Martin Rigg, Cahir, Tipperary: an appreciation

Professor Salvador Ryan pays tribute to Martin Rigg, a quintessential English gentleman


On January 31 last, the quiet, gentle soul that was Martin Rigg, late of 28 Rosemount Heights, Cahir, County Tipperary, passed away.

Martin will be fondly remembered by many former students of St Patrick’s College Thurles where he completed an evening BA degree in Theology ten years ago. It was there, when Martin attended my Church History lectures, that I first got to know him.

Martin was the quintessential English gentleman — to his very fingertips. A convert from Methodism (with little of the “zeal of the convert”, and a healthily critical mindset), he had an enduring fondness for good hymnody and could sing scores of hymns at will, without dropping a verse.

In addition to a great love of literature, Martin also enjoyed composing poetry and would often send me various pieces he’d written long after he graduated.

He was a joy to have in the classroom; principally because he usually had much more to contribute than he could ever have possibly learnt. For, although he was completing a theology degree for the first time, in truth he had been reading theology (and especially church history) for most of his life.
In a very quiet and understated way, he was always on hand to recommend some reading or other that he’d found useful or to share some nugget of arcane knowledge that he’d stumbled across and tucked away in a mind that was expansive, ever alert, and always moving.

I remember one evening, while covering, in introductory fashion, the German Reformation, with our small class of students. I was busy speaking about Luther and Melanchthon when Martin, almost absent-mindedly, interjected: “ah, but what about Oecolampadius?” ...

Although Martin was, then, “technically” an undergraduate student of scripture, he had no problem picking up a copy of the New Testament in the original Greek and reading it with ease. He was equally comfortable working with Latin sources. For Martin, most of the academic heavy lifting had been done earlier in his life and now was the opportunity to enjoy pursuing the “bit of paper” that would make it official.

When he did attain his degree, he topped the class and, soon after, to my delight, started to consider postgraduate studies in church history. As there was no masters programme running in St Patrick’s College Thurles at the time, I encouraged him to check out the University of Nottingham, which he did, and, two years later, graduated with a Masters in Church History. He certainly made an impression on the faculty there, because the very next year they invited him back to present a paper at one of their postgraduate weekends.

Back home, Martin would regularly drive from Cahir to Thurles to use the college library facilities in his old alma Mater and he became a familiar figure and a source of encouragement to many younger students pursuing the teacher training course there.

Having successfully completed his Masters at Nottingham (and after I had moved to a post in Maynooth College), Martin often spoke of pursuing his studies further — to doctoral level — there. I warmly encouraged him to do so, and always thought he would be very happy in this environment (as did Martin on the occasions that he visited here).

But, for one reason or another, including some health difficulties, it was not to be. Martin had a range of interests (including a great proficiency at gardening — he worked for many years as a gardener at Glencomeragh House, Kilsheelan) and decided against committing himself to a four– or five-year programme — although both of us knew that he would have sailed through with ease.

In the absence of working with Martin on a doctoral dissertation, I had the great pleasure of having him contribute to one of my edited volumes of Treasures of Irish Christianity: a lovely piece on John Wesley’s visits to Ireland.

In between times, the occasional email would arrive from Martin: something he had just read that he thought I’d be interested in, complete with a PDF file of the journal article; a piece of poetry he had written, or some reflection or other that he cherished. Always edifying; always of interest; always with that quintessential Riggian stamp.

It was only the other day that I said to myself: “I haven’t heard from Martin in a while; I wonder how he is”.

And then, last week, I found out.

Life, indeed, is fragile. Someone once remarked to me: “you put your boots on in the morning, and you don’t know who’ll take them off in the evening”.
Wise words.

RIP, Martin Rigg. May the God whose face you sought over a lifetime of reading, discussing, and pondering theology, now welcome you into divinity’s embrace.
Prof. Salvador Ryan
Thurles, Co Tipperary.