IN THE shade of Croghan mountain in South Wicklow sits the little church of
Kilpipe. Here Noel Willoughby first experienced the worship of the Church of
Ireland, attending with his hard-working parents and brothers and sisters. A
loving Rector, the Revd Harry Warburton, nurtured his faith.
From County Wicklow he travelled, immaculately turned out in a herringbone
fine-tweed suit, to the Tate school in Wexford town. From his boarding school,
he walked each Sunday to St Iberius's, where he came under the influence of
Canon John Eldon Hazley, and where he was confirmed in 1941.
a poor school report, Noel pulled his socks up, and was elected a scholar of
Trinity College, Dublin. He later gained a distinguished moderatorship with a
gold medal in mental and moral science. But he rarely drew attention to his
academic success, and always gave the impression that he was a simple
Noel was the first Church of Ireland bishop to be a freeman
of Wexford. When he retired in 1997, he found a lovely house in that town,
where he had spent eight happy years with his beloved wife Valerie. They had
first met when he was a curate in Dungannon.
Curacies in Dublin
had followed. I first met him there when we were playing hockey on opposite
sides in a junior interprovincial. He was captain of Leinster that day. He was
an outstanding centre half.
As a divinity student, I often spent
holiday times with him in Bray, where he was a colleague of Canon Ernest
Campbell. Noel loved pastoral visiting, and instilled in me a sense of its
importance. He was the natural choice to become Rector of nearby Delgany, and
afterwards Rector of Glenageary, Canon of St Patrick's Cathedral, and
Archdeacon of Dublin. His star was rising.
When names were being kicked about for the vacant bishopric of Cashel,
Waterford, Lismore, Ossory, Ferns & Leighlin, I was present in a robing
room when Archbishop McAdoo interjected: "Don't forget our Noel!" - prophetic
For the new Bishop, in 1980, it was a homecoming to his native diocese, and
he exercised an outstanding pastoral ministry of 17 years.
I attended several retreats that he took, and he led us up a mountain of
transfiguration. There was also time for golf on those and other occasions,
often accompanied by some good Irish whiskey, which we both enjoyed. His great
sense of humour would always lead to some laughter on these occasions.
Bishop Noel loved the Church of Ireland with deep devotion. He would be
upset if it was harshly criticised, or when he saw its priests fall by the
wayside. He continually reached out to those priests in the far country. Yet,
while he appeared to be a gentle giant, he believed in discipline and order.
Every day was an ecumenical experience, and his love reached across all
barriers. He was as happy at a Gaelic Athletic Association dinner as an
ecclesiastical function. He was delighted to see his son-in-law Dermot play at
His last official engagement was to attend the golden jubilee of Bishop
Forristal, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Ossory. Bishop Forristal was one of the
last visitors to his bedside: a close friendship had been built. With another
friend, Bishop Comiskey of Ferns, joint services of baptism and marriage for
inter-Church couples were devised.
One morning, close to death, Noel told me that he felt happy, as he had
seen angels. It is, I believe, the peak of religious experience to see and hear
the angels singing.
He died on 6 February, aged 80 and was laid to rest near the main door of
St Canice's Cathedral, Kilkenny, close to his former confidant, Henry McAdoo.
His wife Valerie and their three children, who were blessed to have such a
loving father, survive him.