Dried up riverbed in Kenya

In December 2018, the 72 year-old Anglican rector of Portlaoise marked Advent by completing a 4-day fast to raise funds to tackle hunger among some of the world’s poorest people. 

Rev Canon Peter Tarleton skipped his evening meal on Friday 30 November and ate nothing until breakfast on Wednesday 5 December, making his total period of abstinence around 100 hours.   

Asked what prompted him to contemplate such a challenge, the spritely minister explained that Jesus called Christians to prayer and fasting as part of Christian life. He continued:

Canon Peter Tarleton

I also want to personally identify with people who feel hungry. It’s one thing to academically understand what hunger is but it’s another thing altogether to feel it, to live it for real. Of course, I will be able to drink water throughout my fast but many of the poorest people in the world do not even have safe water to drink.

Canon Peter Tarleton

Perhaps he derives some personal benefit from fasting?

“I have completed 4 fasts in recent years, some lasting for 3 days and some for 4 days and I continue to fast for one day every month. A single day of fasting doesn’t make much difference but something happens during the 3-day and especially the 4-day fasts; it increases my internal space, so that everyday occurrences have much greater meaning: a child’s voice, a bible reading, even the silence has greater meaning, greater resonance.”

On a practical level, he admits that fasting enables him to sleep better, helping him fall into a deep slumber.

Canon Tarleton recently moved to Portlaoise after a long spell in the parish of Killeshin which spans three counties (Laois, Carlow and Kilkenny) and includes four churches. At a time of life when most people are enjoying their retirement, the canon is rising to the challenge of an increased workload in Portlaoise. His ministry includes two hospitals, two prisons and a primary school. Asked about his work in the prison, he replies that he is a visiting minister for just a small number of Anglican prisoners in one of the jails, but that he worked as a prison chaplain in England for more than twenty years: 

“In 21 years, I met perhaps 10,000 prisoners and of them, there were only two men in whose presence I felt distinctly uncomfortable. These were men whose crimes were very cruel and for whom I felt a certain level of disdain. But with the others, many of whom had been given a ‘whole life’ tariff, I was able to work with them, to listen to them – to hear what they were saying and, more importantly, what they were not saying.” 

He continued:

“Prisoners need to be listened to and they need to be loved. Those who were nearing the end of their sentences also need a ‘leg up’ afterwards, practical help to enable them to settle back into society so they don’t fall into their old habits again. I am currently hoping to train and equip lay members of my church so that they can help me carry out this work.”

Likewise, the Reverend Tarleton helps his parishioners to settle back into normal life after a long-term hospital stay, and by way of explanation he quotes from the letter of James: ‘faith without works is dead’.

It doesn’t take long to discern that this is an extraordinary man, one who climbed 16,000 ft to spend his 70th birthday at the top of Mount Kenya and he already has plans for his next big birthdays:

“I’m going to spend my 80th at the top of Mount McKinlay in Alaska (20,000 ft) and my 90th at the top of Mount Everest, though it might not be worth my while coming down from there”, he jokes. 

It’s hard to know where the serious ambition ends and the self-mockery begins.  

Originally from Pallaskenry in County Limerick, the young Peter Tarleton was educated at the prestigious Portora Royal School in Enniskillen and completed his education at Magee College, Derry and at Trinity College, Dublin – which explains why this Munster man has an unmistakable Ulster accent.

Peter, as he insists I call him, is a family man, a father to 5 grown-up children and a grandfather of six. He has three siblings: a sister in Belfast and brothers in Nottingham and Cambridge. He reveals that his wife died seven years ago after a long battle with illness and since then he has remarried. His new wife is a Thai woman named Nok who divides her time between Thailand and Ireland. The canon tells me that he hopes to retire there:

“The Church of Ireland forces its ministers to retire at 75 so I will move to Thailand then. The Thai people are so friendly and welcoming, and the climate is better for my asthma.”

Does he have any plans to convert to Buddhism, I joke?

“No, I don’t. But we have much to learn from the Thai people.”

Clearly the canon is young-at-heart and his retirement plans don’t include a pipe and slippers in County Laois. We return to the subject of the fast: does fasting explain his youthful and adventurous attitude - his willingness to climb mountains and ‘up sticks’ to Thailand at the age of 75?

“I’m not extremely fit. Actually, I think that extreme fitness can be unhealthy. I would say that I have a general level of fitness. Likewise, with my spiritual life, I’m not a fanatic in my spiritual life either. All things in moderation.”

And he is hoping to inspire others to have a go at fasting too:

“On this fast I will be inviting members of my church to give up one meal a day.”

And it won’t be the first time he has invited members of his congregation to join him on a challenge: for his 70th birthday climb up Mount Kenya, he was joined by 4 parishioners from Killeshin parish. He goes on to explain that he sees his ministry as playing a role in the civic life of the community and he is a strong supporter of multi-disciplinary and multi-faith working:

“Especially working in hospitals and in prisons, a minister must collaborate with other professionals in other disciplines.  And in secular locations, it’s necessary to work collaboratively with the Catholic clergy and the Imam too.”

We return to the subject of the fast. Is he evangelical about fasting, I ask? He laughs:

“Well yes, it’s a little practical sermon I suppose. For Christians, Advent is a penitential season. Before we gorge ourselves at Christmas, we should pause to focus on the needs of others.”

The money he raises will help projects such as the Sustainable Agriculture Livelihoods Initiative (SALI) in the Mbeere District of Kenya. The project sends long-term weather forecasts to low-income farmers to help them plan when to plant and harvest crops. This information enables them to: develop sustainable climate-resistant livelihoods; improve their yields; increase their income; and boost food security.

Clearly Canon Tarleton is thriving, keeping his body strong and his outlook positive as he concludes on a typically upbeat note:

“I waken up every morning and thank God for another day. I am a happy person. Life has been good to me.”    

Author: Lisa Fagan