Sunday, 19 June 2016

It was like a winter’s day on the beach
in Bettystown and Laytown today

It looked like a winter’s day in Bettystown, Co Meath, this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

Is this summer? It’s warm, but the wind makes it feels cold, and it is so wet and the rain is so persistent that it looks and feels link a rainy Sunday in late autumn.

It was so wet this afternoon that the beaches in Bettystown and Laytown on the coast of Co Meath were all but deserted.

Two of us went for a late lunch this afternoon in Relish, and I expected the place to be full, not just because of their wonderful food and warm welcome, but because today is Fathers’ Day. But we got a table by one of the windows, with a view out across the sand dunes and out to the Irish Sea.

After lunch we went for a short walk on the beach. But the rain mean the hollows and rivulets left by the receding tide had been filled with water, and it looked not so much like autumn, but like winter.

And it looked like a winter’s day on the beach in Laytown too (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Later we stopped at Laytown, to look out at the beach there. But the rain was still pouring down, and so we decided to go up the hill behind us to look at the railway station, which is one of the great unknown pieces of the architectural heritage of Co Meath.

Laytown Railway Station is a significant part of Co Meath’s architectural heritage (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Laytown Railway Station, with the station, pedestrian bridge and the station master's house, forms a significant architectural group in Laytown. The new station and two workmen’s houses were built by the Dublin & Drogheda Railway Co, and the station opened on 25 May 1844.

This detached, nine-bay single-storey railway station, was designed by an unknown architect. It had a pitched slate roof, yellow brick chimneystacks and cast-iron water goods.

There were timber clapperboard walls, with a string course at sill level, and it is set on a stone plinth. There were segmental-arched openings with timber block-and-start surrounds, timber sash windows, a timber pilaster and entablature shopfront, and panelled timber doors

There are stone embankment walls flanking the tracks, and a cast-iron pedestrian bridge on the site.

Laytown station was rebuilt by the Great Northern Railway after 1876, when the station acquired a typical GNR wooden station building on the up platform, a waiting room on the down platform, signal cabin and footbridge.

Today, however, only the main wooden station building remains, along with the unusual station master’s house, which is an original Dublin & Drogheda Railway structure.

Laytown railway station looks bleak and desolate today (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The timber construction of the building gives the station at Laytown its particular architectural interest. The timber detailing of the building imitates those commonly found in stone railway buildings, with the block-and-start surrounds and string course.

The Great Northern Railway renamed the station as Laytown & Bettystown in 1913, but it has since returned to the original name, Laytown.

Laytown station’s footbridge was probably produced by Manisty’s Foundry, which produced footbridges for other stations on the line, including Dundalk and Rush and Lusk. The original cast iron footbridge has been replaced by a modern bridge which lift shafts. At the south end of the station the line crosses the River Nanny.

Laytown suffered a nasty fire recently, the roof was destroyed and the chimney stacks were scorched. It is now boarded up, and looks sadly desolate, particularly on a bleak afternoon like today’s. It is impossible to know what it is like inside, or to assess what has been destroyed and what can be saved. Hopefully, someone in Iarnrod Eireann has vision to retain and restore this part of Irish railway architectural heritage.

Having written yesterday about the “Irish Wine Geese” and their influence on the vineyards of Bordeaux, I am at home this evening, enjoying a bottle of Bordeaux that came as a present for Fathers’ Day.

Marking Fathers’ Day at home (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

There is an intellectual thread that
links Jo Cox and Joseph Priestley

Joseph Priestley’s House on the Green in Calne, where he lived while working for Lord Shelburne (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The a memorial to Joseph Priestley in Birstall, West Yorkshire, has become an improvised memorial to Jo Cox, the Labour MP for the constituency who was murdered just metres away last week.

People have come from far and away to lay flowers at the Priestly memorial as they mourn and remember this amazing politician and pay tribute to her life’s work and her humanitarian vision.

The Revd Joseph Priestly (1733-1804) seems to be an appropriate figure from the past to be linked to this brave woman.

Priestley was a theologian, clergyman, natural philosopher, chemist, educator and Liberal political theorist who is credited with the discovery of oxygen. He also invented soda water, and was an early pioneer in electricity. Science was integral to his theology, and he sought to to fuse Enlightenment rationalism with Christian beliefs.

Priestley strongly believed in the free and open exchange of ideas, he and advocated toleration and equal rights for religious minorities. After a mob burned down his church and his home, he was forced as the victim of political violence to flee to America.

Priestley was born in Birstall in the West Yorkshire in 1733. In his youth, he learned Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, and later in life he also became fluent in French, Italian, Portuguese, German, Aramaic and Arabic – become a thoroughly modern and committed European – before returning to England to study theology.

In 1755, he was called to the Dissenting chapel in Needham Market, Suffolk. But he was not a Calvinist and the experience was an unhappy one for both the people and their pastor.

In 1758, he moved to Nantwich, Cheshire, and then to the Mill Hill Chapel, one of the oldest Dissenting congregations in England, where he became a founding figure in the Unitarians.

In his political writings, he supported the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, which restricted the rights of Dissenters who could not hold political or judicial office, serve in the armed forces, or attend Cambridge or Oxford unless they subscribed to the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England.

His Essay on the First Principles of Government (1768) distinguished political rights from civil rights and argued for expansive civil rights. He argued that the government should only have control over the public sphere. Education and religion, he argued, were matters of private conscience.

In 1772, William Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne, invited Priestley to direct the education of his children, and in 1773, he moved to Bowood House in Calne, Wiltshire. A year later, Shelburne and Priestley toured of Europe, when Priestley was “much improved by this view of mankind at large.”

Doctor’s Pond in the centre of Calne, where Joseph Priestley discovered the properties of oxygen (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Back in Calne, he resumed his work as a librarian and tutor, but also to continued his scientific and theological pursuits, and was also a political adviser to Shelburne. Priestley’s years in Calne were his most scientifically fruitful, and during this time he is credited with the ‘discovery’ of oxygen.

When Priestley’s friend, the Revd Theophilus Lindsey decided to set up a new Christian denomination that would not restrict its members’ beliefs, Priestley supported him, attended Lindsey’s church regularly and occasionally preached there. He continued to support Unitarianism for the rest of his life.

In 1780, Priestley moved to Birmingham and there he was closely associated with the Lunar Society, which often met in Erasmus Darwin’s house in Lichfield. As well as Priestley and Darwin, the other members included Josiah Wedgwood, Matthew Boulton, James Watt, James Keir, Thomas Day and Richard Lovell Edgeworth.

His support for the French Revolution, led to attacks on Priestly by politicians and pamphleteers, and in Parliament he was attacked by former friends, including William Pitt and Edmund Burke, who argued against his calls for repeal. Pitt now argued that Priestley and other Dissenters wanted to overthrow the government, and Burke linked Priestley by name with the French Revolution. Burke also argued against science and maintained that religion should be the basis of civil society.

But opportunistic verbal attacks in politics have their consequences on the streets.

In July 1791, Priestley and several other Dissenters arranged a dinner to celebrate the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille.

Amid mounting fears of violence on the streets, Priestley was convinced by his friends not to attend. Rioters gathered outside the hotel during the banquet and attacked those who attended as they left. They then burned Priestley’s church to the ground, and as he fled with his wife they burned his house, Fairhill, at Sparkbrook, destroying his laboratory and his family belongings.

Priestley spent several days in hiding and the made his way to London. The attacks were probably planned and condoned by local magistrates.

The verbal violence continued. When King George III reluctantly sent troops to Birmingham, he said: “I cannot but feel better pleased that Priestley is the sufferer for the doctrines he and his party have instilled, and that the people see them in their true light.”

Eventually, Priestley found sanctuary in America, where he spent the last 10 years of his life. He died on 6 February 1804, at the age of 70. His epitaph in Riverview Cemetery in Northumberland, Pennsylvania, reads:

Return unto thy rest, O my soul, for the
Lord hath dealt bountifully with thee.
I will lay me down in peace and sleep till
I awake in the morning of the resurrection.


The 250th anniversary of the foundation of the Lunar Society is being marked this year with a programme of lectures and conferences at Ersamus Darwin House in Lichfield.