OBITUARY: Peter Barrett, Irish-speaking Anglican who baulked at Belfast bigotry

The Right Rev Peter Barrett
The Right Rev Peter Barrett
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Rev Peter Barrett began his career in Co Londonderry and rose to become one of the 12 bishops of the island of Ireland.

The Church of Ireland figure’s career came to a very sudden halt in 2006, following the breakdown of his marriage.

In Belfast, where he ministered for a number of years, he was described as a caring parish priest with a friendly demeanour, and a memorial service is to be held for him in the new year.

He died at home in Donnybrook, Dublin, on the evening of October 28, of a suspected heart attack. He was aged 59.

EARLY LIFE:

He was born in Dublin on February 8, 1956.

He went on to study a bachelor’s degree in history and politics at Trinity College Dublin, and then to earn two Masters degrees - one in the Arts, the other in Philosophy.

He was ordained in the Diocese of Derry and Raphoe in 1981, and served as curate in Drumachose (Limavady) between 1981 and 1983.

He then undertook a stint in Dublin, before a five-year spell in Letterkenny until 1990, and then spent four years as rector of St George’s in Belfast (1990-1994).

The church, located near the Albert Clock, is the oldest Anglican one in Belfast, with a traditional ‘High Church’ style of worship.

Brian Stewart, the church’s current rector, said: “He was extremely well-liked while here, and noted for his pastoral care of parishioners, and visitations to parishioners - and the fact he had very friendly and approachable; a lively personality.

“He wasn’t a shy, retiring type. He was bubbly, lively and friendly... but also very good with people who were sick or bereaved.”

During his time at the church, Rev Stewart said Rev Barrett had been a “quite traditional, orthodox, down-the-line mainstream Anglican”.

He had, for example, opposed the ordination of women (although Rev Stewart said he later changed his mind, and ordained women when he himself became a bishop).

A SOUTHERNER IN BELFAST:

As a southerner, he also baulked at the sectarianism of Northern Ireland, which he found “disturbing and distressing” – possibly even “beyond his comprehension”.

“He’d been a curate in Limavady, so he wasn’t completely new to the situation,” said Rev Stewart.

But the “intensity” of sectarianism in Belfast was far worse.

Rev Stewart recounted a tale of how Rev Barrett – who was an Irish speaker, and would sometimes start his sermons in that language – had once been leaving a parishioner home during the marching season.

He noticed a bonfire being constructed with a tricolour placed on top, and Rev Stewart said: “He was I think genuinely upset that the flag of the country where he grew up was going to be burnt because of bitterness and hatred.”

He was later made Dean of Residence and Chaplain at Trinity College, Dublin (from 1994 to 1998), Dean of Waterford (from 1998 to 2002), and was elected Bishop of Cashel and Ossory (in the south-east of Ireland) on November 4, 2002.

DIVORCE:

He resigned his position at the start of 2006 (as well as his post as president of the umbrella group the Irish Council of Churches, one year into a two-year stint).

A statement from him said he was “no longer able to cherish his marriage” and was “in the midst of deep personal struggle”.

From that point, his ministry was over.

He and his wife of around 25 years went on to divorce.

Rev Stewart said that quite a few St George’s parishioners attended his funeral in St Paul’s, Glenageary (in Dun Laoghaire) on November 2.

He had, in the later years of his life, attended St John’s Church in Sandymount, Dublin, but had been too small to accommodate the estimated 500-or-so who attended his funeral.

TRIBUTES:

After his death, the Bishop of Connor, the Rt Rev Alan Abernethy, called him “a very dear friend”.

Rev Stewart said: “I’m sure even after he was made bishop and everything else, he’d have said ‘Fundamentally I’m a parish priest’. That’s all he ever wanted to be – to preach and take services.”

Archbishop of Dublin, the Most Rev Dr Michael Jackson, said: “Throughout his life Peter touched the lives of many, both inside the church and beyond.

“Peter’s passing is felt with great sadness by a wide range of people and in particular by his family and by all who loved him most dearly.

He was cremated.

He is survived by his ex-wife Anne (nee Davidson), as well as children Clare (and her husband Fergus), Alec, Patrick, sister Hilda, brother William, brother John,

A memorial service for Rev Barrett is expected to be held at St George’s in January, with details to be finalised later.