Clergyman and writer influenced by years in the army
Rev Matthew Byrne: Born November 16th, 1927; Died: August 2nd, 2013
A gregarious man who chatted freely to friends and strangers alike, he was a lover of language, speaking English, Irish and a little French. He read ancient Greek, Latin and also Hebrew – knowledge and skills that enhanced all his accomplishments.
He was one of seven children – two boys and five girls – born to Irish parents, Patrick Joseph Byrne and Elizabeth Gray in 1927 in Salford, Lancashire. His father served with the British army in the trenches in France and later worked as a supervisor at the Dublin docks. Elizabeth was of Scottish extraction and was immersed in Celtic spirituality, on which Byrne’s own spirituality was modelled.
Before Byrne was a year old the family returned to Ireland. He attended Mountjoy School where he developed his lifelong love of the Irish language. His inclination to writing emerged early: while still a schoolboy, he would submit items to the Evening Mail newspaper, for which he was paid, and for the rest of his life he was to augment his clergy stipend with the proceeds of writing.
After school, he went to Tyndale Hall in Bristol (now Trinity, Bristol) to study theology, graduating in 1947 and was ordained four years later. In 1952, he married Weena (née Savage) and in time they had two children, Michael and Graine.
He served as a curate in Rawtenstall, a Lancashire cotton town, and was an army chaplain from 1954 to 1957, seeing active service in Kenya, Korea and Cyprus. He was deeply influenced by his years in the army and for the rest of his life was always ready with a thought-provoking story of the people, the places and the times.
It was during this period that he got a taste for radio with the forces radio broadcasting unit. Back in Britain, he became rector of St Margaret’s, in the Whalley Range area of Manchester and later of St James, in Moss Side.
He also became a freelance writer, presenter and producer with the BBC and ITV. He regularly contributed to Thought for the Day, the early morning slot on what used to be known as the Home Service, now Radio 4.
His popularity and powers of persuasion were such that he managed to arrange for members of the cast of Coronation Street to come to open special events at St Margaret’s Church where the wedding of the character Elsie Tanner was filmed.
At Manchester University in 1969 he studied under Prof FF Bruce, for whom he had a lasting respect and graduated with a masters in theology. His dissertation was entitled “The Healing Miracles in the Fourth Gospel”.
Watching coverage of the pope’s visit to Ireland in 1979, Byrne and his wife became homesick and they returned the following year, Byrne taking the position of curate-in -charge of Kilmainham and Chapelizod and school chaplain to King’s Hospital school.
In the early 1980s Byrne was a contributor to RTÉ radio’s The Living Word, subsequently working also on Just a Thought and Faith Matters. In 2002, he did five broadcast talks on the Life of Christ According to Luke. He was a regular contributor to Sunday Miscellany and produced many Sunday Service broadcasts.
From 1989 to 1993, he was dean of St Brigid’s Cathedral in Kildare. He oversaw the latter part of its restoration and he and the then bishop, Walton Empey, ended up with their likenesses depicted as gargoyles on the roof. As padre to the Irish Army in the Curragh, he visited the troops in Lebanon and was always proud of his UN cap.
Matthew Byrne wrote several books, including the bestselling Dublin and her People (Eason 1987); a novel, Heaven Looked Upwards (Macmillan 1996 and Townhouse 1997), The Way it Was – The Narrative of the Birth of Jesus (Columba Press 2004), The Day He Died – The Passion According to Luke (Columba Press 2004) and My Father’s Business – St Luke’s Narrative of the Ministry of Jesus Part 1: in Galilee (Columba Press 2009). Part 2 of St Luke’s narrative was started but sadly never finished.
After retirement to Greystones in Co Wicklow, his beloved Weena died in 1999. As a widower in Greystones, he met the Rev Olivia Williams, then curate at St Patrick’s Church and now rector of Carlow. Shared interests – in faith, food, art and literature – drew them together, despite a considerable age gap: he was 73, she 46.
They were friends and soul-mates for 12 years before their marriage in July this year. In February, he contracted a chest infection and eventually moved to Beechwood Nursing Home in Leighlinbridge, Carlow, where he and Olivia announced their engagement and were married in a joyful ceremony, conducted by Bishop Empey.
He died with Olivia by his side and is lovingly remembered by her and by his son Michael, daughter Graine, sisters Jo and Agnes and extended family.
The day before his funeral, his campaign medals were found, safely tucked into the front pocket of his robe bag.