Tuesday, 7 October 1997

The new Byzantium in the Balkans

Patrick Comerford

The seafront in Thessaloniki is like that of many other Greek resorts and cities. At the weekend the cafes and bars in the warren of streets leading off Nikis, all the way from the Port on the west end to the White Tower on the east, are the focus of pulsating night life.

But the city differs in two essential ways from the popular beachfront resorts beloved of tourists. This is basically a city for Greeks, not tourists. The bars, tavernas and discos are usually full of young Greeks, for Thessaloniki is one of the major university cities of the Balkans. And there are few tourists on the waterfront. There is no beach here, and the bay, anywhere near the town, is pretty much a sump.

But because you’re never far from the sea, and because of the cool northern breeze that takes any air pollution out into the Thermaikos Gulf, a fresh, clean atmosphere pervades the Second City of Greece.

Last week the seafront was crowded with political and civic figures from throughout Greece to welcome the arrival of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. This year Thessaloniki is being visited by hundreds of thousands of people savouring the exhibitions being staged and the museums established as part of the city’s programme for the Cultural Capital of Europe 1997.

But the arrival of Patriarch Bartholomeos was less of a cultural event and more of a state visit, with his retinue of Eastern Orthodox patriarchs, metropolitans, archbishops and bishops from Russia, Georgia, Romania, Bulgaria, Armenia, Ukraine and, of course, the city of Istanbul, which is still Constantinople or Byzantium in the popular Greek consciousness.

But if the old Byzantium is Istanbul, Thessaloniki sees itself as the new Byzantium. First founded by Cassander, the brother-in-law of Alexander the Great, it became the main staging post on the Via Egnatia, the road between Rome and Constantinople, the two capitals of the Empire. For centuries it was the second city of the Empire until it fell to the Turks in 1430.

Under them, the many Byzantine churches were converted to mosques and their frescoes and mosaics whitewashed. Today many of those churches are being restored, and the finest must be Ayios Dhimitrios, the largest church in Greece, where the Patriarch was the guest of honour at the liturgy last week. Here the treasures include a mosaic of Ayios Dhimitrios (Saint Demetrios), once described by Osbert Lancaster as “the greatest remaining masterpiece of pictorial art of the pre-iconoclastic era in Greece.”

As an important crossroads between East and West, Thessaloniki was the twin capital of Byzantium, the Selanik of the Turks, the Second Jerusalem of the Jews, the mother city of Macedonia, the cosmopolitan centre of the Balkans.

As this year’s Cultural Capital of Europe, Thessaloniki is taking the opportunity to underline its position as both the new Byzantium and the capital of Macedonia.

Among the dozens of public museums, pride of place goes to the Archaeological Museum, with its display of finds from the Macedonian royal tombs in nearby Vergina, including the tomb of Philip II, father of Alexander the Great.

Close by, the Museum of Byzantine Culture is devoted to the research, preservation and study of Byzantine culture throughout Macedonia. The citizens of Thessaloniki could never entertain the rival claims to being a capital city being made by Skopje in neighbouring FYROM (the “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”).

The city is also home to the Museum of the Macedonian Struggle. The provinces of Macedonia and Thrace were not freed from Turkish rule and incorporated in the modern Hellenic state until 1912.

As if to emphasise the Byzantine and Macedonian identity of Thessaloniki, last week President Konstaninos Stefanopoulos of Greece visited the city’s exhibition on “Alexander the Great in European Art”, while the Ecumenical Patriarch made a point of visiting the Museum of Byzantine Culture, with its exhibition of treasures from Mount Athos, the nearby monastic mountain which is at the heart of Greek Orthodox spirituality.

The Patriarch arrived in Thessaloniki on board the ANEK line’s Eleftherios Venizelos, named appropriately after the Greek prime minister who made his home at the Villa Ahmet Kapantzi Villa in the city earlier this century. The liner was carrying delegates to an international symposium on “Religion and the Environment - the Black Sea in Danger.”

The symposium's findings were presented at a final session in the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki by Metropolitan John Zizzioulis of Pergamon, widely tipped as a possible successor to the Patriarch.

Thessaloniki might appear a peculiar choice for the conclusion of the symposium: Greece has no Black Sea coastline and the city is a Mediterranean port. But Thessaloniki sees itself as the modern capital of the Balkans.

A new Balkan Centre is under construction in the port, close to the site of last month's U2 concert. The city is the main location for a new Black Sea Trade and Development Bank; earlier this summer, Thessaloniki hosted meetings of both Balkan and Black Sea foreign ministers.

The city should provide a natural venue for Balkan and Black Sea co-operation. After all, this was home once not only to the largest expatriate Armenian community and the largest Jewish community in Europe: Thessaloniki was also the birthplace of the founder of the modern Turkish state, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

His childhood home still stands beside the Turkish consulate, close to the Byzantine ramparts, a symbol of past conflicts and, perhaps, of future co-operation.

This feature was first published in ‘The Irish Times’ on 7 October 1997

Saturday, 24 May 1997

All eyes on left
on the new vicar


Over-protective and demanding parents often have children who, as adults, turn their anger on each other. The sight of Ann Widdecombe and Michael Howard publicly playing their part in the destruction of the Tory Party is part of Margaret Thatcher’s legacy to British politics.

But if there is a Thatcher legacy that will outlast the Tory leadership race then it must be the humour generated to lighten those years and, in particular, the “Dear Bill” letters in Private Eye.

Private Eye has lost no time in lampooning the Blairs, with a new parish newsletter, St Albion Parish News, edited by Alistair Campbell, complete with a letter from the vicarage by the new vicar who insists on being called Tony, rumours about the vicarage cat, and a profile of “Our New Vicar” – by “Mr Mandelson”.

With all the sleaze and scandal surrounding so many Tories, it was difficult not to pillory the Conservatives when they claimed to be the party of family values. According to Bishop Richard Harries of Oxford, the Conservatives lost the election because they had lost their sense of decency. He did not mince his words in the Church Times: “There was, I suspect, a sense of extreme distaste at the scandals and squabbles of the Tory Party; a sense that something sour and squalid needed to be spat out; a sense of decency betrayed...”

But when New Labour lays claim to Christian values it may be more difficult to engage in banter and criticism. It is a common aphorism, quoted recently by two Labour MPs, Hilary Armstrong and Paul Boateng, that the Labour Party owes more to Methodism than it does to Marxism.

Today, the Christian Socialist Movement, with 5,000 members, is the fastest-growing of the 13 socialist societies affiliated to the Labour Party. The CSM was founded in 1960 by Tom Driberg, Donald Soper, George McLeod of Iona and Bishop Mervyn Stockwood. But the roots of the movement go back further to early Christian Socialists such as John Ludlow, Charles Kingsley, and F.D. Maurice and their successors a generation later, including Bishop Charles Gore, editor of Lux Mundi, and Henry Scott Holland, who argued for a Christian economics in which common ownership was the only effective means of dismantling the privileges of inherited wealth and capitalism.

Although it was once said that the Church of England was the Tory Party at prayer, Christian Socialism had a particular appeal to High Church Anglo-Catholics. In 1923, Bishop Frank Weston explained that appeal: “You cannot worship Jesus in the Tabernacle if you do not pity Jesus in the slum.”

But the Conservative Party has long ceased to be the Church of England at prayer. At a Tory conference, Margaret Thatcher once referred to the bishops as “a few cuckoos in the spring”. The clashes were numerous: the reports on The Church and the Bomb and Faith in the City, the miners’ strike, the Falklands memorial service...

Canon Paul Oestreicher of Coventry Cathedral claims: “Through the long period of Margaret Thatcher's rule, when the Labour Party was a most ineffective opposition, there was no group of people she more resented than the bishops of the Church of England.”

Times have changed, and the new parliament is interesting for a number of record-breaking figures, including more women and more representatives of ethnic minorities. And now the Christian Socialist Movement is boasting that it has ministers in “almost every” government department, and that the election has put “swathes more” Christian MPs on the backbenches.

The most prominent member of the CSM is the new Prime Minister, a life-long admirer of Archbishop William Temple. Recently, Tony Blair wrote the forward to Reclaiming the Ground, a collection of essays by CSM members in memory of the Labour social historian R.H. Tawney. Other contributors included the late Labour leader John Smith, an elder in the Church of Scotland.

The editor of the essays, Christopher Bryant, failed to enter the Commons on the tide that swept Labour to victory. At Oxford, a young Chris Bryant sparred with William Hague about the nature of Conservatism. Today, Mr Hague (36) is a contender for the Tory leadership and Mr Bryant (35) is reflecting on his defeat by Sir Ray Whitney in Wycombe, where he lost by 2,370 votes despite a 13.6 per cent swing from the Tories.

The Rev Chris Bryant was youth officer for the Bishop of Peterborough before finding a career in politics as full-time organiser for the Labour Party in Holborn and St Pancras and political agent for Frank Dobson MP, the new Health Secretary. For the past four years, he has chaired the Christian Socialist Movement.

The Clerical Disabilities Act 1870 forced Chris Bryant to resign as a priest of the Church of England before he could seek election, although there are no similar restrictions on the clergy of other churches, including the Rev Martin Smyth and the Rev Ian Paisley.

Other contributors to Reclaiming the Ground fared well at the polls and have found favour with Tony Blair. Hilary Armstrong, an active Methodist and former permanent private secretary to John Smith, has become an Environment and Transport minister. Chris Smith, a Presbyterian and vice-president of the CSM, is the new Heritage Secretary. And Paul Boateng is a Parliamentary Under-Secretary.

Other prominent CSM members include the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, and the Home Secretary, Jack Straw. And the new Labour MP for Wythenshawe and Sale East, Paul Goggins, is a former national co-ordinator of Church Action on Poverty.

Although the Church of England may be closer to disestablishment with this new government, never before have so many government ministers admitted their political values have been shaped and formed by their church membership.

Now, the Church Times says, “those who voted Labour will watch Mr Blair with interest to see if he can deliver his manifesto promises at no extra cost to themselves. They doubt it, but their scepticism is good-humoured at present. If the mood persists, Mr Blair will find that they would rather pay more than to see the job only half done.”

And that’s where the watching and waiting will prove interesting.

This opinion column was published in ‘The Irish Times’ on Saturday 24 May 1997.

Tuesday, 13 May 1997

An Irishman’s Diary:

Patrick Comerford

TAGHMON in south Co Wexford is celebrating a handful of anniversaries. Seven miles outside Wexford town, Taghmon was once a corporate borough and returned two MPs until the Act of Union.

According to the local historian Tom Williams, chairman of the Taghmon Historical Society and editor of the society’s Journal, Taghmon was founded 1,400 years ago in the year 597 by Saint Fintan or Munn, who gave the village its name – Teach Munn or Munn’s House.

This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Taghmon’s best known curate, the Rev Henry Francis Lyte, author of the hymn ‘Abide with Me.’ And to add to the celebrations, St Munn’s Church – rebuilt in 1818 two years after Lyte left the parish – was reopened and rededicated two months ago after an extensive rebuilding and renovation programme following the disastrous collapse of the roof and ceiling last autumn.

Special Edition

The church stands on the site of the cell of Saint Munn, who died in 636. By the year 960 the monastery was derelict, but the remains of an old Celtic cross close to the church is said to mark the saint’s grave.

To mark the anniversaries, Archbishop Walton Empey launched a special edition of Tom Williams’ journal last month. The journal also acknowledges the contribution of the parish to the 1798 Rising.

Among the British troops sent to Ireland in 1798 was Captain Thomas Lyte, who settled first at Dunmore, Co Galway, and later at Ballyshannon, Co Donegal, with Anna Marie Oliver, who claimed to be his wife, and their three sons. However, at the age of nine, the young Henry Francis Lyte was abandoned when his father married Eliza Naghten in Roscommon, ran away from both Anna Marie and his debtors, and settled in Jersey, where he had eight more children. Anna Marie moved back to England, leaving the three boys to fend for themselves, and she soon became destitute.

Henry was alone and without any means of support, but the Rev Robert Burrowes, headmaster of Portora Royal School, Enniskillen, took a special interest in him. Burrowes, who had resigned as Archdeacon of Ferns and Rector of Adamstown, Co Wexford, at the height of the 1798 Rising, paid for Lyte’s schooling at Portora and encouraged him to go on to Trinity College, Dublin.

Despite poverty, difficulties and hardships, Lyte did well at Trinity, won three poetry prizes, was elected a scholar, and changed his mind about studying medicine, turning his attention to the ministry.

Against all the rules, he was ordained a deacon and priest in 1814 and 1815 within months of each other at the age of 21. Through Burrowes’ contacts in Co Wexford, Lyte was appointed curate of Taghmon, where the new Rector was the Rev Simon Little. Little had succeeded Canon Robert Hawkshaw, whose family gave their name to Hawkshaw's Bridge nearby, and who was Rector of Taghmon during 1798; later his son Samuel married Ellen King, whose father owned Scullabogue Barn, scene of one of the worst atrocities during the Rising.

A Dreary Curacy

Lyte described his 18 months in Taghmon as a “dreary curacy” and too remote from town life, and moaned the loss of “the comfort, the society and the carelessness” he had explained of the constant intrusions, the long dinner parties (!), and the time he had to give to neighbours and parishioners.

But the spiritual outlook and religious values of the unhappy curate were changed as he watched the death of a neighbouring rector, the Rev Abraham Swanne, and took over his duties in the parish of Killurin. Swanne died on February 8th, 1816, at the age of 44. His faith in the face of death, and the effect of his death on his three tiny children, transformed Lyte and brought him close to a mental and physical breakdown.

One of his last acts was to chair the Easter Vestry in Killurin in 1816. Soon after he left for the Continent to convalesce in France and Italy. In Jersey, he met his father once again, and was godfather to his own half brother, Thomas Henry Lyte.

Henry Francis Lyte never returned to Taghmon; instead he settled in the south of England, where he met and married Anne Maxwell, daughter of a Co Monaghan clergyman and a cousin of the Maxwell Barry family who gave their name to Newtownbarry, now Bunclody, in Co Wexford. With this marriage, Lyte received a welcome legacy that allowed him to pay his debts to Burrowes and to live in comfort for the rest of his days.

His last parish was Brixham, where he was vicar for 23 years. There his reputation grew as a hymn writer, and his famous works included: ‘Praise My Soul the King of Heaven’; ‘God of Mercy, God of Grace’; and ‘Pleasant are Thy Courts Above’.

Greatest Memorial

Lyte’s health never recovered fully after his experiences in Taghmon and Killurin, and he spent long winters in Naples, the Tyrol and Switzerland, away from his family and his parish. During his last serious illness, in September 1847, he wrote his last and greatest hymn, ‘Abide with Me!’, inspired by the view of the ebbing and flowing tides from his vicarage and his own failing health. By now he was afflicted with TB; he sent the manuscript to his wife from Avignon, and proceeded to Nice, where he died on November 20th, 1847.

Today, Lyte is commemorated by plaques in St Munn's Church, Taghmon, Westminster Abbey, at Portora, in Brixham, and at his birthplace near Kelso in Scotland. But his greatest memorial is ‘Abide with Me!’, one of the most popular hymns ever written. The words, which have brought comfort to many with their message of permanence amidst decay, are sung at funerals and Remembrance Day services around the world and are a regular feature at Wembley cup finals.

The Rev Derek Milton, Lyte’s successor as vicar of All Saints’, Brixham, hopes this year’s anniversary of ‘Abide with Me!’ and Lyte’s death will help save the church where Lyte was vicar from 1824 to 1847.

All Saints’ contains many memories of the poet priest, including the pulpit he preached from, but has fallen on hard times. Mr Milton says the church needs around £100,000 but the parish has an annual income of barely £20,000 and All Saints’ is having to run faster and faster just to stand still.

“The Gospel can’t be financed on fresh air and faith alone. All we are doing is paying our running costs,” he says amid the encircling gloom of late 20th century finances.

On the other hand, the rescue and reopening of St Munn’s Church in Taghmon brings particular joy to Canon Norman Ruddock, who is not only Rector of Wexford but can claim to be Lyte’s successor as his parish now includes both Taghmon and Killurin.

This feature was published as ‘An Irishman’s Diary’ in ‘The Irish Times’ on 13 May 1997.

Tuesday, 25 February 1997

An Irishman’s Diary:
St Paul’s Church, Athens

St Paul’s in Athens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Following the footsteps of St Paul, who preached at the Agora on the slopes of the Acropolis, it seems only natural to find an English-speaking church in the Greek capital that should be called St Paul’s.

It is more surprising for an Irish visitor to realise that the early story of St Paul’s Anglican Church is intimately associated with the life of a Cork born hero of the Greek War of independence, Sir Richard Church. St Paul’s, an early Victorian Gothic church, stands on the corner of Philellenon Street and Queen Amalia Avenue, opposite the National Gardens

But the Anglican chaplain in Athens, the Rev Keith Harrison, denies St Paul’s is some kind of English outpost in the Greek capital. He points out that the congregation includes a considerable number of Irish, Americans, Canadians, Australians and South Africans.

The church was built on land bought from the Turks before the Greek War of independence, and the foundation stone was laid on Easter Monday, 1838, by the British Minister in Athens, Sir Edmund Lyons, later Lord Lyons (1790-1838), whose family had emigrated from Ireland to Antigua in the previous century. St Paul’s stands within sight of Hadrian’s Gate, which marked the end of the old Hellenistic and classical city of Athens and the new city built by the Emperor Hadrian.

Philellenon Street was only laid out in 1855, so the church once had an unimpeded view of the Acropolis rising over the old city. Today, St Paul’s is within easy walking of many of the main tourist attractions, including the Plaka and the Acropolis, and is only a block away from Parliament and Syndagma Square.

The church can seat 130 to 150 people comfortably; the congregation often reaches that number, and it is over flowing at times like Christmas. The people at St Paul’s are active in local life, and 10 per cent of church income is donated to local Greek charities and causes.

Irishman in Athens

The treasurer of St Paul’s, Dr David Green, is an Irishman working in Athens for the University of Glamorgan and married to a Greek woman. Recent Irish members of the congregation include John O’Carroll, general manager of the Inter-Continental Hotel, and his wiles Esther, and Geoffrey Mayes, who was a lay assistant in St Paul’s. The organist, Dr Richard Witt, a classicist working with the Open University, greeted me with the news that he was a great fan of Myles na Gopaleen and The Irish Times.

The Irish Ambassador, Mr Michael Rigney, has visited St Paul’s too, as have the Papal Nuncio and the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Athens. In the past, distinguished visitors to St Paul’s have included Archbishop George Carey, Archbishop Robert Runcie, and Archbishop William Temple, who preached at the centenary celebrations in 1938.

Greek Struggle

Philelleon Street is an appropriate location for an English speaking church the street was named after those English-speaking lovers of Hellenic civilisation and culture, including Palmerston, Codrington and the poet Byron, who actively supported the Greek struggle for independence.

Two windows in St Paul’s commemorate one of those Philhellenes, the Irish adventurer, Richard Church (1784-1875). Sir Richard Church was born in Cork, the second son of Massey Church, a prosperous Quaker butter merchant and exporter. Church ran away from his Quaker school to join the army, and served under Abercrombie in Egypt in 1801. Later that year, he accompanied the expedition to the Ionian Islands, where he raised a Greek regiment that included Theodoros Kolokotronis and other future Greek leaders.

In vain, Church pleaded the Greek cause in London and at the Congress of Vienna in 1814-1815. He lived in Naples and Sicily until his expulsion in 1820, and in 1822 he was knighted by King George IV. But he soon returned to Greece, to join the War of Independence, and in April 1827 he was appointed commander in chief of the Greek forces.

The historian CM Woodhouse suggests that Church, as an Irishman, and the commander of the Greek navy, Lord Cochrane, who was born in Scotland, may have fought for Greek independence as “a sublimation for their own suppressed nationalism”.

Church and Cochrane insisted on Greek unity before accepting their commands, and their pressures resulted in the election of Kapodistrias as president in 1827 and the adoption of a new, liberal constitution. Church resigned his command because of his opposition to the government of Kapodistrias.

Later he was confidential adviser to Sir Edward Lyons (later Lord Lyons), the first British Minister to Greece, who was descended from a distinguished Dublin family.

Conspicuous Part

Church played a conspicuous part in the revolt of 1843 and lived on in Greece becoming a Greek citizen, a senator and member of the council of state, inspector general of the Greek Army, and a pillar of the Anglican church in Athens. He died in Athens on March 20th, 1873, and two windows in St Paul’s, the north window and the south window are dedicated to his memory.

The two light north window, presented by the British Government in 1875, depicts the figures of Caleb and Joshua. It is said that the inscription on the brass tablet beneath was written in honour of Church by the British Prime Minister, Gladstone, a personal friend of his nephew, the Very Rev Richard William Church, Dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, from 1871 to 1890.

Dean Church (1815-1890) and other members of Sir Richard’s family presented the south window in 1875. The window depicts Gideon and David, the story of the dew and the fleece, and David slaying Goliath.

Dean Church, who became the leader of the High Church party in the Church of England after Pusey’s death, was a reforming force in St Paul’s Cathedral along with Liddon and Lightfoot, who were two of his canons.

The historian of the Oxford Movement, the Dean was a personal friend of both Newman and Gladstone. True to his Irish origins, Church had identified himself with Newman from his days at Oxford when he protested against the government decision to reduce the number of bishops in the Church of Ireland.

The Friends of St Paul’s can be contacted through the Honorary Secretary, c/o the British Embassy, 1 Ploutarchou Street, Athens 10675, Greece.

This feature was first published in ‘The Irish Times’ as ‘An Irishman’s Diary’ on 25 February 1997.