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.