31 May 2014

A weekend on the shores of
Lough Ramor near Virginia

The sandy shoreline of the Blessington Lakes ... almost like taking a walk on a beach (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

It was a pleasure to see my photograph of the Blessington Lakes being used by Ryan Turbidy in a quiz on the Late Late Show last night ... even if it was in connection with the launch of a new boy band being promoted by Louis Walsh.

The photograph was taken four years ago. This weekend, I am by another lake, staying for the weekend with friends at the Lakeside Manor Hotel on the shores of Lough Ramor, on the outskirts of Virginia, Co Cavan, close to the borders of Co Meath and Co Cavan.

A view of Lough Ramor at the Lakeside Manor Hotel, Virginia, Co Cavan (Photograph: Jim Brady/Cavan Living, June 2013)

We are just an hour north from Dublin, on the borders of the provinces of Leinster and Ulster, and the Lakeside Manor Hotel is in a wonderful setting, with panoramic views of and shore-side access to Lough Ramor.

Lough Ramor is five miles long and two miles wide, and has a surface area of 800 hectares. The lake is fed by the Murmod river, which rises near Bailieborough and flows under the bridge beside Virginia, and is drained by the River Blackwater. It is quite shallow at its southern end but depths in excess of 15 metres have been recorded around the northern end of the lake.

The lake is referred to as Loch Muinreamhair in early in Irish history, and the Martyrology of Donegal, dating from the 5th century perhaps, refers on 6 February to the festival of Saint Brandubh and Saint Coluim of “Loch Muinreamhair.”

In the early 1800s, a beautiful brooch, now known as the Virginia Brooch, was discovered along the shores of Lough Ramor. It is said to have been a Viking brooch, and dates from 850 to 1000. It belongs to the same period as the high crosses in Kells and the Book of Kells.

In 1826, Thomas Tayor, 1st Marquess of Headfort and 2nd Earl of Bective, claimed the rights and royalties of the lake, the islands and its water. The Taylour or Headfort family built a shooting lodge in Virginia which is now the Park Hotel, and I have fond memories of staying there in my teens in 1967, learning to row on the lake.

Lough Ramor has huge stocks of coarse fish. This is an excellent coarse fishery and it regularly produces large catches of bream, roach, roach-bream hybrids and some perch.

The lake has 30 to 40 islands, some of them inhabited in the past. The islands have interesting names such as Great Island, Crane Island, Scabby Island, Sloo Island Woodward or Tighe’s Island, George’s Islands, Corronagh Islands, Porter’s Islands, Crossafehin Islands and Stoney Islands.

Hopefully, there will be time to enjoy the lakes of Co Cavan and some of the islands, and perhaps even spend a little time on a boat on the water, without being too entusiastic about long-forgotten rowing skills.

A visit that seems to fall out of
sequence in this in-between time

The Visitation of the Virgin Mary to Saint Elizabeth … a panel from the triptych in the Lady Chapel in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

We are in a strange in-between time in the calendar of the Church this weekend.

On Thursday evening [29 May 2014], I was in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, for the Cathedral Eucharist, celebrating the Ascension. On Sunday week [8 June 2014], I am celebrating the Eucharist in Saint Michan’s Church in the city centre and All Saints’ Church, Grangegorman, marking the Day of Pentecost.

In the meantime, what happens to the Disciples in Jerusalem?

In the reading from the Acts of the Apostle on Thursday [Acts 1: 1-11], two angels in white robes ask the disciples after the Ascension why they are standing around looking up into heaven.

In the Gospel reading [Luke 24: 44-53], they return to “Jerusalem with great joy,” and seem to spend the following days in the Temple. As the story unfolds in the Acts of the Apostles, the disciples, as well as Mary and other women (see verse 14), spend their time in prayer, choosing a successor to Judas, and praying, as we read in the Revised Common Lectionary [Acts 1: 6-14] tomorrow [1 June 2014, the Seventh Sunday of Easter].

Then, ten days after, they are filled with Holy Spirit, who comes as a gift not only to the 12 but to all who are gathered with them, including Mary and the other women, the brothers of Jesus (verse 14), and other followers in Jerusalem – in all, about 120 people (see verse 15).

But for these few days we are in that in-between time, between the Ascension and Pentecost. It is still the season of Easter, which lasts for 50 days from Easter Day until the Day of Pentecost.

So, it may seem a little out of sequence that in the Calendar of the Church, today [31 May] is the Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (see Luke 1: 39-56).

This feast, which is of mediaeval origin, was kept by the Franciscans before 1263, when the Franciscans adopted it on the recommendation of Saint Bonaventure.

In 1389 Pope Urban VI, it would help to end the Great Western Schism, placed this feast in the Calendar of the Western Church on 2 July, the day after the end of the octave following the feast (24 June) of the birth of Saint John the Baptist, who was still in the womb of his mother, Saint Elizabeth, womb at the time of the Visitation.

In 1969, Pope Paul VI moved it to 31 May, a date that might continue to seem out of sequence but for the fact that it falls between the Feast of the Annunciation (25 March) and that of the Birth of Saint John the Baptist (24 June).

In the Book of Common Prayer (2004) of the Church of Ireland, the Visitation is celebrated as a Festival today [31 May]. However, Anglicans who use the 1662 Book of Common Prayer continue to celebrate the Visitation on 2 July, and in some Anglican traditions it is a commemoration rather than a feast day.

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the celebration of a feast day marking the Visitation is of relatively recent origin, dating only from the 19th century. The Gorneye Convent in Jerusalem, built on the traditional site of the Visitation, celebrates this Feast on 30 March, but the Feast has not yet been accepted by all Orthodox jurisdictions.

In recent months, I have written for both the Lichfield Gazette and for the Annual Report of the Friends of Lichfield Cathedral about the triptych in the Lady Chapel, which includes a beautiful 19th century interpretation of the Visitation.

This carved wooden reredos or altarpiece dates from 1895. The high relief scenes, carved in from Oberammergau, the Bavarian town that is better known for its Passion Play, were designed in England by the Tractarian artist Charles Eamer Kempe (1837-1907), best known in the late Victorian period for his stained-glass windows.

‘Mary meets Elizabeth’ (1996), by Dinah Roe Kendall, from ‘Allegories of Heaven: an artist explores the greatest story ever told’ (Carlisle: Piquant, 2002)

However, another of my favourite depictions of the Visitation is Dinah Roe Kendall’s painting, Mary meets Elizabeth (1996), which is in acrylic on canvas.

Dinah Roe Kendall was born in Bakewell, Derbyshire, in 1923 into a family of professional artists. Her grandfather and great-grandfather were both well-known artists. Her great-grandmother was the daughter of the Victorian sculptor whose statue of Lord Nelson stands in Trafalgar Square, London.

Her father planned for her to proceed to full-time training, but World War II and his early death occurred before these hopes could be realised. After her wartime nursing, she attended Sheffield Art School and was then received an ex-service grant to enable her to study at the Slade School of Fine Art in London (1948 to 1952).

There Lucien Freud asked her to sit for him, Stanley Spencer’s daughter Unity was a fellow-student, and Dinah learned from Jacob Epstein, Stanley Spencer and many other artists.

The nostalgic world of primitive painting is far removed from her vibrant Biblical scenes, placed in modern contexts and painted in modern materials. Although the influence of her teachers can be seen in her work, she has moved on from them, developing a style that is distinctly her own.

Her paintings are drenched in colour, reflecting five years of living in Cyprus and the influence of modern artists she has admired, including Peter Howson and Ana Maria Pacheco.

She usually paints in acrylic on board or canvas, mixing the paint with thickening media. Her angels wear robes built up of thick knife and brush strokes flecked with gold. She paints the cross as a visual sermon: no mere philosophical concept, but a hunk of wood along which, as Francis Schaeffer used to remark, one could have run a finger and got a splinter.

Despite changing fashions and much pressure to explore abstract art, she has always remained a figurative painter. Her biblical scenes are cast in modern contexts: Christ visits a school in Sheffield; Lazarus is raised from the dead in an alcove in a wall borrowed from Chatsworth House; Jairus’s daughter wakes up upstairs in a modern home, surrounded by modern neighbours as an abandoned teddy-bear on a chair in by the window watches on in amazement; the infant Christ presented in the Temple is looking right at the viewer; in the case of the Woman taken in Adultery, Christ’s finger writing in the dust points out of the canvas and at the viewer.

Her ‘Entry into Jerusalem’ is set in the playground of the Porter Croft School in Sheffield, where the painting now hangs, and the Baptism of Christ takes place in a swimming pool.

Her paintings constantly engage the viewer, but show intimacy too. At the ‘Supper at Emmaus,’ Christ sits at the head of a table, with two disciples whose hands reach out towards his. He is holding a loaf of bread; wine and glasses stand ready. His pose recalls Stanley Spencer’s 1939 painting of a lonely Christ in the Wilderness, cradling in his hands a scorpion.

There is social comment and humour too in her work: the Good Samaritan is a black man; ‘The Marriage at Cana in Galilee’ is a witty footnote to a famous painting by Breughel; and ‘Jesus visits Bethany’ is a delightful depiction of an off-duty Christ, even though the crowds are pressing in at the door. Inside the house in Bethany, Lazarus sits apart from the others in a curtained alcove as if the shadow of the tomb has not quite left him. His eyes are fixed not upon Christ but upon some faraway place, as if contemplating a landscape that only he has seen.

At the opening of an exhibition of her paintings in Winchester Cathedral some years ago, Dinah Roe Kendall said that she wants to show that meeting Christ is an unsettling and life-changing experience that could happen at any point in time.

This painting, Mary meets Elizabeth, is among her many paintings included in Allegories of Heaven: an artist explores the greatest story ever told (Carlisle: Piquant, 2002), drawing on texts from The Message text by Eugene Peterson. The Revd Tom Devonshire Jones, Founder and Director Emeritus of ACE (Art and Christianity Enquiry), has commented: “Dinah Roe Kendall’s fresh, sassy and devout paintings are breathing new life into religious art at the start of the third millennium. Already receiving the grateful attention of worshipper and enquirer alike, they are finding a secure place in the world of faith and of art.”

An icon of the Visitation by the Romanian icon writer Mihia Cocu in the Lady Chapel in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)


Zephaniah 3: 14-18; Psalm 113; Romans 12: 9-16; Luke 1: 39-39 (50-56).


Mighty God,
by whose grace Elizabeth rejoiced with Mary
and greeted her as the mother of the Lord:
Look with favour on your lowly servants
that, with Mary, we may magnify your holy name
and rejoice to acclaim her Son our Saviour,
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post-Communion Prayer:

Gracious God,
who gave joy to Elizabeth and Mary
as they recognised the signs of redemption at work within them:
Help us, who have shared the joy of this eucharist,
to know the Lord deep within us
and his live shining out in our lives,
that the world may rejoice in your salvation;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

30 May 2014

A double espresso, a suspended coffee in
the Happy Pear and a walk on the beach

On the beach in Greystones, Co Wicklow, late this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

After a long week, it was good to finish work early this afternoon, and two of us went to Greystones for a late lunch and double espressos in the Happy Pear, before a walk in the late afternoon sun along the pebbly beach.

The Happy Pear is one of the cafés supporting the idea of Suspended Coffees. It’s a simple idea. When you buy a coffee, you pay for a second one. The barista gives you your coffee, then logs the second coffee as “suspended.” In other words, the transaction has been paused, and is not yet complete – payment is received, but the coffee has not been delivered.

Then, when someone who cannot afford a coffee comes in, they can ask for a suspended coffee. The barista can hand over a pre-paid coffee, and the transaction is complete.

A double espresso in the Happy Pear late this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Who benefits from a Suspended Coffee? The idea is that anyone in need can ask for one. It may be a homeless person, a single mother who sees coffee as a luxury she cannot afford … but it may also be that well-dressed man in a business suit who has been job hunting for the past four months without success, or a student struggling with exams or waiting for grants.

This idea is not about judgment but about spreading kindness, by paying for it in the future, and without ever knowing who benefits.

Hundreds of cafes and shops are now signed up to this great idea. So Suspended Coffees is about more than the coffee, and stands alongside so many random acts of kindness that seek to make this world a better place.

This is an idea that helps us to learn to give without judging or expecting anything in return, and to learn not to blame society for its shortcomings since we are society and we can take the initiative to do some good.

The Happy Pear has signed up for the Suspended Coffee ... not about judgment but about spreading kindness (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

So, where does this idea come from?

The tradition of caffè sospeso began in working-class cafés in Naples, where someone who had experienced a blessing would order a sospeso, paying the price of two coffees but receiving and drinking only one. A poor person could then be served a free coffee.

The tradition is said to date back more than a century, but to have declined in popularity after World War II. But in 2004, a giornata nazionale del sospeso at Easter was announced by the Ronde della carità charity on Italy.

The caffè sospeso became a symbol of grassroots social solidarity, prompting its revival in response to the 2008 recession in Italy in 2008 and the ensuing crisis in the Eurozone crisis. That year the sospeso gave the title to Il caffe sospeso: Saggezza quotidiana in piccoli sorsi, a collection of journalism edited by Luciano De Crescenzo from Naples.

A collection of Italian arts festivals emphasising social solidarity came together under the umbrella Rete del Caffè Sospeso in 2010. A year later, a Giornata del Caffè Sospeso was organised to coincide with Human Rights Day in December 2011.

The tradition had now spread throughout Italy, and it was spreading to cafés as far afield as Bulgaria, Ukraine, Australia, Canada, Russia, Spain, Argentina, the US and Costa Rica. Starbucks in Britain signed up for a charity initiative based on the idea of Suspended Coffee in April 2013, and idea has since spread across these islands.

With that inspiration in my heart, my footsteps were lighter along the soft sand in Greystones this evening.

The sun was still strong, the temperature was around 17 or 18, the sky was clear blue, and the waves sounded a little more gentle as they rolled in against the shoreline.

Strolling on the beach in Greystones this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

29 May 2014

Beating the Bounds and praying for
the fruits of the earth on Ascension Day

A rough stone (bottom right) marked with a cross and embedded in the gate posts of the Garden of Remembrance on Bird Street may be a surviving boundary stone in Lichfield (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

I was in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, this evening [29 May 2014] for the Cathedral Eucharist celebrating Ascension Day. However, nobody invited us out afterwards to beat the bounds of the cathedral parish, which includes many of the mediaeval parishes of Dublin, including Saint Werburgh’s, Saint Michan’s, All Saints’, and the former parishes of Saint Bride’s, Saint John’s, Saint Mary’s, Saint Mary-le-Dame, Saint Paul’s and Saint Andrew’s.

Traditionally beating the bounds ceremonies took place on Ascension Day or else during this week, which is also known as Rogationtide. The Sunday before Ascension Day is still known in some places as Rogation Sunday, and the three days before Ascension Day – Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday – are Rogation Days, “when prayer is offered for God’s blessing on the fruits of the earth and human labour. Walking the boundaries of the parish was a practical and incarnational opportunity to do this.

Beating the bounds was also an effective way of passing from one generation to another the traditions and memories of the precise limits of a parish. In times before maps and written title deeds, it was important for clergy and residents to know the physical boundaries of their parish.

Until 1834, the Poor Laws made the care of the poor the legal responsibility of a parish, and the parish was responsible for relieving the needy, supporting apprentice children and caring for the destitute in the parish. Parish poor rates were raised to pay for these responsibilities.

Those parish responsibilities in law included illegitimate children, and sometimes parish officials would try to remove pregnant unmarried women to other parishes – so they would not be responsible for the baby and would not have to increase the poor rates in the parish. In this way, the Poor Laws provided yet another reason for ensuring that everyone knew the boundaries of the parish.

Knowledge of the limits of each parish had to be handed down also so that liability for contributing to the repair of the church, and rights to be buried in the churchyard were not disputed.

In England, the custom of beating the bounds goes back to at least Anglo-Saxon times, and the tradition survives in some parishes. The custom involved walking around the parish boundary and beating it with a stick, or stripped willow branch known as a wand. In some places, stones, trees or other marker points around the boundary were also beaten by bumping a boy – often a choirboy – against the mark.

The old pump in the North-West Corner of the Cathedral Close … an important marker for an old tradition in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

In Lichfield, a bounds ceremony was once a tradition around the boundary of the Cathedral Close, until at least the mid-20th century.

On Ascension Day, the houses had greenery pushed through their letter boxes in the morning. The procession would start at Saint Mary’s Vicarage and the stopping points included a well, the Bishop’s kitchen garden, the Dean’s kitchen garden, Dr Milley’s Hospital on Beacon Street, the boundary stone on the Minster Pool Bridge and the Verger’s house in the corner of the Close, before finally gathering at the old pump north-west of the Cathedral.

Dr Milley’s Hospital, Beacon Street ... one of the stopping points on beating the bounds in Lichfield in years gone by (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This was followed by a procession of clergy, choir and children carrying branches of elm collected in the Dimbles as they walked around the Cathedral and the Close. At set points, prayers were said, a Scripture passage was read and a hymn was sung. Finally, the elm boughs were brought into the Cathedral and laid on the font.

During my lecture and guided walking tour of the Cathedral Close earlier this month, the Lichfield blogger Kate Gomez of Lichfield Discovered and Joss Musgrove Knibb, Deputy Editor of the Lichfield Gazette pointed out a sandstone block carved with a cross and embedded in one of the gate posts of the Garden of Remembrance on Bird Street. They identified this as a surviving boundary stone.

Kate Gomez has also noted in her blog how the tradition in the Close seems to have been centred on wells and water. Perhaps this was because Rogation Days were marked by prayers for the fruits of the earth.

The Guildhall … the starting point for the Sheriff’s Ride in Lichfield in September (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

A similar tradition in Lichfield, but with a different derivation, is the Sheriff’s Ride, which has taken place on the Saturday nearest 8 September every year since 1553.

Lichfield is one of only eight cities in England that have parish status, the others being Chichester, Ely, Hereford, Ripon, Shrewsbury, Truro and Wells. In 1553, Queen Mary Tudor granted Lichfield a charter, separating Lichfield from Staffordshire to become “the City and County of Lichfield,” with its own mayor and sheriff. The charter commanded the sheriff to “perambulate the new County and City annually on the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 8 September.”

Lichfield has long been reincorporated into Staffordshire, but this traditional “beating the bounds” takes continues on horseback, along an ancient 20-mile route around the city limits, starting at the Guildhall at 10.30 a.m., and passing Lichfield Cathedral, Minster Pool, Curborough Hall Farm, Freeford Manor Estate, where the Sheriff’s Ride traditionally stops for lunch, and Pipe Hall, where the riders stop for tea and cakes.

Returning to Lichfield, the Sheriff and riders are met by the Sword and Mace Bearers at about 6.15 p.m. to be escorted down Beacon Street to the Close where they are greeted by the Dean, before returning to the Guildhall at about 6.30 pm.

On Ascension Day in Cambridge, the clergy and parishioners of Little Saint Mary’s Church walk around the boundaries of the parish – which includes Coe Fen – as they sing hymns and psalms and pray for the residents of the parish and their activities.

In Oxford on Ascension Day, many colleges and several shops welcomes two groups of visitors carrying out the ancient tradition of beating the bounds. This provides an interesting conundrum for Brasenose, for the boundaries of the parishes of Saint Michael at the Northgate and Saint Mary the Virgin pass through the grounds of the college. Groups from both parishes visit the college on this day to mark the boundary stones by marking them with the year in chalk and striking them with willow wands.

In High Wycombe, the tradition involved parading around the parish boundary and bumping boys on their heads at special marker points along the route. The tradition was revived in 1985 as part of the town’s 700th mayoral anniversary, so that Beating the Bounds became Beating the Boys.

Outside England, there was a tradition in Jersey of the Visite Royal in which the parish boundaries were inspected by the magistrates of the island’s Royal Court.

Although I know of no tradition surviving tradition of beating the bounds in any parish in Ireland, it is said that in Cork the Lord Mayor, in full civic regalia, would throw a dart into the harbour each year, its landing-place marking the limit of the writ of the city corporation.

However, we threw no darts, cut no elm boughs and bounced no choir members off boundary stones within the cathedral group of parishes in Dublin today, and I doubt that many of us know the exact and precise limits of the parish boundaries.

But then, looking at the Church Notices in The Irish Times last Saturday, I imagine few cathedrals and parish churches in the Church of Ireland marked Ascension Day today. Yet this is one of the Principal Holy Days “which are to be observed,” according to the Book of Common Prayer (see p. 18), when the Eucharist is “celebrated in every cathedral and parish church,” with the understanding that the “liturgical provision” for this day “may not be displaced by any other observance.”

The Ascension ... a modern icon by Aidan Hart

Readings (Ascension Day):

Acts 1: 1-11 or Daniel 7: 9-14; Psalm 47 or 93; Ephesians 1: 15-23 or Acts 1: 1-11; Luke 24: 44-53.


Grant, we pray, Almighty God,
that as we believe your only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ
to have ascended into the heavens;
so we in heart and mind may also ascend
and with him continually dwell;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

God our Father,
you have raised our humanity in Christ
and have fed us with the bread of heaven.
Mercifully grant that, nourished with such spiritual blessings,
we may set our hearts in the heavenly places;
where he now lives and reigns for ever.

28 May 2014

Introducing an American cousin to TCD
and Dublin Castle on a sunny summer day

Surviving steps down to the river in the mediaeval remains of Dublin Castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

I was in the city centre today, introducing a Facebook friend and distant cousin Charlie Comerford to Dublin, and especially to Christ Church Cathedral, Trinity College Dublin and Dublin Castle. He had flown over from Liverpool with his friend, William Cross, for the day, and we were due to meet in the morning. But, as the Scottish poet Robbie Burns knows,

The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley

It was a beautiful day to spend a morning sipping coffee outside the Arts Building in TCD and enjoying the sunshine in the grounds of Christ Church Cathedral. The sun was shining, the tourist queues waiting to see the Book of Kells were snaking around two sides of Fellows’ Square, and the ruins of the old cloister in Christ Church Cathedral are receiving careful attention trhat should make them accessible once again to tourists and visitors.

Eventually, after discovering it was mobile phone coverage and not diaries that were at fault, we met in the afternoon, thanks to the kind intervention of of the cathedral staff.

We visited Trinity College Dublin, the Mansion House, which is the official residence of the Lord Mayor of Dublin, the Round Room where the First Dail met in 1918, and Leinster House, before stopping in Keogh’s in South Anne Street.

The banners of Knights of Saint Patrick in Dublin Castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Later, we strolled through Grafton Street, Wicklow Street, and South Great George’s Street, to Dublin Castle for a guided tour of the castle, the Chapel Royal, Saint Patrick’s Hall, the State Apartments, the Throne Room, and the mediaeval foundations of the original castle.

We ended up in Temple Bar, discussing ties of kinship, Irish pubs, de Valera’s place in Irish history, and the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church (TEC), before they set off to catch the last flight back to Liverpool.

Looking out onto the Uper Courtyard in Dublin Castle from the State Apartments (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Meanwhile, back in Christ Church Cathedral, these are the closing days of the exhibition: “On Earth as it is in Heaven.” This exhibition, which was launched earlier this month [6 May 2014], brings words and images together to explore the meaning of Linen in the Bible.

The exhibition, curated by Margaret Barker and Bruce Clark, uses images from ancient Egypt and mediaeval Christian manuscripts as well as striking pieces of contemporary art.

It features specially commissioned photographs of early icons, including a Serbian fresco and a 1,500-year-old mosaic from Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai.

With the help of short texts translated from Hebrew, Greek and Latin, the exhibition sets out one of the most important chapters in the human spiritual story.

Dr Margaret Barker is an author and internationally acclaimed authority on the Jerusalem Temple and a past president of the Society for Old Testament Studies and the author of 16 books.

Bruce Clark is the on-line religion editor of the Economist and has worked as a foreign correspondent in France, Greece, Russia and the US. He grew up in Northern Ireland in the 300-year-old linen-making community of Upperlands.

Summer flowers in hanging baskets in Churchtown at lunchtime today (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Next month, Christ Church Cathedral will be transformed into a floral arcadia from Friday 13 June until Sunday 15 June 2014, for the Dublin Garden Festival, with contemporary and classic arrangements designed by some of Ireland’s most talented and award–winning floral artists.

All proceeds from the festival are going towards the repair and restoration of the cathedral and grounds.

Inside, the cathedral will be filled with colourful floral displays each day, and well-known figures from the world of gardening and horticulture will offer visitors gardening advice. Outside, the grounds will be adorned with horticultural displays, Irish food produce, urban gardens, birds of prey, a petting zoo, craft demonstrations, live entertainment and an outdoor artisan food tent full of gourmet food.

Each day, gardening experts will speak in the South Transept on an array of topics from money-saving composting to creating an urban garden. They include Helen Dillon, Mathew Jebb, Christopher White, Fiann O Nuallain, Kitty Scully, Dermot O’Neill, Gerry Daly and Jane McCorkeral.

Music each day will include recitals and bird song and on Sunday afternoon there is a performance by the Cathedral Choir of Benjamin Britten’s Five Flower Songs.

The choirs of Christ Church Cathedral have developed a partnership with Barretstown Children’s Charity, which works with children suffering from serious illnesses, including cancer and blood disorder. Last Saturday, the Cathedral Choir, with members of the cathedral community and congregation, took part in a sponsored walk in the Dublin Mountains to raise money for Barretstown.

I hope to back in the cathedral tomorrow evening for the Eucharist at 6 p.m. celebrating Ascension Day.

Laburnum in the grounds of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute today (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

25 May 2014

A mixture of sunshine and rain
with Saint Swithun’s successor

All glass and mirrors? ... in the Silk Road Café in Dublin Castle this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

In December 1966, the New Vaudeville Band had a novelty one-hit chart-topping success with Winchester Cathedral. Of course, there was no such thing as the New Vaudeville Band – it was a novelty group of session musicians put together by the song’s composer, Geoff Stephens, and the singer John Carter recorded singing through his hands to imitate a megaphone sound:

Winchester Cathedral
You’re bringing me down
You stood and you watched as
My baby left town.

You could have done something
But you didn’t try
You didn’t do nothing
You let her walk by.

It was good to be back in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, for the Cathedral Eucharist this morning [25 May 2014], after a few weeks absence.

I was last in the cathedral on a Sunday morning a month ago [27 April 2014], and have spent Sundays since then on Achill Island, in Zion Parish, Rathgar, and taking part in a residential weekend with part-time MTh students.

I sat in the chapter stalls this morning, happy to be fed spiritually in word and sacrament. The Revd Garth Bunting presided, Canon Mark Gardiner preached as the canon-in-residence and the setting sung by the Cathedral Choir was Missa Bell’ amfitrit’ altera by Orlande de Lassus (1534-1594).

Lassus was a Dutch or Franco-Flemish composer of the late Renaissance, from present-day Belgium. Today he is regarded as the principal representative of the mature polyphonic style of the Franco-Flemish school, and one of the three most famous and influential musicians in late 16th century Europe, alongside Palestrina and Victoria.

Later, two of us went to lunch in the Silk Road Café at the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin Castle with an old friend, Bishop Tim Dakin of Winchester and his wife, the Revd Sally Dakin, after bringing them on a tour of the cathedral and the cathedral crypt.

I have known Bishop Tim since we both worked for the Church Mission Society about 10 years ago. He was the General Secretary of the Church Mission Society (CMS) and the South American Missionary Society (SAMS) before becoming Bishop of Winchester in 2011.

Timothy John Dakin was born in 1958 in East Africa, where his parents were church missionaries working in Tanzania and Kenya. In our conversations this afternoon, we shared memories of shared friends from the present and the past, and also explored some interesting connections, for his father was ordained deacon and priest in Lichfield Cathedral.

The future bishop was Principal of Carlile College, the Church Army college in Nairobi, from 1993 to 2000, and an assistant curate at All Saints’ Cathedral, Nairobi, before being appointed General Secretary of CMS in 2000. Two years later, I joined the staff of CMS Ireland.

While he was working with CMS, he was also an associate priest in the parish of Ruscombe and Twyford in the Diocese of Oxford and an Honorary Canon Theologian of Coventry Cathedral.

He was appointed Bishop of Winchester on 6 September 2011, he was consecrated in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, on 25 January 2012, and was enthroned in Winchester Cathedral was on 21 April.

As a bishop of the Church of England, his responsibilities include Higher and Further Education. He is also the visitor to five Oxford colleges including New College, Oxford, and Saint John’s College, Oxford, and the prelate of the Order of the Garter.

The Revd Sally Dakin is a priest in the Parish of Saint Barnabas in Reading. Sally and Tim Dakin have two adult children, Anna and Johnny.

With Bishop Tim Dakin and the Revd Sally Dakin outside the Deanery at Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, this evening (Photograph: Barbara Comerford, 2014)

By early afternoon, there was no sign of the threatened rain, and from the Silk Road Café and Christ Church Cathedral we headed to north Co Dublin, stopping briefly in Rush to look at the abandoned portico of Kenure House.

It was a perfect Sunday afternoon for cricket in Rush, and by the time we got to Skerries the place was basking in unexpected sunshine. Summer was returning this afternoon to Skerries, which was hosting a street festival and a cycling race.

We parked on Red Island, and we walked around the harbour, where there was an exceptionally low tide. Last Sunday, Skerries was soaking in heavy, winter-like rain.

We sat for a short time in the sunshine at Stoop Your Head on the Harbour. All along the harbour front, people were enjoying the unexpected sunshine, flowing from the bars and restaurants onto the street.

Later, we stepped in behind the Sailing Club, and strolled along the length of the South Strand. By the time we got back to Christ Church Cathedral late in the evening the bright sunshine had disappeared and the rain had returned.

Bishop Tim is a successor to Saint Swithun, who was Bishop of Winchester and later became patron saint of Winchester Cathedral. He died ca 862, but his historical significance as a bishop is overshadowed by his association with the tradition that the weather on his feast day (15 July) will continue for 40 days.

An English proverb says:

Saint Swithun’s day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain
Saint Swithun’s day if thou be fair
For forty days ’twill rain nae mare

A variation says:

If on St Swithun’s day it really pours
You’re better off to stay indoors.

Perhaps that’s why Geoff Stephens and John Carter felt let down by Winchester Cathedral almost half a century ago. I wonder what happens if we have weather like today’s on Saint Swithun’s Day … sunshine or rain?

24 May 2014

Lost in the sands of time walking
alone on the beach in Donabate

The northerly winds blew the sands along the beach in Donabate this afternoon like the sands in an Arabian desert scene (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

The results from local elections in both Ireland and England bring some depressing news. Counting in the European elections only begins tomorrow, but if the trends continue we could see further gains by ultranationalist parties, Sinn Fein.

Whether ultranationalists pose as parties of the left or as populists on the right, they remain ugly manifestations of ideologies that are anything but ideal or moral. Surely the commemorations and remembrances of World War I, beginning this summer, should remind us of the evil of nationalism and the need for Europeans to live closer to one another.

Ironically, although they claim to stand at opposite ends of the political spectrum, find expression for their nationalism in their rejection of the ‘outsider’ – however they search for a definition of that ‘outsider’ – and their urge to restrict who should be entitled to the benefits of living within society.

Both are strongly anti-European. Ironically, UKIP on the right has more in common with the far-right in Greece, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Austria and Hungary, than with the centuries-old traditional parties in Britain, while Sinn Fein, although posturing on the left, fails to acknowledge that Europe has provided the best guarantees in legislation for the rights of women, children, workers and migrants.

Sinn Fein has its own ugly definition of what it is to be Irish; UKIP may yet have to redefine what it means by UK independence should voters in Scotland decide to opt out of the UK in September.

In both cases, defining what is to be English or Irish may soon lack the ability to be generous and inclusive because of these two extremes, which – like Scylla and Charybdis – have beaten and drowned out rational efforts to discuss an understanding of English or Irish identity.

It is frightening to think of an early election that would see Sinn Fein propping up an Irish government in 2016, just as the centenary of the 1916 Rising is being commemorated. It is frightening to imagine that a Scottish referendum could leave decades of people in England with governments on the right, perhaps even propped up by UKIP.

But I enjoy the idea of living between the riches of English and Irish identities and heritage and stories. Perhaps I can return later in another essay to examine what is the essence of being English today.

Last week, I had enjoyed some beautiful walks in the English countryside Lichfield. As I flew back into Dublin, I looked down on the peninsulas at Portrane and Donabate and at Malahide and Portmarnock, stretching out into the Irish Sea east of Dublin Airport, looking like two islands of fresh green fields fringed with golden sands.

After this week’s family funeral, I needed to clear my head. Initially I thought of going for a walk on the beach at Portrane; then I thought of sitting on the terrace outside the Waterside House Hotel beside the Martello Tower, sipping a glass of white wine and reading today’s Guardian or trying to finish Jeremy Paxman’s The English.

Walking the miles of sand on the beach in Donabate this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Instead, I ended up walking the length of the beach at Donabate, from the Martello Tower to the southern top where the narrow estuary separates Donabate from Robswall and Malahide to the south.

Although there was some promise of summer earlier this week, the temperatures had dropped this afternoon, the skies were grey, the waves on the receding tide were choppy, and as I walked there was hardly anyone else on the beach.

There was a strong northerly wind behind my back and it blew soft yellow sand along the stretch of beach in front of me, like a scene from Lawrence of Arabia. Beneath my feet, the sand was soft and my feet sank ankle deep in its softness at times, slowing my steps and my pace.

Behind me to the north east was Lambay Island, in front of me to the south-east was Ireland’s Eye and Howth Head.

Standing at the estuary that separates Donabate from Robswall and Malahide (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

I stood at the estuary mouth, forgetting the afternoon was passing, hoping to catch a little of the sunshine that appeared to be about to break through the clouds to the south-east.

I never sorted out the ideas going around my head about memory, family, grief and identity. I never had the glass of wine at Donabate. And I never found that hour to read looking out to the sea.

Identities and cultural comforts are folded in between deep layers and tones in the sands of time (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

But two of us went to dinner this evening in Aner, the Persian restaurant in Terenure. I briefly thought that the Persian music in the background could have been modern Greek or Turkish music, then realised how much I have been influenced by the music of Ross Daly.

Identities and cultural comforts are folded in between deep layers and tones that we often find difficult to access, let alone understand, covered and lost in the sands of time.

Persian tea in Aner in Terenure this evening (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

23 May 2014

The planned closure of All Hallows’ College
is a loss to theology and to social justice

Are the lights going out for All Hallows’ College? ... Drumcondra House is at the heart of the college (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

It was sad to hear the news this afternoon that All Hallows’ College, Dublin, is to shut down. It is always sad to hear the news that another theological college is to close. The college said today it is making the decision “with huge regret and deep sadness”. But today’s news is also sad personally because I have been a visiting lecturer at All Hallows in the past, and have supervised post-graduate research leading to the MA degree.

Over the years, All Hallows has also been a welcoming place for Church of Ireland conferences, and when I was there 18 years ago for a conference organised by the International Peace Bureau, I received a warm welcome from Father Patrick McDevitt, who has been the college president since the end of 2011.

Bruce Kent and President Michael D Higgins at the presentation of the Sean MacBride Peace Prize medals in All Hallows’ College, Drumcondra in November 2012 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Father McDevitt is a Vincentian priest who was raised in Chicago in an Irish- American family. Before moving to All Hallows, he was an associate professor in DePaul University College of Education, Chicago.

The college receives no State grants, and it has been operating at an increasing deficit for many years. More recently, All Hallows began a stringent programme of sustainability, including increasing its activities and launching an extensive fund-raising programme. At the same time, an investigation of the college’s archive and library was begun to see what might be disposed of to raise funds.

All Hallows’ College has 450 students on its degree courses and a staff of about 70. The college is promising to make “every effort ... to facilitate existing students in the completion of their courses.”

All Hallows found itself at the centre of controversy in recent weeks when it offered for auction a cache of letters written in 1950-1964 by Jackie Kennedy to Father Joseph Leonard. The college had hoped to auction the letters for more than €1 million, but withdrew them from sale after communications from the Kennedy family.

Since 2008, All Hallows’ College has been a constituent college of Dublin City University, along with the Mater Dei Institute and Saint Patrick’s College, Drumcondra. A number of non-profit organisations and charities are based on the campus, including the Volunteer Missionary Movement, the Daughters of Charity Education and Training Service, Ruhama, which supports women who have been victims of prostitution and human trafficking, Accord Catholic Marriage Counselling, Debt and Development Coalition Ireland, and Console (Living with Suicide).

The college motto is Euntes Docete Omnes Gentes (“Go teach all nations”). It dates from 1842, when Father John Hand (1807-1846) founded a college to train priests for foreign missions.

He leased Drumcondra House, which was designed by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce and built in 1726 for Sir Marmaduke Coghill (1673-1738), who had lived in Belvedere House, now part of Saint Patrick’s College, Drumcondra.

Coghill was an MP for Dublin and Chancellor of the Exchequer in Ireland. He moved into Drumcondra House, and lived there with his sister Mary until his death in 1738. In 1743, Mary rebuilt Drumcondra Parish Church (previously Clonturk parish), beside Drumcondra House, as a memorial to her brother.

When Mary Coghill died the house was inherited by their niece, who married Charles Moore, then 2nd Lord Tullamore and later Earl of Charleville. Later, the widowed Lady Charleville married Major John Mayne, who assumed the name of Coghill, and was made a baronet as Sir John Coghill.

Drumcondra House was then leased to Alderman Alexander Kirkpatrick, a former High Sheriff of Dublin. The last tenant of the house was Major General Sir Guy Campbell (1786-1849), a general in the British army. His wife Pamela (1795-1869), was the daughter of Lord Edward Fitzgerald, a leader of the United Irishmen in 1798.

The then Lord Mayor of Dublin, Daniel O’Connell, donated £100 to the new college. With the Famine and consequent emigration the new priests from All Hallows began to follow the Irish Diaspora, to Canada, the US, Australasia, Britain, South Africa and other places around the world. Over the years, some 5,000 men went out; some to great cities, others to outbacks and veldts.

JJ McCarthy extended Drumcondra House and designed a college quadrangle, while George Ashlin designed the college chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The architect JJ McCarthy extended the house and designed a college quadrangle. However, only two sides of the college quad were built. The college chapel was designed by George Ashlin in 1876, replacing an earlier chapel by McCarthy, the south side of the chapel is dominated by a stained glass window by Evie Hone.

Both McCarthy and Ashlin were architectural heirs and successors to AWN Pugin, and McCarthy was appointed Professor of Ecclesiastical Architecture at the college.

Since 1892, All Hallows has been run by the Vincentian order. The Revd Nicholas Comerford (1873-1937), who joined the Vincentians in 1896, and taught in Saint Vincent’s College, Castleknock, and in All Hallows’ College, Drumcondra, before going to England to work on the Vincentian missions. He edited the magazine The Vincentian until his death in Sheffield on 15 April 1937.

His elder brother, the Revd Edmond Comerford (1870-1940), joined the Vincentians in 1890 and later served as Dean of Saint Vincent’s College, Castleknock, and in Saint Peter’s Church, Phibsboro. A third Vincentian priest, the Revd James Comerford, joined the Vincentians in 1884 and was later Bursar of Saint Vincent’s College, Castleknock.

In the 1980s, as the number of seminarians decreased, the college struggled to attract students before opening its doors to lay students and developing degrees and courses in areas such as social justice, ethical leadership, church and culture.

If All Hallows closes down completely, it will be a loss not only to theological education in Ireland but to the causes it has identified and promoted such as mission, social justice, ethical leadership, women’s rights, and the rights of refugees and the marginalised.

22 May 2014

‘And death shall have no dominion’

‘Where blew a flower may a flower no more / Lift its head to the blows of the rain’ ... wisteria flowering in the rain at the Castle Golf Club in Rathfarnham this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

After writing last night about Dylan Thomas and his poem Do not go gently into that good night, I was pondering another of his poems on death as a family funeral continued today.

When Dylan Thomas wrote And death shall have no dominion in 1933, he took the title of the poem from a verse in Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans : “We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him” (Romans 6: 9).

Last night, I sat in the garden long after dusk had turned to dark, watching a young bat flitting in the fading lights and listening to the flow of water from the lion’s mouth of the fountain.

As the funeral today move between the rain and the never-to-be-realised promises of sunshine, from the church to the graveyard to a family reception in the Castle Golf Club in Rathfarnham, I contemplated the wisteria below where we were gathered, and thought of how Dylan Thomas spoke in this poem of how:

Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;

And I thought too how in this poem the poet weaves together the deepest questions of faith and life as he wrestles with the meanings of life, death and existence.

Dylan Thomas speaks in the very male language of the 1930s. Yet, poignantly, in the 2003 movie Rosenstrasse, this poem is quoted as two Jewish women await deportation to Auschwitz.

In early 1933, Dylan Thomas became friends with Bert Trick, a grocer who worked in the Uplands area of Swansea. Trick was a would-be poet and had several poems published in local newspapers. In the spring of 1933, Trick had the idea that he and Dylan Thomas should write a poem on the subject of “immortality.”

Trick’s poem was published in a local newspaper the following year, and included the refrain “For death is not the end.”

Meanwhile, in April 1933, Dylan Thomas wrote his poem And death shall have no dominion. Trick persuaded him to seek a publisher, and the poem was published the next month (May 1933) in the New English Weekly.

On 10 September 1936, two years after the publication of his first volume of poems, 18 Poems, Dylan Thomas published Twenty-five Poems, in which he wrote about his personal beliefs and the forces of nature. The poems in that collection And death shall have no dominion.

The poem celebrates the undying and eternal strength of the human spirit. It is because of this strength that death does not claim ultimate victory over humanity. The dead are never truly lost to us but live on through the beauty of their memory and spirit. The struggle continues.

Three unrhymed verses make up the work. Beautiful universal imagery focuses on the sea, bones, and burial. Each verse starts and ends with the phrase: “And death shall have no dominion.”

Even as Dylan Thomas brings the reader face to face with the physical reality of death, he disarms it. He gives death meaning by allowing the reader to see the beauty behind it, especially the beauty of human courage and dignity. Timeless values live on in the stories of those who have died, for to live on in the memory of loved ones is to never die.

In the first verse, the poet shows that in death all are one. Race and skin colour have no more meaning when skin is no more. After death, the body is united with nature:

Dead men naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon.

In death, we shall all be naked, as we are from our mothers’ wombs. In death, the innocence of Eden is restored. It is here that we become the stuff of legends. Here one person becomes part of a constellation, part of a grand design bigger than myself.

Though his bones are naked, they may become clothed in eternal glory instead of mortal skin:

When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbows and foot

Their foibles will be forgotten and their glories remembered. Their confusion forgotten, they will attain an eternal perspective of clarity. Those who have drowned in a universal sea of human sorrow shall be restored and taste joy again. Lovers will be reunited:

Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.

In the second verse, Dylan Thomas takes us to a graveyard on the sea floor. The dead here appear to be either sailors or other souls lost at sea. These dead died bravely, having suffered in their lives. The wheel of time has tested, tortured, and tried, but not broken them:

Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;
Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
And the unicorn evils run them through;
Split all ends up they shan’t crack;
And death shall have no dominion.

The unicorn is an old, symbolic motif often used to symbolise Christ and God. Has God or religion let these souls down? Unicorns’ horns were said to be harder than diamonds and to be able to neutralise poisons. Unicorn tears could heal both physical wounds and sorrows of the heart. The refrain And death shall have no dominion symbolises this triumph.

In the final verse, the poem wraps up on land, by the seashore. He draws out the fact that the dead are no longer aware of the physical elements that once made up their home with the words:

No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores

Yet new life may spring up in their place, an intrepid life like a flower that may “lift its head to the blows of the rain.”

Their innocence shall burst through like daisies. This innocence ultimately wins over even the sun, breaking it down. To break down the sun is to steal death’s power. The phrase “Heads of the characters hammer through daisies” implies that it is the character of those dead that hammers through the pain until innocence breaks through. The daisy flower, pure and childlike, pushes stubbornly through the hard earth of the grave to rise defiantly and bloom:

Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion.

The daisy blooms as dawn breaks, symbolising the burst of innocence or day star as the night loses out. In the same way, death starts to lose its power as humanity regains purity and embraces hope, thus discarding pain and hate. To break in implies breaking in a horse until it serves the master, instead of the other way around. In this way, death can be made to serve humanity.

Listening to the water spouting from the lion’s mouth in the fountain in the garden last night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

And death shall have no dominion

And death shall have no dominion.
Dead man naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
Under the windings of the sea
They lying long shall not die windily;
Twisting on racks when sinews give way,
Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;
Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
And the unicorn evils run them through;
Split all ends up they shan’t crack;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;
Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
Though they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion.

21 May 2014

‘Do not go gentle into that good night’

Tom Hollander as Dylan Thomas with Essie Davis as wife Caitlin in ‘A Poet in New York’

Patrick Comerford

A few nights ago [18 May 2014], I watched the new BBC TV docu-drama starring Tom Hollander of Rev, portraying Dylan Thomas’s fatal last visit to New York in 1953, when the Welsh poet died at the age of 39.

Dylan Thomas is surpassed perhaps only by TS Eliot as the English-language poet of the last century.

In Rev, Tom Hollander plays the Revd Adam Smallbone, the all-too-human vicar of an inner-city parish. But the poet and the priest come together in so many ways, as Welsh priests and poets like RS Thomas and Rowan Williams remind us, for poetry and liturgy are a search for true meaning in words that move beyond literal meaning.

In poetry readings in the 1970s, I drew particularly on both Leonard Cohen and Dylan Thomas. In the case of Dylan Thomas, the poems I read most often included Do not go gentle into that good night, And death shall have no dominion, other poems from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, as well as parts of his play Under Milk Wood.

And so many of the words of those poems and that play came back to my mind and my mouth as I watched that docu-drama on Sunday night, and at a family funeral today.

The poet Dylan Marlais Thomas was born on Swansea on 27 October 1914. His middle name, Marlais, came from his great-uncle, the Revd William Thomas, a Unitarian minister and poet whose bardic name was Gwilym Marles.

Dylan Thomas left school at 16, and worked as a journalist for a short time. Then, in 1936, while he was living and working in London, he met Caitlin Macnamara (1913-1994), a 22-year-old blonde-haired, blue-eyed dancer whose Irish family came from Co Clare. In Sunday night’s drama, Tom Hollander and Essie Davis vividly play out that destructive marriage and the couple’s life in the Welsh fishing village of Laugharne.

The drama brings us to his visits to the US in the 1950s, when his readings brought him new fame, and his erratic behaviour and drinking worsened. In New York in 1953, Thomas became gravely ill and fell into a coma from which he never recovered. He died on 9 November 1953 and his body was returned to Wales where he was buried in the village churchyard in Laugharne.

He remained popular after his early death, although his reputation in later life was as a “roistering, drunken and doomed poet.”

Do not go gentle into that good night is considered one of his finest works. It was first published in the journal Botteghe Oscure in 1951, and also appeared in 1952 in the collection In Country Sleep and other poems.
It was written for his dying father, and remains one of Thomas's most popular and accessible poems. The opening line, “Do not go gentle into that good night,” is a refrain throughout the poem, in which there is an equally famous refrain, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Do not go gentle into that good night

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Source: The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas (New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1957)

20 May 2014

Did Joan of Ark make use
of the Axe of the Apostles?

Patrick Comerford

Just as the close of another academic year seems to be in sight, I received an interesting list of Bible howlers from a cousin-by-marriage who is a teacher in England.

She says she received them in turn from a friend, who describes a nun sitting at her desk grading end-of-year papers in a Catholic elementary school test, all the while trying to keep a straight face and maintain her composure. She says: “Pay special attention to the wording and spelling.”

The children were asked questions about the Old and New Testaments. The following 25 statements about the Bible were written by those children, and says “they have not been retouched or corrected … incorrect spelling has been left in.”

1. In the first book of the Bible, Guinessis. God got tired of creating the world so he took the Sabbath off.

2. Adam and eve were created from an apple tree.

3. Noah’s wife was Joan of Ark. Noah built and ark and the animals came on in pears.

4. The Jews were a proud people and throughout history they had trouble with unsympathetic genitals.

5. Sampson was a strongman who let himself be led astray by a Jezebel like Delilah.

6. Samson slayed the Philistines with the Axe of the Apostles.

7. Moses led the Jews to the red sea where they made unleavened bread, which is bread without any ingredients.

8. The Egyptians were all drowned in the dessert. Afterwards, Moses went up to Mount Cyanide to get the ten commandments.

9. The first commandments was when Eve told Adam to eat the apple.

10. The seventh commandment is thou shalt not admit adultery.

11. Moses died before he ever reached Canada then Joshua led the Hebrews in the battle of Geritol.

12. The greatest miracle in the Bible is when Joshua told his son to stand still and he obeyed him.

13. David was a Hebrew king who was skilled at playing the liar. He fought the Finkelsteins, a race of people who lived in biblical times.

14. Solomon, one of David’s sons, had 300 wives and 700 porcupines.

15. When Mary heard she was the mother of Jesus, she sang the Magna Carta.

16. When the three wise guys from the east side arrived they found Jesus in the manager.

17. Jesus was born because Mary had an immaculate contraption.

18. St. John the blacksmith dumped water on his head.

19. Jesus enunciated the golden rule, which says to do unto others before they do one to you. He also explained a man doth not live by sweat alone.

20. It was a miracle when Jesus rose from the dead and managed to get the tombstone off the entrance.

21. The people who followed the lord were called the 12 decibels.

22. The epistels were the wives of the apostles.

23. One of the oppossums was St. Matthew who was also a taximan.

24. St. Paul cavorted to Christianity, he preached holy acrimony, which is another name for marriage.

25. Christians have only one spouse. This is called monotony.

I can assure you, I read nothing like these this year.

19 May 2014

The Spirit, Truth and the Trinity:
John 16: 5-16, a Bible study

The Holy Spirit descending as a dove ... part of a triptych in the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford,

Church of Ireland Theological Institute,

19 May 2014

John 16: 5-16

<Ο Ιησούς είπε> 5 νῦν δὲ ὑπάγω πρὸς τὸν πέμψαντά με, καὶ οὐδεὶς ἐξ ὑμῶν ἐρωτᾷ με, Ποῦ ὑπάγεις; 6 ἀλλ' ὅτι ταῦτα λελάληκα ὑμῖν ἡ λύπη πεπλήρωκεν ὑμῶν τὴν καρδίαν. 7 ἀλλ' ἐγὼ τὴν ἀλήθειαν λέγω ὑμῖν, συμφέρει ὑμῖν ἵνα ἐγὼ ἀπέλθω. ἐὰν γὰρ μὴ ἀπέλθω, ὁ παράκλητος οὐκ ἐλεύσεται πρὸς ὑμᾶς: ἐὰν δὲ πορευθῶ, πέμψω αὐτὸν πρὸς ὑμᾶς. 8 καὶ ἐλθὼν ἐκεῖνος ἐλέγξει τὸν κόσμον περὶ ἁμαρτίας καὶ περὶ δικαιοσύνης καὶ περὶ κρίσεως: 9 περὶ ἁμαρτίας μέν, ὅτι οὐ πιστεύουσιν εἰς ἐμέ: 10 περὶ δικαιοσύνης δέ, ὅτι πρὸς τὸν πατέρα ὑπάγω καὶ οὐκέτι θεωρεῖτέ με: 11 περὶ δὲ κρίσεως, ὅτι ὁ ἄρχων τοῦ κόσμου τούτου κέκριται.

12 Ἔτι πολλὰ ἔχω ὑμῖν λέγειν, ἀλλ' οὐ δύνασθε βαστάζειν ἄρτι: 13 ὅταν δὲ ἔλθῃ ἐκεῖνος, τὸ πνεῦμα τῆς ἀληθείας, ὁδηγήσει ὑμᾶς ἐν τῇ ἀληθείᾳ πάσῃ: οὐ γὰρ λαλήσει ἀφ' ἑαυτοῦ, ἀλλ' ὅσα ἀκούσει λαλήσει, καὶ τὰ ἐρχόμενα ἀναγγελεῖ ὑμῖν. 14 ἐκεῖνος ἐμὲ δοξάσει, ὅτι ἐκ τοῦ ἐμοῦ λήμψεται καὶ ἀναγγελεῖ ὑμῖν. 15 πάντα ὅσα ἔχει ὁ πατὴρ ἐμά ἐστιν: διὰ τοῦτο εἶπον ὅτι ἐκ τοῦ ἐμοῦ λαμβάνει καὶ ἀναγγελεῖ ὑμῖν.

16 Μικρὸν καὶ οὐκέτι θεωρεῖτέ με, καὶ πάλιν μικρὸν καὶ ὄψεσθέ με.

[Jesus said:] ‘5 But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, “Where are you going?” 6 But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. 7 Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8 And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement: 9 about sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11 about judgement, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.

12 ‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.15 All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

16 ‘A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me.’

The context:

The Triptych of the Baptism of Christ in the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

The Synoptic Gospels have little to say about either the person or the work of the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, in the Fourth Gospel, there are three chapters (John 14-16) that teach about the Holy Spirit and the work and role of the Holy Spirit, and on receiving the Holy Spirit.

Throughout Saint John’s Gospel we are offered glimpses of the Spirit. And in Saint John’s Gospel the Spirit is associated primarily with Christ.

In all, Saint John’s Gospel discusses the Holy Spirit in the following places:

John 1: 32-34: Saint John the Baptist testifies that the Holy Spirit descends from heaven like a dove on Christ at his Baptism, and remains on him.

John 3: 5-8: Early in his ministry, Christ introduces the Spirit into his conversation with the Pharisee Nicodemus. How central is the Spirit? Christ declares “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit” (verse 5). The Holy Spirit is the Giver of Life (verse 6), and the Spirit acts sovereignly, and “blows where it chooses” (verse 8).

John 4: 5-26: In his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well in Sychar, Christ speaks of the Holy Spirit is Living Water (verse 10), and tells her that the Holy Spirit leads us into worship of God, whom we worship in Spirit and in Truth (verses 23-24).

John 14: 15-21: The Gospel reading in the Revised Common Lectionary for next Sunday, the Sixth Sunday of Easter [25 May 2014], where Christ speaks of the Holy Spirit as an Advocate who is with us forever (verse 16), the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of truth (verse 17), and the Holy Spirit as the Teacher and Reminder of Christ (verse 26).

The Gospel reading (John 15: 26-John 16: 4) in the Church of Ireland lectionary for the following day [26 May 2014], when Christ says the Advocate or the Holy Spirit is being sent by the Father in Christ’s name, is the teacher of everything and is the reminder for us of all that Christ has said (John 15: 26).

Then, over the following days, we read John 16: 5-11 [27 May 2014] and John 16: 26-24 [28 May 2014] in preparation for the Ascension Day [29 May 2014], two readings that incorporate the passage we are looking at this morning.

John 16: 5-16: The passage we are looking at this morning, in which Christ promises again that the Holy Spirit is being sent to Disciples, and promises that the Holy Spirit will guide us “into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you … he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

John 20: 22-23: The Risen Christ appears to the frightened and hiding disciples, breathes on them, and they receive the Holy Spirit.”

Looking at the passage (John 16: 5-16):

A modern icon of the Trinity inspired by Rublev’s icon … this passage teaches us the Holy Trinity is our way of life made possible by God

In Saint John’s Gospel, it is in his great farewell discourse and prayer (John 14: 1 to 17: 26) at the Last Supper that Christ most fully explores and explains the Spirit that he is to give to his disciples. Here he weaves the connection between God, the Father, himself, and the Spirit.

The Holy Trinity is our way of life made possible by God.

In this passage, after the Last Supper, Christ continues to tell the disciples about the mission they are to undertake. The “Spirit of truth” (verse 26) is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit will be sent to the disciples, the Church, by Christ “from the Father.”

Christ’s challenge, “yet none of you asks me, ‘where are you going?’” (verse 5) seems strange because the disciples have asked the question earlier (see John 13: 36, 14: 5).

Perhaps Christ is saying: overwhelmed with “sorrow” (verse 6), you are missing the main point: the coming of the Spirit. By leaving them, Christ is able to send the Spirit, “the Advocate” (verse 7).

One thing the Spirit will do is show “the world” (verse 8, unbelievers) that they are wrong on three counts:

● their idea of sin is incorrect (verse 9);
● the righteous (the religious authorities) were wrong about Christ Jesus: he is God’s agent (verse 10);
● he has defeated sin (verse 11).

In verses 12-13, we find the disciples have much more to learn from Christ, but they are not yet ready to comprehend it. The Spirit will expand on what Christ has told them. In guiding them, the Spirit will speak what comes to him from God (as Christ has spoken what the Father has told him).

The Spirit will “declare” (verse 13) about events “to come”, not only prophecy about the end-times but also guidance in the way of Christ, after Christ’s death and resurrection.

In verse 13, Christ says: “the Spirit of truth ... will guide you into all the truth”: Philo, in his Life of Moses (2.265), speaks of a divine spirit guiding the mind to truth. Psalm 25: 5 asks that God “lead me in your truth, and teach me ...” The term “Spirit of truth” is also found in John 14: 17 and John 15: 26.

In 1 John 4: 6, we find a contrast between “the spirit of truth” with “the spirit of error.” In 1 John 5: 6, the writer says that “the Spirit is the truth.”

This terminology was current when John wrote; it is also found in 1QS (Qumran Rule of the Community) 3-4 and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (even to using the same verbs for “testify” (15: 26) and “guide”).

There are differences in the theology, but there are sufficient parallels for it to be likely that John’s term “Spirit of Truth” is a development from the usage in contemporary Judaism.

In the rest of this gospel, truth means belief in Christ as the sole revelation of God and the one who speaks the words of God. In John 8: 40, Christ describes himself as “a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God”. In John 8: 47, he tells some Pharisees: “Whoever is from God hears the words of God. The reason you do not hear them is that you are not from God”. See also John 3: 20 and 33.

In the phrase in verse 13, “declare to you,” the Greek verb is ἀναγγελεῖν (anangellein). In John 4: 25, the Samaritan woman speaks of the coming prophet in similar terms: “‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim [anangellein] all things to us’.”

The phrase “things that are to come” (verse 13) refers not simply to prophecy but also to the interpretation of the life and death of Christ and the declaration of the new order which follows his departure to the Father.

The Spirit will elucidate for them that Christ fulfils God’s plans. The Spirit will reveal the essential nature of God, and show Christ’s power (“glorify”, verse 14). Whether the word comes from the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit, it is the same.

So this is also a Trinitarian passage, teaching us how the Holy Trinity is about relationship and indwelling. The Holy Trinity is about collaboration and the self-communication of God. The Holy Trinity is about the mutuality of God within the God-head, about our invitation into the God-head by Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. And it is about our mutuality with each other, guiding, speaking, and declaring to one another the glory of God, Father/Creator, Jesus/Son, and Holy Spirit.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. These notes were prepared for a Bible study with students the Church of Ireland Theological Institute and Edgehill Theological College at a seminar on 19 May 2014.

18 May 2014

A walk on the beach in a rainstorm
and ice cream in ‘Storm in a Teacup’

The grey waves breaking and rolling in relentlessly onto the grey sands beneath a grey sky in Bettystown, Co Meath, this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

The promise of summer that came with the sunshine on Friday and Saturday dissipated today as a rainstorm moved across Ireland today, and the clouds emptied along the coast this afternoon.

Some people may think that what we have experienced today is typical Irish summer weather. Others may wag their fingers at me and tell me I should be happy I’m not living in Serbia or Bosnia suffering through the storms and floods that have been rained down on the Balkans in recent days.

But who said I’m complaining?

After a long working weekend, two of us headed off in the rain early this afternoon for a walk on the beach in Bettystown before lunch in Relish.

The Irish Sea was choppy, the tide was in fully, and the waves were rolling in relentlessly as the rains continued to pour down.

Well, at least the rain, the tides and the waves stopped cars from driving down onto the beach, which is one of my constant complaints about how the threats to this beautiful beach are being ignored by Meath County Council.

Co Meath has one of the shortest coastlines for any coastal county in Ireland, yet the vast, lengthy, expansive beach often appears neglected and abandoned by officialdom in the way cars are allowed to use it as a racetrack and one long car park, and pollution often goes unchecked.

But who said I’m complaining?

A second walk on the beach in the rain in Bettystown, Co Meath, this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

We still had a walk in the rain on what is still a beautiful expanse of beach, and watched in wonder at the capacity of the breaking waves as they rolled in, and rolled in, and rolled in.

The skies were grey, the waters were grey, and the sands were grey ... except for the odd piece of colour on a sinking speed sign that seemed to be located inappropriately, it might have been a scene from a 1940s black-and-white movie.

Later, from the sheltered luxury of Relish, perched on top of the sandbanks looking out onto the waves and Irish Sea, we had lunch as we continued to enjoy the scenes on the sands below.

Later, we stopped again at Laytown, before heading back through Julianstown, Gormanston and Balbriggan to Skerries.

But who said I’m complaining?

Looking out at the storm at Skerries Harbour from ‘Storm in a Teacup’ this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Despite the rains and the grey clouds and sea, the harbour-side bars and restaurants were busy. We stopped at the slipway beside the lifeboat station, where ‘Storm in a Teacup’ was still busy in the late afternoon despite the storm that seemed to have hit the length of the east coast.

There we had two ice creams. Dressed and drizzled with espresso, cinnamon and chocolate.

The 1937 movie Storm in a Teacup, starring Vivien Leigh and Rex Harrison, was a minor British classic involving an Irish dog in a small town in Scotland. It is often regarded as the first genuine British comedy of the sound era.

It was once a popular Christmas-time movie in the early days of BBC television (in black and white). Looking out in Skerries on the grey skies and grey waters that were stretching all along the east coast this afternoon, I wondered when the storms would pass and when we would return to the days of summer with all the colours the sunshine brings.

And after today’s deluge, I wondered with humour whether I ought to have talked about the new movie Noah when I was speaking about Spirituality and Cinema on the morning of Palm Sunday during on the residential weekend last month [13 April 2014].

The promise of a summer smile … two ice creams, drizzled with espresso, cinnamon and chocolate, in the car in the rain in Skerries this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

17 May 2014

Voting for the promises of summer
by the River Dodder in Rathfarnham

The promise of summer in the colours of the garden (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

It seems every lamppost, every pillar, every post-box, every length of railings and every set of traffic lights in this constituency has been hijacked for the display of election posters.

It may not be vandalism, but it certainly adds up to ugly and wanton littering. Few of them want to tell me what they would actually do, and instead most of them are telling me what they want me to think they think they look like.

But, despite this loutish littering – which is inflicted by all parties and none – nothing can take away from the joy and beauty of the sunshine that has bathed this part of Dublin for the past two days.

The weather forecasters say this sunshine is going to go as fast as it arrived. But for the past few days it has been a joy. The dawn chorus is beginning earlier and earlier each morning, and the evenings are lingering longer as each day comes to a close.

Since my return from Lichfield, I have had a busy week, helping to launch a new book in Whitechurch Parish, and reading, marking, learning and inwardly digesting essays, assignments and dissertations.

But there were a few moments in the sunshine each day, with dinner in the garden last night and a barbeque on the lawn this evening.

I remember childhood days when these were irritating weeks, clouded by hay fever, with itching eyes and ears, a blocked nose and throat and sometimes irritated blotches and patches on my skin. There was little understanding of hay fever in the 1950s and early 1960s, and less sympathy for it. It was difficult for a boy to be stuck inside, reading and painting in my grandmother’s farmhouse, while others of my age were out playing in the fields and the barns and by the river.

Scenes of summer by the River Dodder in Rathfarnham this evening (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

I still suffer from hay fever at this time of the year, and it probably adds to the problems created for my lungs and my breathing system by the symptoms of sarcoidosis. But perhaps I am coping better these days, and now I enjoy the early summer feeling that comes in with May. The days are longer, the skies are blue, the air is warmer, and the colours are brighter.

Last Monday’s afternoon walk along Cross in Hand Lane, though the fields and farms in the countryside north of Lichfield, was one of those moments when I catch a glimpse of heaven and feel blessed by the beauty and riches of God’s creation.

A summer pleasure ... water from the lion fountain (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Last night, I sat in the garden until the evening lights had faded, enjoying the lingering feelings of sunshine and listening to the sound of water dripping gently from the lion’s mouth in a small fountain.

This morning began with breakfast with students in a restaurant in Churchtown. After this evening’s barbeque, I walked home along the banks of the Dodder in the Rathfarnham, where a few were fishing, and a mother and child were feeding a swan at the top of the weir and some ducks.

As the evening lights began to fade, there was an almost rustic appearance by the river bank. The promises of summer are something no politician can hold out at election time. If I finish early tomorrow afternoon I may even go for a walk on a beach.

The promises of summer on the River Dodder in Rathfarnham this evening (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)