01 November 2015

It was more like early summer
today than the start of winter

Blue skies and water and golden sands at Malahide this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

Although the sun was low all day, it was almost like the beginning of summer today, with bright sunshine, blue skies and, eventually when I got there, blue skies and golden sands at the beach in Malahide.

The day began with the Choral Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, where I served as deacon, reading the Gospel and assisting at the administration of the Holy Communion.

A bright sunny morning at Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Arriving at the cathedral, the day was already bright, sunny and warm , and it was difficult to believe that we are about to face into winter.

Today [1 November 2015] is All Saints’ Day, and this was reflected in the readings (Wisdom 3:1-9; Psalm 24; Revelation 21: 1-6a; and John 11: 32-44) and the hymns, including ‘For all the saints, who from their labours rest,’ written by Bishop William Walsham How (1823-1897) as a processional hymn for All Saints’ Day and set to the tune ‘Sine Nomine’ (‘Without Name,’ referring to the great multitude of unknown saints) written for this hymn by Vaughan Williams while he was co-editing the English Hymnal (1906) with Percy Dearmer.

Malahide Castle is like a scene from an Irish fairy tale (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

After coffee in the crypt, two of us went to Malahide Castle for lunch at the Avoca Café. The castle has a setting that is almost appropriate for an Irish fairy tale, and the place was full with families and tourists enjoying the exceptional opportunity to spend the afternoon in the open.

From Malahide Castle, we made our way to the beach at Malahide, where it seemed like a perfect day for sailing, with clear views across to the Donabate and Portrane peninsula.

A few people were out on boats and kayaks, one man was paddling a surfboard, a few children and a dog were enjoying the out-of-season opportunity to paddle in the water, and – despite the warning signs – one brave or foolhardy man took the risk and got into the water for a swim.

All along the coast road from Malahide through Robswall to Portmarnock, people were out walking in large clusters, enjoying this exceptional, unseasonable, sunny day.

But it is not going to last for long.

On the way back to South Dublin on the M50, fog moved in from the east coast and came down like a blanket on much of Dublin.

But while it lasted, this was a beautiful All Saints’ Day.

It was like a day in early summer in Malahide this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

A week visiting the classical
sites and churches of Sicily

The garden at Saint George’s Church, Taormina, offers views of the Sicilian coast and the Ionian Sea (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

A week in Sicily at the height of summer came to an end by taking the local bus up the hill to Taormina, high above Giardini Naxos, to attend the Sung Sunday Eucharist in Saint George’s Anglican Church.

It was a busy week, based in Recanati, on the outskirts of Giardini Naxos which stands on the site of Naxos, the earliest Greek settlement in Sicily. There were visits to the lofty hill town of Taormina, high above Giardini Naxos, to the classical sites in Syracuse, to Noto with its grand baroque architecture, beach walks and a climb up the slopes of Mount Etna, the tallest active volcano on the European continent.

Enjoying the beach at Recanati, near Giardini Naxos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Climbing the slopes of Mount Etna, Europe’s highest active volcano (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Classical writers say Naxos was the first Greek colony in Sicily. It was founded by colonists from Chalcis in Euboea and the island of Naxos in the Cyclades in 735 BC, a year before Syracuse was founded.

Naxos was the first Greek settlement on the island of Sicily (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Syracuse later replaced Naxos as the most important Greek centre in Sicily. Archimedes, who had his Eureka moment in his bath there, was born and died in Syracuse, Aeschylus saw his last plays, Prometheus Bound and Prometheus Released, staged in the Greek Theatre in Syracuse, Sappho and Pindar were visitors, Plato taught there, and the Apostle Paul stopped in Syracuse for three days on his way from Malta to Rome.

Little remains of the original site of Naxos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Naxos remained an important centre of Greek civilisation and culture in Sicily until constant wars and invasions forced the people of Naxos to move up the hill to Taormina. There the Teatro Greco or classical theatre is one of the most celebrated sites in Sicily because of its remarkable preservation and its beautiful location.

It is the second largest classical theatre in Sicily, after that of Syracuse, and is still used frequently for operatic and theatrical performances and for concerts.

Churches in Taormina

The Greek theatre in Taormina is one of the most celebrated sites in Sicily because of its remarkable preservation and its beautiful location (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015; click on image to enlarge)

The Duomo or cathedral in Taormina, which looks like a mighty fortress, was built around 1400 or even earlier on the ruins of a smaller mediaeval church. It was rebuilt in the 15th and 17th centuries and restored in the 1700s. However, there are older churches in Taormina. The Church of San Pancrazio, named after the patron saint of Taormina, was built with material from the sanctuary of Isis and Serapis, dating from the Hellenistic period.

Saint George’s Anglican Church in the centre of Taormina is a much newer church. It is close to the bus station, the cable car and all the main attractions, and the Eucharist is celebrated there in English every Sunday.

Saint George’s is a stone church with spectacular panoramic views from its windows and from the terrace in the green garden behind the church that looks out across the Ionian Sea. The church is below street level but a banner on the wall and the attractive stone arch makes it easy to find the way in.

I was warmly welcomed to Saint George’s by the verger, Salvatore Galeano, who took over the role from his father in 2000. It is a family tradition, and before Salvatore, both his mother and his grandfather had been vergers.

English-speaking visitors

The Greek Theatre in Syracuse, where Aeschylus saw his last plays staged (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015; click on image to enlarge)

English-speaking people were among the first foreigners to come and stay in Sicily from the 17th century on as Europeans developed a renewed interest in the art and history of the Greek and Roman world. Some of these English-speaking families settled in Sicily, mainly in Palermo and Taormina.

The Dublin-born singer, composer and theatre manager, Michael Kelly (1762-1826), was an early Irish visitor to Taormina. He was a friend of Richard Brinsley Sheridan and of Mozart, and he first visited Sicily in 1780. He became one of the first singers of his time from either Britain or Ireland to make a front-rank reputation in Italy.

The British presence in Sicily was boosted in 1799 when King Ferdinand IV donated the Castle of Maniace to Admiral Nelson, after the King of Naples fled to Palermo on Nelson’s ship. The large estate granted to Nelson as Duke of Bronte included the Villa Falconara in Taormina, which remained a home to Nelson’s heirs until the mid-1950s. The family also played a key role in founding Saint George’s Church.

Sicily and Sardinia were the only parts of Italy that Napoleon never conquered, and as Napoleon advanced though Italy, King Ferdinand and the Bourbon court fled revolutionary Naples in 1799. They were brought to safety in Sicily by Admiral Horatio Nelson on his ship. Also on board were Sir William Hamilton, and Emma Lady Hamilton.

To show his gratitude, King Ferdinand made Nelson a Sicilian duke, with the title of Duke of Bronte, and gave him a large estate with pistachio orchards. The estate was then called named Maniace, after the Byzantine general George Maniakes, but it was promptly renamed Castello Nelson.

Castello Nelson looks like an English country house with an English country garden, rather than an Italian palazzo. Nelson never visited the place, but his ducal title and estate passed to hiss elder brother, the Revd William Nelson. The Nelson family continued to own the Bronte estate until 1978, and the family still owns the nearby English cemetery.

Irish literary connections

A Greek mask in the museum in Naxos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Prunty (1777-1861), who was born in Rathfriland, Co Down, on Saint Patrick’s Day, was the son of a farm labourer. He started off life as an apprentice blacksmith and then became an apprentice linen drape. But eventually became a teacher and managed to fund his way through a theological education at Saint John’s College, Cambridge.

Either because he was so in awe of Nelson, or so keen to mask his Irish identity, he changed his family name while he was at Cambridge to Brontë, adding umlaut to the final E in a dashing affectation. And so the novelist sisters Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë came to be named after Nelson’s estate in Sicily, without a hint of their Irish origins.

Later English-speaking visitors to Taormina included Edward Lear, who came to paint in 1843, the poet Edmund John, who died of an overdose in the Hotel Timeo in 1917, DH Lawrence, who rented the Villa Fontana Vecchia, Bertrand Russell who stayed with the writer Daphne Phelps in her Casa Cuseni, Ernest Hemmingway, Roald Dahl, Tennessee Williams, and Dylan Thomas’s widow, Caitlin Thomas, who also stayed with Daphne Phelps.

Irish writers who visited Sicily included Oscar Wilde in 1897. George Bernard Shaw praised Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author as “the theatrical masterpiece of the [20th] century.” More recently, the Greek mythology of Sicily is reflected the poem ‘Sicily’ by Desmond Egan.

Greek coins from Sicily inspired WB Yeats in his design of the first Irish coins (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

It is not surprising then that the Irish Nobel poet William Butler Yeats was inspired by a visit to Sicily almost a century ago. While most of the celebrations this year of the 150th anniversary of his birth have focused on his poetry, it seems to be largely forgotten that he was also responsible for designing the first coins of the Irish Free State. The inspiration for those designs came during a visit to Sicily in the mid-1920s with the poet Ezra Pound.

Building a church

The cathedral in Syracuse stands on the site of a classical Greek temple (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Taormina first became a popular tourist resort in the 19th century. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was one the first celebrated tourists and he dedicated parts of his book Italian Journey to Taormina. Other early ‘celebrity’ visitors included Czar Nicholas I, Richard Wagner, and Friedrich Nietzsche, who wrote Thus Spoke Zarathustra while he was there.

For much of the 19th century, church services for the English-speaking community were held in the private homes of wealthy families or in the residence of the British Consul in Messina.

The baroque cathedral in Noto (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

At the end of the 19th century, Sir Edward Stock Hill (1824-1922) and Lady Hill bought a villa in Taormina known as Santa Catarina. It is now an hotel, but had once been a Franciscan convent and included a small private chapel, which Sir Edward offered for services. When the Hill family chapel became too small, Mrs Dashwood, the owner of the Villa San Pancrazio, offered the use of her large drawing room for Sunday services.

Sir Edward then decided to buy a site for a proper church. The architect was his son-in-law, Sir Harry Triggs (1876-1923), and Saint George’s Church was completed in Spring 1922 at a cost of £25,000. The writer DH Lawrence, who was then living in Taormina, refused to come to any of the meetings organised by the English-speaking community to organise the building programme, for fear he would be asked to pay for the whole project.

Antique shops in Taormina … the town has attracted tourists since the 19th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The first service in the new church was held on 17 December 1922, and the first churchwardens were the then Duke of Bronte, from Nelson’s family, and Sir Edward’s daughter, Mabel Hill.

Mabel Hill set up a school of embroidery to help women in Taormina to earn a small living. She invited the Salesian priests to set up a centre in Taormina in 1911, and their building in the town centre was named San Giorgio in her honour.

The public gardens were donated to Taormina by Florence Trevelyan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015; click on image to enlarge)

Inside, the church has two aisles, divided by three round arches in Syracuse stone with two central columns as their base. The most beautiful part of the church is its large polychrome window behind the high altar depicting Christ on the cross with Saint Catherine on the left and Saint George in mediaeval armour on the right.

Inspiration for Newman

A view from inside Saint George’s to the Sicilian coast and the Ionian Sea (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

John Henry Newman was an early English visitor to Taormina. When he arrived in 1833, he was a young Anglican priest, recovering from a fever that almost caused his death. He made a full recovery thanks to the kindness of strangers, and also visited Catania and Syracuse.

Newman described the Greek theatre in Taormina as “the nearest approach to seeing Eden” and said: “I felt that for the first time in my life I should be a better and more religious man if I lived here.”

After he recovered from his fever in Sicily and had visited Taormina, Newman left Palermo for Marseille in June 1833, on the first stage of his journey back to England. He was convinced that God still had work for him in England, and on the journey home from Sicily he wrote his hymn ‘Lead, kindly light.’

He arrived back in Oxford on 9 July, and five days later, on 14 July 1833, John Keble preached his Assize Sermon, marking the beginning of the Oxford Movement.

Inside Saint George’s Church in Taormina (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Of course, Newman’s words, inspired by his experiences in Sicily, came to mind as I was leaving Sicily for Dublin at the end of this holiday:

Lead, kindly light, amidst the encircling gloom,
Lead thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead thou me on!
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.

‘And with the morn those angel faces smile’ … welcome to Saint George’s Anglican Church in Taormina (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Canon Patrick Comerford lectures in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This feature was first published in the November 2015 editions of the ‘Church Review’ (Dublin and Glendalough) and the ‘Diocesan Magazine’ (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory).

For all the saints ... who give
their names to places in Lichfield

All Saints … remembered in street signs in All Saints’ Estate, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

Today is All Saints’ Day [1 November], one of the great festivals in the Calendar of the Church, and so important that it should be celebrated today and take precedence over the numbering of the Sundays before Advent.

Last weekend [23-24 October 2015], during a return visit to Lichfield, after exploring a series of streets named after famous composers, including Purcell, Elgar, Oakeley, Handel, Verdi, Gilbert and Sullivan, I found myself wandering through two neighbouring estates named after saints.

The first area was named after five women saints: Catherine, Margaret, Helen, Mary and Anne. The second estate is All Saints’ Estate, and has a more intricate naming system that embraces a wide variety of saints from different periods in Church history.

You would expect any cathedral city to have a number of streets named after saints, and of course Lichfield has Saint Chad’s Road, Saint John Street and Saint Michael’s Road. Indeed, Lichfield has one housing estate off Eastern Avenue in north-east Lichfield where the streets names recall almost a dozen other cathedrals throughout England: Canterbury, Chester, Gloucester, Lincoln, Norwich, Salisbury, Southwark, Truro, Winchester, Worcester and York.

All Saints … remembered in street signs in All Saints’ Estate, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Nearby, a little further west, there is a concentrations of saints’ names in two housing estates in the northern suburbs of Lichfield, close to Dimbles Lane and Curborough Road. In all, 17 saints are recalled in the street names in this part of Lichfield.

The names were chosen for these streets because the houses are built on the area known as Christian Fields. Local myth and legend says that during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian (284-305), 999 or 1,000 people who had been converted to Christianity by Saint Amphibalus were martyred by the Romans and their bodies were left unburied in a place that became known as the ‘Field of Corpses,’ giving its name to Lichfield, for the Old English lic means body or corpse.

Etymologists agree that the name Lichfield is derived from Anglo-Saxon meaning ‘the common pasture in or beside the grey wood.’ But the story of the early martyrs first gained currency in the Middle Ages when it was referred to by Matthew Paris in the 13th century.

But it seems the story was not taken seriously in mediaeval Lichfield, and there is no surviving contemporary record of a cult of the martyrs in the cathedral chronicles prior to the Reformation.

The Martyrs’ Plaque, removed from the Guildhall in the 19th century, was restored in Beacon Park in 2010 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

In 1549, however, the new corporation adapted this story to the design of a new city seal, and there are examples of this in several places throughout Lichfield, including the Martyrs’ Plaque in Beacon Park, and the heraldic designs on the railway bridge at Upper Saint John Street.

In 1639, Archbishop Usher dismissed the story of Saint Amphibalus as a fabrication. But the story of the Lichfield Martyrs seems to explain why George Fox to trudge barefoot through the snow-covered streets of Lichfield in 1651, crying out: ‘Woe to the bloody city of Lichfield.’

As the legend developed, various places were said to be the location of the massacre, including Borrowcop Hill, Saint Michael’s Churchyard and the site of the Lichfield Cathedral, as well as Christian Fields. But from the 1680s the area known as Christian Fields, then in Elmhurst, were identified as the site of the mass martyrdom. The story was given wider currency when the antiquarian Robert Plot identified Christian Fields as the site of the massacre.

A carving representing the martyrs’ story decorated the front of the Guildhall in the 18th and early 19th century, but was removed during the Victorian restorations and relocated to the Museum Gardens. The plaque was recently put back together and remounted on a wall in Beacon Park.

But if the martyred saints of Christian Fields are no more than a popular and pious myth, the names of the streets on the site recall real saints.

Five women saints remembered in street names off Curborough Road in Lichfield (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

In a quiet corner at the north-west end of Curborough Road, five women saints are recalled (without apostrophes) in the names of Saint Marys Road, Saint Annes Road, Saint Helens Road, Saint Catherines Road and Saint Margarets Road.

Saints on the streets ... street names in the All Saints’ Estate off Curborough Road and Dimbles Lane in Lichfield (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

A little further to the west, in All Saints’ Estate, two saints are remembered, without the prefix ‘Saint,’ in the names of Giles Road and Francis Road, and nine more west of Dimbles Lane in the names (once again, without apostrophes) of Matthews Walk, Marks Walk, Judes Walk, Peters Walk, Pauls Walk, Lukes Walk, Christopher Walk, Stephens Walk, Augustines Walk.

Two further saints, Thomas and James, figures in the names of the greenways linking the houses – Thomas Greenway and James Greenway.

Among these 13 saints, there are three evangelists (Matthew, Mark and Luke, John was already spoke for in Saint John Street), the four epistle writers (Paul, Peter, James and Jude), one other apostle (Thomas), and the first martyr (Stephen).

Saint Francis and Saint Augustine are linked to the two great mediaeval monastic sites in Lichfield: the Friary which was established by the Franciscans, and Saint John’s Hospital, an Augustinian foundation.

The two other saints represent the mediaeval church: Saint Christopher became the patron saint of travellers, and Saint Giles was a popular saint in the mediaeval church who gave his name to Saint Giles Church in Whittington, south of Lichfield, and so to Saint Giles Hospice. Bu there is no Saint Amphibalus.

To complement the theme, a little further west two cardinals are recalled in the names of Wolsey Road and Heenan Grove, recalling Thomas Wolsey (1473-1530), Archbishop of York in the reign of Henry VIII, and John Carmel Heenan (1905-1975), who was Archbishop of Westminster while this estate was being built, from 1963 until his death.

Two cardinals add to the theme (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

One of the great hymns celebrating this day is ‘For all the saints, who from their labours rest’ (New English Hymnal, 197; Irish Church Hymnal, 459), which was written by Bishop William Walsham How (1823-1897) as a processional hymn for All Saints’ Day.

When he wrote this hymn, Walsh How was Rector of Whittington, Shropshire. At the time, this was part of the Diocese of St Asaph, but following the disestablishment of the Church in Wales in 1920, the parish was transferred to the Diocese of Lichfield in the Church of England.

He became a canon St Asaph Cathedral, and spent time in Rome as chaplain of the Anglican Church before returning to England.

While he was Bishop of Bedford, Walsham How became known as ‘the poor man’s bishop.’ He became the first Bishop of Wakefield, and died in Leenane, Co Mayo, in 1897 while he was on holiday in Dulough.

The hymn vibrates with images from the Book of Revelation. The saints recalled by ‘the poor man’s bishop’ in this hymn are ordinary people who, in spite of their weaknesses and their failings, are able to respond in faith to Christ’s call to service and love, and who have endured the battle against the powers of evil and darkness.

In its original form, this hymn had 11 verses, although three are omitted from most versions: the verses extolling ‘the glorious company of the Apostles,’ ‘the godly fellowship of the prophets’ and ‘the noble army of martyrs’ were inspired by the 1662 Book of Common Prayer version of the canticle Te Deum.

But the heart of the hymn is in the stanza in which we sing about the unity of the Church in heaven and on earth, ‘knit together in one communion and fellowship, in the mystical body of ... Christ our Lord.’ Despite our ‘feeble struggles’ we are united in Christ and with one another in one ‘blest communion’ and ‘fellowship divine’.

The tune ‘Sine Nomine’ (‘Without Name,’ referring to the great multitude of unknown saints) was written for this hymn by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) while he was editing the English Hymnal (1906).

Vaughan Williams was a direct descendant of Erasmus Darwin, who lived in the 18th century in Darwin House on Beacon Street, Lichfield, close to Lichfield Cathedral.

From All Saints’ Estate, there are views through the trees back down towards Lichfield Cathedral. The ordinary people of Lichfield who live in the houses on these streets off Curborough Road and Dimbles Lane are among the people to suffer most severely from George Osborne’s recent decision on tax rebates. But they too are surely counted too among the saints celebrated by Bishop Walsham How in the hymn that is being sung in many churches and cathedrals today, ‘For all the saints, who from their labours rest.’

The spires of Lichfield Cathedral can be seen in the distance from All Saints' Estate (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)