Saturday, 21 January 2012

Remembering my grandfather 90 years after his death

A wreath of poppies on my grandfather’s grave in Portrane this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

I was ninety years ago today that my grandfather, Stephen Edward Comerford, died on 21 January 1921.

This afternoon, I visited Saint Catherine’s, the small old Church of Ireland churchyard where he is buried with my grandmother, Bridget (nee Lynders), between Portrane Castle and the Burrow Beach in Portrane in Fingal, north Co Dublin.

I never knew my grandfather, and there is nothing on the grave to indicate how or why he died. But it was important to visit his grave today on the 90th anniversary of his death, and to lay a wreath of poppies at the foot of his gravestone.

It is only three months since I visited Thessaloniki in northern Greece to retrace my grandfather’s footsteps while he was posted there with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in the winter of 1915-1916 at the height of World War I.

Stephen Comerford was only 46 or 47 years old when he was stationed in Thessaloniki. As I walked through the streets and up the hills of Thessaloniki last October, I imagined how he must have watched his comrades die from the wounds they received in Balkan battles, from the bitter cold of winter and from the frostbite – many of them young enough to be his sons, while his wife and children wondered whether they were ever going to see him again.

Looking down on the city of Thessaloniki and out to the Thermaic Gulf ... and recalling my grandfather’s days here during World War I (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

On my way up, I was conscious of his presence on those slopes in Thessaloniki. As I stopped at a church here, a monastery there, I imagined the prayers he prayed, hoping he would return alive to his wife and children in Ranelagh and to her family in Portrane?

Yes, Stephen Comerford returned alive from Thessaloniki – discharged in May 1916 on medical grounds because he had contracted malaria in Thessaloniki. Had he not returned alive, my father would not have been conceived, and I would not have been born.

Thessaloniki was very much on my mind as I laid that poppy wrath this afternoon. But the inscription on his gravestone makes no mention of his part in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, or of how he had died.

Ironically, the gravestone also gives the wrong age for him at the time of his death. Stephen Comerford (1867-1921) was born on 28 December 1867, and died on 21 January 1921 at the age of 53. But the gravestone says he died at the age of 49 – the age he was at the end of World War I and at the time of my father’s birth.

As his health deteriorated, he must have remained 49 for ever in my grandmother’s memory.

Stephen and Bridget (Lynders) Comerford on their wedding day in Donabate in 1905 (Comerford family collection)

The English wartime poet Rupert Brooke wrote before he died in World War I:

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

In Ireland, my grandfather remained 49 for ever in my grandmother’s heart. But there is some corner in Thessaloniki that is for ever Ireland, and there is this one part of Portrane that is for ever Thessaloniki.

Perhaps my grandfather might have enjoyed my cutting of the Vasilopita with the Greek community in Dublin last night. But his memory was honoured today. This old soldier was not forgotten, even after ninety years. In the centenary of commemorations we are facing over the next decade, the contribution of men like my grandfather must not be undervalued, still less forgotten.

The tide was out on the Burrow Beach, and in fading lights of the afternoon there were small ripples and pools in the golden sands. As I headed towards the Quay, I resolved that by the one-hundredth anniversary of his death, there should be a new gravestone, recalling my grandfather’s true age, his part in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers ... and, perhaps, even a mention of Thessaloniki.

Celebrating New Year with the Greek and Chinese communities

Father Prodromos and Dr Labros Chatzis, President of the Hellenic Community of Ireland, at the cutting of the Vasilopita in Corfu last night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

I was in Corfu last night for the cutting of the Vasilopita – a traditional Greek family ceremony that takes place after New Year’s Day but before the beginning of Great Lent.

No, not Corfu in Greece. Corfu, the new Greek restaurant in Parliament Street, close to City Hall in Dublin.

The restaurant was packed with members of the Hellenic Community – Greeks and Cypriots, and a few Irish (and even Mexican) friends too. There were so many of us there last night that Adam Kritidis and his colleagues worked hard in moving chairs and tables around so we could all sit together.

Long tables into the early hours of the morning in Corfu in Parliament Street last night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Greeks traditionally eat Vasilopita, a cake in which a gold coin has been baked, on 1 January. Saint Basil, whose feast day falls on 1 January, has a Santa-like place in Greek lore. Many private or public institutions – such as societies, clubs, workplaces, companies, and so on – cut their Vasilopita at some other time between New Year’s Day and the beginning of the Great Lent, and those celebrations range from impromptu potluck gatherings to formal receptions or balls.

Traditionally, the cake is served in a sequence: the first piece is set aside for Saint Basil, one of the “Three Hierarchs”; the second piece is for the home; and the rest of the cake is then handed out amongst family members, from oldest to youngest.

Last night’s cake was blessed by Father Prodromos, the deacon in the Greek Orthodox parish, who is finishing his degree at Maynooth and hopes to be ordained priest in Iraklion in Crete later this summer. The cake was then cut by Father Prodromos and Dr Labros Chatzis, President of the Hellenic Community of Ireland. The first pieces were handed to the Greek and Cypriot ambassadors, and I was honoured to be

A gold coin is wrapped and hidden in the cake by slipping it into the dough before baking, and whoever finds the coin in their slice is said to be promised a lucky year. I did not find the coin, but I felt blessed to be handed the priest’s slice by Father Prodromos and Dr Chatzis.

The Three Holy Hierarchs

The Three Holy Hierarchs (Οι Τρείς Ιεράρχες) are Saint Basil the Great (Saint Basil of Caesarea), Saint Gregory the Theologian (Saint Gregory of Nazianzus) and Saint John Chrysostom. These three highly influential bishops from the Early Church played pivotal roles in shaping our theology.

In 11th century Constantinople, there were disputes about which of the three hierarchs was the greatest. Some argued that Saint Basil was superior to the other two because of his explanations of Christian faith and his monastic example. Those who argued for Saint John Chrysostom countered that the “Golden Mouthed” (Χρυσόστομος) Patriarch of Constantinople was unmatched in both eloquence and in bringing sinners to repentance. Those who preferred Saint Gregory the Theologian pointed to the majesty, purity and profundity of his sermons and his defence of the faith against the Arian heresy.

All three have separate feast days in January: Saint Basil on 1 January, Saint Gregory on 25 January, and Saint John Chrysostom on 27 January. Eastern Orthodox tradition says the three hierarchs appeared together in 1084 in a vision to Saint John Mauropous of Euchaita and said that they were equal before God: “There are no divisions among us, and no opposition to one another.” As a result, around 1100 the Emperor Alexios Komnenos declared 30 January a feast day commemorating all three in common.

The 60-ft Chinese dragon from Hong Kong marked the beginning of the Year of the Dragon in Temple Bar last night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Earlier in the evening I was invited to Meeting House Square in Temple Bar for the Dublin inauguration of the Chinese New Year, in the presence of the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Andrew Montague, and the Chinese Ambassador, Luo Linquan.

The Chinese New Year, which begins on Monday, is the Year of the Dragon, and the highlight of last night’s performance was a specially-commissioned, 60-ft Chinese dragon, made in Hong Kong.

I was told last night that I too was born in the Year of the Dragon – not that these things matter to me. But it is said that those born in the Year of the Dragon like to spend money and are charitable with others, that we are financial risk-takers and that we are usually successful. In addition, they say, we are always straightforward in financial dealings and can always be trusted.

I emphasise, I was told this – not that these things matter to me.

I was also told of a Chinese proverb that says: “If you ignore the dragon, it will eat you. If you try to confront the dragon, it will overpower you. If you ride the dragon, you will take advantage of its might and its power.”

A preview of Varvara Shavrova’s ‘The Opera’ in Meeting House Square in Dublin last night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Afterwards, we were invited to the Gallery of Photography for a preview of The Opera, a spell-binding work on the traditional Peking Opera by Varvara Shavrova, with her sensitive insights into the fragile world of one of the most revered Chinese art forms.

It was busy, multicultural evening, with beautiful insights into the diversity and joys of the communities that make up this city today.

Earlier in the day, walking back into the city centre from a funeral in All Saints’ Church, Phibsborough, I passed by Greek Street, at the back of the Four Courts ... and wondered that perhaps whether this old street name indicates that Dublin has always been a culturally diverse and rich city.

Greek Street in Dublin ... a sign of centuries-old diversity multiculturalism (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)