Friday, 29 April 2011

Kite-surfing, swans and a late lunch at the beach

Kite-surfing on the Burrow Beach in Sutton this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

I was back in Phibsboro this morning for the funeral mass of my friend’s mother, and we then went to Saint Fintan’s Cemetery in Sutton for the burial, before going back to the Marine Hotel at Sutton Cross to meet the family.

Dating back to 1897, the Marine Hotel has a lawn rolling down to the shore of Dublin Bay.

As we were leaving, I noticed in one of the bars, people were sitting quietly, almost in a trance, in one of the bars with nothing to say for themselves as they watched the television coverage of the royal wedding.

But I was more captivated by a set of four prints of the Conyngham Cup at Punchestown in 1872 by the artist John Sturgess and engraved by Edward Gilbert Hester. Sturgess flourished between 1864 and 1903 and was a sporting painter, illustrator and lithographer who was the principal hunting and racing artist for the Illustrated London News for 10 years from 1875. He was also a lithographer after his own work and one of his most famous paintings was his portrait of Blair Athol, the winner of the Derby in 1864.

The four prints hanging in the bar in the Marine Hotel in Sutton illustrate: “The Start,” “The Double,” “The Stone Wall,” and “The Finish.” Below each print, the riders and horses are named with a Victorian politeness, and each print is “Dedicated to The Most Noble the Marquis of Drogheda.” The series was published two years after the race on 1 June 1874 in Dublin by Thomas Cranfield of Grafton Street and in London by Arthur Ackermann of Regent Street, and printed by T. Brooker.

‘The Stone Wall’ ... the third in a series of four prints by John Sturgess and EG Hester, shows “Mr Comerford” in third place but falling from his horse Chisel as they attempt one of the stone walls in race for the Conyngham Cup at Punchestown in 1872

My curiosity was raised less by the subject or the topic – I have never been to the races, at Punchestown or anywhere else – than by the fate of one of the riders. “Mr Comerford” is present at “The Start” on his horse Chisel and is still in the race at “The Double,” even though he is seventh out of ten riders. The third print, “The Stone Wall,” shows the field attempting one of the famous stone walls at Punchestown. At this stage in the race, the eventual winner, Captain Arthur Smith, lies in second place on his horse Heraut d’Armes, while, behind him, Mr Comerford experiences an embarrassing fall from Chisel. Interestingly, spectators are seen standing freely next to the jump: while stands had been built at Punchestown by this 1872, there was still a tradition of leaving the course open to the public.

In the final print, “The Finish,” we see Captain Smith riding Heraut d’Armes to a famous triumph. “Mr Comerford” is not to be seen – he must never have managed to remount at the Stone Wall. I imagine he was John Comerford, one of the founding members of the Kildare Hunt, which acquired Punchestown as a permanent location of its annual meeting. The first regular steeplechase meeting over a defined circuit was held there in 1854, permanent stands and enclosures were built in 1861, and the Conyngham Cup was established in 1862.

But I wondered: Who was John Comerford? And where does he fit into the family story?

Rather than taking advantage of the shoreline location of the Marine Hotel, two of us headed to Howth, just minutes away, with its attractive harbour and it charming old fishing village. Howth has many inviting restaurants and bars, numerous coastal walks and the added historic attraction of Howth Castle and its demesne.

However, this is the beginning of another bank holiday was weekend, Howth was crowded, and there seemed to be little opportunity for a quiet shoreline walk, and so we went back on our tracks and returned to Sutton for a quiet walk on the Burrow Beach.

Sutton is a tombolo or narrow isthmus connecting the mainland and Howth Head. The original village was located on the south-west side of Howth Head, but Sutton is now focussed on Sutton Cross, with the Marine Hotel, Superquinn and local shops.

In the past, Sutton was divided into two townlands, the Burrow and the Quarry, and there are two neighbouring beaches known as the Burrow Beach and the Claremont Beach, running to a total length of 1.2 km. The Burrow Beach, east of Sutton Golf Club and behind the Dart line and a row of elegant suburban houses, faces north towards Ireland’s Eye and Lambay Island. Because of the islands’ location and their strategic importance, the beach at Sutton suffered many attacks over the centuries, and the Vikings plundered Ireland’s Eye in 960.

There were no signs of Viking sails or marauding raiders as we walked the beach in the warm sunshine this afternoon. Instead, half a dozen people were taking advantage of the low tide and the light breeze to enjoy an afternoon of kite-surfing and kite-boarding.

A swan in the estuary beneath the M50 bridge at Lissenhall this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

From Sutton, we drove north along the coast road through Baldoyle, Portmarnock and Malahide. All along the way, despite the bright sunshine and the light breeze, the water was full of white horses or small waves, coming in one after the other. From Malahide, we then drove west out on the Estuary Road, under the M50, crossed the Ward River estuary at Lissenhall, and turned back east along the north side of the estuary, passing under the M50 once again to a point at Hutchinson’s Strand – which takes its name from the Hely-Hutchinson family who once lived at Lissen Hall.

We were greeted by a colony of mute swans, visibly so used to visitors that they block the roadway in large numbers, refusing to budge even in the face of oncoming cars.

Further east, we came to Prospect Point, the location of the former stables of Lissen Hall House, with a viewing point looking across the Estuary towards Seatown House and Malahide. The estuary widens appreciably at this point, and Malahide is clearly visible across the sea.

The narrow coastal lane from Prospect Point to Newport House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

From Prospect Point, a narrow road leads north to Newport House, now the home of the actor Stephen Rea, and the Donabate/Portrane Peninsula.

The maps warn that this narrow laneway is covered by water at high tide, but we drove on, and then returned to old Dublin-Belfast Road, and headed north towards Balbriggan. At Balrothery, a sign pointed west towards Balscadden and Gormanston. I hoped to find the ruins of ancient Balscadden Church, but instead we ended back on the main Naul-Balbriggan road.

The beach at Bettystown this afternoon, beneath the Relish café and restaurant (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

We drove back into Balbriggan and went further north through Gormanston and Julianstown to Laytown and Bettystown, where we eventually stopped for a very late lunch in Relish. This is one of my favourite restaurants and – in the middle of Bayview, a terrace of houses perched on top of a sandbank – it has spectacular and breath-taking views of Co Meath’s “gold coast” and out to the Irish Sea.

A roasted Mediterranean vegetable basket on a bed of Moroccan couscous with melted goat’s cheese, sweet chili and pesto dressing, a crab and prawn tart, side servings of garlic bread and potatoes, a bowl of olives, a glass of white wine, a double espresso and a mocha came to about €35.

We still had time to step down onto the beach, where the tide was still out but once more the water was displaying ripple after ripple of white horses. On the beach, a few people were land-kiting and kite-surfing. There is a still a promise of summer in the air, and by the time I got back to south Dublin the setting sun was forming a beautiful round, red balloon above the edge of the horizon.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

From Saint Andrew to Saint Peter, from baroque to gothic

Old and new reflected in glass ... in the afternoon sunshine in Trinity College Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

I was one of the speakers today at the annual commemoration of International Workers’ Memorial Day, organised by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions This year, the commemoration took place in the Irish Labour History Museum in Beggar’s Bush, Dublin. Workers Memorial Day is part of the May Day Festival in Dublin that runs until 7 May.

The Irish Labour History Museum is housed in the former Beggar’s Bush Barracks on Haddington Road, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The other speakers today included Bishop Emanon Walsh, the President of Congress President, Jack O’Connor, Martin O’Halloran of the Health and Safety Authority, Noleen Blackwell of FLAC, Brian Whiteside representing humanists, Caroline Fahy of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, and John Redmond of the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors.

Later, in the warm bright sunshine of the afternoon, I strolled back into the city centre, to photograph Saint Andrew’s Church in Westland Row, where my grandfather, his brothers and his sister were baptised in the 1850s and 1860s, and later two of his children.

The interior of Saint Andrew’s Church, Westland Row, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Saint Andrew’s was designed by the architect James Bolger and built between 1832 and 1837 in the classical style that was still fashionable prior to the Gothic Revival in the mid-19th century, echoing the great baroque churches of Rome. Daniel O’Connell was involved in raising much of the funds for building the church, and donated the baptismal font at which my grandfather was baptised.

From there, it was on through Trinity College and up through Dawson Street and Saint Stephen’s Green to Redmond’s Hill, to photograph the site of the now-demolished house where my grandfather was born in 1867.

Old and new reflected in glass ... in the afternoon sunshine at the junction of Aungier Street and South Great George’s Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Then I strolled back down Augier Street, where my grandfather’s first cousin, Anne Comerford lived at No 10 when she married James Reilly in 1859. These were the streets that inspired the local rector’s daughter, hymn-writer Catherine Mary MacSorley, when she wrote the hymn, We thank thee, O our Father, in 1890 for the children of Saint Peter’s School in nearby Camden Row.

By then, Stephen’s father, James Comerford, and his family had moved to the more leafy suburbs of Ranelagh. But the hymn describes the conditions in this part of Dublin just over two decades after Stephen Comerford was born there:

And in the dusty city,
where busy crowds pass by,
and where the tall dark houses
stand up and hide the sky;
and where through lanes and alleys
no pleasant breezes blow,
e’en there, O God, our Father,
thou mak’st the flowers grow.


The tower and spire of Saint Peter’s Church, Phibsboro ... the work of Ashlin and Coleman (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Later in the afternoon I was in Saint Peter’s Church in Phibsboro for the funeral of a friend’s mother. Saint Peter’s Church, on the junction of Cabra Road and North Circular Road, was built in the 1860s in the Decorated Gothic style on the scale of a small cathedral.

The sanctuary, chancel, transepts, sacristy, cloisters, side chapels and a central tower were designed by Hadfield and Goldie. But the central tower was later taken down and the nave, aisles and porch were completely rebuilt in 1902-1907 to designs by Ashlin and Coleman, heirs to the Pugin school of architecture in Ireland. They also designed the spectacular spire, which is 200 ft high and the highest in the city.

The Sacred Heart window in Saint Peter’s ... one of Harry Clarke’s early masterpieces (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The Sacred Heart window, originally designed for the mortuary chapel, is considered to be one of Harry Clarke’s early masterpieces. The Adoration of the Sacred Heart (1919) is a three-light window depicting the Sacred Heart, Saint Margaret Mary and Saint John the Evangelist. This window was incorporated into the design of a new Chapel of Adoration which opened two years ago.

Saint Andrew and Saint Peter – the first-called of the apostles and his brother – both in one day. And two contrasting essays in church architecture!

Finding hope after the death of work colleagues

The photograph from Thessaloniki in 1936 that moved Yiannis Ritsos to write his ‘Epitaphios’

Patrick Comerford

Easter – the most important time in the Church Calendar – brings the promise of new life. But for those who mourn and who miss loved ones, this time of the year, Easter, can remain a deeply challenging time. For those who mourn and grieve, where is the promise? Where is their peace? Where can they find hope?

Yet, I am reminded of the relevance the Easter hope holds for us all when I listen to one of my favourite pieces of music and poetry, Epitaphios – written by the radical Greek poet Yiannis Ritsos and set to music by the composer Mikis Theodorakis.

The poem was written 75 years ago in May 1936. That month, the northern Greek port of Thessaloniki was paralysed by a widespread strike against wage controls. When the workers took to the streets, the police opened fire on unarmed strikers. Within minutes, 30 people were dead and 300 were wounded.

The next day, a newspaper published a front-page photograph of a mother dressed in black, weeping as she knelt over the body of her slain son in the streets. Moved by this Pieta-like image, Yiannis Ritsos locked himself away in his room and set to work. Over two days and two nights of intense creativity, he produced his greatest poem, Epitaphios.

The poem was deeply influenced by the Good Friday liturgy, and by the funeral speeches of Thucydides and Lysias. This poem moves at the end from Crucifixion to Resurrection, and ends in the abiding hope that grave injustices can be conquered.

At first, the bereft mother, like Mary with her crucified Son, grieves inconsolably. She extols her son’s virtues and recalls his gifts. She cannot understand why he died; nor can she understand his political convictions. But she gradually changes and begins to see in his local struggle the universal struggle for social justice.

Her grief is sustained as she recalls how her son pointed to the beauties of nature and of creation. She challenges the values of a society that claims to be Christian while killing those who struggle for justice.

But her darkness turns to light as she realises that her son lives on in the lives of his comrades as they continue to struggle. At the end, her vision is of a future in which all are united in love. And in a stirring finale, she vows to take up her son’s struggle and to join his comrades.

A street name in Crete honouring the memory of Gregóris Lambrákis …Epitaphios became the anthem of resistance when he was murdered (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

When this poem was set to music by the exiled composer Mikis Theodorakis, it acquired new life, becoming the anthem of Greek unions and of the struggle against dictators and juntas. It was sung by hundreds of people in the streets – once again in May and once again in Thessaloniki – when a young politician, Gregóris Lambrákis, was murderously assaulted and lay dying and they vowed to ensure his struggle would live on.

In the 1960s and the early 1970s, this poem and song was presented at readings and concerts throughout Europe as a rallying anthem of resistance to the colonels.

It is a reminder that death does not conquer all, that those who struggle against injustices and those who become the victims of violence and oppression do not necessarily die in vain, that death does not have the last word. The story of the murdered young striker in Thessaloniki, and the stories of the struggles his death inspired are reminders that demands for justice do not die when the advocates are beaten, silenced, murdered or die.

And in this Easter season, I find in it a reminder too of the challenge to bring Easter hope to those who struggle and to those who mourn.

In next Sunday’s Gospel reading (John 20: 19-31), the Risen Christ repeats three times: “Peace be with you” (verses 19, 21, 26). It is a promise more than a command, it is addressed to many and not to individuals, and it is addressed to those who fear persecution and death.

But the themes of death and resurrection, hope and promise, overcoming oppression, fear and death, have meaning far beyond the boundaries of the church and of faith communities. Yes, we can hope in new life, we can share the hope that the struggles of those we love are not in vain, that their spirit lives on in those who continue to struggle for justice and against oppression, to make our lives and the lives of others worth living.

And in that we should find peace and hope. “Peace be with you.”

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This reflection was a contribution to the commemoration of International Workers’ Memorial Day, organised by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions in the Irish Labour History Museum, Beggar’s Bush, Dublin, on Thursday 28 April 2011.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

A fresh taste for the coming summer

Silver sunshine on the waters of Skerries Harbour this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

I have missed my regular beach walks over the past week. But I managed to get to Portrane and Skerries this afternoon.

After visiting Portrane, two of us drove further north to Skerries and parked at the Sailing Club on Harbour Road.

Although the warm sunshine of the past week has faded a little, the sun was still casting a silvery shine on the harbour waters, as we walked along Harbour Pier and then out on the pier.

At the lifeboat station, which dates back to 1854, a notice extends the sympathies of the RNLI Volunteer Lifeboat Crew at Skerries to the families of Ronan Browne and David Gilsenan, who drowned tragically a few weeks ago.

The small sandy spot below the lifeboat station had a golden hue in this evening’s sunlight. A few children played in and out of the rocks, while two others wrote their names on the sand.

The bars and restaurants of Harbour Road reflected in the waters of Skerries Harbour this afternoon Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

In this peaceful tranquillity it was difficult to think back to the tragedy that had hit everyone in this community only a few weeks ago. But I also recalled the story of young Thomas Butler (1596-1619), Viscount Thurles, who was accidentally drowned off the Skerries on 19 December 1619. Although some historians identify these Skerries as a cluster of rocks off the Isle of Anglesey in north Wales, others say they were the rocks off Skerries on the north Dublin coast.

Thomas Butler was a first cousin of Grany Kavanagh who married John Comerford of Ballybur, Co Kilkenny. At a very young age – and against the wishes of his father, Walter Butler (1569-1633), the 11th Earl of Ormond – Thomas had married Elizabeth Poyntz, the daughter of Sir John Poyntz of Gloucestershire. In 1619, as his father was serving a long, eight-year stretch of imprisonment in the notorious Fleet Prison in London, Thomas Butler was summoned to England to answer charges of treason. However, his ship was wrecked off the coast of The Skerries, and Thomas was drowned on 19 December 1619.

With the drowning of Thomas Butler, and Walter Butler still in jail, nine-year-old James Butler became the heir to his drowned father drowned and his captive grandfather. But the Ormond estates and privileges had been forfeited in favour of the crown, and James was made a royal ward and was brought up an Anglican in the courts of James I and Charles I.

But six years after Thomas Butler was drowned off The Skerries, his father, known as Walter “of the Beads,” was freed from the Fleet in 1625 and returned home in triumph to Kilkenny to reclaim his estates and titles. When he died in Carrick-on-Suir in 1633, Walter was buried in Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny. His grandson, James Butler, son of Thomas Butler who was drowned off The Skerries, inherited all the Ormond titles, estates and power, and later became James Butler (1610-1688), 1st Duke of Ormond.

The Lordship of Rush in north Co Dublin had been granted to his ancestor, Sir Theobald Fitzwalter Le Butler, in the 13th century, and the Butlers had continued to increase their land holdings over the centuries that followed. As a reward for his prominent role in leading Irish royalists against the Cromwellians in the turbulence of the 1640s and 1650s, Ormond was made a duke and was granted extensive new estates, including the manor of Kenure in Rush in 1666 and Lusk in 1667. The first pier in Rush was built by the Duke of Ormond in the reign of James II.

To the north of Rush, the manor and lands of Holmpatrick in Skerries has been granted in 1605 to Donogh O’Brien, the 4th Earl of Thomond, but the harbour was described as being in a ruined state. The harbour remained the property of the Earls of Thomond until 1721. Perhaps, had they taken more care of the harbour and pier at Skerries, Thomas Butler would have had a safe passage out of Skerries in 1619 – if this, indeed, is where he met his fatal end.

We can be very thankful for the volunteers at Skerries Lifeboats who look after the lives and safety of all who enjoy the waters of Skerries today.

‘Storm in a Teacup’ ... an indulgent taste of the promise of summer (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Before leaving the harbour we stopped into ‘Storm in a Teacup’ for ice creams drenched in espresso and smothered with cinnamon and chocolate flake. It has given us a fresh and indulgent taste for the coming summer.

A cathedral with an unusual mixture of Gothic styles

Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh ... a mixture of English Perpendicular Gothic by Thomas Duff and French Decorated Gothic by JJ McCarthy (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

I have been to Armagh many times, and to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, the Church of Ireland cathedral in the city, on many occasions.

However, last week while I was in Armagh, I realised I had never been in the other Saint Patrick’s, and decided to visit the Roman Catholic cathedral, which is an important architectural essay in Gothic Revival, and a spectacular mixing of styles by two clashing architects, with ‘fourteenth-century’ works standing on top of ‘sixteenth-century’ works.

The cathedral is fascinating – for while it was being built the architects changed, and the change of architects resulted in a decision to change the architectural style, just as the walls were half-way up.

The bottom half of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral was designed in 1838, in the English Perpendicular Gothic style by Thomas Duff of Newry, who also designed Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dundalk, and Saint Colman’s Cathedral, Newry.

Archbishop William Crolly (1835-1839) acquired the site from Richard Dawson (1817-1897), 1st Earl of Dartrey, a Liberal Unionist whose family had extensive land-holdings in Armagh and Monaghan, and who gave their name to Dawson Street in Dublin.

In Dundalk, Duff had modelled his cathedral on the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge. In Armagh, he drew on York Minster for his plans for Saint Patrick’s, which he wanted to build in the Perpendicular Gothic style.

The foundation stone was laid and blessed on Saint Patrick’s Day, 17 March 1840, and in Duff’s lifetime, “34 feet of the walls were built for £26,000, Dr Crolly himself personally supervising the work with the assistance of several foremen.”

But by the time work had begun on Duff’s cathedral, an architectural renaissance had taken place under the influence of AWN Pugin. By then, there was a growing tendency towards purer styles, and the Perpendicular Gothic was seen as a decadent modification, and in 1847 the Dublin architect JJ McCarthy had strongly criticised Duff’s work in the Irish Catholic Magazine. By then, however, the Famine had brought building work to a virtual halt, and cathedral funds were being diverted to the needs of the hungry.

Meanwhile, Duff’s life was overshadowed by personal sorrow, and he died in the early hours of 10 May 1848 after a stroke probably brought on by the death of his daughter Ann three days previously – he had already been deeply affected by the death of his only surviving son, Robert, the previous year.

Cholera then claimed the life of Archbishop Crolly, who died in 1849, and at his own request he was buried in the sanctuary of the unfinished cathedral.

Eventually, in 1853 a new building committee settled with Duff’s widow for £100 cash down, and returned all his drawings and papers for the cathedral. McCarthy was then appointed as architect, and he drew up was a continuation design in the 14th century, French Decorated Gothic style.

McCarthy began working in 1854, and Archbishop Joseph Dixon (1852–1866) declared Easter Monday 1854 “Resumption Monday.”

The interior of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Although McCarthy had famously attacked Duff’s work in 1847, he was stuck with the ground-plan, as the walls had reached the tops of the aisle windows, but without tracery. However, the architectural historian Jeanne Sheehy points out, he “completely changed the appearance of Duff’s design by getting rid of the pinnacles on the buttresses, the battlemented parapets on the nave and aisles, and by making the pitch of the roof steeper.”

McCarthy also introduced flowing tracery and numerous carved details. Maurice Craig comments dryly: “Characteristically, he altered the style from Perpendicular to Decorated, so that the spectator must support the absurdity of ‘fourteenth-century’ works standing on top of ‘sixteenth-century’ (except for the tracery which was harmonised).” However, Maurice Craig concludes that “in most ways it is a very successful building.”

Archbishop Dixon organised a great bazaar in 1865 that raised over £7,000 for the building project, and items for sale were donated by Pope Pius IX, the Emperor of Austria and Napoleon III.

The cathedral was completed under Archbishop Daniel McGettigan (1870-1887) and was dedicated on 24 August 1873. The sacristy, synod hall, grand entrance, gates and sacristan’s lodge were built later to designs by William Hague, who was working on designs for a great rood screen when he died in March 1899. The solemn consecration of the cathedral took place in 1904.

Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh ... the interior was originally decorated by Ashlin and Coleman (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

To complicate matters, the interior decoration of the cathedral, which was applied to the conflicting Gothic styles of both Duff and McCarthy, is also the work of different teams. The 1904 designs were the work of Ashlin and Coleman of Dublin, who were the heirs to Pugin’s style of work, but a great deal of this work has been removed in the wake of the liturgical reforms introduced by the Second Vatican Council.

An exquisite example of artistic workmanship – a magnificent, marble Gothic altar with a replica of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper carved by the distinguished Roman sculptor, Cesare Aureli, was moved to Saint Patrick's Church, Stonebridge, where it still stands.

What was a fine late Gothic revival chancel has been replaced in with chunks of granite, brass screens were removed and then welded together to form a screen in front of the reredos of McCarthy’s Lady Chapel, modern tiling was laid on the floor of the entire sanctuary area and a new tabernacle was placed in the Sacred Heart Chapel which had been designed by Ashlin and Coleman.

But, having been back in Saint Mary’s Cathedral in Killarney earlier in Holy Week, I found the damage afflicted on the cathedral in Armagh has not been on the same scale, and Saint Patrick’s retains much of the majesty – and eccentricity – of Duff’s and McCarthy’s designs.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Searching for Pugin, finding Lutyens, and walking by the river

A tranquil moment by the banks of the River Liffey on Easter Monday (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

The afternoon began with a search for yet another Pugin building. Although the chapel AWN Pugin designed for the Loreto Abbey in Rathfarnham is the Pugin work nearest to where I live and work, I had yet to photograph it in my quest to capture and catalogue his major Irish works.

Two of us headed down to Rathfarnham, knowing we would face major problems trying to photograph the chapel. The abbey was closed in 1999, the lands have been sold off for the development of private housing and development, and in recent works the old Palliser house which formed the nucleus of the abbey and Pugin’s chapel have been closed off to the public.

Pugin’s chapel in Rathfarnham ... behind gates that are chained and padlocked (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The place looks as if it is about to fall into ruin. The front lawn is overgrown, and gates are chained and padlocked.

The main building on the site is Rathfarnham House, which was built in 1725 for William Palliser to the design of Edward Lovett Pearce. The house was inherited in 1768 by the Rector of Rathfarnham, the Revd John Pallister, and was bought around 1790-1795 by George Grierson III, the King’s Printer.

In 1821, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Murray, bought Rathfarnham House and 40 acres for £2,400, and Mother Teresa Ball and a small community moved to Rathfarnham a year later, renaming Rathfarnham House Loreto House.

That year, they established Loreto Abbey Boarding School, and Grange Road Primary School was set up in 1823. Between 1838 and 1840, a new chapel was built for the nuns according to designs of by the Dublin architect Patrick Byrne and AWN Pugin.

Pugin’s chapel in Rathfarnham dates from March to June 1839, the same time as his plans for Saint Michael’s Church, Gorey, Co Wexford, and Saint Chad’s Cathedral, Birmingham (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Pugin’s drawings for the church were prepared at the same time as his plans for Saint Michael’s Church, Gorey, Co Wexford, and Saint Chad’s Cathedral, Birmingham. They all date from March to June 1839, and together they mark the end of the first phase of his career.

Although I was allowed through the gates to see the exterior of the chapel, unfortunately I was unable to see the interior, where Pugin’s design resembles the lantern of Ely Cathedral.

The Irish National War Memorial Gardens are characteristic of the simple dignity found of Sir Edwin Lutyens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

In conversation outside afterwards, I realised I had never visited the Irish National War Memorial Gardens in Dublin, which are dedicated to the 49,400 Irish soldiers who were killed in World War I (1914-1918), and also recalls the 300,000 or more Irishmen who fought in that war. The gardens were designed by another great British architect who worked in Ireland, Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens (1869-1944), are characteristic of his style of simple dignity.

From Rathfarnham we drove over to Islandbridge, where the gardens occupy about 8 ha on the south bank of the River Liffey, facing the Magazine Fort in the Phoenix Park.

The site, originally known as Longmeadows, was provided by the Irish Government in 1929, when it was proposed to lay out a public park at Government expense, with a Garden of Remembrance and War Memorial paid for from funds raised by a Memorial Committee. Work on laying out a linear parkway of about 60 ha, stretching from Islandbridge to Chapelizod, began in 1931 and took two years to complete. The Memorial Gardens were then laid out between 1933 and 1939.

These tranquil riverside gardens are characteristic of Lutyens and his style of simple dignity. They include a bridge over the railway, and a Great War stone surrounded by circular fountains. In turn, the fountains are enclosed by pairs of “book rooms” and pergolas, and below each pergola is a tiered sunken garden.

The “book rooms” are small limestone pavilions with sloping stone roofs and blank niches. Originally they held books designed by Harry Clarke – a leading figure in the Irish Arts and Crafts Movement better known for his stained-glass windows – and inscribed with the names of all the Irish war dead. The park rangers now have a facility in one of the pavilions to view and print any page from the 12-book memorial record.

The “Ginchy Cross” – a wooden cross fashioned on the style of a Celtic cross – is kept in the same pavilion. The wooden cross had been designed on a sheet of blotting paper by Major General WB Hickie, the commander of the 16th (Irish) Division, and was made from old oak beams by the divisional pioneer troops. It was originally erected on the Somme in a field between the villages of Guillemont and Ginchy. The two villages had been liberated by the 16th Irish with the loss of 240 officers and 4,090 men killed, wounded or missing.

Granite replicas of the cross were erected in 1926 at Guillemont and at Wytscheate in Belgium, while a third was erected in Thessaloniki in Greece, to commemorate the 10th (Irish) Division who fought in Gallipoli, Macedonia and the Middle East.

The gardens are a lesson by Lutyens in lassical symmetry and formality (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The gardens are a lesson in classical symmetry and formality and Lutyens’s concept for the Islandbridge site is outstanding among his many war memorials. His love of local material and the contrasting moods of the various compartments of the gardens testify to his creative genius.

Lutyens also planned a three-arch bridge over the River Liffey, linking the gardens with the Phoenix Park on the other side of the River. This bridge was planned for the central axis of the main lawn but was never built.

For many years, the memorial was beset by political problems, and the gardens were shamefully neglected for many years before being restored by the Office of Public Works in the 1980s. In 2006, the first fully official “opening and dedication” was attended by President Mary McAleese, the Taoiseach, government officials and representatives of the four main Churches.

Architect and landscape designer

Lutyens was a distinguished British architect and landscape designer, known for imaginatively adapting traditional architectural styles to the requirements of his era designed many English country houses.

He is known best for his instrumental role in designing and building a section of the metropolis of Delhi, which would later on serve as the seat of the Government of India. In collaboration with Herbert Baker, he was also the main architect of several monuments in New Delhi. His many war memorials include the Cenotaph in Whitehall in London.

In Ireland, he had previously worked at Howth Castle for the Gainsford-St Lawrence family, at Heywood in Co Laois for the Hutcheson Poe family, and on Lambay Island, off the coast of Portrane in north Co Dublin, for Cecil Baring, later Lord Revelstoke, who bought Lambay Island in 1904 for £9,000 from Count James Considine, formerly of Portrane House.

Standing in the memorial gardens this evening, I thought of my grandfather, Stephen Edward Comerford, who had fought in Gallipoli and Thessaloniki in World War I and was sent home on sick leave in May 1916, just weeks after the Easter Rising had broken out. He married Bridget Lynders of Portrane in 1904, only a year after Baring bought Lambay Island, and they are buried in Saint Catherine’s old churchyard in Portrane, within view of Lambay Island.

A stroll by the boat clubs

The sun was shining, and rowers were out on the river in eights, in pairs and in single skulls (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

From the memorial gardens, we walked down to the banks of the River Liffey, where the sun was still shining, and rowers were out on the river in eights, in pairs and in single sculls.

Many rowing and boat clubs have their boathouses along this stretch of the Liffey, including the Dublin University, UCD, Neptune, Garda and Commercial clubs.

The Dublin University Boat Club dates back to 1836, and moved to Islandbridge in 1898 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The beginnings of Dublin University Boat Club can be found in the formation of the Pembroke Club at Ringsend in 1836. In 1847, it amalgamated with the fledgling University Rowing Club to become the Dublin University Rowing Club, the first Irish club to field a crew at Henley Royal Regatta. For the next 43 years it was by far the most successful Irish rowing club.

In 1881, a split in the DURC led to the formation of the Dublin University Boat Club. The next 17 years saw both a win at Henley, and the majority of important Irish rowing trophies being shared between these two clubs.

Old differences were put aside in 1898, and the two clubs amalgamated under the name of the Dublin University Boat Club. The familiar black and white hoops of the Trinity zephyr were retained from the boat club and adopted as the colours for the new club, and the club moved to Islandbridge, where it has had its home for over a century. Past members include many famous names, including Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula.

As we walked down the pathway on the southern bank of the river from Islandbridge towards Chapelizod, with willows dipping into the water, herons waiting patiently, and rowers making the best of the Easter Monday sunshine, the only human voices were those of the coaches, cycling up and down the pathways, encouraging and cajoling individuals, pairs and teams.

It was hard to imagine we were only 3 or 4 km the city centre. This could have been a quiet, undisturbed moment on the banks of Cam, a peaceful and tranquil place on the backs in Cambridge, and we could have lingered longer.

An afternoon by a harbour and an evening of poetry and song

Bulloch Castle rising above Bulloch Harbour in Dalkey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

The past eight days – from Palm Sunday to Easter Day – are the busiest eight days in the life of any priests.

Over the past eight days, I have delivered twelve addresses or sermons; travelled through 11 counties (in three provinces); taken part in nine services; visited six churches and three cathedrals; and wrote for one newspaper.

By Sunday afternoon I was tired. After the Choral Festal Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, five of us went to lunch, and then two of us drove along the south Dublin suburban coastline, through Sandymount, Dun Laoghaire, Dalkey and Killiney.

In Dalkey, we stopped for a brief time at Bulloch Harbour, beneath Bulloch Castle on Ulverton Road, which is now part of Our Lady’s Manor Nursing Home. The sunshine we had enjoyed for the previous week was beginning to fade, but the walk around the harbour made up for the beach walks I had missed for the past week.

There were plenty of people playing around in boats in Bulloch Harbour, and a few seals off the harbour wall were the centre of attraction until five divers arrived in wet suits.

Diving off the harbour wall at Bulloch Harbour on Sunday afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Bulloch Harbour is said to take its name either from the Scandinavian for “Blue Haven” or the Gaelic word for a tidal blow hole in the rocks.

The land at Bulloch was owned from early mediaeval times by the Cistercian monks of Saint Mary’s Abbey in Dublin. Bulloch Castle was built in the 12th century to protect their fishing rights, and the castle can be dated to about 1150 with the use of curved pointed arches mixed with the older round arches.

A small town grew up around the castle, and although Bulloch Castle was built for defence, it was also used as an inn for the cross-channel traffic that flowed through Dalkey ten Ireland’s main port.

In 1402, Prince Thomas of Lancaster, the king’s son, landed at Bulloch as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and in 1559 the Earl of Sussex landed there as Lord Deputy. At the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, the Cistercian Abbey of Saint Mary’s was dissolved, and Bulloch Castle passed into private ownership, first to the Fagan family. From the close of the 16th century, Dalkey went into decline as a cross-channel port. On a hill above Bulloch Harbour, Saint Patrick’s, the Church of Ireland parish church in Dalkey, dates from 1843.

From Dalkey, we continued out to Ashford in Co Wicklow, where friends were celebrating their silver wedding anniversary. In the garden nearby, half a dozen guinea fowl were strutting along the wall. But in our friends’ house, it was an evening of music, song poetry and story-telling.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Χριστός ἀνέστη! Ἀληθῶς ἀνέστη!

The Resurrection ... an Easter sermon in glass in the East Window in Saint George’s Church, Balbriggan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!

May your heart be filled with the joy and love of the Risen Christ this Easter.

This morning, on Easter Day [24 April 2011], the Sung Eucharist with sermon will be celebrated in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, at 11 a.m., and the preacher is the Archbishop of Dublin, the Most Revd Dr Michael Jackson.

The setting is the Messe Solennelle by Jean Langlais, and the motet is Patrick Hadley’s “My beloved spake.”

Later in the day, Choral Evensong is sung at 3.30 p.m., with responses by Shephard, canticles from Charles Wood’s Evening Service in F, and the anthem is Gerald Finzi’s Lo, The full Final Sacrifice.

Archbishop Jackson was also the celebrant and preacher at the Easter Vigil last night. The setting was Zoltan Kodaly’s Missa Brevis and the motet was Easter by George Herbert (1593-1633) to the setting by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958):

Rise heart; thy Lord is risen. Sing his praise without delays,
Who takes thee by the hand, that thou likewise with him may’st rise
That, as his death calcined thee to dust,
His life may make thee gold, and much more just.

Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part with all thy art.
The cross taught all wood to resound his name who bore the same.
His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key
Is best to celebrate this most high day.

Consort both heart and lute, and twist a song pleasant and long:
Or since all music is but three parts vied and multiplied;
Oh let thy blessed Spirit bear a part,
And make up our defects with his sweet art.


The empty tomb ... a window in the gallery in Holmpatirck Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Meanwhile, the artist Adam Pomeroy has given three paintings to the cathedral on loan, which are on display in the Chapel of Saint Laud. The paintings depict three moments from the Passion of Christ. The works focus on the personal, human point of view, showing the real people described in the Gospels, rather than archetypes.

The paintings are “Judas,” “Golgotha,” and “The Resurrection.”

Adam Pomeroy is a figurative painter. His works include still-life, landscape and figure painting. He recently took part in group exhibitions in the gallery at Glór and at the Courthouse Gallery. His painting “The Annunciation” is on display in Ennis Cathedral.

Αγαπητοί φίλοι,
Καλή Ανάσταση και Καλό Πάσχα!

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Waiting at the tomb on Holy Saturday (3)

The Taking down from the Cross

Patrick Comerford

Saturday 23 April 2011 (Holy Saturday):

Whitechurch Parish, Rathfarnham Co Dublin.

Reading 3:
John 19: 38-42.

Reflection 3: TS Eliot, Journey of the Magi (1927).

We have just been considering how Candlemas is a link, a bridge between Christmas and Easter, between birth and death.

The same link between birth and death can be found in the Feast of the Epiphany, although it first it may be difficult to contemplate because of the way we have conflated our celebrations of Christmas and Epiphany.

The link, of course, has been popularised in folklore and popular celebrations through our notions of the Twelve Days of Christmas. But the link between Epiphany and Easter has been expressed poetically by TS Eliot in his poem, Journey of the Magi.

The Adoration of the Magi, by Peter Paul Rubens ... the Altarpiece in the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge

Eliot wrote this poem after his conversion to Christianity and his confirmation as an Anglican on 29 June 1927. The poem was published in 1930 in Ariel Poems, along with our earlier poem, A song for Simeon. Later, Eliot became churchwarden at Saint Stephen’s in Gloucester Road, London, and he remained a lifelong Anglo-Catholic.

The Journey of the Magi is a truly Anglican poem, for the first five lines are based on the 1622 Nativity Sermon of Bishop Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626), who oversaw the translation and publication of the Authorised Version of the Bible 400 years ago in 1611, and who is buried by the High Altar in Southwark Cathedral.

It was Lancelot Andrewes who summarised Anglicanism in the dictum “One canon reduced to writing by God himself, two testaments, three creeds, four general councils, five centuries and the series of Fathers in that period … determine the boundary of our faith.”

The Adoration of the Magi ... a window by Meyers of Munich in the south transept of Saint George’s Church, Balbriggan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

In his sermon on the Epiphany at Christmas 1622, “Of the wise men come from the East,” Andrewes opens with the words:

“It was no summer progress. A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey in. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, in solstitio brumali, ‘the very dead of winter’.”

Eliot’s poem recalls the journey of Magi to Bethlehem from the point of view of one of the Wise Men. It picks up his consistent theme of alienation and a feeling of powerlessness in a world that has changed.

But, instead of a being a celebration of the wonders of the journey, the wise man in the poem recalls a journey that was painful and tedious. He remembers how a tempting, distracting voice was constantly whispering in their ears on that journey that “this was all folly.”

At first, it appears, the Wise Man from the East was not impressed by the new-born infant. But he came to realise that the incarnation changes everything, and he asks:

were we led all that way for
Birth or Death?


On the journey, they saw “three trees against a low sky” – a vision of the future Crucifixion. The Incarnation points to Cross. Without Good Friday and Easter Day, Christmas has no significance for us at all. The birth of Christ leads to the death of old superstitions and old orders.

The “running stream” may refer to the Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist in the River Jordan, which is an Epiphany moment.

The “six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver” recall both the betrayal of Christ by Judas for 30 pieces of silver, and the dice thrown for Christ’s garment at the foot of the cross.

The empty wineskins recall the miracle at the Wedding in Cana, which is also recalled at Epiphany time.

The early morning descent into a “temperate valley” evokes three significant Christian events: the nativity and the dawning of a new era; the empty tomb of Easter; and the Second Coming and the return of Christ from the East, dispelling darkness as the Sun of Righteousness.

In his old age, as he recalls these events, has the now-elderly Wise Man little left to do apart from waiting for his own death? A witness of historical change, does he manage to rise above his historical moment? With his material wealth and prestige, has he lost his spiritual bearings? Or has he had spiritual insights before his time?

The Adoration of the Magi ... a stained glass window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Journey of the Magi – T.S. Eliot

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times when we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities dirty and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wineskins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.


King’s College, Cambridge ... John Rutter says the ideals of beauty and calm reverence he associates with King’s Choir “represent inspiration and hope in an often heart-breakingly cruel and disordered world” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Music 3: Pie Jesu, John Rutter, the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, 3’ 32”.

Four our final musical reflection this evening, I invite us to listen to Pie Jesu, from John Rutter’s Requiem, and sung by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, directed by Stephen Cleobury and accompanied by the City of London Sinfonia.

The English composer John Rutter says the ideals of beauty and calm reverence he associates with King’s Choir “represent inspiration and hope in an often heart-breakingly cruel and disordered world.”

He has been director of music at Clare College, Cambridge, and is the founder of the Cambridge Singers. His compositions are chiefly choral, and include Christmas carols, anthems and extended works such as a Gloria, a Magnificat, and a Requiem. He is known in many circles in this country for his arrangement of the Wexford Carol.

Unlike most of Rutter’s work up to this point, his Requiem was not commissioned – a personal bereavement was the immediate reason for writing it.

Rutter’s Requiem was completed in 1985 and lasts about 40 minutes. It is a lyrical choral piece with an orchestral accompaniment, and contains many dissonant chords. Three of the pieces were written specially for King’s, and the full Requiem was first performed in 1985 in Dallas, Texas; movements 1, 2, 4, and 7 had been performed earlier in Sacramento, California. Rutter conducted both performances. The Lord is my Shepherd was first written in 1976 as a separate anthem.

The first movement consists of the Introit from the Requiem Mass (Requiem aeternam) and the Kyrie. The second movement, Out of the Deep, is based on Psalm 130, often used at Anglican funerals.

The third movement is the motet Pie Jesu. It begins with a lyrical soprano soloist singing with a very light accompaniment, with only a slight involvement by the chorus echoing the words: “Dona eis requiem, Dona eis sempiternam requiem.”

Pie Jesu is a motet derived from the final couplet of the Dies Irae and it is often included in musical settings of the Requiem Mass and funerals. Requiems by Cherubini, Fauré, Duruflé, Rutter, Jenkins and others include a Pie Jesu as an independent movement. Of all these, by far the best known is Pie Jesu from Fauré’s Reuiem. Saint-Saens said of it: “Just as Mozart’s is the only Ave verum corpus, this is the only Pie Jesu.”

The original text, derived from the Dies Irae sequence, is:

Pie Jesu Domine,
dona eis requiem,
dona eis requiem.

Pie Jesu Domine,
dona eis requiem sempiternam

Kind Lord Jesus,
grant them rest,
grant them rest.

Kind Lord Jesus,
grant them everlasting rest.


Later, Rutter composed his Mass of the Children after the sudden death of his son, Christopher, while he was a student at Clare College, Cambridge – where Rutter himself had studied.

He describes the Pie Jesu in his Requiem as a personal prayer to Christ. He translates the Latin text as:

Blessed Lord Jesus, grant them rest.
Blessed Lord Jesus, grant them eternal rest.


And so, we listen to our final piece of music this evening knowing that we can take our rest in Christ, who died, was buried, and rose again.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This is the third of three reflections for a service of readings, meditations, art poetry and music at the grave on Holy Saturday, 23 April 2011, in Whitechurch Parish, Rathfarnham, Co Dublin.

Waiting at the tomb on Holy Saturday (2)

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, Andrea Mantegna, 1460, Staatliche Museen, Berlin

Patrick Comerford

Saturday 23 April 2011 (Holy Saturday):

Whitechurch Parish, Rathfarnham Co Dublin.

Reading 2:
Matthew 27: 3-10.

Reflection 2: TS Eliot, A Song for Simeon (1928).

Our second painting this evening is The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, by Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506), a North Italian Renaissance painter, a student of Roman archaeology, and the son-in-law of Jacopo Bellini. The painting, painted by Mantegna in 1460, in tempera on wood, is 67 x 86 cm, and is now in the Staatliche Museen in Berlin.

Mantegna was born near Padua, but later worked in Verona, Mantua and Rome, and perhaps in Venice and Florence too. He died in Mantua in 1506. Like other artists of the time, Mantegna experimented with perspective. For example, he lowered his horizons to create a sense of greater monumentality. His flinty, metallic landscapes and his somewhat stony figures show an almost sculptural approach to painting.

Andrea Mantegna, The Dead Christ (1490)

His The Dead Christ, painted thirty years after his Presentation, in 1490, and now in Milan, may have later influenced Hans Holbein’s painting, The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb, which we have been looking at this evening, and shocked those who first saw it because of its brutal realism, achieved by foreshortening.

The subject of this earlier painting, The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, is the story found in Luke 2: 22-40, where Mary and Joseph bring the Christ Child to the Temple in Jerusalem 40 days after his birth to dedicate him to God, according to the religious laws and traditions of the day.

As they brought the Christ Child to the Temple, they met Simeon, who had been promised “he should not see death before he had seen the Messiah of the Lord” (Luke 2: 26). In the Anglican tradition, we continue to use Simeon’s prayer in Evening Prayer and Choral Evensong as the Canticle Nunc Dimittis.

In his prophecy about the Christ Child, Simeon said this child would be a light for revelation to the nations. The prophetess Anna, who was in the Temple too, also offered her prayers and thanks to God when she saw the Child Jesus. But Simeon also warned Mary that a sword would pierce her heart.

In the Church calendar, this Gospel story is recalled on 2 February, the Feast of Candlemas, the feast that moves us from Epiphany to Lent – that bridges the seasons of Christmas and Easter.

I cannot help but hold together the twin images provided from Simeon’s words to the Mary who cradled the Christ Child in her arms as she brought him to the Temple and the same Mary who cradles the Man Christ in her arms when is taken down from the cross.

I cannot look at Mantegna’s painting of the Presentation, or a similar, contemporary painting in Venice by his brother-in-law, Giovanni Bellini, without thinking too of Michelangelo’s Pieta.

Michelangelo’s Pieta in Saint Peter’s Basilica, completed almost 40 years after Mantegna’s Presentation

In Mantegna’s painting of the Presentation, Simeon is handing the Christ Child back to Mary, wrapped in the swaddling clothes that look like the grave clothes in which is body is wrapped after the Crucifixion, the shroud that is pointed to by the middle finger of the dead Christ in Holbein’s painting.

In Mantegna’s painting, Mary holds and caresses the Christ Child, giving him a gentle kiss, just as she later holds his body taken down from the cross, gently weeping over him.

The Mary that must have wondered about the meaning of Simeon’s prophecies and promises about her son is soon reduced to weeping over his dead body.

How could she have known that death meant anything other than the end?

Could there be any hope after this?

We know there is. We live in the light of the Resurrection. The candles of Candlemas remind us why we have Christmas candles. There is no meaning to Christmas unless we understand the meaning of Good Friday. And Good Friday has no meaning unless we have Easter faith.

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple ... a stained glass window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

That link between Christmas and Easter, enunciated by Simeon at Candlemas, is expressed with deep insight by TS Eliot (1888-1965) in his poem, A Song for Simeon, written in 1928, a year after he was baptised and confirmed an Anglican.

A Song for Simeon is spoken by an old man, the prophet Simeon in the Temple in Jerusalem. But Eliot also draws on a Christmas sermon in which Bishop Lancelot Andrewes spoke of: “Verbum infans, the Word without a word, the eternal Word not able to speak a word.” In Eliot’s words, the old man sees a faith that he cannot inhabit in “the still unspeaking and unspoken Word.”

There are several examples of prophetic imagery in A Song for Simeon:

Before the time of cords and scourges and lamentation …
Before the certain hour of maternal sorrow …


These refer to the scourging of Christ at his crucifixion and his mother weeping as he was crucified.

This poem starts with a winter scene:

Lord, the Roman’s hyacinths are blooming in the bowls and
The winter sun creeps by the snow hills;
The stubborn season had made stand.


In this poem, Eliot confines his comments on things of the past to four lines in the second stanza, and places his emphasis on the time that has been spent making an inner journey of faith:

I have walked many years in this city,
Kept faith and fast, provided for the poor,
Have given and taken honour and ease.


We are aware too, that Simeon is very old. He is hanging on, waiting for God’s promise, so that he can die:

My life is light, waiting for the death wind,
Like a feather on the back of my hand.


Three times in the poem, Simeon asks for peace. Is he referring to the peace that will come with his own death? Or the peace of Christ that passes all understanding? As Christians, we don’t believe that death is the end of our journey. Even before death, Eliot marks his baptism and confirmation as, if not the end of, then a triumph on, his spiritual journey. He has come to a place of faith, and now he is encouraged to continue on his spiritual journey.

The poem can be read as a song for Simeon to sing, or as a song to be sung for Simeon. We can imagine ourselves listening to Simeon’s prophetic voice, or imagine the voice of a poet singing on Simeon’s behalf or in his honour at a later age, from a viewpoint and with insights denied to Simeon himself.

In the Canticle Nunc Dimittis, the old Simeon in prayer in the Temple in Jerusalem prays: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.” By contrast, Eliot’s speaker sings: “Lord, the Roman hyacinths are blooming in bowls.” This is not prayer at all. Instead, it sets an unexpected scene. The flowers, protected from the winter cold, are Roman, the property and pride of the pagans. Hyacinths were named after Hyacinthus, the youth killed by mistake by Apollo when his rival, Zephyrus, turned the flight of a discus.

The winter sun creeps by the snow hills as the speaker waits for the death wind. Pagan flowers and the pagan myth of a young man’s death flourish in the world of Eliot’s speaker and provide the language for speaking of life and death and life beyond.

Voices are heard from the Christian future, which the blind Simeon will not see. He is still waiting for the wind to blow, imagines only the death wind that will bear him away.

“Grant us thy peace” – the speaker evokes the Agnus Dei from the liturgy. Here we have a prayer for the peace that the Eucharist will offer, although Simeon will never share in the Eucharist.

In the first stanza, he tells of his own death.

In the second stanza, he speaks of the destruction of Jerusalem, decades later, by Rome’s armies. We are pointed towards New Testament images of the foxes that have holes, while the Son of Man has nowhere to rest; of the speaker’s descendants, in flight from Jerusalem from foreign faces and swords, and who will have to occupy the foxes’ homes.

In the third stanza, that flicker of light becomes a blaze of allusions. This Christ will tie cords to drive the traders from the Temple, will be whipped and scourged, and hear the lamentation of the weeping women of Jerusalem on the way to his death on a hill, above the “abomination of desolation,” and to his mother’s sorrow: Stabat mater dolorosa.

Simeon’s death is imminent, but far more is to come, for with the birth of this child a whole world is passing away, ages old and with no tomorrow.

In Nunc Dimittis, Simeon pleads: “Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.” But the word will be fulfilled in a faith and in an age that Eliot’s speaker can see only in prophecy.

Eliot capitalises “Thee” for the one and only time, as his speaker looks forward to the praise offered by the Church: “They shall praise Thee and suffer in every generation …”.

Simeon warns Mary: “A sword will pierce your own soul also.” But we might ask whether the heart, Eliot’s speaker says will be pierced is God’s own heart.

The weary speaker concludes by praying:

Let thy servant depart,
Having seen thy salvation
.

At the very end of the poem, we seem to have arrived at the start of Nunc Dimittis. All that we have read so far is now seen in a new light, as a prelude to the canticle. The poet, now baptised, has the hope of a greater hope, having seen his salvation. He is tired of his former life, there is consolation as derision turns to glory. Baptised into the death of Christ, he has been born into new life.

The Presentation in the Temple ... a window by Catherine O’Brien of An Tur Glione in the south transept of Saint George’s Church, Balbriggan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

A Song for Simeon (TS Eliot)

Lord, the Roman hyacinths are blooming in bowls and
The winter sun creeps by the snow hills;
The stubborn season had made stand.
My life is light, waiting for the death wind,
Like a feather on the back of my hand.
Dust in sunlight and memory in corners
Wait for the wind that chills towards the dead land.

Grant us thy peace.
I have walked many years in this city,
Kept faith and fast, provided for the poor,
Have given and taken honour and ease.
There went never any rejected from my door.
Who shall remember my house, where shall live my children’s children
When the time of sorrow is come?
They will take to the goat’s path, and the fox’s home,
Fleeing from the foreign faces and the foreign swords.

Before the time of cords and scourges and lamentation
Grant us thy peace.
Before the stations of the mountain of desolation,
Before the certain hour of maternal sorrow,
Now at this birth season of decease,
Let the Infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,
Grant Israel’s consolation
To one who has eighty years and no to-morrow.

According to thy word.
They shall praise Thee and suffer in every generation
With glory and derision,
Light upon light, mounting the saints’ stair.
Not for me the martyrdom, the ecstasy of thought and prayer,
Not for me the ultimate vision.
Grant me thy peace.
(And a sword shall pierce thy heart,
Thine also).
I am tired with my own life and the lives of those after me,
I am dying in my own death and the deaths of those after me.
Let thy servant depart,
Having seen thy salvation.


King’s College, Cambridge, King’s College Chapel and the corner of King’s Parade, Cambridge

Music 2: Nunc Dimittis, Herbert Howells, the Gloucester Service, the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, 4’ 35”.

Our second piece of music for reflection this evening is the Canticle Nunc Dimittis, from the Gloucester Service by Herbert Howells, and sung by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge.

Nunc Dimittis is the traditional Gospel Canticle of Night Prayer or Compline, just as Benedictus and Magnificat are the traditional Gospel Canticles of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. And so, for Anglicans, Nunc Dimittis became a traditional canticle in Evening Prayer or Evensong in the Book of Common Prayer from 1662 on.

Settings for this canticle in the Anglican tradition include a plainchant theme by Thomas Tallis, and settings by William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons, Thomas Tomkins, Charles Villiers Stanford, Charles Wood and Herbert Howells.

The composer Herbert Howells (1892-1983) was born in Gloucestershire, and first studied the organ at Gloucester Cathedral with Sir Herbert Brewer, alongside Ivor Novello and Ivor Gurney. There he first met Ralph Vaughan Williams, who became his close friend and mentor. Howells later studied at the Royal School of Music under Stanford, Parry and Wood. During World War II, he was the acting organist at Saint John’s College, Cambridge.

His early upbringing inspired him to give the name The Gloucester Service to the service from which we hear this evening’s setting of this canticle. It was written in 1946, is richly nuanced and spiritually uplifting.

We listen to it this evening sung by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, conducted by Stephen Cleobury, recorded in 1991. The organist was the organ scholar, Christopher Hughes.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This is the second of three reflections for ‘A service of readings, meditations, art poetry and music at the grave’ on Holy Saturday, 23 April 2011, in Whitechurch Parish, Rathfarnham, Co Dublin.

Waiting at the tomb on Holy Saturday (1)

Hans Holbein the Younger (ca 1497-1543), The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (ca 1521), Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel

Patrick Comerford

Saturday 23 April 2011 (Holy Saturday):

Whitechurch Parish, Rathfarnham Co Dublin.

Reading 1:
Luke 16: 19-31.

Reflection 1: Hans Holbein the Younger, The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (1521).

The German painter, Hans Holbein the Younger (ca 1497-1543), is best known for his portraits of Erasmus, Thomas More, Henry VIII and The Ambassadors, in which the cross is placed at the edge of the world.

He lived through the Reformation in Germany, Switzerland and England, and although he was relatively young when death came at the age of 49, his work is an important contribution to the beginning of modern art, with an almost photographic realism in his figures, in his perspective and in his use of colour.

His starkest and most gripping work is The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb, the subject of our first reflection and meditation this evening as we think of Christ’s body laying in the tomb on this day, the day between his Crucifixion on Good Friday and his Resurrection on Easter Day.

Holbein the Younger was trained as a painter by his father, the German painter Hans Holbein the Elder (ca 1460-1524). At an early stage, Hans Holbein the Elder took his son to see Matthias Grünewald’s altar-piece in Isenheim, where Holbein the elder worked on a number of commissions.

By 1520, Hans Holbein the Younger was living in the Swiss city of Basel, at a time when the Lutheran Reformation was about to make a major impact on the life of the city.

Like many artists of the early Reformation period, he was fascinated with the macabre, and in common with the religious traditions of the 1520s, this work, The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb, was intended to evoke piety.

Andrea Mantegna, The Dead Christ (1490)

Critics point out that this painting follows closely the intentions of Grünewald, who in his altar-piece in Isenheim set out to instil in the viewer feelings of both guilt and empathy. But Holbein may also have been influenced by Andrea Mantegna’s The Dead Christ (1490).

A 14th century Epitaphios in the Byzantine Museum in Thessaloniki

I am also inclined to believe too that the iconographic origins of this evening’s painting may be traced to Byzantine works, for in many ways Holbein has adapted to western styles the Orthodox iconography of the Epitaphios, the bier of Christ.

This painting, now on display in the Öffentliche Kunstsammlung in Basel in Switzerland, was painted by Holbein around 1521, at a time when the Lutheran Reformation was having a major impact in Basel. The painting is in oil and tempera on lime-wood, and is especially notable for its dramatic dimensions (30.5 cm x 200 cm).

It is said that Holbein used a body fished out of the Rhine as a model for this work. But we do not know his reasons for painting this work. Was it a predella for an altarpiece? Was it intended as a free-standing work? Was it made to fit in a sepulchral niche? We may wonder. But it is more wonderful to meditate on this work, and to think of what the artist was trying to get us to think about.

Above Hans Holbein’s ‘The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb’ angels bear a Latin inscription

Above the body, angels holding instruments of the Passion bear an inscription in brush on paper inscribed with the Latin words in capital letters: “Iesvs Nazarenvs. Rex. Iudaeorum” (“Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”). But the rest of the work is entirely naturalistic, relieved of any sacred symbols, and with no pointers to suggest the transcendent meaning of the event.

In the work itself, Holbein shows the dead Son of God after he has suffered the fate of an ordinary human. We have here a life-size, grotesque depiction of the stretched and unnaturally thin, decomposing body of Christ, lying in his tomb.

The French philosopher and atheist Michel Onfray admits that “entering this work is like entering a coffin to see what’s happening inside.”

Christ’s rigid limbs and his flesh, green and swollen around the wounds, indicate the start of the corruption of his body. His body is shown as long and emaciated. His face, hands and feet, as well as the wounds in his torso, are depicted as realistic dead flesh in the early stages of purification.

At first, all we see in a dead body, a corpse – motionless, as if so for all eternity. The bones of his body push against the flesh like spikes emphasising the hollowness of his ribcage. String-like muscles press against the lifeless yellow skin.

But look carefully at the face of Christ which is slightly tilted towards us. Onfray points to how his mouth and his eyes are stretched open. You might just be able to hear, at least in a virtual sense, the final breath. You might guess the presence of the Holy Spirit.

We see Christ seeing. We see what death has in store. He is staring at the heavens, while his soul is probably there already. “No-one has taken the trouble to close his mouth, or to close his eyes,” Onfray notices. “Or perhaps Holbein wants to tell us that, even in death, Christ still looks and speaks.

There are three signs that indicate that this body is body of the crucified Son of God: the wounds in his side, on his hand and on his foot.

There are no wounds on his forehead, no traces of the crown of thorns. Holbein paints the right side of Christ. His left side, the sinistra, is in the shadow of the tomb, in the shadow of death.

His hair spills over the stone block which has been covered with a white shroud. Oskar Batschmann and Pascal Griener suggest the strands of hair “look as if they are breaking through the surface of the painting.” His beard points up towards the low roof of this wooden, box-like tomb.

Christ’s right hand balances on the edge of the dishevelled shroud. Notice how the sign made by this hand is at the exact point that divides this work into two parts – right and left. All but his middle finger is curled inward and we can almost feel the pain the dying Christ felt as his life ebbed away.

Detail from Hans Holbein’s ‘The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb’ ... is Christ’s middle finger pointing at the beholder, or pointing at his shroud?

Remarking on Holbein’s use of unflinching realism, Batschmann and Griener note that Christ’s raised, extended middle finger appears to “reach towards the beholder.”

Yes, the middle finger is outstretched, and the other fingers folded back into the palm. But could this be mistaken for a vulgar gesture?

Within traditional allegorical configuration, each finger has meaning. The hand represents the soul, the principle of life, while the fingers are used for spiritual exercises: the thumb, to give thanks; the index finger, to strive to reach the light; the ring finger, for suffering and regret, the little finger, to offer, to propose, to show, to present; and the middle finger, to examine, to weigh, a lesson in edification.

The extended middle finger in Holbein’s painting, at the epicentre of this work, is saying to us: “Look and conclude: examine.”

Examine what?

The middle finger acts as the punctum of the painting, the very tip, the flesh of the finger, marked by the nail like invisible writing.

It is the fingers of William Blake’s Ancient of Days pointing to the mystery of creation; it is the Finger of God pointing to humanity in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel.

This is this painting’s lesson. And for Onfray, Christ’s finger is pointing to his shroud, saying: “See this shroud, it is the sign of the death of death if, and only if, you live as a penitent Christian, imitate the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

For five centuries, the painting has fascinated and captivated. The Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky was totally overwhelmed on first seeing it in 1867, so much so that his wife had to drag him away, fearing its grip on her husband might induce an epileptic fit. She wrote that he could never forget the sensation he experienced gazing at the painting, which continued to haunt him.

Two years later, Dostoevsky wrote The Idiot (1869), in which he refers to this painting many times. He thought it posed a terrible threat to faith in Christ, and Prince Myshkin, having viewed the painting in the home of Rogozhin, declares that it has the power to make the viewer lose his faith.

Yet, the Cambridge-educated writer and popular historian Derek Wilson, who has written a biography of Holbein and more recently a study of the King James Bible to mark its four-hundredth anniversary, says: “No other picture expresses more eloquently the faith of the Reformation, the Christocentric faith of many humanists, the faith of those for whom the Bible has become a living book.”

Later, we shall reflect on the death of Christ through the poetry of TS Eliot. At the end of East Coker, the second of his Four Quartets, Eliot says:

Home is where one starts from …
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter ...

Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
… In my end is the beginning.


As I look at this painting of Christ I am reminded too of Eliot’s words at the end of Little Gidding, the last of his Four Quartets:

What call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from ...
...
We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
...
And all shall we well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are infolded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.


The shroud has been folded for the past twenty centuries, but this fabric still speaks today. Even in death, Christ still speaks today. Contrary to the impression this painting made on Dostoevsky, this work is far from the product of an atheistic mind. Rather, it is intended to convey the message of belief, that from the decay of the tomb Christ rose in glory on the third day.

Lichfield Cathedral ... the Lichfield Cathedral Choir, directed by Philip Scriven, with Martyn Rawles on the organ, recorded Mozart’s ‘Ave verum corpus’ at Lichfield Cathedral in 2008 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Music 1: Ave verum corpus, words 14th century, music: WA Mozart (1791), sung by Lichfield Cathedral Choir, 2’ 59”:

As we think about Christ’s body in the grave, on that slab, on that shroud, we listen to our first piece of music, Mozart’s Ave verum corpus. The title of the hymn, Ave verum corpus, means “Hail, true body,” and is said to have originated in a poem first found in a 14th-century manuscript from the Abbey of Reichenau on the shores of Lake Constance.

As a hymn it has been attributed to Pope Innocent III, Pope Innocent IV, and Pope Innocent VI, and during the Middle Ages it was sung at the elevation of the host at the Eucharist following the words of institution.

This short hymn that has been set to music by many composers, including Mozart, William Byrd, Franz Liszt, Saint-Saens, Sir Edward Elgar, and many others.

This evening we listen to Mozart’s setting, composed in 1791, shortly before he died, for the celebration of the Feast of Corpus Christi in the church in Baden, south of Vienna.

The Latin words are:

Ave verum corpus, natum
de Maria Virgine,
vere passum, immolatum
in cruce pro homine,
cuius latus perforatum
fluxit aqua et sanguine:
esto nobis praegustatum
in mortis examine.
O Iesu dulcis, O Iesu pie, O Iesu, fili Mariae.
Miserere mei. Amen.


In English, the hymn says:

Hail, true body, born
of the Virgin Mary,
who having truly suffered, was sacrificed
on the cross for mankind,
whose pierced side
flowed with water and blood:
May it be for us a foretaste [of the Heavenly banquet]
in the trial of death.
Oh dear Jesus, Oh merciful Jesus, Oh Jesus, son of Mary,
have mercy on me. Amen.


The version I invite you to listen to is sung by Lichfield Cathedral Choir, directed by Philip Scriven, with Martyn Rawles on the organ, and recorded at Lichfield Cathedral in 2008.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This is the first of three reflections for ‘A service of readings, meditations, art poetry and music at the grave’ on Holy Saturday, 23 April 2011, in Whitechurch Parish, Rathfarnham, Co Dublin.