see Exodus 12: 21-32).

Of course, the Exodus story makes no mention of the ‘Angel of Death’ as the author of this tenth and final plague. But Bright’s eloquence helped to popularise this image.

Afterwards, Benjamin Disraeli told Bright: ‘I would give all that I ever had to have delivered that speech.’ However, the speech did not prevent the Crimean War. As Bright had predicted, the campaign wasted many lives. More were lost through incompetent preparations than on the battlefield. Despite the technical military advances the British military had acquired, the war was marked by incompetence and 600,000 people were left dead.

Shocked by the disaster, and frustrated at being unable to avert it, Bright experienced a nervous breakdown. He lost his seat as MP for Manchester, although he was soon elected MP for Birmingham in 1858.

Bright’s words seem so appropriate to quote today and seem so relevant when we consider the present war in Ukraine, 170 years after the Crimean war. At the time Vaughan Williams was writing this oratorio, Bright’s speech was finding new relevance in England with the rise of Nazism and Fascism on Continental Europe, and a fear of yet another great war.

Bright’s words were given new prominence in those fearful days in the 1930s, when they were quoted by the pacifist former Dean of Canterbury, HRL (‘Dick’) Sheppard (1880-1937), in his We Say No (1935), published a year before he founded the Peace Pledge Union and a year before Vaughan Williams’s Dona nobis pacem was first performed.

In this movement, Vaughan Williams creates an atmosphere of anxiety and expectation, which leaves us wondering whether the war will ever end, whether we shall ever find peace.

The ostinato bass which has played out the ‘veterans’ in the last movement now plays in the Angel of Death.

The fifth movement begins with the baritone soloist and a quote from John Bright’s speech in which he tried to prevent the Crimean War: ‘The Angel of Death has been abroad throughout the land …’ Darkness seeps through the music, first quietly then with a dramatic interjection of Dona nobis pacem.

In the final movement that follows, the fearful news of the presence of the Angel of Death shall cause the chorus to burst into another cry for peace, but only more trouble rolls across the land: ‘We looked for peace, but no good came … The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved …’

5, ‘The Angel of Death’

The Angel of Death has been abroad throughout the land;
you may almost hear the beating of his wings.
There is no one as of old …
to sprinkle with blood the lintel
and the two side-posts of our doors,
that he may spare and pass on.

6, ‘Dona nobis pacem’

In his final movement, Vaughan Williams draws together a number of Biblical sayings urging communal action for peace. With the fearful news of the presence of the Angel of Death, the chorus bursts into another cry for peace.

The attraction these Biblical texts held for Vaughan Williams is puzzling to many. At Cambridge, Bertrand Russell described him as ‘the most frightful atheist.’ By the 1930s, the music critic Frank Howes (1891-1974), editor of the journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, described him as a ‘cheerful Christian agnostic.’ Yet much of the composer’s work throughout his life is concerned with the journey of the soul.

The movement opens with sombre quotes from the Book of Jeremiah, with the soprano and choir intervening with the plea, ‘Dona nobis pacem.’

But more trouble stalks the land: ‘We looked for peace, but no good came …’ The snorting of Dan’s horses momentarily recalls the apocalyptic equine visions of Vaughan Williams’s earlier oratorio, Sancta Civitas (1923-1925).

The words of Jeremiah continue mournfully: ‘The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved …’

The solo baritone is reassuring ‘O man, greatly beloved, fear not, peace be unto thee.’

Chorus basses intone the great text from Micah, almost every word a poem: ‘Nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.’ The word spreads among all instruments and tongues in prospect of a New Jerusalem: bells ring out in a riotous succession of keys and peals.

The movement then continues with more optimistic texts, including a brief setting of the news of the angels at Christmas: Gloria in excelsis Deo, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good-will toward me.’ A phrase that sometimes is too familiar, is repeated, ringing with celebratory optimism.

It ends with a quiet coda of Dona nobis pacem, introduced by the soprano again, adding the choir to finish the piece. The soprano’s ‘Dona nobis pacem,’ floating hauntingly overhead, sounds a warning that we must heed, lest we revert and again sacrifice ‘righteousness and peace’ which ‘have kissed each other’ to war.

Her voice alone lingers at the end like a solitary ray of hope, a light in the night. The final message is optimistic. Grant us peace.

6,Dona Nobis Pacem

Dona nobis pacem.

We looked for peace, but no good came; and for a time of health, and behold trouble! The snorting of his horses was heard from Dan; the whole land trembled at the sound of the neighing of his strong ones; for they are come, and have devoured the land … and those that dwell therein …

The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved …

Is there no balm in Gilead?; is there no physician there? Why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?

‘Dona nobis pacem’ with the Eastman-Rochester Chorus, the Eastman School Symphony Orchestra and Michaela Anthony, soprano

Did St Patrick Bring Christianity
to Ireland?

The Last Word:
Did St Patrick Bring Christianity
to Ireland?

Patrick Comerford

Traditionally and romantically, St Patrick is said to have converted the entire population of Ireland from paganism in a very short period between 432 and 461, less than the span of one generation. These dates are of significance in the history of the wider Church: Saint Augustine died in 430, the Council of Ephesus met in 431, and the Council of Chalcedon met in 451.

But putting aside myth and romance, it is important to recognise that there were Christians in Ireland before Saint Patrick arrived and that Irish mythology was long anxious to claim Irish connections with the Christian story before Patrick. These include the stories of Altus, said to have been an Irish witness to the passion and death of Christ; Conor Mac Nessa, King of Ireland, who died of a broken heart when he heard of Christ’s crucifixion; Cormac Mac Airt, who converted to Christianity in the third century; and Mansuetus, said to have been an Irish bishop in fourth century France.

But there is a realistic medium between these legends and the concept of a sudden conversion to Christianity at the hands of a single missionary. Tacitus (ca 55-120 AD) tells us that British or Gallic merchants had a reasonably good knowledge of Ireland’s ‘harbours and approaches’. The ‘Celtic’ people in Ireland were traders, raiders and plunderers, and there is evidence of Roman traders reaching Irish harbours and beyond them up rivers such as the Nore and the Barrow, trading in wine, oil and wheat. The Irish imported pottery, metal-work and bric-a-brac from Roman Gaul and Britain, and exported copper, gold, slaves, hides, cattle and wolfhounds.

By the end of the third century, people from Ireland were establishing colonies in Wales, Cornwall and Scotland. By the third or fourth century, there was regular commercial, mercantile and social contact with Roman communities in Britain and Gaul. There have been abundant finds of looted Roman coins all along the north and east coasts of Ireland, and Roman silver ingots with similar Christian provenance have been found in Kent and Limerick.

Catherine Swift argues convincingly that many among the ruling class in Ireland adopted the cultural habits and social customs of Roman Britons. What is now Cathedral Hill in Armagh is an example of one of their temple sites.

Christianity probably arrived in Ireland in the fourth and early fifth centuries by a slow and gradual process from Britain and from continental Europe, probably from Gaul and what we now know as Germany, and perhaps even from the Iberian peninsula, including present-day Spain and Portugal.

Niall of the Nine Hostages commanded several raiding expeditions across the Irish Sea. British captives carried off by Irish raiders may be yet another way of Christianity coming to have a presence on this island. Some educated continental Christians may also have sought refuge in Ireland during the barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire at the start of the fourth century, bringing their Christianity with them.

Other points of contact include the contacts made by the Irish migrants in Britain, and trade links with Roman Britain, Gaul and Spain. A gravestone for a fifth century Irish Christian has been found in a Christian cemetery in Trier, and fifth century Christians, some with Latin names, are commemorated on ogham stones in Carlow, Waterford, Cork and Kerry.

In other words, many factors indicate the arrival of Christianity in Ireland long before Patrick was captured as a slave, and there was a considerable Christian presence on this island before Patrick began his mission in 432.

Patrick’s life and mission

The traditional account of the life of St Patrick says he was born about 372 in Roman Britain in Bannavem Taburniae, perhaps in Cumbria or at a Roman outpost at Dumbarton in Scotland. He says his father Calpornius was a deacon and his grandfather Potitus was a priest; both were from a relatively prosperous class of Romans.

At the age of 16, the young Patrick was captured in a great raid along with ‘many thousands of people’ (Confessio 1). According to his own account, some of them were lukewarm Christians, and some could also have been committed Christians, perhaps even priests. His account of his escape from slavery at the age of 22 may be evidence of an escape network for fugitive slaves run by concerned Christians, more than 20 years before Patrick began his own mission (Confessio 17 and 18).

After his escape, Patrick had visions in which he heard the cry of the people in Ireland pleading to him to come back. It is an image that may have drawn on Saint Paul’s vision in Troy of a man calling him across the sea to Macedonia (see Acts 16: 9-10). Most of the details we have of his life are from his Confessio, written in reply to the attacks on his character brought against him in England, and from his Letter to Coroticus.

Patrick arrived back in Ireland from Britain around 432. According to J.B. Bury, he landed in Wicklow, at the mouth of the River Vartry. Traditions associate his early mission with the islands off the Skerries coast, Co Dublin, and Saul, Co. Down. But there are traditions too of Irish saints who preceded St Patrick: St Ciaran of Seir Kieran, Co Offaly; St Ibar or Iberius of Begerin, Co Wexford; his nephew, St Abban of Adamstown, Co Wexford; St Declan of Ardmore, Co Waterford; St Declan’s friend, St Ailbe of Emly, Co Tipperary; St Meltioc or Multose of Kinsale, Co Cork; and so on.

Most of these saints are associated with the south and the south-east. Although there is no primary evidence to support these largely unreliable traditions, they underpin a truth that Christianity was in Ireland for generations before Saint Patrick arrived and that he was not the first person to bring Christianity to Ireland.

The background to St Patrick’s mission includes the presence of perhaps three heresies in Ireland – Arianism, Priscillianism and Pelagianism. Palladius was ordained by Pope Celestine, perhaps in 431, and was sent as the ‘first bishop’ on a mission to ‘the Scotti [Irish] who believe in Christ.’ So, from at least the third decade of the fifth century, Irish Christians were numerically large enough to have a bishop sent from Rome, and Palladius is associated with a number of church sites in Leinster. His work was continued, perhaps, by figures such as Secundinus, Auxilius and Iserninus. His mission activities and those of Patrick may have been confused in later writings, so that much of the work and success of Palladius was attributed wrongly to Patrick.

The late Professor Patrick Corish of Maynooth, in The Irish Catholic Experience (1985), links the mission of Palladius in Leinster with, perhaps, three churches in Co Wicklow. The circular letter known as The First Synod of Saint Patrick seems to provide evidence of a second-generation missionary Church in Leinster, and this stream of Christianity in Ireland has been associated with the Church in Kildare.

By the time Patrick began his mission, the foundations had been laid for a Church in Ireland that in the centuries that followed became a vibrant missionary Church. But, while the missions of Palladius and Patrick may have overlapped, Patrick does not refer to Palladius. Patrick was working in fresh territory, while Roman missionaries in Leinster were consolidating the work of Palladius and others who, by 431, had ensured that there were many people in Ireland who were Christians.

Patrick Comerford is a Church of Ireland priest living in retirement near Milton Keynes. He has lectured in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute and TCD and is a former Irish Times journalist.

Naomh Pádraig Seamus Murphy, 1907-1975, Polished limestone, 1949, St Patrick’s College Maynooth, Photograph supplied by St Patrick’s College Maynooth

• Patrick Comerford, ‘Did St Patrick Bring Christianity to Ireland’, Conversations (Dublin: Dominican Publications, ed Bernard Treacy), Vol 1 No 2, March/April 2024, pp 77-80, ISSN 2990-8388.

Daily prayer in Lent with
early English saints:
33, 17 March 2024,
Saint Osmund of Salisbury

Saint Patrick depicted in a window by Burlison and Grylls in the Church of Saint John the Baptist, Spon Street, Coventry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

Lent began over a month ago on Ash Wednesday (14 February 2024), and Passiontide – the last two weeks of Lent – begins today. This is the Fifth Sunday in Lent (Lent V), also known as Passion Sunday. But today is also Saint Patrick’s Day (17 March 2024), and I hope to say more about Saint Patrick later today.

Later this morning, I hope to be at the Parish Eucharist in Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church, Stony Stratford, and I hope to celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day and my name day appropriately later in the day.

Throughout Lent this year, I am taking time each morning to reflect on the lives of early, pre-Reformation English saints commemorated in the Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship.

Before this day begins, I am taking some quiet time this morning for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, A reflection on an early, pre-Reformation English saint;

2, today’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

A statue of Saint Osmund in Salisbury Cathedral (Photograph: James Bradley/ Wikipedia/ CC BY 2.0)

Early English pre-Reformation saints: 33, Saint Osmund of Salisbury

Saint Osmund (1099), Bishop of Salisbury, is remembered in Common Worship on 16 July.

Osmund was born the son of a Norman count and came to England in the wake of William the Conqueror, his mother’s half-brother. He was quickly promoted to Chancellor in 1072. Six years later he became Bishop of Salisbury and completed the building of the new cathedral at Old Sarum.

He was a scholar and a good administrator but was best loved for his lack of avarice and ambition, traits apparently not common in the new hierarchy of Church and State. He took part in collecting the information for the Domesday Book and was present at Sarum when it was presented to the king in 1086. He is said to have compiled the Sarum Use.

Saint Osmund died on 4 December 1099 and his remains were translated to the new cathedral in Salisbury on 16 July 1457.

Saint Patrick depicted on cladding during recent restoration work at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 12: 20-33 (NRSVA):

20 Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ 22 Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23 Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.

27 ‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say – “Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ 29 The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.’ 30 Jesus answered, ‘This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31 Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ 33 He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

Saint Patrick receiving his mission to Ireland from Saint Celestine … a stained-glass window in a church in Dundalk, Co Louth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayers (Sunday 17 March 2024, Lent V, Passion Sunday, Saint Patrick’s Day):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Lent Reflection: True repentance is the key to Christian Freedom.’ This theme is introduced today by the Revd Dr Simon Ro, Dean of Graduate School of Theology at Sungkonghoe (Anglican) University, Seoul, Korea:

Read Luke 13: 1-9

‘Freedom is an idea that permeates most of the major religions in our world. This idea is essential to any spiritual journey, and for many the journey focuses on how to become liberated from a love for self, a state of self-righteousness and complacency.

‘What is Christianity’s approach towards freedom? The Gospel of Luke (13: 1-9) gives insight to answers this question, but a key idea is that of repentance. Jesus Christ stresses the universal need for repentance and shows us that unless we repent and respond to the challenges of our world, we will suffer such “disasters” as hopelessness, loneliness, frustration, anger and fear. Jesus does not want just devotion but rather a deep sincere change in heart and attitude which results in a change of behaviour – both spiritual and physical.

‘For true freedom to happen, true repentance must occur. We are challenged to recognise the need for true repentance and pursue a change in our thinking, attitude, and behaviour. This is definitely a message for consideration and change during this Lent season.’

This is a sample taken from the 2024 USPG Lent Course which can be downloaded and ordered from the USPG website www.uspg.org.uk

The USPG Prayer Diary today (17 March 2024, Lent V, Passion Sunday, Saint Patrick’s Day) invites us to pray reflecting on these words:

Praise to you, O Christ, King of eternal glory.
Christ humbled himself and became obedient unto death,
even death on a cross.
Therefore God has highly exalted him
and given him the name that is above every name.

The Collect:

Most merciful God,
who by the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ
delivered and saved the world:
grant that by faith in him who suffered on the cross
we may triumph in the power of his victory;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ,
you have taught us
that what we do for the least of our brothers and sisters
we do also for you:
give us the will to be the servant of others
as you were the servant of all,
and gave up your life and died for us,
but are alive and reign, now and for ever.

Additional Collect:

Gracious Father,
you gave up your Son
out of love for the world:
lead us to ponder the mysteries of his passion,
that we may know eternal peace
through the shedding of our Saviour’s blood,
Jesus Christ our Lord.

Yesterday: Saint Wulfstan of Worcester

Tomorrow: Saint Anselm of Canterbury

Saint Patrick depicted in a window in Saint Patrick’s Church, Waterford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org