The Church of St Brendan by the Lake, Annaghdown, 1903-2003

Based on the booklet compiled by Dr Martin Newell, June 2003.

Foreword

St Brendan’s Church, Annaghdown, was dedicated on 12 July 1903 by Archbishop Healy of Tuam. This publication is one of a number of elements in the celebration of the centenary.

The author is greatly indebted to Mr William (“Billy”) O’Flynn for the essential information and documents which he provided, including the photograph below which shows his grandfather, John O’Flynn, who was Master Of Annaghdown National School from 1893 until 1935, inspecting the nearly-complete building work. Master O’Flynn was treasurer of the committee which oversaw the building of the church.

John O’Flynn, Master of Annaghdown National School, inspecting the building work at Annaghdown Church

Thanks are due to Ms Nono Duggan for the valuable information which she provided. Séamus Uasal Ó hOisín, Mrs Mary Scott and Ms Mary Goaley also provided very informative documents.

A very special note of gratitude is due to Mr Johan Hofsteenge who transformed the raw initial text into a very fine publication.

Considerable thought was devoted to considering what kind of document would be appropriate to the occasion. There are already a number of publications about Annaghdown, including the scholarly historical work by Rev. Michael Goaley and several excellent works of the Annaghdown Heritage Society. It was therefore decided to produce something which would both describe Annaghdown and tie it into the wider world of its times, particularly 1903 and and which would give a dispassionate account of some of the issues of those times. It is hoped that this approach will interest not only Annaghdown people but others and will be of assistance to somebody undertaking a similar task in 2103. Much of the text, of necessity, implies a Roman Catholic standpoint.

It is hoped that members of sister churches within the Christian community, reading this, will understand the reasons for it and not take any slight from it.

Martin Newell, June 2003

Annaghdown in Historical Context from the Fifth Century to the Present Day

The Christianisation of Ireland began in the 5th century under influence from early post-Roman Britain. The start of the process of Christianisation is indelibly associated with the name of St Patrick who is thought to have been a Briton. That process was greatly enhanced in the 6th and 7th centuries as holy men, scholars and hermits fled westward before the Anglo-Saxon invasions of Britain. Christian centres of learning became established in Ireland, typically on land donated by great chieftains who had adopted Christianity. These are usually described as ‘monasteries’ though old Irish sources describe them as “ionaid léinn” or “places of learning”.

Since learning then centred on the study, transcription and preaching of the Gospels, they might well be described as the universities of their age. Indeed the connection between ascetic lifestyles and higher learning lasted down into the 19th century. Annaghdown (Eanach Dúin, literally translated Marsh Fort) was one such centre. It is associated with Brendan the Navigator who is said to to have voyaged to America around 550 A.D. and who made many voyages around the coasts of north-western Europe. St Brendan is also associated with Clonfert where he is said to have been buried. The Annaghdown settlement is known to have been sacked by Vikings in 927 A.D.

Many exquisite works of art originate from these Christian centres – famously the Book Of Kells which may be seen in the library of Trinity College, Dublin. Others are in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin. In time, missionaries from Ireland became active on the Continent with authenticated contacts as far away as Northern Italy. Ireland became known as “the Island of Saints and Scholars”.

The Christian (or ‘Celtic’) Church in Ireland before c. 1,000 A.D. appears to have had little, if any, connection with Rome and the very many people revered as saints in tradition are not saints of the Roman calendar. This is not surprising considering the violence and disorder which enveloped western Europe and particularly the Italian peninsula from 400 A.D. onwards, making communication impossible.

From 330 A.D. onwards Constantinople was the capital of the Roman Empire and the centre of Christianity. The seven great formative ecumenical councils of the church, from Nicaea I in A.D. 325 to Nicaea II in A.D. 787, took place in the East. Consequently, some scholars take the view that the early Irish Church was essentially Eastern in origin and practice. For example, William Dalrymple in his book “From the Holy Mountain” has remarked on the striking similarities between art-works such as the Book of Kells and comparable works at Aleppo in Syria.

The Roman Church became dominant in Western Europe after the great reform and reorganisation which took place following the schism with Constantinople in 1054. At this stage too, some degree of order had been established in Europe and continent-wide communication was becoming possible. The Irish Church, after centuries of isolation, was considered by Rome, with great justification, to be unorthodox and corrupt. Though Roman influence and organisation began to be felt in Ireland from the 1st century onwards, significantly under the patronage of the O’Connor High Kings, the Roman Church became fully established there with the Norman invasions of Ireland.

After initial incursions at Wexford in 1169, a full-scale invasion followed in 1172 under King Henry II of England. The pretext for this was the Papal Bull “Laudabiliter” granted by the English Pope Adrian IV authorising Henry to establish Roman jurisdiction and orthodoxy in Ireland. There followed a process of completing the suppression of the remains of the ancient ‘monasteries’ and establishing in their places Roman dioceses and monastic establishments based on the Continental model. The Annaghdown diocese dates from this period, the first Bishop of Annaghdown being appointed in 1176 (probably by the High King Rory O’Connor who had made a treaty with the Normans). The Order of Premonstratensian Canons was also established in Annaghdown by this time. (The first Bishop of Annaghdown is known to have attended the coronation of King Richard I in England in 1189 A.D.).

The Annaghdown establishment came under direct Norman patronage and protection after the grant of the province of Connacht to the de Burgo family by Henry Ill of England in 1227. The settlement was eventually protected by a de Burgo castle which may be still seen from St Brendan’s Church. The ruins of the monastic establishment are still visible across the lake inlet. The Annaghdown diocese was a large and important one encompassing even the town of Galway – which was founded by the de Burgos in 1234. Over time it fell into violent and protracted territorial dispute with the adjacent Archdiocese of Tuam. Tuam’s greater influence with Rome (or rather Avignon at that time) eventually enabled it to obtain a decree of Pope John XXII in 1327 suppressing Annaghdown. The decision was reversed in 1358. Though Archbishop Murray of Tuam finally took over Annaghdown by force in 1484, the settlement continued in existence in a state of increasing decay and corruption until finally disappearing during the Elizabethan invasions of the late 16″‘ century.

The upheavals of the 17th century and the proscription of Roman Catholicism in the 18th century left Annaghdown without a visible ecclesiastical presence (apart from wandering clergymen) until c. 1780 when a church of the Anglican Communion was erected. This may still be seen (roofless) in Annaghdown cemetery. It was in use until the 1830s when it was replaced by temporary Roman Catholic facilities. Intensive Church reorganisation followed the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 culminating in the Synod of Thurles in 1850. large numbers of new churches were built mostly to a standard design. The Synod established the Irish Church as the most organised and disciplined of the western churches. One effect of this development was the quite amazing Irish missionary activity which took place during the following century and which formed the backbone of the Roman Catholic Church in America, Africa, Australia and the Far East as well as in Britain. In its own domain and scale this was quite as impressive an achievement as the development of the British Empire during the same period.

The church-building programme of the mid-19th century saw practically every parish with at least one church building. One standard design predominated, utilitarian but architecturally very uninspiring. Annaghdown was in some way fortunate that it was not involved in this programme being considered an outlying area. In the less rushed environment of 1903, when St Brendan’s Church was built, individual designs became possible. St Brendan’s is therefore an architectural gem by contrast with much of what went before. Though it was almost completely destroyed by fire on 1 December 1936, it was rebuilt and extended shortly afterwards. It will hold its centenary celebrations in July 2003 when the principal guest will be the Most Reverend Dr Michael Courtney, Apostolic Nuncio in Burundi and titular Archbishop of Eanach Dúin – the title, though not the diocese, surviving to this day.

Biographical Note – Archbishop Courtney

Born in Nenagh in 1945, Archbishop Courtney has had a most distinguished career in parish ministry, education and Vatican diplomacy. Following study in Rome and ordination in 1968, he served as a curate in the Clonfert diocese until 1976 when he went to Rome for further study. While in Clonfert, he taught in St Raphael’s College, Loughrea and he was an innovative diocesan advisor on religious education while also serving as chaplain to Tynagh mines.

In Rome, Dr Courtney took a Licentiate in Canon Law and a Doctorate in Moral Theology. Afterwards, he entered the Pontifical Diplomatic Academy where he studied political science as well as international and diplomatic law. (Later, in 1987, he was awarded an M.A. in Legal Philosophy by National University of Ireland, Galway).

On completion of his studies in 1980, Dr Courtney went to serve in diplomatic representation of the Holy See, successively in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Senegal, India, Yugoslavia, Cuba and Egypt. In 1995, he was appointed Special Envoy of the Holy See to the Council of Europe and allied institutions in Strasbourg from which position he was also involved with the European Parliament, the Council of Europe, the European Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe Development Bank in Paris.

On 12th November 2000, Michael Aidan Courtney was ordained titular Archbishop of Eanach Dúin by Cardinal Francis Arinze in St Mary’s Church, Nenagh, after which he was appointed Apostolic Nuncio in Burundi. Considering the turmoil in that region of Africa, it is an appointment requiring both personal courage and great diplomatic skill.

All who know Archbishop Courtney are impressed by his humility, his courtesy and the lightness with which he bears his great distinctions. It is not in any degree unctuous to say that people of all backgrounds in Annaghdown feel honoured to have the name of their district associated with such a man.

Newspaper Accounts of the Dedication of St Brendan’s

The Tuam Herald of Saturday 18 July 1903 tells us that: “On Sunday last the ceremony of dedicating the new church at Annadown (sic) was carried out with great stateliness and pomp”. However, the Galway Express of the same date gives a more extensive description of the occasion and it is that which is reproduced as follows. (It is noteworthy that Archbishop Healy refers to the “Church of St Brendan by the Lake”, presumably to avoid confusion with St Brendan’s in Corrandulla. It is also interesting that his address was delivered in English at a time when most Annaghdown people conversed in Irish and many older residents could not understand English. Perhaps a translator was present?).

“Of the very many interesting functions of which the Archdiocese of Tuam has been the centre for some months past, none has exceeded in interest that which was witnessesd in one of its most remote parishes when on Sunday morning last his Grace the Most Rev. Dr Healy, Archbishop of Tuam, solemnly dedicated the new church of St Brendan in Annadown, in the presence of a large and edified gathering of parishioners and friends from the surrounding districts, including a strong contingent from Galway City. The new church, the building of which was begun in the early part of the year 1900, occupies a very fine situation in the centre of the Annadown district, around which place cling so many hallowed memories of much that is great and spirit-stirring in the glorious history of the birth and development of Christinaity in Ireland. Replacing, as it does, an old structure which was only intended for temporary use, pending the provision of a more suitable place of worship, the new Church of St Brendan, besides proving an ornament to its locality, will fill a want long felt in so far as the religious requirements of the people of Annadown are concerned.

In design, the building is plain Gothic. The chief material used throughout is limestone, procured from the neighbouring quarries, the facing being ashler. The building is surmounted by a neat belfry, on the summit of which is placed a Cross Of Celtic design, one of three which ornament the exterior of the church, the second being placed over the chancel arch and the third over the chancel gable. The church, which has been built to accommodate about 500 people is well lighted both from the sides and from the rear of the altar. The interior accommodation consists of nave and chancel, with sacristy attached, and also an organ gallery. The altar is composed mainly of Sicilian marble and has been supplied by a Dublin firm – Messrs Hoban & Son. Mr Matthew Byrne, Thomas Street, Dublin, supplied the bell, which is well toned and adapted to its purpose.

Dighini of Dublin supplied the statuary which includes a statue of St Brendan. The chalice and the altar candle-sticks were supplied by Mr Laurence Gunning, Fleet Street, Dublin. The immediate surroundings of the new church, in addition to the sacred memories and fine old traditions which the name of Annadown recalls. are picturesque and in the highest degree interesting alike to the patriot and the scholar. The main entrance faces the eastern shore of Lough Corrib overhanging the remains of the square keep of the de Burgo castle, which, standing out boldly against the water’s edge, forms in itself a conspicuous reminder of ‘the days that are over’, though the recollections which mentions of them conjure up can never fade. Close by are other interesting ruins which, though of a much later foundation, are presumed to have been built on the where the earliest traces of Christian worship and learning in the district – the monastery, cathedral and convent, built under the direction of St Brendan during the period of his guidance of the ecclesiastical destinies of this part of the Archdiocese.

The church has been built by Mr Nee, Roundstone, from the plans of Mr Hamilton, architect, Galway. The music appropriate to the solemn ceremonial was admirably rendered the members of the Cathedral Choir from Tuam, the principal members being Miss Henehan (solo), Miss Hamilton, Miss Munroe, Miss Quinn, Miss Howley, Miss Regan (organist) and Mr J.A. Glynn, B.A. The music throughout the service was most devotionally rendered, a remark which applies specially to the soloes sung by Miss Henehan.

At the conclusion of the dedication ceremony, the customary devotions followed. High Mass, corum Pontificie, was celebrated at eleven o’clock. The celebrant was the Rev. John Tuffy, Professor, St Jarlath’s College, Tuam; deacon, Rev. Michael Higgins, Professor, do.; sub-deacon, Rev. John Neary, C.C., Belclare. The Very Rev. M.J. McHugh, President, St Jarlath’s College, officiated as master of ceremonies. His Grace the Most Rev. Dr Healy, Archbishop of Tuam, presided, the Very Rev. John Canon Barrett, P.P., V.G.. Headford, officiating as assistant at the throne.

Among the other clergy present were:- Very Rev. J. Canon Canton, P.P.. Athenry; Very Rev. Dr. Murphy, C.S.S.P.. president, Blackrock College, Dublin; Very Rev. M. Eagleton,P.P., Cummer; Rev. P.J. Newell, P.P., New Quay; Rev. Martin Commins. P.P.. Claregalway; Rev. Thomas Curran, P.P., Abbey; Rev. M. Lavelle, P.P., Kilconly; Rev. J. Stephens, C.S.S.P.. St Mary’s, Rathmines, Dublin; Rev. Laurence Ansbro, P.P., Annadown; Rev. MJ. McEvilly, C.C., Headford; Rev. J. O’Dea, C,C, Annadown; Rev. J.M. Heavey, C.C. Caherlistrane.

The following brothers of the Franciscan order were present: Rev. Br. Brendan Buckley, Superior, Annadown; Rev Br. Fidelis M. Lynch. Superior, Clifden; Rev. Br. Leo M. O’Donnell, Superior, Cummer; Rev. Brothers Bernardine Whelan, Cummer; Clement Moran, Clifden; Finbar Boland, Annadown; Mel MacGovern, do.; Alphonsus Kiernan, d.; Xavier Cosgrave, do.; Albert Maguire, do.; Sylvester Lynch, do.; Michael D’Arcy, do.; Gabriel Cosgrave, do.; Isidore Smyth, do.; Casimir Judge, do.

After Mass, the dedication sermon was preahed by his Grace, the Archbishop of Tuam from the text:- “I have chosen this place, said the Lord, and have sanctified it and put my Name there for ever and my Eyes and my Heart shall be there always”. In the opening sentences of an eloquent and most instructive sermon, his Grace said that it was to him a gratification to dedicate the Church of St Brendan by the Lake, on the scene of so much ancient holiness, to sanctify it by the power of God and when sanctified, to offer it to God in the name of the parishioners to be for ever a house of prayer, a house of sacrifice, a fountain of grace and the throne of God’s mercy to all of them. It was a special satisfaction to him to perform the dedication ceremony of that church, because the great St Brendan who founded the first church of Annadown, was the same who was also the founder and the patron and tile first Prelate of the Diocese of Clonfert over which he (Dr Healy) himself had lately ruled and because the Saint was, moreover, the founder of the Cathedral Church of Annadown – for it was a Cathedral Church in the old times which had since been incorporated with the Archdiocese of Tuam over which he now ruled. Brendan founded many Churches round the shores of Lough Corrib and in the great West as far as Innisgloira in the north-west extremity of Mayo and preached the Gospel to their forefathers with unceasing labour.

Therefore, there was a great reason why that day he (the preacher) should and why they should rejoice and why their hearts should be filled with thankfulness to God, because it had been given to them to build that church and offer it to God for His public worship in the honour of the great St Brendan. His Grace then proceeded to trace at considerable length the main outlines of the life and ministry of St Brendan who, he said, after his education by St Erc and St Ita, came West from his home near Tralee, Co. Kerry and subsequently devoted almost the entire of his life to advancing the cause of the Church in the West of Ireland, paying special attention to Annadown. Incidentally, the preacher referred to St Brendan’s famous seven years’ voyage across the ocean, assigning as one reason for it the saint’s desire to reach the lands of innocence and peace, of which so much had been written in the literature current in those early days, with the object of preaching the Gospel to the people of those islands if, haply, its message had not already reached them. For seven years St Brendan and his fourteen monks sailed. One knew not whither. But it was said that, under the guidance of God, they traversed the Atlantic and were the first to discover, if not the continent of America, at least some of those beautiful islands in the West Indian seas which were afterwards discovered by the great Genoese navigator. The legend was that when they reached those islands an angel told them that it was not yet God’s wish to make known the existence of those islands to the people of the East and directed St Brendan to return home and to found monasteries where most needed in this country. So Brendan came back with but one fixed purpose of devoting his life to the propagation of the Gospel wherever needed. Ultimately he came to Annadown where he was joined by his sister, St Briga, with whose assistance he founded a convent in addition to a monastery in the locality. Moreover, he sailed through all the islands of the sea preaching the Gospel and he (Dr Healy) had himself seen places on the west coast of Scotland which bore the name of the saint who also travelled to Wales and to Britanny, where his name is still perpetuated and revered. It was in Annadown on Sunday 16th May in the year 577 that the venerable old man breathed his last.

There was no Catholic heart, continued his Grace, that knew those things that would rejoice on that day and give thanks to who had enabled them and their parish priest in the midst their poverty, to build the church in which they were now assembled to the honour and glory of God and for the purpose of the worship of Him. That feeling of joy and thanksgiving must be intensified in their hearts when they thought of all that the poor people of those western territories had gone through since the day when St Brendan first preached the Gospel to their forefathers. His Grace then proceeded to outline the various and determined attempts which were inimical to Christianity in general and to catholicity in particular, to root out the faith of our fathers from amongst the people of the West of Ireland from the days of the Danish invasions to the time of Cromwell and impressed upon his hearers the fact that all efforts to extirpate the faith and native Irish race had failed completely. Stranger than all, the land was now coming back to the children of those whose forefathers had tilled it even before St Brendan set a stone upon a stone Of the Monastery of Annadown; and while they could not restore the old churches which had been destroyed, they were building new churches which rivalled in beauty even the grandest churches in the Ireland of the past. They had great reason to thank God for all that. They had for centuries suffered as perhaps no other people on the face of God’s earth had suffered. But God had at length begun to reward them in the sight and estimation of all men.”

Annaghdown and St Brendan’s, 1903-2003-2103

It is an empty exercise to think of the history of St Brendan’s Church merely in terms of a building of stone, metal and glass without thinking of those who attended it and of their physical and social environments. In this regard, it is a recurring tragedy that not enough is recorded at the time to enable people to know more about their forebears. The writer feels a keen sense of loss on realising that, when he was in his twenties, he could have spoken to very many people who had memories of the dedication of St Brendan’s had he but the interest and foresight to do so at the time. As it is, we are dependent on scant newspaper reports and nuggets of information transmitted by word of mouth.

In 1903, Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom though Home Rule and land agitation were rife. At the Galway Petty Sessions of 13 July, Algernon Persse, Esq., summoned several tenants to give up their land. The Galway newspapers of July 1903 were greatly occupied with the impending visit of King Edward Vll. The Tuam Herald tells us that emigration from Ireland amounted to an average of 108 people per day, or 40,000 per year. Passage from Galway to America could be had for £5-5s (steerage) or £7 (2nd cabin). Annaghdown to Galway by steamer cost 6d (3 Euro cent). The Boer War had ended recently and veterans of the Crimean War were still alive. The Russian Revolution and the two World Wars were yet to come. The Wright brothers were within months of the first powered flight at Kitty Hawk. The Annaghdown drowning tragedy of 1828 was still within living memory.

The material condition of the Annaghdown people in 1903 would today be considered appalling. Archbishop Healy, in his dedication address, refers to the people “in the midst of their poverty”. Transport, communication, housing, clothing, food, hygiene and medical treatment were a world away from the standards of 2003. The discovery of antibiotics was 40 years in the future. Many ailments which are quickly curable today then amounted either to a sentence of death or a life of suffering. Maternal and infant mortality were at very high levels. Even the wealthy of that time enjoyed standards which were below what would be considered acceptable today. Annaghdown was an overpopulated area in 1903 – the Congested Districts Board was still moving people eastwards to less crowded conditions. Probably the only luxury available to most people – or most men – was illegally distilled alcohol (poitín), which was produced on a large scale on the islands in Lough Corrib. Both men and elderly women smoked clay pipes (dúidíní) – when they could get tobacco – which led to truly awful cases of oral cancer.

From a more positive viewpoint, it is certainly true that people who were possessed of a constitution strong enough to cope with conditions of that era were far hardier and healthier than most people today. A plain wholesome diet, based on potatoes, caiscín bread and buttermilk combined with vigourous work in the open air is a far better recipe for good health than today’s refined adulterated foods and sedentary lifestyles. Surprisingly too, official data indicates that Irish people in the early 20th century had a higher standard of living than ordinary people on the European mainland. Another very positive factor was the attitude of resignation and acceptance of one’s lot which was founded on the religious culture of the time and which contributed to mental health and social cohesion. People simply did not have raised material expectations fomented by the type of vast advertising industry and communication media which beset us today.

In 1903, the church was very much the centre of the social lives of people in rural areas. Though people would visit each others houses in their own townlands, it was only after Sunday Mass that the entire parish (or half-parish) would meet and talk. Annaghdown was ill-served by public facilities until a relatively late stage. Various temporary church and school buildings had been used since the 1830s, notably the converted dwelling-house in Lisanoran. In 1893, this building was officially recognised as a National School and Seán Uasal O Floinn, a native Of Headford and a graduate of St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, Dublin, was appointed Master. Work began on a proper school building which was opened at Woodpark in 1898. Master O’Flvnn managed this school from then until shortly before his death in the mid-1930s, being succeeded by Master Robert J. O’Connell. Around the same time, a committee was formed, under the direction of Very Rev. Laurence Ansbro, to undertake the building of a church in Annaghdown.

Fr Ansbro was Parish Priest of Annaghdown (based in Corrandulla) until his death in 1910. Master O’Flvnn was treasurer of the committee and oversaw much of the work on behalf of Fr Ansbro. Many local people contributed voluntary labour as well as what little money could be afforded at the time. There had been some initial difficulty in obtaining a suitable site. Patrick J. Newell, châtelain of Woodpark House, declined to give the desired plot of ground, though he gave different site for Annaghdown National School. Finally the Goaley family of Woodvillage provided a site and work began in early 1900. The first Mass was celebrated by Fr Ansbro  in the partially completed church on Christmas Day 1901. The first child baptised there was Brendan O’Flynn, a son of Master O’Flynn, on 28 September 1902. Even at the dedication of the church in 1903 much remained to be done. There were no pews then in the church. Apparently, as time went on pews were purchased by individual families. The Curate’s house was also added later (in 1906). Much of the work had to be redone in 1937 following the fire of 1 December 1936 which destroyed the contents and even the roof. Again, voluntary labour played a big part in the work.

The foregoing descriptions may be found interesting but they should not obscure the fact that St Brendan’s was constructed first and foremost for religious observance. It is striking to note that an impoverished people would give such priority to the provision of a church building of high standard. But this was a unique era in the history of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, both in the devotion of the people and in the strength and aggressiveness of church government which would have corresponded well with the strictness of civilian government of the time. It was the era of “the Church Militant”. The 1850 Synod of Thurles set out to make the Irish Church the most organised and disciplined on earth. In this it succeeded and the results were visible for over a century until the beginnings of the information age in the 1960s. The people of Annaghdown in 1903, therefore, lived in a religious environment whose strictness and devotion are mirrored today only by orthodox Muslim societies. As in all human affairs there are both good and bad things that can be said about this situation. Undoubtedly the 1903 church governing structure was one which placed power above Christian charity and which seemingly deliberately fostered a climate of ugly sectarianism. Change was and necessary, and in time, inevitable but, in making change, one must careful to ensure that “the cure is not worse than the disease.” In particular, there is a very fine line between liberty and licence, a distinction which would have been irrelevant to he people of Annaghdown in 1903.

What of St Brendan’s and its community in 2003? The building might be recognisable but little else. In material terms the less well-off among the modern congregation enjoy standards unimaginable even to the wealthy of 1903 and surprising even to those who remember the 1950s. On the wider stage, the intervening century has been a cataclysmic one. The two World Wars, the rise and fall of Marxism-Leninism, the growth of American power and the disappearance of European empires turned the world upside down. Those who take the long view maintain that the greatest development of the 20th century has been the emergence of the European Union which is founded on the principle that the European nations should never again fall into armed conflict with each other or with the wider world. Major breakthroughs in technology have, in the past, led to social change. The invention of the printing press in the century and the transport revolution of the 19th century changed the worlds of their time. These changes were miniscule compared to the social upheaval engendered by the information revolution of the late 20th Century.

In Annaghdown, as elsewhere, the developments in the second half of the 20th century have led to an accelerating breakdown of the ecclesiastical and social structures and norms which were so solid in 1903. In this there is a difference between the pre- and post-1960s generations. The most significant changes have taken place in the relative roles of men and women in society, attitudes to sexual morality and the place of marriage and the family in the social structure. Anarchic tendencies are to be found particularly among younger people driven by substance abuse and Anglo-American “pop” media culture as well as access to ample material resources.

In terms of the institutional church per se in 2003, the word ‘crisis’ is in common usage. This normally refers to (i) clerical recruitment and//or (ii) clerical discipline, and /or (iii) youth disinterest and /or (iv) a general unwillingness to accept diktat from church government. The old saying of “Roma locuta, causa finita est” (Rome having spoken, the case is closed) no longer applies. There is, for example, a concern among Annaghdown people as to whether a replacement can be found for their present Curate when he retires or is reassigned.

It we look forward to 2103, at the risk of causing amusement to the people of that time on reading this, can we anticipate the situation of St Brendan’s in the life of the Annaghdown public? Will the building still be there? Will there be a curate and a congregation? What of Christianity at large? The people of 1903 would have answered these questions confidently but we cannot do so in 2003. It is obvious that we are now at a great turning point in church matters and that developments in the next quarter-century could well determine the course of future centuries.

Early Christianity was a network of cellular communities before the Emperor Constantine I, for political reasons, adopted it as the sole Roman religion and made it into an arm of Empire. With the decline of Roman imperialism, the church itself became an imperial hierarchical power structure with a professional clergy of various ranks, a compliant laity and standard ceremonial ritual. The structure has survived in the ‘mainstream’ churches (Roman and Eastern) for nearly 17 centuries. Whatever its appropriateness in the past, it is clearly unsuited to the 21st century. The age of deference is past; leadership can no longer be exercised through fear and intimidation but only by mutual respect based on open-ness and honesty. Gerontocratic authoritarianism which admits no mistake, entertains no discussion and takes rigid baseless stands for face-saving reasons is nowadays widely treated as a joke and an insult to intelligence. In this regard. the present foolishness over female clergy and compulsory clerical celibacy is capable of doing terminal damage. What is also highly regrettable is the fomenting of divisions between Christians over theological conundrums.

In 2103, St Brendan’s will be either a centre for a Christian community of Annaghdown or it will be turned into a museum/art gallery/concert hall – on present trends, the latter. There will not be a Christian community in Annaghdown in 2103 unless the institutional Church urgently reforms itself to adapt to the realities of the century, to become once more community-centred and to exploit the basic attractiveness of the Christian creed.

About the Author

Martin Newell was born in Baranny, Annaghdown, in 1940. Following secondary education in St Jarlath’s College, Tuam, he won a scholarship to University College, Dublin, where he graduated with a first-class honours Engineering Degree in 1963. He then went to work in the American manufacturing industry for five years until 1968 when he joined the staff of Trinity College, Dublin. While there, he completed M.A., M.Sc. and Ph.D. degrees as well as registering as a Chartered Engineer. He left TCD in 1976 to found the Central Applications Office (CAO) and to become its chief executive officer, a position he has held since. He has been a member of a number of state bodies, including the Higher Education Authority, and was recently appointed a member of the newly-formed State Examinations Commission.

Further Reading

The Church of St Brendan by the Lake, Annaghdown

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.