The first anniversary of my father’s death on 30th December 2014 was marked with a Mass at the house in Dublin. To the right of the celebrant Fr Martin Murnaghan (a regular Christmas visitor over the years) was an empty chair with Dad’s photo and some candles. This is where he worked daily on his laptop and completed the manuscript for a book Stabat Mater, with his own translation of the original Latin poem. The book was published by Gracewing in May (£9.99) and copies can be obtained from them or via the family. IMG_20151231_105801


‘Stabat Mater, The Mystery Hymn,’ by Desmond Fisher, was launched in Donnybrook last week Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015

‘Stabat Mater, The Mystery Hymn,’ by Desmond Fisher, was launched in Donnybrook last week Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015

From a dissolute to a desolate life … a new look at the story of an old hymn

Patrick Comerford

Book launches are always a good opportunity to meet people with shared interests and stories.

Last week, it was a pleasure to be invited by fellow blogger Michael Fisher to the launch in O’Connell’s in Donnybrook of a new book by his late father Desmond Fisher, Stabat Mater, The Mystery Hymn.

The book was launched by former Irish Times colleague and former Senator John Horgan, who is also a former Press Ombudsman. As a young reporter, John Horgan was given a job at the Catholic Herald in London by the editor, Desmond Fisher, who also worked for the Irish Press.

The attendance at the book launch included Wesley Boyd, who has reviewed the book in the ‘Irishman’s Diary’ in The Irish Times this morning [18 May 2015], and many former colleagues from, the world of journalism and broadcasting. But I was also there because of my theological and spiritual interests.

Stabat Mater is a much-loved Lenten hymn among English-speaking Roman Catholics, although it was once been banned by the Council of Trent and later by successive popes.

The title of this sorrowful hymn is an incipit of the first line, Stabat Mater Dolorosa (“The sorrowful mother stood”). The hymn meditates on the sorrows of the Virgin Mary as she stands at the foot of the Cross. It has been set to music by many composers, including Palestrina, Pergolesi, Alessandro Scarlatti and Domenico Scarlatti, Vivaldi, Haydn, Rossini, Dvořák, Karol Szymanowski, Poulenc and Arvo Pärt.

There are many variations in the translation from the original Latin. So, in this new book the late Desmond Fisher seeks to get back to the original meaning of the author who wroteStabat Mater 700 years ago. The hymn was well-known by the end of the 14th century. It was banned by the Council of Trent, but restored to the missal by Pope Benedict XIII in 1727, and was assigned by Pope Pius X in 1913 to the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows (15 September).

But who was the author? At times, the hymn has been attributed to a variety of sources, including popes, three Saints and a member of the laity who was jailed and excommunicated.

In this book, Desmond Fisher identifies Jacopone da Todi (1230-1306) as the true author, and tells the story of his amazing life, from a dissolute to a disconsolate and desolate life. His privileged life came to end with the tragic death of his wife, and he eventually joined the Spirituali, an extreme, ascetic faction of Franciscans, before ending up in prison.

With a sympathetic and understanding approach, Desmond Fisher tells an amazing story of mediaeval extremism, but also provides a new translation of the poem, while adhering to the original metre and rhythm and re-presenting its emotions. He compares his own work with other well-known existing English versions – including those by the Irish poet Denis Florence McCarthy (1817-1882) and the English Anglican priest and hymn-writer Edward Caswall (1814-1878), who became a Roman Catholic – and tries to challenge long-accepted preconceptions.

This book was Desmond Fisher’s final achievement before he died on 30 December 2014 at the age of 94. In his final weeks, his manuscript was accepted by Gracewing.

As part of the pre-Reformation heritage of the undivided Church, it deserves to be better known among other traditions, including Anglicans. Even Archbishop Richard Chenevix Trench omitted it from his Sacred Latin Poetry in 1874 because of what he saw as its Mariolatry. Hopefully, Desmond Fisher’s new book will help to redress this.

Stabat Mater

Stabat mater dolorosa
juxta Crucem lacrimosa,
dum pendebat Filius.

Cuius animam gementem,
contristatam et dolentem
pertransivit gladius.

O quam tristis et afflicta
fuit illa benedicta,
mater Unigeniti!

Quae mœrebat et dolebat, pia Mater,

dum videbat nati pœnas inclyti.

Quis est homo qui non fleret,
matrem Christi si videret
in tanto supplicio?

Quis non posset contristari
Christi Matrem contemplari
dolentem cum Filio?

Pro peccatis suæ gentis
vidit Iesum in tormentis,
et flagellis subditum.

Vidit suum dulcem Natum
moriendo desolatum,
dum emisit spiritum.

Eia, Mater, fons amoris
me sentire vim doloris
fac, ut tecum lugeam.

Fac, ut ardeat cor meum
in amando Christum Deum
ut sibi complaceam.

Sancta Mater, istud agas,
crucifixi fige plagas
cordi meo valide.

Tui Nati vulnerati,
tam dignati pro me pati,
pœnas mecum divide.

Fac me tecum pie flere,
crucifixo condolere,
donec ego vixero.

Juxta Crucem tecum stare,
et me tibi sociare
in planctu desidero.

Virgo virginum præclara,
mihi iam non sis amara,
fac me tecum plangere.

Fac, ut portem Christi mortem,
passionis fac consortem,
et plagas recolere.

Fac me plagis vulnerari,
fac me Cruce inebriari,
et cruore Filii.

Flammis ne urar succensus,
per te, Virgo, sim defensus
in die iudicii.

Christe, cum sit hinc exire,
da per Matrem me venire
ad palmam victoriæ.

Quando corpus morietur,
fac, ut animæ donetur
paradisi gloria. Amen.

● Desmond Fisher, Stabat Mater, The Mystery Hymn, Leominster: Gracewing, ISBN 978 085244 862 5, 176 pp, £9.99.


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.


John Horgan speaking about Desmond Fisher Photo:  © Michael Fisher

John Horgan speaking about Desmond Fisher Photo: © Michael Fisher

My late father’s book, Stabat Mater: The Mystery Hymn, was launched at a reception at O’Connell’s in Donnybrook, Dublin. The main speaker was the former Press Ombudsman, John Horgan. Some pictures from the launch are included here.

Michael Fisher listening to the speakers he introduced  Photo:  © Evelyn Fisher

Michael Fisher listening to the speakers he introduced Photo: © Evelyn Fisher

Michael, John and Hugh Fisher Photo:  © Evelyn Fisher

Michael, John and Hugh Fisher Photo: © Evelyn Fisher


Stabat Mater: Gracewing Publications

Stabat Mater: Gracewing Publications

My father’s last achievement before he died at the end of last year, aged 94, was to finish a book about the medieval poem (hymn), Stabat Mater. It contained a new translation by him from the original Latin. He comes down in favour of Jacopone da Todi as being the author.

In his final weeks, the manuscript was accepted by a publisher in England, Gracewing. The first proofs were issued shortly after he was taken into hospital and he asked his family to take on the task of seeing that the relevant corrections were made and that the book was produced. Alas he did not live long enough to see it in print. However he was shown the book in draft form and I also provided him with laminated copies of the two pages containing his new translation of the poem (twenty stanzas).

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

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

I reproduced this alongside the Latin original and I hope it gave him some satisfaction to see this part of his work in print while he was still alive and remained lucid. At his cremation service at Mount Jerome in Dublin, I read the translation as a prayer.

Book Reviews: Catholic Herald May 8th 2015 p.36

Book Reviews: Catholic Herald May 8th 2015 p.36

A brief review of the book has appeared in the latest edition of the new Catholic Herald magazine. In the section ‘Briefly noted…’, the reviewer says:

Stabat Mater by Desmond Fisher (Gracewing, £9.99). This fascinating account of the origins and different translations of the well-loved Lenten hymn was written not long before the death of its author, a former Catholic Herald editor, who died soon after its completion last year, aged 94. The book seeks to discover the hymn’s likely author: Jacopone da Todi, who lived at the time of the Black Death. Fisher provides his own translation of the hymn alongside others, though the well-known translation by Edward Caswall is likely to remain the popular choice for its familiarity and mournful cadences”.  cancer

This evening in Dublin we are launching the book. We are very pleased that John Horgan, the former Press Ombudsman. who as a young reporter was given a job by my father at the Catholic Herald in London, has agreed to be the main speaker. Copies of the book will be available at €10 and the proceeds on the night will be donated to the Irish Cancer Society in memory of my father.

Desmond and Peggy Fisher on the occasion of my father's retirement from the Carlow Nationalist  Photo courtesy of Tom Geoghegan

Desmond and Peggy Fisher on the occasion of my father’s retirement from the Carlow Nationalist Photo courtesy of Tom Geoghegan

If you would like an invitation to the event, please contact me. If you cannot attend and would like to purchase a copy, you can also contact me directly. If you live in Britain and wish to order a copy (£9.99) please do so using the Gracewing website or through Amazon or one of the online bookshops. It is also available worldwide using online orders.

In Grateful Appreciation

In Grateful Appreciation


John Horgan  Photo: DCU

John Horgan Photo: DCU

Desmond Fisher – an appreciation by John Horgan 

Desmond Fisher, who died in December aged 94, was a journalist who was undoubtedly less well known than he deserved to be, but whose contribution to religious journalism in English in the twentieth century was in many senses significant. It spanned an era when Catholicism in particular was undergoing seismic changes – changes which he witnessed, and documented for a wide variety of media, with consummate professionalism, balance and a deep commitment to his own religious faith.

He never courted personal publicity, and of course he contributed much of his work in print rather than in broadcasting, and in another era – one in which Twitter and Facebook were unknown, and television was only coming of age. When he joined RTE as Deputy Head of News in 1967 – almost half a century ago – he had already had a stellar career in print journalism, of which most of RTE’s Young Turks in the 1960s would have been blissfully ignorant.

Doctrine and Life: February Issue

Doctrine and Life: February Issue

Almost two decades in journalism, most significantly as London Editor of the Irish Press Group, meant that he was, metaphorically, at the top of his game when he was approached in 1962 with an invitation to become editor of the Catholic Herald in London, possibly because his reports from Rome for the Irish Press on the first session of Vatican 2 had marked him out as that rarity – a newsman who understood, and could write fluently about, the epochal changes that were just beginning to impact on global Catholicism.

Catholicism in Britain was then, and remained for many years, something of a hybrid. Its membership ran from the aristocratic Duke of Norfolk to the working class masses of Irish origin who populated the great British industrial cities. His predecessor, Michael de la Bedoyère, was a Stonyhurst-educated scion of the former class, a somewhat languid intellectual who had been in post for almost three decades. Under his editorship the paper once printed its major leading article with a final editorial sentence reading: “Cut here – the rest is tripe.”
This may not have been a hanging offence, but the writing was on the wall in any case for other reasons, mainly because the English Catholic bishops found him too liberal, and the proprietors clearly wanted an editor more open to clerical orthodoxy, and to the large potential readership who were largely readers of the rival, and much more down-market, Universe. In the event, Des Fisher initially did not disappoint. He welcomed the opportunities offered by the Council with gusto, and his reports from Rome between then and 1966 not only burnished his reputation, but earned him the respect and friendship of a wide circle of international journalists – Henri Fesquet of Le Monde, Raniero La Valle of L’Avvenire, Jerszy Turowicz of Tygodnik Powszechn in Poland, Bob Hoyt of the National Catholic Reporter, and Bob Kaiser of Time magazine – as well as the trust and confidence of the kaleidoscopic collection of bishops, theologians, and others, clerical and lay, Protestant, Catholic and agnostic who descended on Rome en masse every autumn to watch, and participate, in that great event.

Douglas Woodruff, then editor of the Tablet, warned Des in a Roman restaurant just before the Council began that it was always dangerous to underestimate the Curia, whose motto was Qui pensiamo in seculi – here we think in centuries. It was a warning Des was happy to ignore even when – as events were to demonstrate – it was to his career disadvantage. His own post-Conciliar book, “The Church in Transition,” was typically modest and low-key. He was never one of those people who, in the memorable Irish phrase, had “a great welcome for himself,” but he could tap into the zeitgeist with the confidence and competence of a true professional.

Desmond Fisher

Desmond Fisher

Des’s tenure as editor of the Catholic Herald was marked not only by his professional expertise and dyed-in-the-wool fair-mindedness, but also by his courage. When the English theologian Charles Davis, one of the most progressive and prophetic voices of his generation, decided to leave the ministry –and ultimately to marry – it was Des who befriended him and sheltered him in his house in Wimbledon while the British tabloid press hunted him like a wild animal. He as courageous, too, in his unwillingness to cut his cloth by anyone else’s measure: this was to be tested when he discovered that his honeymoon as editor of the Catholic Herald was always subject to the whims of the English hierarchy. A number of bishops, Irish as well as English, disapproved of the tenor of his reports, and the Catholic Herald was banned in some parishes. All this was undoubtedly a key factor in a decline in its circulation, which strengthened the hands of his critics. Both the main owner of the Catholic Herald, Vernor Miles, and Cardinal Heenan, archbishop of Westminster, were deeply disturbed by the tenor of Des’s reporting and Miles arranged to have him recalled from Rome on the manifestly inaccurate grounds that the bulk of the Council’s work was over. Three months later he resigned, citing “policy differences with the Board.” His departure occasioned personal letters of regret from, among many others, Abbot Christopher Butler of Downside, the theologian Fr. Hubert Richards, and Archbishop Denis Hurley of Durban.

In Des’s case, however, it was – as ever – a case of reculer pour mieux sauter. With a courage rarely displayed by someone of his years, and with a young family to support, he took to free-lance journalism. He wrote a weekly column for the Anglican Church Times, and wrote exclusively on Catholic affairs for the National Catholic reporter and the St. Louis Review in the United States, as well as contributing to Commonweal, the Tablet, Doctrine and Life, and the Furrow, among many other publications. He might have become editor of Hibernia in Dublin if it had managed to attract new investment capital, and both Herder Correspondenz, and a Canadian Catholic weekly, were keenly interested in securing his services, before he was head-hunted by Jim McGuinness (an old acquaintance from Irish Press days) to take up a senior position at RTE. Like many a journalist, he was not really an organization man, and managed to escape the RTE bureaucracy from time to time to write about his interests in religion, in Irish media generally, and in the right to communicate. He was reminiscing in the Irish Times about Vatican 11 a half-century after it had ended, and had just finished, before his death, an annotated translation of the Stabat Mater, which is due for publication later this year.

He was, in a sense, a fine embodiment of that element of the populus Dei to which he would refer wryly from time to time, and which is, in these troubled but fascinating days, needed more than ever: the Church’s loyal opposition. It was not a concept with which the hierarchs he met ever really felt comfortable; but it is an apt description of the role he and many others played in those wondrous times – times which may, with luck, come again.


Postscript: I should declare an interest. I first met Des in London in his Irish Press office early in 1962, on the basis of an introduction from the editor of the Evening Press in Dublin, for which I had briefly worked. I was newly married, and unemployed, and expected little more than a few stern words of warning about the impossibility of getting into Fleet Street. The conversation turned – without my realising it – into a job interview, and at the end of it he offered me a job on the Herald when he moved there at the end of the month. Although I left the Herald after less than two years to join the Irish Times in Dublin, the training and encouragement I got from him in that small, busy office was to stand me in good stead for the rest of my professional life. Some of the information in this appreciation has been garnered, with his family’s permission, from a memoir of his own professional life which he wrote before his death and which is now, together with the rest of his papers, destined for the Media History Archive at Dublin City University, to which he bequeathed it.  John Horgan  21 January 2015


The family of the late Desmond Fisher would like to thank all those who sent messages or letters of sympathy or Mass cards following his death on December 30th and helped them in their bereavement. Also to those who posted online. Thanks to everyone for your support during a time of grief. I will post more news about his 200-page book Stabat Mater nearer the time of publication: today was spent going through the second proofs and checking for any further corrections. Michael Fisher.