Sunday, 1 June 2014

Enjoying the setting sun on the shores of
Lough Ramor before visiting Loughcrew

Sunset on Lough Ramor at the Lakside Manor Hotel in Virginia, Co Cavan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

I stayed last night on the shores of Lough Ramor in the Lakeside Manor Hotel, on the southern edges of Virginia, Co Cavan.

Four of us had stopped on our way at Kells to visit Saint Columba’s Church of Ireland parish church and the site of the Columban monastery. Kells is planning celebrations next weekend to mark the 1,200th anniversary of the refounding of the monastery, which traces its story back to Saint Columba or Saint Colmcille in the sixth century.

We visited the high tower and the many high crosses that survive in the churchyard, and the attached tower built by the Taylour family, Earls of Bective, who lived nearby in Headfort House.

Later in the afternoon, we spent some time walking around Virginia, a pretty town that once was a regular winner in the ‘Tidy Towns Competition,’ and that also owed its Victorian-era growth and prosperity to the patronage of the Earls of Bective and Marquises of Headfort, who built a hunting lodge at what is now the Park Hotel, and who also richly endowed the local Church of Ireland parish church.

Wisteria in the Pergola Garden Centre in Virginia, Co Cavan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

After a late lunch in the Mason’s Apron, we spent some time strolling around the Pergola Garden Centre opposite the parish church and next to the Park Hotel.

Pergola Nurseries were founded in 1986 and the garden centre stretches across a four-acre site. Until now, I have to admit, I have had no interest at all in garden centres. They seemed like a bad way to make a sunny afternoon boring. But my mind has been changed, and I’m now thinking of buying wisteria to replace the creeping ivy on the fence in the back garden.

An afternoon walk on the shores Lough Ramor at the Lakside Manor Hotel in Virginia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

The Lakeside Manor Hotel is in a picturesque location on the lakeshore. By the time we arrived in the late afternoon, the skies had become a little grey and overcast, and there were few boats on the water. But three of us still took a short stroll along the side of the lake, enjoying the reflections on the water from the little amount of sun still breaking through the clouds.

As the sun returned, four of us made the best of the late afternoon, and sat for an hour or so, sipping white wine and enjoying the view, before getting ready for dinner.

Enjoying the sunset on Lough Ramor at the Lakside Manor Hotel in Virginia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)


It could have been a very relaxed evening, but the sunset interrupted dinner. The setting sun was casting orange and purple streaks across the evening skies that reflected in the ripples on the waters of the lake.

Time and again, each of us left the table to capture the setting sun in photographs.

Bective Court behind the Park Hotel in Virginia, Co Cavan ... I spent a summer holiday here in 1967 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)


This morning, we went to church in Virginia, where the Eucharist was celebrated by the rector, the Ven Craig McCauley, who is Archdeacon of Kilmore. While he was an ordinand, Craig was placed as a student in Saint Maelruain’s Parish in Tallaght, where I was a reader in the 1990s.

After church, we strolled through the grounds of the Park Hotel and the courtyard at the rear. I still have happy memories of a long, sunny summer holiday here as a teenager in 1967, climbing trees in the driveway to find solitude and to read The Irish Times on my own in the mornings, and learning to row on the lake in the afternoons.

From Virginia, we drove through Ballyjamesduff and Oldcastle to Loughcrew, Co Meath, which is the site of megalithic burial grounds dating back to approximately 3500 and 3300 BC. This is one of the four main passage tomb sites in Ireland, and the passage tombs here are aligned with the Equinox sunrise.

A footbridge in the grounds of Loughcrew, Co Meath (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Lunch in the coffee shop in a log-built reception lodge was disappointing, and the service and attention were poor and slow. But we enjoyed strolling through the gardens, the grounds and the walks.

In the late Middle Ages, Loughcrew was the home of a branch of the Plunkett family, whose most famous member was the martyred Archbishop of Armagh, Saint Oliver Plunkett. Local tradition says Saint Oliver Plunkett was born in a 16th century tower house on the property in 1625, and the ruined Plunkett family church still stands in the grounds of the estate.

Inside the ruined Plunkett chapel in the grounds of Loughcrew, Co Cavan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

The Plunketts sided with the Irish Confederates in the 1640s and lost their lands with the Cromwellian confiscations in 1652. Their estate passed from Sir William Petty to his brother-in-law, William Naper, around 1655. The Naper family developed an extensive estate of some 180,000 acres (730 sq km). The 1798 rebel Naper Tandy claimed descent from this family.

In 1821, William Naper commissioned the English neo-classical architect Charles Robert Cockerell (1788-1863) to build a new stately home at Loughcrew. Cockerell had recently visited Greece and he spent eight years and £22,000 (£1.5 million in today’s values) on building a vast, classical-style house with an Ionic portico.

He later designed the Hanover Chapel on Regent Street, London, the Cambridge University Library and the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

The house was destroyed over the next 140 years by a succession of devastating fires, the last of them in 1964. A new house was built in the surviving but roofless Orangery incorporating the palm houses, the azalea houses and the furnace rooms. Today, all that survives of Cockerell’s Loughcrew House is the original portico, standing in solemn, solitary isolation amid the fields and gardens, reassembled like a mini-Acropolis.

The house sits on 200 acres of parkland and within a valley below Loughcrew. Charles and Emily Naper open the restored gardens to the public throughout the summer months and run an annual outdoor garden opera festival and an annual Jazz Festival.

This year’s programme includes ‘A Tuscan Soiree’ on Saturday 12 July, with a three-course Italian feast followed by Italian operatic, and Dejeuner en Provence’ on Sunday 13 July, with a three-course French lunch and French operatic music. The programmes include music from Carmen, La Traviata, The Pearl Fishers, Turandot, La Boheme and more.

The isolated portico at Loughgcrew (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)


How a sun holiday in Spain became
a challenge to long-held prejudices

There had to be more to Spain than high-rise hotels (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

For all my adult life I resisted the idea of going on a package holiday to Spain. For 40 years or more, I have travelled around the world for work and pleasure. But, apart from a weekend city break in Madrid five years ago – and that hardly counts – I had never been to Spain for a holiday.

You could say I did not know my Málaga from my Marbella, my Frigiliana from my Fuengirola, or the Costa Blanca from the Costa Brava and the Costa del Sol.

I took Spanish at school for five years, motivated perhaps by stories that it was an easier language to learn than French, German or Italian. I had inspiring teachers who introduced me to Spanish literature, from Miguel de Cervantes and Don Quixote to 20th century poets such as Federico García Lorca, and Spanish artists from Velázquez, Murillo and Goya to Miró, Picasso and Dalí.

Why, I even managed to pass Spanish at Intermediate and Leaving Certificate levels, although 45 years later I have managed to forget most of the Spanish I learned at school.

I think my reluctance to go on a package holiday to Spain was partly due to my own snobbery, disguised as political certitude. Spain was the land of Franco, Guernica and the garrotte; Spain was a land of brutality symbolised in the bullfight and the civil war chillingly depicted by George Orwell in Homage to Catalonia; Spain was the land of the Spanish inquisition and the brutal expulsion of Jews and Muslims; Spain, before the package holiday industry boomed, was popular with Irish people whose political sympathies on one hand were with the Blueshirts in the 1930s, or on the other hand with Frank Ryan who had defected to Nazi Germany.

Journalistic colleagues, including Paddy Woodworth, Colm Toibin and the late Jane Walker, chided and upbraided me for my inhibitions. But these prejudices persisted, reinforced by Monty Python sketches about Torremolinos, with half-built, high-rise hotels, Watney’s Red Barrel and pools with no water. Monty Python even reinforced my images with that sketch on the Spanish Inquisition.

Wanting more from holidays

Madrid was fine. I was there for a city break, enjoyed art galleries, museums and stately architecture, and experienced May Day.

But I knew Greek olives and olive oil were superior to Spanish olives and olive oil, and the same could be said about Greek and Spanish wine, coffee, music, poetry, mezzes or tapas, and even beaches. Zorba could out-dance Flamenco any evening. But Costa only meant coffee to me, and I had no intention of taking a Costa holiday. Holidays were not merely about sun, sand, sea and sangria. I wanted the sun, sand and sea, but in measured proportions that also took account of archaeological sites, cathedral architecture and other cultural interests.

Well, that is, until this Easter.

I have already experienced the beauty and rich spirituality of Orthodox Easter in Greece and in Cyprus. This year, Easter fell at the same time in the calendars of the Western and Eastern Churches. Easter in a Greek town or village seemed like a good idea, until we found most of the available flights and packages were priced exorbitantly – after all, every Greek wants to be at home for Easter.

Processing the Crucified Christ though the streets of La Carihuela (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

A second option that came to mind was southern Italy, with the great Holy Week and Easter processions in places like Sicily. Once again, however, it was difficult to put together the right package, at the right time, at the right price.

The travel agent at Rathgar Travel in Dublin asked, ‘Why not Spain?’

‘Spain?’

I explained that this was supposed to be an Easter pilgrimage, with time for prayer, reflection and meditation … even if I did want to combine it with sunshine and time off, I had no intention of spending it in a high-rise, over-crowded sunny version of Blackpool or Clacton.

I recalled the Monty Python sketch and the fear that I might “sit next to a party of people from Rhyl who keep singing ‘Torremolinos, Torremolinos’.”

I was soon convinced of the wrongness of my prejudiced ways. Did I not know about Semana Santa and the processions with crosses and images of the Crucified Christ that take place in most villages and towns, even in the most built-up of areas?

Early on the morning on Maundy Thursday, I was on a flight to Málaga, about to spend a week on the Costa del Sol, in the Torremolinos pilloried over 40 years ago in that Monty Python sketch, staying in the Roc Lago Rojo Hotel in La Carihuela, once a picturesque fishing village on the edge of Torremolinos.

Bringing the sacred into the secular

Bringing the sacred to the secular and inviting the secular into the sacred on the beach in La Carihuela (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

In the narrow streets between the hotel and the beach at La Carihuela, the tiny parish church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, squeezed in between the bars, the cafés and the souvenir shops, offered a warm welcome, so that most of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Day was spent following the local commemorations of Holy Week and Easter.

There was no great street parade there like the famous procession through the streets of Málaga, where confraternities of masked and hooded men carry larger-than-life statues shoulder high in penitence. But the simple foot washing ceremony at the Maundy Eucharist was all the more poignant for involving what may well have been the local butcher, baker and candlestick maker.

On the following morning, local people took it turn to carry the large, life-size image of the Crucified Christ through the streets of La Carihuela, stopping outside bars and cafés or at tiny corners abutted by small hotels and shops, and leading the prayers of the Good Friday Stations of the Cross.

At one stage, the cross was brought down through the sun beds on the beach to the shoreline, where it was raised aloft as the prayers continued. In a simple ceremony with mediaeval roots and modern interpretations, the message of Christ Crucified was being proclaimed to all without discrimination, the sacred was being brought into the secular, and the secular was invited to enter the sacred – an opportunity missed so often in many northern European societies.

The ruins of the Roman amphitheatre are a reminder of Málaga’s classical past (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Later that afternoon in Málaga, 15 km to the north, we visited the Cathedral, the Roman amphitheatre, the remains of the Moorish Alcazaba or fortress, the Church of Santiago, where Picasso was baptised, and the birthplace of Picasso, which is now a museum and educational foundation, the Fundación Picasso.

Spanish ladies in lace queuing for lunch in Málaga (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

In the cathedral and the churches, many Spanish people were dressed formally as they came to pray quietly. But even the women who dress in formal black, with large, traditional lace headdresses, are “Ladies who Lunch” and they queued for lunch outside the restaurants without any hint of self-consciousness.

‘Music in my soul’

White-washed Mijas is a mountainside village that is like a balcony above the countryside of Andalucía (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

We were reminded that Málaga, which still boasts of its Phoenician and Roman foundations, has roots dating back to classical times, that it was once a central meeting place of the worlds of Islam and Christianity, and that more recently it was the birthplace of one of the greatest figures in the world of Western art.

On Saturday, two of us caught a bus from Torremolinos to Fuengirola, and a second bus up to Mijas, a small town packed each day with day-trippers taking an Easter break from the brash resorts.

Mijas is a white-washed, mountainside village, 30 km south-west of Málaga and about 450 metres (about 1,500 feet) above sea level. The village is like a balcony looking out across the countryside of Andalucía and down onto Fuengirola and the coastal resorts of the Costa del Sol.

Lighting the Paschal Candle in La Carihuela (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Early on Easter morning, while it was still dark, we left our hotel room and walked through the narrow, silent, deserted streets of La Carihuela to wait on the beach for the sunrise. A few early risers were already jogging along the promenade, and one or two lone shore anglers were walking up and down the shoreline, perhaps hoping to catch some fish for breakfast. But we thought about the women who rose early before dawn to visit the tomb, and the disciples by the shore in Galilee, and how they found that Christ is Risen.

Waiting for the sunrise before dawn on Easter morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)


In My Fair Lady, Professor Higgins and Colonel Pickering are successful in teaching Eliza Doolittle that “the Rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.” The truth is, however, very different: Spanish rain falls mainly in the northern mountains. But still, much of our Sunday and all of our Monday were washed out. When we ventured out for a walk on the beach or for a coffee we found how heavy Spanish rain can be, even on the Costa del Sol.

The rain in Spain does not stay mainly in the plain (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

With the Easter celebrations over, we took a two-hour bus journey on Tuesday through the countryside of Andalucía to the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains to visit Granada and Alhambra.

The Spanish composer Andrés Segovia once described Granada as “a place of dreams where the Lord put the seed of music in my soul.”

The buildings and the gardens of Alhambra are designed to reflect the very beauty of Paradise (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

The Alhambra dates from 889, but it eventually fell into disrepair and was damaged by neglect, plunder, earthquakes and even an attempt by Napoleon’s army to blow the place up. It was almost forgotten until it was romanticised in 1832 by Washington Irving (1783-1859) in his Tales of the Alhambra. The new attention brought restoration, so that today this is one of Spain’s major tourist attractions and a Unesco World Heritage Site.

The Palace of Alhambra is a reminder of almost eight centuries of Islamic presence (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)


The Lion Fountain at the heart of Alhambra (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

The buildings and the gardens of Alhambra are designed to reflect the very beauty of Paradise, with gardens, fountains, streams, a palace, and a mosque, all within an imposing fortress wall, flanked by 13 massive towers. We strolled through the gardens, the secluded courtyards, gardens, patios and villas where the sultans of Granada could escape from the place intrigues and politics in their search for tranquility.

The Palace of Alhambra, with its creative architectural combination of space, light, water and decoration, is one of the most intriguing works left behind in Spain after almost eight centuries of Islamic presence in the Iberian Peninsula.

Flamenco buskers in a square in Granada … Andrés Segovia said Granada is “where the Lord put the seed of music in my soul.” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Walking through the narrow streets of Granada (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Later in the week, we experienced another intriguing presence in Spain when we visited Gibraltar. But Gibraltar is a story for another day.

The Spanish countryside below the Sierra Nevada mountains (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

We found plenty of time for walks on the beach, and found it takes little time to learn to enjoy Spanish food and wine. We never got to see Seville or Cordoba, nor did we explore the possibility of crossing to Morocco. But after a week, some of that spoken Spanish I had learned 45 to 50 years ago was beginning to come back ... sometimes at unexpected moments. And I realised there is more to Spain than sun, sand, sea and sangria.

There is more to Spain than sun, sand, sea and sangria (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay and these photographs were first published in June 2014 in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory).