Wednesday, 31 December 2014

A year that was about more
than living with sarcoidosis

Sailing into a new day … sails in the sunset seen from the Sunset Café beneath the Fortezza in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

Sarcodosis is a cruel, deceptive and callous friend.

It is cruel because it takes a few years before it allows itself to be diagnosed and treated, but by then it has worked its way into the body, and continues to attack wherever it will. I have pains in my joints, particularly in my knees, yet there is no swelling or bruising. While I am burning under my feet, and feeling pins and needles at the end of my fingers and toes, family members and friends tell me I am looking will and cannot understand what is happening.

It is deceptive because when I think I have little remission, it comes back when I least expect it, forcing me to cough and splutter my way through the day, grab hold of the handrails just when I feel like bouncing up the stairs, causing me to lose my balance as I am coming down the stairs or trying to walk in the dark, and occasionally causing embarrassing memory losses, particularly when it comes to the names of people I know well.

It is callous because it attacks in the most callous ways. When they have ceased for a few months, the night sweats return. When I think the skin marks are receding, they burst out again.

It is a friend … in ways. It is a friend because I realised later that all those tests were for lung cancer in the first place. But sarcoidosis has also given me a new attitude to life. It has forced me to find more time to get out in the open, to enjoy walks on the beach, by rivers and lakes and out in the countryside.

In the past years those walks have been a bonus, for they help me to realise that while I may have sarcoidosis, sarcoidosis does not have me.

Walks on beaches and by lakes

Walking on a beach on the tiny island of Ireland’s Eye off Howth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

During the past 12 months, I have had walks on the beach at Bull Island, Donabate, the beaches on Ireland’s Eye, at Loughshinny, Malahide, Portmarnock, Portrane, Robswall, Rush and Skerries, (Co Dublin); Killala and the beaches of Achill Island, including Dugort, Keel, Keem and Mweelin (Co Mayo); Bettystown, Laytown and Mornington (Co Meath); Enniscrone (Co Sligo); Rosslare (Co Wexford); Bray, Brittas Bay, Greystones and Kilcoole (Co Wicklow); and shoreline walks in Wexford, Howth and Dun Laoghaire.

Outside Ireland, there were beach walks in Matala, Preveli, Rethymnon and the beach – the longest sandy beach on the island, in Spain at La Carihuela, once a fishing village on the edges of Torremolinos, outside Málaga, and along the coast to Benalmádena.

In Greece, I had walks and swims at the beach in Rethymnon – the longest sandy beach in Crete – and at the beaches at Damnoni and Preveli. In Portugal, I never got to see the beaches west of Lisbon, but there were visits to the shore and the coast.

In Ireland and England, I had lakeside walks in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh, Blessington and Roundwood, Co Wicklow, and Virginia, Co Cavan, and river-side walks by the Slaney in Co Wexford, the Boyne in Co Meath and Co Louth, the Liffey in Dublin and Co Kildare, the Nore in Kilkenny, at the Meeting of the Waters in Avoca, Co Wicklow, and along the River Cam and the Backs in Cambridge.

There were country walks in the Burren, Co Clare, Wicklow Mountains, walks in the Phoenix Park, by the field of daffodils between Gormanston and Julianstown in Co Meath, near Duleek in Co Meath, in the countryside in Hertfordshire and Essex, including Newport, Essex, near High Leigh in Hoddesdon, and walks in the countryside in Lichfield, especially along Cross in Hand Lane.

I attended ordinations in Mullingar, Ferns and Dublin. And there was the roll-over Church History Road Tour that continued to Drogheda, Mellifont and Monasterboice, as well as visits to the monumental crosses at Balrath and Duleek, the ruins of Duleek Abbey, and the mediaeval churches in Stafford, Saint Mary’s and Saint Chad’s. In Dundela, Belfast, the Revd Lynn Gibson gave me a personalised tour of the church and rectory that inspired CS Lewis.

First-time experiences

A first-time visit to the Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

It is a good idea too – not just in the battle with sarcoidosis but in enjoying new pleasures to life – to do something different and new on a regular basis. For the first time this year, I visited Ireland’s Eye off Howth (August), took a boat tour from Dun Laoghaire around the Dalkey Island (end of September), and visited the Cliffs of Moher (October). There were first-time visits too to the Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, Farmeligh House, the Gardens at Mount Ussher, Co Wicklow, and the Lavender Farm in Kilmacanogue, Co Wicklow, and Charles Stewart Parnell’s house at Avondale in Rathdrum, Co Wicklow. .

As I travelled around Ireland during the year I stayed in Ballina, Co Mayo (January); Ballymena, Co Antrim (January), during talks with the Moravian Church; Rosslare, Co Wexford (February); Kilkenny, during the Dublin and Glendalough clergy conference; Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh (April), during a Holy Week mission in Saint Macartin’s Cathedral; a Dublin hotel during a residential board meeting of Us; Grey’s Guest House in Dugort, Achill Island, during the Heinrich Boll Summer School; on the shores of Lough Ramor, on the outskirts of Virginia, Co Cavan (May/June); and in Wexford (September).

My mother and my mother-in-law died during the year. I also visited Millstreet, Co Cork, for an aunt’s funeral in May, attended the funeral of David Poole in the Quaker Meeting House in Rathfarnham in January, a funeral near Lisnaskea, Co Fermanagh, and took part in the funeral of Tommy Carr in Bride Street Church, Wexford, in October.

I was in Wexford a few times during the year, staying in the Ferrycarrig Hotel after the ordination of the Revd Caroline Farrar in Saint Aidan’s Cathedral, Ferns, and went to church in Saint Iberius in February. I was in Kilkenny on many occasions, including the clergy conference in February and the Kilkenny Arts Festival in August.

Visits to England

Walking in the countryside near Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

During the year, there was a number of visits to England too, including three visits to Lichfield and three to Cambridge.

I was in Lichfield in February to complete my research and a portfolio of photographs for a lecture in May.

That lecture in May was organised by Kate Gomez and the local history group, Lichfield Discovered. ‘Cathedral Close Stories’ was a walking tour of the Cathedral Close, Lichfield, and included social and architectural accounts of each house in the Close, including stories of scandal, snobbery and spite. I also attended the Holy Writ exhibition in Lichfield Cathedral during that visit.

I was back in Lichfield again in June, after spending a day nearby in Penkridge, researching further details about the links between the Archbishops of Dublin and the Church of Saint Michael and All Angels. For centuries, Penkridge had been a “peculiar,” with the Archbishops of Dublin also holding office as Deans of Penkridge, which they kept outside the structures of the Diocese of Lichfield.

That visit also provided an opportunity to visit two mediaeval churches in Stafford, Saint Michael’s and Saint Chad’s. During those visits, I stayed at the Hedgehog, which is welcoming inn on the northern edge of Lichfield, ideal for country walks, but just a short walk into the cathedral and the centre of Lichfield.

There were three visits to Cambridge too. In June I took part in a seminar in Wescott House to celebrate the life and work of Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon. It also turned to a celebration of Archbishop Rowan Williams’s birthday.

I was back in Cambridge later in June for a quick visit to Sidney Sussex College, and for some book-shopping. I was staying in High Leigh Conference Centre, near Hoddesdon, taking part in the annual conference of Us (the United Society, the mission agency formerly known as the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel).

Earlier that week, I spent a morning photographing in Newport in Essex, with timber-framed late mediaeval and Tudor buildings.

I was back in Cambridge in September to take part once again in the annual summer school in Sidney Sussex College organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies. This year, the conference focussed on Russian philosophy and the mutual influences of Russian theology and philosophy in the 19th and 20th centuries. There was an opportunity there too to mark the 80th birthday of Metropolitan Kallistos Ware.

Travel in Europe

Taking the “Ice Bucket” challenge in the cold waters at Preveli Beach

Travel in Europe this year brought me to Spain, Gibraltar, Switzerland, Greece, Germany and, for the first time, Portugal.

I spent the Easter weekend in Spain, experiencing the Spanish traditions of celebrating Easter. I stayed in the Roc Lago Rojo Hotel in La Carihuela, once a fishing village on the edges of Torremolinos, outside Málaga. During that extended weekend, I also visited the white-washed mountain-side village of Mijas, the Picasso house, the Cathedral and the Amphitheatre in Malaga, Granada and Alhambra, walked along the coast as far as Benalmádena.

That weekend also provided an opportunity to spend a day in Gibraltar, one of the most unique and isolated places I have visited, almost as unique as my experiences of Albania or Namibia.

I had a cup of coffee in Zurich on my way to Greece for a week at the end of August. I have lost count of the number of times I have stayed in Crete, and this year I stayed in the Hotel Brascos in the centre of Rethymnon. There the roof garden provided panoramic views over the old town with its Turkish minarets, Byzantine towers and Venetian fortezza, and out across to the harbour.

I visited “Homage to the Greek,” an art exhibition in the Fortezza marking the 400th anniversary of the death of El Greco, and “Ghosts of the Mediterranean, or The Reflections of the Past,” a video installation by Marianna Strapatsaki in the Kara Mousa Pasa Mosque in the Old Town.

I also visited the Kourtaliotiko Gorge, the Minoan site at Phaistos, the Monastery of Aghia Irini in the mountains above Rethymnon, the Monastery of Saint John in Preveli, the white beach at Damnoni, and the beach at Preveli, where I took the “Ice Bucket” challenge in aid of MND research.

There was time for dinner with friends, and an evening on an old sail boat sailing in the waters near Rethymnon.

On the way back from Greece, I stopped for a few hours in Frankfurt … time enough to have dinner before continuing on to Dublin.

On the River Tagus in the late afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

In November, I was in Lisbon for a special anniversary. We stayed in the Hotel Real Palácio in the heart of Lisbon, and visited the castle, the cathedral, numerous churches, the monastery at Belém, with the cloisters and the church of the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, with its monument to the Discoveries, facing out to the sea, the Torre de Belém.

We went sailing on the River Tagus, and took the ferry to Porto Brandão, which in the darkness looked like a charming fishing village with a tiny beach, and had dinner there before returning to Lisbon.

We also visited the Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point of the Iberian Peninsula and of continental Europe, and there were all-too-short visits to Sintra, Cascais and Estoril.

Writing and publishing

I continue to write a monthly column for the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory), and to write for the Lichfield Gazette, The Irish Times, the Church of Ireland Gazette, and Koinonia, as well as other publications.

In the Church Review and the Diocesan Magazine in January, I told the story of Fenton Hort, an important Cambridge theologian and Biblical scholar who was born in Leopardtown, Co Dublin. In February, I asked what links the Bridge of Sighs in Venice with similar bridges in Oxford, Cambridge and Dublin. In March, I examined the dialogue between the Moravian Church and the Church of Ireland, and the story of the Moravians in Ireland.

In April, I marked the 1,000th anniversary of the Battle of Clontarf, fought on Good Friday 1014. In May, I wrote about Sir Thomas Myles, the surgeon who masterminded the Kilcoole gunrunning in 1914. In June, I recalled my Easter experiences in Spain.

In July, I looked at the centenary of the outbreak of World War I. In August, I wrote about my visit to the mediaeval churches in Stafford. In September, I asked what questions the Scottish referendum raised about English identity.

In October, I took a look at Gibraltar. In November, I offered a review of Zorba the Greek 50 years after the movie was made, in the light of my visit to Crete during the summer. In December, I asked whether there is an appropriate Anglican way of speaking of Mary at Christmas.

In the midst of the crisis facing the besieged Yazidi minority in Iraq, I wrote a half-page feature on their beliefs and origins for The Irish Times. It received wide notices, including one in the Huffington Post, and I was interviewed about it on Pat Kenny’s show on Newstalk.

I wrote throughout the year for the Lichfield Gazette. In January/February, I told the story of Richard Lovell Edgeworth, a Lichfeld eccentric who gave his name to Edgeworthstown in Co Longford. In March, I wrote about the musician Muzio Clementi, the Revd Henry Gylby Lonsdale, Vicar of Saint Mary’s, Dr Charles Holland, and Henry Gastineau, an artist, who lived in Lyncroft House, now the Hedgehog in Lichfield. In May, I told a story that brought two great Victorian architects, Pugin and Potter, to Lichfield. In October: stories of scandal, snobbery and spite in the Cathedral Close.

In May, I contributed a paper to Koinonia on the poet John Betjeman as an Anglo-Catholic, marking the thirtieth anniversary of his death.

My contributions to the Church of Ireland Gazette included reports from the General Synod, and a feature on the churches in Ukraine and their role in the street protests before the collapse of the former government.

I wrote on Kempe’s carvings on the triptych in the Lady Chapel for the Spring Edition of Three Spires and Friends of Lichfield Cathedral, 77th Annual Report, 2014.

A photograph I took at the Blessington Lakes was used on the Late, Late Show on RTÉ, a photograph of Stowe Pool in Lichfield was used on BBC Midlands in March, and another photograph was used in a fundraising brochure for Jesus College Boat Club, Cambridge.

I took part in Joe Duffy’s Spirit Level and was interviewed by Pat Kenny on the plight of the Yazidis in northern Iraq. The television programmes I took part in with Dervla Kirwan and spoke about Saint Patrick continue to be rebroadcast regularly at surprising times in a variety of countries.

There were book launches in Lichfield Cathedral, for Paul Spicer’s new biography of the composer Sir George Dyson; Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, for a new and comprehensive biography, Donald Caird: Church of Ireland Bishop: Gaelic Churchman: A Life, by Aonghus Dwane; Saint Mary’s College, Rathmines, for Father Paddy Ryan’s new study of Archbishop Miler Magrath. And I was invited to launch a new history of the Moravian Cemetery in Whitechurch.

A book review

I have written three contributions to books that are due to be published next year [2015]. But earlier this year Dr Michael Ryan, former Director of the Chester Beatty Library, made kind mention of my two chapters in Treasures of Irish Christianity, edited by Professor Salvador Ryan and Bishop Brendan Leahy, in a book review in The Irish Times.

He said Treasures of Irish Christianity, which was published by Veritas earlier last year [2013] “defies easy description” for it is “at once a book of articles with a strong historical bent and a miscellany of devotional or contemplative essays.” After referring to the 73 “authors, many of them well-known scholars,” he said this book shines a light on well-known and on comparatively obscure episodes in the history of Irish Christianity,” with “much to learn and enjoy.”

He referred to my chapter on Bedell’s Irish translation of the Bible, and went on to comment:

“Patrick Comerford’s elegant essay on the religious aspects of the Celtic Revival sets out the historical context for the adoption of ‘Celtic’ Christianity as a foundational identity for the Church of Ireland after disestablishment in 1869. He might have gone a step further and attributed the invention of the ‘Celtic’ Church to Anglican divines and especially to FE Warren’s book of 1881 on its liturgy and ritual. Celtic spirituality is now a lifestyle choice with New Age overtones but a Celtic Church never existed – the ancient Irish and British churches were within a range of variation of practice widespread in early medieval Europe: standardisation on the Roman model came late and slowly.”

He concluded: “This volume wears its heart on its sleeve and it does what it sets out to do. It celebrates Irish Christian belief, tradition and practice over almost 1,600 years. It can be read with pleasure both for its cultural and confessional content.”

Talks, lectures and sermons

Taking part in the Black Santa Christmas appeal in Saint Ann’s Church, Dawson Street, Dublin

In May, I spoke at the Heinrich Boll Summer School in Achill on the Achill Mission’s work in Mweelin. I spoke on Sir Thomas Myles in Kilcoole during the centenary commemorations of the Kilcoole gunrunning. Later in the year, I talked on the World War I and 1916 commemorations to the men’s group in Saint Ann’s Parish.

I was invited to lecture in the National Library of Ireland on genealogical sources in church records and monuments. I spoke at a one-day ecumenical conference on the use of the Bible in the Mater Dei Institute, and in November I spoke to the Church of Ireland Historical Society in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, when I presented my paper: ‘The Archbishops of Dublin and the Deanery of Penkridge: a mediaeval peculiar in the Diocese of Lichfield.’

As well as preaching in the of the Chapel Church of Ireland Theological Institute and Christ Church Cathedral, I also preached in All Saints’ Church, Grangegorman, Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, Saint Michan’s Church, Church Street, Saint Werburgh’s Church, Dublin, and Zion Church, Rathgar.

One sermon in Christ Church Cathedral referred to the crisis in Gaza and the Israeli war crimes that lead to the murder and death of thousands of children, women and innocent civilians. Of course, the sermon attracted strong criticism from the Israeli ambassador after it received strong news coverage in The Irish Times, but he never returned my telephone call to his embassy.

I was in Christ Church Cathedral to welcome the Bikers on a Mission, who were touring every Church of Ireland cathedral to raise funds for Us work in Swaziland, and helped to organise the service in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral marking the tercentenary of the presence of Us (USPG/SPG) in Ireland.

In the days before Christmas, I also helped with the Black Santa Appeal outside Saint Ann’s Church, Dawson Street. This appeal has now passed €35,000, more than last year’s total exceeding all expectations for this year. All the money raised goes directly to local charities, mainly those working with homeless people on the streets of Dublin.

I was involved with the Liturgical Advisory Committee in preparing a Service of the Word for use on Remembrance Sunday. I have been re-elected to the General Synod of the Church of Ireland and the Board of Christ Church Cathedral, and I remain a member of the Commission for Christian Unity and Dialogue, the Anglican Affairs Working Group, and councils and boards of Us in Ireland and Northern Ireland, and Us in Britain.

As President of Irish CND, I spoke at the annual Hiroshima Day commemorations in Merrion Square and took part in the launch of the Irish Anti-War Movement’s pamphlet on the commemorations of World War I, with extensive reporting on television and in The Irish Times and the Irish Independent.

I contributed to the World War I exhibition in the north transept of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, I was a special guest at the unveiling by President Higgins and the Duke of Kent of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cross in Glasnevin Cemetery, and also attended the D-Day commemorations in Penkridge.

I missed my usual visit during the Cambridge summer school to Saint John’s Monastery in Tolleshunt Knights, which often acts like an annual retreat. But I visited the monasteries of Aghia Irini and Preveli in Crete and spent Ash Wednesday in the Manresa Retreat Centre.

My blogging this year included themes blogs on Art for Lent, Hymns for Advent, and Carols and Hymns for Christmas, and this blog has now had over 1.8 million individual hits.

I continue to work as Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, as an Adjunct Assistant Professor in Theology in the University of Dublin (Trinity College Dublin) and as the Visiting Lecturer in Anglicanism at Mater Dei Institute of Education, which is a college of Dublin City University.

I continue to find my genealogical research brings contacts with cousins, near and distant, that I have never met before. But it was surprising to find that the house in Beechwood Avenue where my great-grandfather, James Comerford, died in 1902, was on the market at the same time as two former Comberford family homes, Comberford Hall and the Moat House, were also on sale.

Good news and bad news

Priests praying between police and protesters on the streets in Ukraine

The major international stories this year are being summarised in many newspapers and on countless television programmes. They include the appalling invasion of Gaza by Israel and the murder of innocent children, women and civilians, with the widespread destruction of homes, businesses and infrastructure; the rise of Isis in the Middle East, with its attacks on Christians, Yazidis, and Shia Muslims; the civil war in Syria; the war in Ukraine and Crimea; missing planes and planes shot down; the Scottish referendum; the Ebola crisis; the riots in Ferguson; the rise of the far-right across Europe; the economic collapse of Greece; … the list goes on.

But there were good stories too, including the new style of papacy with Pope Francis I, the possible end of the US embargo on Cuba, the appointment of the first woman bishop in the Church of England, the way priests in Ukraine brought prayer to the frontline in the protests with messages of peace and non-violence, and the Nobel Peace Prize for Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi for “their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.”

For some people the World Cup and the Irish rugby triumphs may have been the good sports stories this year. But at home there were water charges protests, and there the plight of the homeless on our streets which has been crying out for attention for years received new focus with the death of a homelessness man in Molesworth Street, near Dail Eireann.

But the most be bewildering news of the year must of the rise of Sinn Fein in the opinion polls despite the drip-drip account of how they helped child-abusers and women-beaters to move around freely. Although Mairia Cahill is giving graphic accounts of how this is systemic within Sinn Fein, party activists whipped up an hysteric cry of “Gerry, Gerry Gerry” from the crowd when the Sinn Fein President made a cameo appearance at a water charges protest outside Leinster House. Bewildering indeed.

It is interesting and ironic how Sinn Fein is mirroring Ukip in Britain, grounding its appeal on populist issues while continuing to push an ultra-nationalist agenda.

What will next year bring as Ireland faces a general election that may determine how the 1916 centenary is commemorated?

Meanwhile, next year for me is going to be another year of living with sarcoidosis … but while I may have sarcoidosis, sarcoidosis with not have me.

Happy New Year!

Carols and Hymns for Christmas (7):
‘From glory unto glory!’

‘From glory unto glory! O word of stirring cheer, / As dawns the solemn brightness of another glad New Year’ ... waiting for the dawn on Easter morning in Spain earlier this year (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

We have come to the end of 2014 and are about to face the new year in 2015. As part of my spiritual reflections for this Christmas season, I am thinking about an appropriate carol or hymn each morning. This morning (30 December 2014), I have chosen ‘From glory unto glory!’ a New Year hymn written by Frances R Havergal (1836-1879) at Winterdyne, near Bewdley, Worcestershire, on 23 December 1873.

Frances Ridley Havergal was born on 14 December 1836, at Astley, near Bewdley, where her father, Canon William Henry Havergal (1793-1870), had been the rector. In 1842, he became Rector of Saint Nicholas’s Parish in Worcester, and a canon of Worcester Cathedral. In August 1850, she entered Mrs Teed’s school, where her teacher’s influence was life-lasting. In the following year, at the age of 14, she says, “I committed my soul to the Saviour, and earth and heaven seemed brighter from that moment.”

A short stay in Germany followed, and on her return she was confirmed in Worcester Cathedral on 17 July 1853. In 1860, she left Worcester when her father resigned as Rector of Saint Nicholas, and became Perpetual Curate (Vicar) of Saint Mary and Saint Luke, Shareshill, a small south Staffordshire village in the Diocese of Lichfield, five or six miles south-west of Cannock, seven or eight miles south of Penkridge and six miles north of Wolverhampton. Shareshill’s Church of England primary school is called Havergal. One of her best-known hymns,‘Take my life and let it be,’ has been adopted as the village school’s special hymn.

Later, she lived in Leamington, where her father died in 1870, and at Caswall Bay, Swansea, with visits to Switzerland, Scotland, and North Wales. She died at Caswall Bay, Swansea, on 3 June 1879.

Frances Havergal was a scholarly writer, with a knowledge of French, German, Italian, Latin, Greek and Hebrew. She devoted her life to hymn-writing, and while her poetry has limited qualities, much it survives because she speaks so simply and so directly of the love of God and the promise of salvation. She is direct in expressing her narrow Calvinistic theological views, however. She expressed an intense dislike of Hymns Ancient and Modern, which she regarded as “the thin edge of Popery,” she was strongly opposed to Roman Catholicism and she supported strident evangelical missions, including the Irish Church Missions.

This morning’s hymn, ‘From glory unto glory!,’ is less known than some of her other New Year hymns. It is based on Saint Paul’s words in II Corinthians 3: 18: “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”

In this hymn, she looks back on the past year and forward to the New Year:

From glory unto glory! O word of stirring cheer,
As dawns the solemn brightness of another glad New Year.


The original poem has 20 stanzas, but is usually reduced to six stanzas in hymnals. Despite Havergal’s views of Hymns Ancient and Modern, this hymn was included by William Henry Monk (1823-1899) and Charles Steggall (1826-1905) in the 1889 edition (No 485), where they recommended the tune ‘Saint Columba’ by William Stevenson Hoyte (1844-1917), the Organist at All Saints’ Church, Margaret Street, London (1868-1907). However, most hymnals recommend the tune ‘Tours,’ written in 1872 by Berthold Tours (1838-1897).

The tune is named after its composer and was published in The Hymnary (1872). It has has four broad phrases, and its repetitions of melodic and rhythmic units make it accessible and loved. The harmony suggests a stately tempo.

Berthold Tours was born in Rotterdam in the Netherlands in 1838. He received his early musical education from his father, the organist at the Saint Laurents Kerk in Rotterdam. He continued his training in conservatories in Leipzig and Brussels, and spent two years studying in Russia.

He moved to London in 1861 when he accepted the opportunity to teach violin and to play in several orchestras. A year later, he became the organist of the Swiss Church in Holborne. From 1878, he worked as an editor and arranger for the music publisher Novello.

Tours wrote piano arrangements of operas and oratorios but is best remembered for his hymn tunes, anthems, and liturgical service music. He died in Fulham in 1897.

From glory unto glory! by Frances Havergal

From glory unto glory! Be this our joyous song;
As on the King’s own highway, We bravely march along.
From glory unto glory! O word of stirring cheer,
As dawns the solemn brightness of another glad New Year.

From glory unto glory! What great things He hath done,
What wonders He hath shown us, what triumphs He hath won!
From glory unto glory! What mighty blessings crown
The lives for which our Lord laid His own so freely down!

The fullness of His blessing encompasseth our way;
The fullness of His promises crowns every brightening day;
The fullness of His glory is beaming from above,
While more and more we learn to know the fullness of His love.

And closer yet and closer the golden bonds shall be,
Uniting all who love our Lord in pure sincerity;
And wider yet and wider shall the circling glory glow,
As more and more are taught of God that mighty love to know.

Oh, let our adoration for all that He hath done,
Peal out beyond the stars of God, while voice and life are one;
And let our consecration be real, deep, and true:
Oh, even now our hearts shall bow, and joyful vows renew.

Now onward, ever onward, from strength to strength we go,
While grace for grace abundantly shall from His fullness flow,
To glory’s full fruition, from glory’s foretaste here,
Until His very presence crown our happiest New Year.

Tomorrow:In the Name of Jesus

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

A change of plans opens the wonders of
the Phoenix Park in mid-winter sunshine

Winter sunshine and reflections in the ornamental lake beside the Boathouse Café at Farmleigh (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

It has been a bright crisp sunny winter day, with clear blue skies and deceptively warm sunshine that almost carried a hint or promise of spring, perhaps even summer.

I started off this morning with the intention of visiting my GP for my regular B12 injection. But he was out, and it was suggested I should return later in the afternoon. I was out, and it took little imagination to change the day’s plans. Two of us decided to visit the Grangegorman Military Cemetery on Blackhorse Avenue, close to the Phoenix Park.

The cemetery opened in 1876 as a graveyard for the soldiers and families from Marlborough Barracks (now McKee Barracks), across the road, but some of the early graves include soldiers killed earlier in the Crimean War.

Many members of my grandfather’s regiment, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, and their close relatives are buried in the graveyard. Until recently, it was a forgotten corner of Dublin, lost in the mist of obscurity created by the myths surrounding Irish nationalism.

Those buried here include Martin Doyle (1849-1940) from Gusserane, near New Ross, Co Wexford, who was a Sergeant-Major in the Royal Munster Fusiliers and was decorated with the Victoria Cross and the Military Medal by King George V for his bravery in World War I. He later fought in the Irish war of independence, and then joined the new Irish Free State Army.

The ambassadors of Turkey, New Zealand and Australia planted a Turkish Hazel in the cemetery in 2005 by to mark the 90th Anniversary of the Gallipoli landings on 25 April 1915.

This is the largest military cemetery in Ireland and it is managed by the Office of Public Works to standards set by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. I expected it to be open this morning, but the gates were locked, there were no signs and the number provided in a brochure from the OPW was not being answered.

Morning sunshine in the Phoenix Park near Blackhorse Avenue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

I crossed the road, and for a few minutes stepped inside the Phoenix Park, where a dusting of cold frost was covering the grounds, and the morning sun was bursting through the trees lining the avenue, where the only signs of human life were two single joggers and one man and his dog.

We decided to drive back around through the gates at Infirmary Road into the Phoenix Park, and realising that next year marks the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo, decided to look at the Wellington Monument, in a corner at the south-east end of the Phoenix Park.

The Wellington Monument … it took almost half a century to build, from 1817 to 1861 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

This obelisk, more correctly called the Wellington Testimonial, overlooks Kilmainham and the River Liffey. Standing at 62 metres (203 ft), this is the largest obelisk in Europe.

The Wellington Testimonial was built to commemorate the victories of the Duke of Wellington, who was born in Mornington House, now the Merrion Hotel in Merrion Street, Dublin, in 1769.

This is a testimonial rather than a monument, because it was erected while Wellington was still alive. The original plan was to erect it in Merrion Square, close to the house where he was born. But it was built in the Phoenix Park because of opposition from the residents of Merrion Square.

The obelisk was designed by Sir Robert Smirke and the foundation stone was laid in 1817, two years after Wellington’s defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. However, the project ran out of funds in 1820 and it was not completed until 18 June 1861. There were further plans for a statue of the ‘Iron Duke’ on horseback but this too ran out of funds.

There are four bronze plaques above the base of the obelisk. There were cast from cannons captured at Waterloo. Three of these panels depict major events in the life of Wellington’s military and political career: the Indian Wars, by Joseph Kirk; Waterloo by Thomas Farrell; and Civil and Religious Liberty, by John Hogan, recalling that Wellington was the Prime Minister who delivered Daniel O’Connell’s demands for Catholic Emancipation in 1829, despite opposition from among his fellow Conservatives.

The fourth panel has an inscription in Latin and English that reads:

Asia and Europe, saved by thee, proclaim
Invincible in war thy deathless name,
Now round thy brow the civic oak we twine
That every earthly glory may be thine
.

The Duke of Wellington died on 14 September 1852 and was buried in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London.

Winter buds in the People’s Flower Garden this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

From the Wellington Monument, we crossed Chesterfield Avenue to the Victorian People’s Flower Gardens, close to the Parkgate Street entrance to the Phoenix Park.

The gardens, covering an area of 9 hectares (22 acres), were originally established in 1840 as the Promenade Grounds. But new gardens were laid out and enclosed in 1864. The gardens now include a large ornamental lake, children's playground, picnic areas and Victorian bedding schemes.

The pedestal of the former Carlisle Statue in the People’s Flower Garden (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

A lonely sight in the centre of the gardens is the pedestal of the former Carlisle Statue. This was erected to thank George Howard (1802-1864), 7th Earl of Carlisle and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland (1855-1864), for his role in laying out the gardens. The statue, unveiled on 3 March 1870, was 8 ft high and cast in bronze by John Foley, showing Carlisle in the robes of a Knight the Order of Saint Patrick.

Carlisle had many Irish family connection: his grandfather, the 5th Duke of Devonshire, lived in Lismore Castle, Co Waterford. But his statue was blown up by the IRA in the early hours of 28 July 1956.

The statues of dead men are always soft targets – a nearby equestrian statue of Field Marshall Viscount Gough, also by John Foley, was constantly vandalised until it was removed in 1990. Yet Gough too was thoroughly Irish: he was born in Woodstown, Co Waterford, and when he died at Saint Helen’s, Booterstown, he was buried in Saint Brigid’s Churchyard, Stillorgan.

The former Royal Military Infirmary, seen from the People’s Flower Gardens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

From the gardens, the bare winter branches of the trees provided a view of the Royal Military Infirmary, built in 1786 and now the headquarters of the Department of Defence.

This building, which gives its name to Infirmary Road, was designed by James Gandon and built by William Gibson. Gandon’s other buildings in Dublin include the Four Courts, the Custom House, the King’s Inns and O’Connell Bridge.

The Royal Military Infirmary was replaced in 1913 by the nearby King George V Hospital, later known as Saint Bricin’s Hospital.

The deer near the Magazine Fort … was I watching them or were they watching me? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

We traced our steps back to the Wellington obelisk, and then drove on through the Phoenix Park, stopping to see the deer near the Magazine Fort.

They stood there regally, seemingly undisturbed by the people who came to see them. At one stage, I wondered whether I was watching them or they were watching me.

We doubled back by the Magazine Fort and the Wellington Monument before continuing on through the park to Farmleigh and a late morning coffee in the Boathouse Café.

We sat on the deck overlooking the Ornamental Lake; the bright sky was reflected in the lake, giving the waters a bright blue colour. The proprietors of the café claim the landscape here remains unchanged since the 19th century. We were soon lost in time, in a scene rich in promise at the end of December and the end of the year.

I was back at my GP in the late afternoon, after a wait of three hours received my B12 injection. I was glad of that change in plans that gave me a morning in the mid-winter sunshine in the Phoenix Park.

Carols and Hymns for Christmas (6):
‘The Wexford Carol’

Winter on the quays in Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

As part of my spiritual reflections for this Christmas season, I am thinking about an appropriate carol or hymn each morning. Today (30 December 2014), I have chosen ‘The Wexford Carol,’ which I spoke about two years ago on RTE Radio 1 on Christmas Day. I was interviewed by Aoife Nic Cormaic in 2012 for that programme, which traced the history of the famous carol and talked to musicians and listeners about what makes it special and what gives it its distinctly Irish character.

‘The Wexford Carol’ is said to date from the 12th century and is one of the oldest Irish carols and one of the oldest surviving Christmas carols in the European tradition.

The carol is thought to have originated in Co Wexford, but there are many traditions about this poem and song, and for many years it was said that only men should sing it. However, since it gained a new popularity from the 1990s, many female artists have also recorded ‘The Wexford Carol.’

Saint Aidan’s Cathedral, Enniscorthy, Co Wexford ... the organist, Dr William Grattan Flood (1857-1928), claimed to have discovered ‘The Wexford Carol’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

‘The Wexford Carol’ achieved a new popularity because of the work of Dr William Henry Grattan Flood (1857-1928), who was the organist and musical director at Saint Aidan’s Cathedral, Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, and the author of The History of the Diocese of Ferns (1916). According to the Revd Joseph Ranson, in a paper in The Past (1949), this carol was discovered by Dr Grattan Flood in Co Wexford. He transcribed the carol from a local singer, and it was published in 1928, the year of his death, as No 14 in the Oxford Book of Carols, edited by Percy Dearmer, Martin Shaw and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

The carol was quickly included in collections of carols and Christmas poems around the world, and is sometimes known as the Enniscorthy Carol, and was recorded under this title by the Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, on a Christmas recording in 1997. It is also known by its first verse, “Good people all this Christmas time.”

The New Oxford Book Of Carols, in a detailed footnote following No 162, “Good People All, This Christmastime,” says: “… Dr WH Grattan-Flood (1859-1928) lived in Enniscorthy from 1895 until his death, and [...] took down the words and tune from a local singer; after revising the text, he sent the carol to the editors of The Oxford Book of Carols, who printed it as the ‘Wexford Carol’.” However, the note continues with more detail showing the text to be English in origin, and verses 1, 2, 4, are 5 are from Shawcross’s Old Castleton Christmas Carols.

Certainly, the Irish-language version seems to be a translation from English, as it is unlikely that any carol was written in Irish in English-speaking Co Wexford.

Winter at Kilmore Quay, Co Wexford ... the Wexford Carol is often associated with the tradition of the Kilmore Carols (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

‘The Wexford Carol’ is often associated with the Kilmore Carols from Kilmore, Co Wexford. It is often attributed too to Bishop Luke Wadding of Ferns and his collection of carols, first published in Ghent in 1684.

Luke Wadding’s little book had a far-reaching influence on the spiritual lives of the people of his diocese in Co Wexford. The book had the lengthy title: A small garland of pious and godly songs composed by a devout man, for the solace of his friends and neighbours in their afflictions. The Sweet and the Sower, the nettle and the flower, the Thorne and the Rose, this Garland Compose.

Bishop Luke Wadding, who should not be confused with his kinsman, the 17th-century Franciscan theologian from Waterford of the same name. Luke Wadding, whose family came from Ballycogley Castle, Co Wexford (which was on the market recently), was the Roman Catholic Bishop of Ferns from 1683 to 1692, and he lived in Wexford town while he was bishop.

Wadding’s book contains some religious “posies” or poems written for the disinherited gentry of Co Wexford, and some verses relating to the “Popish Plot.” It also includes what was to become the foundation of a tradition of carol singing in Co Wexford, with 11 Christmas songs, two of which are sung to this day in Kilmore.

A similar carol is found in the Revd William Devereux’s A New Garland Containing Songs for Christmas (1728). William Devereux (1696-1771), from Tacumshane, was Parish Priest of Drinagh, near Wexford, from 1730 to 1771, and wrote several carols. He called his collection A New Garland to distinguish it from Bishop Luke Wadding’s earlier Pious Garland. The carols were first sung in a little chapel at Killiane.

‘The Wexford Carol’

Good people all, this Christmas-time,
Consider well and bear in mind
What our good God for us has done,
In sending His beloved Son.
With Mary holy we should pray
To God with love this Christmas Day:
In Bethlehem upon that morn
There was a blessed Messiah born.

The night before that happy tide
The noble Virgin and her guide
Were long time seeking up and down
To find a lodging in the town.
But mark how all things came to pass;
From every door repelled alas!
As long foretold, their refuge all
Was but an humble ox’s stall.

There were three wise men from afar
Directed by a glorious star,
And on they wandered night and day
Until they came where Jesus lay,
And when they came unto that place
Where our beloved Messiah was,
They humbly cast them at his feet,
With gifts of gold and incense sweet.

Near Bethlehem did shepherds keep
Their flocks of lambs and feeding sheep;
To whom God’s angels did appear,
Which put the shepherds in great fear.
“Prepare and go,” the angels said,
“To Bethlehem, be not afraid;
For there you’ll find, this happy morn,
A princely Babe, sweet Jesus born.”

With thankful heart and joyful mind,
The shepherds went the Babe to find,
And as God’s angel had foretold,
They did our Saviour Christ behold.
Within a manger He was laid,
And by his side the Virgin Maid,
As long foretold, there was a blessed Messiah born.

‘The Sussex Carol’ by Ralph Vaughan Williams

‘The Wexford Carol’ is sometimes confused with ‘The Sussex Carol,’ which is sometimes referred to by its first line too: “On Christmas night all Christians sing.” We sang ‘The Sussex Carol’ as the Post-Communion hymn at the Cathedral Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, on Sunday morning [28 December 2014]. It is said the words of this carol were first published by Bishop Luke Wadding in A Small Garland of Pious and Godly Songs (1684). However, it is not clear whether he wrote the song or that he was recording an earlier composition.

‘The Sussex Carol’ often features in the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in the Chapel of the King’s College, Cambridge, and a version of it also appears in the Irish Church Hymnal (5th edition, 2004) as Hymn No 176.

Edward Darling and Donald Davison, in their Companion to Church Hymnal, say the words are from a traditional English source, that they were adapted by Luke Wadding, and that they were reintroduced to English use through later editions of Wadding’s carols, published in London in the early 18th century, subsequently undergoing considerable modification.

Both the text and the tune to which it is now sung were discovered and written down quite independently by Cecil Sharp in Buckland, Gloucestershire, and Ralph Vaughan Williams, who heard it being sung by a Harriet Verrall of Monk’s Gate, near Horsham, Sussex – hence its name, ‘The Sussex Carol.’

The tune to which it is generally sung today is the one published by Vaughan Williams in 1919. Several years earlier, he included the carol in his Fantasia on Christmas Carols, first performed at the Three Carols Festival in Hereford Cathedral in 1912.

The words of ‘The Sussex Carol’ in the version collected by Vaughan Williams are:

On Christmas night all Christians sing
To hear the news the angels bring.
News of great joy, news of great mirth,
News of our merciful King’s birth.

Then why should men on earth be so sad,
Since our Redeemer made us glad,
When from our sin he set us free,
All for to gain our liberty?

When sin departs before His grace,
Then life and health come in its place.
Angels and men with joy may sing
All for to see the new-born King.

All out of darkness we have light,
Which made the angels sing this night:
“Glory to God and peace to men,
Now and for evermore, Amen!”

Tomorrow:From glory unto glory!’.

Monday, 29 December 2014

Carols and Hymns for Christmas (5):
‘Jesus came, the heavens adoring’ (No 130)

Richard Burton as Saint Thomas à Becket in the movie ‘Becket’ ... Saint Thomas à Becket is named in the calendar of the Church of England today; but the hymn tune ‘Saint Thomas’ recalls Saint Thomas Aquinas

Patrick Comerford

As part of my spiritual reflections for this Christmas season, I am thinking about an appropriate carol or hymn each morning. Today (29 December 2014), the Calendar of the Church of England remembers Saint Thomas à Becket, the martyred Archbishop of Canterbury.

It is 50 years this year since the release of Becket, the 1964 film adaptation of the play Becket or the Honour of God by Jean Anouilh. It was directed by Peter Glenville and produced by Hal B. Wallis, with Richard Burton as Archbishop Thomas à Becket and Peter O’Toole as King Henry II. Becket won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, and was nominated for eleven other awards.

This morning I have chosen ‘Jesus came, the heavens adoring’ (Irish Church Hymnal, No 130), by Canon Godfrey Thring (1823-1903), which is associated with the tune ‘Saint Thomas.’ However, the tune was named with the great Dominican theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas in mind, and not Saint Thomas à Becket. How did this come about?

Godfrey Thring was born at Alford, Somerset, on 25 March 1823, the son of the Rector of Alford, the Revd John Gale Dalton Thring, and Sarah (née Jenkyns) Thring. Two of his brothers, Edward and John Charles Thring, were teachers at Uppingham School, while another brother, Henry Thring (1818–1907), became Lord Thring, a noted jurist and Parliamentary Counsel to the Treasury.

Godfrey Thring was educated at Shrewsbury School and graduated BA in 1845 from Balliol College, Oxford. He was ordained in the Church of England in 1848, and 10 years later, after his father united the benefices of Alford and Hornblotton, near Glastonbury, in Somerset by an Act of Parliament known as the “Thrings Estate Bill,” Godfrey succeeded his father as Rector of Alford-with-Hornblotton in 1858. He remained there for 35 years. He was appointed Prebendary of East Harptree in Wells Cathedral in 1876.

Godfrey Thring commissioned the architect Sir Thomas Graham Jackson (1835-1924) to build new churches at Hornblotton and Lottisham, and became, in Jackson’s words, “one of my best and most valued friends.” Jackson’s church is rich in the Arts and Crafts style and strikingly decorated. His other works include the Bridge of Sighs over New College Lane in Oxford.

Thring died on 13 September 1903 and is buried in Shamley Green, Surrey.

Thring wrote and edited a number of hymn volumes, including: Hymns Congregational and Others (1866), Hymns and Verses (1866), Hymns and Poems for the Holy Days and the Festivals of the Church, Hymns and Sacred Lyrics (1874) and A Church of England Hymn-Book Adapted to the Daily Services of the Church Throughout the Year (1880).

This morning’s hymn links the Christmas story and the Incarnation of Christ with his death, resurrection, ascension and the promise of his coming again. The tune ‘Saint Thomas’ is often said to be an 18th century melody from Essay on the Church Plain Chant (London, 1782) by the English composer Samuel Webbe.

Webbe was born in 1740 on the island of Minorca in Spain. He studied under Barbaudt. In 1766, he was given a prize medal by the Catch Club for his O that I had wings. In all, he was awarded 27 medals for his songs and compositions, including ‘Discord, dire sister,’ ‘Glory be to the Father,’ ‘Swiftly from the mountain’s brow,’ and ‘To thee all angels.’ In 1776, he succeeded George Paxton as the organist in the chapel of the Sardinian Embassy, a position he continued to hold until 1795. At the same time, he was also the organist in the Portuguese Chapel in London.

His Collection of Motetts (1792) and A Collection of Masses for Small Choirs were used extensively at one time in Roman Catholic churches throughout England from 1795.

He died on 15 or 25 May 1816 in London and is buried in Saint Pancras Churchyard.

Webbe included the tune ‘Saint Thomas’ in his Essay on the Church Plain Chant in 1782, and again ten years later in his Collection of Motetts (1792). However, Webbe may have found the tune in Cantus diversi pro dominicis et festis per annum, a manuscript now in Stonyhurst College, the Jesuit public school in Lancashire. The document probably dates from ca 1750 and is written in the handwriting of John Francis Wade (1710-1786), an English Roman Catholic who lived in exile in Douai, France.

Wade linked this tune with the hymn Tantum ergo sacramentum by Saint Thomas Aquinas, and the second part of his Benediction hymn, Pange lingua gloriosi. Wade may have composed the tune himself, or reworked an earlier tune by the German composer Heinrich Schutze in the early 17th century. But since Webbe published it the tune has been known as Saint Thomas (Webbe), or simply as Saint Thomas.

Another tune with the same name is used in the New English Hymnal for the Advent hymn ‘The advent of our God’ (NEH 14) by Charles Coffin (1676-1749), translated by Henry Thomas Putman (1861-1935). That tune is from Aaron Williams’s New Universal Psalmist (1770).

Jesus came, the heavens adoring, by Godfrey Thring

Jesus came, the heavens adoring,
came with peace from realms on high;
Jesus came for man’s redemption,
lowly came on earth to die:
Alleluia, alleluia!
came in deep humility.

Jesus comes again in mercy,
when our hearts are bowed with care:
Jesus comes again in answer
to our earnest heart-felt prayer;
Alleluia, alleluia!
comes to save us from despair.

Jesus comes to hearts rejoicing,
bringing news of sins forgiven:
Jesus comes in sounds of gladness,
leading souls redeemed to heaven;
Alleluia, alleluia!
now the gate of death is riven.

Jesus comes on clouds triumphant,
when the heavens shall pass away;
Jesus comes again in glory;
let us then our homage pay;
Alleluia, alleluia!
till the dawn of endless day.

Tomorrow:The Wexford Carol

Sunday, 28 December 2014

‘Dust in sunlight and memory in corners’
… sharing memories of ‘Little Jerusalem’

‘Dust in sunlight and memory in corners’ … sunset at Clare Hall this evening (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

The Sunday after Easter is sometimes called ‘Low Sunday’ for a variety of reasons –ranging from the spiritual anti-climax some feel after the great celebration of Easter, to the fact that the high attendances on Easter Day do not carry through to the following Sunday.

For some people, this Sunday after Christmas is another ‘low’ Sunday. But the attendance figures seemed to be good in Christ Church Cathedral for the Cathedral Eucharist this morning [28 December 2014]. I was the deacon, reading the Gospel and assisting with at the administration of the Holy Communion.

The Dean of Christ Church, the Very Revd Dermot Dunne, presided, and the preacher was the Revd Cecilia Grace Kenny, who spoke about the prophecy of Simeon and Anna when the Christ Child was presented in the Temple in Jerusalem by the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph (see Luke 2: 22-40).

Next Sunday [4 January 2015] marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of the poet TS Eliot on 4 January 1965, and I was reminded this morning of his poem ‘A Song for Simeon,’ which is based on this Gospel passage and the canticle Nunc Dimittis.

This is one of four poems by TS Eliot published between 1927 and 1930 and known as the Ariel Poems. In ‘Journey of The Magi’ and ‘A Song for Simeon,’ Eliot shows how he persisted on his spiritual pilgrimage. He was baptised and confirmed in the Church of England on 29 June 1927; ‘Journey of the Magi’ was published two months later, in August 1927, and a few months later Faber, for whom he worked, published ‘A Song for Simeon’ as part of a series of Christmas booklets. In all, Eliot wrote four poems for the series.

Both ‘Journey of The Magi’ and ‘A Song for Simeon’ draw on the stories of Biblical characters concerned with the arrival of the Christ Child. Both poems deal with the past, with a significant Epiphany event, with the future – as seen from the time of that event, and with a time beyond time – death.

‘A Song for Simeon,’ as with ‘Journey of The Magi,’ is also in the mouth of an old man, the Prophet Simeon in the Temple in Jerusalem. Here too, Eliot draws on a Christmas sermon by Lancelot Andrewes: “Verbum infans, the Word without a word, the eternal Word not able to speak a word.” In Eliot’s words, the old man sees a faith that he cannot inhabit in “the still unspeaking and unspoken Word.”

I hope to speak about Eliot again next Sunday when I preach in Zion Church, Rathgar, on the fiftieth anniversary of his death.

After coffee in the Cathedral Crypt following this morning’s Eucharist, three of us went for lunch in La Dolce Vita in Cow Lane, in the Temple Bar area near the cathedral.

This was my first time to meet my cousin Stephen Comerford – his late father, also Stephen Comerford, was my second cousin. There were family stories to recall, reminiscences to share, and memories to exchange as we recalled Comerford families in Wexford and Dublin, the family links with Comberford, Lichfield and Bunclody, and competed to see who could remember the most Jewish shops in the Clanbrassil Street area.

It was like we had moved from Simeon and Anna in the Temple in Jerusalem to the Erlichs and Rubensteins in Little Jerusalem.

‘The winter sun creeps by the snow hills’ … the setting sun reflected on the glass walls of the shopping centre at Clare Hall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Later, two of us went on for a Christmas visit to other family members. On the way back, as we stopped briefly at Clare Hall, we could see in the east the snow-filled clouds that are hovering the Irish Sea but not moving into the coast.

To the west, the sun was setting and casting long rays onto the high glass walls of the shopping centre and the surrounding buildings. There was such a clear sky, and colours were so sharp it might have been possible to imagine that this was a summer evening in Greece. And I recalled those lines by TS Eliot in ‘A Song for Simeon’:

The winter sun creeps by the snow hills;

My life is light …
Dust in sunlight and memory in corners


Christ Church Cathedral before this morning’s Cathedral Eucharist (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

A Song for Simeon (TS Eliot)

Lord, the Roman hyacinths are blooming in bowls and
The winter sun creeps by the snow hills;
The stubborn season had made stand.
My life is light, waiting for the death wind,
Like a feather on the back of my hand.
Dust in sunlight and memory in corners
Wait for the wind that chills towards the dead land.

Grant us thy peace.
I have walked many years in this city,
Kept faith and fast, provided for the poor,
Have given and taken honour and ease.
There went never any rejected from my door.
Who shall remember my house, where shall live my children’s children
When the time of sorrow is come?
They will take to the goat’s path, and the fox’s home,
Fleeing from the foreign faces and the foreign swords.

Before the time of cords and scourges and lamentation
Grant us thy peace.
Before the stations of the mountain of desolation,
Before the certain hour of maternal sorrow,
Now at this birth season of decease,
Let the Infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,
Grant Israel’s consolation
To one who has eighty years and no to-morrow.

According to thy word.
They shall praise Thee and suffer in every generation
With glory and derision,
Light upon light, mounting the saints’ stair.
Not for me the martyrdom, the ecstasy of thought and prayer,
Not for me the ultimate vision.
Grant me thy peace.
(And a sword shall pierce thy heart,
Thine also).
I am tired with my own life and the lives of those after me,
I am dying in my own death and the deaths of those after me.
Let thy servant depart,
Having seen thy salvation.

Carols and Hymns for Christmas (4):
‘Unto us is born a Son’ (No 184)


Patrick Comerford

As part of my spiritual reflections for this Christmas season, I am thinking about an appropriate carol or hymn each morning. Today, in the Calendar of the Church, this is the First Sunday of Christmas, but on 28 December we also remember the Holy Innocents. So, this morning [28 December 2014] I have chosen ‘Unto us is born a Son’, translated by George R Woodward (1848-1934), which is No 184 in the Irish Church Hymnal. Indeed a note in the New English Hymnal says: “Suitable also for Holy Innocent’s Day.”

This hymn, which is the Processional Hymn at the Cathedral Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, this morning [28 December 2014] and which Choir sang at the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, last Monday evening [22 December 2014], is based on Puer nobis nascitur, a mediaeval Christmas carol found in a number of manuscript sources, including the 14th century German Moosburg Gradual in the Augustinian College of Saint Castulus in Moosburg around 1360, and a 15th century manuscript in Trier.

The Moosburg Gradual contains a number of melodies derived from the 12th and 13th century organum repertories of Notre Dame de Paris and the Abbey of Saint Martial, Limoges, so the original hymn may be even older.

The song was first published in 1582 in the Finnish song book Piae Cantiones, a volume of 74 mediaeval songs with Latin texts collected by Jaakko Suomalainen, a Finnish Lutheran priest.

The book became well known in England after a rare original copy of Piae Cantiones owned by Peter of Nyland was given as a gift to the British Ambassador in Stockholm. When he returned to England, he gave this book to the Revd John Mason Neale in 1852. It was from this copy that Neale, in collaboration with the Revd Thomas Helmore published songs in two collections in 1853 and 1854, although this carol was not included in either.

The carol became popular as a processional hymn following a translation by the Revd George Ratcliffe Woodward (1859-1934) first published in the Cowley Carol Book in 1902.

Canon Percy Dearmer (1867-1936) also translated the hymn for the 1928 Oxford Book of Carols as ‘Unto Us a Boy is Born.’ Both translations are commonly used.

Robert Cummings of the All Music Guide notes: “Its text speaks of the birth of Christ and of his mission on Earth. The melody is glorious in its triumphant character and ecstatic devotional sense ... a radiant hymn of strong appeal, brighter and more colourful than most of the chants emerging from and before the fourteenth century.”

Cummings goes on to suggest that the first phrase and indeed the whole melody resembles the much later hymn ‘O God, Our Help in Ages Past.’

Unto us is born a son, translation by George Ratcliffe Woodward:

Unto us is born a son,
King of choirs supernal:
See on earth his life begun,
Of lords the Lord eternal.

Christ, from heav’n descending low,
Comes on earth a stranger;
Ox and ass their Owner know
Now cradled in a manger.

This did Herod sore affray,
And did him bewilder,
So he gave the word to slay,
And slew the little childer.

Of his love and mercy mild
Hear the Christmas story:
O that Mary’s gentle Child
Might lead us up to glory!

O and A and A and O,
Cantemus in choro,
Voice and organ, sing we so,
Benedicamus Domino.

Unto Us a Boy is Born, English translation by Percy Dearmer (New English Hymnal, No 39)

Unto us a boy is born!
King of all creation,
Came he to world forlorn,
The Lord of every nation.

Cradled in a stall was he
’Midst the cows and asses;
But the very beasts could see
That he all men surpasses.

‘A prince,’ he said, ‘in Jewry!’
All the little boys he killed
At Bethlem in his fury.

Now may Mary’s Son, who came
So long ago to love us,
Lead us all with hearts aflame
Unto the joys above us.

Omega and Alpha he!
Let the organ thunder,
While the choir with peals of glee
Rends the air asunder.

Unto us is born a Son (Irish Church Hymnal, No 184):

Unto us is born a Son,
King of quires supernal:
see on earth his life begun,
of lords the Lord eternal,
of lords the Lord eternal.

Christ, from heav’n descending low,
comes on earth a stranger;
ox and ass their owner know,
becradled in the manger,
becradled in the manger.

This did Herod sore affray,
and grievously bewilder;
so he gave the word to slay, and slew the little childer,
And slew the little childer.

Of his love and mercy mild,
this the Christmas story;
and that Mary’s gentle child
might lead us up to glory,
might lead us up to glory.

We adore him A and O
cum cantibus in choro;
let our merry organ go,
benedicamus Domino,
benedicamus Domino
.

Tomorrow: ‘http://www.patrickcomerford.com/2014/12/carols-and-hymns-for-christmas-5-jesus.html’

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Seizing the day and enjoying
a walk along the shore in Bray

Pink lights in the white clouds beyond Bray this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

After Christmas Day and Saint Stephen’s Day, it seems everyone needs to get out of the house, go for a walk and clear their heads.

It was a busy Christmas this year, helping to administer the Chalice at the Midnight Mass in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, celebrating the Christmas Eucharist in Saint Werburgh’s Church on Christmas Morning, and then crossing the street for the Christmas Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, celebrated by Archbishop Michael Jackson, and once again assisted at the administration of the Holy Communion.

After dinner on Christmas Day, I was quite tired, and sat up to watch the most talked-of movie of the season, The Interview. Saint Stephen’s Day was more relaxed, with opportunities to catch up on the Christmas editions of East Enders and Downton Abbey. I even began watching the box set of House of Cards.

But today was a day for clearing the head and getting a little fresh air, and two of us drove out to Bray. Thirty years ago, Bray, in north Co Wicklow, was quite a distance away. But now the M50 ring road around Dublin means Bray is only 20 minutes away from where I live on a day like today.

For a few years, I edited the front page of the Bray People when I worked with the People Group of local newspapers based in Wexford. A generation before that, my parents moved to Bray and lived there for a short time immediately after they married.

But today I like Bray for some of my own reasons.

Although the beach at Bray is pebbly without much remaining sand, Bray is a good location for beach walks, with views to the south of Bray Head and the foothills of the Wicklow Mountains, and to the north of the Dalkey Islands and Dublin Bay.

Bray can be run-down in many places, but it has its own unique character that means it can never be mistaken for another suburb of Dublin.

Even though the old Town Hall has been inexplicably handed over to McDonalds, there is some elegant Victorian and Edwardian architecture in the town that rivals any to be found in English and Welsh seaside resorts, thanks to the patronage of the Brabazon family of Kilruddery House, Earls of Meath.

Bray has good maritime and seafaring facilities, so that at the south end of the beach there is a rowing club, and at the north end of the beach there is a small marina with a sailing club.

And Bray seems to have its own colony of Italian families, to the second or even third generation, which means it has a generous number of genuine Italian cafés and restaurants.

Two men and a dog in a boat rowing parallel with the shoreline in Bray this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

This afternoon, two of us went for a walk on the pebbly shoreline on the beach in Bray, and in the late winter afternoon delighted in the white, snow-filled clouds on the horizons. Thankfully, the clouds have not broken in this part of Ireland, and we have not been hit by the snow that has blanketed parts of England during the past few days.

Once again, parallel to the shoreline, the two men and a dog I had seen in a boat at the beginning of November were enjoying the journey between Bray Head and the marina. They came had come from Bray Head and were rowing parallel with the full length of the beach, with the men working hard as the rowed persistently and consistently, while the dog was enjoying himself, wagging as his tail as he watched the waves roll and break against the shoreline.

And once again, all three, those two men and the dog, seemed oblivious to the number of people enjoying their post-Christmas walk on the beach and along the Promenade.

Throwing down the gauntlet ... signs along the Promenade are inviting swimmers to join the Bray Charities Sea Swim on New Year’s Day Swim (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

All along the Promenade, signs are inviting participants to join the Bray Charities Sea Swim at noon on New Year’s Day. Now, that’s a challenge.

Carpe Diem … a taste of Sardinia and Florence at the end of December (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

After walking the full-length of the Promenade, we returned for coffee in Carpe Diem on Albert Avenue, close to the corner with Strand Road and across the street from the Promenade and Sealife.

We each had a Piadina, a traditional, thin Italian flatbread, filled with goat’s cheese, spinach and roasted peppers, and two great double espressos. The café also offers great Italian wines by the glass, and I had a glass of Vermentino, a dry white wine unique to Sardinia.

Outside, a man was parking a carefully nourished and cherished care dating back to 1958. But a more wondrous sight was the way those snow-filled white clouds over the Dalkey Islands were catching the pink lights from the setting sun to the west. There was a bright crescent moon in the blue sky to the south.

Carpe Diem … we had seized the day.

A surprise sight in Albert Avenue outside Carpe Diem (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Carols and Hymns for Christmas (3): ‘A Hymn for
Christmas and Saint John’s Day’, by John Alcock

John Alcock by W Newman, after Robert Cooper, stipple engraving, 1797

Patrick Comerford

As part of my spiritual reflections for this Christmas season, I am thinking about an appropriate carol or hymn each morning. Today, in the Calendar of the Church, we remember Saint John the Evangelist, and so this morning [27 December 2014] I have chosen a little-known but recently rediscovered hymn, ‘A Hymn for Christmas and Saint John’s Day’, by John Alcock (1715-1806).

The organist and composer John Alcock was born almost 300 years ago in Crane Court, St Peter’s Hill, London, on 11 April 1715, the third of the eight children of Daniel and Mary Alcock, who lived close to Saint Paul’s Cathedral.

At the age of seven, John Alcock was admitted as a chorister in Saint Paul’s under Charles King. He was 12 when he sang at the coronation of George II in 1727. Alcock left the cathedral when his voice broke two years later and he was formally apprenticed to the blind organist John Stanley. Alcock deputised for Stanley at Saint Andrew’s Church, Holborn, and from 1734 at the Temple Church.

He married Margaret Beaumont (1711-1792) at All Hallows’ Church, London Wall, on 20 May 1737, and soon after they moved to Plymouth when he was appointed organist of Saint Andrew’s Church.

In January 1742, Alcock moved to Saint Laurence’s Church, Reading. He played the organ at the politically charged opening of the Radcliffe Camera at Oxford in April 1749.

Lichfield Cathedral ... in 1750, John Alcock was installed as a vicar-choral and shortly afterwards was appointed Organist and Master of the Choristers (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

He next moved to Lichfield, where on 22 January 1750 he was installed as a vicar-choral of Lichfield Cathedral and shortly afterwards was appointed Organist and Master of the Choristers of the cathedral.

When he arrived in Lichfield, Alcock found the music in the cathedral was at a very low ebb. He came with great intentions to improve the quality of the musical performances in the cathedra. However, the other vicars choral saw him as a pedantic perfectionist, while he saw them as unruly choristers and self-interested vicars and accused them of gross absences.

In Lichfield, Alcock was a Tory supporter, as shown in the poll books in the 1753, 1754, 1755, and 1761 Lichfield elections. This may have added to his difficulties for there was strong support for the Whigs at the cathedral.

He was dismissive of the state of the choir and the music in Lichfield Cathedral, and said so later in the essays he wrote as prefaces to several volumes of church music and in a semi-autobiographical novel, The Life of Miss Fanny Brown (1761), written under the pseudonym John Piper.

By 1753, the situation between Alcock and the other vicars had grown sufficiently to be mentioned in the Chapter Acts books. These differences came to a head in 1758 when the men of the choir asked the dean and chapter to admonish Alcock for his behaviour. They accused him of “Splenetic Tricks upon the Organ to expose or confound the Performers, or burlesque their Manner of Singing.”

No 11, Vicars’ Close, Lichfield ... John Alcock continued to live here until his death in 1806 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

In the end, Alcock got the better of the men of the choir. He rescinded his position as Master of the Boys in August 1758. In 1760, he was formally admonished, and he duly resigned his post of cathedral organist and master of the choristers. But he forfeited only £4 a year, and managed to hold on to his freehold position as a vicar-choral and to the house in the Cathedral Close that went with that appointment, No 11 Vicars’ Close in Lichfield.

Meanwhile, despite these personal conflicts in Lichfield, Alcock gained the degree B.Mus. at Oxford in June 1755, and later he would receive a doctorate in 1766.

From 1761 to 1786, sometimes with the assistance of his sons, he served as the organist of Sutton Coldfield parish church, and from 1766 to 1790 he was the organist of Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth, where the Comberford Chapel had been the burial place of the Comberford family for generations.

Around this time, Alcock found a wealthy patron in Arthur Chichester (1739-1799), 5th Earl and 1st Marquess of Donegall, who appointed him his private organist. In 1789, Lord Donegall inherited Fisherwick Manor, between Lichfield and Tamworth, along with vast Irish estates of more than a quarter million acres in Belfast, Antrim, Donegal and Wexford. In 1789, he bought the Manors of Comberford and Wigginton in Staffordshire, including lands in Hopwas and Coton, and he rebuilt Comberford Hall in the 1790s.

The Donegalls gave their name to Donegall House in Bore Street, Lichfield, and generations of the family were buried in a vault in Saint Michael’s Church, Lichfield.

Alcock’s most important volume of church music is his Six and Twenty Select Anthems (1771). He was also an ardent antiquary and collector of manuscripts. In 1752 he proposed the quarterly publication in score of various services by great English composers, including Tallis, Byrd, and Gibbons. But when he learned that Maurice Greene was working on a similar project, Alcock generously handed over his own research.

He wrote 72 original psalm tunes, a number of hymns and simple hymn anthems, and reharmonised 117 psalm tunes which were published in three collections.

John Alcock suffered gout for much of his later years. But he continued living at 11 Vicars’ Close in Lichfield until his death. In his dying days, he reminded a friend that he was still the “Senior Vicar” in Lichfield Cathedral, and he boasted of his roomy accommodation in the Close. Margaret Alcock died on 10 September 1792; John Alcock died in Lichfield on 23 February 1806 and was buried at Lichfield Cathedral.

Their eldest son, John Alcock (1740-1791), was a chorister under his father at Lichfield Cathedral, where he learned to play the organ. By the age of 12 he was accomplished enough to deputise for him occasionally. However, because he deputised so regularly for his father, the younger John Alcock was dismissed as a chorister in Lichfield Cathedral in 1755.

From 1758 to 1768 he was the organist and master of the song school in Newark-on-Trent. In 1766 he was in Oxford, where John Alcock the father received his doctorate, and John Alcock the son received his BMus degree.

From 1773 until his death in March 1791, he was the organist of Saint Matthew's Church in Walsall. His youngest brother, William Alcock (1756-1833), was the organist in Newcastle under Lyme.

After his death, John Alcock’s memory and music were soon forgotten. But a considerable range of his service music remanis in manuscript form in Lichfield Cathedral.


A Hymn for Christmas and Saint John’s Day, by John Alcock

Grant, Lord, that what thy servant, John,
Has taught we may with faith embrace,
Believing thy belovéd Son
Was born and died for human race.

Let that Incarnate Word divine
Which born in flesh gave us new birth,
Make in our souls his image shine,
Who took our like - ness once on earth.

He, by the wonders of his hand
Declared his mission from on high;
His touch the speechless tongue unchained,
And blest with light the sightless eye.

O let his mercy once more show
A token of his mighty power
Make those who here deny him know
He with the blind can them restore.

Tomorrow:: ‘Unto us is born a Son

Friday, 26 December 2014

‘The Interview’ is not ‘The Great Dictator’
… but is it worth watching?


Patrick Comerford

Last night I watched the most talked about and most controversial movie of this season, The Interview. Today I read that The Interview is top of YouTube’s “Popular Right Now chart” after being released online on Christmas Eve through four digital channels, Google Play, SeeTheInterview.com, Xbox Video, and YouTube Movies.

From its opening in the US in small and independent cinemas across the US, The Interview may have taken in $1 million on Christmas Day alone, according to both Variety and Deadline. Even then, the digital earnings for the movie were almost certainly hurt by widespread piracy.

The action-comedy directed by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen begins with “what-if” question: What if tomorrow North Korea provide it has nuclear missiles that can destroy the US from in an attack across the Pacific?

It goes on to tell the story of a bumbling television show presenter Dave Skylark (James Franco) and his geeky producer Aaron Rapoport (Seth Rogen), who run the low-market celebrity talk show Skylark Tonight.

When they learn the North Korean dictator is a surprise fan of the show, they land the interview they hope is going to gain them a reputation as credible journalists. But they are recruited by the CIA to turn their visit to Pyongyang into a mission to assassinate Kim Jong-un (Randall Park).

Rapoport travels to rural China to arrange the promised interview and to receive instructions from North Korean officials.

CIA Agent Lacey (Lizzy Caplan) devises a plan to assassinate Kim by using a transdermal strip to expose Kim to ricin with a deadly handshake. When Dave and Aaron arrive in North Korea, a military officer discovers the strip in a pack of gum and chews it. Agent Lacey sends two more strips in an aerial drop and instructs Aaron to retrieve them.

Kim and Dave spend the day together bonding over their mean fathers, their secret love of Katy Perry, and partying their faces off with drink, cannabis and naked women. They become good friends, and Kim presents Dave with a small dog.

At a state dinner, however, the officer who has been exposed to ricin has a seizure, and in his dying pains he inadvertently shoots and kills a fellow officer. Dave feels guilty and discards a ricin strip the next day. He then thwarts Aaron’s attempt to poison Kim himself. At another dinner, Kim’s true, destructive and deceitful character comes out and Dave is terrified, and also finds the grocery shop he extolled earlier is in truth a façade.

Meanwhile, Aaron and a North Korean spook, Sook (Diana Bang), find they are sexually attracted to each other. In the midst of their tryst, she confesses she despises Kim and apologises for her role in the regime’s propaganda.

During the televised interview, Dave digresses from the agreed questions and raises increasingly sensitive topics. He cites Kim's need for his father’s approval and sings Katy Perry’s song ‘Firework.’ Kim cries and soils himself, debunking the propaganda line that he is above human bodily functions. No-one in North Korea is ever going to accept a flatulent Katy Perry fan seriously as the Dear Leader.

You might expect the move to end with Kim in prison, but instead it turns to a gratuitous yet unbelievable sequence of violence. A fight breaks out between outraged members of the broadcast team and the military. Kim shoots Dave in the chest in a fit of anger, but Dave survives, thanks to a bulletproof vest. He, Aaron and Sook escape in a tank, with Kim pursuing them in a helicopter. Kim is killed in a disturbing scene that is presented in slow motion as his face is distorted by a tank shell exploding and melting into fire and eventually ripping him apart.

Sook guides Dave and Aaron to a tunnel where they escape to South Korea, while she stays behind to lead the coup d’état that results in democratic elections.


The movie includes cameo appearances by Eminem, Rob Lowe, Bill Maher, Nicki Minaj, Emma Stone, Zac Efron, Guy Fieri and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Despite all the debates leading up to the release of The Interview, I found the movie is not so much a shrewd political satire as a coarse and vulgar move that often goes over the top. The best performances are not by James Franco and Seth Rogen but by Randall Park and Diana Bang.

This movie is like an updated episode of the 1960s spy comedy series, Get Smart, but like most of the episodes of Get Smart or The Man from Uncle, the plot is threadbare. It is laced with too many puerile jokes and lapses into racist stereotyping. After all the controversy this film has created, I found myself on the verge of being underwhelmed.

I have a limited tolerance for anal penetration jokes and infantile preoccupation with body parts. But if you have seen shocking comedies in the past, then there is not much left to be shocked by in this movie.

And yet The Interview raises questions about whether the assassination of one leader would bring about regime change and end the North Korean nuclear threat. The problems in North Korea are deeper than one person. Apart from North Korea’s nuclear capacity, military threats and cyber-bullying. These problems include famine, food distribution and food supply, human rights, with many people in prison camps.

This is unapologetic in advocating assassination as a legitimate political weapon. It explicitly endorses killing a political figure, without any irony. But it also proffers severe criticism of a regime that no-one would want to defend.

On the other hand, Kim gets in a few lines about how the US embargo has dramatically worsened the famine in North Korea, and in criticism of US torture of suspects and detainees, although he never actually names Guantanamo. And there are a few lines about the continuing prevalence of anti-Semitism … although even then I wondered whether this was a cheap shot aimed at making me draw subliminal comparisons with The Great Dictator.

Inevitably, comparisons will be drawn between the controversy created by The Interview and the controversy generated by Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses and other politically controversial movies and books. But while The Satanic Verses may have, arguably, been a contender for being a work of literature, The Interview might have died a quick death without this controversy.

Yet The Interview is a welcome satire about the way the US media manipulates people than it is a comment on North Korean politics. This is a story of how political debates have been reduced to entertainment debates in the US, and The Interview describes much of what is wrong with the way US corporate media and politics affect the world.

Some of the best jokes are about how US television reports on domestic and international politics. This is a parody that pokes fun not only at one of the world’s most dangerous dictators, but also at US television. As Dave says, the first rule of American journalism is to give the people what they want.

I found myself asking last night whether the same movie be made about, for example, Saudi Arabia? I can imagine no US movie-maker would ever dare to make a film about a fictional attempt to murder the King of Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis are a key ally of the US in the Middle East, and crucial to the stability of oil supplies and therefore to the global economy. Yet human rights are virtually non-existent in Saudi Arabia, there is no religious or political freedom, and, Saudi Arabia plays an integral role in the expansion of Islamic extremism, assisting the financial operations of IS in Iraq and Syria and providing its ideological underpinning. It was Saudi Arabia too that provided the political and ideological training for most of the 9/11 bombers.

North Korea’s attempt to remove or censor this film has had the unintended consequence of giving even greater attention to its problems. Freedom of expression includes criticism of politicians in your own society, but also politicians in other societies.

This movie is worth watching if only to say No to cruel dictatorships. It is not going to stand the test of time in the same way as Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator. Who today remembers Death of a Princess, the British 1980 drama-documentary about a young Saudi princess and her lover who had been publicly executed? Yet its depiction of life in Saudi Arabia led many governments to oppose its broadcast, under threat of damaging trade ramifications.

I have stepped across the border from South Korea at Panmunjom and stepped briefly into North Korea in 1997 in one of the huts kept open for the talks that never seem to get anywhere. If we are going to deal with cruel dictators and regimes, then assassination is not the answer, but satire certainly helps. We need more movies to expose great dictators and cruel regimes. They are not going to bring them down, but they may help us to ask why many regimes are propped up by the West or Russia, and why only a few are singled out as figures of hate and targets for parody.