YOU know the chat is going to be lively when the Bishop of Cork responds to an apology for being early with a mischievous retort.
“Don’t worry in the least,” says the Right Reverend Paul Colton. “It gave me an excuse to get rid of the Dean.”
He waves me into the entrance hallway of the modestly proportioned Georgian mansion opposite St Fin Barre’s Cathedral that has been home to Church of Ireland bishops since the 18th century. It is painted a summery primrose with a giant fanlight that floods it with morning sunshine.
It didn’t always look so cheerful, says the Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross as he points to the ceiling. “We had a couple of floods that gave us a way of livening the place up a bit with some bright colours.”
Flanking the imposing oil paintings of former residents, the side walls take on a secular hue, showing photos of the bishop with everyone from Ronan Keating to President McAleese.
In the drawing room a baby grand piano has pride of place. He admits to “playing a little” as modesty forbids him to acknowledge he is an accomplished pianist and organist. He is also a gracious host. “Would you care for a coffee?”
A nodding assent elicits a wide beam. “I have a Nespresso machine that my boys bought me. I coveted one for ages so I was thrilled when all the hints paid off. I used to find that whenever I made a full pot I left most of it unfinished but now I can just make enough for myself. The coffee from it is delicious as well.”
As he heads to the kitchen, it gives time to nose around the beautiful drawing room of St Nicholas House in Cove Street on the south-side of Cork. It is the last traditional Church of Ireland bishop’s palace in the country as the rest have been sold off as too costly to run.
Bishop Colton’s reading tastes are eclectic. A swivel mahogany bookcase includes a Frank O’Connor collection of short stories, Saints and Sinners – A History of the Popes and the coffee table is adorned with Kevin Dwyer’s photographic essay Ireland Our Island Home. On a side table sits the bishop’s precious iPad, which he uses to communicate with friends, family and send the occasional email. Also there, clearly for a bit of a laugh, is a drinks coaster that proclaims it to be the preserve of “His Lordship”.
He is right about the coffee. It is almost as effervescent as himself. If John Buckley is Cork’s Bowling Bishop, then Paul Colton is surely the city’s Bubbly Bishop. But he wasn’t always that way.
“I am, at heart, quite shy. When I was in school I would be the kid who would blush crimson every time I was asked a question, so I have to work hard at being outgoing. Sometimes I overdo it.”
Today, though, he is in reflective mood. “You know, I turned 50 earlier this year and it was a breeze. It hardly cast me a thought, but celebrating 25 years in the priesthood is another matter entirely. It’s a bit scary.”
Bishop Colton was ordained a priest on June 30, 1985 by the Right Reverend William McCappin, in the 12th Century Church of Saint Nicholas in Carrickfergus. The preacher on the occasion was the then Bishop of Cork, the Right Reverend Samuel Poyntz. To celebrate his silver jubilee, he decided last Sunday to go to his home parish of Holy Trinity in Frankfield. He planned to go unannounced but word got out of his intentions and at the end of the service the parishioners made him a small presentation.
He shows me the inscribed pen he received. “Actually, it’s very clever to give someone a pen like that because every time you use it you will think of them. When I set off from Cork to be ordained in the Diocese of Connor in the 1980s, the parishioners of Frankfield presented me with a large desk – and I’ve used it ever since for my work. It was wonderful to be with them on Sunday.”
It isn’t always easy to track him down these days. When Bishop Colton isn’t conducting a service at St Fin Barre’s Cathedral in Cork, or kicking a football with his 15-year-old twin boys, Adam and Andrew, you might find him glued to the telly watching the World Cup. “I love it,” confesses the bishop.
“I have been watching as much as I can, but, of course, it isn’t always possible when you have other things to do.” Those other things include overseeing the three dioceses of Cork, Cloyne and Ross, administering to the sick and dying and helping his wife, Susan, to raise a family.
You might also find him on Twitter. Bishop Colton likes to tweet. It’s his way of keeping in touch with his online congregation and he believes it has spiritual value. “I like to tweet now and then. Sometimes it is just offering an opinion on something but also it means I can be in touch with people. I am also on Facebook. In fact, I have lots of friends on Facebook.”
Sportswise, soccer is his first love. Bishop Colton is a Manchester United fan and is remembered for officiating at the wedding of David Beckham and Posh Spice Victoria at Luttrellstown Castle, Dublin, in 1999. “They were lovely,” he says. “I told them that I would perform the ceremony if they completed the proper preparation the same as any other couple within my congregation. They had no trouble at all with that; in fact, they were pleased at being treated, for once, like everyone else.”
In between his diocesan duties, Bishop Colton, who graduated with a law degree from University College Cork in 1981, is now studying for his PhD in religion and law at Cardiff University. But his main focus remains his people.
“For me, while academic studies have their place, the most important part of the job is pastoral. It is a great privilege when people confide in you and let you be part of their lives, even briefly. To share their joy, sorrow, pain and heartache is a very moving experience and that is something I value above all else.”
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