Stabat Mater: Gracewing Publications

Stabat Mater: Gracewing Publications

An Irishman’s Diary on ‘Crazy Jim’ and a famous hymn

‘Stabat Mater Dolorosa’ by Wesley Boyd  The Irish Times Monday 18th May 2015

Known locally as Crazy Jim, he had a habit of crawling on all fours, saddled and bridled like a donkey, around the main square of his native Todi, a hilltop town in Umbria. Yet he was one of the finest Italian poets of the Middle Ages and is considered to be the most likely author of the great Christian hymn, Stabat Mater Dolorosa. Other contenders for the authorship include at least three popes and three saints.

New light on the origin of the work is promised in a book by the distinguished Irish journalist, Desmond Fisher – finished just a few weeks before his death at the age of 95 in Dublin at the end of last year. Desmond, a Derry man, whose journalistic posts included editor of the Catholic Herald, London editor of the Irish Press and deputy head of news at RTÉ, spent the many years of his retirement researching the subject. His book, Stabat Mater, The Mystery Hymn, was published by Gracewing this month.

Stabat Mater Back Cover: with endorsements by John Horgan and Joe Carroll

Stabat Mater Back Cover: with endorsements by John Horgan and Joe Carroll

There are many roads to be following when exploring this haunting hymn to the Virgin Mary. Over the centuries it has been set to music by various composers, including Pergolesi, Haydn, Dvorak, Rossini and Vivaldi. (There was a memorable performance of Pergolesi’s arrangement in the old slate quarry on Valentia Island in 2004, directed by the Cork artist Dorothy Cross, and performed by the Opera Theatre Company from Dublin.) It was banned by the Council of Trent in 1545 but restored to the canon nearly three centuries later by Pope Benedict XIII to mark the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows on September 15th. But interesting as the history of the hymn itself is it is less fascinating than that of its putative author, Jacopone Benedetti, Crazy Jim himself.

He was born into an aristocratic family in Todi around 1230, a time of war, plague and turbulence. He was sent to Bologna to study law and returned to Todi to pursue his career as an advocate, some say unscrupulously. After years of dissolute philandering at the age of 37 he married Vanna, the daughter of a local count. He did little to moderate his way of life but Vanna remained faithful. Then tragedy struck. There was a feast day in Todi and the local gentry assembled on a raised platform to watch the parade. The platform collapsed and Vanna was crushed to death. Jacopone tried to revive his young wife and he discovered that under her fine robes she was wearing a shift of coarse, hairy cloth. Shocked by her death and stunned by the revelation that she had been secretly doing penance for his misdeeds, Jacopone changed his lifestyle.

He gave up his comfortable career as a lawyer and took to to the streets and roadways of Umbria as a mendicant wanderer dressed in shabby robes.

After a decade on the roads he became a lay brother in the Franciscan Order in his native town but continued in his eccentric behaviour.

Invited to a wedding in his brother’s house he turned up naked, tarred and feathered from head to toe. Jacopone had a poem for it: “A wise and courteous choice he’d make/Who’d be a fool for the dear Lord’s sake.”

Within the Franciscans there was a minority group who wished to follow a more austere and frugal way of life. They were dubbed the Spirituals and not unsurprisingly Jacopone, always attracted by extremes, joined their company. They petitioned the new pope, Celestine V, for permission to establish their own order.

Celestine favoured their cause but under the strain of having to deal with warring Christian states and church intrigues and scandals he resigned in 1294 after only five months in office. He was succeeded by Boniface VIII who promptly locked up Celestine and ordered the recalcitrant friars to return to the jurisdiction of their regular superiors. There was a history of enmity between Boniface and Jacopone, dating from the time when Boniface got a plum ecclesiastical job in Todi in 1260 from the bishop of the town who happened to be his uncle Peter.

The poet’s support for the Spirituals was condemned by Boniface and he imprisoned his old adversary. While in prison he wrote some of his greatest poems. In the jubilee year of 1300 Boniface sanctioned the release of many prisoners but left Jacopone in the dungeon. It was not until Boniface died three years later that he regained his liberty.

Jacopone was now over 70, broken in body and spirit. After more wanderings he found refuge in the Convent of the Poor Clares near his native Todi. There he died on Christmas Day 1306 as midnight Mass was being celebrated in the chapel. He is buried in the Franciscan church, Tempio San Fortunato, in Todi. The inscription on his tomb says “…. having gone mad with love of Christ, by a new artifice deceived the world and took Heaven by storm”.

There are many translations of Stabat Mater. The latest is by Desmond Fisher. I hope Crazy Jim likes it.


Desmond Fisher  Photo:  © Michael Fisher

Desmond Fisher Photo: © Michael Fisher

Irish Times Obituary Saturday 10th January 2015 p.12

Lifelong journalist known for integrity and encouragement to colleagues

Desmond Fisher  Born: September 9th 1920  Died: December 30th 2014

Desmond Fisher, who has died aged 94, was a journalist whose working life in Ireland and abroad was marked by a consistently high dedication to professional standards in a career that spanned almost seven decades.

Born in Derry in 1920, he got his first job — after a brief detour into a seminary — with the Nationalist and Leinster Times in Carlow, to which he had been recruited by its legendary editor Liam Begin.

Bergin’s talent-spotting was later to include such figures as Jim Downey, Olivia O’Leary, Michael Finlan, Des Cahill and Micheline McCormack — among many others who went on to higher things.

In 1948 Fisher joined the Irish Press and worked there (and, from 1949, on the Sunday Press) until 1952, when he was (also) recruited to the Irish News Agency.

Just a year later , he was appointed by Jim McGuinness, then editor of the Irish Press, as London editor of the Irish Press group, and he served there until 1962. From this base he covered a wide range of foreign assignments, including Ireland’s UN involvement in what was then the Belgian Congo, and the initial application by Seán Lemass’s government to join the European Economic Community in 1961.

On that occasion Lemass gave Fisher a personal interview in which he predicted that membership of the community would probably mean that Ireland would have to give up neutrality and legalise contraception and divorce and that some of the more positive aspects of Irish culture would be lost as a result of growing prosperity.


In 1962 he accepted an invitation to edit the Catholic Herald in London. It was a tempestuous time, not only for Catholicism generally, but for English Catholicism in particular. Fisher was unaware at the time of his appointment that his predecessor, Michael de la Bédoyère, had been squeezed out of the paper because of his openness to change.

He was to discover in time that the wheels of change in British Catholicism still moved extremely slowly. His evident sympathy for the aggiornamento launched by Pope John XXIII was not widely shared within either the British or Irish hierarchies, and his friendship with the controversial British theologian Charles Davis (who stayed in his house in Wimbledon while the storm about his departure from the priesthood raged) helped to bring matters to a head.

In 1964 he resigned “over policy differences with the Board”, as he later, rather temperately, expressed it.

For the following four years he worked only as a freelance in both print and broadcast journalism: he had been the Irish correspondent for the British economic publication The Statist for many years, and also developed strong relationships with newspapers like the National Catholic Reporter in the USA, the Anglican Church Times in Britain, and later, The Economist.

Eventually, however, he was headhunted by Jim McGuinness, now RTÉ head of news, to be his deputy, and he returned to Dublin to take up that post in 1968.

“He was to discover in time that the wheels of change in British Catholicism still moved extremely slowly” 

It was a torrid time at RTÉ, not least because of the escalating Northern crisis. In October 1973 he was appointed head of current affairs at the station. This forced marriage of news and current affairs had been decided on by the RTÉ Authority at least in part because of criticism by the government of the independently-minded programming emanating from the latter department.

Doomed fusion

The unwilling — and under-financed fusion of journalists and producers from different trade unions was probably doomed from the start. Fisher later became involved in a three-cornered political fracas involving the producer Eoghan Harris, RTÉ itself, and the then minister for posts and telegraphs, Conor Cruise O’Brien, centring on a programme about Northern Ireland.

Subsequently, after the authority had rejected his request for an appropriate role, budget and staff for the current affairs grouping, he resigned from these responsibilities in 1975 and the grouping was disbanded. He later served as director of TV development and chaired the RTÉ2 planning group, as well as launching the Irish Broadcasting Review, which ran from 1978 until shortly before his retirement from RTÉ in 1983.

After an interval of 36 years, he returned to the Nationalist and Leinster Times in Carlow as editor and managing director, following Liam Bergin’s retirement. He retired from this position in 1989, but continued to write for a wide range of publications — including on occasion The Irish Times — until shortly before his death. His final work — an annotated translation of the Stabat Mater — is due for publication this year.  DSC_0941 (800x421)

Independent spirit

Des Fisher was never — nor would he have wanted to be considered — a celebrity journalist. But his career was marked by a deep Catholicism, independence of spirit, intellectual integrity, an insistence on accuracy and fairness, and by his practical encouragement and training of many younger journalists.

These attributes marked him out as a substantial practitioner of his chosen profession in a period when journalism itself was undergoing seismic changes.

He is survived by his wife, Peggy (nee Smyth), and their children, Michael, Carolyn, Hugh and John.



This is part of an Irish Times feature by Una Mullally on Luke Kelly, who died 30 years ago today, aged 43. She says the singer’s legacy consists of his own achievements and his influence, which lives on in the intonations of many Irish singing voices. Tonight a tribute concert was held at Vicar Street in Dublin in his memory.

“Having grown up on Sheriff Street in Dublin’s inner city, and having left school in his early teens, Kelly typified the hard working-class musician. It is perhaps fitting that one of his early heroes, Pete Seeger, should die in the week of Kelly’s anniversary. The recordings of Woody Guthrie and his friendship with Seán Mulready would become strong musical touchstones for Kelly on his journey towards becoming one of the most significant figures in 20th-century Irish music”.

Raglan Road…one of my favourites

“An appreciation for traditional music is stirring among a new generation of music fans – many of whom weren’t even born when Kelly died in 1984. This is thanks, in part, to The Gloaming’s ascent. Like The Gloaming, Kelly produced visceral reinterpretations of songs that to many people were historical artefacts, rather than living pieces of musical art. In the process, he inspired and invigorated countless ballad singers. Dissecting what makes an artist as emotionally fine-tuned as Kelly might seem overly clinical, but there was a magic in his voice that many musicians have since tried to tap into”.

John Sheahan, who joined The Dubliners in 1964, has written a sonnet to mark the anniversary. Of Kelly’s talent, he told the Irish Times: “It’s to do with the nature of the way he sang – such passion and commitment – and he was a great interpreter of songs. He took risks in singing and in the manner he phrased songs. He would hold on for that millisecond longer than anyone else would dare to, then catch up on the melody and create a certain tension with the listener. It’s like a high jumper going those extra few millimetres and beating the height. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. When it works, it’s wonderful. When it fails, you’re grateful they took the chance.”

The article continues:

“Kelly was keenly political, a member of the Communist Party and a fundraiser for Amnesty International. Sheahan points to his generosity as one of his defining characteristics. He remembers an occasion when Kelly’s wife, the actress Deirdre O’Connell, had returned from a furniture auction with a table. By coincidence, Sheahan’s wife had picked up a set of chairs at auction similar to the table, and he joked about the coincidence to Kelly. ‘Before I could say anything, he had the table out the door and strapped to the roof of my car. He had no great commitment to material possessions’.”

When a Belfast family with whom Kelly and The Dubliners were friends were made homeless after being burned out of their house in the late 1960s, Kelly offered them the basement of his home, where they lived for a decade.

Scorn not his simplicity

“His legacy was putting his own stamp on a song such that it became the definitive version of a song for others to come along and emulate,” says Sheahan. “Kelly’s legacy is also the ongoing culture resonance of The Dubliners, who took songs people were familiar with – albeit in a rigid parlour or classroom setting – and reinvented them. Traditional music up until then was sitting down playing jigs and reels. We stood up. Here we are. Take us or leave us. No apologies.”


A fiery halo crowns your lived-in face,
You shine forth like a beacon from the throng,
Among your fellow peers you set the pace,
And soar above the crowd on wings of song.

Committed to the cause of human rights,
You hold aloft the flame of Amnesty,
When striking workers seek you in their plight,
You rally with your songs unstintingly.

A minstrel boy, you charm your way through life,
Enriching all who chance to pass your way,
You shelter wayward spirits from the night,
And raise them up on wings till dawn of day.

Though links with us alas too soon are severed,
Your spirit and your song will soar unfettered.

© John Sheahan January 2014


President Kennedy arrives for Vienna Summit June 3rd 1961 © White House Photographs: JFK Library & Museum

President Kennedy arrives for Vienna Summit June 3rd 1961 © White House Photographs: JFK Library & Museum

Much has been written about the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F Kennedy of the United States in Dallas, Texas, fifty years ago on November 22nd 1963. My father contributed this letter to the Irish Times in response to an interesting article by Dennis Staunton in a special supplement marking the anniversary.

‘Sir, – Denis Staunton’s interesting article (JFK, 50 Years after Dallas supplement, November 22nd) on JFK’s presidency rightly credits his “patience, caution and willingness to compromise with his Soviet counterpart Nikita Khrushchev” as helping to avert a nuclear war over the Cuban crisis in 1962.

It would, however, be wrong to give Kennedy all the credit for saving the world from nuclear war 50 years ago. His diplomatic skills were hard-learned. Only six months in office and still a novice in international politics, the US president faced the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, in a summit meeting in Vienna.

President Kennedy meets Nikita Khruschev in Vienna 1961 Photo: © US Dept of State, JFK Library & Museum

President Kennedy meets Nikita Khruschev in Vienna 1961 Photo: © US Dept of State, JFK Library & Museum

The summit’s main issues were the Soviet threats to close off Berlin to the Western powers and to locate nuclear weapons in Cuba, only 90 miles from Florida. Deadlock on both matters culminated in the world’s two most powerful leaders threatening nuclear war, Kennedy warning of “a long, hard winter” and Khrushchev adamant that “If the US wants war, that’s its problem”.

Pierre Salinger Photo: US Congress / Wikimedia Commons

Pierre Salinger Photo: US Congress / Wikimedia Commons

As the Irish Press’s London editor, I was covering the meeting and succeeded in getting an exclusive interview with the White House press secretary, Pierre Salinger. His version of the meeting was that Khrushchev gave Kennedy a frightening picture of the likely consequences of a nuclear war, with the major American cities being flattened like Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a picture that the gung-ho US military top dogs had hidden from him .

That evening Kennedy told the New York Times top reporter, James “Scotty” Weston, that “he (Khrushchev) beat the hell out of me . . . the worst thing of my life”. It was Kennedy’s real introduction to diplomacy. – Yours, etc

DESMOND FISHER, Roebuck, Dublin 14′.


Five of the ten new NUJ life members in Dublin  Photo: © Michael Fisher

Five of the ten new NUJ life members in Dublin Photo: © Michael Fisher

NUJ President Barry McCall from Dublin was the guest of honour at the presentation of life memberships to ten members of the National Union of Journalists, most of them working in the Dublin area. The ceremony was held on Friday evening at Liberty Hall, as a prelude to the Biennial Delegate Conference of the Irish section of the NUJ. NUJ General Secretary Michelle Stanistreet came to congratulate the ten, who between them have over 400 years’ membership of the union.

Jim Eadie, Ray Managh, Michelle Stanistreet and Michael Fisher (Belfast & District Branch, NUJ)

Jim Eadie, Ray Managh, Michelle Stanistreet and Michael Fisher (Belfast & District Branch, NUJ)

Husband and wife team Clodagh Sheehy and Liam Kelly from the Irish Independent group were among the recipients. Des Ekin of the Sunday World, who joined the NUJ as a cub reporter in the Newtownards Chronicle before moving to the Sunday News also received the award. Another Northerner Ray Managh who has worked for many years as a freelance courts correspondent in Dublin was presented with his certificate. He began his career in the Tyrone Constitution in Omagh and his proposer for NUJ membership was Ivan McMichael. He sent warm regards to a former colleague and PA Ireland Editor Deric Henderson, celebrating forty years as a journalist in Belfast.

Ray Managh  Photo: © Michael Fisher

Ray Managh Photo: © Michael Fisher

IEC Cathaoirleach Gerry Curran (who has been re-elected to the post) thanked each of the members for their contribution to the NUJ.

IEC Cathaoirleach Gerry Curran presents Ray Managh with his life membership award Photo: © Michael Fisher

IEC Cathaoirleach Gerry Curran presents Ray Managh with his life membership award             Photo: © Michael Fisher

The other recipients were Paul Barry, former deputy Sports Editor of the Irish Times, whose father, a photographer, had proposed him for NUJ membership; Michael Lavery, formerly of the Roscommon Herald and later with the Evening Herald; Con Power and Albert Smith (Independent Newspapers); Gerry Smyth, a poet, who worked for The Irish Times (I know from my mother that the Smyths are particular about the spelling of their surname!!); and Jim Smith (correct!), former Editor of the Dundalk Argus.