31 August 2014
The continuing success of tourism industry and the boost in tourism figures once again this year has cushioned people in many parts of Crete against the continuing problems besetting the Greek economy.
In Rethymnon, business figures told me last week that the town’s economy is cushioned with tourism accounting for almost 80 per cent of the economy, and education through the campus of the University of Crete making up almost 20 per cent of the economy.
Once again, Greece is enjoying a record year for tourism. Popular resorts were booked to capacity this month and last month, with visitor numbers this season expected to have jumped by 30 per cent, according to figures circulated by hoteliers and tour operators.
A leading figure in the tourism industry estimated recently that visitor figures this year would come in at 19 million, up on the record figure of 17.9 million already recorded for last year. More optimistic predictions hope for a record 21 million visitors to Greece this year, nearly double the country’s population.
Greece’s unemployment still stands at 26.7 per cent, the highest in the EU, wages and pensions have been cut by an average of 40 per cent, and in a country that is working hard at building its tourism sector, only one in four Greeks say they canafford to take a holiday this year.
But restaurateurs, hoteliers and shopkeepers were telling me in Crete last week that although many proprietors had invested in Russian-language signs in recent years, there has been a drop-off in the number of tourists from Russia, Ukraine and the Balkan countries, and they fear this may have been partly due to the present crisis involving Russia and Ukraine.
On the other hand, traditional markets such as Britain and Germany have recovered, and there has been some increase too in the numbers arriving on Greek islands on board cruise ships, although cruise operators continue to have a preference for the US and other destinations rather that Greece and the Mediterranean.
Tourism is Greece’s largest foreign exchange earner. This year, the figures could reach €13.5 billion this year, up from €12 billion, with spending per head up from €650 to €700.
But political stability and substantial private investment is needed if this growth in the tourism sector is to continue. For example, the season is concentrated on the few months of high summer from June to September, and there are few luxury hotels, high standard marinas or golf courses of the sort that attract high spenders, while the development of the site of the former Athens International Airport at Hellenikon, used for the 2004 summer Olympics, is taking longer than many expected.
Nikos Kazantzakis International Airport near Iraklion is the main airport on Crete, and after Athens International Airport it is Greece’s second busiest airport. The staff at every level, from check-in to security, police and the shops display traditional Greek hospitality, friendliness and courtesy. But the airport is still grotty and shabby and could benefit from investment and a complete makeover.
The transport ministry has plans at the end of this year to offer a concession to build and operate a new international airport on a green-field site in central Crete.
Earlier this month, it was announced that Google is to offer management courses to 3,000 tourism businesses on Crete as part of an initiative to promote the tourism sector in Greece.
The first initiative will begin in early September in southern Crete and could be extended later out to other parts of Greece.
Greeks hopes that Google’s initiative will help to extend the tourist season by improving the visibility on the internet of companies in the tourism sector through greater use of tools such as Google My Business and Google AdWords.
Economists say improving the Greek tourist industry’s presence online could help to create another 100,000 new badly needed jobs.
But if the tourist sector in Greece can learn from Google, perhaps the tourist sector in Ireland could learn from Greece. After celebrating the Cathedral Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral this morning, I joined three others in a visit to beaches of Mornington, Bettystown and Laytown on the coast of Co Meath this afternoon.
This is a very short stretch of coastline for an Irish county, and Meath County Council boasts that this is the “Gold Coast” of Ireland. The beaches are beautiful, and have undeniable potential, and the welcome at Relish in Bettystown was as good as the welcome in any restaurant in Rethymnon last week.
But despite its rich golden stretch of sand, the beach at Bettystown was filthy this afternoon, with plastic bags and dirt everywhere.
It is a beautiful experience to walk on and the views are spectacular. But cars are allowed to drive on the beach, and despite sings announcing a 10 kph speed limits and warning about the presence of children, quads were speeding up and down the sands, doing donut turns to cheering onlookers.
On a number of occasions this summer, Meath County Council has advised people not to swim at Bettystown after test results showed an increase in levels of bacteria, including ecoli. Yet Meath County Council and the Environmental Protection Agency did not erect signs at the entrance to the beach after high bacteria levels were found in the water.
This has been a good year for tourism in Ireland too. Restaurateurs like the proprietors of Relish, are providing a high quality service, investing in the local economy and providing secure employment.
But our beaches are important attraction for both home and foreign tourists. The tourist beaches throughout Crete – and I visited more than half a dozen last week – are cleaned regularly throughout the day and carefully managed for the benefit of both tourists and the local economy.
When it comes to tourism, Ireland still has a lot to learn from Greece – and perhaps from Google too.
30 August 2014
I was in the shower in Rethymnon on Friday morning [29 August 2014] and never noticed that an earthquake was rattling Greece and was widely felt throughout Crete. The quake struck at 6.45 a.m. and had an epicentre beneath the seabed near the island of Milos. It was widely felt across Greece, from Crete to the very north.
Earthquakes are a regular occurrence in Greece, and thousands of people were left homeless in January by a quake on the Ionian island of Cephalonia. But in most cases, earthquakes cause no damage, and are seldom even commented on by local people, although they sometimes give tourists a jolt.
The most famous earthquakes to hit Crete in ancient history destroyed the Minoan palaces at Knossos, Phaistos, Malia, and Kato Zakros and contributed to the destruction of the Minoan civilisation, although it is also said the destruction was caused by a volcanic eruption on the island of Santorini (Thira) or was wrought by invading forces.
Certainly, earthquakes have been a part of the story of Crete over the centuries. There are signs of earthquake damage at many Minoan sites and clear signs of both uplifting of land and submersion of coastal sites due to tectonic processes all along the coasts.
An undersea earthquake at sunrise on 21 July 365 destroyed nearly all towns in Crete and caused widespread destruction in central and southern Greece, northern Libya, Egypt, Cyprus, and Sicily. It was followed by a tsunami that devastated the southern and eastern coasts of the Mediterranean, particularly Libya, Alexandria and the Nile Delta, killing thousands and hurling ships miles inland.
An earthquake at dawn on 8 August 1303 killed 4,000 people in Crete and destroyed buildings in Iraklion and across the island. The earthquake was felt as far away as Constantinople and Tunis and triggered a tsunami that caused severe damage and loss of life on Crete and at Alexandria.
Late on 16 February 1810, an earthquake caused extensive destruction in Iraklion, where 2,000 people were killed and damage was caused from Malta and central Italy to northern Egypt and Syria.
I had hardly even noticed Friday morning’s earthquake, and as I went out onto the balcony, morning life was getting off to a normal and busy start. All traces of Thursday’s busy market in the car park below my balcony were long gone, and it was going to be another, bright sunny day. Nobody seemed to be rattled or concerned about what passed as a tiny tremor.
But after breakfast there were a few things to savour and revisit before leaving Rethymnon for yet another year. Two of us took a walk through the old town, by the minarets and old churches, along the cobbled streets, by the Venetian doorways and fountains and beneath the Ottoman balconies.
It had been a week with visits to more than half a dozen beaches and drives through the olive groves in the countryside and in the mountains, swimming most days, opportunities to stop and pray in cathedrals and churches, in monasteries and convents, a few boat trips, two art exhibitions, a first-ever visit to both the Kara Musa Pasha mosque and the archaeological site at Phaistos, time in coastal resorts and mountain-side villages, a walk in a forest, meals with friends, lingering sunsets each evening, and time to sit and talk, to read and pray.
If there was anything I had thought of doing but never got around to in the past week, it was only because I was doing something else.
Before leaving, there were some small presents to buy. We also bought some good Greek olives in an old shop by the Porta Guora, and stopped outside the gate, near the Square of the Four Martyrs and the Municipal Gardens to buy bread and cheese pies in the bakery run by the Sampson family on Dimakopoulou Street.
Across the street, a man was opening his small shop where he sells and repairs hand-made lyras and other traditional Greek musical instruments.
As I strolled on through the streets, I thought about bringing home an olive tree, on sale everywhere this year for €10, all potted, packaged and ready to take on a plane … perhaps next year.
We visited the Church of the Four Martyrs as the Divine Liturgy was coming to a close with the priest’s blessing, and thanked God for this year’s blessings in Greece.
We had one final coffee in Barrio, a busy café on the corner of Koumoundourou and Dimitrakaki Street. The bus to Iraklion Airport stopped at Adele and many of the beach resorts east of Rethymnon, and then gave us an unexpected if unnarrated tour of the beach resort of Bali.
Later in the afternoon, as we flew with Aegean Airways over the Aegean islands on our way to Frankfurt, the blue waters and blue skies looked calm, there were few clouds around us and as I looked at Santorini in this summer scene, it was hard to believe this part of the Mediterranean had shuddered a few hours ago or had been so violently disrupted so many centuries ago.
29 August 2014
At the end of this week’s long visit to the Monastery of Preveli and three beaches on the south coast of Crete, the evening came to a close with visits to the archaeological site at Phaistos (Φαιστός) and the attractive mountain village of Spili.
The Bronze Age archaeological site at Phaistos, about 5 or 6 km inland, was first identified in 1853 by a British naval commander, Thomas Abel Brimage Spratt (1811-1888), during his Mediterranean Survey in 1853.
Spratt was guided by his reading of the classical Greek historian, Strabo, who had written: “Of the three cities that were united under one metropolis by Minos, the third, which was Phaestus, was razed to the ground by the Gortynians; it is sixty stadia distant from Gortyn, twenty from the sea, and forty from the seaport Matalum; and the country is held by those who razed it.”
The city of Phaistos is associated with Rhadamanthys, a mythical king of Crete. It is first mentioned by Homer, who said it was “well populated” and took part in the Trojan War.
The historian Diodorus Siculus says that Phaistos, Knossos and Kydona are the three main towns founded by King Minos on Crete. However, Pausanias and Stephanus of Byzantium said Phaistos was founded by Phaestos, the son of Hercules or Ropalus.
When Spratt first arrived at the tiny village of Kastri, the village and 16 houses stood on the ridge. But he instinctively knew that there was something greater was there and he realised the remains of fortification walls he could see indicated the site of the ancient city named by Strabo.
However, it was another half century before the Italian archaeologist Federico Halbherr (1857-1930) was able to remove the houses that were on the site and begin to discover the remains of the extensive Minoan palace complex.
Halbherr began his work at Phaistos in 1900, even before Arthur Evans began his explorations at Knossos in 1900. However, Halbherr did not have the same great knowledge Evans had of Minoan civilisation. Nor did he know about the important insights acquired by Michael Ventris through the decipherment of the Linear B.
Halbherr’s excavations at Phaistos came to an end in 1904, but by the time the dig resumed in 1950 archaeologists understood more about the palace and its foundation.
In the intervening years, some exciting discoveries were made at the site. The most important find was in 1908, when the Italian archaeologist Luigi Pernier (1874-1937) found what we now know as the Phaistos Disc at the basements of the northern group of the palace. This is a clay disk, dated some time between 1950 BC and 1400 BC, and stamped with a unique sophisticated hieroglyphic script. The tombs of the rulers of Phaistos were found in the cemetery that was discovered 20 minutes away from the palace remains.
From 1955 on, the place name Phaistos began to turn up in the Linear B tablets at Knossos dating from Mycenaean Greece, and archaeologists now had every reason to believe that Phaistos was indeed located at Kastri.
Although no Linear B has been found at Phaistos, both tradition and the Knossos tablets suggest that Phaistos was a dependency of Knossos. Moreover, only a few pieces of Linear A have been found. As Phaistos appears to have been an administrative centre, it is all the more puzzling that no records have been found to date.
We now know, though, that Phaistos was inhabited from about 4000 BC. A palace, dating from the Middle Bronze Age, was destroyed by an earthquake during the Late Bronze Age, at the same time as Knossos and other Minoan sites in Crete were destroyed. The palace at Phaistos was rebuilt towards the end of the Late Bronze Age.
The first palace at Phaistos was built about 2000 BC. This section is on a lower level than the west courtyard and has a nice facade with a plastic outer shape, a cobbled courtyard, and a tower ledge with a ramp that leads up to a higher level.
The old palace was destroyed three times over a period of about three centuries. After the first and second disasters, the palace was repaired and rebuilt.
Around 1400 BC, Phaistos and Knossos were both destroyed by the invading Achaeans, and it appears the palace at Phaistos was never used after that because no evidence of the Mycenaean era had been found uncovered at the site.
Several artefacts with Linear A inscriptions have been found at Phaistos, as well as sub-surface pits, pottery from in the Middle and Late Minoan periods, and Bronze Age works.
The three palaces at Phaistos date from Early, Middle and Late Minoan ages. The older palace looks like a smaller version of the Minoan palace at Knossos. It was destroyed by an earthquake ca 1600 BC, and on its ruins was built a bigger and more magnificent palace with several rooms separated by columns.
Visitors can see the theatre area and the two splendid staircases that led to the main hall of the Propylaea. A twin gate led directly to the central courtyard through a wide street. There were splendidly decorated rooms, spacious ceremonial rooms, and a central courtyard leading to the royal apartments, which had views to the top of Mount Psiloritis.
Phaistos had its own currency and the city formed an alliance with other autonomous Cretan cities, and with the city of Pergamum. It was finally destroyed by the Gortynians at the end of the third century BC, and Phaestos then disappears from history.
We left Phaestos late in the evening, and on our way back to Rethymnon stopped in Spili (Σπήλι), a charming mountain, where we drank from the row of Venetian lion-head fountains in the main square. It was another 40 minute drive back to Rethymnon.
28 August 2014
During the long expedition to the south coast of Crete earlier this week, it was good to spend some time in Preveli, visiting the monastery that is famous for its role in struggles against both the Turks and the Germans in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The monastery is celebrated in Greek lore and in books and movies for its part in helping allied soldiers escape Crete in World War II. With all the tales of bravado, daring-do and great escapes, it is easy for tourists and visitors to forget that this is also a holy place.
Preveli is 37 km south of Rethymnion, where I am staying, and while the monastery lies is within the Diocese of Lambis and Sfakion, it comes under the direct oversight of the Ecumenical Patriarch, making it the Holy Stavropegic and Patriarchal Monastery of Saint John the Theologian.
In fact, the Monastery of Preveli is not one but two monasteries, with two sets of buildings. The ruined Lower Monastery (Kato Moni) is dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, but is now deserted. This part of the monastery is fenced off and closed to visitors. It was another 3 km or so to the second living, active monastery, known as the Upper or Rear Monastery (Piso Moni) and dedicated to Saint John the Theologian.
There is strong evidence that an early monastery stood on the site of the lower monastery during the Second Byzantine period in Crete, in the 10th or early 11th century. But the monastery was probably founded in the Middle Ages, when Crete was under Venetian rule.
Documents show the original name of Preveli was “The Monastery of the Great River at the Island of Crete.” The present name is explained in different stories about who founded Preveli. Some say it was founded by a feudal lord named Prevelis. Others say it is named after a repentant murderer who fled his home in Preveliana village in the 16th century, found refuge in the monastery and gave his life savings in thanks for his life being saved. Another tradition says Preveli takes its name from Abbot Akakios Prevelis, who renovated the monastery in 1670.
Indeed, at least three or four of the abbots in the 17th and 18th century were from the Prevelis family, a family from Rethymnon descended from the Kallergis, a Byzantine noble family.
The earliest records for the monastery go back to 1594, a date engraved on a monastery bell. When the Turks occupied Crete in 1649, they destroyed many churches and church buildings, including the monastery of Preveli. But the monastery survived and was restored, and in the centuries that followed became a centre for education and a centre for resistance to Ottoman rule.
In 1770, Abbot Efraim Prevelis took part in the revolution led by John Vlachos or Daskalogianis. He was convicted for the assassination of a Janissary, Gioussef Fassaros, and was sentenced to death by the Turks. He was finally pardoned in 1798 after Patriarch Gregory V intervened with the Sulktan in Istanbul.
To secure the monastery’s privileges and estates, Abbot Ephrem sought the protection of the Patriarchate, and Preveli was given the status of a patriarchal and stavropegic monastery. As a sign of this new status, he returned from Constantinople with the Cross that has remained the most prized relic in Preveli.
In 1821, the Abbot of Preveli, Melchisedek Tsouderos – whose family was from Rethymnon and who were said to be descended from the Byzantine imperial family – became a member of the secret Greek revolutionary organisation, the Philiki Etairia (the Society of Friends).
On 25 May 1821, the abbot and a group of rebels hoisted the Greek flag on the hills overlooking the village of Rodakino, and he soon became the leading figure in the revolutionary events of 1821 in Crete.
The abbot organised, equipped and financed the first rebel units against the Turkish forces, and managed to rescue the monks before the Turks destroyed the monastery in a reprisal attack.
Abbot Melchisedek’s force, made up of monks and civilians, went on to fight in many battles in western Crete. He was fatally injured in a battle near the village of Polemarchi in the Kissamos area on 5 February 1823. He died while his companions were trying to move him to the village of Platania, where he was buried. He is commemorated in the name of Tsouderon Street, where I stayed last year and the year before in Pepi Studios.
The monastery in Preveli was active again in organising rebellions against the Turks in the 19th century. The disaster at Arkadi Monastery in November 1866 did not deter Abbot Agathangelos and his monks, who fed and sheltered up to 200 rebels in Preveli on a daily basis. In a revenge attack on 7 July 1867, Resit Pasha and 8,000 Turkish soldiers set fire to the Lower Monastery and its farms in the neighbouring villages. The Rear Monastery was saved at the last moment and continued its active role until the end of the revolution in 1869.
When yet another revolution broke out in 1878, the Rear Monastery became rebel headquarters and the abbot fought at the front line. Captain Nicolaos Soumelis moored his ship Panellinion below the monastery at the mouth of the river at the beach in Preveli, bringing ashore guns and supplies.
The revolutions were instrumental in securing Crete’s eventual autonomy in 1896, followed by political union with Greece 100 years ago in 1913.
During the German occupation of Crete in World War II, 5,000 Greek, Australian, New Zealand and British troops who fought in the Battle of Crete in 1941 found themselves stranded on the island. Many found shelter in the monastery and others were hidden in homes and farms nearby.
The Abbot, Agathangelos Lagouvardos, helped organise their escape to Egypt on two submarines, the Thrasher and the Torbay, came close to the Palm Beach at Preveli below the monastery on the nights of 31 May and June 1941 and 20 and 21 August 1941.
In a revenge attack on 25 August 1941, the Germans plundered the monastery, the Lower Monastery was destroyed completely, and many of the monks were sent to Firka Prison in Chania.
Among the precious items plundered from the Monastery by the Germans was its most precious relic, the miraculous Cross of Abbot Ephraim Prevelis.
But the monks who returned immediately began rebuilding the Rear Monastery with help from local people and from other monasteries in Crete. Meanwhile, Abbot Agathangelos had joined the Greek Army in the Middle East as a chaplain. He died suddenly, two days before he was due to return to Greece after the liberation.
The Lower (Kato) Monastery of Saint John the Baptist once housed the younger monks and lay people who worked at the monastery, and remains a mainly abandoned collection of buildings, with the main church or katholikon in the centre of the courtyard.
The icons and the remaining relics have been rescued and are now in the museum at the Rear Monastery, and many of the restored buildings are open to the public. In the courtyard, a series of monuments recall the role the monastery played in World War II, many of them financed by rescued Australian former soldiers.
The Rear Monastery is at the foot of a mountain and overlooks the Libyan Sea. The monastery is the shape of an irregular letter Π, with buildings on the north, the west and part of the east sides of a level area, with the main church or katholikon in the centre of the courtyard.
The katholikon stands on the site of the older, probably frescoed church that was demolished in 1835. The present church was completed in 1837 and was consecrated that year. The church is a large two-nave building, unified internally by a sequence of three arches.
The marble doorframes and the Byzantine double-headed eagle were put in place on the west front of the church in 1911, replacing much simpler doorframes from 1835.
Inside, the interior of the church has remained intact. The naves are separated by a series of three semi-circular arches supported on strong pillars with simple capitals and bases.
The icons of Saint John the Theologian and Saint Charalambos are the works of a very fine painter who worked in this area in the 1830s and is known as the “Painter of Sfakia.”
The icons of the iconostasis were painted by local painters in 1840-1841. This iconostasis spans the two naves of the church as one unit. The design and decoration link it to the tradition of the Cretan School of Painting at the end of Venetian rule.
The carved, wooden, gold-plated pulpit has wooden stairs that twist round the adjoining pillar, was carved in 1863 and decorated in 1874. The lower part of the pulpit is formed by three triangular bevelled sections divided by rows of stars. Each triangular section has floral decorations surrounding two oval frames with icons of the 12 Apostles.
A magnificent Patriarchal Throne stands against the south wall, for this monastery comes under the direct oversight of the Ecumenical Patriarch.
A long, enclosed chamber, once used as stables, now houses the museum of the monastery. The collection of icons covers a period from the early 17th century to the end of 19th century. The museum displays a large collection of vestments, sacred vessels, relics, manuscripts and books, although many valuable items from the past were sold in the 19th century to raise money for arms and ammunitions in different revolutions.
The best-known item in Preveli is on display not in the museum but in the katholikon. This is the large, richly decorated silver cross brought back to Preveli from Constantinople by Abbot Ephrem and now kept in a special shrine in the main church.
It is said this cross was carried in the frontline in battles, but was lost in 1823 in a battle against the Turks at Amourgeles. It was found later that year in the possession of Genoese sailors. According to legend, they had bought the cross in Iraklion, but their ship suddenly stopped while sailing in the Libyan Sea near Preveli and for three days they could not continue their journey until finally they returned the cross to the monastery.
A similar story about the cross is associated with the German destruction of the monastery in 1941. German officers removed the Cross from the monastery and tried to send it in Germany. However, it is said the plane it was put on could not take off for Athens. The cross was placed on a second plane, but that too failed to take off. A few days after it had been looted, the cross was returned to Preveli, where it was put back on display in the church on 13 September, the eve of the feast celebrating the finding of the True Cross.
Today, the monastic community has dwindled in numbers so that there are only three monks living in the monastery. It is a crisis in monastic vocations that is hitting many monasteries throughout Greece.
However, I was warmly invited into the katholikon this week by one of the monks, who pointed out the main aspects of the church.
He quickly realised I was a priest, and asked me which Church I was from and who was my bishop.
“Michael Jackson,” I replied, “he is my archbishop,” and I handed him my business card.
“Michael Jackson?” he asked quizzically. And then he filled the vaulted church with hearty laughter.
But then he pointed out the icons, the patriarch’s throne, and other treasures in the Church. He told me the story of the Cross, put on his stole, took the Cross out of its shrine, and blessed me before I went on my way.
27 August 2014
To walk along one beach during a weekend back in Ireland is a pleasure I have come to enjoy over the years: it lifts my soul and helps to restore my feelings of good health despite the symptoms that are brought on by sarcoidosis and aggravated by the joint pains caused my B12 deficiency.
To walk along two beaches is an extra delight, lifting both my heart and my spirits.
But to walk on three beaches is a special pleasure indeed.
Yesterday [26 August 2014], I visited three beautiful beaches in southern Crete that I had never been to before.
In the past I have twice visited southern Crete: in the late 1980s, I stayed for a few days in Palaiochora, a small town in the south-west of the island, 77 km south of Chania, and in the 1990s, I briefly visited Ierapetra in south-east, south of Aghios Nikolaos – in the movie Zorba the Greek, the scene in which Anthony Quinn dances the Sirtaki on the beach was filmed on Ierapetra Beach.
So yesterday’s excursion was an opportunity to renew my acquaintances with the southern coast of Crete, and visit three new beaches.
After the bus climbed the hills above Rethymnon, we first stopped in the Kourtaliotiko Gorge (Κουρταλιώτικο Φαράγγι), one of the many gorges to be found throughout Crete. There is a point near the northern entrance to the gorge where some “claps” can be heard, like hands coming together. These “claps” or kourtala give the gorge its name, and are created by the sound of the wind being funnelled through the high caves of the gorge and breaking the sound barrier.
According to local legend, five springs made in the gorge by the imprint of the fingers of Saint Nicholas. Not to be confused with Saint Nicholas of Myra (or Santa Claus), this Saint Nicholas was an ascetic who was born in the nearby village Frati and lived on a rock many centuries ago. But he had no water and was about to leave the place, when the miracle is said to have taken place.
This saint is celebrated on 1 September and the local people call the spring evlogia kyriou or the Lord’s Blessing.
There is a small chapel near the spring in the gorge dedicated to Saint Nicholas, but instead we visited a tiny white-washed chapel built into the side of gorge and dedicated to Aghios Kyriakos (“Saint Sunday”).
Our next stop was at the Upper Monastery of Saint John in Preveli, where we received a warm welcome and a blessing from one of the monks. But visit to the monastery at Preveli is worth writing about separately later in the week.
From the monastery we made our way down to the white beach at Damnoni, about 5 km east of Plakias. We had arrived on the southern coast of Crete, and were about 35 km south of Rethymnon.
The beach of coarse white sand that stretched in front of us sits in a long bay of beautiful turquoise water and is fringed with tamarisk trees. A white goose sat on the warm white sand at the west end of the beach, close to the small river that divides the beach.
Here we boarded a small boat that took us past the smaller beaches of Amoudi and Schinaria and along the steep and rocky coast to the beach at Preveli. Although the beach is below the monastery, there is no road leading down to beach, and so most people arrive on the small ferries that ply between Plakias, Damnoni and Aghia Galini.
At Preveli Beach, the waters from the Kourtaliotiko Gorge tumble down to the sea in a river that forms a lagoon. Turning back towards the gorge, the river is surrounded by a forest of palm trees.
We walked into the forest hoping to find a waterfall where I could take up the “Ice Bucket” challenge in aid of MND research. Instead, we were amazed by the way the palm trees have regenerated themselves in a natural process of healing following a disastrous fire four years ago, on 22 August 2010, when a large proportion of the Theophrastus palm trees was destroyed in a fire.
We could see for ourselves how both the oldest and youngest trees in the grove have naturally found new life.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Preveli was one of the beaches in Crete favoured by hippies. But today, with its lush palm grove and its lagoon Preveli feels more like a part of Africa than a long forgotten hippy colony.
Although we were on the shores of the Libyan Sea, the cold waters of the lagoon and the river make the sea water off the beach quite cool. It was a good place to accept the “Ice Bucket” challenge, and although the staff at the beach bar could not understand the concept, a bottle of cold water was a good substitute.
Later, we caught the same boat back to Damnoni and then took the bus to Matala, which for my generation will always be associated with the former hippy colony and Carey, the 1971 hit from Joni Mitchell’s album Blue.
Carey who gave his name to the song was Cary ‘Carrot’ Raditz, who walked a silver cane and had bright red hair. Joni Mitchell met him in Matala in 1970:
The wind is in from Africa
Last night I couldn’t sleep
Oh, you know it sure is hard to leave here Carey
But it’s really not my home
My fingernails are filthy, I got beach tar on my feet
And I miss my clean white linen and my fancy French cologne.
Oh Carey get out your cane
And I’ll put on some silver
Oh you’re a mean old Daddy
But I like you fine
Come on down to the Mermaid Café and I will
Buy you a bottle of wine
And we’ll laugh and toast to nothing
and smash our empty glasses down
Let’s have a round for these freaks and these soldiers
A round for these friends of mine
Let’s have another round for the bright red devil
Who keeps me in this tourist town.
Come on Carey get out your cane
I’ll put on some silver
Oh you’re a mean old Daddy
But I like you
Maybe I’ll go to Amsterdam
Maybe I’ll go to Rome
And rent me a grand piano
And put some flowers ’round my room
But let’s not talk about fare-thee-wells now
The night is a starry dome
And they’re playin’ that scratchy rock and roll
Beneath the Matala Moon.
Come on Carey get out your cane
I’ll put on some silver
We’ll go to the Mermaid Café
Have fun tonight.
The wind is in from Africa
Last night I couldn’t sleep
Oh you know it sure is hard to leave here
But it’s really not my home.
Maybe it’s been too long a time
Since I was scramblin’ down in the street
Now they got me used to that clean white linen
And that fancy French cologne.
Oh Carey get out your cane
I'll put on my finest silver
We’ll go to the Mermaid Café
Have fun tonight
I said, Oh, you’re a mean old Daddy but I like you
But you’re out of sight.
The caves in the cliff above the beach at Matala are artificial and were created in the Neolithic Age. In the first and second centuries the caves were used as tombs, and the entrance to the caves is advertised as “Roman Cemetery.”
When the hippies moved into the caves in the 1960s, Matala was still a small fishing village. Joni Mitchell’s song is also a protest against the colonels’ regime, which was then in power in Greece. But the hippies were driven out by the military junta, and Matala is now a thriving tourist resort.
The Mermaid Café is now called the Kymata or Waves Restaurant. But there are still signs of the hippy colony after almost half a century ago, including an old, flower-painted Volkswagen van and a heavily carved olive tree. And the hippies would be happy that there is a protected nesting place for Sea Turtles.
By the time we left, we were singing Carey and heading on to visit the archaeological site at the Minoan palace in Phaestos, and to visit the small village of Spili, before returning late in the evening to Rethymnon.
26 August 2014
The “Grand Tour” was considered an essential part of the education of young aristocrats and gentlemen from Ireland and England in the 18th century, and included parts of present-day Italy and Greece.
Their letters home were probably the equivalent of later postcards, texts and Facebook postings, their journals the equivalent of blog postings, and the plundered antiquities they brought back with them have been replaced by today’s souvenirs and tourist trinkets.
They probably behaved no better than the Leaving Cert students behave in Malia and Hersonissos, but they also reached other parts of Crete. I wonder whether the first tourist to visit Rethymnon was Richard Pococke (1704-1765). He was an 18th century Church of Ireland Bishop of Ossory (1756-1765) and briefly, before his death, he was Bishop of Meath (1765), but he is best known for his travel writings and diaries.
Pococke was educated at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, but his family connections brought him back to Ireland and he advanced rapidly in the church, becoming Vicar General of Waterford and Lismore.
He seems to have spent far more time travelling than attending to his duties as a priest or bishop, with his cousin Jeremiah Milles (1714-1784) he was engaged in two “Grand Tours” from 1733 to 1741.
His first tour (1733-1734) was to France and Italy and the second (1736-1737) was to the Low Countries, Germany, Austria, Poland and Hungary.
The first tour ended when Milles decided to return to Ireland in order to be ordained and accept an appointment as Treasurer of Lismore Cathedral. The appointment was an example of the prevalent nepotism of the day – the two young travellers were nephews of Thomas Milles (1671-1740), Bishop of Waterford and Lismore.
The second tour also came to an end when Milles returned to Ireland in 1737 to look after their uncle, Bishop Milles of Waterford and Lismore, who died three years later. But Pococke was resolved to continue his journeys to the East, and detailed accounts of his travels have been published recently in three volumes edited by Dr Rachel Finnegan of Waterford Institute of Technology, who once taught me Classical Greek in Trinity College Dublin.
Pococke’s letters and diaries include detailed accounts of the ceremony in Venice known as the “Marriage to the Sea,” and descriptions of contemporary music and opera. From 1737-1741, he toured the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, visiting Lebanon, Egypt, Jerusalem, Palestine, Asia Minor and Greece, including the islands of Crete, Rhodes and Chios, and Athens, Thessaloniki and Corinth on the mainland.
Pococke was one of the first European travellers to give an account of the origins of the Achtiname of Muhammad, a mediaeval Arabic document that claims the Muslim Prophet Muhammad personally confirmed a grant of protection and other privileges to the monks of Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai in Egypt.
From 1747 to 1760, Pococke travelled throughout Ireland. Meanwhile, in 1756 he was appointed Bishop of Ossory, and shortly before his death he became Bishop of Meath in 1765. He died of apoplexy in 1765 while he was visiting Charleville Castle, near Tullamore, Co Offaly, and was buried at Ardbraccan, Co Meath. After his death, many of his manuscripts were given to the British Library.
Although the socialite Mrs Delany described Pococke as “the dullest man that ever travelled,” I am interested this week as I walk through the backstreets of the old town of Rethymnon amd visit its churches and former mosques, in the way Pococke described his visit to this part of Crete in 1739.
Although Pococke spent much of his time in Crete in 1739 in Chania and Kissamou, he also visited Rethymnon and Iraklion. In Rethymon, he noted that the town had 500 Christian families and six or seven Jewish families.
When Pococke visited Arkadi Monastery in the mountains above Rethymnon in 1739, he said: “It is a charming structure built around an extensive courtyard. They have a very fine refectory and in the centre of the courtyard a very pretty church with a wonderful facade in the Venetian architectural style.”
Outside Iraklion, he came across the legend that Caiaphas died in Crete, a story first mentioned in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus. There, in the accounts of the life of Pilate, it is said that in the 23rd year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate and the High Priest Joseph, also known as Caiaphas, were summoned to Rome to give an account of their administration. On the journey, Caiaphas fell ill and died, and he was buried near the Minoan city at Knossos.
His supposed grave is said to have given its name to a village called Casal Cagiafa, south of Iraklion. Pococke mentioned the legend, but wisely left the attribution to Caiaphas to the local people. All that remained of the legendary grave was destroyed when a new road was built in 1883.
The beautiful resort of Bali, close to the main road connecting Rethymnon to Heraklion, is a popular destination for tourists. I passed through Bali on Friday night, but this part of Crete was isolated until 1970, when a new road was built. Pococke was the first writer to mention the name Bali (Bal Monastir), when he visited the Monastery of Attali or Bai in 1739. The monastery is built over the hill of Agia Ypakoi, west of Bali, and has panoramic sea views.
The monastery of Bali is a male monastery dedicated to Saint John the Baptist. The complex is built in two levels. Next to the impressive entrance of the monastery there were stables, while visitors can still see the old mill, a pottery workshop, a bakery, the monk cells and the refectory, which is decorated with frescoes.
In the 19th century, the bay in Bali was one of the key points for supplying the rebels in Crete with ammunition and for communicating with liberated Greece.
Between Bali and Rethymon, Pococke also visited the area around the villages of Hamalevri, Pangalochori, Stavromenos and Sfakaki which boasts important archaeological sites. Pococke identified the area as being identical with the classical site of Pantomatrion.
In 1918, Efstr Petroulakis, the curator of the Museum of Rethymno, initiated a first experimental research in the village of Paleokastro. In December that year the antiquarian Emmanuel Kaounis discovered a magnificent marble tomb stele dating back to the 5th century BC and bearing an image of a young hunter. In the years that followed, archaeological findings were often brought to light in a haphazard manner in this area.
Further excavations carried out since 1990 have uncovered extensive buildings that were parts of the city and workshop on two hills, Tsikouriana and Kakavella, south of the village of Stavromenos. All the findings are now on exhibition in the Archaeological Museum in Rethymnon.
Pococke was ahead of his time. He was in Rethymnon almost a century before Robert Pashley visited Crete in 1834. Two generations later, the English writer and artist Edward Lear visited Crete 150 years ago in 1864, and painted five watercolours of Rethymnon, and one of the neighbouring village of Perivólia.
But Lear appears to have looked down his nose at the town and described it is a “very small place,” not knowing how long he should bother to stay.
Today, Stavromenos is an extension of the resort that spreads along the sandy beaches east of Rethymnon, and the “Grand Tour” has given way to the grand tourist season that begins in May and ends in October.
25 August 2014
Returning to a restored monastery in the mountains
and an exhibition celebrating the work of El Greco
Part of any holiday should be taking time to reconnect with nature and taking time to replenish the springs of spiritual life.
Last night, two of watched the sun set in the sea and behind the hills west of Rethymnon as we shared dinner in the Sunset Taverna below the western slopes of the Venetian Fortezza.
Long after the sun had set, we lingered at our table watching the traces of orange streaking through the purple and dark blue sky.
As the ordinary people of Rethymnon began a busy working week this morning [25 August 2014] in the parts of the town few tourists see or walk through, we caught a bus near our hotel outside the Municipal Gardens and headed south-east of the town, up into the hills above Rethymnon.
Along the winding roads, we were taken up though olive grove after olive grove before stopping at the small 16th century monastery of Panagia Chalevi, with its windows in the shape of flames or tears.
The winding journey upwards continued along the sides of the Myli Gorge before we reached the village of Chromonastiri, with its military museum.
Here the bus started downhill again, after passing through the village of Roussospiti, we finally hopped off the bus for a return visit to the Agia Irini Monastery, where we were welcomed at the gate by one of the nuns.
The Byzantine monastery of Agia Irini stands like a secure fortress above the valley below, and its detached calm it is difficult to imagine that this is only 5 km from Rethymnon.
The monastery was founded in the 10th century on the site where a saintly hermit had lived in the sixth or seventh century. It remained an active monastery until the revolution in 1821, when it was badly damaged and then abandoned.
Work on restoring the monastery began in 1970, and in 1989, at the suggestion of the Bishop of Rethymnon, a community of nuns moved into the old monastery and made it their convent.
The nine nuns now living in Agia Irini have restored the monastery church, the cloisters, the refectory, the stables, and the wine press.
In their small shop, the sell their icons and hand-made produce, especially their weavings, needle-work and soap.
There was time to pray and to appreciate their hospitality in the stillness created by the mid-day sun before catching a later bus back down to Rethymnon.
Back in the old town, we climbed our way up through the narrow side streets and passages to the Fortezza to visit an exhibition in the Old Artillery Hall.
Homage to the Greek or Homage to El Greco is an art exhibition marking the 400th anniversary of the death of El Greco, and remains open until next Thursday [28 August] from 11.00 to 14.00 each day and from 18.00 to 22.00
Crete is the birthplace of El Greco, the Renaissance master Domenicos Theotokopoulos, and a programme exhibitions is marking ‘El Greco Year’ and the 400th anniversary of the death of the old master in 1614.
El Greco Year is being marked with events in other museums in Greece, including the National Gallery in Athens, the Alex Mylonas Museum, Macedonia Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Byzantine and Christian Museum. In addition to 24 works of art on loan from Italy, Spain, Austria, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, many of El Greco’s famous paintings are included in the round of exhibitions, including Saint Luke the Evangelist and The Adoration of the Magi from the Benaki Museum.
The exhibition, Domenikos Theotokopoulos between Venice and Rome, opened in the Historical Museum of Crete in Iraklion earlier this summer [20 June 2014].
The current exhibition in the Fortezza in Rethymnon brings together Greek and foreign artists who were invited to create their own banners reflecting the work of El Greco.
The exhibition has already been visited the Museum of Visual Arts in Iraklion at (5 May to 3 July 2014) and was on show last month in Chania at the Trianon Palace throughout July. It moves to Athens next month (18 September) where it will be on show at the Hub Event in the Municipal Gallery of Piraeus.
24 August 2014
The Kara Musa Pasha Mosque, at the corner of Arkadíou Street and Viktoras Ougo (Victor Hugo) Street, is one of the surviving treasures from Ottoman Crete in the old town of Rethymnon.
The mosque, with its domes and part of its ruined minaret stands close to Plateia Iróon or Heroes’ Square, which was once a chaotic traffic roundabout but is now a pleasant paved square that marks the east end of the old town.
For many years, the Kara Musa Pasha Mosque and its grounds have housed the Inspectorate of Byzantine Antiquities, but was generally closed to the public.
In the past, I have sought to catalogue the surviving former mosques of Rethymnon, but until today I have never managed to gain access to the Kara Musa Pasha Mosque.
This afternoon [24 August 2014] however, I visited the mosque for the first time. It is the venue for an exhibition, The Ghosts of Mediterranean by the visual artist, Professor Marianna Strapatsakis, which opened on 5 June and has continued long after last month’s original planned closing date of 4 July.
This exhibition has travelled throughout Europe, and most recently was on show at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens in 2012.
This video installation consists of four transparent cylinders, with a screen placed in each, and pebbles collected on the floor space surrounding the cylinders.
This modern piece of art seeks to bring together the conventional and the modern in harmony. The focal point is the cultures of the Mediterranean – the pillars of western civilisation – as well as ancient Greek civilisation, with video material from the Temple of Aphaia. Through the symbolisms of the eternal procedure of birth, death and rebirth, the artwork of Marianne Strapatsakis stands in harmony with the ancient sculptures.
She is a former artistic manager of the Greek magazine Archaeology and Art, and since 2004 she has been an associate professor at the Department of Audiovisual Arts in the Ionian University.
The Kara Musa Pasha Mosque is a beautiful location for this exhibition in Rethymnon, which has been organised by the Museum of Contemporary Art of Crete, located near the Fortezza in the old town.
The mosque was built on the site of a Venetian-era monastery dedicated to Saint Barbara, and was named after an Ottoman admiral who commanded the naval forces at the Turkish capture of Rethymnon in 1645.
The mosque is named after Kara Musa Pasha, who was born in Vikoča near Foča, now in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Sultan Ibrahim I named him as the Grand Vizier in 1647 after the execution his predecessor. But Kara Musa Pasha was then at sea, taking part in the Ottoman war to capture Crete.
The sultan also appointed him the Grand Admiral of the Ottoman Navy, but the imperial seal for his promotion was still on its way to him when he died on 21 September 1647 in front of the castle of Iraklion.
After the Turks captured Rethymnon, Saint Barbara’s Monastery was turned into a mosque. The central building has a typical square floor plan with a mihrab pointing towards Mecca.
Beside the mosque and the stump of the minaret is a domed, three-vault mausoleum that may have been the tomb of the founder of the mosque, but it was partly destroyed during building work on Viktoras Ougo Street many years ago.
The mosque complex includes a vaulted fountain – with a tasteless modern metal tap and cement basin – a courtyard and decorated columns that once stood over Turkish graves but now lie flat on the sun-baked ground.
Earlier this morning, I had attended the Divine Liturgy in the Church of the Four Martyrs, beside the Hotel Brascos where I am staying. The Liturgy was beautifully served, with rich singing and a congregation of 250-300 people packed inside the cathedral-sized church.
We had lunch in Akri, an old taverna on the corner of Soliou Street in the old town, which has been one of our favourites since we first came to Rethymnon in the 1980s.
The temperatures are still in the mid-30s each day, although this is the end of August, and there was nowhere better to spend the afternoon after visiting the exhibition today than on the beach, swimming and enjoying the warm waters of the Mediterranean.
23 August 2014
The Brascos Hotel where I am staying in Rethymnon looks out to the west on the Municipal Gardens and to the north to Platia Tesseron Martiron with the new Church of the Four Martyrs. They were martyred on this spot in 1824, and the church to which they give their name was dedicated in 1975.
In this small square, hidden behind the summer growth and green foliage, is a statue to Kostis Giamboudakis, one of Crete’s symbols of self-sacrifice and freedom from the revolution of 1866-1869.
Kostis Giamboudakis (Κωστης Γιαμπουδακης) was born in Adele, a village 11 km to the east of Rethymnon, along the coast. On my way to Rethymnon from Iraklion late last night, Adele looked just like any other resort on that long sandy stretch of beach, catering for all the pleasures and needs of sophisticated (and less sophisticated) tourists.
I spent a few hours this afternon on the long sandy beach in Rethymnon. But back in the 1860s, Adele was a simple village, and Giamboudakis is said to have been a simple villager who had a big heart and a great love for freedom.
When the revolution against the Turks broke out in 1866, Giamboudakis moved his family to the village of Meronas in the prefecture of Amari to ensure their safety. He then left for the monastery of Arkadi.
Bidding his family goodbye, Giamboudakis said: “Farewell forever. I will go to Arkadi and I will fight to death. I will never surrender to the Turks.”
He then left for Arkadi … and never returned. He set the fire in the gunpowder storage room in Arkadi Monastery in November 1866 and won glory for himself and the island of Crete.
On the night of 7 and 8 November, an army of 15,000 Turks and 30 cannons took up positions on the hills around the monastery. A last request for surrender was met with gunfire, and the assault began. On the evening of 9 November, the Ottoman cannons destroyed the doors and the Turks entered the building, suffering further losses.
But the Cretan fighters were running out of ammunition. As the attackers poured in, the ammunition stored in the monastery exploded. The majority of the women and children had hidden themselves in the powder room.
A popular version of the story says Giamboudakis from Adele gathered the villagers together and when the Turks arrived at the door of the powder room he set the barrels of powder on fire. It was the ultimate expression of the rallying cry of the Greek War of Independence: “Ελευθερία ή θάνατος, Freedom or Death.”
Of the 964 people who were there at the start of the assault, 846 were killed in combat or at the moment of the explosion; 114 men and women were captured; three or four escaped in the search for reinforcements; and 114 survivors were captured and sent to Rethymnon as prisoners. The women and children were held in the Church of the Presentation of the Virgin, the men were imprisoned for a year in difficult conditions.
The bodies of many of the dead Cretans were later placed in the windmill, which became a reliquary. The Turkish losses are estimated at 1,500. They were buried without memorials or their bodies were thrown into the gorges.
The massacre at Arkadi provoked international indignation and outrage, Giuseppe Garibaldi urged his supporters to join the Cretan struggle, Victor Hugo wrote comparing the drama at Arkadi with the destruction of Psara and the Siege of Missolonghi, and money was raised in Britain to send a ship, the Arkádi, to run the Turkish blockade.
A century and half later, the statue of Giamboudakis on the outer edge of the old town is ignored by most tourists who pass by. The few who notice it, find its steps a welcome place to sit and take a breather.
Instead, more attention is given to a modern, wooden replica of the old Venetian clock tower, erected near the Loggia in 1601, but demolished during World War II during work to extend Arkadíou Street – the name of the street recalls the monastery and its place in the struggle for Cretan independence.
22 August 2014
As summer draws to a very noticeable close in Ireland, I am back again in Rethymnon on the Greek island of Crete.
Today’s journey has been a long one, leaving Dublin in the morning for Zurich, catching a second flight an hour later to Iraklion, and then taking a bus from Iraklion to Rethymnon, arriving here late in the evening.
But the long journey to Rethymnon is always rewarding. This is my third successive year to stay in Rethymnon, but I have been a constant visitor to this old charming town since the mid-1980s, and have lost count of the number of times I have been back here.
This year I am staying for a week in the Hotel Brascos in the centre of Rethymnon, next to the Municipal Gardens and a few steps from the Porto Guora or old gate leading into the old Venetian town, with its labyrinthine network of narrow cobbled streets and squares.
The Hotel Brascos stands on the corner of Moatsou and Daskalaki Streets (Μοάτσου και Δασκαλάκη). This is a friendly hotel with 88 guest rooms, all with balconies, and the roof garden offers panoramic views over the old town with its Turkish minarets, Byzantine towers and Venetian fortezza, and out across to the harbour.
The old Venetian port is only 350 metres from the hotel, and the beach – the longest sandy beach on the island – is a mere five-minute walk away. So I am looking forward to walks through the old town, swimming in the sea and in the pool, and watching the sunsets from the hotel roof garden or garden or at a nice tavern I know beneath the walls of the fortezza.
Sadly, the annual Renaissance Festival in Rethymnon has been cancelled this year. But there are a number of interesting exhibitions worth visiting this week. Until Thursday next [28 August 2014], the Old Artillery Hall in the Fortezza is hosting “Homage to the Greek,” an art exhibition marking the 400th anniversary of the death of El Greco. The exhibition is open daily from 11.00 to 14.00 and from 18.00 to 22.00.
Until the end of the month [31 August 2014], the Kara Mousa Pasa Mosque on Agnostou Square in the Old Town is the venue for “Ghosts of the Mediterranean, or The Reflections of the Past,” a video installation by Marianna Strapatsaki. This exhibition is open daily from 12.00 to 14.00 and 19.00 to 21.00, but is closed on Mondays.
There may even be time for trips to some of the monasteries in the hills above Rethymnon, or further afield to Chania or Iraklion.
20 August 2014
Clanbrassil Street: the heart of ‘Little Jerusalem’ in
Dublin and home to countless Comerford families
After celebrating the mid-day Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral on Tuesday [19 August 2014], I walked along Patrick Street, past Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, and up New Street to Lower Clanbrassil Street and stopped for lunch in the Kurdish Café at No 31 Lower Clanbrassil Street, on the corner with Lombard Street.
I had a large Falafel Salad, with four falafels, a jug of water and a double espresso in a quiet corner. Before leaving I was also offered a full-bodied Arabic coffee, flavoured with coriander and cinnamon.
In the last decade or two, this has area become an interesting melting pot, with not only this Kurdish café but shops, restaurants and cafés selling a variety of Indian, Pakistani and south Asian foods, many of them clearly catering for halal needs.
As a boy in my pre-teen and early teen years, Clanbrassil Street and the labyrinth of streets leading off it offered a certain mystique and intrigue that stirred a young imagination. The area between Leonard’s Corner and Kelly’s Corner, and some of the other nearby streets, was still known as ‘Little Jerusalem.’ This was still the heart of Dublin’s Jewish community in the 1950s and even in the 1960s.
Although the drift to the southern suburbs of Terenure, Rathfarnham and Churchtown was already noticeable in the mid-1960s, it was still an area with small kosher shops, fascia signs in mixtures of English and Hebrew lettering, and small houses that were remembered as the synagogues for tiny congregations even after the new synagogue opened on Rathfarnham Road, a few doors from the house where I was born.
But Clanbrassil Street long predates the arrival of Jewish communities from the Baltics and Eastern Europe.
From the earliest times, this was one of the principal routes south from Dublin to the Wicklow Mountains, while Camden Street, which runs parallel to Clanrassil Street to the east, was the beginning of the main route south to Wexford.
As the area south of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral began to develop in the 18th century, a new street beyond New Street was named after James Hamilton (1730-1798), 2nd Earl of Clanbrassil. His widowed mother had inherited Cypress Grove House in Templeogue, and the developing Clanbrassil Street was on the route from Dublin city centre to Templeogue and Cypress Grove House.
In the 1860s, Frederick William Stokes bought much of the land south-east of Clanbrassil Street, and built new terraces and streets of houses. Victoria Street, originally known as Kingsland Park, was developed from 1865 by Stokes. However, some of the houses on the street remained empty after they were built and when they started being used by prostitutes attracted by nearby Portobello Barracks the street acquired a bad reputation and respectable families moved out. The bad reputation of the street lingered, and its name was changed to Victoria Street; neighbouring Liverpool Road became Portobello Road and Bloomfield Place and Rosanna Place became Windsor Terrace.
Meanwhile, in 1868 a new street was opened to connect Harold’s Cross with Lower Clanbrassil Street. Originally, the new street was to be called Kingsland Street, but, perhaps because of the reputation of Kingsland Park, this name was abandoned and the new street was soon named Upper Clanbrassil Street.
By then, many of the houses in what was now Lower Clanbrassil Street had become tenements, and despite the cramped conditions the cheap rents made them attractive to penniless refugees. The Jewish community began to establish itself in ‘Little Jerusalem’ in the 1870s, and its numbers multiplied with the pogroms throughout the Czarist empire.
Many of the Jewish families who first settled here in the late Victorian era spoke only Yiddish or German, and a large number of them came from what we now call Lithuania, with smaller numbers from parts of present-day Poland, Ukraine and Romania that were then within the Russian empire.
Just like other waves of refugees in successive generations, these Jewish refugees often arrived in Ireland penniless, but with their dignity and integrity intact. All they could afford to rent were rooms in the crowded tenements around Clanbrassil Street, sharing the buildings with other families, but maintaining their religion and their culture.
In Ulysses, James Joyce has Leopold Bloom living at “52 Clanbrassil Street.” Today, this fictional but archetypal Dubliner is commemorated with a plaque on the wall of 52 Upper Clanbrassil Street, which is being refurbished at present.
Two doors away, No 50 Upper Clanbrassil Street was the home of one branch of the Comerford family at the time Joyce was writing Ulysses, which was set in 1904. Bloom holds onto a Christmas card sent by the Comerfords in 1892, and in her soliloquy, his wife Molly recalls having had too many oranges and too much lemonade at a party in 1895 in the Comerfords’ home in Clanbrassil Street – two doors away from Leopold’s birthplace.
But Joyce relied on Thom’s Directory for 1904, and if Leopold Bloom was born at No 52 the house must have been in Lower Clanbrassil Street, although Molly could well have been at a party in the home of any one of the many Comerford families who lived on this street in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Indeed, if this area was once called Little Jerusalem, I mused to myself in the Kurdish Café in the afternoon, Clanbrassil Street just as easily have been called Comerford Street in the late 19th and early 20th century:
25 Lower Clanbrassil Street:
My grandfather’s second oldest brother, Richard (‘Dick’) Comerford (1858-1937), lived here in 1884.
53 Lower Clanbrassil Street:
In 1910, Adelaide Margaret Field, daughter of John and Margaret Field, who lived for a time at 53 Lower Clanbrassil Street, and granddaughter of William Doyle of 53 Lower Clanbrassil Street, married Charles William Comerford of Parnell Place (now Parnell Road, on the south bank of the Grand Canal), and they later lived in Kenilworth Square.
No 53, which was close to the corner of South Circular Road at Kelly’s Corner, was Kilbride’s pawnbrokers during my childhood, and later was an Xtravision shop.
60 Clanbrassil Street:
For a time, this was the home of Thomas Comerford, a plasterer.
Later this was the home of my great-grandfather’s nephew, James Comerford ‘Nephew’ (ca 1839/1841-1903), who was born in Newtownbarry (now Bunclody), Co Wexford. He was a founding member of the Regular Stucco Plasterers’ Trade Union of the City of Dublin in 1893.
61 Lower Clanbrassil Street:
Thomas A Coleman (1865-1950), the architect, of Ashlin and Coleman, was born at 61 Lower Clanbrassil Street in 1865 while his parents, John Coleman and Mary (White) Coleman, lived there. His first cousin, Francis Coleman married my grandfather’s eldest sister, Mary Comerford, in 1889, and their later addresses included 9 Windsor Terrace and 86 Lower Clanbrassil Street (1911).
62 Lower Clanbrassil Street:
This was once the home of Thomas Comerford, a plasterer.
My great-grandfather’s nephew, Thomas Comerford, and his wife Mary Anne (Ludlow) were living at 62 Lower Clanbrassil Street in 1862, 1866 and 1872.
In the 1860s, No 62 was also the home of Thomas Comerford’s sister Elizabeth and her husband Denis Cuddy.
In 1874, this was also the home of another member of the family, Thomas Comerford and his wife Mary Jane (Cusack).
In the 1901 census, No 62 was shared by three families: James and Ellen Comerford and their four children, who lived in one room; my grandfather’s eldest brother, James Comerford, his wife Lena Comerford, and their five children, who were living in two rooms; and the Keegan family were living in one room.
James Comerford died on 2 October 1903, aged “about 62 years,” according to the inquest that day. However, in the 1904 edition of Thom’s Directory used by James Joyce, this house stands out among the tenements as being the home of James Comerford, although he had died the previous year. His widow later lived at 50 Upper Clanbrassil Street.
Later, the Mogerley family ran a butcher’s shop at No 62. The business was founded by Heinrich Mogerley, who arrived from Germany in 1908.
63 Lower Clanbrassil Street:
My grandfather’s second oldest brother, Richard (‘Dick’) Comerford (1858-1937), lived here in 1888. It is now Shop Easi.
64 Lower Clanbrassil Street:
My great-grandfather’s nephew, Thomas Comerford, and his wife Mary Anne (Ludlow) lived at 64 Lower Clanbrassil Street in 1858.
68 Lower Clanbrassil Street:
My great-grandfather’s nephew, Thomas Comerford, and his wife Mary Anne (Ludlow) were living at 68 Lower Clanbrassil Street in 1868.
74 Lower Clanbrassil Street:
In 1887 this was the home of another family member, Thomas Comerford and his wife Anne (Fitzgerald).
75 Lower Clanbrassil Street:
My grandfather’s nephew, Stephen Comerford (1901-1983), a son of Robert Comerford, once lived at 75 Lower Clanbrassil Street.
76 Lower Clanbrassil Street:
Robert Comerford (1855-1925), a nephew of my great-grandfather, was born in Newtownbarry (Bunclody), Co Wexford, and moved to Dublin with his brother Richard and his sister Mary after the death of their father in 1864. He was living at 76 Lower Clanbrassil Street when he died in 1925.
79 Lower Clanbrassil Street:
My grandfather, Stephen Edward Comerford (1867-1921), was married twice. He was first married first in Saint Andrew’s Church, Westland Row, Dublin, on 29 November 1899, to Anne Cullen (1868-1903), who gave her address as No 11 Merrion Square, Dublin, the home of Sir Edward Hudson Hudson-Kinahan. She was born on 19 August 1868, the daughter of Thomas Cullen (1808-1871) and Anne (McGurk) of 79 Lower Clanbrassil Street, and was baptised on 21 August 1868 in Saint Kevin’s Church, Harrington Street (sponsors: Patrick Toole, Honor Whelan). Thomas Cullen and Anne McGurk or Magurk were married on 8 January 1843 in Saint Nicholas of Myra Church, Francis Street, Dublin, on 8 January 1843 (witnesses: Eleanor Bergin, ... Cullen), and they were the parents also of a son, James Cullen, born and baptised in 1848.
Anne (Cullen) Comerford had three children, Edmond Joseph Comerford (1900-1905), Mary (1902-1973) and Arthur James Comerford (1903-1987), before she died at 11 Upper Beechwood Avenue on 16 November 1903. She is buried with her son Edmond and her father Thomas Cullen in Glasnevin Cemetery (South Section, JA 6). Stephen Comerford married secondly, on 7 February 1905, in Saint Patrick’s Church, Donabate, Bridget Lynders (1875-1948) of The Quay House, Portrane, Co Dublin. They had four more children, Patrick Thomas Comerford (1907-1971), Robert Anthony Comerford (1909-1953), Margaret Catherine (1912-1995) and Stephen Edward Comerford (1918-2004).
86 Lower Clanbrassil Street:
My grandfather’s eldest brother James Comerford and his family were living at No 86 in 1909-1911, and his sister Mary and her husband Francis Coleman were living there by 1911. Francis was a first cousin of Thomas A Coleman (1865-1950), the architect, of Ashlin and Coleman, who was born at 61 Lower Clanbrassil Street in 1865.
Also living at No 86 were Isaac Joffe, a 58-year-old Jewish shopkeeper from Russia and his Russian-born Jewish wife, Hannah (56).
William Comerford, an heraldic engraver, was living in 1873 in another house in Lower Clanbrassil that I have yet to identify.
3 Upper Clanbrassil Street:
For a time this was the home of James Joseph Comerford and his family. He was the eldest son of my grandfather’s eldest brother, James Comerford of 62 Lower Clanbrassil Street.
50 Upper Clanbrassil Street:
This became the home of James Comerford’s widow, Ellen, and her children, soon after 1904, and they lived there from before 1910 until late in the 20th century.
Although my grandfather, Stephen Edward Comerford (1867-1921), never lived in Clanbrassil Street, his first wife Anne Cullen (1871-1903), was a daughter of Thomas Cullen, salesman, of Clanbrassil Street, and their son, Arthur James Comerford (1903-1987), believed he was born in Clanbrassil Street.
In the short space of a half century or little more, immediate members of this one branch of the Comerford family had addresses at least 15 houses in Lower and Upper Clanbrassil Street. Many more lived at different times in the same era in houses in the warren of streets off Clanbrassil Street, in Little Jerusalem, in Portobello and around Charlemont Street. If I add to that their in-laws, their cousins and their nieces and nephews, it must have been impossible for any of them to walk along Clanbrassil Street any time of night or day without meeting and greeting another member of the Comerford family.
Little did I realise in the late 1950s and early 1960s that I was walking in their shadows.
By the first half of the 20th century, Lower Clanbrassil Street was at the heart of the Jewish community. The boundaries of Little Jerusalem, if they were ever delineated, might be said to stretch from Clanbrassil Street to Donore Avene on the west, Windsor Terrace along the banks of the Grand Canal to the South, to the west side of Richmond Street and Kelly’s Corner, from there east to the junction with Charlemont Street, north behind the west front of Harcourt Street, then back through Pleasant Street, heading west towards the junction with Clanbrassil Street.
The shopping area of along Lower Clanbrassil Street and throughout Little Jerusalem included numerous Jewish shops and businesses, kosher butchers, a kosher bakery in Lennox Street, and a ritual slaughterhouse in Vincent Street, and there was a women’s dispensary and a Jewish school in Bloomfield Avenue, with the Chief Rabbi’s home and office nearby. Although there were large synagogues on the South Circular Road and Adelaide Road, there were smaller synagogues in Walworth Road (now the Irish Jewish Museum), Saint Kevin’s Parade, and many of the other small side streets. The Jewish cemetery was a little further out in Dolphin’s Barn
In 1932, Clanbrassil Street was Dublin’s main Jewish shopping street. In 1943, 23 kosher shops were trading here, and there were 16 by the end of the 1950s. But the number had dropped to nine by the end of the 1960s, only five were open by the end of the 1970s, and two in the 1980s.
By then, the old planners had already taken the heart out of the area, In 1953, Dublin Corporation notified all the residents of Clanbrassil Street of plans to remove 16 ft from the buildings on the west side of the street to make way for a new road.
However, their plans were constantly changed, postponed, delayed and deferred. Properties quickly last value, the street went into decline. Lower Clanbrassil Street fell into ruin in the 1960s and the 1970s as, one-by-one, businesses, pubs and shops closed or were demolished.
After World War II, many Jews from Little Jerusalem moved to Manchester, London, New York and Israel. Increasing prosperity and the decline of Clanbrassil Street meant those who remained in Dublin moved to areas like Terenure, Rathfarnham and Churchtown. There was only one surviving kosher shop on Lower Clanbrassil Street in the 1990s. The last to close was Ehrlich’s butcher shop at No 35, which opened in 1952 and finally closed in May 2001.
In a similar fashion, as members of the Comerford family found new prosperity in 20th century Dublin, the families of stuccodores and plasterers became surveyors and architects, and moved out to suburbs like Rathmines, Rathgar, Harold’s Cross, Terenure and Rathfarnham.
But, perhaps, the planners’ old nightmares are being turned around and becoming new dreams. New waves of immigration have brought new life and a new taste for diversity to Little Jerusalem. Rubinstein’s old butcher shop at No 31, on the corner of Lombard Street, is now the Kurdish Café.
I bumped into no Comerfords and noticed no members of the Jewish community in Clanbrassil Street as I sipped my coffee in the Kurdish Café yesterday. But I dreamt of how the children and the grandchildren and the grandchildren of Muslims in this area would be integrated into Irish society over the next century or century and a half.
Last updated: 3 September 2014; 29 January 2015.