Monday, 5 April 2010

Two walks by the sea at Easter weekend

The swelling sea at Tower Bay in Portrane on Good Friday (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

This has been the busiest and the most beautiful Easter for a long time. This is my favourite time in the Church Calendar, and I was busy throughout Holy Week and Easter … the most meaningful for many years.

There were chapel services, church services, cathedral services, sermons, lectures, staff meetings, essays and articles in The Irish Times, the Church Review and the Diocesan Magazine, and planning for seminars. In between, there was time for lunch or coffee with friends. And – as this is a holiday weekend in Ireland – I even managed two walks by the sea … a double dose of my favourite activity and exercise that keeps me on top of my symptoms from sarcoidosis.

After the Good Friday service in the chapel, I headed out to Portrane, on the edge of the Donabate peninsula in Fingal. Initially, I thought about going for a walk on the beach at the Burrow. But the East wind was strong, the sea was swelling, the waves were choppy. And so instead I decided to walk the cliffs from the Martello Tower at Tower Bay, along by the hospital, and on towards Donabate.

Looking out to a choppy sea from the cliff walk between Portrane and Donabate (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

It was too windy to take my hat with me. The cold air was biting; I could feel it burning into the cheeks on my face and into my ear. I wrapped my scarf around as much exposed skin as possible.

Rocky coves open up beneath the cliff path beside Portrane Hospital (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

I was surprised by the number of people out for a brisk walk that morning – only a few, but nevertheless a few. Down below, in one little cove, a lone rock climber was braving this weather as he tried and tested his skills. But no-one was out on the sea in a boat or sailing. It was as dark and as choppy as deepest winter.

Eventually I turned back. But the sea, the waves and the sea breeze were exhilarating.

A glimpse of the sea between sand and tufts and grass at the cliffs in Portrane (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Back in Donabate, I stopped for a while at Newbridge House, which I hadn’t visited for about ten years. On the way up the drive, the fields and parklands around Newbridge House were rain-soaked.

Rain and mist covered Lanistown Castle in a sleepy shroud on Good Friday ... the only hint of Spring in the rain-soaked landscape came in the daffodils, bursting out joyfully around the ruined tower (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

On the left of the drive up to the house stands the ruins of Lanistown Castle, a 14th Century Norman peel tower. Rain and mist covered the castle in a sleepy shroud, and the only hint of Spring in the rain-soaked landscape was provided by the daffodils, bursting out joyfully around the base of the ruined tower.

Lanistown Castle belonged over the centuries to the de Launey, de Cardiff, Bathe, Allen and Handcock families before Archbishop Charles Cobbe of Dublin bought the lands of Lanistown, Newbridge and Donabate.

Newbridge House ... built in 1736-1737 by Richard Castle for Archbishop Charles Cobbe of Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Newbridge House was built in 1736-1737, to a design by Richard Castle, and has rich and elaborate stucco plaster-work by Robert West, who may also have decorated the Cobbe gallery in Saint Patrick’s Church, Donabate.

Newbridge House is a very fine example of a true Georgian mansion within its original demesne. An early visitor was John Wesley in 1747. When the archbishop died in 1765 at the age of 79, it was said he was “the eldest bishop in the Christian Church.” He was buried in Saint Patrick’s Church, Donabate.

Newbridge House was the Cobbe family home until 1985, when it was acquired by Fingal County Council. The family continues to reside there on a part-time basis, and under an unique agreement has provided on loan the original furniture, pictures and other works of art on display in the main apartments. Unfortunately, although the grounds are open, Newbridge House is closed for the foreseeable future and there were no visitors around the archbishop’s house on this cold, wet, windy Good Friday morning.

On Sunday afternoon, after the Festal Easter Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, and lunch with some friends in La Dolce Vita in Temple Bar, I headed back to Fingal for a walk on the beach in Skerries.

Unlike Friday, this was a beautiful, dry, crisp day, despite the low temperatures. On the brow of the hill above Loughshinny, just before the road dropped down towards Holmpatrick, there was a breath-taking view across to the Mourne Mountains on the Co Down coastline. I have not seen them so clearly so far this year, and he peaks were capped with snow.

Four trawlers on the calm sea between the shore and the islands off Skerries on Sunday afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The calm sea was so completely different from Friday’s experience in Portrane and Donabate, and now four small trawlers were out between the shore and the islands.

Up on Red Island, I could see the effects of the weekend storms, which had strewn stones and sand up on the grass.

Afternoon sunshine on Skerries Strand on Easter Day (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Skerries was full of life on Sunday afternoon. After the stormy tumults of the weekend, fresh life had returned. I thought there might be a sermon illustration for Easter in that some time.

I had one more walk along the beach, and then back in Strand Street I picked up the April edition of the Skerries News in Gerry’s. This edition has had many production problems, and so it was great to see the finished product. Well done. Inside, there is full coverage of how the people of Skerries got together and overcame obstacles to organise a Saint Patrick’s Day parade. There’s a spirit in Skerries that must laugh in the face of adversity.

One of the most ridiculous efforts at translation I have ever seen (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Later in the evening, I dropped in to see some friends I first met on the Greek island of Kos ten years ago. They live near Sandymount Strand, and I was stunned to see the ham-fisted effort to render Cambridge Avenue into Irish – Ascaill Mhic Ambróis, the Avenue of the Son of Ambrose. They might have tried something like Ascaill Droichead an Cam, but this is worthy of ridicule.

I always hated the efforts at school to try an concoct an Irish rendering of Comerford ... it’s a name derived from an English village, and I like it as it is, thank you. As for poor Cambridge, could someone please do something about this absurd name-sign on Cambridge Avenue?

The weekend walks were encouraging as I continue to wrestle with the symptoms of my sarcoidosis. Despite recent good news that I should soon be hoping for remission, my joints, my lungs, my feet and my neck continue to give me problems, I have a constant, burning tingling under my feet and I wake throughout the night with cramps in my legs and feet.

But, like the people of Skerries, I can laugh in the face of adversity. After all, I’ve walked the cliffs of Portrane in bad weather, I’ve had some wonderful coastline walks this weekend, and I have Easter faith, I am filled with Easter hope.

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

Walking on the beach helps me to cope with my sarcoidosis

Donabate was a perfect choice for a Lenten retreat (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Easter brings hope of new life, and Spring brings the promise of fresh growth and renewal. The past winter – indeed the autumn past and the summer before it – have been so dull and damp, that the bright sunshine that was ushered in at the beginning of March came as a welcome beginning to Spring, with the promise not only of a bright Easter but a sunny summer too.

But through the rain and despite the dark clouds of winter past and the autumn of last year, I have been reinvigorated regularly and touched that promise of new life with regular walks on the beach. I have found time almost every weekend over the past nine months to walk on one of the beautiful sandy beaches along our East Coast, from the mouth of the Boyne to the coasts of Co Wexford.

For some years I have been troubled by the symptoms of sarcoidosis, although a confirmed diagnosis was only finally provided as late as last summer. The symptoms include growths (granola) on my lungs, swelling in my neck, an irritating dry cough, sleeping difficulties, constant joint pains – especially in my knees and in my feet – that slow me down unexpectedly, small growths or marks that flare up on my legs or have left scar tissue on my nose, and bouts of fatigue that leave me tired and without full energy.

Missing my walks

A blue sky and as early moon over the South Strand in Skerries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford

When the symptoms first started to appear, I simply thought that age was beginning to creep up on me. I never expected to play rugby or cricket again. But – as someone who never learned to drive – I began to miss out on those regular walks that had kept my fit and healthy.

Eventually, after many tests, consultations and hospital visits, the diagnosis of sarcoidosis was confirmed. That was the bad news. The good news came in two parts: lung cancer had been ruled out, and I could expect remission to kick in soon.

Normally, people with sarcoidosis in Ireland tend to suffer from a milder form than, for example, people in the United States. But that offers little comfort at present. And matters have been complicated by a severe deficiency in Vitamin B12 as a direct consequence of 40 years of vegetarianism, leaving me with a constant tingling or sensation of “pins and needles” in my feet and at the end of my fingers.

Skerries Harbour (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Over the past few months, my blog postings on “Living with Sarcoidosis” and on my regular beach walks have connected me with people throughout the world living with this condition. Their stories and their difficulties have acted as a corrective to any temptation my part to indulge in self-pity. Indeed, over the past few weeks my consultant has told that my condition has stabilised, and I can hope that remission may begin to kick in before the year is out.

Skerries Beach in mid-winter (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I have been sustained throughout all this by my faith, by the love I receive, by the comfort of friends, by good medical attention from GP, consultants and in hospitals, and by a very interesting, satisfying and fulfilling life in writing, teaching and ministry.

Putting bleak winter behind us

The setting sun casts a golden light across the beach at Skerries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford

The summer, autumn and winter in Ireland have been bleak. Yet, throughout those wet and overcast weekends, I have continued to walk those beaches, from Co Louth through Co Meath, Dublin and Wicklow, to Co Wexford, knowing that these walks by the sea and on the sand are boosting my feelings of well-being and giving opportunities to reconnect with nature, to reach some of the depths of my own spirituality and to give thanks to God for the light and hope I have in my life every day.

A small trawler beached on the sands in Loughshinny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

On what was the sunniest weekend in Ireland since Whit Weekend last year, I headed out to Fingal and the beaches of north-east county Dublin. At Loughshinny, a small trawler was beached on the sand and a handful of people were walking on the beach. But no-one was walking out as far as the pier, with its majestic views across to the islands at Skerries to the north-east and across to Lambay Island to the south-east.

From Loughshinny, I moved on to Skerries. As the road approaches Holmpatrick, there are eye-catching views across to the islands, and on Sunday afternoons a late lunch in Olive in Strand Street is a real pleasure. This must be one of the best cafés – not just in Fingal or Dublin but in Ireland, and they really do know how to make espresso there.

Strolling up past the North Strand on Sunday afternoons, bikers regularly overflow onto the footpath and the road outside Joe May’s. The beach at the North Strand is small, but when the tide is out it is worth stepping down for a short stroll and to enjoy the tranquil views of Skerries Harbour.

Up on Red Island, there are views as far as the Mourne Mountains on a sunny day. The sun brings out families and children in great numbers – oh, how we appreciate sunshine when we are blessed with it in Ireland! Back down on the lengthy beach at the South Strand, the sand that was packed and deep-coloured throughout winter months turns to golden colours in the sunshine.

Looking back across Skerries from Red Island and from the South Strand, the windmills, the spire of Holmpatrick Church and the tower behind the church are almost ever-present as graceful features on the skyline. The ruined early-18th century tower is a reminder of a more ancient past and the Celtic and mediaeval monastic sites associated with Skerries.

Finding a lost beach

Rocky outcrops on the North Beach in Rush (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Further south, I recently returned Rush, which has two sandy beaches – the North Beach and South Beach – separated by Rush Harbour, a small tidal harbour and the rocky head of the peninsula. Nearby is the picture-postcard Church of Ireland parish church in Kenure, built in 1866 by Sir William Palmer of Kenure House.

The first few attempts to find the South Beach in Rush each ended in a cul-de-sac. But I was rewarded one sunny Sunday afternoon as I rediscovered a beach I had last enjoyed in my early teens 45 years ago – when I was a 13-year-old.

The sun was shining brightly. There was Lambay Island, looking ever so like a Greek island basking in a blue Aegean sea under the sunshine. To the south, there was a clear vista across to Portrane, so that I could clearly pick out the towers of the hospital, the round tower and – at the end of the peninsula – the Lynders house at the Quay, the home from which my grandmother was married over a hundred years ago.

Looking across the estuary at Rogerstown towards Donabate and Portrane (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

On colder afternoons in Rush, I have sat looking out on Rogerstown Estuary. The mouth of the estuary is so narrow that local people claim it is possible to walk across from Rush to Donabate, at a gradual walking pace – if there is no water. But there is – for the estuary is made up of saltwater marshes, raised salt marsh, wet meadows and riverine shallows and creeks. The estuary is internationally recognised as one of the most important sites on our east coast and is vital for wintering wildfowl, waders and birds on passage, with birds coming to this estuary from the Arctic.

10, Lambay Island seen from the beach at The Burrow in Portrane (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Across the estuary, Portrane has been a perennial favourite with me. From the beach at The Burrow, it is worth taking a look at Portrane Castle and its ivy-covered ruins and its associations with Dean Jonathan Swift’s “Stella,” Esther Johnson, and the ruins of Saint Catherine’s Church, surrounded by an embattled wall.

Ash Wednesday retreat

I enjoy this area so much that Donabate seemed a natural choice at the beginning of Lent as the venue for the Ash Wednesday retreat for the staff and students of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. When we arrived, the early morning sky was clear and the rising sun was already glistering across the Irish Sea, with a few ships on the horizon.

With those blue skies and blue waters that morning, it was like being on an Aegean island in the sun. The views to the south extended 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 crisp, like a cut-out stage prop.

The towers at Portrane Hospital from the beach at Balcarrick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

There were generous opportunities for walks on the beaches in Corballis and Balcarrick. During the time for silence and contemplation, I walked from the Martello Tower at Balcarrick along the sand dunes 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.

As I continued on along the cliff path, some of the cliffs beneath me were high and steep. In Donabate and Portrane, the 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 dreamt I was in Santorini.

The colourful 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; as well as the Bleeding Pig, the Camel’s Hump, the Pig’s Back, the Piper’s Hole and the Mermaid’s Churn.

I walked on along the coastline until the Martello Tower at Tower Bay and the neighbouring coast guard station at Portrane came into view. Tower 7 in Portrane is now a private house, but Tower 6 in Balcarrick is bricked up and in a sad state of disrepair. That afternoon, the sun was not so strong, but it was still bright as I walked the beach at Corballis, south of the Martello Tower at Balcarrick.

Tests and consultations

Gentle rolling waves beneath Bray Head in Co Wicklow (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Over the past two years, I have had batteries of tests in hospitals that have left me feeling tired, if not exhausted – lung tests in the pulmonary laboratory, three or four X-Rays on my lungs and on my knees, blood tests, consultations with specialists, consultants, nurses and dieticians, and a few overnight stays so that tissue samples could be taken from my lungs. At times, I don’t know whether the waiting or the tests are more demanding.

The recent news that my sarcoidosis has probably stabilised is good news indeed, offering hope at Easter. Those beach walks, which I hope to continue this Spring and Summer, play an important psychological role in reminding me that sarcoidosis can never deprive me of the pleasures of life. I may have sarcoidosis, but sarcoidosis will never have me.

The sandy stretches of Morriscastle in Co Wexford (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. This essay was first published in the April editions of the Church Review (Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough) and the Church Review (Diocese of Cashel and Ossory)