Wednesday, 17 February 2010

A sun-kissed taste of the Aegean in Donabate

Blue skies and blue waters made being in Donabate this morning like being on an Aegean island in the sun (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

Today’s Ash Wednesday retreat in the Waterside House Hotel in Donabate provided generous opportunities for walks on the beaches in Corballis and Balcarrick. We arrived just before 9, but the sky was clear and already the rising sun was shining and glistering across the Irish Sea, with a few ships on the horizon. With these blue skies and blue waters this morning, it was like being on an Aegean island in the sun.

From the hotel terrace above the beach, as I looked south, I could see beyond Dublin Bay as far the Sugarloaf in the Wicklow Mountains. A little closer, Howth Head was craggy and clear, while a little to the north Lambay Island was crisply clear.

The hospital, seen across the fields beside the cliff walk between Donabate and Portrane (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Later in the morning, as we took time for silence and contemplation, I walked from the Martello Tower at Balcarrick, I walked along the sand dunes this morning as far as the hospital grounds in Portrane and the Round Tower erected in 1843 by Charles Stewart Parnell’s great-aunt, Sophia, in memory of her husband, George Hampden Evans of Portrane House.

The round tower erected in 1843 by Sophia Evans of Portrane House in memory of her husband (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

As I walked on along the cliff path, some of the cliffs beneath were high and steep. Local people tell stories of smugglers and shipwrecks around these cliffs, but looking out from the black stone cliffs onto the blue, sparkling, sun-kissed sea, I could have imagined I was in Santorini.

Beneath the path between Donabate and Portrane, the cliffs are high and steep (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The names local people give to the places here include the Chink Well, which is supposed to mark the site of Saint Kenny’s, a Celtic stone church; the Priest’s Chamber, said to have been a hiding place in Penal times; the Bleeding Pig, so-called because of its colour and not because of any animal cruelty; the Camel’s Hump, originally known as the Pig’s Back; the Piper’s Hole; and the Mermaid’s Churn.

From there I walked on along the coastline until the Martello Tower at Tower Bay and the neighbouring coast guard station came into view. Both Martello Towers were built on land bought in 1803 from Edward McMahon of Balcarrick, and his brother James McMahon of the Quay, Portrane, who were tenants of Hampden Evans of Portrane House. Each tower had a canon at the top pointing towards the sea and a resident artillery man below, while the basements were used to store weapons and ammunition.

Tower 7 in Martello is now a private house, but Tower 6 in Balcarrick is bricked up and in a sad state of disrepair. In all, the return walk between the two took little more than 30 minutes.

The blue waters of Corballis Beach this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The sun was not so strong in the afternoon, but it was still bright as I walked some of the length of the beach at Corballis, south of the Martello Tower at Balcarrick.

The lands at Corballis were acquired by James Butler, Duke of Ormond, after the Caroline restoration in 1660. Later they were sold, first to Archbishop James Margetson of Armagh, and later to Bishop Charles Cobbe, five years before he became Archbishop of Dublin, and who lived at Newbridge House.

The Cobbes are commemorated in memorials and plaques on the walls of Saint Patrick’s Church, the Church of Ireland parish church in Donabate, where we ended our Ash Wednesday retreat yesterday afternoon with a celebration of the Eucharist.

Saint Patrick’s Church dates back to the 13th century, when the first church was built on this site to replace the much older Celtic church in Turvey dedicated to Saint Colman. The mound on which the church stands indicates that this was an ancient ecclesiastical site.

The monument in Saint Patrick’s Church porch remembering Patrick Barnewall and Begnet De La Hoyde is dated 1592 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Some local family monuments from the 16th century have been saved, and those in the church porch include one for Patrick Barnewall of Staffordstown and his wife Begnet De La Hoyde, dated 1592.

The Cobbe family’s heraldic swan makes an appearance in stucco plasterwork in their private pew in the gallery at the west end of Donabate parish church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

From the 18th century, the Cobbes of Newbridge House were the principal benefactors of the church. They had their own private pew – complete with their own private fireplace and highly-decorative stucco plasterwork – in the gallery at the west end of the church, and used the Norman tower attached to the north-east end of the church as their private crypt.

The tower at the north-east end of Saint Patrick’s Church was used as a crypt by the Cobbe family (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The Rector of Swords and Donabate, Canon Robert Deane, reminded us that there are excellent ecumenical relations between the two Saint Patrick’s churches in Donabate. After a very spiritual and moving quiet day led by Carol Casey, it was a privilege this evening to end the retreat by celebrating the Eucharist in the village where my grandparents were married over 100 years ago.

The charming interior of Saint Patrick’s Church in Donabate (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

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

‘The real heart and joy of Lent’

The porch at Saint Patrick’s Church, Donabate … the Ash Wednesday retreat ended with a celebration of the Eucharist here (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Joel 2: 1-2, 12-17; Psalm 51: 1-18; II Corinthians 5: 20b - 6: 10; Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-21


Almighty and everlasting God,
you hate nothing that you have made
and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent:
Create and make in us new and contrite hearts
that we, worthily lamenting our sins
and acknowledging our wretchedness,
may receive from you, the God of all mercy,
perfect remission and forgiveness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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

Today, Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, is a day that is often been marked by the spiritual disciplines of fasting, abstinence from meat, and repentance. And so, the Book of Common Prayer designates Ash Wednesday as a day of “special observance” and a day of “discipline and self-denial.”

But for many in this culture, this is a day associated with long faces, the joyless giving up of some questionable pleasures – such as smoking – and of so doing in a way that sometimes amounts to self-indulgent penitence.

But, instead, this should really be the start of a time of preparation, a time to look forward to our real hope and joy. For the countdown has just begun – we are only 40 days from Easter.

I suppose Easter is in danger of losing all meaning in society today. Just like people readily sing Christmas carols even before Advent begins, I notice how people are now taking to eating Cadbury’s crème eggs long before Lent begins – without ever thinking of the symbolism the egg once carried of the gravestone being rolled back on Easter morn and new life rising in joy.

But just as the whole point of Advent is looking forward with joyful anticipation to Christmas, so too should Lent be a time of looking forward with joyful anticipation to Easter.

And in so many ways that tone – that set of values or priorities – is captured by TS Eliot in his first long poem, ‘Ash Wednesday,’ which I quoted from this morning.

This poem has been described as Eliot’s conversion poem. It was written to mark his conversion to Anglicanism on 29 June 1927, although it was not published until 1930. In this poem, he answers the despair found in The Waste Land, and this is a poem that is less about penitence and more about repentance.

In ‘Ash Wednesday,’ Eliot deals with the struggles that arise when one who once lacked faith turns and strives to move towards God. In this poem, Eliot writes about his hopes to move from spiritual barrenness to hope for human salvation. And that’s what Lent and the spiritual disciplines we associate with it are all about.

At the service at the beginning of our retreat this morning, some of you came forward for ashes. Others were more reserved, bearing in mind, I imagine, those words of Christ in our Gospel reading this afternoon: “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting … But when you fast, put oil on your face and wash your face …” (Matthew 6: 16-17).

And those words are not merely wise, but words that reprove those who would misrepresent the meaning of the Lenten fast. For I sometimes think that the misrepresentation and misinterpretation of Lent has, in turn, deprived many of its true meaning and significance.

Writing in the Guardian last Saturday, the Orthodox theologian Aaron Taylor wrote of how he hoped that the Lenten fast “must never become a source of pride on the one hand, or something oppressive on the other. It is a measuring stick for our individual practice … [it] is primarily about obedience, and thus humility. But it also creates a sense of need and sobriety. It teaches us to seek our consolation in things of the spirit rather than of the flesh.”

He pointed out that fasting “is merely a physical accompaniment to the real heart and joy of Lent: the prayer and worship that are intensified during this season …” and he referred to the “joy-making mourning” recommended by Saint John Klimakos in The Ladder of Divine Ascent, to the “bright sadness” of Lent.

At Lent, we should remind ourselves that we have all fallen short, so that we are not the people we should be. We all too easily focus on ourselves. But true Lenten fasting allows us to experience a sense of freedom as we relinquish our self-centredness and can produce joy in our hearts – just what TS Eliot experienced, just what we pray for in the Collect of Ash Wednesday.

And Aaron Taylor added: “If we do not to some extent attain to this joy-through-mourning, we have entirely missed the point of Lent.”

He concluded his ‘Face to Faith’ column in the Guardian last Saturday, by saying: “As long as there is evil in the world, we can be sure that some of it still lies hidden in our hearts. And as long as we are able to shed tears over our condition, there remains hope that we will one day see the glorious day of resurrection.”

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

Post Communion Prayer

Almighty God,
you have given your only Son to be for us
both a sacrifice for sin and also an example of godly life:
Give us grace
that we may always most thankfully receive
these his inestimable gifts,
and also daily endeavour ourselves
to follow the blessed steps of his most holy life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These thoughts were shared during the Eucharist in Saint Patrick’s Church, Donabate, Co Dublin, at the end of the Ash Wednesday retreat on 17 February 2010.

‘Even among these rocks, our peace in his will’

The beach at Donabate, from the brochure for today’s Ash Wednesday retreat (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

This morning, as a community, the staff and students of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, are spending the day on retreat in Donabate on the Fingal coast of north Co Dublin.

We have an early start, and the retreat speaker is Carol Casey, a spiritual director and diocesan reader. We are in the Waterside House Hotel, between the golf course and the Martello Tower at Balcarrick, and I am hoping that there will be many opportunities for silences and for walks on the beautiful beaches at Donabate.

The interior of Saint Patrick’s Church, Donabate, where our Ash Wednesday retreat ends with a celebration of the Eucharist at 4 p.m. (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

We finish this afternoon with a celebration of the Eucharist in Saint Patrick’s Church, Donabate.

Preparing for today’s retreat, I once again read ‘Ash Wednesday,’ the first long poem written by TS Eliot after his conversion to Anglicanism in 1927. The poem was first published in April 1930 in limited edition of 600 numbered and signed copies. Later that month, an ordinary run of 2,000 copies was published in Britain and another 2,000 copies were published in the US in September.

Immediately, many critics were enthusiastic about ‘Ash Wednesday.’ Edwin Muir, for example, described Ash Wednesday as “one of the most moving poems” Eliot “has written, and perhaps the most perfect.” Other critics, however, were less kind, perhaps because they were discomforted by its groundwork of orthodox Christianity.

This poem, which is sometimes referred to as Eliot’s “conversion poem,” is based on Dante’s Purgatorio. Its style is different from those poems that predate Eliot’s conversion, so that ‘Ash Wednesday’ and the poems that followed had a more casual, melodic, and contemplative method.

‘Ash Wednesday’ deals with the struggles that arise when one who once lacked faith in the past begins to strive and move towards God. The poem is richly but ambiguously allusive and wrestles with the aspiration to move from spiritual barrenness to hope for human salvation.

‘Even among these rocks, our peace in his will’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Ash Wednesday
T.S. Eliot


Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the agèd eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

Because I do not hope to know
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is
nothing again

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessèd face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care Teach us to sit still.

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.


Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree
In the cool of the day, having fed to sateity
On my legs my heart my liver and that which had been
In the hollow round of my skull. And God said
Shall these bones live? shall these
Bones live? And that which had been contained
In the bones (which were already dry) said chirping:
Because of the goodness of this Lady
And because of her loveliness, and because
She honours the Virgin in meditation,
We shine with brightness. And I who am here dissembled
Proffer my deeds to oblivion, and my love
To the posterity of the desert and the fruit of the gourd.
It is this which recovers
My guts the strings of my eyes and the indigestible portions
Which the leopards reject. The Lady is withdrawn
In a white gown, to contemplation, in a white gown.
Let the whiteness of bones atone to forgetfulness.
There is no life in them. As I am forgotten
And would be forgotten, so I would forget
Thus devoted, concentrated in purpose. And God said
Prophesy to the wind, to the wind only for only
The wind will listen. And the bones sang chirping
With the burden of the grasshopper, saying

Lady of silences
Calm and distressed
Torn and most whole
Rose of memory
Rose of forgetfulness
Exhausted and life-giving
Worried reposeful
The single Rose
Is now the Garden
Where all loves end
Terminate torment
Of love unsatisfied
The greater torment
Of love satisfied
End of the endless
Journey to no end
Conclusion of all that
Is inconclusible
Speech without word and
Word of no speech
Grace to the Mother
For the Garden
Where all love ends.

Under a juniper-tree the bones sang, scattered and shining
We are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each other,
Under a tree in the cool of day, with the blessing of sand,
Forgetting themselves and each other, united
In the quiet of the desert. This is the land which ye
Shall divide by lot. And neither division nor unity
Matters. This is the land. We have our inheritance.


At the first turning of the second stair
I turned and saw below
The same shape twisted on the banister
Under the vapour in the fetid air
Struggling with the devil of the stairs who wears
The deceitful face of hope and of despair.

At the second turning of the second stair
I left them twisting, turning below;
There were no more faces and the stair was dark,
Damp, jaggèd, like an old man’s mouth drivelling, beyond
Or the toothed gullet of an agèd shark.

At the first turning of the third stair
Was a slotted window bellied like the fig’s fruit
And beyond the hawthorn blossom and a pasture scene
The broadbacked figure drest in blue and green
Enchanted the maytime with an antique flute.
Blown hair is sweet, brown hair over the mouth blown,
Lilac and brown hair;
Distraction, music of the flute, stops and steps of the mind
over the third stair,
Fading, fading; strength beyond hope and despair
Climbing the third stair.

Lord, I am not worthy
Lord, I am not worthy

but speak the word only.

‘Made cool the dry rock and made firm the sand’ ... a view across to Lambay Island from the beach at Balcarrick in Donabate (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


Who walked between the violet and the violet
Who walked between
The various ranks of varied green
Going in white and blue, in Mary’s colour,
Talking of trivial things
In ignorance and knowledge of eternal dolour
Who moved among the others as they walked,
Who then made strong the fountains and made fresh the

Made cool the dry rock and made firm the sand
In blue of larkspur, blue of Mary’s colour,
Sovegna vos

Here are the years that walk between, bearing
Away the fiddles and the flutes, restoring
One who moves in the time between sleep and waking,

White light folded, sheathing about her, folded.
The new years walk, restoring
Through a bright cloud of tears, the years, restoring
With a new verse the ancient rhyme. Redeem
The time. Redeem
The unread vision in the higher dream
While jewelled unicorns draw by the gilded hearse.

The silent sister veiled in white and blue
Between the yews, behind the garden god,
Whose flute is breathless, bent her head and signed but
spoke no word

But the fountain sprang up and the bird sang down
Redeem the time, redeem the dream
The token of the word unheard, unspoken

Till the wind shake a thousand whispers from the yew

And after this our exile


If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.

O my people, what have I done unto thee.

Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence
Not on the sea or on the islands, not
On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,
For those who walk in darkness
Both in the day time and in the night time
The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny
the voice

Will the veiled sister pray for
Those who walk in darkness, who chose thee and oppose
Those who are torn on the horn between season and season,
time and time, between
Hour and hour, word and word, power and power, those who
In darkness? Will the veiled sister pray
For children at the gate
Who will not go away and cannot pray:
Pray for those who chose and oppose

O my people, what have I done unto thee.

Will the veiled sister between the slender
Yew trees pray for those who offend her
And are terrified and cannot surrender
And affirm before the world and deny between the rocks
In the last desert before the last blue rocks
The desert in the garden the garden in the desert
Of drouth, spitting from the mouth the withered apple-seed.

O my people.


Although I do not hope to turn again
Although I do not hope
Although I do not hope to turn

Wavering between the profit and the loss
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying
(Bless me father) though I do not wish to wish these things
From the wide window towards the granite shore
The white sails still fly seaward, seaward flying
Unbroken wings

And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices
In the lost lilac and the lost sea voices
And the weak spirit quickens to rebel
For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smell
Quickens to recover
The cry of quail and the whirling plover
And the blind eye creates
The empty forms between the ivory gates
And smell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth

This is the time of tension between dying and birth
The place of solitude where three dreams cross
Between blue rocks
But when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift away
Let the other yew be shaken and reply.

Blessèd sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.

The beaches at Donabate provide us with plenty of opportunity for solitude and for walks (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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