Friday, 5 April 2013

An afternoon at Malahide Castle, the gardens and the beach

Malahide Castle ... home to the Talbot family for almost 800 years (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

Although the cold snap has left a bite in the air and temperatures in Dublin are still in single figures. But there were bright blue skies with only small trickles of white cloud, and four of us drove 16km north of Dublin to Malahide for lunch at the Avoca Foodhall beside Malahide Castle.

We then visited Malahide Castle, which has reopened to the public, with a new Talbot Family Exhibition and interpretation area on the ground floor of the castle and with guided tours in the family rooms above.

Later, we visited the castle’s walled gardens, which recently opened to the public for the first time.

Welcome to Malahide Castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Malahide Castle, set in 250 acres of parkland, was both a fortress and a private home for almost eight centuries and displays an interesting mix of architectural styles. The Talbot family lived here from 1185 until Milo John Reginald Talbot (1912-1973), 8th Baron Talbot of Malahide and the last resident Lord Talbot, died in 1973.

The Talbots of Malahide Castle were a branch of the Talbot family of Staffordshire, Earls of Shrewsbury. Richard Talbot arrived in Ireland in 1174, and in 1185 he was granted the lands and harbour of Malahide by Henry II. The first castle was possibly a motte and bailey castle, the earthwork remains of a motte survive at Wheatfields, south-east of Malahide, before a stone castle was built on the site of the current Malahide Castle.

Malahide Castle was enlarged in the 15th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The castle was enlarged in the reign of Edward IV, who in 1476 granted Thomas Talbot all the customs of merchandise brought into the port of Malahide and the rank of Hereditary Admiral of the port.

After Milo Talbot, a former British Ambassador to Laos, died on a Greek cruise in 1973, his only sister, the Hon Rose Talbot, sold the castle at auction in May 1976, partly to pay death duties and inheritance taxes. It was bought by Dublin County Council for £650,000.

However, many of the contents, notably furnishings, had been sold in advance, leading to considerable public controversy. Hundreds of years of accumulated furniture and treasures, including some beautiful Irish Chippendale – some were bought by Mick Jagger for his French chateau – were lost to Malahide Castle, although some were retrieved by private and government parties. She then moved to the Malahide estate in Australia, and died in Tasmania on 14 February 2009.

Inside Malahide Castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The house is furnished with period furniture and an extensive collection of Irish portrait paintings, mainly from the National Gallery. Four main rooms are open to the public: the Oak room, the Small and Great Drawing Rooms and the Great Hall.

We began our tour of the castle in the Oak Room, which is panelled in wood with large roof wooden roof beams. The carved panels set into the north wall depict Biblical scenes, including Adam and Eve, the Temptation, the Expulsion, and the Sale of Joseph.

The Small and Great Drawing Rooms are recognised as one of the finest suites of mid-Georgian rooms in Ireland. The smaller of the two rooms originally served as a Dining Room. The Large Drawing Room shows the transitional character of the mid Georgian decoration of these rooms, from rococo to neo-classical. The drawing rooms were rebuilt between 1765 and 1782 after a fire in the west wing of the building, and two circular corner turrets were added in picturesque Gothic Revival style.

The Great Hall was significantly refashioned around 1825 and most features date to this period, including the joinery and fireplaces. The history of the Talbot family is recorded in the Great Hall, with portraits of generations of the family. The minstrels’ gallery of 1825 is an unusual feature: the balusters are of a type popular in the Elizabethan period, while the frieze is made up of fragments of carvings dating from the 16th or 17th centuries.

At the opposite end of the Great Hall, one wall is almost totally covered with Jan Wyck’s great painting of the Battle of the Boyne. The Talbot family played a leading role at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690: it is said 14 members of the Talbot family had breakfast together in this hall on the morning of the battle, but only one of the 14 cousins returned to Malahide when the battle was over.

In the Great Hall, this afternoon’s tour guide also claimed the castle is haunted by at least five ghosts, including Lady Maud Plunkett, who is buried in the graveyard and a 16th century castle caretaker named Puck.

Off the great hall is the Library. The Talbot family was connected to Samuel Johnson’s friend, the author and diarist James Boswell, and part of a unique collection of his papers were discovered here in the 1920s.

A peacock in the walled garden at Malahide Castle this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Later, we visited the castle’s walled gardens, which recently opened to the public for the first time.

A new interpretation and exhibition area in the courtyard tells visitors the story of the walled gardens as seen through the eyes of Milo Talbot, the creator of the gardens and grounds as seen today.

Milo Talbot’s garden and plant collecting records are his great legacy to Malahide. The first evidence of ornamental gardening at Malahide Castle appears on the Ordnance Survey maps in 1872, when the triangular section of the north-west corner was sectioned off for flowers. Originally this was a kitchen garden for growing fruit and vegetables, and the walled garden replaced an earlier garden to the south-east of the castle.

The gardens were extended in 1902 by Isabel Talbot, the second wife of the fifth Lord Talbot and a keen gardener, and again in 1946 as Milo Talbot’s plant collection increased. The garden is divided into different areas and gives the impression of a series of secret gardens. There are seven glasshouses ranging in size from the Primula house to the Victorian Conservatory.

Inside the Victorian Conservatory at Malahide Castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

A new book published last year asks whether Milo, the last Lord Talbot to live in Malahide Castle, was one of the Cambridge spies. In his 800-page family history, Into the Lion’s Den: A Biographical History of the Talbots of Malahide, Stephen Talbot says that while Milo was at Trinity College Cambridge in the 1930s, he was a favourite pupil of Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt. Talbot himself passed into the diplomatic service where he was involved in sensitive security work during and after World War II.

He was the British Ambassador in Laos in the 1950s, but took early retirement shortly after Blunt was unmasked as a spy. He was in negotiations with the Irish Government to hand Malahide Castle over to the State as a Taoiseach’s residence when he died unexpectedly at the aged of 60 on a cruise with a friend in the Greek islands in 1973.

Suspicions were aroused because there was no post-mortem, the friend who was with him on the cruise was never interviewed, and a maid saw his only sister burning all his papers after his death. The new book sets out circumstances from which it might be inferred that he was murdered either by Soviet or British intelligence.

The ruins of Malahide Abbey, in the grounds of Malahide Castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

And what about the links between Malahide and Dr Johnson’s biographer, James Boswell?

Richard Wogan Talbot (1846-1921), the fifth Baron Talbot of Malahide, mar¬ried Emily Boswell, great-granddaughter of James Boswell (1740-1795). When Emily died in 1898, Lord Talbot inherited the Boswell estate in Auchinleck in Scotland. When Auchinleck was sold, its contents were moved to Malahide Castle in 1905 and 1914.

Along with contents came a Flemish ebony cabinet that became known as the James Boswell Cabinet, and that contained the Boswell Papers. At the time, it was one of the largest and most important finds of English literary manuscripts.

In 1920, Professor Chauncey Brewster Tinker of Yale placed a notice in The Times, announcing his plans for an edition of Boswell’s letters and asking the owners of letters to get in touch. A postcard from Dublin, with an illegible signature, suggested he should visit Malahide Castle. However, a letter to Lord Talbot did not receive a positive response.

In 1925, Professor Tinker tried again, and this time he visited the castle. Lord Talbot refused him permission to publish the manuscripts as he considered that many of Boswell’s Papers were of a “rather delicate nature.” Dr. ASW Rosenback then offered £50,000 for the contents of the Boswell Cabinet, but this was refused in¬dignantly. In 1927, Colonel Ralph H. Isham, an American collector of 18th-century rarities, visited Malahide Castle, and with extraordinary diplomacy arranged to buy the Boswell Papers. In 1930, a box supposed to contain croquet equipment was unearthed in a cupboard in the castle. It contained more manuscripts, and these too were bought by Colonel Isham.

In 1937, during another search of the castle, Colonel Isham found more Boswell Papers. Then, when World War II broke out in 1939, another large cache of papers was found in the loft of an outbuilding filled with old furniture from Auchinleck.

But the story was not over yet. Lord Talbot, who had held onto one important manuscript, died in 1948. Colonel Isham bought this in 1950, and along with it acquired a number of additional papers that previously had been over¬looked.

Today, Yale University is today the centre of Boswell Scholarship and holds both the Boswell Papers and the Boswell Ebony Cabinet, which for many years was in the Castle Oak Room, where we began today’s tour of the castle. The remainder of the Talbot family papers from Malahide – some dating back to the late 13th century – were acquired in 1987 by the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

On the beach at Malahide this afternoon, looking out towards Lambay Island (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

After visiting the walled gardens, with the Victorian Conservatory, pond bell tower and bright peacocks – we drove back through Malahide village, and went for a walk on the beach at Malahide.

The skies were still blue, there was a hint of spring in the air, and there were clear views out to Lambay Island, which had once been part of the estate of the Talbots, Lords and Admirals of Malahide.

An Easter poem written 400 years ago this week

The Crucifixion … a modern image by Peter Ball in Saint Stephen’s Chapel, Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Last Sunday morning [31 March 2013], while I was blogging from Lichfield, I remarked that in the calendar of the Church of England 31 March recalls the life and work of John Donne, one of England’s most celebrated poets. However, I said, because Easter Day fell on 31 March few people were likely to give much thought to John Donne this morning.

But I am reminded too that this year [2013] also marks the 400th anniversary of John Donne (1573-1631) writing his poem Good Friday 1613: Travelling Westwards.

John Donne wrote that poem in a letter to his friend, Sir Henry Goodere of Polesworth Hall, a patron of the arts and leader of the Polesworth Group of poets. Polesworth Hall, a short distance east of Tamworth, was originally Polesworth Abbey, founded by Saint Editha, who gave her name to the parish church in Tamworth. Polesworth Hall, which has been Polesworth Vicarage since the 1930s, is just 18 km (12 miles) from Lichfield, although today the parish is in the Diocese of Birmingham.

In 1613, Good Friday fell on 2 April, and on Tuesday last, 2 April 2013, a workshop exploring Polesworth’s rich cultural heritage of modern-day poets and writers was held at Polesworth Abbey 400 years after John Donne wrote Good Friday 1613: Travelling Westwards.

It was an afternoon and evening of reading, writing, and walking in the company of John Donne’s poetry, with a full programme of workshops, talks, walks and discussions, including reading and discussion with Anthony Mellors and Tony Howe, a guided tour with Mal Dewhirst, and a Donne-inspired poetry workshop with Gregory Leadbetter. In the evening, there was a performance of John Donne’s work by Derek Littlewood, and newly commissioned poetry by Jane Commane, Mal Dewhirst, Jacqui Rowe, and Gregory Leadbetter.

The Vicar of Polesworth, Father Philip Wells, said: “We are very excited to be celebrating this 400th anniversary with a series of talks and giving people a chance to reflect on Donne’s poem in the wider context of the Abbey site and the Christian faith which inspired it.”

TS Eliot was deeply disparaging when it came to John Donne: “About Donne there hangs the shadow of the impure motive; and impure motives lend their aid to a facile success. He is a little of the religious spellbinder, the Reverend Billy Sunday of his time, the flesh-creeper, the sorcerer of emotional orgy. We emphasize this aspect to the point of the grotesque. Donne had a trained mind; but without belittling the intensity or the profundity of his experience, we can suggest that this experience was not perfectly controlled, and that he lacked spiritual discipline.”

But John Donne’s poem Good Friday 1613 is about a profound experience and has no shadow of “impure motive” hanging over it, for it was not written for publication, and so it offers a very personal look at the meaning of Christ’s death for him and for the restoration of the whole universe.

On his journey westward over that weekend 400 years ago, John Donne realised the general aberration of nature that prompts us to put pleasure before our devotion to Christ. We ought to be heading east at Easter so as to contemplate and share Christ’s suffering; and recalling up that event in his mind’s eye, he recognises the paradox of the ignominious death of God upon a Cross:

Could I behold those hands, which span the poles,
And turn all spheres at once, pierced with those holes?


I was surprised to see so many searches on this blog over the past two weeks for this poem by John Donne, which I had selected as one of my ‘Poems for Lent’ last year. And so, to mark that 400th anniversary earlier this week, I have decided to post this poem once again.

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

This 42-line poem, written almost 400 years ago, is regarded as one of the finest devotional poems of the English renaissance period. WH Auden provides testimony to how hard a time his students had in interpreting poems like ‘Good Friday, 1613,’ when he writes:

And nerves that steeled themselves to slaughter
Are shot to pieces by the shorter
Poems of Donne


This poem was written two years before John Donne’s ordination in 1615, and following Good Friday, 2 April 1613, when he made a journey on horseback from London westwards to Exeter. Donne’s brief title for the poem serves alone to reveal his shame and guilt at being on the road, instead of in church, on that particular Good Friday 400 years ago. The poem contains profound religious insights and a sincere expression of personal penance. The poem has a slightly jogging rhythm – a slightly irregular tetrameter, punctuated by largely end-stopped rhyming couplets. This intentional rhythm intentionally mimics the pace of the horse that Donne rode that day.

This poem is significant for what it tells us about the theology of a major English poet and for what it tells us about the spiritual psychology of that time. In 21 couplets, Donne writes an apologia for the faithless act on Good Friday that this poem recalls.

The poet gives five arguments, firstly blaming fallen Nature generally (lines 1-14). His riding, he says, follows the influence of the stars, which (from any observer’s perspective) move uniformly across the sky every night from east to west, from where Christ the Son of God took on humanity, from where he died on the cross at Golgotha.

Secondly, citing the Bible, Donne explains that looking on God, face-to-face, is death to any creature (line 15-28). He averts his eyes because he dares not look.

Thirdly, out of pity, Donne says he cannot bear to witness the sufferings of Christ’s mother, the Virgin Mary sufferings (lines 29-32).

Fourthly, he affirms that he observes the sufferings of Christ and Mary in his mind’s eye, in “memory” (33-35), as he should.

Finally, he explains that, by turning his back on Christ, he also submits himself to deserved “Corrections” (lines 35-40), to a scourging.

The poem’s final couplet then moves all responsibility to a God who, if he punished Donne as he should, would discover that he, unashamed, willingly turning his face to his creator.

Donne begins with a metaphor “Let man’s soul be a sphere” (line 1). He likens the soul to a “heavenly” sphere – a moon or a planet – and the “intelligence” that moves this planet (line 2) is the soul’s devotion to God.

The poet compares the devotion of the human soul to the force of gravity on a planet moving around the sun. The gravity of the larger body keeps the planets in orbit; therefore the devotion of humans to God keeps them on the right path. But, like planets in orbit, we can be distracted by things other than their devotion, and those distractions will lead them away from God:

And as the other spheres, by being grown
Subject to foreign motions, lose their own.
(lines 3-4).

On Good Friday, while the poet is travelling to the west, his thoughts are in the east, towards Jerusalem, where Christ died. He is travelling when he ought to be praying, and so the west-east dichotomy is both literal and metaphorical.

Donne, who was fond of paradoxes, contrasts how he is looking towards where the sun sets, but Christ, by rising from the dead, made life eternal (lines 12-13).

He finishes this metaphor by averring that sin would have “benighted” all humanity had not Christ died for our redemption (line 14). After this, however, Donne is more concerned in the remainder of the poem more with the idea of looking toward.

In lines 15-24, he says he is glad that he did not have to look on Christ’s death on a cross because he could not have borne it. Donne shows how hard it must have been for anyone to have witnessed the Crucifixion, for Christ is God, and as he recalls in line 17, in the Exodus story God warns Moses that no-one could see God’s face and live (Exodus 33: 20). But the poet knows that in Christ God was clothed in “flesh” and therefore could have been seen safely by people in his own lifetime (line 27).

The poet is deeply impressed with spiritual anguish at imagining the Saviour on the cross.

In line 21, he alludes to the prophecy of Zechariah: “And I will pour out a spirit of compassion and supplication on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that, when they look on the one whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn” (Zechariah 12: 10).

In the Fourth Gospel, Christ’s crucifixion is seen as fulfilling this prophecy: “Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out ... These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled ... And again another passage of scripture says, ‘They will look on the one whom they have pierced.’.” (John19: 34-37).

Near the end of the poem, he is thankful that he could not have seen the horrors of the crucifixion: “Though these things, as I ride be from mine eye.” He reflects that these things are in his memory, and through that he can look towards God, and God can look towards him (line 33).

This final idea of “looking” is very important to Donne, for he ends the poem by saying that

I turn my back to thee, but to receive
Corrections
.

He turns his back to God to be whipped and “corrected” of his faults (lines 37-38). He implores God to “Burn off my rusts, and my deformity” so that he can be made more in the likeness of Christ (line 40). Only when he is cleansed and corrected in this way may he then “turn his face” to God (line 42).

Good Friday ... a detail from the Herkenrode Windows in the Lady Chapel, Lichfield Cathedral, before and after restoration (Photograph: Vidimus)

Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward, by John Donne

Let man’s soul be a sphere, and then, in this,
Th’ intelligence that moves, devotion is;
And as the other spheres, by being grown
Subject to foreign motion, lose their own,
And being by others hurried every day,
Scarce in a year their natural form obey;
Pleasure or business, so, our souls admit
For their first mover, and are whirl’d by it.
Hence is’t, that I am carried towards the west,
This day, when my soul’s form bends to the East.
There I should see a Sun by rising set,
And by that setting endless day beget.
But that Christ on His cross did rise and fall,
Sin had eternally benighted all.
Yet dare I almost be glad, I do not see
That spectacle of too much weight for me.
Who sees God’s face, that is self-life, must die;
What a death were it then to see God die?
It made His own lieutenant, Nature, shrink,
It made His footstool crack, and the sun wink.
Could I behold those hands, which span the poles
And tune all spheres at once, pierced with those holes?
Could I behold that endless height, which is
Zenith to us and our antipodes,
Humbled below us? or that blood, which is
The seat of all our soul’s, if not of His,
Made dirt of dust, or that flesh which was worn
By God for His apparel, ragg’d and torn?
If on these things I durst not look, durst I
On His distressed Mother cast mine eye,
Who was God’s partner here, and furnish’d thus
Half of that sacrifice which ransom’d us?
Though these things as I ride be from mine eye,
They’re present yet unto my memory,
For that looks towards them; and Thou look’st towards me,
O Saviour, as Thou hang’st upon the tree.
I turn my back to thee but to receive
Corrections till Thy mercies bid Thee leave.
O think me worth Thine anger, punish me,
Burn off my rust, and my deformity;
Restore Thine image, so much, by Thy grace,
That Thou mayst know me, and I’ll turn my face.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin.