Sunday, 31 January 2010

Saint Basil and a beach walk on Bull Island

Christ Church Cathedral, basking in today’s late January sunshine before the Candlemas procession (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

We are coming to the end of the Christmas and Epiphany season in the church. After the Cathedral Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral this morning [31 January], I crossed the River Liffey to the northside of the inner city and the Greek Orthodox Church in Arbour Hill. I had been invited by the President of the Hellenic Community of Ireland, Dr Thomae Kakouli-Duarte, to be part of the Greek Community in Dublin for the cutting of the Vasilopita (βασιλόπιτα), or Saint Basil’s Cake.

Cutting the Vasilopita (βασιλόπιτα) in the Greek Orthodox Church in Dublin on 31 January (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Greeks traditionally eat Vasilopita, a cake in which a gold coin has been baked, on 1 January. Saint Basil, whose feast day falls on 1 January, has a Santa-like place in Greek lore. Many private or public institutions – such as societies, clubs, workplaces, companies, and so on – cut their Vasilopita at another time between New Year’s Day and the beginning of the Great Lent, and those celebrations range from impromptu potluck gatherings to formal receptions or balls.

Traditionally, the cake is served in a sequence: the first piece is set aside for Saint Basil, one of the “Three Hierarchs”; the second piece is for the home; and the rest of the cake is then handed out amongst family members, from oldest to youngest. Today’s cake was blessed by Father Irenaeu Craciun and cut by the new Greek Ambassador to Ireland, with Dr Thomae Kakouli-Duarte presiding elegantly over the proceedings.

The iconostasis in the Greek Orthodox Church in Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

A gold coin is wrapped and hidden in the cake by slipping it into the dough before baking, and whoever finds the coin in their slice is said promised a lucky year. I didn’t find the coin, but I felt blessed to be handed the priest’s slice by my friend Stella and felt honoured that the Greek Community in Dublin asked me to their celebrations today, which was also the day after the Feast of the Three Hierarchs [30 January].

Dr Thomae Kakouli-Duarte President of the Hellenic Community of Ireland and Mike Youlton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The Three Holy Hierarchs

The Three Holy Hierarchs

The Three Holy Hierarchs (Οι Τρείς Ιεράρχες) are Saint Basil the Great (Saint Basil of Caesarea), Saint Gregory the Theologian (Saint Gregory of Nazianzus) and Saint John Chrysostom. These three highly influential bishops from the Early Church played pivotal roles in shaping our theology.

In 11th century Constantinople, there were disputes about which of the three hierarchs was the greatest. Some argued that Saint Basil was superior to the other two because of his explanations of Christian faith and his monastic example. Those who argued for Saint John Chrysostom countered that the “Golden Mouthed” (Χρυσόστομος) Patriarch of Constantinople was unmatched in both eloquence and in bringing sinners to repentance. Those who preferred Saint Gregory the Theologian pointed to the majesty, purity and profundity of his sermons and his defence of the faith against the Arian heresy.

All three have separate feast days in January: Saint Basil on 1 January, Saint Gregory on 25 January, and Saint John Chrysostom on 27 January. Eastern Orthodox tradition says the three hierarchs appeared together in 1084 in a vision to Saint John Mauropous of Euchaita and said that they were equal before God: “There are no divisions among us, and no opposition to one another.” As a result, around 1100 the Emperor Alexios Komnenos declared 30 January a feast day commemorating all three in common.

Beach walk on Bull Island

After sharing the Vasilopita with my Greek friends, I headed off for my weekly beach walk. This afternoon I headed to the Bull Island, off the north coast in Dublin Bay. The Bull Island is only 5 km long and 1 km wide but has a long, sandy beach, Dollymount Strand, that stretches the entire length 5 km length of the island, running parallel to the shore at Clontarf, Dollymouny, Raheny and Kilbarrack, and facing Sutton and Howth at its northern end.

The island is linked to the mainland both by the Bull Bridge, a one-lane wooden road bridge at the southern end, opposite Clontarf and Dollymount, and by a broad causeway at Raheny further north.

Dollymount Strand is not as clean and as attractive as some of my favourite beaches further north – such as Bettystown, Laytown, Skerries, Loughshinny, Rush, Portrane, Donabate, Malahide and Portmarnock – but it was easy to get to in the middle of a very busy Sunday’s packed. Because it is so close to the city centre, it is a popular place.

In the past, many Dubliners learned to drive at low tide on the firm flat sandy foreshore in “Dollier” – but I noticed this afternoon that it has been blocked off to motor traffic. Perhaps this has created the safety that makes Bull Island so popular today with kite-surfers.

Kite surfing in the winter sunshine on Bull Island (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Bird life on the island has been protected by legislation since the 1930s, and since 1988 it has been a designated national nature reserve. It has been listed by UNESCO as a biosphere reserve.

Apart from two golf clubhouses and a Sea Scout den, the island has just a few residents. In 1955, Dublin Corporation acquired the entire island from the Royal Dublin Golf Club, apart from the club itself, having bought out the interests of the Howth Estate.

The bulk of the island now makes up the largest park owned by the city. However, the North Bull Wall, the breakwater beyond it, and the wooden bridge to it are owned by the Dublin Port Company. Each year, the bridge is closed at least one day each year to protect the port company’s rights, and so the bridge will be closed this Tuesday and Wednesday to all motor traffic.

An accidental island

I imagine few people know that the island and the beach are relatively recent and inadvertent results of human intervention in Dublin Bay.

For centuries, Dublin Bay had a long-running problem with silting, particularly at the mouth of the Liffey. After years of primitive dredging had failed, a more effective attempt to maintain a clear channel began in 1715 when the first piles were driven to make the Great South Wall.

When it became obvious that the South Wall was not solving the silting problem, building a North Bull Wall was proposed, and the Dublin Port authorities commissioned studies to look at the feasibility of a project like this.

Admiral William Bligh – more famous for his role in the Mutiny on the Bounty and as the inept Governor of New South Wales – surveyed Dublin Bay for the Ballast Board, and in 1801 pointed out the potential of the North Bull sandbank.

A wooden bridge – the first Bull Bridge – was built in 1819 to facilitate building a stone wall, based on a design by George Halpin. Work on the Bull Wall started in 1820 and was completed by 1825, at a cost of £95,000.

Over the next half century, the natural tidal effects created by the walls deepened the entry to the Liffey, depositing much of the silt scoured from the river course on the North Bull. A true island was emerging, and Dubliners were attracted out to the growing beach. The visitors grew in number after horse tram services started running to Clontarf in 1873, and rose even further when a full tram line to Howth opened in 1900, with stops in the Clontarf and Dollymount area.

A growing island

As the number of visitors grew, the island continued to grow too, from the Bull Wall towards Howth Head.

In 1889, the Royal Dublin Golf Club, which was then based in Sutton, was given permission by Colonel Vernon and the Dublin Port and Docks Board to lay out a new golf course at the city end of the island and to build a new clubhouse.

The new Bull Bridge, built in 1906-1907, is still standing over a century later. During World War I, the island was used for military training – there was a firing range, trench warfare practice, while the Royal Dublin Golf Club’s clubhouse became officers’ quarters. Local people were upset at the damage to the clubhouse and the course. They held discussions with the Royal Dublin and with Lady Ardilaun, and formed a new golf club, named Saint Anne’s in honour of the Guinness estate.

The island continues to grow, and some say there is a possibility that within the next half-century it could merge with the mainland at Red Rock in Sutton, forming a lagoon, changing the make-up of the area’s wildlife, and leaving two dinghy sailing clubs landlocked.

Candlemas Procession

From Dollymount, I headed back into the city centre, and had a late lunch in La Dolce Vita, a new Italian wine bar that has opened up within the past month in Cow Lane in Temple Bar.

The Chapter House in Christ Christ Church Cathedral, in the afternoon sunlight (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

At 5 p.m., we brought the Christmas and Epiphany season to an end in Christ Church Cathedral with the Candlemas Procession.

We ended in the baptistery, where we extinguished our candles as we prayed:

Here we now stand near the place of baptism.
Help us, who are marked with the cross,
to share the Lord’s death and resurrection.


Here we turn from Christ’s birth to his passion.
Help us, for whom Lent is near,
to enter deeply into the Easter mystery.


Here we bless one another in your name.
Help us, who now go in peace,
to shine with your light in the world.
Thanks be to God! Amen.


We dispersed in silence. Outside it was dark.

The fourth and last Sunday after the Epiphany had been a beautiful day.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin