11 October 2016
In preparing Bible studies for tutorial groups these past few weeks, I have found myself re-reading John Betjeman poems that illustrate the Gospel readings in the Revised Common Lectionary.
Last week, as we looked at the parable of the widow who demands justice from a cold and impassionate judge (Luke 18: 1-8), which is the Gospel reading for next Sunday (16 October 2016), I turned to Betjeman’s poem, Variation on a Theme by Newbolt, which tells the story of the widow of a banker or lawyer whose plight is ignored by her husband’s former boardroom colleagues. It seemed to be a natural choice, having walked through the City of London a few days earlier.
Tomorrow morning in the tutorial group, we are looking at the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18: 9-14), which is the Gospel reading for Sunday week (23 October). To supplement or illustrate our exploration of that reading, I have chosen Betjeman’s poem, In Westminster Abbey, a dramatic monologue that retells the story of the Pharisee’s prayer; the poem is set in the early days of World War II, and tells the story of a woman who drops into Westminster Abbey to pray for a moment before hurrying off to ‘a luncheon date.’
As I was re-reading Betjeman’s poems in a number of collections, I turned again to his poem, Beaumaris December 21, 1963, which rekindled warm memories of my visit to Beaumaris in Anglesey earlier this year [30 April to 2 May 2016].
This poem was first published as Halfpenny throwing ceremony, Beaumaris, Anglesey in the London Magazine 11 (December 1971-January 1972, pp 107-108), but was given a new title when it was included in later anthologies and collections.
A note at the end of the poem explains the circumstance Betjeman is describing: ‘It was a Christmas-tide custom at Beaumaris, Anglesey, for the Queen of the Hunt Ball to throw heated halfpence from a shovel to the crowd below.’
Despite Betjeman’s date on the poem, the tradition was held in Beaumaris on Boxing Day (26 December), when the Queen of the Hunt Ball threw hot pennies from the balcony of the Bulkeley Hotel. The Bulkeley’s chef came out on the balcony with his hat and whites on, carrying a tray of pennies he had warmed in the oven and the mayor and mayoress or the Queen of the Hunt Ball threw the coins over the balcony.
Betjeman’s poem also refers to Joseph Hansom’s impressive classical Victoria Terrace. Hansom also designed the Williams Bulkeley Arms Hotel, consciously presenting a monumental façade towards the Menai Straits.
The hunt ball is a setting possible half a century ago, but probably found in few places on these islands today. Critics who argue that Betjeman’s poetry is innocent or facile would do well to look more closely at this poem where young men chase even a hot, tossed ha’penny, suggesting deeper desires.
This is a poem about lost innocence, and Betjeman’s compassion and stark realism, as in so many of his poems, catch us unexpectedly at the end of the poem. It is eight years since the hunt ball in Beaumaris, and Laurelie Williams,a teenager when she was the Queen of the Hunt Ball in 1963, has become just another housewife and stay-at-home-mother of the 1970s, queueing for buses, tied to the kitchen sink and with her children tied to her apron strings.
How do we continue to retain the glamour and fun we once had earlier in life? How do we continue to find joy in winter, as the seasons turn? Where do find our identity as circumstances change in ways we never expected?
Beaumaris December 21, 1963, by John Betjeman
Low-shot light of a sharp December
Shifting, lifted a morning haze:
Opening fans of smooth sea-water
Touched in silence the tiny bays:
In bright Beaumaris the people waited–
This was Laurelie’s day of days.
At the northern end of the street a vista
Of sunlit woodland; and south, a tower;
Across the water from Hansom’s terrace,
The glass’d reflection of Penmaenmawr:
High on her balcony Laurelie Williams
Waved the shovel and shot the shower.
Down on us all fell heated ha’pence,
Up to her all of us looked for more:
Laurelie Williams, Laurelie Williams–
Lovlier now than ever before
With your straight black hair and your fresh complexion:
Diamond-bright was the brooch you wore.
Life be kind to you, Laurelie Williams,
With girlhood over and marriage begun:
Queuing for buses and rearing children,
Washing the dishes and missing the fun,
May you still recall how you flung the coppers
On bright Beaumaris in winter sun.
As I strolled along the north bank of the River Liffey before the weir in Lucan village on Sunday afternoon, the spire of Saint Andrew’s Church, peeping up above the willows by the river bank, was reflected in the waters of the river like a scene from a Constable painting.
It was so captivating, that I crossed the bridge and walked along the Main Street to see this church, built almost 200 years ago.
Saint Andrew’s Church was built in 1823 and stands on the Main Street in Lucan Village. The design of the church was influenced by the architect James Gandon who donated the land on which the church was built.
Saint Andrew’s is a prominently-sited church and is a landmark in Lucan village. It is built in a simple Gothic Revival style, and substantially retains its original appearance, including an elegant entrance screen, stained glass and many interior fittings.
According to Professor Edward McParland of TCD, in James Gandon: Vitruvius Hibernicus (1985), Saint Andrew’s may have been based on a design by James Gandon who donated the site to the parish.
James Gandon (1743–1823) is one of the leading architects who worked in Ireland in the late 18th century and early 19th century. His better known works include the Custom House, the Four Courts and King's Inns in Dublin and Emo Court in Co Laois.
Gandon was born on 20 February 1742 in New Bond Street, London, at the house of his grandfather, Peter Gandon, a French Huguenot refugee. His father Peter Gandon was a gun-maker.
James Gandon was educated at Shipley’s Drawing Academy, where he studied classics, mathematics, arts and architecture. He was then articled in the office of Sir William Chambers, an advocate of the neoclassical evolution of Palladian architecture, but who later designed buildings in the Gothic Revival style.
In 1765, Gandon left Chambers to start his own practice. His connection with Ireland began as early as 1768, when he made designs for a deanery at Killaloe, Co. Clare, for his first Irish patron, Joseph Deane Bourke (1740-1794), later 3rd Earl of Mayo. At the time Bourke was the new Dean of Killaloe (1768-1772); he later became Bishop of Ferns and Leighlin (1772-1782) and Archbishop of Tuam (1782-1794).
In 1769, Gandon entered an architectural competition to design the new Royal Exchange in Dublin. His design came second and brought him to the attention of the politicians who were overseeing the large-scale redevelopment of Dublin, then one of the largest cities in Europe.
In 1780, Gandon declined an invitation from a member of the Romanov family to work in St Petersburg and in 1781, at the age of 38, he accepted an invitation to Ireland from John Dawson, 1st Viscount Carlow (later Earl of Portarlington) and John Beresford, the Revenue Commissioner for Ireland, to supervise the construction of the new Custom House in Dublin.
The new Custom House was unpopular with Dublin Corporation and some city merchants who complained that it moved the axis of the city, would leave little room for shipping, and it was being built on what at the time was a swamp. It is said that people were so opposed to the Custom House that Beresford had to smuggle Gandon into Ireland and keep him hidden in his own home for the first three months. The project was completed at a cost of £200,000, an enormous sum at the time.
But the commission was the turning point in Gandon’s career and Dublin. He moved to a house in Mecklenburgh Street (now Railway Street), and over the rest of his career, Dublin grew to become the fifth largest city in Europe, with fine new Palladian and neoclassical buildings designed by Edward Lovett Pearce and Richard Cassels.
The Wide Streets Commission asked Gandon to design a new aristocratic enclave in the vicinity of Mountjoy Square and Gardiner Street, with classical terraces, town houses and large residences. He also designed Carlisle Bridge, now O’Connell Bridge, over the River Liffey to join the north and south sides of the city.
Gandon’s other works in Dublin included the Four Courts (1786), the centre portion of King’s Inns, Henrietta Street (1795-1816), the Rotunda Assembly Rooms (1786), and the Royal Military Infirmary (1787). He designed shops on D’Olier Street and Burgh Quay and in 1785 he extended Pearce’s Houses of Parliament, building the curved screen wall that links his new Corinthian portico for the House of Lords facing College Street to Pearce’s original building.
Outside Dublin, he designed a new courthouse and gaol in Waterford (1784); Abbeville, near Malahide (1792), which he designed for John Beresford and later was the home of Charles Haughey; Sandymount Park for the painter William Ashford; Emo Court, Co Laois (1790-1796) for the Earl of Portarlington.
The churches attributed to Gandon include the Church of Saint John the Evangelist (Church of Ireland), Coolbanagher, near Emo village, the tower and steeple of Saint Peter’s Church, Maryborough (Portlaoise), and Saint Andrew’s Church in Lucan.
On the outbreak of the 1798 Rising, an unpopular Gandon fled hurriedly to London. On his return to Dublin he found the Irish Houses of Parliament, which he had inspired, had closed and with the 1801 Act of Union the titled aristocracy, one by one, were abandoning the fine new town houses he had built near Mountjoy Square.
Gandon withdrew from active practice in 1808 and retired to Canonbrook, near Lucan, Co Dublin, where he and his son, also James Gandon, engaged in large-scale tree planting schemes.
Saint Andrew’s Church reflected in the waters of the River Liffey in Lucan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)
Saint Andrew’s Church in Lucan may have been Gandon’s last work. In 1821, Lucan was separated from Leixlip to form a new parish. The site for a new church was donated by Gandon, and the curate of Leixlip, the Revd Caesar Otway (1780-1842) was appointed the new vicar in 1822. The new church was consecrated on 7 December 1823. Gandon had donated the site and the church, if not designed by him, was based on his design.
Within a few weeks of the opening of the new church, Gandon died on 24 December 1823 at his home in in Canonbrook, Lucan. He was buried in the churchyard of Drumcondra Parish Church, in the same grave as his friend Francis Grose the antiquary.
His tombstone reads: ‘Such was the respect in which Gandon was held by his neighbours and friends from around his home in Lucan that they refused carriages and walked the 16 miles to and from Drumcondra on the day of his funeral.’
The church substantially retains its original appearance. Changes have been made to the building over the years. But in 1996, following the completion of the parish centre, work commenced on restoring the church to its former intimate design.
Saint Andrew’s is a Gothic Revival church dating from 1823. There is a three-bay nave with a projecting square entrance to the north having an octagonal ashlar spire. There is a shallow polygonal projection to the east, and a gabled projection to the west.
The roughcast rendered walls have ashlar limestone dressings, including string course, chamfered reveals to the openings, and crenellations and pyramidal finials to the roof and the tower.
The diamond-paned timber Y-tracery windows throughout the church have drip mouldings. The door is timber panelled and the roof is of pitched slate. Inside, there are box pews, panelling and an organ.
The tower contains the original clock manufactured in 1875 by Dent and Co of London, who also made Big Ben at the Houses of Parliament in Westminster.
At the entrance to the church grounds from the Main Street, there are ashlar limestone gate piers and pedestrian gateways, with cast-iron gates.
Later works on Saint Andrew’s Church included repairs and improvements by the architects of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, Welland and Gillespie. The font was designed by Sir Thomas Drew.
The modern parish centre to the west, of roughly dressed rubble with metal cladding to upper floor. This attractive building adds to the setting of the church.
Leixlip and Lucan were reunited in 1918, and today Saint Andrew’s Church is one of two churches in the Leixlip and Lucan Union of Parishes, with the Revd Scott Peoples as Rector since 1999.