Monday, 2 May 2011

Visiting a Victorian village that is the gateway to the mountains

Victorian and spring-time charm in the sunshine in Enniskerry, Co Wicklow, this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

The early summer sunshine has continued, despite the weather forecasts. This is a bank holiday weekend, and two of us thought about going for a walk on a beach in either Bray or Greystones on the Wicklow coast this afternoon. But when we saw the road-sign for Enniskerry, we realised it had been some years since either of us had been there, and we turned onto the Dargle Valley and drove to Enniskerry.

Enniskerry is just 24km south of Dublin and at the foothills of the Wicklow Mountains. It sells itself as “the gateway to Co Wicklow, the Garden of Ireland,” but has a unique character that makes Enniskerry a village worth visiting for its own charms.

We parked near Saint Parick’s, the Church of Ireland parish church, and strolled around this Victorian village, where three streets converge in a triangle that is lined with tearooms, cafés, food shops, guesthouses and hotels.

The village has a collection of picture postcard cottages, and we stopped to look into some antique and curios shops, a second-hand book shop, and the old AOH hall, where there was a book sale, before sitting down to coffee in Poppies, one of the many cafés clustered around the village Clock Tower.

A Victorian village

Enniskerry takes its name from the Irish, Ath na Sceire, meaning “Ford of the Stones.” The Victorian village, built as part of Powerscourt Estate to house its tenants and workers, was designed and laid out by the architect Frederick Darragh. The Clock Tower in the centre of the village has a base that is shamrock-shaped. It was erected in 1843 by Richard Wingfield (1815-1844), 6th Viscount Powerscourt, who had been MP for Bath, to commemorate the centenary of the third creation of title of Viscount Powerscourt for the Wingfield family in 1743.

The village school house opposite the Clock Tower was built in 1818 and was still being used as the local Church of Ireland National School, but is now available to rent. The Powerscourt Arms Hotel in the centre of the village was first built in 1715 and rebuilt in 1835 and again in 1894.

The forge or smithy on Forge Road behind the village was built in 1855 and was a popular picture postcard image until well into the second half of the last century. It is said horses were shod there until the late 1970s.

The forge or smithy was built in Forge Road behind Enniskerry village in 1855 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

A village church

The ancient church for this parish was known in mediaeval times as Stagonil (Tigh Choniall, Saint Connell’s hermitage or church), and the original church was dedicated to Saint Beccan. In 1192, Stagonil became one of the first prebends of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin.

The Prebendaries of Stagonil were also the rectors of the parish until the Disetsablishment of the Church of Ireland in the second half of the 19th century. He rectors over the span of history included Theophilus Bolton (1707-1714), who later became Archbishop of Cashel (1730-1744), and Robert Daly (1814-1843), who also became Archbishop of Cashel (1843-1872) – Daly was at the centre of a 19th century Evangelical family that was centred on the Powerscourt estate and involved many members of the Wingfield and Howard families, who wereinter-married.

The Wingfield family had owned Powerscourt Manor from 1603, and built a new church on the family estate that served as the parish church until 1863. Mervyn Wingfield (1836-1904), 7th Viscount Powerscourt, built Saint Patrick’s, a new church for the village, consecrated on 15 September 1863. Saint Mary’s Roman Catholic Church was built at the same time on a site also donated by the Powerscourt Estate.

River-side and valley walks

By the riverside in the Bog Meadow on the edges of Enniskerry this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

After coffee, we ambled down the village to the banks of the Cookstown River, a tributary of the River Dargle, where we strolled through the Bog Meadow, opposite the main entrance for Knocksink Wood with its babbling brooks and small waterfalls.

A little steep and slippery walk took us down past the playing fields and tennis courts of the Bog Meadow to the Glencullen River. But evening was closing in and shops were shutting. Rather than trying to get to see the Powerscourt Estate with its gardens and Ireland’s highest waterfall, we drove on towards Glencree, with its German war cemetery and the Glencree Centre for Reconciliation, housed in a former military barracks.

Along the road up the valley, the fields were green and sun-kissed and here and there were horses and even some deer.

Crosses side-by-side in the stillness of the German War Cemetery in Glencree, Co Wicklow, this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

In Glencree, we stopped first at the German War Cemetery (Deutscher Kriegsfriedhof), which was dedicated in 1961. There are 134 graves there, mostly of air force and navy personnel – 53 identified and 28 are unknown. There are also six prisoners of war from World War I, and 46 German civilian detainees who were being shipped from England to Canada for internment when their ship, the Arandora Star, was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the Donegal coast in 1940. Here too is the grave of Dr Herman Görtz, a German spy, who made contact with the IRA before being arrested in 1941. He died by suicide in 1947, fearing he was about to be handed over to the Soviet Union. He was first buried in Dublin, but his body was transferred to Glencree in 1974.

From there, we went a hundred metres or so further on to the former army barracks in Glencree, dating from 1806, used during World II to hold German air force pilots who had crashed in Ireland and German agents captured planning anti-British activities with the IRA.

The former barracks was handed over to the Oblate Brothers in 1858, and they turned it into an industrial school. For 82 years, the school was home to over 200 boys until Saint Kevin’s Reformatory closed in 1940.

The Glencree Centre for Reconciliation is housed in buildings that have served as a barracks, a reformatory and a war-time detention centre (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The Glencree Centre for Reconciliation, which has had its home here for almost half a century, opened in 1975 and was a popular venue for seminars for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and other peace groups in 1980s.

The centre continues to run a broad range of programmes on conflict resolution, and just looking through the locked gates brought back warm memories of those campaigning days. It was still bright and sunny as we returned across the Wicklow Mountains, down by the Hell Fire Club, with splendid views across the city.

There’s more to Birmingham than Crufts and the Bullring

A multilingual and multicultural welcome to Birmingham and its cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

I have a feeling that most Irish tourists in England give Birmingham a wide berth. Unless they are going to the Crufts Dog Show in March, the Horse of the Year Show in October, or an exhibition at the NEC, most of my friends think of Birmingham as an airport or a railway station to be passed through on the way to somewhere else.

It was a city once loved by Daniel O’Connell, who held many rallies here in the early 19th century. Today, Birmingham has 2½ times more Irish-born residents than any other part of England, and at times its Saint Patrick’s Day Parade has been the second largest in the world, ranked only behind New York. But, understandably, many Irish people shy away from Birmingham, remembering the horrors of the Birmingham bombings of 1974, and recalling the miscarriage of justice in the trial of the “Birmingham Six.”

Not even mention of cricket at Edgbaston, Aston Villa games at Villa Park, or a Bees rugby match at Damson Park can convince my friends that Birmingham is worth a stopover. They may have embedded memories of trying to negotiate “Spaghetti Junction,” hours on platforms waiting for connections at New Street Station, or images of brash 1960s architecture.

Birmingham has no castle, no port and no great river. Yet it was childhood memories of the landscape that inspired JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1954/1955). Birmingham has art galleries, theatres, concert halls and universities, and is home to orchestras and to the Birmingham Royal Ballet, formerly the Sadler’s Wells Ballet.

Woodbrooke, Europe’s only Quaker Study Centre, is based in the former family home near Bourneville of the Birmingham chocolate maker, George Cadbury (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2007)

This city is also the home of Cadbury’s chocolate, Bird’s custard and the Moody Blues. Its suburbs include Bourneville, one of the most advanced experiments in social housing. With a population of over a million, this is England’s second city, transformed over the centuries from an agriculturally insignificant village in the 1200s into one of the greatest industrial cities in the world.

The mediaeval and the modern

Saint Martin’s Church in the Bullring is 19th century Victorian Gothic revival on the outside, but inside has 12th and 13th century carvings and tombs (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The site of the Bullring, close to Saint Martin’s Church, is the city’s historic market centre. It began life in 1166 when Birmingham received a charter for its own market. From mediaeval times, the town was served by the ancient and parish church of Saint Martin’s. Although now clad in 19th century restoration work, it may date back to a simple place of worship in Saxon times. We can be certain there has been a church on the site since 1290, and the interior still has carvings and tombs dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries.

The town grew significantly in the 17th century, but a new parish was not formed until 1708, in the reign of Queen Anne. The new area of High Town stood at Birmingham’s highest point, and the panorama from Saint Martin’s was one of splendid houses gracing the hilltop.

The town became a city and acquired international prominence in the 18th century when it was at the heart of both the Midlands Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. At the core of these movements were the members of the Lunar Society of Birmingham, including the botanist Erasmus Darwin, the steam pioneers Matthew Boulton and James Watt, the chemist Joseph Priestley, the potter Josiah Wedgwood, the chemist James Keir and the author and abolitionist Thomas Day.

The story of this intellectual and creative circle has been told by Jenny Uglow in her book The Lunar Men (2002). They also included the author Anna Seward, the painter Joseph Wright of Derby, the lexicographer Samuel Johnson – who, like Erasmus Darwin and Anna Seward, also hailed from Lichfield – the typographer John Baskerville, the poet and landscape gardener William Shenstone, and the architects James and Samuel Wyatt.

In the 1960s, the market site at the old Bullring became a celebrated example of revolutionary urban planning with the development of one of the largest enclosed shopping centres outside the US. The three symbols of the era became the circular Rotunda building, the swathe of ring roads, and the Bullring Shopping Centre, which opened in 1964.

Selfridges in the Bullring has become a modern architectural symbol of Birmingham (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

But by the 1980s, the Bullring was tired and jaded, and the city was left with only one department store even though it was a leading centre for business and culture. The redevelopment of the 40-acre Bullring site was the catalyst for transforming the city into a world-class retail capital. Drawing on Birmingham’s historic street patterns, the Bullring became a series of traditional streets, squares and open spaces, linking once again New Street and High Street with Saint Martin’s Church, the open markets and beyond. As part of this development, landmark buildings such as the Rotunda, the old Moor Street Station, and Saint Martin’s Church have been cleaned up and restored, and long-lost historic street names have been reintroduced.

The Rotunda is 81 metres tall, was built in 1965, refurbished in 2004-2008, and reopened in May 2008 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Churches and cathedrals

In the midst of this modern glass and steel, Saint Martin’s stands out as the historic building in the Bullring. Most of the church as it stands today is 19th century Victorian Gothic work dating from 1873 and designed by Alfred Chatwin (1830-1907) from Birmingham, who had worked with Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin on the Houses of Parliament in Westminster.

Saint Chad’s Cathedral, Birmingham ... designed by Pugin about the same time as many of his churches in Co Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Birmingham’s best example of Gothic Revival is Saint Chad’s Cathedral – the first Roman Catholic cathedral built in England since the Reformation. Built by Pugin in 1839-1841, it became a cathedral in 1850. In the canopy above the altar is a shrine with some relics of Saint Chad, rescued from Lichfield Cathedral by Canon Arthur Dudley at the height of the Reformation, about 1538.

Saint Philip’s Cathedral, seen from Colmore Row (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

In contrast, the neighbouring Church of England cathedral, Saint Philip’s, is the third smallest cathedral in England, after Derby and Chelmsford.

When the new Church of England parish in High Town was created in 1708, it was decided that Saint Philip’s, the new parish church, would be a major feature of the cityscape. The local architect chosen for this project, Thomas Archer (1668-1743), had recently completed the Grand Tour of Europe. Italian architecture, especially the work of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, had left a deep impression on him, and he had formed a friendship with Francesco Borromini.

This was Archer’s first church, and the initial estimate put building costs at £20,000. However, many of the materials were donated and transported at no cost, and the final figure was only £5,073 13s 10d – about £660,000 at today’s prices. The church was consecrated in 1715, and was dedicated to Saint Philip the Apostle in a tribute to the Philips family who donated the site. The tower was completed by 1725, and King George I granted £600 towards the final stages of completion.

Baroque influenced by Borromini

Saint Philip’s Cathedral, with Chatwin’s chancel and the east windows by Burne-Jones (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Archer’s baroque design is more Italianate than Christopher Wren’s London churches, and reflects Borromini’s influence. The interior is a rectangular hall with aisles separated from the nave by fluted pillars of classical form, with Tuscan capitals supporting an arcade surmounted by a heavily projecting cornice. The wooden galleries, stretched between the pillars, are typical of English baroque churches.

Externally, the building is surrounded by tall windows between pilasters of low relief, supporting a balustrade at roof level with an urn rising above each pilaster. The western end is marked by a single tower rising in stages and surmounted by a dome and lantern. The building is of brick, and is faced with stone quarried on Archer’s estate at Umberslade, outside Birmingham.

By the late 19th century, as the elevation of Saint Philip’s to cathedral status became a possibility, Chatwin extended the eastern apse in 1884-1888 into a larger chancel, making space for a bishop’s throne, and stalls for a provost, archdeacon, canons and choir. His bold design is enriched by the marble surfaces of the columns and pilasters, the gilded capitals and cornice and the ornate ceiling.

Saint Philip’s Cathedral, reflected in the Royal Bank of Scotland building in Saint Philip’s Place (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

A local heiress, Emma Chadwick Villiers-Wilkes, donated three new East Windows by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898), who was born nearby in Bennett’s Hill and baptised in Saint Philip’s. His windows depict the Ascension (centre east, 1885), the Nativity (north-east, 1887) and the Crucifixion (south-east, 1887). Burne-Jones also donated a fourth window at the West End, the Last Judgment (1887), in memory of Bishop Henry Bowlby of Coventry, a former rector of Saint Philip’s.

Peter Ball’s cross in the north aisle is made from a simple wooden sleeper, the Crucified Christ from copper and bronze foil (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

As Birmingham expanded in the 18th and 19th centuries, the number of new parishes grew too. Birmingham became a city in 1889, and – thanks to the efforts of Birmingham’s most famous statesman, Joseph Chamberlain, and Bishop Charles Gore of Worcester – a new Diocese of Birmingham was formed in 1905.

During World War II, the cathedral was bombed and set ablaze on 7 November 1940. By then, the Burne-Jones windows had been moved to safety in a mineshaft on the Welsh borders and they were replaced, unharmed, when the cathedral was restored in 1948.

Two box pews at the back of Saint Philip’s are reminders of the original appearance of the interior of Saint Philip’s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Two box pews at the back of Saint Philip’s are reminders of the original appearance of the interior, with its oak pews complete with doors and brass fittings. The organ by Thomas Schwarbrick (1715) has been enlarged, repaired and relocated at various stages over the last three centuries. The churchyard, covering four acres, includes a monument to two men who died during the building of Birmingham Town Hall and a memorial to victims of the Birmingham pub bombings in 1974.

Bronze door handles in the south aisle, finely fashioned as three-winged heads of a lion and bull, symbols of the evangelists Saint Mark and Saint Luke (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Gore’s Irish ancestors

A statue of Bishop Charles Gore (1853-1932), vested in convocation robes and with his right hand raised in blessing, stands at the west entrance. Gore, who became the first Bishop of Birmingham in 1905, was one of the greatest English theologians. He was a socialist and the leading Anglo-Catholic of the day, edited Lux Mundi (1889), and was the founder of the Community of the Resurrection in 1892.

Bishop Charles Gore, the first Bishop of Birmingham, was the son of Irish-born parents. His statue stands at the west entrance of the cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Gore’s father, Charles Gore (1813-1897), grew up in Dublin, where he was a page in the Vicergal Lodge – now Áras an Uachtaráin; Gore’s mother, the widowed Countess of Kerry, was born Lady Augusta Ponsonby (1814-1904), and hailed from Bessborough, Co Kilkenny.

Bishop Charles Gore’s coat-of-arms as Bishop of Birmingham (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

As a canon of Westminster Abbey, Gore enjoyed showing visitors the tomb of his ancestor the Earl of Kerry, with an inscription that ends with the words (in double quotation marks): “Hang all the law and the prophets.” On closer inspection, he would point out, the words are preceded by “... ever studious to fulfil those two great commandments on which he had been taught by his divine Master ...”

Bishop Gore’s statue stands directly beneath the dome and cupola of the cathedral, unique for an English cathedral. Archer modelled them on the mid-17th century dome of Santa Maria della Salute in Venice. But then Birmingham has more canals than Venice –Birmingham has 35 miles, Venice only 26 miles – yet another reason for discovering and enjoying the capital of the English Midlands.

The Right Revd David Andrew Urquhart became the ninth Bishop of Birmingham in 2006 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2006)

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay was first published in the May 2011 editions of the Church Review (Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Diocese of Cashel and Ossory).

Saint Philip’s Cathedral, seen from Cherry Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)