Saturday, 17 December 2011

Carols in the dark in Marlay Park

Season lights on the former La Touche house in Marlay Park after the Ecumenical Carol Service this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

I expect to be “all-carolled-out” within a few days. But meanwhile I’m still enjoying the season songs, and I took part in the local Ecumenical Christmas Carol Service in the courtyard in Marlay Park, Rathfarnham.

This service is organised each year by four neighbouring parishes in this part of south Dublin: Divine Word, Marley Grange; Good Counsel, Ballyboden; Saint John the Evangelist, Balinteer; and Whitechurch, Rathfarnham.

Normally the service is organised for the last Saturday afternoon before Christmas Day. But with Christmas Eve falling on a Saturday this year, the carol service was brought forward to this afternoon.

I arrived as the lights were beginning to twinkle on the facade of the grand 18th century house in Marlay Park and local producers and traders were beginning to take down their stalls from the Saturday market in the courtyard, which contains host of craft shops and where the stained glass artist Evie Hone once lived and worked..

The stalls at this farmers’ market include a range of artisan produce, including specialty and ethnic foods, craft works, and good coffee. After buying some Christmas presents in one of the shops in the courtyard, two of us just had enough time for coffee in the coffee shop nestled in among the trees behind the courtyard, just beside the walled garden.

As darkness fell, we joined the small crowd throng – some with lighted candles in jars and glass-holders – for the carol service, with music provided by the Marley and Ballinteer Youth Choir and the Ballyroan Recorder Group.

I took part in the Blessing with Canon Horace McKinley and other local clergy, before Dermot McGowan closed this service in the traditional way, leading us in the singing of Silent Night.

It was a cold evening. But on the way out, the old La Touche house was cheery in the dark, with lights draped on its facade. There’s another Carol Service in Christ Church Cathedral tomorrow afternoon, and I’ve been asked to read one of the lessons.

Crisis in the diocese

The Irish Times carries the following editorial on page 15 this today [17 December 2011]:

Crisis in the diocese

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin conceded with admirable honesty this week that the Dublin Archdiocese is facing its greatest crisis in almost two centuries. The number of priests in parish ministry is in decline, church attendance dwindling, and even among regular Sunday Mass-goers weekly giving is not enough to sustain parish life in the diocese. This crisis is partly due to the damaging revelations in recent years about child abuse and the Catholic Church’s ingrained failure to deal appropriately with this crushing problem. But similar revelations have been seen in every other European country. The crisis Dr Martin and his diocese are facing is one created in part by the growth of secularism and the decline in faith.

But among those who still find faith and comfort in the Catholic Church, this is a crisis that cannot be left waiting for episcopal solutions. The number of Catholics who expect the church to be there when they need it is far greater than those who are regular Sunday Mass- goers. The average Catholic still wants and expects the church to be there for the rites of passage – baptisms, weddings and funerals – to provide schools for their children and pastoral care for ageing parents, and to be a moral leaven within society. None of this comes without a cost. Yet only one Catholic family in three in Dublin is contributing to the upkeep of their local parish. And the average contribution of €2.13 is less than the bus or Luas fare from most Dublin suburbs to the city centre.
As Dr Martin knows, cracks have long been visible in the edifice. Now he must fear there is a danger that the building is beginning to crumble. Parishes are being clustered, so some parishes are without a parish priest and share a moderator or administrator with neighbouring parishes. Pressures on the diminishing number of clergy mean many funerals have an evening removal without the presence of a priest. What is afflicting the Dublin archdiocese is soon going to haunt other dioceses in Ireland – if they are not already aware of similar trends.

A crisis can be faced as either a threat or an opportunity. Some solutions can be found within the Catholic Church in Ireland. Dr Martin is aware of the need for a new catechesis or planned teaching for adult Catholics, and there is a pressing need too for the development of lay ministries, although this too is hampered by the ever-dwindling financial resources. But the most obvious answers are outside the control of Dr Martin and his colleagues in Ireland. Yet, for the majority of priests in Ireland today, these are no longer radical concepts.

Now is the time for Irish bishops to put new pressure on Rome to consider other options in ministry: the development and deployment of permanent deacons, both men and women. Remaining on the current course is arguably the road to interminable decline – despite many Irish Catholics wanting the church to be a central part of their lives. In that context, an end to celibacy and acceptance of married priests; and, eventually, the ordination of women to the priesthood, must be considered if a road to regeneration is to be found.

A castle with old-world charm and elegance

Castle Durrow, Co Laois … the venue for last night’s post-auction ball and a piece of old-world charm and elegance

I was in Castle Durrow Hotel in Co Laois last night for the Christ Church Cathedral Post-Auction Ball. The auction at Sheppard’s Irish Auction House in Durrow began at 12, and carried on into the late evening, delaying the dinner and the ball, but with everyone talking about a splendid day at which the attractions included a first painting by the original Riverdance star, Michael Flatley – using his feet.

Michael Flatley made the painting by applying paint to his shoes and then tap-dancing on a canvas. The auctioneer Philip Sheppard told The Irish Times recently: “The transmogrification of a fleeting dance movement into a fixed two-dimensional representation is, of itself, daunting; that it was created by the ‘Lord of the Dance’ makes this Jackson Pollock-esque work truly awesome.”

The auction was held to help raise funds for restoration work at Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin and to help fund urgent repairs to the Tower. All proceeds from the sale go entirely to the conservation of the tower, and Sheppard’s generously offered to waive all fees and commissions for the auction yesterday. As one of Ireland’s leading auction houses, Sheppard’s are specialists in period pieces of high quality furniture, and artworks ranging from early 18th-century portraits to contemporary paintings.

Castle Durrow is about 1½ hours from Dublin, on the N8 Dublin-Cork road, and sits immediately beside the Square in the charming – almost quaint – village of Durrow, on the banks of the River Erkina and on the borders of Co Laois and Co Kilkenny.

Castle Durrow is a unique piece of Irish history with an old-world charm and elegance that gives it the feeling of an age gone by. This is one of the few Irish country houses of importance that still retains much of its original condition. It is one of the last large pre-Palladian houses built in Ireland, and is one of the few 18th century houses for which precise building records survive.

The house was built in the early 18th century (1712-1715) for the Flower family, who held the titles of Baron Castle Durrow and Viscount Ashbrook. After the Cromwellian and Williamite wars, Irish domestic architecture in the first decades of the 18th century was developing an independence of the need for defence and economy that had marked earlier domestic building work, and a new aristocracy was beginning to enjoy the lands they had inherited.

Colonel William Flower (1685-1746) started building Castle Durrow in 1712, and the Flower family moved into the house in 1716. He was an MP for Kilkenny in the Irish House of Commons from 1715 to 1727, and for Portarlington from 1727 until he was made an Irish peer in 1733 with the title of Baron Castle Durrow, in the County of Kilkenny (sic). His son, Captain Henry Flower, 2nd Baron Castle Durrow, became the first Viscount Ashbrook in 1751. The family estates in England included Arley Hall in Cheshire and Beaumont Lodge at Old Windsor in Berkshire.

The Flower family continued to develop and improve the Castle Durrow estate over the next two centuries. Locally, they were regarded as benevolent landlords and they were largest employers in the village of Durrow.

When the banks foreclosed on the Flower family in 1922, they were forced to move out. Later, Castle Durrow was sold to a Mr Maher of Freshford, Co Kilkenny, who was more interested in the rich timber reserves than the house. By 1928, the old hard wood forests of Durrow were scarce.

The Land Commission moved in and divided up the arable portions of the estate, while the Forestry Department took over many of the woods for further plantation. Meanwhile, the great house remained empty for years.

The Bank of Ireland acquired all the property, including houses and shops, in the village, but in 1929 the Roman Catholic Parish of Durrow bought the estate for £1,800. Castle Durrow became a school, Saint Fintan’s College and Convent, and this beautiful building was saved for future generations. Peter and Shelley Stokes bought Castle Durrow in 1998 and they have since transformed it into a luxurious hotel.

Castle Durrow was decorated with Christmas trees and decorations last night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Set amid 30 acres of manicured gardens, woodlands, orchards and paddocks, Castle Durrow is a unique fusion of Queen Anne, Victorian and Georgian styles. Last night, there was a warm welcome in the house, which was decorated with Christmas trees and Christmas decorations. I looked in at the Queen Anne restaurant, with its ornate ceilings and two marble fireplaces, and its splendid views out to the terrace and across the formal gardens.

On the first floor, I was told, the master bedrooms have high ceilings, tall Georgian windows and breath-taking views of the estate. Four-poster or half-poster beds stand on polished floors next to old fireplaces and decorative wallpaper. The bedrooms in the West Wing have sleigh beds and their own fireplaces. Some bedrooms have an Oriental theme, with Oriental style wallpaper and furniture.

As the ball went on, and the dancers stayed on the floor, enjoying the friendship, fun and revelry, it was tempting to stay on in Castle Durrow last night. I left with a spot-prize for a mid-week dinner, bed and breakfast for two. Heading home under the bright, clear light of a silver half-moon, I could see for miles across the frosty, winter landscapes of Co Laois and Co Kildare . I was not back home in south Co Dublin until after 3.30 this morning.

Christmas Poems (3): ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’, by John Milton

Snow blankets the First Court in Christ’s College, Cambridge … John Milton was a student here when he wrote his poem ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

My choice of Christmas poem today is ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.’ This ode is one of the earliest poems by John Milton (1608-1674), written while he was a 21-year-old at Christ’s College, Cambridge. Although Milton wrote this nativity ode in 1629, it was not published until 1645, when it appeared as the first poem in 1645 in the Poems of Mr John Milton.

Milton wrote at a time of religious flux and political upheaval. He is best known for his epic poem Paradise Lost, which earned him an international reputation in his own lifetime. William Hayley has called Milton the “greatest English author.” His poetry and his prose reflect deep convictions and they address religious and contemporary political issues, including censorship, religious freedom and divorce.

Samuel Johnson – to whom I shall return later next week – praised Milton’s Paradise Lost as “a poem which, considered with respect to design may claim the first place, and with respect to performance, the second, among the productions of the human mind.” Johnson’s praise is true praise indeed, for the Lichfield writer was a committed Tory and the recipient of royal patronage, and he dismissed Milton for his politics, describing him as an “acrimonious and surly republican.”

Later, Milton had a great impact on the Romantic movement in England, and Wordsworth called upon him to rise from the dead and aid in returning England to its former glory.

Milton wrote this ode in December 1629, having celebrated his 21st birthday a few days earlier. Earlier that year, Milton had graduated BA at Cambridge, where he had been an undergraduate at Christ’s College, Cambridge, where I have been a guest and where I have preached.

Milton considered ordination as an Anglican priest, and stayed on at Cambridge to receive his MA in 1632. However, he never proceeded to ordination. After receiving his MA, Milton retired to his father’s home in Hammersmith, and spent six years in self-directed private study there and at Horton in Berkshire. He then travelled though France, Switzerland and Italy, returning to England as the Civil War began to unfold. Back in England, he continued to write, supporting himself as a school teacher.

By the mid-1650s, Milton was blind, yet he married a second and a third time. At the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, he went into hiding. A warrant was issued for his arrest and his writings were burnt. He was arrested and jailed briefly, and subsequently lived out his days in London and in ‘Milton’s Cottage’ in Chalfont St Giles.

In his later years, he never went to any religious services and responded with sarcasm to accounts of sermons from Nonconformist chapels. He died in 1674 and was buried at Saint Giles in Cripplegate.

The Great Gate of Christ’s College, Cambridge, where Milton was a student in 1629 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

At the time Milton wrote ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’ in Cambridge, his Puritan contemporaries were stepping up their opposition to the celebration of Christmas Day. But, with Christmas Day approaching in December 1629, and conscious of both his own birthday and his birth, Milton, who was still at Christ’s College, was moved to write this ode about Christ’s birth .

Although the ode was the first poem in his 1645 collection, this was not his first poem to write. Milton wrote many of his Latin and Greek poems at an earlier time. Yet this ode often serves as an introduction to Milton’s poetry.

This ode is one of a set of poems that celebrates important Christian events: Christ’s birth, the feast of the Circumcision, and Good Friday. These poems place Milton alongside other English poets of the 17th century, including George Herbert, John Donne and Richard Crashaw. At the same time, however, it also reflects the origins of his opposition to Archbishop William Laud and his supporters within the Church of England.

The poem describes Christ’s Incarnation and his overthrow of earthly and pagan powers, and also connects Christ’s Incarnation with his Crucifixion, for God becomes human in Christ at his Nativity to redeem fallen humanity and humanity is redeemed when Christ sacrifices himself at the Crucifixion.

Milton also connects the Nativity with the creation of the world, a theme that he expands later in Book VII of Paradise Lost. Like the other two poems of the set, and like other poems at the time, the ode describes a narrator within the poem and experiencing the Nativity.

Thomas Corns says this poem is “Milton’s first manifestation of poetic genius and, qualitatively,” and he puts it among his most significant poetic works – even before Paradise Lost. He also claims that the ode “rises in many ways above the rather commonplace achievements of Milton’s other devotional poems and stands out from the mass of other early Stuart poems about Christmas.”

The first complete setting of this ode was undertaken in 1928 by the Cambridge composer Cyril Rootham, with a setting for soli, chorus, semi-chorus and orchestra.

Later, portions of the ode were set by Ralph Vaughan Williams as part of the text of his Christmas cantata, Hodie, in 1954.

On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, John Milton


On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity
This is the month, and this the happy morn
Wherein the Son of Heav’n’s eternal King,
Of wedded Maid, and Virgin Mother born,
Our great redemption from above did bring;
For so the holy sages once did sing,
That he our deadly forfeit should release,
And with his Father work us a perpetual peace.


That glorious Form, that Light unsufferable,
And that far-beaming blaze of Majesty,
Wherewith he wont at Heav’n’s high council-table,
To sit the midst of Trinal Unity,
He laid aside, and here with us to be,
Forsook the courts of everlasting day,
And chose with us a darksome house of mortal clay.


Say Heav’nly Muse, shall not thy sacred vein
Afford a present to the Infant God?
Hast thou no verse, no hymn, or solemn strain,
To welcome him to this his new abode,
Now while the heav’n, by the Sun’s team untrod,
Hath took no print of the approaching light,
And all the spangled host keep watch in squadrons bright?


See how from far upon the eastern road
The star-led wizards haste with odours sweet:
O run, prevent them with thy humble ode,
And lay it lowly at his blessed feet;
Have thou the honour first thy Lord to greet,
And join thy voice unto the angel quire,
From out his secret altar touched with hallowed fire.

Tomorrow: ‘Nativity’ by John Donne

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin