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: .

Strolling along the Backs in Cambridge

My rooms on Staircase H in Sidney Sussex looked out onto Chapel Court (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I was back in Cambridge once again this summer, staying in Sidney Sussex College for the annual summer school organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies. This year’s theme was “Love,” and our lecturers looked at this topic in Scripture, the writings of the Early Fathers of the Church (Patristics), and from the monastic perspective.

This was my second year at Sidney Sussex, and I am amazed at the number of Irish friends who ask me about this being the place where Oliver Cromwell’s head is buried. Because last year marked the 350th anniversary of the death of Cromwell, there was some re-evaluation of his role in Irish history, but one old school friend, who lives only a few miles outside Cambridge, still told me he would never go into the chapel at Sidney because of those associations.

Of course, I am more that a little sceptical about the veracity and accuracy of the claims made for the provenance of what is supposed to be Cromwell’s head. But Sidney has some other interesting and more positive Irish connections.

After all, there is a tradition in Sidney – first advanced by Dorothy Sayers but taken up with enthusiasm by fellows and students alike – that this is the college where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sent the young Sherlock Holmes as an undergraduate. Historically, the former fellows and students of Sidney include John Bramhall, the restoration Archbishop of Armagh; John Sterne, the founder of the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland; John Garnett, who was Bishop of Ferns and Leighlin (1752-1758) before becoming Bishop of Clogher (1758-1782); and – more recently – Brian Lenihan, the Minister for Finance.

Monastic foundations

But Sidney’s Irish and Church connections date back even further. For, like most Cambridge colleges, Sidney is built on a monastic foundation, and this was once the site of Greyfriars – not the fictional school of Billy Bunter, but a large mediaeval Franciscan foundation in Cambridge. Among the great mediaeval philosophers and theologians who lived in Greyfriars was the Irish Franciscan, John Duns Scotus (1265-1308), who was known as “Doctor Subtilis” because of the subtle distinctions and nuances of his thinking.

The arguments continue about the Irish origins and birth of Duns Scotus. He and his Franciscan contemporaries are commemorated on a plaque in Cloister Court in Sidney Sussex.

This year, my rooms were on Staircase H in Chapel Court, looking out towards the day-to-day bustle of life on Sidney Street and onto the Chapel, with its curious bell turret. Like all Cambridge colleges, the chapel is at heart of the day-to-day life of Sidney.

During my time there, as I strolled around Cambridge, it was interesting to visit many of those college chapels, and to realise the extent to which monastic life and theological training shaped the development and the history of those colleges.

Although the summer school used the Chapel in Sidney twice a day during the week for Morning Prayer and Vespers, regular chapel life had come to an end for the summer holiday period. So, on my first weekend, I attended both Choral Evensong on Saturday and the Choral Eucharist on Sunday in the chapel of King’s College, the most majestic of all the college chapels in Cambridge.

Fame and antiquity

King’s Chapel is famous worldwide – thanks to its choir and the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve each year. Tourists queue on end to gain entry to King’s Chapel, and we had to queue with them to get on both occasions. But the choir was still resident, the music was glorious, and on Sunday morning we were treated to Vaughan Williams’s Mass in G Minor, which is one of his most English compositions, dating from 1921.

The preacher on the Sunday morning was the Revd Dr Stephen Hampton, the Dean of Peterhouse, the oldest college in Cambridge. Cambridge University was founded in 1209 and this year is celebrating its 800th anniversary. But the colleges are little younger, and Peterhouse was founded in 1284 by Bishop Hugh de Balsham of Ely.

Peterhouse may have taken its name from the neighbouring, quaintly named Church of Saint Peter’s-without-Trumpington-Gate, where the scholars worshipped from the beginning. When the church was rebuilt in 1340, it was renamed Saint Mary the Less. But Peterhouse retained its name and the scholars continued to worship there until the college had its own chapel built in 1628 by Mathew Wren, uncle of the more famous Christopher Wren.

Despite the ravages of the Cromwellian era, the chapel still retains its East Window with its Crucifixion, based on Le Coup de Lance by Rubens.

The East Window in Peterhouse Chapel is based on Le Coup de Lance by Rubens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Across Trumpington Street, Pembroke College has the oldest gatehouse in Cambridge. The college was founded in 1347 by the Countess of Pembroke, the widow of a direct descendant of Strongbow. In 1355, she obtained a Papal licence to build the college chapel. The chapel has since been turned into a library, and the present restoration chapel is the first completed work by Christopher Wren.

Time for the scientists

Further along the street, neighbouring Corpus Christi was the first Cambridge college to have a quadrangle or court, as they are called in Cambridge. The first students were charged with praying for the souls of the deceased members of the Cambridge civic guilds of Corpus Christi and the Blessed Virgin Mary, who founded the college initially for theology students. They used Saint Bene’t’s Church, with its Saxon tower, as their church until a college chapel was built in the 16th century.

Archbishop Parker, a 16th century master remembered in the carvings at the chapel door in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The 16th century Masters of Corpus Christi included Archbishop Matthew Parker, one of the primary architects of the 39 Articles, who saved many of the monastic manuscripts and books now in the Parker Library in the college, including King Alfred’s copy of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a Psalter that once belonged to Thomas à Becket, and a sixth century Gospel, believed to have been given to Saint Augustine in 597 and now used at the enthronement of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Archbishop Parker is commemorated in a carving on the doorway into the new college chapel.

The college properties include Botolph Court, which houses 30 students. It is said to be built on the site of a 17th century plague pit and slowly sinking into it. A more attractive site for tourists is the Cirpus Clock, which was unveiled on 19 September by the physicist Stephen Hawking. The clock is called the Chronophane – the “Time Eater” – but is known among the students of Corpus as the “Time Lord” and is only accurate once every five minutes. It was conceived, designed and paid for by Dr John Taylor, who donated it to his alma mater.

The Eagle ... where great discoveries are made over a pub lunch (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Corpus owns The Eagle, one of the best-known pubs in Cambridge with its old courtyard serving as a beer garden. Because the beer garden is overlooked by Corpus student accommodation, it must be cleared by 10:30 p.m. every night. When the Cavendish Laboratory was still at its old site nearby in Free School Lane, the Eagle was a popular place for lunch for the laboratory staff.

Here Francis Crick famously interrupted lunchtime chatter on 28 February 1953 to announce that he and James Watson had “discovered the secret of life” after they had come up with their proposal for the structure of DNA. The story is told in Watson’s book, The Double Helix, and is recalled in a plaque near the entrance to the Eagle.

Unique bridges

Corpus faces Saint Catharine’s, whose Master and three Fellows were originally to study nothing but “philosophy and sacred theology.” The college is named after Saint Catharine of Alexandria, and her symbol – the Catherine wheel on which she was martyred – can be seen as the college logo on the college gates.

Behind Saint Catharine’s and abutting King’s College, on Queens’ Lane is Queens’ College, which stands on the site of an old Carmelite friary. Here Erasmus lived while he taught Greek in Cambridge. The college retains its cloisters, and has some of the finest half-timbered late mediaeval and Tudor buildings in Cambridge.

Queens’ College has one of the few known moondials in the world (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Queens’ is also known for unique moondial – one of the few known moondials in the world – and for the Mathematical Bridge, which was first built in 1749. Legend had it that the Mathematical Bridge was built without using bolts or nails, but this was found to be untrue when the bridge was damaged by a storm and rebuilt to the original design in 1905.

The bridge links the old, mediaeval college buildings with Friars’ Court, which stirred controversy when it was built in the 1960s. It is the work of Sir Basil Spence, who also designed Coventry Cathedral, and was the first modern building on the Backs.

Further north along the Backs, past King’s College, is Clare College is the second oldest college in Cambridge. This was the college of Bishop Hugh Latimer, one of the martyrs of the English Reformation in 1555. Above the altar in Clare Chapel is The Annunciation (1763) by Giovanni Battista Cipriani, one of the founders of the Royal Academy.

Clare College Chapel with The Annunciation (1763) by Giovanni Battista Cipriani (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Clare College has the oldest bridge now crossing the River Cam. But perhaps the best known bridge over the River Cam is the so-called Bridge of Sighs at Saint John’s. Saint John’s, which dates from 1511, but which has a monastic link with the foundation of the oldest college, Peterhouse.

The Bridge of Sighs (1831), designed by Henry Hutchinson, links the older courts of Saint John’s with New Court, a masterpiece of Gothic Revival architecture. But, in fact, the bridge has little in common architecturally with the Bridge of Sighs in Venice beyond the fact that they are both covered.

Reminders of love

The Gate Tower of Saint John’s includes an image (right) of Saint John the Evangelist with a poison chalice, drawing the potion in the form of a serpent from the cup before he drank it.

Throughout the summer school, we were constantly reminded of Saint John’s words that God is love. As we climbed the stairs to the Old Library in Sidney Sussex for our closing dinner, I realised we were dining above the ante-chapel, where Cromwell’s head is supposed to be buried. But smiling down benignly on us was a portrait of a former fellow, Bishop John Garnett of Ferns and Clogher.

But then Sidney Sussex had Irish connections from the very beginning: Lady Frances Sidney, Countess of Sussex, who gave her name to the college, was the second wife of Thomas Radclyffe, Viscount FitzWalter, who was Lord Deputy of Ireland in 1556 before succeeding his father as the 3rd Earl of Sussex in 1557. Today, the chaplain of Sidney Sussex is the Revd Dr Peter Waddell, is from Newcastle, Co Down. And so the Irish connections live on.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay was first published in the August 2009 edition of the Church Review (Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough).