More on Martinmas

Today – November 11 – is Martinmas. That’s the feast day of St Martin of Tours: the picture above is Harry Clarke’s representation of the city of Tours, which we can see in St Barrahane’s Church, Castletownshend, here in West Cork. St Martin was a saint of Hungarian origin who founded a monastery in Marmoutier, in north-eastern France in 372. As far as we know, he never visited Ireland, yet he is widely celebrated here… Why?

Marmoutier Abbey, near the city of Tours (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Well, one reason could be that St Martin was the sister of St Patrick’s mother, Conchessa. Or, perhaps he was her uncle – we don’t have definitive records from that time, but we do have plenty of stories. The one everyone seems to know about St Martin is that he came across a naked beggar while travelling in the middle of winter. He immediately split his cloak in two and gave half to the beggar. That night he had a dream in which Jesus told him that it was he who had received the gift of the cloak from Martin. From then on Martin determined to spread Christianity wherever he went.

Here is St Martin, depicted in Harry Clarke’s Castletownshend window. Finola tells the full and fascinating story of this wonderful window here. He is depicted as a soldier, and is the patron saint of soldiers. Confusingly, he is also the patron saint of conscientious objectors! In fact, he was the first recorded conscientious objector as he became converted to Christianity while he was serving in the Roman Army. Because of his beliefs he refused to fight but – to prove he was not a coward – he was prepared to go into battle unarmed and stand between the opposing parties in the name of Jesus. Miraculously, on the eve of the battle an armistice was declared. Martin was given a discharge and was able to pursue his calling. Eventually he was made Bishop of Tours and founded his Abbey across the River Loire.

This is the beggar who received the gift of St Martin’s cloak – also from the Harry Clarke window. Here in Ireland there were once many customs associated with Martinmas. I set out some of these in a previous post a few years ago. For me, the most interesting is that no wheel should be turned on St Martin’s feast day. This is because the saint met his death by falling under a mill wheel. Below are two of ten 14th century frescoes from the San Martino Chapel in Assissi, setting out the stories of the saint: these depict his death and his funeral.

In County Londonderry, Northern Ireland, St Columba founded a church in the sixth century and named it after St Martin: Díseart Mhartain or ‘Hermitage of Martin’. Fascinating that this European saint should have such a following in Ireland: I found at least four churches dedicated to him in the Republic. One thing I touched on in my earlier post was the custom of killing a goose or cockerel on the day and sprinkling its blood in the four corners of the house to ensure well-being for the next year. I have since found that it is correct to say ...In onóir do Dhia agus do Mháirtin… while doing this (In the Honour of God and St Martin). I hope I’m not too late to wish you a good Martinmas! And I’m leaving you with the full image of the Harry Clarke window…

Outposts of Empire

St Patrick's Cathedral

There’s a class of monument in Ireland that I am only discovering as an adult. There is a reason for this – as a young person growing up in a conservative Catholic culture, it was verboten for us to enter (yes, even just enter) Protestant churches. I was used to a certain iconography – stations of the cross, statues, stained glass of saintly subjects – and very rarely did it include memorials to deceased individuals. That was confined to the graveyards.

St Fin Barre's

No modern Irish reader of this memorial at St Fin Barre’s Cathedral in Cork could fail to be aware of its incongruities

As our readers will know by now, Robert and I never pass an open church without poking around inside. Last year, in The Love Which He Bare Her, I wrote about the wonderful memorials I have discovered to women, cataloguing their many virtues. That was for St Valentine’s Day so since it’s still February I thought I would do a similar post for men. There are lots – poets, priests and philosophers, benevolent and erudite – but the ones I have been most taken by are the military memorials* we have discovered in Protestant churches.

St Barrahanes 2

Irish men served in the British army all through our long and complex history together. My father served in the Second World War although he saw no combat. My maternal grandfather was a Sergeant in the Welsh Fusiliers stationed in Dublin where he met my grandmother, whose own father had served in India and Afghanistan.

Left: My father, Hugh Finlay, during his time in the British Army, stationed in Belfast during the Second World War. Right: The grave of my Welsh grandfather, William Owen Roberts, in The Hague, Holland. He saw action as a young man in the Boer War. He died of the Spanish Flu on his way home from the First World War.

Although this was part of family lore, it received no attention in our history lessons. Once again – there’s a reason for this. It’s been succinctly expressed by Turtle Bunbury in his book The Glorious Madness:

The Glorious MadnessFor those who returned to Ireland after the war, the horror of their experience was magnified by the realisation that everything they fought for amounted to nought and that anyone who thought otherwise was no longer welcome. Although many of those who won independence for the Irish Free State had formerly served in His Majesty’s forces, there were powerful elements within the new order that would obligate the country at large to throw an unforgiving eye upon ex-servicemen of the British Empire. In time the hostility became amnesia and the Ireland of my youth in the late 20th century seemed to have a history in which the only war the Irish ever fought was for freedom from Britannia’s rule.

Turtle’s book opens our eyes to the vast numbers of Irish men and women who fought in WWI and their reasons for doing so – reasons as diverse as their backgrounds. Read the chapter on Tom Kettle and Emmet Dalton, for example, or the piece on Liam O’Flaherty (author of The Informer) or that on Cork’s famous son, Tom Barry, as well as those on members of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy such as Lord Desmond FitzGerald, or famine-survival emigrants such as Knox D’Arcy who helped found BP Oil. Thankfully, the collective amnesia is being faced now and memorials to WWI dead are springing up in country graveyards around Ireland.

First World War Grave

A new slab at Abbeymahon church near Courtmacsherry remembers Denis Driscoll, a local man who fought in WWI

Besides the first and second World Wars, though, the military memorials that have caught my eye have celebrated the courage and sacrifice of Irish men who devoted their lives to a career in the British army and navy even before the 20th century. But why are these memorials inevitably found in Protestant churches and not Catholic? Besides the conventions of iconography and the collective amnesia referred to above, there is, yes you guessed it, a reason for this.

St Fin Barre's 2

As part of a minority but ruling class in Ireland, Church of Ireland members often saw themselves as standard bearers of Empire. As a community they were on the whole (with many notable exceptions) conservative and unionist and looked to Britain for education for their children. Many families had generations-long traditions of sending their sons to serve in the army or navy. (While Irish Catholics also served, it was predominantly in the ranks of foot-soldiers and to escape unemployment at home, rather than as career officers.) British military valour and sacrifice, therefore, loomed far larger in the consciousness of Protestant families than in Catholic ones.

St Barrahanes

According to Martin Maguire in his paper “our People”;  the Church of Ireland in Dublin and the culture of community since Disestablishment, The most powerful and emotional bond with Great Britain, and within the Church of Ireland community in Dublin, were memories of the first World War… After the war Remembrance Day became one of the most solemn occasions in the year, one which strengthened the sense of being a special community and, despite national independence, maintained the close identity between the Church of Ireland and the community of the British Empire… The loss of a great many young men to a population which was already unstable was traumatic.

St Patricks 2

But this is also true of all the preceding wars, and this is reflected in the church memorials we see in the Protestant churches. Battles and engagements in places we never learned to think about about in school as being part of our collective heritage (the Burma War? the Siege of Lucknow?) are eulogised in these tablets and plaques. Soldiers are honoured by their companions, and lamented by their families. Their bravery and accomplishments are lauded and potent symbols such as crossed spears and empty helmets represent their sacrifice.

St Fin Barre's 4

Being an ‘Outpost of Empire’ doesn’t sit well with our ideas of what Ireland is now and this year in particular we will be celebrating our independence from all that that phrase invokes. But these memorials serve to remind us of the complexity and plurality of our history, and in many case of our own family history.

Brabazon Family c.1898-1900 (1)

The Brabazons, about 1900. Great-grandfather John Edward had served in India and Afghanistan and wears a military medal. Great-Uncles Michael and James wear the uniforms of army cadets**. Marie, my grandmother, who married William Owen Roberts, is in the middle at the back

*The Memorials in this post come from three churches: St Fin Barre’s in Cork City, St Barrahane’s in Castletownshend (Co Cork) and St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin.

** More information from my cousin, Shauna: The two boys are wearing the uniform of the Royal Hibernian Military School. More information about that establishment here.

Out and About with Visitors in West Cork

At Coppinger's Court

At Coppinger’s Court

Vi and Grant and Jan and Brian came to stay last week – good friends from Canada here to see the Real Ireland. 

We had some challenges right away. First, the rental car Grant had booked was under repair and the substitute, although it nominally held all six of us, was too cramped and uncomfortable to venture too far afield. Second, muscle wear and tear issues among the group dictated that walks not be too long or arduous. 

No problem! The weather was (mostly) fine, we got in one good hike on the Sheep’s Head, and then set about discovering the delights of flatter terrain, local amenities and cultural events. Robert and I hadn’t toured Bantry House before, although we had been there for concerts. The house will be a future post in itself, but for the moment it’s worth recording that this may be the last summer to see it with its original furniture, as much of it is on the auction block later this year.

One day we spent exploring the area south east of Skibbereen. We started with lunch at Glandore overlooking the harbour, then on to the obligatory stop at the Drombeg Stone Circle, one of the better-know recumbent stone circles that dot West Cork. On to Coppinger’s Court (another subject for a full post), a 17th century fortified house and home to one of the fearsome characters in West Cork history. Back then to Castletownshend and dinner in Mary Anne’s, followed by a concert in the little church of St Barrahane’s. This was an evening of Beethoven, Debussy and Rachmaninov with Christopher Marwood of the Vanbrugh Quartet on the cello, and the brilliant young American Alexander Bernstein on the piano. It was truly a world-class performance, eliciting a standing ovation from the appreciative audience.

At Drombeg, Jan and Brian

At Drombeg, Jan and Brian

Concert In St. Barrahane's, Castletownshend

Concert In St Barrahane’s, Castletownshend

Another day, we wandered around Schull, dipping into the shops and stopping for coffee. Later that evening we attended PlayActing Theatre’s two one-woman shows in the local parish hall. Karen Minihan brought us up to date with her character, Eileen, going through a midlife crisis – it was moving, sad and funny all at once. Then Terri Leiber took us into the experience of eight-year-old Stacey negotiating the dysfunctional lives of the adults around her in 1960s Britain – a tour de force in which she played every role, with a minimalist stage set, a soundtrack from the times, and a beautiful nuanced performance.

Terri Leiber in May the Force

Terri Leiber in May the Force

Shopping at the local markets always makes food preparation easier and fresher and we all took turns. 

In Baltimore, we walked out to the Beacon, with its marvellous views of Sherkin Island and the faraway mountains of Kerry. We hope it’s a good memory to take away of this special part of Ireland. 

At the Baltimore Beacon

At the Baltimore Beacon

Vi and Grant, Jan and Brian – Ferdia has been missing you already!

Ferdia

Ferdia