C: Pilgrimage Ireland

REVIEW: ‘Of Limerick: Saints and Seekers’, edited by David Bracken 

When I was asked to review David Bracken’s new collection ‘Of Limerick: Saints and Seekers’ I admit to being a little hesitant. To paraphrase the Bible, I thought, ‘what good can come out of Limerick?’ I didn’t think quite that badly of the place but I anticipated a book about saints and seekers from Limerick would be a dull read. To do justice to the review, I would have to put myself through a day of self-inflicted tedium. I thought.

I was wrong. A lot of credit for this is due to the Editor, David Bracken, archivist for the Diocese of Limerick for pulling together 50 very fast moving chapters. It feels like he marshalled his contributors quite tightly, not allowing any of them (save one) to exceed four pages, meaning each contribution was required to be concise and every word made to count. To each contributor – a vast array of historians, religious, academics and lay-people, many of whom are specialists and well versed in the written word, and others who may never have been part of a published book before – credit is due for keeping this reviewer interested from the first page to the last.

Yes, it is clear to me now that there was – and is – more to Limerick than meets the eye and each chapter was an education. The book runs somewhat chronologically, starting with some of the counties earliest Irish saints from the first millennium (chronicling the challenges in getting beyond the myth to their real lives) all the way to the modern day with touching epitaphs of religious and lay who have recently been lost to the diocese of Limerick. Ranging from Saint Ita in the earliest days of Irish Christianity to Maire Treasa Nic Eochagain and Fr Peadar de Burca, the history of this selection of Limerick’s saints and seekers meanders through archaeology, early religious artefacts, the Missions abroad and (Methodist and Jesuit) Missions to Ireland, martyrdom as well as mundane saintliness of living a good life.

There are many surprises within the book, such as the story of Max Arthur Macauliffe, native of rural Limerick who became a renowned scholar of Sikh theology and produced a massive six volume work, The Sikh Religion: Its Gurus, Sacred Writings and Authors way back in 1909 when it is doubtful anyone else in Ireland would have heard of this exotic belief system. There is Fr Leonard of Ballysimon, killed by Communists in China after they invaded his Church and scattered the Blessed Sacrament to the ground, prompting him to berate them: ‘You are bad men; you are bandits who have insulted and desecrated my Lord.’ Before being scimitared through the back, refusing to kneel to his assailants, he said ‘I kneel only to Our Lord Jesus Christ’.

Then there is the sad-happy story of the seven Cotter sisters of Killeady, daughters of Ellen McCarthy and John Cotter, who all joined religious orders (the last – and youngest-  in 1987, much later than the rest who joined between 1920 and 1937) – all ending up leading their vocations in Australia and Australia. There is also the fascinating story of Sr Angela Fitzgerald who tutored the future Empress of Japan, Michiko, wife of Akihito, using the chant ‘Betty, Brian and Bunny on the beach of Ballybunion’ to teach the letter B, later surviving earthquakes, war and internment in Japan in the first half of the 20th century.

There are many more names lost to history, lost to a narrow historical view of Ireland’s past, now revived, revivified in this very enjoyable and informative book.

One of those stories that was lost, and then subsequently found by the late Mary Raftery in her research into States of Fear and Suffer the Little Children: The Inside Story of Ireland’s Industrial Schools is that of young Gerard Fogarty, Glin Industrial School, and Martin McGuire who sought to hold the state accountable for the young child’s flogging only to be rebuffed at every turn.

While this story tells a grim tale of the State’s failure to protect children in its care and the consequent free rein taken by some religious in abusing the State’s disinterest, there are many stories from Limerick that tell a different take too. Chapter Six – ‘Of Women Religious’ – does just that.

Mary Clare Whitty who died in one of the forced ‘death marches’ during the Korean War where many religious were forced in long arduous moves over hundreds of kilometres with little food or clothing in the cold Korean winter, the story of these recounted by Irish priest Philip Crosbie in the book ‘Three Winters Cold’ in 1955, is another Irish Sister who gave of herself to spread the faith but also follow the command for corporal works of mercy, for which she gave herself, corporeally, in the fullest sense. As did Thady Lee, a Vincentian, of Tough near Adare, who had his skull smashed by Cromwell’s troops

Mother Elizabeth Moore, a founder of Limerick’s order of the Sisters of Mercy, setting up soup kitchens for the poor, orphanages across Limerick, while treating cholera patients in the now-forgotten outbreak in the 1830s that killed tens of thousands across Ireland. Mother Francis Bridgeman, long forgotten, yet very nearly gained the fame that was given to Florence Nightingale, as both provided care to the dying and wounded in the Crimean War. Unfortunately for her legacy, she did not get on with the English nurse, and they fell out in Crimea as one ascended to leadership ahead of the other.

Saint Mary McKillop (not Irish) founded the Sisters of St Joseph, a congregation that brought Australia and New Zealand at a time when there was nothing there, and drew 800 Irish missionaries in her wake, including a disproportionate seventy-six from Limerick. The story of the Little Company of Mary, told by Niamh Lenehan, is one example of the contribution of religious to advancing and providing healthcare in Ireland, from hospitals to nursing homes and hospice provision in the 19th century, when there was no official willingness to do so.

Another example of a forgotten Ireland is the letter of Mary King to the future Bishop of Limerick in 1874, upon leaving the Magdalene Asylum, where she was not happy, but had spent ‘the happiest moments of her life’, a testimony from the social realities for unmarried mothers and that the Magdalene Homes did not provide the experience commonly portrayed for many. Mary’s testimony would sit uncomfortably with the current view from modern Ireland.

David Bracken’s compendium is not just a book for Limerick. It is a book for all of Ireland to regenerate understanding and appreciation of the many ‘saints and seekers’ that formed the country and dedicated their lives, largely through a religious conviction, for the betterment of others. It is also an enjoyable jaunt through Limerick’s rich tapestry of history, the opposite of what I had originally feared.

Of Limerick: Saints and Seekers is available here



Dualta Roughneen

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