Monday, 3 May 2010

Exploring the ruins of Baldongan and walking the beaches of Skerries

Baldongan Castle and Church ... standing in ruin on a hill overlooking Skerries and Rush (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

I was in Skerries and Rush on Sunday morning, leading the services and preaching in the pretty parish churches of Kenure and Holmpatrick. Inside, both churches have attractive windows and interesting monuments.

An Easter theme in a window in the gallery in Holmpatrick Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

However, a family commitment in Naas, Co Kildare, on Sunday afternoon, meant that I left Skerries without my weekend walk on the beach.

Perhaps I might have been disappointed – it seemed to rain all afternoon yesterday. But I was back in Rush and Skerries this afternoon, and the sun seemed to come out just as I arrived in Rush.

I had a look around the harbour in Rush before heading north to Skerries. But Margaret Plant, one of the churchwardens in Holmpatrick, had suggested yesterday that at some stage I should look at Baldongan Castle. And so, when I reached Loughshinny, I turned left and headed west, up to mediaeval ruins at Baldongan.

The ruins at Baldongan stand conspicuously on a summit of rising ground, about two miles outside Skerries, commanding an extensive view of the surrounding country towards Rush to the south and towards Skerries to the east and north. I almost had the feeling of being on an island rather than in the heart of this peninsula. And with the yellow-and-green farmland basking in the sunshine, and thatched cottages dotted around the countryside, this could have been remote rural Ireland rather than picture-postcard Fingal.

Today, the ruins at Baldongan are all that remain of the church of a monastic settlement and once-imposing castle and church. The ruins of the castle and the church may have been used to build the enclosing wall around the graveyard. The most striking feature is the great tower of the church or abbey, 70 feet high and 22 feet square, entered by an arched doorway, leading to a flight of 53 steps to the battlements, on the eastern side of which is a two-arched bell-turret. The buildings – originally forming a spacious quadrangular court, flanked by four square towers – were erected on the site of an ancient dun or moat.

The church in Baldongan, along with the church at Balrothery, was granted to the Priory of Saint Mary at Kilbixy in Co Meath 1190, and the Knights Templar built this ecclesiastical fortress in the following century on the site of an ancient dún (fort). The Knights Templar were a semi-military religious order, founded in 1119, who took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and who were devoted to recovering Palestine from the Saracens. They played an important part in the Crusades, but as they accumulated enormous wealth they aroused the jealousy of King Philip IV of France. He trumped up charges of heresy against the order, and secured the Papal suppression of the order in 1307.

At the beginning of the 16th century, the castle was in the hands of the de Birmingham family, but it eventually passed by marriage to the St Laurence family, who were Lords of Howth. Later, the castle, along with the Manor of Balrothery, came into the hands of the Barnwells, an old Norman family that has been associated with Fingal for many centuries. In the early 16th century, the castle belonged to the de Bermingham family.

Finally, in 1642, Baldongan Castle was held by the Confederate forces of the Pale who were supporting the Confederation of Kilkenny against the parliamentary forces of Cromwell.

In June 1642 Colonel Trafford and his Parliamentary forces besieged the castle. A contemporary tract, New Intelligence from Ireland, dated 17 June 1642, says Trafford besieged the site with cannon and put the garrison, about 200 in number, to the sword. Two priests who were among the defenders were questioned, tortured on the rack, and then deported to France.

Close to the ruins at Baldongan, in a field known as the “Nuns’ Stood,” it is said nuns from Baldongan stood and looked back on the destruction of the castle. The shelling supposedly came from troops stationed at Cromwell’s Bush, a thorn tree in a hedge in Balcunnin.

Another story says Cromwell slept under the bush on his way to Drogheda. Other stories claim that Cromwell bombarded Baldongan from the sea, two miles away, and that he fired shots at the Round Tower in Lusk, blowing the top off. However, Baldongan had been destroyed in a siege seven years before Cromwell’s arrival, there is no record that Cromwell was ever here, nor is there any record that the nuns were ever at Baldongan.

Although there had been no functioning church in Baldongan before the 18th century, the Rectors of Baldongan continued to be instituted until 1838, when the Revd William Carroll Magrath became the last rector.

The Hamilton monument in Holmpatrick Church, recalling a remarkable man and a remarkable family story (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

In 1845, an order was made, telling the parishioners of Baldongan to attend Holmpatrick on Sundays because there was no church in Baldongan. Magrath was the last rector of the parish, but by then he was actually living in Huddersfield in the Diocese of Ripon, where he had been Vicar of Paddock since 1843, and in 1868 Baldongan was officially united with Holmpatrick.

The May edition of Skerries News reports how Maighread Ní Mhuchadha, speaking at a meeting of Skerries Historical Society last month, challenged many of the myths surrounding Crowmell and the siege of Baldongan Castle.

But legends aside, since then time and weather have combined to hasten its destruction.

From Baldongan, I made my way back down past Skerries Golf Club and Holmpatrick Parish Church to Strand Street in Skerries for a double espresso in The Olive, before taking a stroll on the beach, up around Red Island, and back down around the harbour. The old hut beside the slipway has been repainted, refurbished and given a new-spick-and-span look. I read in Skerries News that Tina and Colm McCormack are planning to open this hut soon, selling teas, coffee and ice-cream.

The sun sparkling on the water in Skerries this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The waters were sparkling in the late afternoon sun as I walked back along the harbour and the South Beach before picking up the papers in Gerry’s.

Blue skies and blue waters at Skerries Harbour this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

And then I decided to return to Rush. On the south side of Skerries, on the west side of the road into Rush, Saint Damnan’s Church stands in ruins, almost opposite Kenure Parish Church. It is now thickly covered in ivy, and this may have been the original church in Rush in the Celtic period.

I also wanted to see Saint Maur’s Church – old and new – and the interesting sculpture in the grounds of the Millbank Theatre.

The ruins of the original Saint Maur’s Church lie in Whitestown cemetery, about a mile west of the centre of Rush. These date back to Anglo-Norman times and are named after Saint Maurus, a follower of Saint Benedict. A legend associated with these ruins says that some French navigators – perhaps crusaders – were caught in a storm, and pledged to Saint Maur that if they survived they would build a chapel in his honour on the first point of land they reached. When they landed safely at Rogerstown, they built a chapel in his honour, and this became known as Knightstown and later as Whitestown.

In 1776, the old church was replaced by a building closer to the centre of Rush. This too was also dedicated to Saint Maur and was one of the earliest examples of a Roman Catholic church from penal times in the Fingal area.

The church was rebuilt in 1835, and when a new modern church was built closeby in 1989 the old Victorian, Gothic-style church eventually became Rush Library.

A modern stained-glass window in Saint Maur’s Church, Rush (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

A statue of Saint Maur stands in the grounds of the new church, and the beautiful, modern stained glass windows inside includes one telling the story of of Christ with the Disciples calming the waters of the lake, but perhaps evoking the hapless sailors who later expressed their gratitude to Saint Maur at Whitestown.

One of the two faces of Saint Maur? ... a fascinating sculpture outside the Millbank Theatre in Rush(Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

There is also a fascinating, two-faced sculpture nearby, outside the Millbank Theatre. Is this too supposed to be Saint Maur?

I must find out.

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

Two Irish chaplains ministering in Cambridge college chapels

The Revd Christopher Woods has been chaplain of Christ’s College, Cambridge, since 2007 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I have just booked myself back into a summer school in Cambridge, and look forward to yet another week in Sidney Sussex College and the opportunity to stay for few days before Christ’s College, Cambridge. Over the past few years, I have stayed in both colleges and regularly enjoyed the hospitality of these college communities and their chapel life.

The Revd Dr Peter Waddell has been chaplain of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, since 2005 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Both colleges have Irish-born Anglican priests as their chaplains: the Revd Christopher Woods graduated from the Church of Ireland Theological College in 2004, and was a curate in Saint Mark’s, Dundela, before moving to Christ’s College in 2007; the Revd Dr Peter Waddell, who is from Newcastle, Co Down, completed his PhD while he was an ordinand at Westcott House, Cambridge, and has been the chaplain of Sidney Sussex College since 2005.

Last year was a busy one for Christopher Woods as the University of Cambridge celebrated its 800th anniversary and Christ’s College marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of one of its best-known alumni, Charles Darwin. This year is turning out to be busy too as the Chapel in Christ’s College celebrates the 500th anniversary of its consecration in June 1510.

The Chapel of Christ’s College, Cambridge … in June the college celebrates the 500th anniversary of the consecration of the chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Christ’s College received its first charter in 1505, but its story goes back to 1437, when a smaller college, God’s House, was built on the site of the Chapel of King’s College. God’s House moved to the present site on Saint Andrew’s Street in 1448, and was renamed in 1505 when it received a new charter and was generously endowed by Henry VII’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort.

Christ’s College was founded by Henry VII’s saintly mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

As a place of education, religion, learning and research, Christ’s College needed a chapel. As the first buildings went up in what is now First Court, a new chapel was built there too in a secluded corner, beside the Master’s Lodge. This new chapel was consecrated by Bishop James Stanley of Ely, Lady Margaret Beaufort’s stepson, 500 years ago in June 1510.

By then, Lady Margaret was dead for almost a year – she died on 19 June 1509. However, even before the chapel was formally consecrated, it is said, she prayed in the chapel before her death. High on the south wall of the chapel nave, the open casement window of her oratory recalls this noblewoman who sat here 500 years ago, prayerfully watching the liturgy below.

In the intervening 500 years, the chapel survived the Reformation and the Cromwellian era and has seen great change and development, yet the original chapel building is almost entirely in tact. Today, this beautiful and ancient chapel continues as a spiritual presence at the heart of Christ’s College.

Anniversary celebrations

As this milestone in the history of the college chapel is marked this year, the chapel remains the spiritual, musical and theological heartbeat of Christ’s College. On 2 February, the Quincentenary Candlemas Compline in the chapel included a torchlight procession. The anniversary was marked too by the launch of a new CD by the choir: Requiem: A Thanksgiving for Life. Choral Works by Sir Philip Ledger. The composer was in Christ’s College Chapel on Ash Wednesday to direct the choir.

The chapel of Christ’s College is in a secluded corner beside the Master’s Lodge in First Court (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

On Sunday 6 June next – the Sunday nearest the 500th anniversary of the consecration – the Bishop of Clogher, Dr Michael Jackson, will preside and preach at a Solemn Evensong of Thanksgiving and re-dedication in the chapel.Other anniversary events later this year include a Celebrity Poetry Reading in the chapel with Ruth Padel, the poet-in-residence at Christ’s College. She was elected Professor of Poetry in Oxford last year, but resigned after nine days following a controversial newspaper campaign against her. She is a direct descendant of the naturalist Charles Darwin, who was an undergraduate in Christ’s College. Her latest book, Darwin – A Life in Poems, celebrates his life in verse, covering his science, travels and family life.

An anniversary Choral Evensong and reunion dinner in November also mark the launch of the Christ’s College Choir Association. Later that month, a Festal Evensong for Christ the King will include the world premiere of the quincentenary commission.

Sacred space set aside

The chapel offers members of the Christ’s College community a space set aside for quiet reflection, prayer, meditation and worship. The liturgy is usually relaxed, yet formal, with opportunities to explore through worship how God relates to both the needs and the contexts of those present. The welcome is reflected in the refreshments served after the principle chapel services, and can include coffee and croissants, port, sherry, fruit juice, hot chocolate or – when I was preaching there last year – prosecco.

As well as thoughtful reflections and sermons, the quality of music allows the heart and mind to be open to the promise of the presence of God. Apart from the usual services and the regular rhythm of worship, there are social activities and faith discussion groups. The Sunday collections each term are donated to local, national and international charities.

Christ’s College has one of the finest mixed-voice choirs in Cambridge, with three choral services a week and many occasional services. The choir’s repertoire spans many centuries and it often performs liturgical works not previously heard in Britain. The chapel also serves as the focus for many college activities, including music and the arts, and is a venue for many recitals and concerts.

Christopher Woods says the chapel is an open and inclusive place and a place of inquiry. “In fact, many people come to chapel on their own to take time out,” he says, “to gather strength, to find space, to pray and worship or simply to ‘get away from it all’.”

He says Christ’s College can feel like a kind of secular monastic community, with its own rhythm of life. He told the Church Times last year: “I say to first-year students, ‘Nowhere else in the world are you going to get such beauty at your fingertips, that you can own, that you can be a part of.’ Every time I walk in, I think how beautiful it is, and how privileged I am to be here.”

Chaplain in Cromwell’s college

Cloister Court in Sidney Sussex College recalls that this was the site of an earlier Franciscan house (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Once again, the summer school I am attending this year gives me an opportunity to spend a week in Sidney Sussex College, which is a short, five-minute walk from Christ’s College and which was founded in 1594.

The chaplain, the Revd Dr Peter Waddell, points out that the chapel is at the heart of life in Sidney Sussex College, serving as the centre of worship, prayer and inquiry for the whole Sidney family. The chapel is open all day for private prayer, meditation and quiet reflection.

The Lady Chapel, with the Reserved Sacrament, is especially conducive to private prayer, and Lectio Divina is an integral part of chapel life every Tuesday night.

The chapel of Sidney Sussex College is at the heart of Chapel Court (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The chapel choir in Sidney Sussex, which is among the finest in Cambridge, sings at Choral Evensong on Fridays and Sundays, regularly tours at home and abroad, and has produced award-winning recordings.

The choir of Sidney Sussex College Chapel is among the finest in Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

All evening collections during this term are going to the Cambridge Central Aid Society, which provides emergency grants to needy people, with a special focus on people trying to reintegrate into society from institutional care. It provides small but vital sums of money to assist them in securing the essentials of life. Christian Aid Week is also providing an opportunity to support the eradication of poverty and disease throughout the world.

Samuel Cooper’s portrait of Oliver Cromwell in the hall at Sidney Sussex shows him “warts and all” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

One Irish school-friend who lives only a few miles from Cambridge, came to hear me preach in Christ’s College Chapel last year, but he refuses to visit me at Sidney Sussex … because Oliver Cromwell’s head is buried in the chapel and a portrait of Cromwell by Samuel Cooper hangs in the hall.

But a stairway in Sidney also proudly displays a portrait of John Garnett, a former fellow who became Bishop of Ferns and Leighlin (1752-1758) and Bishop of Clogher (1758-1782). Many Cambridge colleges have strong Irish connections – the Minister for Finance, Mr Brian Lenihan, was a student at Sidney Sussex, Bishop Michael Jackson of Clogher studied at Saint John’s College, and Archbishop John Neill of Dublin was a student at Jesus College and Ridley Hall.

Spirituality in the city

The Chapel of King’s College stands on the site of God’s House, the foundation that eventually became Christ’s College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Most Cambridge colleges reflect their ecclesiastical roots in their buildings, especially in the chapels. The majority of the 31 colleges began as religious foundations, with statutes requiring them to have a chapel. With the exception of Saint Edmund’s Hall, which is Roman Catholic, and Robinson, Fitzwilliam and Churchill, where the chapels are interdenominational, the other Cambridge college chapels are part of the life and tradition of the Church of England.

Emmanuel College, where the buildings can reflect the atmosphere of monastic cloisters (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The statutes of Christ’s College insist that every fellow undertakes to uphold it as a place of education, religion, learning, and research. Trinity College, which is within view of Sidney Sussex, has a community of 1,600 students and staff, with a Dean of Chapel, two chaplains, and one fellow in holy orders.

Bishop William Bedell of Kilmore (right) with Archbishop William Sancroft of Canterbury (left) in a window in the chapel of Emmanuel College (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Emmanuel College is next to Christ’s College, on Saint Andrew’s Street. The chapel is well-known for its altarpiece, Jacopo Amigoni’s The Return of the Prodigal, and for a window and plaque recalling John Harvard, who gave his name to the first American university. But there is also a window commemorating William Bedell (1571-1642), who was an undergraduate and then a fellow at Emmanuel before becoming Provost of Trinity College Dublin and later Bishop of Kilmore of Ardagh. The legacy of this saintly bishop includes his translation of the Old Testament into Irish.

But what part is played by college chapels and chaplains in the life of the university and in the life of the city?

A wedding at Sidney Sussex … chapels are miniatures of the Church of England and its parishes, with constant requests for baptisms, weddings, and funerals (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Cambridge college chapels wrestle with issues of secularisation, atheism, and modernity. Yet college chaplains find the diversity in chapel worship can be a great strength, and Peter Waddell says chaplains have wonderful opportunities for ministry. He says that in many ways the chapels are miniatures of the Church of England and its parishes, with constant requests for baptisms, weddings, and funerals, so that the college chapels are part of the complete cycle of life.

“The notion of a chaplain being in this kind of environment is very, very unusual, but absolutely essential,” says Christopher Woods. “The opportunities for ministry here are unheard-of. It’s work I love, work you can get your teeth into.”

Punting on the backs … Cambridge college chapels and chaplains play a full part in the life of the university and of the city (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

A recent survey shows that over 1,000 students take part in worship in college chapels each week, and 3,000 people attend a weekly act of worship. There are about 90 weddings each year in the college chapels, and the Advent carol services attract about 6,500 people.

These numbers alone show clearly how the mission of these chapels reaches out into a world beyond the life of the colleges and of the university

Bicycles are a way of life in Cambridge, where college chapels are part of the full cycle of life (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay was first published in the May editions of the Church Review (Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Diocese of Cashel and Ossoty)