Saturday, 29 August 2009

Kuşadasi: a city without a memory?

‘Warehouse: Greek Shop’ ... attracting shoppers from neighbouring Samos or one of the lingering signs in the Bazaar in Kuşadasi of the Greeks of Neopolis? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I have been in Turkey about half a dozen times in recent years, and this week – for the third time – I am staying in Kuşadası, a resort town on Turkey’s Aegean coast. Kuşadası is about 100 km (60 miles) south of İzmir, and its economy is almost totally dependent on tourism. This is the biggest and best-known holiday resort on Turkey’s Aegean coast. It boasts one of the world’s deepest water ports and it is frequently visited by some of the biggest luxury cruise liners. It also boasts a large luxury yacht marina, and the seafront is lined with chic cafés and bars.

Kuşadası’s residential population of 50,000 rises to over half a million during the summer months when the large resort fills with tourists. They come from Turkey itself as well as northern Europe and the Balkans, especially Romania. Their numbers are added to by hotel staff, bar staff, building workers, dolmus and taxi drivers, restaurant workers, and the staff in holiday villages, aquaparks, rock bars, beach clubs and hotels. The Kismet Hotel (http://www.kismet.com.tr/), with its elegant, landscaped gardens high above the yacht marina, was once part-owned by the late Hümeyra Özbaş (1917-2000), a Turkish princess who was the granddaughter of the last Ottoman Sultan, Vahdeddin (Mehmet VI).

Sunset over the Aegean at the Palmin Sunset Plaza Hotel in Kuşadasi

Estate agents in Kuşadası and along the seafront at Ladies’ Beach are still bravely trying to sell holiday apartments and villas. For those much younger than I am, throbbing Bar Street is the place to go at night. I am staying in the very pleasant Palmin Sunset Plaza Hotel (http://www.palminsunsetplaza.com/hotel.php), a few miles outside Kuşadası. The local dolmus service means it is within easy reach of the city’s charming old quarter, with its narrow cobbled streets and alleyways, beautiful mosques and fountains, old town walls and towers, small cafés and restaurants – some of which even have secret gardens.

Kuşadası stands on a bay in the Aegean with the peninsula of Guvercin Ada sticking out into the sea at one end, and the mountain of Kaz Dagi behind. Above the port, a brash statue of Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish state, peers down on the city.

The brash honky-tonk presentation of Bar Street and the pervasive modern Turkish political climate give the appearances of a city without a past, a memory or a history. Apart from two 17th century mosques, the few remains of a tower and an old city wall, and the beguiling caravanserai, there is no indication that this is a city with a memory. There are no plaques marking the sites of former churches, basilicas, libraries or schools, or the homes of eminent past residents.

The narrow side streets and steep stepped alleyways look like the streets and alleyways of other Aegean towns – including those on the neighbouring Greek island of Samos. But their former names and their previous residents have been wiped out of Kuşadası’s collective memory.

Yet this is a town with a classical history worth remembering and recalling.

The area has been a centre of art and culture since the earliest times and has been settled by many civilisations since being founded by the Leleges people around 3000 BC.

Pygale, about 3 km north of Kusadasi on the road out to Ephesus, is said by Xenophon, to have once been the refuge of Agamemnon. Strabo in his Geography says that Agamemnon established Pygale and settled large numbers of his soldiers there. Strabo also says there was a temple to the moon goddess Munkyia in Pygale, and that during the Trojan Wars in the 13th or 12th century BC Pygale was a place for curing soldiers and repairing ships.

Later settlers included the Aeolians in the 11th century BC and the Ionians in the 9th century. Originally seamen and traders, the Ionians built a number of settlements on this part of the Anatolian coast, including Neopolis, close to the present site of Kuşadası. This was an outpost of Ephesus, and Neopolis was a minor port for vessels trading along the Aegean coast. However, Neopolis was overshadowed by Ephesus until the harbour of Ephesus silted up.

Panionium, 25 km south of Kuşadası on the Davutlar-Güzelçamlı road, was the central meeting place of the Ionian League or Panionic League in the 7th century BC. However, the ruins are in poor condition and their authenticity is disputed.

From the 7th century BC on, the coast was ruled by the Lydians from their capital in Sardis, and then from 546 BC by the Persians. In 334 BC it came under the rule of Alexander the Great, and was a minor centre of Hellenistic culture. His soldiers are said to have used Pygale as an entertainment and treatment centre. The Romans took possession of the coast in the 2nd century BC.

In Byzantine times, Kuşadası was known as Ephesus Neopolis and then as Ania. As Byzantine, Venetian and Genoese traders worked the coast, the port became known as Scala Nuova or “new port,” an Italian variant of the Greek Neopolis. The island was garrisoned, and the town centre moved from the hillside to the coast.

From 1086, the area began to come under Turkish control and these Aegean ports became the final destinations of caravan routes to the Orient. However, this arrangement was upset by the Crusades, and the coast then came under Byzantine control once again. The remains of a castle at Guvercin Ada or “Pigeon Island,” the peninsula at the end of the bay, date from these days. There is a another Venetian or Byzantine castle at Kadıkalesi, 10 km north, along the Kuşadası-Davutlar road

The Turks took control of the area once again in 1280. Kuşadası was brought into the Ottoman Empire by Mehmet I in 1413. The Ottomans built the city walls and the caravanserai that still stand today. The Kaleiçi Camii mosque was built in 1618 for the Grand Vizier, Öküz Kara Mehmet Pasha, and two years later in 1618 the Öküz Mehmet Pasha caravanserai was built near the docks for travellers and seamen.

The minaret of a mosque in Kuşadasi ... but where are the old churches, schools and tavernas? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In 1834 the castle and garrison on the island were rebuilt and expanded, becoming the focus of the town. From 1919 to 1921, the town was occupied by Italian troops, and was then held by Greece until it was captured by the Turks on 7 September 1922.

After the disastrous events of 1922-1923, the local Greek-speaking population was deported and the town was renamed Kuşadası. The name comes from the Turkish words kuş (bird) and ada (island) as the peninsula is said to look like the shape of a bird’s head when seen from the sea.

The name change was just one small part of the process that ensued in the following years, wiping out the memory of the Greek, Armenian and Jewish communities that had lived in Neopolis and Scala Nuova for many generations and many centuries. The census returns from 1919 show that over 50 per cent of the people in the towns, villages and rural areas of this part of Turkey were Greek-speaking Christians at the time.

The Czech writer, Milan Kundera, in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, offers a series of reflections on the importance of memory as the root from which emerges the self-understanding by individuals and groups of their identities. In one of the essays in that book, Kundera analyses the writings of Franz Kafka and comments:

“Prague in his novels is a city without memory. It has even forgotten its name. Nobody there remembers anything, nobody recalls anything … No song is capable of uniting the city’s present with its past by recalling the moments of its birth.

“Time in Kafka’s novel is the time of humanity that has lost its continuity with humanity, of a humanity that no longer knows anything nor remembers anything, that lives in nameless cities with nameless streets or streets different from the ones they had yesterday, because a name means continuity with the past and people without a past are people without a name.”

In this essay, Kundera explores the theme in relation to the way in which an attempt had been made by the state authorities to change the awareness of the identity of the Czech people since the end of World War II. An attempt has been made to erase the nation’s memory, and through this the identity of the people has been eroded. As Kundera notes when he quotes his friend Milan Hubi approvingly: “The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory.”

The culture, traditions, songs, religious commitment, political ideas embodied above all in the literature and the poetry of the community are important vehicles communicating and challenging the identity of the society.

From the 1920s on, memories and names have been erased in Kuşadası and the surrounding hinterland.

Kuşadası was a fruit-growing rural district until the 1970s, when the first holiday apartments were built here. It first grew into a small resort town with holiday flats built as housing co-operatives for families from Ankara, İzmir, Denzil and other Turkish cities, and then – from the mid-1980s – Kuşadası grew into the centre of mass tourism that it is today.

Some of the old houses near the seafront that have been converted to bars and cafes are the last remnants of old Kuşadası. The city walls once had three gates, but only one remains today. The old street names have been forgotten. The Greek people who had been here for thousands of years and who were the majority of people in the city until the beginning of the last century were forced to leave in 1923 and they never returned.

On Friday [28 August 2009], I visited the mountain village of Sirince, east of Selcuk, a once-thriving Greek village that provides the setting for Dido Sotiriou’s novel, Farewell Anatolia. With its crumbling churches and houses, it is a disturbing reminder of the violent ethnic cleansing in this region in the 1920s. I plan to write more about this visit over the next few weeks. But as I travelled back through Selcuk and Ephesus to Kuşadası in the cooling evening, I wondered how many similar villages were erased from local memories and histories because there was no Dido Sotiriou to revive the stories of grandparents forced to leave unwillingly.

There was another reminder of those disturbing and murderous events and the loss of memory and story, diversity and pluralismn, as I returned from Samos this week. A Greek monk on board the small ferry removed his cassock and hat so that he could disembark at Kuşadası in casual clothes. Perhaps there is still a small Greek Christian remnant in this area that relies on the ministry of visiting priests.

Antiques ... every now and then I am surprised to find Greek used on a shop sign or in the bazaar (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Occasionally I have been spoken to Greek in hushed tones by a taxi driver who thinks I am a Greek priest or by a shop owner who tells me his mother or grandmother spoke Greek. Every now and then I am surprised to find Greek used on a shop sign or in the bazaar. But after less than three generations, the Greeks of Neopolis and Ania have been forgotten, their history has been erased, there is no-one to keep their memory alive, and tourists must never be told their story. And there is no novel by Dido Sotiriou or Louis de Bernières to bring them back to life again.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute

Friday, 28 August 2009

Why Byron could never ‘fill high the cup of Samian wine’

Samos remains unspoiled and a typical picture postcard Greek island ... and the El Greco taverna serves unique Samiot food (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

By Patrick Comerford

Greece and Turkey are close to one another in the narrow Aegean waters that separate Samos and the Anatolian coastline, where the gap is only a mere kilometre. The nearest Greek island, Ikaria, is 15 km miles away, leaving Samos the most easterly of the Aegean islands and a natural continuation of the coastline of neighbouring Asia Minor. But, while the waters are narrow, the people have been separated by thousands of years of geological change and a political chasm that has narrowed only in recent years.

This area has been the interface between Europe and Asia since Xerxes and his Persian sea forces were ruined in the straits between Samos and Anatolia after the battles of Marathon and Plataea.

Staying in Kusadasi on the western Anatolian coast this week, I look out across to Samos from my balcony the first thing each morning, and each evening I watch the sun setting in the Aegean beside the island. And so, on Wednesday morning [26 August 2009], I took an early morning ferry across to Samos for my fourth visit to this Aegean island.

Samos is 475 sq km, has a coastline of 159 km, and a population of 40,000. There was no hint of the forest fires that devastated other parts of Greece until early this week, or of the heavy rain that has caused flooding in Thessaloniki. Water is abundant here, the hills are green with the trees that provide abundant crops of fruit and olives, and the wines of Samos are celebrated in literature throughout the world. It was this wine that came to mind when the poet Byron wrote:

In vain – in vain: strike other chords;
Fill high the cup of Samian wine!
Leave battles to the Turkish hordes,
And shed the blood of Scio’s vine!

But Samos has charms beyond Byron’s wine that have been discovered only in recent years by the package holiday industry, centuries after it had been a holiday destination for Anthony and Cleopatra.

The island of Pythagoras

The island was said to be the birthplace of Hera, who was worshipped in Samos not as the wife of Zeus but as the goddess of nature and fertility. Samos was also the birthplace of Pythagoras (580-500 BC), the ascetic philosopher who taught us that the square on the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides of a right-angle triangle. It was the birthplace too of Epicurus, the philosopher who sought happiness as the chief human good through freedom from anxiety and fear, and of Callistratus, who produced the 24-letter Greek alphabet – the basis of all our modern European alphabets.

Samos was the home of early scientists and explorers, including Aristrachus, who, centuries before Galileo, taught that the world revolved on its own axis around the sun, and Kolaios, who was the first to sail safely to Egypt, to reach the Pillars of Hercules and to sail out into the Atlantic.

After the conflicts between the Byzantine Empire and the advancing Turks and after a series of devastating earthquakes, the entire population of Samos was evacuated to the neighbouring island Chios by the Genoese in the 15th century. For a hundred years, Samos remained isolated and deserted until 1562, when a Turkish admiral, Kilic Ali, invited the descendants of the original Samiots to return home.

In a rare decision for an Ottoman administrator, Turks were excluded from Kilic Ali’s initiative, and his re-colonisation of Samos attracted Greeks from all over the Sultan’s Empire. Along with the descendants of the original Samiots, the island also attracted Greeks from the neighbouring islands and from Asia Minor and the Peloponnese. Subsequent generations inherited a rich and varied heritage, reflected in the island’s folklore, folksongs, village names, and its unique Epiphany carols. The village of Pandrosos was known until recently as Arvanites, reflecting the Albanian ancestry of many of the villagers, while the village of Mytilini was settled by people from the island of Mytilini or Lesvos after an earthquake destroyed their homes.

Unique island crafts

The new settlers brought crafts no longer found in other parts of Greece. Potters in Mavratzaioi make the unique maskara bardak, a container with a series of holes on top; when liquid is poured in, some of the holes must be stopped with the fingers, but the liquid pours out on all sides if the wrong holes are closed. Another design, the dikia koupa, also known as the Pythagorean cup, has holes in the bottom and spills over if the liquid inside goes above a level marked on the side – making it impossible for Byron to fill high his cup of Samian wine. Today, Byron’s insights are often forgotten and the secrets of these vessels are now known only to a few, so that it may be a dying craft.

In the 18th century, Samos enjoyed a brief period of independence and Greek rule under the Laskaris family when the island was liberated by the Russians, but three years later in 1774 it was retaken by the Ottoman Turks. Kilic Ali’s enlightened settlement policies and the special privileges enjoyed by Samos from 1774 may have made the islanders more kindly disposed towards their Turkish overlords and neighbours.

However, the people of Samos joined the Greek War of Independence in the 1820s, and the island was part of the first modern independent Greek state for a few short years from 1828. Despite the objections of the Irish Philhellene, Sir Richard Church from Cork, the Great Powers forced the return of Samos to the Sultan in 1830.

The Lion Monument was erected in Pythagoras Square in Vathy in 1930 to mark the 100th anniversary of the uprising against the Turkish occupation of Samos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

During the third phase of Ottoman rule, Samos enjoyed a limited degree of autonomy for 80 years under Christian princes nominated in Constantinople and an elected parliament until the pro-Turkish Prince Kopasis was assassinated on 2 March 1912. The last Turks finally left Samos on 23 September 1912, and free elections were held a week later on 30 September. The new assembly met in the Church of Saint Spyridon in Vathy, the island declared independence on 11 November 1912, and reunion with Greece was confirmed on 2 March 1913, a year after Prince Kopasis was killed. A copy of the declaration of enosis still hangs on a pillar in the Church.

Inside a church in Vathy ... the events in 1912-1913 saved the people of Samos from the atrocities suffered by their neighbours in Smyrna and Asia Minor a decade later (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

That turn of events probably saved Samos from “ethnic cleansing” during the Greek-Turkish conflicts that erupted within a decade. With the deportations and exchanges of Greek and Turkish minorities in 1922 and 1923, refugees from Smyrna and other parts of Asia Minor settled on Samos, bringing new skills and crafts.

During World War II, the island was occupied by the Italians and later by the Germans. Samos was not saved from the economic blight that hit Greece after World War II and the Greek Civil War, and wholesale emigration saw the population of many villages dwindle to the point of disappearance within a generation.

Economic revival

Now the mountain villages are prospering again, and modern tourism has brought a welcome economic revival. Samos is no longer “the forgotten island,” but the people here have not forgotten their myths and ancient history, which still play key roles in the islanders’ self-consciousness and their perception of their island’s unique attractions.

Over half a century ago, Tigani – the island capital under Polykrates – changed its name to Pythagoreio to mark the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of the world’s first school of philosophy by Pythagoras. The old name meant “frying pan” – a reference to the summer heat in the town; but today’s Pythagoreio is a picturesque fishing harbour with elegant, restored traditional houses and mansions and the island’s only marina.

The shape of the statue of Pythagoras by Nikolaos Ikaris in Pythagoreio is a reminder of the mathematical and philosophical genius of Samos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Out at the edge of the pier in Pythagoreio, the shape of the 1989 statue of Pythagoras by Nikolaos Ikaris is a reminder of the mathematical and philosophical genius of the island, who lived on Samos during the reign of Polykrates. Pythagoras, who was an ethical vegetarian, dissented from the tyrannical ways of Polykrates, and he was accused of atheism. But Pythagoreans believed in a superior divinity, the One, above all others, and it was Pythagoras who gave the word “cosmos” to the universe on the basis of his concepts of order and harmony which he believed govern all things.

The name of Polykrates is recalled in the charming seafront cafés of Pythagoreio (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

During the reign of Polykrates, Samos was at the height of its prosperity, with a lively artistic and cultural life. Polykrates commissioned the tunnel built by Eupalinus, a unique engineering achievement often described as the “eighth wonder” of the ancient world. The tunnel took ten years to build and is 1,350 meters long, and the tunnel builders, who started at opposite ends, met each other with a degree of accuracy that defies even modern engineering. Polykrates also built the Temple of Hera, described by Herodotus as “the largest and the richest of all the temples in Greece.” However, his reign came to an end when Oroites of Magnesia captured Polykrates and crucified him on a wooden cross in 522 B.C.

Early Christian visitors

In the fifth century BC, the power of Samos rivalled that of Athens, but it was often caught between the warring armies of Athens and Persia as it tried to maintain its independence and a floundering democracy. Later, Samiots would claim, the island was visited by both Christ and by Saint John the Divine, who spent his exile on neighbouring Patmos. Kantili on Mount Kerkis at the western end of the island takes its name (“Candle”) from the legend that John the Divine passed this way on his way to the Seven Churches of Asia, and that since then a sweet light has been seen from Kantitli at night, guiding sailors and fishermen off the coast.

Certainly Saint John’s concept of the cosmos can be traced to the original thinking of Pythagoras. But legends aside, we can be sure Samos was visited by the Apostle Paul around 58 AD. Ever since, the island has had a rich heritage of churches, monasteries and convents. Four years after the island was resettled by Greeks in the 16th century, two monks, Iocovos and Makarios, built the Monastery of the Panayia of Vrontiani, or Our Lady of Thunder, the oldest monastery on the island, 3 km from the village of Vourliotes. The Monastery of Our Lady of Spiliani was built over the cave that was once the home of the Samian oracle Photo, while pillars from the classical city of Miletus in Anatolia were used to build Aghia Zoni, which has outstanding wall paintings.

The former convent still dominates the harbour front in Vathy (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The monastery of Aghios Ioannis (Saint John) the Almoner, near the village of Paliohori, is an unusual ecclesiastical oddity, coming under the jurisdiction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

On Wednesday afternoon, above the port of Vathy, I visited the Church of Saint Theodoros in the quieter backstreets of Vathy. This is an unusual church, with both a double nave and a double iconostasis. But the pulpit only faces towards one half the church, and while each nave has a dome, only one is illustrated with the image of Christ Pantokrator surrounded by the 12 Disciples.

But perhaps the island’s most unusual monastic and religious community was to be found among the tiny minority of Roman Catholics. The nuns in this community founded an old people’s home, which is still flourishing. The nuns have abandoned their former convent, although the old building still dominates the harbour in Vathy, as it has since the Palace of the Princes was levelled and replaced by the Hotel Xenia.

A narrow laneway beside the convent leads to the island’s only Roman Catholic church, almost hidden and open only occasionally to serve the members of a dwindling minority and some tourists. Few of these tourists probably ponder Pythagoras and John the Divine or their insights on the wonders of the cosmos as they try to “fill high the cup of Samian wine” and watch it spill over the sides of the Pythagorean cup.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin

Thursday, 27 August 2009

The Alevis: Turkey’s egalitarian and mystical minority

An Alevi dance during worship

Patrick Comerford

In a country with a surprising variety of religious and cultural minorities, the Alevi are an interesting community in Turkey that seldom come to outside attention although they may be tens of millions in number.

Although the Alevis are regarded as being members of a Muslim sect, they worship in assembly houses (cemevi) rather than mosques, with their principal ceremony (âyîn-i cem, or simply cem) featuring music and dance (semah) and their rituals conducted mostly in Turkish, and sometimes in the Kurdish language.

At the heart of Alevi values is love and respect for all people, and they often say that “the important thing is not religion, but being a human being.” Alevis teach tolerance towards other religions and ethnic groups, believing that “if you hurt another person, the ritual prayers you have done are counted as worthless.” They promote respect for working people, saying “the greatest act of worship is to work.”

They have long accepted the equality of men and women, who pray side-by-side, and they have long practised monogamy. Alevis proudly point out that they are monogomous, Alevi women worship together with men, Alevi women are free to dress in modern clothing, Alevi women are encouraged to get the best education they can, and Alevi women are free to enter any occupation they choose. Alevi women are not required to wear a headscarf or other bodily coverings because, they say, Alevi identity focuses on the internal rather than the external image.

Modern Alevi theology has been profoundly influenced by humanism and universalism. The 1990s brought a new emphasis on Alevism as a cultural identity. Alevi communities in Turkey today generally support Turkish secularism and the Kemalist republican tradition. For centuries, the Alevis have been the victims of persecution, often resulting in death. The Alevis were early supporters of Atatürk, crediting him with ending the discrimination they suffered under Ottoman rule. However, Kemalism lost some of its appeal in the 1960s, as many Alevis flirted with left-wing dissent.

Yet, despite their universalist values, and in contrast to other forms of Islam, Alevi communities do not generally acknowledge the possibility of conversion to Alevism.

So, are the Alevis true Muslims?

Alevism is a unique sect of “Twelver” Shi‘a Islam, and Alevis accept “Twelver” Shi‘i beliefs about Ali and the Twelve Imams. But some Alevis are uncomfortable about describing themselves as orthodox Shi‘i Muslims as there are major differences in philosophy, customs, and rituals from the prevailing form of Shi‘ism found in Iraq and Iran today.

Alevism is also closely related to the Bektashi Sufi lineage, and Alevis venerate Hajji Bektash Wali, the Bektashi saint of the 13th century. Many Alevis refer to an “Alevi-Bektashi” tradition, but this identity is not universally accepted.

In addition to its religious aspect, Alevism is also closely associated with Anatolian folk culture.

The name Alevi is probably a Turkish and Kurdish word referring to followers of ‘Alī ibn Abī Tālib, a cousin, son-in-law, and adopted son of the Muslim Prophet Muhammed.

Some Alevis are also called Qizilbashi, although this name is sometimes regarded as being pejorative and implying that their allegiance lies with Iran rather than Turkey.

Attempts to trace the origins of these people run the risk of being caught up in controversy.

Many Alevis trace their tradition to primitive Islam and the Twelve Imams, a conclusion with which some prominent scholars agree. Others see Alevism as a pre-Islamic substrate that acquired a veneer of Shī‘ī theology, and ask whether it is principally a Turkish or Persian folk culture. There are even some who argue that it reflects and incorporates many aspects Orthodox Byzantine or Armenian Christianity.

The Alevi population has been estimated as anywhere between 10 and 20 million people – between 15 and 30 per cent of the population of Turkey. There is no independent data, but either estimate makes the Alevi the second-largest religious community in Turkey, following the Sunni Muslims.

Most Alevis are ethnic and linguistic Turks, but 40% are Zazas and Kurds – although most Kurds are Sunni Muslims. Their communities are concentrated in central Anatolia, in a belt from Chorum in the west to Mush in the east. The only province within Turkey with an Alevi majority is Tunceli (Dersim). From the 1960s on, many Alevis have migrated to the large cities of western and southern Turkey, and to Germany and other parts of western Europe.

There are four main groups among today’s Alevis in modern Turkey.

The first group is mainly represented by the urban population and emerged in the modern Turkish republic. For decades, this group has belonged to the political left and its adherents often see Alevism as an outlook on life more than a religion. The followers hold ritual unions of a religious character and have also established cultural associations named after Pir Sultan Abdal. Humanity enjoys a central role in their belief system, and the phrase “God is Man” is often attributed to this group.

The second group is more mystical and has links with the Haci Bektashi Sufi brotherhood. The non-Muslim saints they admire include Saint Francis of Assisi and Mahatma Gandhi.

The third group regards themselves as true Muslims and readily co-operate with the state. This group follows the way of Jafar as-Sadiq, the sixth Imam. Their concept of God is closer to orthodox Islam, but like the first two groups they believe that the Qur'an was manipulated by the early Sunni Caliphs in order to eliminate Ali.

The fourth grouping is actively being influenced by official Iranian Shi'a Islam to see themselves as part of true “Twelver” Shia Islam and to reject Bektashism. They follow Sharia customs and opposes the power of the secular state.

Alevi beliefs are hard to define and difficult for the outsider to access. Many of their teachings are based on an orally transmitted tradition that has traditionally been kept secret from outsiders. In addition, Alevism is a diverse movement without any central authority, and its boundaries with other groups are poorly defined and delineated.

However, the basis for Alevism’s most distinctive beliefs is found in the Buyruks or compiled writings and dialogues of Sheikh Safi al-Din, who gave his name to the Safavi order, Ja'far al-Sadiq, the Sixth Imam, and other key figures from the past. The teachings can also be found in hymns or nefes written by Shah Ismail and Pir Sultan Abdal, a 16th century martyr, the stories of Hajji Bektash, and other writings.

Most Alevis believe 'Ali had supernatural strength and wisdom as well as having a uniquely mystical connection with the Muslim Prophet Muhammad. They talk of Muhammed as “the city of spiritual knowledge” and Ali as “the door.” They compare the mystical unity between Ali and Muhammad with the two sides of a coin or the two halves of an apple.

Alevi mystical language speaks of the goal of spiritual life being to follow a path towards unity with God, from the highest perspective all is God. This is coupled with the Alevi concept of the “Perfect Human Being,” who is identified with humanity’s true identity as pure consciousness. The human task is to fully realise this state while still in material human form.

The Alevi spiritual path is commonly understood to take place through four major life-stages, or gates:

1, Sheriat or Sharia (religious law);
2, Tarikat (spiritual brotherhood);
3, Marifat (spiritual knowledge);
4, Hakikat (Reality or Truth, i.e. God).

The major crimes and offences for which an Alevi can be shunned are: killing a person; committing adultery; divorcing one’s wife; marrying a divorced woman; and stealing

The central Alevi corporate worship service is the cem. Semah, a family of ritual dances marked by turning and swirling, is an inseparable part of any cem. This is performed by men and women together, to the accompaniment of the baglama, an instrument that Ross Daly has introduced to Greek music in recent years. The dance symbolise the revolution of the planets around the Sun or the putting off of one’s self and uniting with God.

Alevi practices that are viewed with suspicion by other Muslims include the use of candles in rituals, asking the dead directly for help, and sacrifices at shrines. Other, similar practices include kissing door frames of holy rooms, not stepping on the threshold of holy buildings, and seeking prayers from reputed healers.

Unique festivals among the Alevis include the Persian New Year at the Spring equinox, which also marks the birthday of Ali, the wedding of Ali and Fatima, the rescue of the prophet Joseph from the well, and the creation of the world. Hidrellez, which can fall on Saint George’s Day, honours Hizir, who is sometimes identified with the prophet Elijah.

Alevis are not expected to give Zakat in the Islamic mode, and there is no set formula or prescribed amount for charity. Nor does Alevism recognise an obligation to go on pilgrimage to Mecca.

Alevis have suffered suspicion and prejudice since the beginning of the Ottoman period. They have been accused of heresy, heterodoxy, rebellion, betrayal and immorality. Their discources on light and darkness and their use of candles in their rituals has led some Sunni Turks to accuse them of Zoroastrian beliefs. Alevis, for their part, argue that the original Quran does not demand five daily prayers, attendance at mosques, or the pilgrimage to Mecca. They view the Sunna and Hadith as Arab elitist innovations to ensure Arab dominance of Islam and to manipulate and enslave the masses.

In today’s political debates in Turkey, Alevis see themselves as a counter-force to Sunni fundamentalism, and as bulwarks of Turkey’s secularism. Alevis often regard Sunni Islam as strict and legalist, working against free and independent thought, as reactionary, bigoted, fanatic, and anti-democratic.

This conflict reached its climax in Sivas on 2 July 1993, when Alevis were celebrating the Pir Sultan Abdal Festival. Coming out of mosques after their Friday prayer, a mob of 20,000 or so Sunnis surrounded the Madimak hotel, chanting anti-Alevi and pro-sharia slogans. The hotel was stoned and set on fire, and 33 Alevis died inside. The perpetrators have been treated lightly, according to Alevis, and have either been given light sentences or never brought to trial. There have been drive-by shootings of Alevis in Istanbul, and protesting Alevis have often been arrested.

But the Alevi tradition has given Turkey some of its most beautiful, mstical music, arising from the cem, the practice of zikr, or remembering God’s names, and the sema or ritual dance, which is accompanied by sung mystical poetry and instruments such as the baglama or saz, a plucked folk lute with frets.

This specialised sacred musical repertoire includes songs of mystical love and hymns about the mystical experience. Many of Turkey’s major traditional musicians today are Alevis, while many non-Alevis have also recorded Alevi songs. This is a tradition unknown to many Europeans, but it is a fascinating part of the religious and cultural mosaic of Turkey today.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

The spiritual benefits of Ramadan in Turkey

Sunset in the Aegean at Kusadasi ... practising Muslims are expected to fast from sunrise to sunset each day during Ramadan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Ramadan, or Ramazan as it is known in Turkey, began last week just before I arrived for a week’s holiday. I’ve been in Pakistan and Egypt during Ramadan in the past, but I think this is my first time in Turkey during this very special month.

Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar. During this month, from sunrise to sunset, practising Muslims are expected refrain from eating, drinking, smoking, and indulging in anything that is in excess or ill-natured, including all violence and all violent thoughts towards others.

Every day during Ramadan, Muslims rise before dawn to eat Sahur, the pre-dawn meal, then pray the Fajr prayer. They stop eating and drinking before the call to call to prayer, and remain fasting until Maghrib, the fourth prayer of the day. From then, they may continue to eat and drink until the next morning and the call to prayer.

Fasting is seen as a spiritual discipline that teaches the virtues of patience, modesty and spirituality. This is a time to fast for the sake of God, and to offer more prayer than usual.

At this time, practising Muslims ask forgiveness for past sins, pray for guidance and help in refraining from everyday evils, and try to purify themselves through self-restraint and good deeds.

Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar, and the earliest hadith indicate the practice of fasting may have been influenced by the Jewish practice of fasting during Yom Kippur.

For Muslims, the most holy night of the year is the “Night of the Power,” the night in which the Qur'an was revealed to Muhammad during the last 10 days of Ramadan. According to a well-known hadith, those observe Ramadan properly will have all their sins forgiven. According to another hadith, “When Ramadan arrives, Heaven’s gates are opened, Hell’s gates are closed, and the demons are chained up.” Some Muslims also believe that those who die during Ramadan are said to enter paradise.

Ramadan is a time of reflecting and worshipping God. Purity of thought and deed is expected. The fast is supposed to be an act of deep personal worship in which a Muslim seeks a raised awareness of closeness to God. The act of fasting is said to redirect the heart away from worldly activities, cleanses the inner soul and frees it from harm. It is supposed to induce self-discipline, self-control, and empathy for those who are less fortunate, and to encouraging generosity and charity.

Inside a mosque in Kusadasi ... over the course of a month, the full Qur'an can be rectited in a mosque during Ramadan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

As well as fasting, Muslims are encouraged during Ramadan to read or recite the entire Qur'an. Special prayers, called Tarawih, are held in the mosques each night, when a whole section of the Qur'an, so that over the course of the whole month the entire Qur'an has been recited.

Children, travellers, pregnant and menstruating women, the elderly and those who are ill are exempt from fasting. But they must try to feed the poor and needy to compensate for their missed fasting. Or they can make up the days they miss. As a way of repaying for the days they cannot fast, the elderly and the disabled have the option of hosting a poorer person in their house and have them eat with them after sunset.

This is a time when Muslims try on to slow down from worldly affairs and focus on self-reformation, spiritual cleansing and enlightenment, establishing a link between themselves and God through prayer, supplication, charity, good deeds, kindness and helping others, on giving and sharing. They prepare special foods and buy gifts for their family and friends and to give to the poor, such as new clothes and shoes.

Walking around Kusadasi during the evening, it’s obvious that this is a time to spend the evening with friends and family. There is a very special atmosphere here after sunset, and it is a very special time and a very spiritual time to be in Turkey.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Smyrna: city of martyrs and massacres

Pasaport Quay in Izmir is urbane and relaxed today ... It is difficult to imagine that this was the scene of a major disaster in 1922 (Photograph: Dario Moreno)

Patrick Comerford

I’m spending this week in the Aegean, hoping for a few days of well-deserved Mediterranean sunshine in western Anatolia and on the island of Samos.

This is my third or fourth holiday in these parts of Greece and Turkey, based in Kuşadasi. Although, in many ways, it is a brash, modern resort, the facilities are good, and Kusadasi provides a good base for exploring some fascinating classical and biblical sites: both İzmir and Kuşadasi are within easy access of places such as Ephesus, Pergamum and Sardis, Pamukkale, Hierapolis and Laodecia, Priene, Miletus and Didyma.

I flew in early on Monday morning [24 August] to the very modern Adnan Menderes Airport in İzmir. With a population of over 2.6 million people, İzmir is Turkey’s third most populous city and the country’s largest port after Istanbul.

İzmir, which has almost 3,500 years of urban history, has been described by many writers as “the Pearl of the Aegean.” Victor Hugo once said: “Smyrne is a princess with her most beautiful small hat.” Although it was known to the Ottoman Turks as Gavur Izmir or “Infidel Izmir” and still suffers from what one author has described as the “sketchy understanding” of outsiders, many Turks today see it as one of their most progressive cities because of its modern values, the dynamic lifestyle, and the obvious gender equality among local people.

Sweet-smelling birthplace of Homer

According to local claims, Homer is said to have been born in Smyrna – although others say he was born on the nearby island of Chios. In classical Greece, this was Μύρρα (Mýrrha), and later Σμύρνα (Smýrna) or Σμύρνη (Smýrni). Some traditions link this name to Smyrna, an Amazon who seduced Theseus, leading him to name the city in her honour. Others link the name to the shrub or plant that gives us myrrh, the aromatic resin that was one of the gifts of the Magi to the Christ Child.

The Romans continued to use the name Smyrna. Other variants include Smirne (Italian), Esmirna (Spanish), Smyrne (French), and Izmir (Ladino). In English, the city was known as Smyrna until the 20th century. Today’s İzmir is simply a modern Turkish adaptation of the Armenian version of the same name.

The city is one of the oldest settlements in the Mediterranean basin. Recent excavations suggest this place may have been first inhabited some time between 6500 and 4000 BC, and the finds include several graves with artefacts from about 3000 BC. A place named Ti-smurna appears in Assyrian records from the first half of the 2nd millennium BC, although it is not certain whether this refers to İzmir, and by 1500 BC, the region had fallen under the influence of the Hittites.

The most important sanctuary in Old Smyrna was the Temple of Athena, dating from ca 640-580 BC. By then, Smyrna was an important urban, trading centre and Smyrna was added to the twelve Ionian cities, becoming the thirteenth city and one of the most prominent cultural and commercial centres in the Mediterranean basin.

Under the Romans, Smyrna vied with Ephesus for the title of First City of Asia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

After Smyrna capitulated to the Lydians, the vengeful Persians subsequently destroyed old Smyrna, but Alexander the Great later rebuilt the city when he had defeated the Persians. Under later Roman rule, Smyrna enjoyed a second golden period. As one of the principal cities of Roman Asia, Smyrna vied with Ephesus and Pergamum for the title “First City of Asia.”

A suffering early Church

In New Testament times, Smyrna was one of seven churches of Asia addressed in the Book of Revelation. The Book of Revelation tells us the Church in Smyrna was poor and the Christians of Smyrna were suffering persecution (Revelation 2: 9). But – in contrast to the other six churches – nothing negative is said about the Church of Smyrna. But they were told their persecution would continue and they are urged: “Be faithful to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2: 10) – the persecution continued into the 2nd century.

Tradition says Saint John the Divine appointed Polycarp as Bishop of Smyrna. Saint Ignatius of Antioch visited Smyrna and later wrote letters to, Polycarp, who was martyred in 153 or 155 AD. Saint Irenaeus, who heard Polycarp as a boy, was probably a native of Smyrna. In Polycarp’s days, Smyrna had a population of 100,000, but an earthquake razed the city to the ground in 178 AD, and imperial funds and support were needed to rebuild the city. Tertullian traced the Church in Smyrna to the Apostles, Saint John and Polycarp and counted the it as one of only two churches that had a recorded and historic apostolic succession.

The Turks first captured Smyrna in 1076 under the Seljuk commander Caka Bey, who used Smyrna as a base for naval raids. After his death in 1102, the city returned to Byzantine rule, but a century later it was captured by the Knights of Rhodes when Constantinople was conquered by the Crusaders in 1204. Until the 13th century, Smyrna remained one of the largest cities in our civilisation. It was recaptured in the early 14th century by the Turks under Umur Bey, who used the city as a base for naval raids. In 1344, the Genoese took back the castle, but Smyrna was captured by the Ottomans in 1389.

Fleeing the Spanish inquisition, Ladino-speaking Jews first arrived in Smyrna around 1492, and the city became one of their principal centres in the Ottoman Empire. The emergence of Smyrna as a major international port in the 17th century was helped by its attraction to foreigners and its European cultural attractions. In 1620, privileged trading conditions were granted to foreigners, foreign consulates and trade centres were established along the quays, and within time the city a large population that included French, English, Dutch and Italian merchants, living alongside large communities of Greeks, Armenians and Jews.

Massacre of Greek population

But Smyrna was a predominantly Greek city in the first three decades of the early 20th century, with Greek-speaking people making up perhaps 70% of the population. And so it seemed appropriate after Ottoman Turkey’s defeat in World War I that Smyrna – along with large parts of Anatolia and western Turkey – was placed under Greek rule according to the terms of the Treaty of Sevres, and on 15 May 1919 the Greek army moved into Smyrna, but the subsequent Greek expedition into central Anatolia turned into a disaster for both Greece and for the local Greek people in Turkey.

The Turkish army captured Smyrna on 9 September 1922, putting an end to the three-year war between Greece and Turkey. When the Turks took Smyrna, they proclaimed a jihad and the atrocities against the Greek and Armenian communities began immediately. The Orthodox Metropolitan Chrysostomos was murdered and as many as 100,000 Armenian and Greek Christians were slaughtered throughout the city.

The fire that broke out in Smyrna on 13 September 1922, four days after the capture of the city, is one of the greatest disasters in Greek and Turkish history. The city became the scene of the worst Turkish excesses against the Greek population of Anatolia, and most of the city was burned to the ground in a fire that raged for days. As thousands of Christians were murdered, allied ships in the harbour stood idly by and for three days refused the pleas for safe passage for a quarter of a million refugees huddled in terror on the quayside.

The New York Times, in a report on 18 September 1922 headed “Smyrna’s ravagers fired on Americans,” documented the relentless destruction of the Christian quarters of the city and the massacre of Christians by Turkish troops. US soldiers and volunteers were attacked when they tried to help Armenians and Greeks. Other contemporary reports put the death toll at over 100,000. In the Armenian quarter alone, the 25,000 residents were systematically butchered and then the streets and houses were set aflame to incinerate any lingering survivors.

In desparation, many jumped into the waters they escape their pursuers and drowned before the eyes of the very people who had the means to rescue them.

Waiting Greeks on the dockside were denied access to allied ships in the harbour ... many jumped into the water and drowned in a vain effort to escape the massacre (Photograph: Benaki Museum, Athens)

On board the British, French and US ships, military bands played loud music to drown out the screams of the huddled, pleading and drowning Greeks and Armenians. Eventually, when they allowed Christians on board, they excluded all males between the ages of 17 and 45 years old.

About 400,000 Greek and Armenian refugees from Smyrna and the surrounding area received Red Cross aid immediately after the destruction of the city. In all, about 1.5 million Greek refugees from the region arrived in Greece in the weeks that followed.

The 42-hectare Kültürpark was laid out on the ruins of the Greek quarter of Smyrna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Modern İzmir was built from scratch on the ashes of the despoiled and ravaged city, and the 30-hectare Kültürpark was laid out on the ruins of the Greek quarter in the heart of the city. Today’s city is predominantly Muslim, although İzmir is still home to Turkey’s second largest Jewish community. They are 2,500 strong, and there are nine synagogues in the city. The Levantines of İzmir, are mostly of Genoese, French and Venetian descent.

Surprisingly, İzmir has a tiny Greek minority today. The few thousand Greek Orthodox inhabitants are descendants of the handful of Greeks who held British or Italian passports in 1922 and decided to stay on. It is said too that the descendants of many of Smyrna’s exiled Greeks still legally hold the title to much of the land in prosperous suburbs such as Karşıyaka, once known as Peramos (Πέραμος). But most of Smyrna's Greeks settled in places that took names such as Nea Smyrna (Νέα Σμύρνη) in Athens.

A forgotten past?

Nothing is left of the Hellenistic and Roman cities that once stood here, apart from the Agora, dating from the 2nd century BC. The Agora of Smyrna is well preserved. However, other important historical remains are still buried under modern buildings, including the ancient theatre of Smyrna where Polycarp was martyred.

The Agora is all that survives of Classical Smyrna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Agora was closed to visitors since 2003 to facilitate a 25-year restoration programme. However, a few years ago the staff kindly showed me the basilica and the Western Stoa with its colonnade of 14 Corinthian columns, and they allowed me to wander through the site, where fresh water still runs through the ancient ducts and channels.

To the north of the Agora, in the heart of the city, the Kültürpark, which is the host next month to the İzmir International Fair, is a vast area of over 42 hectares in the heart of the city. It includes open-air theatres, a Painting and Sculpture Museum, art centres, an amusement park, a zoo and a parachute tower. But strolling around it today, there are no signs that this was once a thriving Greek city, with a Greek-speaking population whose story goes back to the days of Homer.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin

Friday, 21 August 2009

Packing for the Aegean sun

There’s a place waiting for me in the sun in Samos (Photographs: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I am about to head off to Turkey and Greece for a week in the Aegean sun, visiting Smyrna (Izmir), Kusadasi and the island of Samos.

This is my sixth visit to Turkey in recent – my third time to stay in Kusadasi – and my fourth visit to Samos in four years. I have been in Greece up to thirty times, having visited Greece almost every year, sometimes two or three times a year, in the past three decades.

Kusadasi may be a brash, loud resort, but I’m staying in a good hotel – the same one as last year – and it is also a good base for visiting classical and ecclesiastical sites such as Ephesus, Pamukkale, Laodecia, Hierapolis, Priene, Miletus and Didyma.

One Sunday newspaper last weekend gave a summary of the horrors in many Greek and Cypriot holiday resorts, including Zakynthos, Hersonnisos on Crete, and Aghia Napa on Cyprus. But Samos, thankfully, has escaped this phenomenon so far.

Like Christmas, I have to admit that part of the fun of any holiday is looking forward to it, and travelling to the destination. As I mentally prepare to pack my bags, I am reminded of Constantine Cavafy’s great poem about travelling, Ithaka:


Ιθάκη

Σα βγεις στον πηγαιμό για την Ιθάκη,
να εύχεσαι νάναι μακρύς ο δρόμος,
γεμάτος περιπέτειες, γεμάτος γνώσεις.
Τους Λαιστρυγόνας και τους Κύκλωπας,
τον θυμωμένο Ποσειδώνα μη φοβάσαι,
τέτοια στον δρόμο σου ποτέ σου δεν θα βρεις,
αν μεν' η σκέψις σου υψηλή, αν εκλεκτή
συγκίνησις το πνεύμα και το σώμα σου αγγίζει.
Τους Λαιστρυγόνας και τους Κύκλωπας,
τον άγριο Ποσειδώνα δεν θα συναντήσεις,
αν δεν τους κουβανείς μες στην ψυχή σου,

αν η ψυχή σου δεν τους στήνει εμπρός σου.
Να εύχεσαι νάναι μακρύς ο δρόμος.
Πολλά τα καλοκαιρινά πρωϊά να είναι
που με τι ευχαρίστησι, με τι χαρά
θα μπαίνεις σε λιμένας πρωτοειδωμένους,
να σταματήσεις σ' εμπορεία Φοινικικά,
και τες καλές πραγμάτειες ν' αποκτήσεις,
σεντέφια και κοράλλια, κεχριμπάρια κ' έβενους,
και ηδονικά μυρωδικά κάθε λογής,
όσο μπορείς πιο άφθονα ηδονικά μυρωδικά,
σε πόλεις Αιγυπτιακές πολλές να πας,
να μάθεις και να μάθεις απ' τους σπουδασμένους.

Πάντα στον νου σου νάχεις την Ιθάκη.
Το φθάσιμον εκεί ειν' ο προορισμός σου.
Αλλά μη βιάζεις το ταξείδι διόλου.
Καλλίτερα χρόνια πολλά να διαρκέσει
και γέρος πια ν' αράξεις στο νησί,
πλούσιος με όσα κέρδισες στο δρόμο,
μη προσδοκώντας πλούτη να σε δώσει η Ιθάκη.

Η Ιθάκη σ'έδωσε τ' ωραίο ταξείδι.
Χωρίς αυτήν δεν θάβγαινες στον δρόμο.
Άλλα δεν έχει να σε δώσει πια.
Κι αν πτωχική την βρεις, η Ιθάκη δε σε γέλασε.
Έτσι σοφός που έγινες, με τόση πείρα,
ήδη θα το κατάλαβες οι Ιθάκες τι σημαίνουν.

– Κωνσταντίνος Π. Καβάφης

Ithaka

As you set out for Ithaka
hope the journey is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon – don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon – you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.
may there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbours seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind –
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey.
without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

– Constantine Cavafy (translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin

Friday, 14 August 2009

‘Lewd preaching and misdemeanour’

The Cathedral Close in Lichfield ... I stayed in No 8 while I was on my own retreat this week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I spent a few days this week back in Lichfield on my own personal retreat and pilgrimage. The cathedral city has always been a favourite place of mine for a few days of quiet and prayer, and I needed this more than ever this week after my diagnosis of sarcoidosis. I was in search of time to think, to pray, to reflect and to give thanks to God for the health I have and the blessings I have in life.

I stayed in No 8 in the Cathedral Close, in a house opposite the main west door of Lichfield Cathedral, and I found it comforting during the night to hear the cathedral bells chiming out the quarter hours and counting out the hours.

John Piper’s window in Saint John’s, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Each morning, I was present in the Chapel of Saint John the Baptist in the Hospital of Saint John without the Barrs, followed by the Eucharist, and the Master of Saint John’s, Canon Roger Williams, invited me to preach at the Eucharist on Wednesday morning, when the Church Calendar commemorated the saintly bishop and Caroline Divine, Jeremy Taylor, who died in 1667.

Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In the evening, I was back in Lichfield Cathedral for Evening Prayer. With the choir on holidays, Evening Prayer was said most evenings this week. The Choir of Saint Andrew’s, Fulham Fields, London, sang Evensong yesterday [Thursday 13 August], but I was back in Dublin by then.

Visiting Lichfield Cathedral, I enjoy being reminded that there was another canon in the family story who sacked after being accused by one of his neighbours of “lewd preaching and misdemeanour.” After his trial, Canon Henry Comberford was described by a bishop as being “learned, but wilful.”

But Henry’s “lewd preaching and misdemeanour” was not the sort that would have excited tabloid journalists today … the polemical language deployed against him in the mid-16th century simply meant that Henry was too much of an Anglo-Catholic for his day.

Henry Comberford (ca 1499-1586) came from Comberford, half-way between Lichfield and Tamworth. Along with his brothers Humphrey – one of the last Masters of the Guild of Saint Mary and Saint John in Lichfield, and Richard – a Staffordshire judge, Henry Comberford was educated at Cambridge, where he graduated BA (1533), MA (1536) and BD (1545), and went on to become became a Fellow of Saint John’s College and a Proctor of Cambridge University.

Like many of his contemporary clerics, Henry became a careerist and a pluralist. At one and the same time he was Rector of Saint Mary’s, Polstead, near Colchester, Suffolk (1539), Rector of All Saints’, Earsham, near Bunbay, Norfolk (1553), Rector of All Saints’, Hethell, near Norwich (1554-1559), Rector of Norbury, Derbyshire, in the Diocese of Lichfield (1558), and Rector of Yelvertoft, Northamptonshire, in the Diocese of Peterborough (to 1560).

The Precentor’s House in the Cathedral Close, Lichfield (Photograph, Patrick Comerford, 2009)

In 1555, he was appointed Precentor of Lichfield Cathedral. With that appointment, he also became Prebendary of Bishop’s Itchington and the first residentiary canon of the cathedral. Like the other residentiary canons, he was also a Justice of the Peace for the Cathedral Close.

Henry accumulated most of his appointments during the reign of Mary (1553-1557), but when she died in November 1558 and her half-sister Elizabeth became queen, Henry appears to have been willing initially to accept the Elizabethan Anglican settlement, and his name appears on the coronation pardon roll of 15 January 1559.

However, it was only a matter of weeks if not days before Henry Comberford was in trouble for his true religious sympathies. In February 1559, the two bailiffs of Lichfield City, Edward Bardell, a pewterer, and John Dyott, a civilian and proctor, accused him of “lewd preaching and misdemeanour.” John Dyott is referred to in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 2, Act 3, Scene 2, in the dialogue between Shallow and Silence.

Henry was summoned before the Privy Council on 27 February. He was deprived of all his benefices because of his extreme Catholicism, and he was held in prison until April.

Four months later, in June 1559, Ralph Baynes was deprived as Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield. At the same time, the Dean of Lichfield, John Ramridge, was sent to the Tower – when he was released on bail, the dean made good his escape to Flanders, where he was later murdered.

In addition, the Chancellor of Lichfield, Alban Longdale, was deprived, the Treasurer, George Lee, resigned, and many of the prebendaries and cathedral clergy were deprived or forced to resign between 1559 and 1564.

In a report on the recusants of Staffordshire in 1562 by the Bishop of London, Edward Grindall, Henry Comberford is described as “learned, but wilful.”

In 1560, Henry was deprived of the parish of Yelvertoft. Then, after three years of protracted actions, he was sacked as the Precentor of Lichfield and Prebendary of Bishop’s Itchington in 1562. He was succeeded as Precentor by Edward Leds or Leedes.

Later, Henry was ordered to live in Suffolk. But he may not have been as extreme in his Catholic views as his detractors claimed, for he was given the liberty to travel twice every year into Staffordshire, allowing six weeks on each occasion. Nevertheless, in 1570 – the year his old protagonist Grindal became Archbishop of York – Comberford was before the Yorkshire ecclesiastical commissioners for defending the Mass.

By 1579, Humphrey Comberford was a prisoner in Hull for his religious beliefs, which were regarded as dangerous to the state. It is hard to imagine how dangerous a man he could have been, for by then he was 80 years of age. Grindal was an argumentative and difficult prelate, with Puritan sympathies – even falling out of favour with Elizabeth – and by then had become Archbishop of Canterbury. Henry Comberford died on 4 March 1586 in Hull Prison at the age of 87.

The Precentor’s stall in the chapter of Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In a cathedral chapter, the Precentor’s particular responsibility is the choral and liturgical musical life of the cathedral. As Precentor, I like to imagine Henry Comberford would have paid particular attention to Sung Eucharist and Choral Evensong which remains a lively part of the tradition in Lichfield Cathedral. As a Cambridge graduate, he might also have relished the fact that the Alumni Choir of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, arrives in the cathedral at the end of next week – even though Sidney Sussex was founded ten years after his death and was originally a Puritan foundation.

I was back to see my consultant again yesterday for the results of more hospital tests and to discuss how I can cope with Sarcoidosis over the next few months. Of course I can live with it. I know what it is. I now understand what has been happening to me over the past year or more. These past few days of prayer, quiet, stillness and reflection in Lichfield have been very helpful. There is so much to keep thanking God for.

And, while I may have Sarcoidosis, Sarcoidosis will never have me.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Fading newspapers, second-hand bookshops and quaint English pubs

The former Duke of York in Lichfield ... a sign of the time for English pubs (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Patrick Comerford

What would you miss if local life and culture changed dramatically? What do you take for granted that’s in the background but that you would be sorry to say goodbye to?

Families, friends, people, Church, parish life, local sports fixtures – and even the weather – apart, is there something you’ve given very little thought to that you’d miss nevertheless if you found it isn’t there when you wake up tomorrow morning? Local newspapers, second-hand bookshops and old-fashioned English pubs come high on my list this summer.

The demise of the local newspaper

I think I’d miss local newspapers. I’ve worked for so many of them in the past that I know their value and their place in local society. I began my career as a journalist freelancing for local newspapers in the English Midlands in the early 1970s, including the Lichfield Mercury, the Rugeley Mercury and the Tamworth Herald, before I contributed to the Kilkenny People, and then landed a job with the People newspaper group in Wexford and Wicklow, including the Wexford People, the Enniscorthy Guardian, the New Ross Standard, the Wicklow People and the Bray People.

I stayed in Wexford for three years, and then moved on to The Irish Times, staying there for another 27 years.

And so, after more than 30 years in journalism, I’m sad to see local newspapers are closing down left, right and centre across England. The latest one to come to my attention was the Lichfield Post. It may have been a rival to the Lichfield Mercury, but it’s still sad to see a local newspaper being shut down by its proprietors.

The Lichfield Post, which started in the 1980s as a companion paper to the Chase Post, closed last month with the loss of 17 journalists’ jobs and 94 jobs across all departments. Other titles to shut down in the Midlands recent weeks include the Tamworth Times, the Burton Trader, the Walsall Observer, the Bedworth Echo, the Rugby Times, the Loughborough Trader Xtra, the Ashby Trader & Echo, and the Coalville Echo. The Birmingham Post has gone from being a daily newspaper to being a weekly.

Writing in the Guardian on Tuesday, Simon Jenkins said: “At present the newspaper industry is like the British army retreating at Wapping … Local newspapers are dying quietly …”

But the crisis facing the print media is not just a crisis for local newspapers. There’s a large question mark hanging over the future of Britain’s oldest Sunday newspaper, the Observer. In many ways, blogs are replacing the local newspaper. They can be updated quickly; they’re there when the news breaks. They communicate with people in a way that just serves to show how many newspapers have lost contact with their readers. One of the best examples of an up-to-date, punchy, lively, informative and well-designed local news blog is the Lichfield Blog: http://thelichfieldblog.co.uk/.

Many local newspapers in recent years reduced themselves to thin news wrap-arounds that helped to sell advertising bumph for car sellers and estate agents. And now that the recession has hit house and car sales more than many other sectors, local newspapers are left wondering how they play catch up with their revenue losses, rather than asking why they lost touch with the reason they are there in the first instance – to give us the news.

In Lichfield this week, I was happy to buy the Lichfield Mercury and catch up again with the local news in a part of England that is still part of me.

Lost dogs are being reunited with their owners after many years. Award-winning teachers continue to retire. Local writers are producing new books. Parish pump news is still worth telling. People from this part of England are anxious to tell their neighbours that they’ve been reading the local newspaper in far-away laces, including the Alps, the Gulf and the Antarctic.

The fate of second-hand bookshops

The Oxfam shop in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

I think I’d miss good second-hand bookshops. Last week, the Guardian claimed that Oxfam’s second-hand bookshops are posing a real threat to the best of English second-hand bookshops. Oxfam shops often pay lower rates as charities, are often staffed by volunteers, and by going for the popular blockbusters and the pool-side favourites they often fail to stock books of specialist interest, such as local history, theology and classics.

On the other hand, some of these advantages are enjoyed by other mainstream bookshops, including some cathedral, university and student union bookshops.

Oxfam can hardly be blamed for the closure of some of the best second-hand bookshops in Dublin. Other forces were at work, including the greed of landlords who demanded higher and higher rents, and the decision by some proprietors to go online.

But being online can never replace physical presence. I love that serendipitous experience after walking into a first-rate second-hand bookshop and tumbling across ideas and subjects that never came to the frontal lobes before, before walking out with two arms longer than the physiotherapist recommended, and still having change deep in my pocket.

The Staffs Bookshop, Dam Street, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

On Wednesday morning, I spent more time than I expected to, and bought less than I ought to have, in two of my favourite second-hand bookshop, the Staffs Bookshop on Dam Street in Lichfield, and the bookshop that is part of the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum in Breadmarket Street.

Advice from Dr Johnson outside the Queen’s Head in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Sadly, the Staffs Bookshop has fewer books on local history, and the new centrance takes way from its fomrer fading elegance. In the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum, they’re preparing to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the birth of Dr Johnson, a Lichfield bookseller’s son, next month … but more about that next month ...

The pubs with many names

I think I’d also miss local pubs. I’m not one for warm beer on an English summer afternoon. Give me my Pinot Grigio instead, please. But there’s a certain charm about English pubs that’s not found in Irish pubs.

The Talbot in Quemerford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2008)

Two weeks ago, I was pleasantly charmed by the warm welcome I received in the White Hart in Calne and the Talbot in Quemerford. They’re both in North Wiltshire, and while they may never feature in a Blue Guide to English Pubs, they had an easy-going authenticity and a genuinely warm welcome.

This week, I revisited some pubs in Lichfield that I had more than a passing acquaintance with in the early 1970s during my late teens and early 20s. And it is sad to note that some of these pubs have gone forever.

The Prince of Wales on Bore Street, Lichfield is long closed (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

At one time, when I was staying on Birmingham Road, I had a nodding acquaintance with the Duke of Wellington. I knew the Prince of Wales and George IV well as I joined many local people and local bores in both places in Bore Street. I had my photograph taken by the Earl of Lichfield. And I was a guest of the Duke of York in Greenhill – waking up to hear the news of the coup against Salvador Allende in 1973. The Duke of Wellington is still there on Birmingham Road, the Earl of Lichfield stands beside McDonald’s in Conduit Street, and the George IV has had a new lease of life as a popular music venue. But the Prince of Wales has long closed, and the Duke of York is finding it difficult to find a tenant.

The Duke of York was named after James II. With its broken windows and its faded signs, it cuts a lonely picture today. Inside, I remember it as a timber-framed building – for all the world like a traditional English country pub. It must have dated back to long before the Duke of York became James II in 1686,and it was the principle pub when Lichfield’s Greenhill Bower was celebrated here.

The King’s Head ... ideal for a lazy drink with old friends in the cobbled courtyard in the summer sun (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

After Evensong in Lichfield Cathedral on Tuesday evening, I spent half an hour with an old friend and colleague in the sun in the cobbled courtyard of the King’s Head in Beacon Street, close to the former offices of the Lichfield Mercury when I was trying to start working as freelance journalist. After dinner, I passed Paradise – they say I’m too old to know what goes on there – and had a glass of wine in the Queen’s Head in Queen’s Street. The King’s Head and the Queen’s Head in one evening – a right, royal combination, even if I didn’t venture into Paradise.

But what is happening to Lichfield’s old, historic pubs is symptomatic of what is happening to old, friendly pubs throughout England. Almost three centuries ago, in 1732, when Lichfield had a population of 3,500, the cathedral city had 80 pubs, one for every 44 people. Today Lichfield has a population of 30,000 and about two dozen or so pubs.

Some of the names of Lichfield’s long lost pubs open up curious historical debates. Did the name of the Three Crowns – once beloved of Dr Samuel Johnson who was born a few houses away on the corner of the Market Place and Breadmarket Street – refer to the union of the three kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland under James I? Or did it refer to the Triple Crown of the Papacy?

The Swan ... was it the oldest pub in Lichfield? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Of course, the George should not be confused with George IV. The King’s Head claims to be the oldest pub in Lichfield, dating from 1408, but no-one knows which king it was called after. Despite those claims, the Swan is older – it dates from 1362, but it’s not a pub in the traditional meaning of the word today … it’s a very fine restaurant.

John Shaw, who is an expert on Lichfield pub names says the Talbot – which has long given way to an arcade of modern shops – took its name from the Talbot family, Earls of Shrewsbury and patrons of Pugin’s architectural career. But perhaps it stood on the site of the 17th century Lichfield townhouse of the Comberfords of nearby Comberford, who used a talbot as their heraldic emblem.

In the desire to follow fashion, some pubs in Lichfield have lost their traditional names. The Acorn in Tamworth Street, which may have taken its name from a local legend about Charles II hiding in an oak tree during the English Civil War, was sadly renamed the Pig and Truffle in 1988.

The Queen’s Head, on Queen Street, oozes a strong sense of community. Both the pub and the street date from the 1830s and take their name from Queen Victoria. This area had a large Irish immigrant population in the 1860s, and yet it has remained one of the most traditional English pubs in Lichfield.

The loss of places like the Prince of Wales or the Duke of York is the loss of a sense of community, an awareness of place and perhaps too a sense of history. But I was happy to be back in the King’s Head and the Queen’s Head this week, and to spend some of my time in both places reading the Lichfield Mercury. I would hate to lose old local newspapers, good second-hand bookshops and those quaint English pubs.

John Shaw’s The Old Pubs of Lichfield was first published in 2001, and reprinted in 2007 by George Lane Publishing, Lichfield, Staffordshire, WS13 6DU (£9.99 in bookshops in Lichfield).

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Remembering the saintly Jeremy Taylor

Saint John’s, John Street, Lichfield

The Chapel of Saint John the Baptist,
Saint John’s Hospital-without-the-Barrs,
John Street, Lichfield

Wednesday 12 August 2009; 9.15 a.m., Holy Eucharist

Revd Canon Patrick Comerford


May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

I am very grateful to Father Roger [Canon Roger Williams, SSC, Master of Saint John’s Hospital] for asking me to share a few words this morning, as we remember in the calendar of the Church – even if we have moved him forward by a day – the saintly Jeremy Taylor (right, one of the key bishops in the restoration of the Church of Ireland after the ravages and spoliations of the mid-17th century.

Although Dublin is only a 40-minute plane hop and a 40-minute train journey from Lichfield, the Church of Ireland may be many hundreds of miles away for many people in Lichfield, even today.

Yet this has always been a precious place to me … both Lichfield as a city, and Saint John’s itself.

When I was in my late teens, I first came to Lichfield almost 40 years ago, because of distant family connections with the Comberford family of Comberford, halfway between Lichfield and Tamworth.

I have happy memories of how I began working as a freelance journalist here, with the occasional contribution to the Lichfield Mercury.

One summer’s evening in 1971, when I was staying on Birmingham Road, on an evening just like yesterday’s, I found myself passing by Saint John’s. Some would say by accident, others would say by divine providence, I decided to look into this very building.

It was more than a decade before John Piper’s window was placed here.

And yet on that bright, warm summer’s evening, I was truly filled – physically, emotionally and spiritually – with the light, the life and the love of God.

How was I to respond to that experience? I immediately made my way, passing the Lichfield Mercury’s offices in Beacon Street, up to the cathedral, and slipped into the choir stalls for choral evensong. One of the canons asked me that evening had I started going to church because I was thinking of ordination.

I suppose I was. It was the beginning of a long journey, a long pilgrimage, and I come back here regularly to remind myself of how that journey, that pilgrimage, began, and to give thanks to God for his call to me, for waking me up, for calling me into his life, his love and his light.

And over the past – well almost – forty years, I have given thanks for the particular tradition of this church, which has been very relevant as I developed my sense of calling to ministry and mission.

Archbishop Henry McAdoo, a former Archbishop of Dublin and a one-time co-chair of ARCIC, the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, once claimed that the second phase of the Anglo-Catholic movement, that part of the movement that we associate with Charles Gore, and later with figures such as Percy Dearmer, owed more to Jeremy Taylor and the Caroline Divines than to John Henry Newman and the Oxford Movement.

Whether it did or not may be irrelevant. But the Jeremy Taylor and the Caroline Divines remain very relevant today. During the English Civil War, Jeremy Taylor suffered internal exile and persecution, but remained true to the essentials of his Anglicanism, worshipping daily according to the tradition of the Book of Common Prayer.

With the end of the Cromwellian era, Jeremy Taylor and Archbishop John Bramhall moved immediately to restore the Anglican tradition within the Church of Ireland. They revised and updated the Book of Common Prayer. They restored catholic order to the worship, liturgy and organisation of the Church of Ireland. They saw to providing priests for parishes that had long been vacant, and to consecrating bishops for vacant sees – indeed Jeremy Taylor had the singular honour of being asked to preach at his own consecration.

He moved to the north-east of Ireland, taking responsibility as bishop for the three dioceses of Down, Conor and Dromore. This is a vast swathe of the Church of Ireland today – from Rathlin island between the coasts of Antrim and Scotland, through what is now Belfast, south to the shores of Co Down, where, in words of Percy French, the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea.

He restored and rebuilt cathedrals, he visited his parishes, and he provided a model for how to combine sacramental and pastoral care for people with missionary foresight and vision.

Yet he never neglected the deeper spiritual truths. His two best known works, Holy Living and Holy Dying, are precisely that – models for how to live and how to die in faith in Christ.

Jeremy Taylor died regretting that he had never been called back as bishop to an English diocese. But I am constantly grateful for his contribution to the life and the spiritual depths of the Church of Ireland … just as I am always grateful to Saint John’s for its place in looking after my own Holy Living and, eventually, Holy Dying.

And now may all our thoughts, words and deed be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Eucharist in the Chapel of Saint John the Baptist in Saint John’s Hospital without the Barrs, John Street, Lichfield, on Wednesday 12 August 2009.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

The indescribable gifts of Orlagh

Orlagh Retreat Centre ... a spiritual haven just beyond the fringes of Dublin’s outer suburbs (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Patrick Comerford

In the foothills of the Dublin Mountains, just a twenty or thirty-minute stroll from where I’ve been living for the past dozen years, the Orlagh Retreat Centre provides a spiritual haven just beyond the fringes of the city’s outer suburbs.

Orlagh is on the northern slopes of Mount Pelier, below the ruins of the Hellfire Club. The house is approached by a charming, winding, tree-lined avenue, and there are sweeping views from the front of the house out over Dublin Bay and across to Howth Head.

The Augustinian community and the retreat team provide a warm welcome at Orlagh – it was there I spent one of my pre-ordination retreats, and it is there I have brought students and ordinands from the Church of Ireland Theological Institute for our Ash Wednesday retreats for the last few years.

Sadly, Orlagh has had a threat of closure hanging over it in recent months, and although this threat has been deferred, the centre continues to need prayer and support. It is a unique resource, and its loss would leave a grave deficit in the spiritual life of all traditions in the Church in Ireland.

The centre offers retreats, days for yourself, and programmes and workshops on scripture, meditation, time apart, parish outreach, faith development, group facilitation, Lectio Divina and liturgy. The retreat team says that what they do best is:

● Present faith in a way that speaks to life;
● use scholarship that feeds the search for meaning and truth;
● celebrate a Liturgy that invites participation;
● offer a welcome that is inclusive and gives people a space to “be”;
● promote a spirituality that brings faith and experience together;
● and encourage a way of being and doing that promotes fellowship on life’s journey.

The retreat team includes Father John Byrne, a psychologist by training; Dr Kieran O’Mahony, who is head of Department of Scripture at the Milltown Institute; Dr Bernadette Toal, who teaches at Milltown; Dr Carmel McCarthy, who is Professor of Near Eastern Languages in University College Dublin; Sean Goan, who teaches RE and Spanish in Blackrock College; Mary Kearney, co-founder of Garnet Consulting and Development; and Eilis O’Malley.

A history of Orlagh

The history of Orlagh begins with the Foot family, who were descended from John Foot from Devon who settled in Dublin after the Battle of the Boyne. His son, Geoffrey Foot (1704-1773), a custom’s officer in Ringsend, married Jane Lundy and their son, Lundy Foot (1735-1805), bought the land at Orlagh from Simon and Lawes Luttrell on 3 January 1766.

Lundy Foot established himself in business in Dublin as a tobacconist and snuff maker in Blind Alley in 1758, moved to Essex Bridge (now Parliament Street) in 1774, and later set up shop in Westmorland Street. The family business thrived and one enthusiastic author claimed that in 1800 Lundy Foot’s snuff was as famous in Dublin as Guinness is today. The business was later bought out by PJ Carroll.

Lundy Foot’s eldest son, Geoffrey Foot, carried on the family business. He lived near Orlagh in Hollymount, which is now the core of the old building at Saint Columba’s College. He died in 1824. One of his sons, Canon Lundy Foot (1793-1873), was the first rector of Whitechurch Church of Ireland Parish (1824-1828) and established Whitechurch National School. He later moved to England and was a canon of Salisbury Cathedral until his death. A younger son, the Revd Frederick Foot (1808-1871), worked in a number of parishes in the south-east, including Rathdrum, Co Wicklow, Redcross, Co Wicklow, Cappoquin, Co Waterford, Carrick-on-Suir, Co Tipperary, and Fethard, Co Tipperary.

Geoffrey Foot’s younger brother, also named Lundy Foot, built the first house on the lands at Orlagh in 1790. The house was first called Footmount, and in his will Lundy Foot said he spent £10,000 in building the house. He surrounded the house with choice plantations, including tulip trees – one of which survives behind the apse of the present chapel. The road from Ballycullen House to the entrance gate at the Orlagh Estate, past Saint Colmcille’s Well, was also laid out by Lundy Foot too.

The view from Orlagh sweeps out over Dublin Bay towards Howth Head (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Lundy Foot had a reputation as a ruthless magistrate. In 1816, he was instrumental in bringing to trial the three Kearneys – a father and his two sons – for the murder of a gamekeeper. They were hanged on the banks of the River Dodder at Old Bawn, a ten-minute walk from Foot’s house. Local anger was high, and Lundy Foot was afterwards fired at and seriously injured. He recovered from his injuries and went to live in Rosbercon Castle, near New Ross, Co Wexford, selling Footmount to his son’s father-in-law, Nathaniel Callwell, about 1815.

Lundy Foot lived on in Rosbercon Castle for almost 20 years until 2 January 1835, when he was stoned and hacked to death while planting trees on his estate following a dispute over the eviction by the Tottenham family of a tenant named Murphy from a small holding of five acres that had been bought by Foot. He is buried in the family vault in Saint Matthew’s Church, Irishtown.

The only major change made to Footmount while Nathaniel Callwell lived there was changing the name of the house to Orlagh. Callwell was a director of the Bank of Ireland, and in 1837 he sold the house to its third owner, Andrew Carew O’Dwyer (1800-1877) – a barrister, MP and political activist.

Carew O’Dwyer, the son of a merchant in Cork and Waterford, was called to the bar in 1830. He was a close, personal friend of Daniel O’Connell, and one of the earliest and most active members of the Reform Club. He was elected MP for Drogheda in 1832 and again in 1834, but was unseated on a petition in 1835 due to a clerical error – his address had been given as in the City of Dublin when it was in the County of Dublin.

Carew O’Dwyer had a gift with words and one observer described him as “a charming gentleman and a most persuasive orator.” He married Selina Gillespie, daughter of Sir Rollo Gillespie, and they had five children. His friend Daniel O’Connell was one of the witnesses to his purchase of Orlagh on 31 May 1837. He extended the house, adding a great drawing room and a big dining room, the pantries and the servants’ quarters. Tapestries from Marie Antoinette’s palace in the Tuilleries hung in the dining room, and the portraits in the drawing room included Lord Edward Fitzgerald and Thomas Moore. The stucco plasterwork is by César, who is said to have been “the last of the hand artificers in plaster living then.”

Among the many visitors to Orlagh at this time were Daniel O’Connell and William Smith O’Brien. However, as the years progressed, Carew O’Dwyer spent more and more of his time in London and less and less of it in Orlagh. Eventually he leased the house to the Brodie family from Scotland. He died in London on 15 November 1877, but his sons had sold the house to the Augustinians five years earlier in 1872.

Father Francis Doyle OSA of the Augustinian Priory in Drogheda and his advisers planned to use the house as a novitiate. Orlagh was bought for £4,500 from Joseph Gillespie O’Dwyer and Andrew Vigors O’Dwyer on 12 July 1872, and Father John Hutchinson was the first Prior. Over the next 20 years, the Augustinians extended the building in two stages, adding an extra storey and converting the dining room – the present conference room – into an oratory. Later, in the late 1880s, the present East Wing was added with an oratory and additional accommodation so that from about 1890 the building from the front looks more or less as it does today.

The present oratory was designed by the architect Ray Carroll. Orlagh continued to serve as a novitiate and student house until the late 1980s. Since then, Orlagh has been a retreat house and a conference centre.

Welcome at the liturgy

The chapel at Orlagh, designed by the architect Ray Carroll (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

A little tired and worn down, I was present at the liturgy in the chapel in Orlagh this morning and received a warm welcome from retreat team members, including Father John Byrne, Father Kieran O’Mahony and Dr Bernadette Toal.

John and Bernadette regaled me with their stories of some recent pilgrimages to Greece and Iona. Kieran has published two new books in recent weeks: What the Bible says about the stranger (Dublin and Belfast: Irish Inter-Church Meeting); and Do we still need St Paul? (Dublin: Veritas).

Concluding his acknowledgments at the beginning of his new book on Saint Paul, Kieran says “living in the Orlagh Retreat Centre brings many opportunities, formal and informal, to speak about the Pauline letters and their continued potential today. ‘Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!’ (2 Corinthians 9:15).”

It would be an irreplaceable loss for the whole Church if Orlagh ever closed. Thank God for its indescribable gifts.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. The Orlagh Retreat Centre is at: http://www.orlagh.ie/Orlagh_Retreat_Centre/Welcome.html .