Posted by: Peadar Ban | March 25, 2013

The Sin-Eater: A Breviary

By: Thomas Lynch

Such an odd title attracted me to the book.

That and its cover; a photo of a tower on a cliff above the ocean. “Ireland,” I thought, or some other place of contradiction and beauty.

So, I picked it up and began to read. In a dozen or so pages of introduction and the remaining few dozen pages of poetry and picture I was so glad I had done right by myself. Probably, no one should claim that poems are a treat. Well not unless they are Nursery Rhymes or Nonsense and you are reading them aloud to a little child or having them read to you. So I’ll not say these are like that. But, oh, they satisfy the soul in many ways.

Truly Irish, they even had me laughing aloud once or twice in the middle of matters so serious as sin, death and forgiveness.

Thomas Lynch, Poet, says: “We are all – every being in creation – hungry for the favor of our Creator. We all believe that God is on our side. And yet all of us know the pain of not belonging, the cruel isolation of the shunned and excommunicated. Still, if begrudgery is contagious, so is gratitude. And Argyle (the sin-eater of the title) concludes that to be forgiven we must forgive, everyone and everything..” All of us, he writes, are “…fellow pilgrims, at times ridiculous, at times sublime, but always beloved of God.”

As I read the last lines of the last poem I turned back to the beginning to read the words I just quoted above, and sat thinking of the Suffering Servant who “gave his back to buffets and spitting”, and of Palm Sunday. Read the book and you will understand why.

It is a perfect book for this Holy Week…or any week.


Lynch uses a word I had not ever heard “swithering”, a Scots word, he says, which means to be of two minds, in two realities at once. His book and his poems worked away at me as I sat thinking about them:


The church of the dead
has no roof over head
unless the clouds and the stars;

no walls but trees,
nor windows but the wind,
no incense, vestiments

or hymns triumphant,
only a settling of sod
over a crypt of wood below
and of sin absence.

Decay invades their bones
who lie in wait, and confidence.

“Is it books you like?” It was the cousin of my wife, Sheila, may she rest in peace, who asked me. We were in an old ruin of a farm house on some land he owned in a little glen not far from Newcastle West in County Limerick. “Here,” he said, “take this.” He held out a smallish book, a book of prayers and poems. “Five brothers owned the place, and the last one died here three years ago. I bought it from the estate. No one is left.” He explained that he would “knock the house” and keep the land for his cows, the barn for milking. The old house he didn’t need. I looked around through the empty rooms and leafed through the pages of the book. A letter fell out and I picked it up. One of the brothers was writing to another, telling him about life in England, and how he couldn’t wait to get back home and begging prayers for his safe return. Now they were all gone, and only the little book was there to tell the story, and the cows.

“There’s a Mass Rock above,” my cousin-in-law said. “We’ll go up, now.” I went with him up the path to the pasture where the Mass Rock was and said a prayer there for the brothers, that all of them were safely home. I left the book behind me when I left Ireland all those years ago. The brothers I carry with me still.

If holding well made books is something you like to do, this is a book to hold. It is superbly made, beautifully covered and artfully illustrated with black and white photos of Ireland. If reading good books is something you like to do, you will be well pleased with your purchase…and so will anyone to whom you give it as a gift. I’ve read it and can testify.

And, what you will find inside is worth every step of the journey it will take you on.

“The Sin-Eater”, by Thomas Lynch, is available from The Christian Book Corner.

St. Kevin's Glendalough, Co. Wicklow

St. Kevin’s Glendalough, Co. Wicklow


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