Sunday, 5 August 2012

Books for sale and a beach to walk

Looking out to Lambay Island from the beach at The Quay in Portrane this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

We had another good afternoon at the Heart-to-Hand sale at The Quay in Portrane today. The end-of-day takings passed €8,000 for a second day, and the book stall brought in over €330, an appreciable increase on yesterday’s takings.

I arrived in Portrane immediately after the Cathedral Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral Dublin ... and the rain that had been pouring down unremittingly all morning stopped just as we arrived, leaving us with a dry, bright afternoon.

I still managed to get time off for a contemplative walk on the beach below The Quay ... the tide was lapping against the grey and yellow sand, the blue skies gave a clear blue colour to the pools of water forming in the rocks, and standing on the shore it was possible to pick out the features on Lambay Island clearly and crisply.

The sale continues tomorrow afternoon. Although the giant Toblerone was one by a happy child near the end of the day, there are still stacks of books in the big, red-and-white marquee at the gate, and many, many more items for sale ... all in aid of projects supported by Heart-to-Hand in Romania and Albania.

Books for sale in the big marquee in Portrane this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

A tour of ancient church sites on the banks of the Shannon

Saint Brendan’s Cathedral, Clonfert ... so small and so remote it is hard to imagine this was the centre of a cathedral city (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

It was one of those summer days filled with sunshine – and there have been some of them this summer. I was staying in Athlone, and found the town was a good base for visiting some of the most Ireland’s earliest monastic sites on the both banks of the River Shannon.

In the course of that one summer’s day, I visited Saint Brendan’s Cathedral in Clonfert, the ruins of Portumna Priory and Clonmacnoise, where I was brought on a journey through Irish church history from the time of Saint Patrick through the arrival of the Anglo-Normans, the mediaeval changes and the Reformation to the Church of Ireland of today.

A small and remote cathedral

The West Doorway of Clonfert Cathedral is the greatest Hiberno-Romanesque masterpiece (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Saint Brendan’s Cathedral in Clonfert, south Co Galway, is one of four cathedrals still open in the United Dioceses of Limerick and Killaloe. Sunday services are only four or five times a year and the cathedral is so small and so remote, it is hard to imagine that this sleepy village was once a cathedral city.

Saint Brendan the Navigator, who is buried here, founded a monastery in Clonfert in 563. The monastery predates stories of the saint’s voyages, and Clonfert became one of the foremost monastic schools in Ireland and the inspiration for many great missionary ventures across Europe.

Saint Peter and Saint Paul ... Victorian glass in the early 13th century east windows (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The monastery was burned in 1016, 1164, and again in 1179, but in its heyday Clonfert may have had 3,000 monks. The centuries-old Yew Walk, with its cross-shaped paths, looks like church transept with a green ceiling. Local lore says the monks walked under the trees in silence, reading their daily office. However, the Diocese of Clonfert was not organised until 1111 and the diocesan boundaries were not fixed until 1152.

The first stone cathedral here was built around 1167 by Bishop Petrus Ua Mórda, and the earliest part of the cathedral dates from this period. The West Doorway is the crowning glory of the cathedral and the greatest masterpiece of Hiberno-Romanesque work, and the cathedral is listed in the 2000 World Monuments Watch.

The doorway has eight orders of jambs, surmounted by seven orders of arches and crowned by a triangular pediment bordered by carved ropes. The triangular pointed hoods and decorations form a unique mediaeval gallery with a truly fabulous variety of motifs, including human faces, bizarre beasts, formalised flowers and interlacing geometrical shapes, representing the way all creation points to the Trinity.

Inside, the early 13th century east windows in the chancel are among the best late Romanesque windows, filled with Victorian glass of a paired Saint Peter and Saint Paul, each decorated with strange swastika-shaped halos.

A mermaid, with a comb and mirror in the 15th century chancel arch (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The chancel arch, inserted in the 15th century, displays angels, a rosette and a mermaid holding a mirror and a comb. The supporting arches of the west tower are decorated with 15th century heads. The vestry at the north side of the cathedral also dates from the 15th century.

The cathedral also has a 15th century carved font and gravestones of great antiquity, one with a Celtic cross and a Latin inscription in Celtic lettering. At one time, there were two transepts, but the Gothic north transept has been demolished and the Romanesque south transept is now in ruins.

Impoverished diocese

Clonfert was such a remote, small and impoverished diocese that many mediaeval bishops refused to live there, and there were lengthy periods when it was without a bishop.

Robert, a Benedictine monk who became Bishop of Clonfert in 1296, was also a suffragan bishop in the Diocese of Canterbury. Robert Petit, a Franciscan friar who became bishop in 1320, was a suffragan bishop in Worcester and Exeter. Another Franciscan, Seán Ó hEidhin, was made Bishop of Clonfert twice, in 1438 and again in 1441, but was challenged by three rival claimants and probably never took office. Instead, he was a suffragan bishop in Worcester, London and Exeter, and when he died was a vicar in Essex.

The monastery survived until the 16th century. During the reign of Elizabeth I, there were proposals for a university in Clonfert, but the university went to Dublin instead.

Clonfert Palace was built in 1640 by Bishop Robert Dawson, and was home to the bishops until Christopher Butson died in 1836. When Clonfert and Kilmacduagh were united with Killaloe and Kilfernora, the palace was sold to the Trench family. The last tenant was the British fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley. The palace was destroyed by fire in 1954, and the ruins are now covered in ivy, with trees growing in and around it.

Clonfert is part of a wider parish spread through three counties – Galway, Tipperary and Offaly – and three provinces – Connacht, Munster and Leinster. The Revd Alan Nevin is Rector and the other churches are in Eyrecourt, Portumna and Banagher.

A ruined priory

Portumna is on the northern shores of Lough Derg, where the Shannon divides Co Galway from Co Tipperary. (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Heading south, I stayed in the parish as I passed through Eyrecourt to Portumna on the northern shores of Lough Derg, where the Shannon divides Co Galway from Co Tipperary. The lawns to the south of Portumna Castle sweep down to the lake shores, with the ruins of Portumna Priory a few paces to the east.

The lawns to the south of Portumna Castle sweep down to the shores of Lough Derg (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The priory was built around 1254 by Cistercian monks from Dunbrody Abbey, Co Wexford, but became a Dominican priory around 1426 at the insistence of Pope Martin V.

The ruined priory in Portumna once served as the Church of Ireland parish church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The priory was dissolved at the Reformation and passed to the Earls of Clanricarde, who built Portumna Castle. The priory was revived in 1640, and Patrick Sarsfield was married there in 1689. But the friars left again in 1712 and the priory church served the Church of Ireland parish until a new church was built at the castle gates in 1832.
The ruined cloisters in Portumna Priory (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The ruined priory is now a national monument. The church has fine windows in the east wall and south transept, an unusual west doorway surmounted by a window, and partially restored cloisters.

River-side monastery

Clonmacnoise, on the banks of the Shannon, stands at the crossroads of Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

From Portumna, I crossed the Shannon and followed the road north through Banagher, along the east banks of the Shannon, to Clonmacnoise in Co Offaly. This ancient monastic site stands at the crossroads of Ireland where the main east-west road along the Esker Ridge crossed the river as it flowed from north to south through the Midlands.

Clonmacnoise was founded in 548 by Saint Ciarán and seven companions. He died of the yellow plague within a year later but Clonmacnoise grew and expanded, despite constant raids and attacks. The early wooden buildings gave way to stone structures and the population grew to 2,000 by the 11th century, making the monastery a major centre of learning and creativity.

The rich heritage of Clonmacnoise includes the Cathedral, several churches, high crosses and towers, and numerous carved mediaeval graves (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Clonmacnoise had links with both the Kings of Connacht and the Kings of Tara, and many of them are buried here. In the 12th century, Clonmacnoise became the seat of a diocese, but it was always overshadowed by the neighbouring, richer and more powerful Diocese of Meath.

In the late 12th century, as Athlone became the main trading town in the midlands and the pivotal crossing-point on the Shannon, the monastery fell into decline. The people living in the monastic city drifted north to Athlone and – apart from the ruined castle – none of the domestic buildings now survive.

The arrival of continental religious orders, including the Augustinians, Benedictines, Cistercians and Franciscans, hastened the decline of the monastery. It was finally laid in ruins by the English garrison in Athlone in 1522.

High crosses and round towers

The Cathedral is the largest church in Clonmacnoise (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The site has a rich heritage that includes the Cathedral, the Church of Ireland parish church, several other churches, high crosses, round towers, and numerous carved mediaeval grave slabs.

The Cathedral, the largest church, was built in 909 by Flann Sinna, King of Tara, and Abbot Colmán. The last High King, Rory O’Connor, was buried near the altar in 1198. The west doorway dates from 1200 and the Gothic-style north doorway or “Whispering Arch” was inserted by in the 1450s by Odo, Dean of Clonmacnoise. The carved images over the north door represent Saint Dominic, Saint Patrick and Saint Francis.

The Gothic-style north doorway or ‘Whispering Arch’ was inserted by in the cathedral by Odo, Dean of Clonmacnoise, in the 1450s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Temple Melaghlin (1200) is also known as the King’s Church, and generations of Melaghlin Kings of Meath are buried here.

Temple Dowling and the South Cross ... of the three great high crosses at Clonmacnoise (Photograph: Patrick Comerford 2012)

Temple Dowling is a tiny tenth century church but is named after Edward Dowling, who renovated and extended it in 1689, placing a stone carving of his coat of arms above the door. Temple Hurpan, a 17th century annex, was once used for burials.

Temple Finghín, a 12th century Romanesque church ... the earliest example of a church and round tower in a single structure (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Temple Finghín is a 12th century Romanesque church with a round tower belfry, McCarthy’s Tower, where the nave and chancel meet – perhaps the earliest example of a church and round tower in a single structure. When the church was vandalised in 1864, the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland initiated a landmark prosecution and later repaired the cap of the tower.

Temple Connor, or Saint Kieran’s Church, dating from the early 13th century, has been the Church of Ireland parish church since the 18th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Temple Connor, or Saint Kieran’s Church, dating from the early 13th century, has been the Church of Ireland parish church since the 18th century. Clonmacnoise is part of the Athlone union of parishes in the Diocese of Meath, and during the summer a service is held here at 4 p.m. each Sunday and on Saint Ciarán’s Day (9 September) and an annual open-air service takes place on the third Sunday in July.

Temple Ciarán, the smallest church, is traditionally the burial place of Saint Ciarán. But, while excavations unearthed the Clonmacnoise Crosier, no saintly remains were found. To the west, low-lying stones are all that remain of Temple Kelly.

The Round Tower was built as a free-standing belfry by Turlough O’Connor, King of Connacht, and Abbot Gilla Chroist O Malone in 1124. It was hit by lightning 11 years later, and has been rebuilt in stages in the centuries that followed.
The three main High Crosses on the site have been moved to the visitors’ centre and replicas now stand at their original locations.

The Cross of the Scriptures is one of Ireland’s finest surviving high crosses, and has panels with Biblical scenes, including the Crucifixion, Christ in the Tomb, and the Last Judgment. The shaft and base are all that survive of the North Cross, the oldest of the High Crosses. Its decorations, which have been compared with the Book of Kells, include people, animals and geometrical interlacing. The South Cross has a rough carving of the Crucifixion on its west face.

Clomacnoise has been a national monument since 1877, and the Church of Ireland handed it to the Government in 1955. For centuries, the title of Dean of Clonmacnoise has been held by the Rectors of Trim. But Clonmacnoise, with its churches, towers, high crosses, and castle ruins, all on the banks of the River Shannon, remains one of the most important and picturesque ecclesiastical sites in Ireland.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This essay was first published in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) in August 2012.

‘I, the prisoner of the Lord …’

The former prison cells in the Guildhall, Lichfield … what keeps you prisoner today? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 5 August 2012

The Ninth Sunday after Trinity

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin,

11 a.m.: Choral Eucharist

Exodus 16: 2-4, 9-15; Psalm 78: 23-29; Ephesians 4: 1-16; John 6: 24-35.


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

You know what it’s like to come home late after a hard day’s work.

It’s about 6 or 7 in the evening and you’re tired.

All you want to do is to sit down … with the family, at dinner, or in front of the Olympics on television.

And then, the ’phone rings.

Do you remember the days when it was someone asking if you would like a new credit card? No longer. But it could be a cold caller, asking you to change your cable television provider, your internet service, or who charges you for your electricity bill.

I love it when it’s someone asking for my opinions, political, social or economic. I can let rip, and know someone is listening.

There is a well-known story of the pollster who called one evening. The man who took the call was able to give very forthright views on the civil war in Syria, the presidential candidates in America, famine in Africa, Greece’s place in the Euro, how to deal with the former directors of Anglo-Irish Bank, and which party to vote for at the next general election.

But when it came to questions about what cereal the children eat for breakfast, what they bring to school for their lunch, or the cost of a pint of milk, he asked to pass the phone to his wife.

The pollster was insistent. He could only deal with one individual for each form he was filling out.

But the man was hesitant.

“Why?” asked the bewildered caller.

“Well, in this household, I deal with the big questions, like war, peace, famine and politics. And my wife answers all the small questions, like what the children eat and wear and where we go on holidays.”

Macro-economics. Micro-economics. There you have them.

Yes, we all have opinions about what’s going on out there.

We know what’s wrong in the world, and who should go to jail for all the suffering in the world.

But we have little idea of what imprisons us ourselves.

If we were asked what was wrong in the world we would probably all agree – wars, famines, cruel dictatorships, great disparities in wealth, unemployment, emigration, unjust access to health care, education and housing – even if we disagree about the political steps to take to end those injustices.

But if we were asked what was wrong in our own lives, we would all have very individual answers.

If Christ fed not just the 5,000, but all the hungry in the world; if Christ healed not just the blind and lame, but all those who needed healing in the world; if Christ cast out not just the demons in the demoniacs he met, but cast all the evils that beset the world … well, would your life be any better today, this morning, now?

Do we follow Christ in the hope of miracles and signs? Or, because we find something lacking in our own interior? (see John 6: 26)

Saint Paul in our Epistle reading this morning talks about being a prisoner in the Lord (Ephesians 4: 1) and about Christ making captivity itself a captive (verse 8).

The Library of Celsus at Ephesus ... Saint Paul may have been a prisoner in Ephesus for nine months (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Paul knows what it is to be a prisoner, and the Ephesians he is writing to know what is for him to be a prisoner too. It is widely thought that he spent nine months in prison in Ephesus, and visiting tourists are still pointed to the tower that is said to have been Paul’s prison.

But move from the past to the present – what keeps you captive?

What keeps you a prisoner?

What keeps you and me from being free to do the things we want to do?

Is it the search for what Christ calls this morning “the food that perishes” (John 6: 27)?

Or is it what drives that search for that “food that perishes”?

What are you, what am I, constantly trying to achieve, to attain, to prove, that in reality holds me prisoner, that in reality tricks me into imagining that there is something out there that – if only I could grasp it – I would find the key to happiness?

A new car?

A bigger house?

A more lavish lifestyle?

Maeve Binchy was refreshingly honest about being one of the richest writers in the world. “I used to think if I was very rich I’d be Mother Teresa and give it all away,” she said once. “But of course, when you get it you don’t.” She pointed out, however, that Mother Teresa “never decided she wanted a conservatory, or that she wanted a better car, or a taxi account.”

We are prisoners to our futures, dreaming idle dreams about what might be, and what might make us happy.

We are prisoners to our present, unwilling to accept that what is just good enough is in fact good enough or unable to take the courage needed to challenge injustice and oppression.

We are prisoners to our past, blaming our teachers, our parents, our classroom bullies, for angst today, for not making the team, for not winning the medals, for not getting the big job or the big house, and for our unwillingness to grasp tomorrow.

The Holy Spirit calls on us not to fear for the future. For there is a future that is beyond both our fears and our ambitions, that invites the Church to call all into the Kingdom of God, where all shall be fed without discrimination, where no-one shall ever hunger or thirst (see John 6: 35).

Christ reassures us in the present. He loves us as we are now, not as we would like others to see us, not as our parents wanted us to turn out. Christ loves you as you are here, this morning, sitting here, now, without you working for it (see John 6: 27).

God the Father loves you from the very beginning, for you are made – just as you are here this morning – you are made in God’s own image and likeness … and when God makes us, God makes no mistakes.

Or, as Saint Paul tells us this morning, God as Father binds us together as his children, as brothers, and sisters (Ephesians 4: 6).

Christ in his victory free “all of us” (verse 13) so that we are built up in love (verse 16).

And the Spirit unites us in love as one (verse 4).

And so, the past, present and future are in God’s hands:

● In love, God makes us in God’s own image;

● in love, God takes on our image and likeness in Christ;

● and in love, God calls us back to be restored to that image and likeness in glory.

That’s God’s macroeconomics and God’s microeconomics in one.

And as we allow ourselves to grow into that love, we are built up in the Body of Christ, so that, as Saint Paul says this morning, “all of us come to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4: 13).

In this we can find the true unity of the church, a unity founded firmly not in the judgmental demands and narrow impositions, demands and impositions that bring division. But we find this unity in the church in the humility, gentleness, patience and loving forbearance that are given by the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4: 2-3).

In this we are empowered as a new humanity.

Let us pray and hope that we allow ourselves to do something about it … in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Cathedral Eucharist on Sunday 5 August 2012.

Preaching in Christ Church Cathedral this morning

Stained glass saints ... a window in the Baptistry in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

Patrick Comerford

This morning [5 August 2012] is the Ninth Sunday after Trinity.

This is my week as the canon-in-residence in Christ Church Cathedral and I am preaching at the Cathedral Eucharist at 11 a.m. this morning.

The Revd Robert Lawson is presiding at the Eucharist, which is being sung by the choir of Saint George’s Parish Church, Belfast.

The Eucharist setting is Stanford in C & F. Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) was born in Dublin, and studied at Trinity College Cambridge, where he later became the organist. He was a founding professor of the Royal College of Music, where he taught composition, and Professor Music at Cambridge.

Ralph Vaughan Williams once said: “In Stanford’s music the sense of style, the sense of beauty, the feeling of a great tradition is never absent. His music is in the best sense of the word Victorian, that is to say it is the musical counterpart of the art of Tennyson, Watts and Matthew Arnold.”

The Communion Motet this morning is Colin Mawby’s Ave verum corpus.

You can watch this morning’s service as a webcast from 11 a.m. at: http://www.christchurchdublin.ie/Worship/Webcast.htm