Sermon at Saint Mark’s Church, Borris-in-Ossory on Wednesday, 7th September 2011
Coslett Quin would not be the most prominent of hymnwriters, but it would be negligent to go through an alphabet of writers without at least some reference to the great tradition of hymns in the Irish language.
Coslett Quin is not typical of those we might have expected to be an important member of the Irish language movement. An Ulster Protestant, he grew up in the Church of Ireland Rectory at Derriaghy, at the time a village between Lisburn and Belfast, where his father was Rector.
A conventional upbringing and education took him to Trinity College, Dublin and led to him being ordained in 1931, at the age of 24, to serve as curate of the parish of Dundela, a middle class suburb of east Belfast. He was a gifted linguist, speaking German and French so fluently that he was later to translate theological books from those languages into English.
Coslett Quin’s clerical career was unremarkable, other than that he served in nine different parishes, mostly in rural Ireland, never spending more than six years in any of them. What is remarkable is his commitment to languages and the use of his gift in translating Scripture and spiritual writings.
The Irish language would have been absent from the Derriaghy of his childhood days; the militant Ulster Unionism that would have been pervasive in such parishes would have regarded all things Irish as a compromise of the British identity the Unionists sought to promote.
It was following his ordination to serve in east Belfast that Quin seems to have devoted great energy to the learning of Irish. ‘The History of Protestant Irish Speakers’ by Gordon McCoy, written in 2009, says, ‘The Rev Coslett Quinn, of the Church of Ireland, learned the Irish of Tyrone and Antrim in the 1930s. Aodh Ó Canainn wrote that at this time some of the best speakers of Irish in Antrim were Protestants. On Rathlin Island Rev Quinn learned an Irish language song from Miss Annie Glass, another member of the Church of Ireland’.
Coslett Quin’s four years in Dundela were followed by four years as curate in charge of Moville in Donegal; two years in Saint Columba’s College in Dublin; and two years as curate in charge of Drumlane in Co Cavan. In 1944 he was appointed Rector of Killinagh in Co Cavan, where he remained for six years until moving to Narraghmore in Co Kildare in 1950. Five years later he was to move to the parish of Saint John in Cork city; he was to be the last Rector of that parish, Saint John’s Church was closed in 1960 and eventually sold to Cork Vocational Education Committee. Following his five years in Cork, Coslett Quin moved back to Co Cavan to be Rector of Billis and Ballyjamesduff, staying there until 1965 when he moved to Dunganstown in Co Wicklow for the final six years of his parochial ministry.
All through these years of parochial ministry, which carried him across the length and breadth of Ireland, Quin remained a devoted scholar and spiritual writer.
In the spring of 1946, he hosted a mission in his Killinagh parish where the preacher was Martin Parsons of the Church Missionary Society. Parsons notes in his memoirs, ‘Easter was late that year (April 21st) and I did a Holy Week – Easter Mission at Blacklion, where Coslett Quinn was rector. He later wrote a good book on the Holy Communion. It was quite a good Mission, I think. The parish was on both sides of the border’.
The book on the Holy Communion to which Parsons referred was published in 1954. It had the unwieldy title of ‘At the Lord’s table: a theological and devotional commentary on the Holy Communion Service according to the Anglican Rite of 1662’, but it demonstrated Quin’s commitment to faith as something both scholarly and devotional; as faith being of the head and of the heart.
In 1961, in addition to his parochial duties, Coslett Quin was appointed professor of Biblical Greek at Trinity College. He had an extraordinary capacity for work, translating the Revised Standard Version of the New Testament into Irish and translating a commentary on the book of Ezekiel by Walther Eichrodt, a major German theologian, from German into English.
Retiring after forty years of parochial ministry in 1971, Quin still found plenty of outlets for his talents, translating the Alternative Prayer Book and Psalms into Irish, as well as numerous hymns and prayers; his translation of ‘Amazing Grace’ can be found in the biography of him by Risteard O Glaisne.
Quin never flagged in his energy, the 1994-95 Journal of Local History Society of Creggan, a parish in south Armagh, notes, ‘The last meeting of 1993 was held on Thursday, December 1st, it was reported by the Chairperson that up on ninety people packed into Creggan Church Hall to hear a lecture by Canon Coslett Quinn on the night of November 11th’. Three months short of his 87th birthday, he was still giving public lectures in places far from home.
Coslett Quin died in 1995 and was buried in Dunganstown in Co Wicklow; a very long and a very full life, but why should his work be important to us? Because, I think it recalls us to the great spiritual riches with which God has blessed this country.
There is in Irish spirituality a sense of God in the ordinary. In the everyday things. There was a sense in early Irish Church that life was lived in presence of God and life was lived for God– there were prayers for every occasion, even at the lighting of a fire in the morning. The whole of life was sacred for them; God was never excluded. Our faith now is in God in the abstract, God in the private and the personal, how often do we carry our faith into our daily lives; how often are we prepared, as Coslett Quin was, to spend countless hours of our own time in God’s service?
There was in the ancient Irish church a seeking after the ways of peace. They met directly with the hostile world outside and attempted to respond to it with love and care; look at what a contrast the early monasteries were with the society around. It poses a question to us about how much we are a contrast with the society in which we live.
Coslett Quin stood in that great Irish tradition of having a firm understanding of a faith that he could share; his studies were not just in translation, they were in theology and liturgy and prayer and Scripture. The early Irish church lived in times of anarchy and violence across Europe. The Roman Empire in western Europe collapsed in the Fifth Century and much of Europe descended into the Dark Ages. The Irish monks who went out as missionaries were a light in the darkness at this time.
There was a devotion to study and learning in those centuries. One of the most beautiful of the ancient Irish hymns expresses such commitment. The second verse of the Irish hymn ’It were my soul’s desire’ says:
It were my soul’s desire
To study zealously;
This, too, my soul’s desire,
A clear rule set for me.
The strongest theme running through the writings of the Irish Church was the hope of heaven; a hope of a life beyond the present, which seemed often to be nasty, brutish and short. It is the theme of Coslett Quin’s translation of Donough O’Daly’s ‘O fair is our Lord’s own city’. The hymn concludes:
From earth our faces turning
Towards the King of grace;
In prayer let us beseech him
To bring us to that place.
Quin urges us to a life of work, devotion, faith and confidence; a life modelled on the ancient church; a life very different from the values of the world today.