04 June 2016

From Crete to Carlow, and thinking
of Syrian refugee children in Greece

Sorting shoes for Syrian refugee children in Carlow this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

The Greek authorities said yesterday [3 June 2016] that hundreds of refugees were missing or dead after a boat carrying up to 500 migrants sank off the coast of Crete.

With warmer weather and seas in the Mediterranean, smugglers have been packing migrants by the tens of thousands into boats that are not seaworthy to try to reach Europe.

Since January, 205,000 migrants and refugees have crossed the Mediterranean to Europe, the UN refugee agency said this week, with more than 2,500 deaths this year – the vast majority of them between Libya and Italy.

The Greek Coast Guard said yesterday that on Thursday night it had rescued 342 migrants from an 82-ft long fishing boat that may have been on its way from Egypt to Italy. The vessel had called for urgent assistance after getting into difficulties late on Thursday and began to sink in international waters about 75 nautical miles south of Kaloi Limenes on the southern coast of Crete.

In Greek, the name Καλοί Λιμένες means “peaceful harbour,” and the Acts of the Apostles record how the Apostle Paul landed at “Fair Havens” while he was being taken to Rome as a prisoner and took refuge there during a storm on the Mediterranean (see Acts 27).

Nine dead bodies were recovered at Kaloi Limenes or Fair Havens in the last two days, while 220 migrants have reached Crete. But the death toll is rising even as I write, with some reports saying up to 700 people were on board, according to the Greek coast guard.

As a tiny response to the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, I spent this morning sorting shoes for children and clothes for refugees in Carlow with an innovative organisation called the Jacket Off Your Back.

During these weeks, the Lectionary is taking us through readings from Saint Luke’s Gospel, and the name of this group has so many resonances for me with Christ’s words in that gospel: ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise’ (Luke 3: 11).

This small group is working from a small, 3,000 sq ft unit at Unit 2, Strawhall Business Park, Athy Road, Carlow, and is trying to provide clothes and shoes for children who arrive from Syria in Greece.

‘The Jacket Off Your Back’ is a new project started by Kevin Kelly, Sue ‘Purple’ Kelly and Emily Deveraux at the end of last November [2015]. They aim to keep homeless people warm and they help both homeless people in Ireland and Syrians in refugee camps in Greece or trying to reach countries like Montenegro, Former Yugoslav Macedonia and Germany.

Kevin Kelly says: “Here is the ambitious bit now, how about we put shoes on one million kids in poor countries and not to forget there might be some in our country too.”

In recent weeks, they have delivered containers of clothes and shoes to Damascus, as well as two pallets or 70 boxes to families living in poverty in Romania.

They are collecting quality clothes, sleeping bags, personal hygiene products and first aid supplies, and preparing 50,000 emergency survival packs for delivery on the ground.

Petros Konsoulas at the ‘Soul of Crete’ stall in Carlow this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

After a morning sifting, sorting and packing, two of us continued on into Carlow to visit the Carlow County Museum on Tullow Street.

But as we made our way to the museum, we could not get away from Crete. At the country market, we came across a stall run by ‘The Soul of Crete,’ an Irish-based company that prides itself on bringing the finest quality, Greek-inspired produce to Ireland.

The company was set up by Petros and Catherine Konsoulas, and they are running their small artisan company at Fenagh, Co Carlow, at the foothills of Mount Leinster.

They use traditional family recipes for their own tahini and their olive oil comes from olive trees that have flourished in Crete for the last 5,000 years.

As we talked – in that that people from Ireland and Greece talk – I realised Petros had worked for a few years in Lychnos, a restaurant in Piskopiano, in the hills above Hersonissos, and we started sharing memories and friendships – Lychnos, Giannis, Mika Villas, Manolis and Lena, Metohi … Would we back this year?

Saint Paul preaching in Athens … a panel on the Comerford Pulpit in Carlow County Museum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Carlow County Museum is housed in the former Presentation Convent, and in particular I wanted to see the Comerford Pulpit, which once stood in Carlow Cathedral as a memorial to Bishop Michael Comerford (1830-1895).

This 20 ft carved oak pulpit was included in the list in A History of Ireland in 100 Objects by Fintan O’Toole of The Irish Times.

But even here it was hard to get away from this morning’s work as I looked at the carved oak panels on the side of the pulpit, including one showing Saint Paul preaching in Athens.

Thomas Cobden’s octagon on Carlow Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

I stopped for a few moments in Carlow Cathedral, to pay my respects to Bishop Michael Comerford, who is buried before the High Altar.

The cathedral, with its striking octagonal tower, was designed by the architect Thomas Alfred Cobden (1794-1842).

For most of his career, Cobden worked in Co Carlow and Co Wexford, and his buildings include Braganza, which was built for Sir Dudley Hill and where Bishop Comerford died; Duckett’s Grove; Russellstown Park; Wells House, built for the Doyne family near Gorey; the Tudor-revival Ballykealey House, near Ballon; the Roman Catholic church in Killeshin; and the Presbyterian or ‘Scots’ church in Carlow.

Cobden also designed an octagon for Saint Columba’s Church, Tullow, a choice may have been influenced by AWN Pugin, who was inspired by the octagon in Ely Cathedral.

There were more hints and memories of the Mediterranean when we decided to have lunch in the Med Bar in Tullow Street, on the corner next to the museum. In today’s summer sunshine, we could have been eating in a restaurant in Rethymnon or Piskopiano.

Duckett’s Grove … now in ruins but once a masterpiece by Thomas Cobden that dominated the landscape of Co Carlow (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

If Carlow Cathedral is Cobden’s great achievement in ecclesiastical architecture, then Duckett’s Grove is most amazing work of domestic architecture.

On the road back from Carlow, we decided to stop at Duckett’s Grove for double espressos.

Duckett’s Grove, now in ruins, is about 9 or 10 km from both Carlow and Tullow and once stood at the centre of a 12,000 acre (49 sq km) estate.

The house was built around 1830 by Cobden for William Duckett who took a two-storey Georgian country house and turned it into a castellated Gothic revival castle. The Georgian features were removed or hidden as Cobden created towers and turrets in variety of shapes – round, square and octagon.

One tall octagonal turret rises from the building, and Duckett’s Grove is elaborately ornamented with oriels and niches that were once filled with statues.

The last male member of the family, William Duckett, died in 1908. His widow, Maria Georgina Duckett, lived on there until 1916, but she disinherited her only daughter, Olive.

With the departure of the Ducketts, the estate was managed by an agent. During the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921), Máire Comerford (1893-1982) sheltered in Duckett’s Grove, and later she was in charge of a Cumann na mBan unit that looked after the upkeep of the mansion while it was occupied by the Irish Army before the split and the Civil War.

The abandoned gate lodges at Duckett’s Grove (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Eventually the estate and the lands at Duckett’s Grove were divided and sold, and the crumbling Gothic mansion at Duckett’s Grove was left empty and uninhabited, supposedly with its interiors and furniture intact. But the house was destroyed by a fire on the night of 20 April 1933.

In September 2005, Carlow County Council acquired Duckett’s Grove and began restoring the two inter-connecting walled gardens.

We had our afternoon coffee in the Tea Rooms in the courtyard at Duckett’s Grove. Behind us were the ruins of this once great mansion which continues to loom over the landscape of Co Carlow.

If you would like to support The Jacket Off Your Back call Kevin on 0868988137 or Sue on 0863675593, or email jacketoffyourback@gmail.com

There are several ways you can donate:

1. https://www.gofundme.com/5r54qj84

2. Direct to the bank IBAN - IE26AIBK93310445875041 BIC-AIBKIE2D

3. Post a cheque made payable to The Jacket Off Your Back to Unit 2 Strawhall Business Park, Athy Road, Carlow

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