09 May 2000

An Irishman’s Diary: Cyprus

An Irishman’s Diary
Patrick Comerford

Sir Garnet Wolseley: first British High Commissioner of Cyprus

Sir Garnet Wolseley arrived in the port of Larnaca on July 22nd, 1878, with 1,500 British troops, to a warm welcome from Bishop Kyriannos of Kitium. A week later, Wolseley took up residence in Nicosia as the first British High Commissioner or governor and commander-in-chief. Wolseley was an Irishman through and through, and a curious link in the inextricable association between Ireland and Cyprus, two islands at the north-west and south-east extremities of Europe.

The Wolseley family gave its name to Mount Wolseley in Co Carlow, while Garnet's younger brother, Frederick York Wolseley, gave his name to Wolseley motor cars. Both brothers were born in Dublin in Goldenbridge House, now part of the famous convent and school in Inchicore.

Garnet Wolseley (1833-1913) might have been destined for a life in holy orders: his grandfather, no fewer than six of his uncles, and four first cousins were clergymen in the Church of Ireland. But instead he entered the British army and followed a career that took him to Burma, Crimea, India, China, the Gold Coast, Egypt and South Africa.

Suez Canal

For much of that career, his aide-de-camp was Lord Charles William Beresford from Portlaw, Co Waterford, son of the fourth Lord Waterford, who was also a rector in the Diocese of Armagh. Wolseley’s stay on Cyprus was short if not sweet: he left within a year to become Governor of Natal and Transvaal. Later, he commanded the British forces in Egypt, where he captured the Suez Canal. His victory at Tel el-Kabir earned him a peerage from Gladstone and gave an exotic name to a Dublin dairy, the TEK. Wolseley’s expedition to save Khartoum arrived two days after Gordon had been killed; he earned himself another peerage for his pains.

After Wolseley and Beresford left Cyprus, the British administrators on the island were soon joined by other Irish-born officials: the future Lord Kitchener mapped the island, and was an enthusiastic curator of the Cyprus Museum in Nicosia.

The eventual departure of the British from Cyprus in 1960 marked the passing of just the latest in a long line of foreign rulers, including Ottoman Turks, Venetians, Genoese, French, Crusader knights, Arabs, Byzantines and Romans. But Cyprus never lost its essentially Greek character. In Greek mythology, this was the island where Aphrodite was born; philosophers know it as the birthplace of Zeno the Stoic; classicists treasure its Minoan remains; Biblical scholars know Paul and Barnabas preached the Gospel here; the world of theatre associates it with Othello; while lovers of literature know its links with Lawrence Durrell and the Nobel prize-winning Greek poet, George Seferis, who wrote many of his love poems at Ayia Napa and on the coasts and bays nearby.

Wedding business

Perhaps it was because this was the island of love, rather than military expediency, that Richard the Lionheart decided to have his wedding here during the Crusades. But when he married Berengaria of Navarre on May 12th, 1191, in Limassol, he could hardly have realised he was the forerunner of a healthy sector of the Cypriot economy: in recent years the wedding-with-honeymoon package-holiday business has been a major growth area of the tourist industry.

The Anglican chaplain in Paphos can expect up to 400 weddings this year, while his counterpart in Ayia Napa, the Rev Robin Brookes, former Rector of Drumcondra, is expecting about 150. “Last year it was, at times, pretty exhausting, when there were eight in a week, two weeks running – which also means there will have been eight interviews and eight rehearsals, as well as the wedding service for real.”

This year, he says, “the first wedding of the season was on Valentine’s Day, the last is at the end of October.” One recent wedding almost took place in the Lito Clinic because the bridegroom had a ruptured appendix. But the crisis was dealt with in time for him to come and make his vows at the small Ecumenical Gatehouse Chapel, shared by Anglicans, Lutherans and Catholics in the cloisters of Ayia Napa Monastery. “Another couple were totally on their own,” says Robin Brookes, “so that my wife Val and one of the tour company wedding reps had to act as witnesses.”

On Sunday evenings in summer, he leads a small congregation of holiday-makers in the Capo Bay Hotel in Protaras. But the congregation in Ayia Napa serves a population of “ex-pats” from disparate backgrounds, including Switzerland, the Philippines, Zimbabwe, Britain and Ireland.

Irish parishioners

He was hardly surprised to find Irish clerical colleagues and parishioners when he arrived. They include a Baptist pastor from Northern Ireland stationed with the United Nations peace-keeping forces, and “Sue at the washing machine shop, who was in a Northern Ireland parish when the Archbishop of Armagh was the curate and youth leader!”

The use of the gatehouse chapel was a generous gesture, but was part of the long ecumenical tradition of the monastery. The original church had a double nave, serving both Greek Orthodox and Latin Catholic traditions, while the monastery has served as a conference centre for the World Council of Churches.

On the steps outside stands a sycamore tree where the poet Seferis was honoured after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1963. Some of his most romantic love poems and songs were inspired by the bays and beaches around Ayia Napa, and Sto periyiali to chripho (“On the secret seashore”), set to music by Mikis Theodorakis, has lost none of its popularity for Greeks and Cypriots alike.

The island of Aphrodite continues to inspire and attract both lovers and poets.

This feature was first published in The Irish Times on 9 May 2000

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