08 December 2009

Remembering The Irish House and James Comerford

James Comerford … Victorian stucco artist and architect, he designed The Irish House on the corner of Winetavern Street and Wood Quay, Dublin (Comerford Family Collection)

Patrick Comerford

Friends, past, present and future. What an honour it is to be asked to launch this publication this afternoon.

Personal pride, family pride, civic pride and cultural pride are all playing together in my emotions this evening, bouncing off each other.

At a personal level, I have always been aware of and proud of the work of my great-grandfather, James Comerford, in making a key contribution as a stucco artist to the Victorian arts and crafts movement in Ireland. His name and his memory continue in the family, so that my eldest son, his great-great-grandson, is also called James Comerford. And so, I am honoured, delighted – indeed thrilled – that Geraldine Walsh and Graham Hickey asked me to be involved in launching this comprehensive and beautifully-illustrated publication this evening.

The invitation to the Christmas launch in the Dublin Civic Trust

James Comerford was only a boy of eight at the time of the death of his father, who had witnessed the 1798 Rising in Co Wexford, whose portrait had been painted in 1808 by the great miniaturist, John Comerford, and who was buried in 1825 in Saint Colman’s, the Church of Ireland Churchyard in Templeshanbo.

James would inherit his father’s radical political and social values. But at an early age he depended on his older brothers, Richard and Robert, and all three prospered with the fashion for Gothic Revival architecture, introduced to Co Wexford by Richard Pierce, who built the new churches in Newtownbarry and neighbouring Kilmyshall, and by the great Pugin.

Having worked in Enniscorthy and Wexford, and other Pugin and Pierce churches throughout Co Wexford, James came to Dublin around 1852, in his mid-30s. The Twin Churches, in Rowe Street and Bride Street, were at an advanced stage of building in Wexford that year, a triumph for Richard Pierce in his career as an architect. This is the year Pugin died; but this too is the year in which the Gothic Revival becomes the great fashion statement in church architecture in Dublin: JJ McCarthy starts work in 1852 on Saint Catherine’s Church in Meath Street, Saint Saviour’s Church in Dominick Street and Star of the Sea Church in Sandymount.

Gothic Revival became the fashion for Churches in city centre Dublin from the 1850s on, totally eclipsing the previous fashion for Classical-style churches, and dismissing Cardinal Newman’s hopes for Byzantine-style churches.

While James was working on John’s Lane Church for Pugin and Ashlin and on Saint Kevin’s Church near Kelly’s Corner for George Ashlin, he lived within walking distance of both in Redmond’s Hill, where my grandfather, Stephen Edward Comerford was born in December 1867. And it was at this time that Patrick O’Kelly realised how his talents could be combined with those of William Burnett to create his “Byzantine casket.” Indeed, I sometimes wonder how Newman would have taken to Curran’s later description of The Irish House as a “Byzantine Casket.”

There were others who were assertively dismissive of The Irish House. Famously, The Irish Builder on 1 June 1870, raged against The Irish House as yet another “gin palace,” describing the “round towers” as “ludicrous imitations,” and the whole building as “the production of some juvenile anxious to try his ‘prentice hand,’ who has derived all his architectural knowledge from enlarging details upon a panel in a carpenter’s workshop .”

For this anonymous critic, The Irish House was the product of “misapplied taste,” and the round towers, in their “contaminated “state” would be better toppling into “the fetid waters of the Liffey.”

That anonymous writer remains unknown. On the other hand, this exhibition and this collection of essays show that Burnett and Comerford, far from being prentice hands with juvenile anxiety, were making an important cultural contribution to the life of their adopted city.

The Irish House shortly before its demolition ... it represented the pinnacle of James Comerford’s career as a stucco artist

CP Cavafy wrote a wonderful poem in 1904 about the elders of a Byzantine city waiting at the gates for the Barbarians, who are to come today (Waiting for the Barbarians, Περιμένοντας τους βαρβάρους). But the Barbarians were within our city gates just over a generation ago, for as we all know ever since, the destruction of The Irish House is merely one detail in the overall Barbarian destruction of the Wood Quay site.

I thought for a long time after the destruction of Wood Quay that The Irish House was forgotten by all but a few, brave hearts, such as Sean Lynch and Peter Walsh. But this exhibition, this publication, and the wonderful work of the Dublin Civic Trust have rescued and redeemed its memory, the memory of William Burnett and James Comerford, and their place in our artistic, cultural, social, political and religious thinking.

Culturally, these essays and this exhibition place The Irish House firmly within the Celtic Revival and Celtic Romantic Movement.

Indeed, as an icon, The Irish House was not so much a reaction to or a product of these movements, but played an important role as a catalyst in them. Try to visualise its place in a timeline for these movements. The Irish House, with its six Round Towers sticking into the sky, was built in 1870 – four years before the Round Tower in Glendalough was restored and recapped; until then Saint Kevin’s Monastery was in danger of facing the same fate that would befall Wood Quay.

In terms of religious iconography, this pub sat at the bottom of the hill below Christ Church Cathedral, which Henry Roe would begin restoring in the following year, 1871. So here we had the publicans and distillers come together with the gothic and the arts-and-crafts revival, sitting side-by-side.

Interestingly, Simon Street, a direct descendant of George Edmund Street, the architect of the cathedral restoration, was recently my guest at Choral Evensong in the Cathedral, where I am a canon. For, on his father’s side he is descended from the cathedral architect, but his mother was a Comerford from Rathgar … how paths so often cross and criss-cross each other, throughout life and for generations after.

Christ Church Cathedral served a secular purpose, for it gave Henry Roe the recognition he craved as a city magnate. But the pub also served a religious purpose. As Peter Walsh points put in one of the essays in this publication, Erin weeping on her chained and string-less harp owes as much to Biblical imagery as it does to literary and political images.

Here the chosen people, in bondage, by the river banks, refused to sing and hung their string-less harps on the weeping willows (Psalm 137).

Here too, the new Ireland that was being dreamt of was one that respected our diversity and pluralism, and advocated that New Ireland in a constitutional, nonviolent, even radical way. The two principal figures on the friezes are constitutional politicians, Henry Grattan and Daniel O’Connell, one a member of the Church of Ireland, the other a Roman Catholic. Inside, the paintings of the Vale of Avoca and the Lakes of Killarney may also have served as illusions to Parnell and O’Connell … although this needs further exploration, as Parnell, while he was a close friend of the Comerfords of Rathdrum, was not elected an MP until 1875.

The Irish House was not merely a part of the Celtic Revival and Celtic Romanticism – its imagery helped to shape and to articulate them. It was built almost a quarter of a century before the Gaelic League was founded. The GAA was not founded until 1884, Douglas Hyde’s Gaelic League not until 1893 – incidentally, the same year the Dublin plasterers first registered as a trade union, led by stucco plasterers such as my great-grandfather, James Comerford, and his family. (And I am the fourth generation in my family to hold office in a trade union.)

Our most popular English-language version of Saint Patrick’s Breastplate, Frances Alexander’s I bind unto myself today (Irish Church Hymnal, 322) was first sung and first published as late as 1889. The English-language version of Be thou my vision by Mary Byrne and versified by Eleanor Hull (Irish Church Hymnal, No 643), which refers to God as “my high tower” was only translated and versified in 1905, and first published in a hymnal in 1915.

So, while I am not claiming that The Irish House inspired poets, playwrights or language revivalists, James Comerford and William Burnett played pivotal and pioneering roles in our society in the latter part of the Victorian era.

There is a lot of research waiting to be done that can tell us more about The Irish House, and its influence on cultural, political, religious and social thinking in the latter part of the 19th century. It would be interesting to explore the symbolism, if any, of The Irish House at one end of the Quays and The Scotch House at the other. We would all benefit from research into our stucco art work from this period … most of the work on the arts-and-crafts movement has concentrated on stained glass; most of the work on church architecture has concentrated on the work of the architects but paid little attention to those who decorated the facades and the interiors. We have great studies of our 18th century stuccodores, but not of those from the 19th century. And if The Irish House deserves this attention, then so too do the Long Hall, the Stag’s Head, Ryan’s of Park Gate Street, and similar “gin palaces,” as integrated, whole pieces of art in themselves.

I would like to explore more the links between works like The Irish House, and another Comerford and Burnett production, The Oarsman, and other buildings of the time with, for example, the arts-and-crafts movement in Victorian England, teasing out the story that John Ruskin once praised John’s Lane Church as “a poem in stone.”

Like the key figures in the Arts and Crafts movement, artists like my great-grandfather made the connection between their work and their religious values, their socialist principles and their high esteem for their country.

James Comerford died in 1902 in Beechwood Avenue, Ranelagh. His values and his talents were inherited by other members of the family. Some years before she died, my last aunt on the Comerford side of the family, who lived in my grandmother’s house, made a point of handing over to me the sword from the 1798 era once owned by James Comerford’s father, because she felt I was clinging on to those inherited social, political and ecumenical values.

James Comerford’s values and artistic genes were certainly inherited by my grandfather, Stephen Comerford, who worked with Ashlin and Coleman on the new hospital they were building in Portrane (1896-1902).

Stephen died tragically in 1921, and is buried in Saint Catherine’s Churchyard in Portrane. But had he not been employed by Ashlin and Coleman, he would never have met my grandmother, Bridget Lynders, and so I would not be standing before you this evening, praising him and my great-grandfather and thanking you for this exhibition and these essays, for not only keeping his memory alive, but for placing him, his work and The Irish House in their rightful place in a time of great creativity and ferment in Dublin society.

The poster for the Dublin Civic Trust exhibition on The Irish House in 2009

Thank you. Thank you, Graham Hickey and Geraldine Walsh. Thank you, Séan Lynch, Kevin Nowlan, and Peter Walsh. Thank you, Lord Moyne and all the craftsmen and curators who rescued and cherished the figures from The Irish House. And thank you James Comerford. Parents are supposed to be proud of their children, and I am. But I am also proud of my great-grandfather and my grandfather, their creativity, their vision, their skills and their work.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. He was speaking at the launch of The Irish House/An Teach Gaelach, Public House 1870-1968, in the Dublin Civic Trust on 8 December 2009.

Waiting for the Barbarians

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

The barbarians are to arrive today.

Why such inaction in the Senate?
Why do the Senators sit and pass no laws?

Because the barbarians are to arrive today.
What laws can the Senators pass any more?
When the barbarians come they will make the laws.

Why did our emperor wake up so early,
and sits at the greatest gate of the city,
on the throne, solemn, wearing the crown?

Because the barbarians are to arrive today.
And the emperor waits to receive
their chief. Indeed he has prepared
to give him a scroll. Therein he inscribed
many titles and names of honour.

Why have our two consuls and the praetors come out
today in their red, embroidered togas;
why do they wear amethyst-studded bracelets,
and rings with brilliant, glittering emeralds;
why are they carrying costly canes today,
wonderfully carved with silver and gold?

Because the barbarians are to arrive today,
and such things dazzle the barbarians.

Why don't the worthy orators come as always
to make their speeches, to have their say?

Because the barbarians are to arrive today;
and they get bored with eloquence and orations.

Why all of a sudden this unrest
and confusion. (How solemn the faces have become).
Why are the streets and squares clearing quickly,
and all return to their homes, so deep in thought?

Because night is here but the barbarians have not come.
And some people arrived from the borders,
and said that there are no longer any barbarians.

And now what shall become of us without any barbarians?
Those people were some kind of solution.

Constantine P. Cavafy (1904)

Περιμένοντας τους βαρβάρους

- Τι περιμένουμε στην αγορά συναθροισμένοι;

Είναι οι βάρβαροι να φθάσουν σήμερα.

- Γιατί μέσα στην Σύγκλητο μια τέτοια απραξία;
Τι κάθοντ' οι Συγκλητικοί και δεν νομοθετούνε;

Γιατί οι βάρβαροι θα φθάσουν σήμερα.
Τι νόμους πια θα κάμουν οι Συγκλητικοί;
Οι βάρβαροι σαν έλθουν θα νομοθετήσουν.

- Γιατί ο αυτοκράτωρ μας τόσο πρωϊ σηκώθη,
και κάθεται στης πόλεως την πιο μεγάλη πύλη
στον θρόνο επάνω, επίσημος, φορώντας την κορώνα;

Γιατί οι βάρβαροι θα φθάσουν σήμερα.
Κι ο αυτοκράτωρ περιμένει να δεχθεί
τον αρχηγό τους. Μάλιστα ετοίμασε
για να τον δώσει μια περγαμηνή. Εκεί
τον έγραψε τίτλους πολλούς και ονόματα.

- Γιατί οι δυο μας ύπατοι κ' οι πραίτωρες εβγήκαν
σήμερα με τες κόκκινες, τες κεντημένες τόγες•
γιατί βραχιόλια φόρεσαν με τόσους αμεθύστους,
και δαχτυλίδια με λαμπρά, γυαλιστερά σμαράγδια•
γιατί να πιάσουν σήμερα πολύτιμα μπαστούνια
μ' ασήμια και μαλάματα έκτακτα σκαλιγμένα;

Γιατί οι βάρβαροι θα φθάσουν σήμερα•
και τέτοια πράγματα θαμπόνουν τους βαρβάρους.

- Γιατί κ' οι άξιοι ρήτορες δεν έρχονται σαν πάντα
να βγάλουνε τους λόγους τους, να πούνε τα δικά τους;

Γιατί οι βάρβαροι θα φθάσουν σήμερα•
κι αυτοί βαρυούντ' ευφράδειες και δημηγορίες.

- Γιατί ν' αρχίσει μονομιάς αυτή η ανησυχία
κ' η σύγχυσις. (Τα πρόσωπα τι σοβαρά που εγίναν).
Γιατί αδειάζουν γρήγορα οι δρόμοι κ' η πλατέες,
κι όλοι γυρνούν στα σπίτια τους πολύ συλλογισμένοι;

Γιατί ενύχτωσε κ' οι βάρβαροι δεν ήλθαν.
Και μερικοί έφθασαν απ' τα σύνορα,
και είπανε πως βάρβαροι πια δεν υπάρχουν.

Και τώρα τι θα γένουμε χωρίς βαρβάρους.
Οι άνθρωποι αυτοί ήσαν μια κάποια λύσις.

Κωνσταντίνος Π. Καβάφης (1904)

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