Last week John Coulson Hannon passed away in his 88th year. He was a native of Athy, the eldest son of Rex and Grace Hannon of Ardreigh Cottage. His father Rex was well known in Athy where he died in 1961. The Hannon family had links with Athy and South Kildare going back to the 1690’s and as mill owners at Plumplestown, Ardreigh and Athy town provided employment for many local people at a time when full time work was rarely available. John Coulson Hannon was named after his uncle who was killed in France during the First World War. That uncle was one of four Hannons, two brothers and two cousins who as young men were killed in the four year massacre which we have come to call the Great War.
Just a short while before John Hannon’s death I received a copy of a recently published biography of his uncle, Gordon Hannon. Gordon and Rex Hannon were brothers, brought up with two other brothers and four sisters in Ardreigh House where I am tonight penning these lines. Rex was the eldest member of the family, while Gordon was two years younger, having been born in 1891. It was their two younger brothers, John Coulson (known as Ion) and Norman Leslie who were sadly killed in France in 1915 and 1916.
The story of Gordon Hannon is told by his son David Hannon in a book with the title “Gordon Hannon, Some Parson! - Some Man”. Gordon went to Trinity College where he excelled at sports and having gained his B.A. in 1913 he entered the Divinity School. His ordination came just over a year after the death in May 1915 of his younger brother, Norman Leslie, who had joined Gordon as a Trinity student just two years previously. Professor J.F. Gwynn, Regius Professor of Divinity at Trinity, then in his 89th year, wrote to Gordon Hannon on the eve of his ordination.
“You enter the Holy Office of Priest I know in a humble spirit of self devotion and trust in the grace about to be given you to guide and strengthen you for its discharge”.
Just two months after his ordination Gordon Hannon suffered the loss of yet another brother. This time it was Norman Leslie Hannon who fell, as did thousands of other Irish men, at the Battle of the Somme. The loss of two younger brothers who had shared with him the delights and pastimes of youth on the River Barrow at Ardreigh played heavily on Gordon Hannon and memories of their shared youth would forever be recalled in the photographs of the two lost brothers which would thereafter grace his writing desk.
In 1917 Gordon took up the position of head of the Belfast T.C.D. Mission, an institution then just five years old based in the Shankhill Road area of Belfast. It was a Church of Ireland Mission to the working class people of the area and presented a new and perhaps a unique challenge for a newly ordained curate from the South of Ireland whose social background differed hugely from those amongst whom he intended to administer. Living and working in the very heartland of Ulster, Protestantism presented the Kildare man with his first major challenge when a decision had to be made as to whether he should join the Orange Order. His son David tells us that his father thought long and hard about his decision and eventually decided that being able to accept the greater majority of its written objectives, his acceptance of membership of the Orange Order would help him identify with the men of the Shankhill Road. Later in life when he moved to Lurgan, unhappy with the divisive elements of the Orange Order, he resigned his membership. He was to spend three years and eight months in missionary work on the Shankhill Road before he took up the rectorship of Ballymoney Parish. It was in Ballymoney that he met his future wife, Hilda Denny, and 67 years later she wrote of travelling to meet her future in-laws in Athy. “Gordon’s mother was such a warm motherly person with a terrific sense of humour. His father was a charming gentle old man, with failing eyesight and an air of sadness about him. He had lost his two youngest sons in the War”.
The young couple married on 11th April 1923, but tragedy again marked the otherwise happy occasion when Gordon’s father died tragically of gunshot wounds in his house at Ardreigh just a few days beforehand. The following year Rev. Gordon was appointed Rector of Lurgan where he would remain for the next 16 years. Lurgan then, and some would say, remains today, a town whose people are highly critical of anything that smacks of “popery” but under the Southerns astute rendering of Church affairs Gordon Hannon’s rectorship attracted and maintained high congregations.
In 1932, a year before his appointment as Archdeacon of Dromore, Gordon Hannon came in contact with the Oxford Group founded by an American, Frank Buchman in 1921 as an evangelising group which in 1938 was renamed “Moral Rearmament”. Described by Hannon as “a Christian revolution for remaking the World”, Moral Rearmament became an important part of his life thereafter and just months after the outbreak of World War II he resigned the Rectorship of Lurgan in order to concentrate on the Moral Rearmament Campaign in Ireland. Moving to Belfast with his wife and six children he threw himself into the war effort through his work in Moral Rearmament, encouraging Protestant, Catholic and Dissenters alike “to listen to God and to do what he says”. Thus was a Christian philosophy to be created to underpin industrial and international relationships. After 14 years at the helm of Moral Rearmament in Ireland Gordon Hannon returned to parochial work when in 1954 he took charge of Kilbroney Parish in Rostrevor, County Down. His arrival there was later recalled by Cardinal Cathal Daly who described him as showing “a prime example of reaching out across the traditional divisions of the area. It was as a result of his work in the Kilbroney Parish, that since that time, ecumenism has been accepted as part of every day life.”
In May 1960 Gordon Hannon preached his farewell sermon and retired to North Antrim where with his wife Hilda they lived in a house they called Ardreigh, the same name as the old family home in Athy. Archdeacon Gordon Hannon, the Kildare man who spent his entire ministry, apart from a short period in Dublin, amongst Northern folk, died in Dalriada Hospital in Ballycastle in October 1977. He was 86 years of age.
His son Brian followed his father into the Church Ministry and in recent years retired as Church of Ireland Bishop of Clogher. Another son David has now written a biography of his gentle and caring father who travelled North from Ardreigh, Athy while the First World War raged, and where sixty years later he would die after a lifetime devoted to living out the Christian message.
John Coulson Hannon died last week in Galway and with his passing another long standing link with Athy has been lost. The Hannons, once an important part of the social fabric of our town, made an immeasurable and vital contribution to the economic life of local community. Despite the decades which have passed since the Hannon family left Athy, they are still remembered with fondness and affection by the people of Athy and South Kildare.