Saturday, 11 June 2011

Memories and shipwrecks in the summer sunshine

Blue skies and blue waters at low tide in Bettystown this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

I was one of the speakers this morning at a memorial service for deceased members of staff of The Irish Times. The service took place in the Unitarian Church, Saint Stephen’s Green, and the other speakers included: Father Michael Commane, a Dominican priest who also writes for The Irish Times; the Revd Bridget Spain of the Unitarian Church; Maighréad Medbh of the Humanist Association; and Wesley Boyd, former Diplomatic Correspondent who later worked for RTÉ; and Deaglán de Breadún.

There was music from Josh Johnston, who played Carolan’s Concerto on the piano and the Inerlude from Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande on the organ, and Michael Cruite, who played traditional airs on the uileann pipes, including Tabhair dom do Lámh, while Eugene McEldowney sang The parting glass.

It was moving to hear John Moran read out the names of so many friends and colleagues from the past. And it was good to see so many living friends and colleagues too. This is the second year John and Deaglán have organised this service, and it is probably as important for the memories of the living as for remembering the dead.

Later, some of us adjourned to O’Callaghan’s Hotel on the corner of Harcourt Street and Cuffe Street. The conversations could have gone for hours ... perhaps they did. But two of us decided to head off for a late lunch and a walk on the beach.

We drove north to Drogheda, and then back south onto the Julianstown Road before turning into Bettystown. Despite some of the weather forecasts, it was a warm, sunny afternoon, and despite some white clouds the sky was a beautiful blue, even though the rain of the last few days is threatening to return tomorrow with lower temperatures too.

After picking up the Guardian and the Economist in Donovan’s, we had a very late lunch in Relish, looking out onto the lengthy, broad spread of sand that stretches from Mornington to Laytown.

Relish is located in a terrace of houses overlooking the beach, immediately south of the Neptune Beach Hotel in Bettystown. The village of Bettystown first developed around the mid-18th century house originally called Marino. It was later renamed Neptune Lodge, and was an hotel by the 1840s. It has been substantially rebuilt, and is now known as the Neptune Beach Hotel.

After a delightful meal, as we walked on that generous, ample stretch of beach, there was a lone kite-surfer, a few brave swimmers, and families in clusters, enjoying the late afternoon sun and the low tide – and one man in a cart drawn by two horses, plying along the shoreline but attracting no custom.

There was a clear view north as far as the Mountains of Mourne on the Co Down coastline.

The tide was out, the sea was a variety of blues, and the sun was sparkling on shards of sand and the little pools and rivulets left by the receding waters.

Bits and pieces of the wrecked Eilean Glas are scattered along the strand between Bettystown and Mornington, but are visible only at low tide (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Because the tide was so low, I noticed the shipwreck on Mornington Strand for the first time. The Eilean Glas, which was registered in Stornoway, ran aground while carrying a cargo of salt and was stranded here on 1 May 1980.All efforts to refloat the coastal trader failed and it was broken up on the spot.

But one large portions of shipwreck and smaller, scattered bit and pieces from the Eilean Glas are visible on the flat sands only at low tide. I wonder whether they pose a risk to unwary swimmers and kite-surfers when the tide is in.

We spent almost an hour walking in the sunshine, before driving back into Dublin through Laytown, Julianstown, and along the coast road through Gormanston, Balbriggan, Skerries and Rush.

I’m back in Rush, Skerries and Blabriggan tomorrow for Sunday services in the three churches – Kenure, Holmpatrick and Saint George’s. I just hope the threatened rain holds off until later in the day.

‘What they had to leave us was a symbol: a symbol perfected in death’

“Water and fire deride/The sacrifice that we denied./Water and fire shall rot/The marred foundations we forgot,/Of sanctuary and choir./This is the death of water and fire” (TS Eliot, Little Gidding) ... sunset at Skerries Harbour (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina opens with those well-known words: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

So often we love to talk about The Irish Times as a family. And it is true that in many ways we are like a family.

We are happy for one another like every family; we are unhappy with one another in a way that is so unique that it shapes the character of a family. We are dysfunctional in the way that psychiatrists now tell us every family is dysfunctional.

But, like every family, we gossip; we rejoice in new life; we still remember, to differing degrees, those who go away; at times we refuse to talk to one another; but we cannot stop being related to one another … even when we walk away.

There is no family that is self-selecting. You cannot choose the members of your family. Only those who are married have the possibility of divorce. But, for the rest of the members of the family, they remain as they were – nieces, nephews, brothers-in-law, daughters-in-law – no matter what other members of the family think of each other.

Like every family, there are those we are not quite sure of. How do they fit into the family photograph? Every family asks questions like: “Who was Uncle Bill?” “Who said he was our uncle?” Quite often, for characters like that, there is no easy answer.

There are no easy answers to the way we relate to one another in this family that is The Irish Times. We treat each other the same way as family members treat each other … affection, joy, friendship, enjoyment, annoyance, and sometimes with the rudeness that friends or neighbours would never tolerate but is only possible within a family.

We rejoice in each other’s joys and hopes; we hand on each other’s news; we talk about ourselves behind each other’s backs; and we mourn.

In every family, we mourn those who were once with us, and who have died.

And mourning, when it is truly healthy, takes many forms.

We need to tell stories, to remember with humour, to take out the old photographs, to ask why, to question, to cry and to ... yes, to laugh.

And, of course, to give thanks.

To give thanks, because someone’s worth and value can never be reduced to the number of front-page by-lines or scoops, being quoted on ‘What it says in the Papers,’ awards, citations or prizes, sales targets surpassed, costs reduced, savings made, new customers attracted and kept ...

Death is inevitable. The poet TS Eliot talks so desolately about death in Journey of the Magi but yet so consolingly about death in A Song of Simeon. But he reminds us that death is inevitable when, in his Choruses from ‘The Rock’, he tells us:

All our knowledge brings us nearer our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death ...

The Irish writer Josephine Harte, who died last week, said once, “looking back on the history of [humanity] and going back to all the great literature and the Greeks, grief and loss is part of the human condition.”

Or, as Eliot says in his Choruses from ‘The Rock’:

There is one who remembers the way to your door:
Life you may evade, but Death you shall not.

What we remember most about the people we work with, the family we make, the friends we value – long after they have died – are so much more than that.

We have stories to tell, idiosyncrasies to remember, exploits and mistakes to delight in, to smile at, to laugh about.

But, most of all, there are the values we have shared, and that I hope we continue to share and to seek – even when they are expressed in different ways and are explored through different pathways.

The search for truth, a love for humanity, a generosity of spirit, giving voice to the unheard and the marginalised, realising that beauty is beyond what gives pleasure, that each and every one of us has an innate and irrevocable value that is there, whether others realise it or not, that lasts long beyond our work has served others.

For there is more to pursue than career, there is more to truth than impression, there is more to life than impact and worth to others.

And if we do not hold to that, then death comes before the end of life. As TS Eliot reminds us in Little Gidding:

The death of hope and despair,
This is the death of air...

The parched eviscerate soil
Gapes at the vanity of toil,
Laughs without mirth.
This is the death of earth...

Water and fire deride
The sacrifice that we denied.
Water and fire shall rot
The marred foundations we forgot,
Of sanctuary and choir.
This is the death of water and fire.

Instead, we value those who have worked with us, those who have gone before us, those who have toiled for more than wages and recognition, those who have shared our search for truth and liberty and true beauty, because we are a family with shared values. They have taught us, and we have learned from them; they have shared with us, and so we have become who we are.

And whatever our beliefs, whatever our values, even though we mourn their deaths, we can rejoice that they were, and that they continue to be, part of us, to be part of our family, and know that they and the memory of them rests in peace.

For, to return to TS Eliot and Little Gidding once again:

Whatever we inherit from the fortunate
We have taken from the defeated
What they had to leave us – a symbol:
A symbol perfected in death.
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
By the purification of the motive
In the ground of our beseeching.

And so, this morning, I give thanks to God for all who have worked hard over the generations to bring truth and news to people through the pages of The Irish Times:

● journalists who wrote and who created the ideas;
● photographers who showed us what it was truly like;
● printers, who made it possible for those words and images to be seen and read;
●IT and systems people who knew truly what communications mean;
● advertising staff, advertisers and sales teams who made it financially possible to continue doing this;
● lawyers who fenced against those who would have silenced us;
● the messengers, the cleaners, the canteen staff, security, the management, switchboard operators, the library staff, the trust, the drivers, the board, the maintenance workers …
● the readers …

“What they had to leave us [was] a symbol: a symbol perfected in death.”

And when the time for our own death comes, then like Eliot’s Simeon, we will be truly blessed when we can accept it and say with him:

Grant me thy peace …
I am dying in my own death and the deaths of those after me.
Let thy servant depart,
Having seen thy salvation.

Everyone who did their job was engaged in holy work, a holy task, a sacred undertaking, everyone who placed their trust in us, everyone we depended on … we are fortunate to have inherited from them; it is because of them that all that is well today is well. They made our work a more blessed task, and this a more blessed world.

May they ever be remembered, and may they receive their reward in glory, Amen.

The reredos in the Unitarian Church is inscribed with the Beatitudes, one on each panel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church, Cathedral, Dublin. This address was delivered at a memorial service for deceased staff members of The Irish Times in the Unitarian Church, Dublin, on 11 June 2011.