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Archive of the Month April 2014 – The papers of the Rt Revd William Shaw Kerr (1897–1960)

RCB Library Notes

Added on 01/04/2014

Revd William Shaw Kerr
Rev’d William Shaw Kerr
, photograph from the Church of Ireland Gazette, 1915

The papers of the Rt Revd William Shaw Kerr (1897–1960) who was bishop of Down and Dromore from 1945 to 1955, feature as April’s online Archive of the Month presented by the Church of Ireland RCB Library. This important collection of materials provides a relatively rare detailed insight to clerical life in the northern part of the island, during the first half of the 20th century, particularly the period between the two World Wars.

Episcopal correspondence and other papers created during the course of the careers of bishops and archbishops are relatively rare survivals for documenting Church of Ireland history. In many respects, Kerr’s materials are no exception, for whilst they comprise correspondence, writings, sermon registers, select daily diaries, research notes and press cuttings on a wide range of topical, historical and theological issues together with Kerr’s additional literary and poetry interests, most of them pre– or post–date his time as bishop. What the collection does provide, however, is a very detailed insight into his clerical career up to 1945, and his political outlook which was strongly Unionist.

Most significantly it contains the evidence that Kerr was the hitherto anonymous writer who penned a column for the Church of Ireland Gazette under the nom de plume ‘Shebna the Scribe’, writing from the ‘Cave Hill’ Belfast on virtually a weekly basis between 1910 and 1916. This role terminated quite suddenly after a particularly hard–hitting piece on the Irish Rebellion in 1916. In this regard, Kerr’s related papers, and the insight they reveal from the perspective of a northern cleric about the rapidly–evolving Ireland at this period, are likely to become important sources for researchers.

Although Kerr served his entire clerical career in the north east of the island through the Partition era, he was actually born in the south. The son of a Wicklow gentleman, James Heron Kerr, and his wife Rose Smith Shaw (who originated in county Sligo) he was born in 1873, and grew up at the family seat Broomfield House near Ashford, in County Wicklow. Following divinity training at Trinity College in Dublin, he was ordained deacon in 1897 and served two curacies in Shankill, Lurgan (Dromore) 1897–99; and St James Belfast (Connor) 1899–1901. His first incumbency was the parish of Ballywalter (Down) where he stayed ten years (1901–10), followed by a further five–year incumbency in the parish of St Paul’s Belfast (Connor) between 1910 and 1915; and then a longer 17–year stint in the parish of Seapatrick (Dromore) from 1915 to 1932. During his time at Banbridge (the town where Seapatrick parish church is located) he rose through the senior clerical ranks serving as chancellor of Dromore 1920–29; and also archdeacon of Dromore for a further two years 1930–32. Following his appointment as dean and vicar of Belfast (Connor) in 1932, where he served a further 13 years, he became the first Church of Ireland bishop of Down and Dromore (when that diocese was separated from Connor) in 1945.

Most of the papers in Kerr’s collection originate from his parochial ministry, particularly during his time in Banbridge between 1915 and 1932. They provide a detailed insight to the intellect and mindset of one of the Church’s most prolific and outspoken commentators of this period. Following their transfer to the RCB Library Kerr’s papers were organised into 11 record groups, where they are accessioned as RCB Library MS 813/.

Of the more unusual items to be found in the collection is Kerr’s collarette as Grand Chaplain of the County Down Orange Order, and of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland. It is the only item in the collection pertaining to his active and probably influential role within the Order, and was kept safe alongside his certificates for deacon and priest orders, and his consecration certificate as bishop of Down and Dromore. Images of the item including its detailed inscription are included along with a selection of other materials from the collection on the online presentation.

To view the online presentation, see: www.ireland.anglican.org/library/archive

For further information please contact:
Dr Susan Hood
RCB Library
Braemor Park
Dublin 14
Tel: 01–4923979
Fax: 01–4924770
E–mail: susan.hood@rcbdub.org