Bishop of Cork’s Address at Funeral of Former Irish Senator

Address by the Right Reverend Paul Colton, Bishop of Cork Cloyne and Ross in Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Cork on Saturday, 3rd November, 2012 at the Funeral of Professor Trevor West, B.A., Ph.D. (Cantab.), M.R.I.A., S.F.T.C.D.

The scriptures appear not to allude to complex mathematics such as those in which Professor Trevor West specialized (his brother John described them to me the other day as elaborate squiggles) – spectral theory, Banach algebras and positive matrices.  However, the Good Book does feature other computations: the dimensions of the Ark of Noah, of the Tabernacle, of the Temple of Solomon, and the walls of the holy city. Sadly, computed also, metaphorically, is the length of our days on earth.  Psalm 90 verse 10 tells us:

The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.

That Psalm is a lament and may well reflect the mood many of us find ourselves in in the wake of Trevor’s unexpected death.  It does also come across as unduly pessimistic.

Clearly, biblical translators of more modern times feared that current generations might have lost touch with the arithmetical terminology of not so long ago.  And so a newer version abandons the reference to the score and puts it this way:

The days of our life are seventy years,
or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;
even then their span is only toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.

It cautions about the fleeting nature of life – ‘soon gone’ and ‘we fly away’.  No opportunity was lost from Trevor’s grasp.  He flitted nothing away; he filled his time energetically and with verve.

A later psalm, number 103, (words which I shall use when Trevor is interred in his grandparents’ grave – the Bennett grave – in the churchyard of St John the Baptist, Midleton) puts the frailty of life less mathematically.  It is more poetic, less pessimistic, and holds out the assurance and hope of the enduring mercy and goodness of the Lord with us:  at times like this and in eternity.

Our days are like the grass; we flourish like a flower of the field. When the wind goes over it, it is gone, and its place shall know it no more. But the merciful goodness of the Lord endures for ever.

Choosing a tangentially mathematical text for this occasion, is a far too limited classification of Trevor.  Yes, he was a distinguished mathematician, but he was more than that: he was a polymath – commonly called ‘a Renaissance Man’ – exactly the phrase used by his friend Brendan Kennelly to describe him at the celebration of Trevor’s 70th birthday.

On the day in 2011 when Trevor came to Midleton College to receive his accolades and presentation following his retirement as a Governor, he was somewhat more tentative and vulnerable than the vigorous times in which we all had previously known him. I could tell the students were at first quizzical.  However, hearing the Headmaster’s, Simon Thompson’s, tribute  – the scope and ambit of Trevor’s achievements, his interests and contributions to so many facets of life – the nature of the silence within the assembly changed to one of perceptible esteem and respect.  So often, when we see a person in their latter days, we all too-easily forget how they once ‘flourished like a flower of the field.’

The Funeral Service, therefore, is quite clear as to what is asked of us on these occasions.  We are here, as we heard at the outset:

  • to remember Trevor before God;
  • to give thanks for Trevor’s life (the entirety of it);
  • to leave Trevor in the keeping of God, his creator, redeemer and judge;
  • to commit his body to be buried;
  • to comfort one another in our grief

And we do all this in the context of the hope that is Trevor’s and ours through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Our remembering is before God – the God who, according to Isaiah, binds up the broken-hearted and comforts those who mourn, who promises another time when there will be the oil of gladness; the God who, according to the Psalm walks with us in death’s dark vale and prepares a table for us; the God of all time who, in Revelation, promises a new heaven and a new earth when all tears will be wiped away, and who ,even here and now, in the incarnation, has made his dwelling among us.  The risen Christ who in his time urged us to believe in him in the knowledge that he has prepared a place for us.  Trevor believed in these things.  He worshipped in this place.  Hymns were a favourite.  Like his friend, former Midleton College Headmaster Brian Cairns, he urged parting sixth years, to make sure ‘to have a good Church life.’

Naturally, today, each of us here, with the different journeys we shared with Trevor, have our own deeply personal reasons for being here.  Profoundly personal thanksgivings and remembrances come to our own minds.    And this is particularly so for those who knew Trevor best and who loved him most. We gather in great numbers from many strands of life – here in Ireland and abroad – we gather to ‘comfort one another in our grief’  and, most especially, to show the solidarity of our sympathy with Maura Lee, John and Brian and their families, Ian, Susannah and Hugh; and the entire family.

Today simply wouldn’t be right in any sense without our underscoring, as Trevor would emphatically have wished, of his devotion to you Maura Lee and of yours to him.  Your love transformed him.  We know that, increasingly, in recent times, in so many practical ways there were particular calls on that devotion and, in that connection, you have asked that tribute be paid also to the support given selflessly to both you, and to Trevor, by Mai Farnham and Noelle Lomasney.

We remember Trevor before God.  He was born in Cork on 8th May 1938. His father had already been Headmaster of Midleton College for ten years at that stage, and the family were living in the main school building.  They later moved across the road to the Estate House.  Trevor, naturally, attended Midleton College. In the Intermediate Certificate he was one of two students in Ireland to achieve 100% in the mathematics examination that year.  He moved to the High School in Dublin, a day school, and he lived out in Rathmines, for the two years of senior cycle before going to Trinity to read mathematics.  He was awarded a Scholarship – ‘Schol’ – and thus was conceived his deep love of Trinity; his sense of place there and his esteem for Trinity’s many traditions and customs: ‘Schol’, the flying of the College flag at half-mast until this evening of his funeral; and the bell of the Campanile, muffled, as it sounds sorrowfully for a deceased Senior Fellow.

He attained a first in Mathematics and embarked on research in pure mathematics.  This led him to research years at St John’s College, Cambridge alongside the British Mathematician Frank Smithies.  Trevor became one of a rare and remarkable group – the recipient of an 1851 Exhibition Scholarship.  Only a small number of 1851 Exhibitions are awarded each year. These scholarships were and are awarded by the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, established by Queen Victoria – the so-called Crystal Palace Exhibition which made a substantial profit – providing sufficient funds or an educational trust which provides fellowships and grants for pure research in science and engineering, applied research in industry, industrial design and other projects. According to the website of the 1851 Alumni, as an overseas scholar, Trevor was the recipient of such an exhibition from 1961 until 1963 for his work in the field of pure mathematics, his project being ‘Spectral theory of linear operators.’  (Those squiggles again that John referred to).

Then came happy years at the University of Glasgow, followed by further research work and teaching at UCLA – the University of California, Los Angeles – before returning to his beloved TCD as a lecturer and making it his academic home, serving as Junior Dean between 1974 and 1978, and ultimately attaining the dizzy heights of Senior Fellow and membership of the Royal Irish Academy. One of his former students described Trevor to me as ‘a charismatic and gifted teacher.’ A former colleague referred to his teaching ‘as the stuff of high legend!’  His special affinity with the large classes of engineers he taught is also legendary.

He published widely in his own field and wrote tidily and compellingly of the history of people and things which interested him: The Bold Collegians: the Story of Sport in TCD; a biography of the founder of the Irish co-operative movement Horace Plunkett; a history of Midleton College to mark its tercentenary; Dublin University Football Club marking 150 years of Trinity rugby; and Malting the Barley: John H Bennett the Man and his firm. The last of these was most important to him:  ‘I feel I have fulfilled a most important familial obligation,’ he wrote.  It embodied the family tradition.

People liked and trusted Trevor and he was at ease with us and we with him.  As a student he had been readily persuaded that TCD graduates should be making a contribution to an emerging Ireland and therein lay the seeds of political engagement, first as election agent for Mary Robinson. As a result of a by-election on 19th November 1970, following the untimely death of Senator Owen Sheehy-Skeffington, Trevor was elected to Seanad Éireann. He was re-elected in 1973, 1977 and 1983.  Famously, along with Senator John Horgan, he gave his support in November 1973 to the Family Planning Bill proposed by Senator Mary Robinson.  He sat comfortably in the liberal wing of a conservative Seanad.

As far as the limited time since his death allowed for research, and as far as I could see, appropriately, his maiden speech as a Senator seems to have been on the subject of decimalization.  His speech concluded with this remark:  ‘I should like to make the further point that as soon as possible our archaic system of weights and measures should be rationalised. ‘

Aptly, his second speech, in December 1970, addressed the subject of relationships between the two parts of this island; the rights of Protestant minorities in the 26 counties; the perception of Protestants in the 26 counties among their co-religionists in the Six; and the friction caused by the Ne Temere decree as a ‘real barrier to harmony’.  He referred to his family holidays and very strong contacts in the ‘North of Ireland’ and said, in the midst of the speech: ‘As a Protestant Member of the Seanad, I should be able to make a special contribution in helping relations between these two parts of the country.’  And so he did, with political subtlety and personal bravery.  He exerted influence throughout his political life, notably during the peace process on the Unionist community and on paramilitaries from the UDA and UVF.  Ulick O’Connor, in his obituary of Gusty Spence, pointed out that Trevor ‘…had a huge effect in bringing opposing sides together in Northern Ireland.’   Indeed, Trevor’s service to us all on this island, in the peace process, by helping to bring those loyalist paramilitaries to the table of discussion should not be forgotten.

More locally, (where, as everyone knows, to every Corkman things matter most), Trevor became a Governor of Midleton College in 1974, taking the seat his father had held. He served as a Governor for 36 years, 24 of those as Chairman.  He gave unfailing support and friendship to successive headmasters – Jim Smyth, Brian Cairns and most recently Simon Thompson, as well as to fellow Governors, staff and pupils.  His interest in Midleton College students through the decades and in their well-being was both legendary and pastoral.  The last message I had from him via Maura Lee related to exactly that – my own son recently arrived at Trinity: Trevor wanting to know had Adam sorted out his accommodation and telling him to make contact with DUCAC about his sport.  Indeed, Trevor spent 40 years as an officer of DUCAC (the Dublin University Central Athletic Club) and was for 30 years its chairman. He was President of the Dublin University Cricket Club from 1974 to 1980 and again from 1983 to 1984, a position he held also in the Dublin University Association Football Club from 1968 to 1971. This was matched by years of commitment to both the Irish Universities Rugby Union and the Irish Universities Cricket Association.  It was at Midleton that his sporting career and interests began: rugby and cricket, expanding at university to an enduring interest in and support for all sports including soccer and rowing, hockey and many others.  He established the sports scholarships at Trinity.  He sourced seed-funding for the new Sports Building opposite Pearse Street, DART Station.

Trevor was a great character, with a great sense of humour and was a friend to many crossing many barriers.  He had a sense of decorum while, at the same time, thriving on the raucous ruck and vitality of vigorous sporting and social occasions.

Trevor was a man of deep humanity, pastoral concern for, and practical generosity to his fellows.  The family remember his practical commitment and devotion to their mother during her ailing years.  He himself lived a Spartan life.  He was low-maintenance.  In turn, however, his kindness and generosity were multi-faceted: offering advice; making connections to assist; supporting those in difficulty; resolving disputes over a pint in The Pav; or offering a meal where one was welcome.  He helped generations of students: no doubt many of you here today.  Much of his generosity was anonymous and frequently he used third parties, such as myself and others, to act as a clandestine conduit of funds to assist someone anonymously.

When we paid tribute to Trevor following his retirement from the Board of Governors of Midleton College, the Headmaster, Simon Thompson summed Trevor up when he said:

Midleton College stands for ‘a certain type of education: an holistic one.  Today we celebrate a man who embodies what that term means: a Christian base, independent thought, an exposure to the arts and humanities, an involvement in sport, a questing mind in the sciences, and an involvement in society.

That sums up a life that we give thanks for, before God today.  Our dear friend Trevor has had slightly more than three score years and ten.  Shakespeare, puts these words in the mouth of the old man in Act 2 of Macbeth,

Threescore and ten I can remember well:
Within the volume of which time I have seen
Hours dreadful and things strange; but this sore night
Hath trifled former knowing …

Trevor’s sore night came on Tuesday, trifling former knowing.  Now we have to come to terms with his death.  Thankfully, along with, no doubt, those ‘hours dreadful and things strange’ that come each of our way in a lifetime, Trevor lived a full and vibrant life.

There is a gallery of yachts in a certain small room behind the main stairs at Charleston. As I availed of those amenities the other day, I noticed again that one of those boats pictured in the glorious photographs of yesteryear was named ‘Verve’.  It was the 52-foot cutter – a racing yacht modelled on the King’s Britannia and bought in 1913 by Trevor’s grandfather.    Verve is photographed speeding, ploughing and dancing on the energetic and lumpy seas, a parable of life itself, perhaps.  Enthralled by the photographs, it struck me that Verve might be a paradigm for Trevor’s own life, for what else is Verve but vivacity, energy, vitality, animation, liveliness, enthusiasm, spirit and vigour?  Now we commit that vigour to the eternal life of God.

Many of us here will have gathered with Trevor at table – where there was social verve: the stories were plentiful, the food and wine were good, and the traditions were kept.  Now is the time, in this funeral Eucharist, where we gather at this, another, table, with him here one last time.  This table gives us a foretaste of that heavenly banquet – prepared for each of us when our metaphorical threescore years and ten are done – prepared for us by the Risen Christ who promised that he has gone to prepare that place for us where the ‘cup overflows’ and where ‘we shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.’

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