28 October 2016

A morning with John Julius Norwich in Wexford
and an afternoon with Vaughan Williams

With John Julius Norwich at the Wexford Festival Opera

Patrick Comerford

For my leisure reading in recent weeks, one of the books I have enjoyed is In The Great Cities in Europe by John Julius Norwich, which I bought in Cambridge last month. This book paints a portrait of world civilisation by telling the stories of the world’s greatest cities from ancient times to the present.

John Julius Norwich (John Julius Cooper, 2nd Viscount Norwich) is one of the most distinguished and charismatic writers and broadcasters of our time and he is best-known for his works on the Byzantine empire, mediaeval Sicily and Venice. He has produced 30 historical documentaries for BBC television, and his portraits of cities in this book are vignettes about Constantinople, Palermo and Venice.

I was back in Wexford today [28 October 2016] to hear John Julius Norwich deliver the 2016 Dr Tom Walsh Lecture as part of the Wexford Festival Opera.

It was a self-deprecating hour on stage, as he tried to deny he is an original historian, saying instead he only tries to make what is already known to the general reader.

He became fascinated with Byzantium as an 18-year-old undergraduate at Oxford, and his first major work was a two-volume history of Sicily. After a career in the diplomatic service, he became a writer, particularly on history, art and travel subjects. His many books include acclaimed works on Venice, Byzantium, Mount Athos, Glyndebourne, the Normans, the Popes, Shakespeare and architecture, and his Christmas Crackers collections of trivia and witticisms.

He has edited the diaries of his father, Duff Cooper, 1st Viscount Norwich, and letters from his famously glamorous mother, Lady Diana Cooper (Darling Monster: The Letters of Lady Diana Cooper to Her Son John Julius Norwich).

A distinguished and popular broadcaster on television and radio he has written and presented some 30 television documentaries on art, architecture and history, and he is fondly remembered for his wit and erudition by listeners to the BBC radio programmes My Word! and Round Britain Quiz.

He has chaired or served on the committees of numerous charitable projects, including projects concerned with Venice, world monuments, fine arts, the disabled, the National Trust and English National Opera. He is a regular speaker at lunches and dinners and in 2006 and 2007 he gave one-man shows in two London theatres.

This morning, in an interview-style presentation on the stage at the Clayton White Hotel, he spoke fondly of Wexford, saying he has been here at least 50 times, coming to the opera festival for the first time in 1961. There were humorous recollections of staying with the Beits at Russborough House in Co Wicklow, late night festival parties in the Talbot Hotel.

John Julius Norwich on the stage in Wexford this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

At lunch in the Yard Restaurant in Lower George’s Street, it was good to meet some old friends, including Brendan Howlin and George Lawlor.

Later in the afternoon, two of us also attended Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Riders to the Sea, which is an interesting choice for the festival programme.

Although Vaughan Williams is not often remembered for his contributions to opera, the composer had a life-long interest in bringing music and theatre together. His magnum opus was The Pilgrim’s Progress, a project that occupied him for about 40 years. But many devotees of the composer feel strongly that Riders to the Sea is one of his greatest masterpieces.

It has often struggled to find a home in most opera house planning because of its brevity, but Wexford Festival Opera’s ShortWorks provided an ideal place to listen to this opera, not least because of its Irish roots.

The early 20th century play Riders to the Sea by John Millington Synge is one of Ireland’s few female-focused dramas. Vaughan Williams first composed his one-act opera in 1927, based almost verbatim on Synge’s text. But it was not heard until a decade later, receiving its first performance at the Royal College of Music in London on 1 December 1937.

Music with an eerie, elegiac beauty illuminates the theme of elemental and watery death as experienced by the Aran Islanders, off the Galway and Clare coats. The central role is that of Maurya, who by the end loses her husband and six sons to the sea, experiencing a kind of cathartic release when her last son’s death leaves her with nothing more to fear.

In her director’s notes in the programme, Catriona McLaughlin writes: ‘There is a powerlessness in the face of the sea’s omnivorous ferocity that is curiously embodied in the puny few drops of holy water administered over Bartley’s lifeless body, and yet there is grace and resilience in the faith that this action underwrites. I am repeatedly struck by the ravaged humanity in that gesture; the tiny drops that represent the might of Christ which will bring His hand to their rescue, set against the uncompromising force of nature, the wild sea in all its unknowable danger.’

Realising that the sea can hurt her no longer, Maurya (Lara Harvey) concludes, ‘No man at all can be living for ever, and we must be satisfied.’

All this was evoked by Vaughan Williams in music that captures the flinty harshness of the islands and fierce marine brutality. But the theme of humanity against nature – taken to extremes in his Sinfonia Antarctica – succeeded in bringing out the best in the composer.

The set for ‘Riders to the Sea’ in Wexford this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Saint Andrew’s Church, a former inner
city parish church, is on the market

Saint Andrew’s Church, Suffolk Street … the church had a history dating back to 1217, but closed as a church in 1993 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

As I was walking through inner city Dublin earlier this week, I noticed that Saint Andrew’s Church, the former Church of Ireland parish church at the point where Saint Andrew Street and Suffolk Street meet, has been placed on the rental market, inviting new tenants.

Saint Andrew’s was an old parish in inner city Dublin, formed almost 800 years ago in 1218 from the corps of the Precentors of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. The original Saint Andrew’s Church stood on present-day Dame Street.

Until the Reformation, the Precentors of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral were the Rectors of Saint Andrew’s Church. At the Reformation, Saint Andrew’s was united to Saint Werburgh’s, together with Saint Mary le Dam.

It is said the church was destroyed in the mid-17th century during the Cromwellian era. However, under an Act of Parliament passed after the Caroline Restoration, Saint Andrew’s became a separate parish once again in 1665, and a new church was built by William Dodson in 1680.

This church was built a little further from the city walls, on an old bowling-green close to the Thingmote, the old assembly-place in the Norse city. It had an eliptical or oval shape with a cone-shaped roof and crenallations. Because of this shape, it was commonly known as the Round Church.

The patronage of the parish was vested in the Archbishop of Dublin, the Lord Chancellor, and other senior government officials. The church was the special chapel of the Irish Parliament, which met nearby in College Green, and had close links with the Dublin Stock Exchange.

Jonathan Swift’s friend, Esther Vanhomrigh (‘Vanessa’), was buried in here in June 1723. Alderman Thomas Pleasants, father of Thomas Pleasants, the developer and philanthropist, was buried in the churchyard in 1729. Thomas Dalton, Lord Chancellor of Ireland, was buried here in 1730, and Marmaduke Coghill, MP for Dublin University, judge of the Prerogative Court and Chancellor of the Exchequer, was buried in the family vault in Saint Andrew’s in 1738.

The church was rebuilt in 1793-1800 with a new round church designed by Francis Johnson. This was Johnson's first major commission in Dublin. Inside, the church was fitted out in what was described as an ‘Egyptian style,’ its windows were covered with oil-silk transparencies instead of being fitted with stained glass, and the gallery had beautiful Egyptian-inspired ornamentation that was much admired in Victorian Dublin.

This church was destroyed by fire on 8 January 1860.

The cloister-like walkway on the north side of Saint Andrew’s Church, Suffolk Street … the 1860s church was designed by William Henry Lynn (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The Belfast-based architectural practice of Lanyon & Lynn won first and second prizes in the competition for designs for a new church. The new church was designed was designed in the Gothic style by William Henry Lynn (1829-1915), and could seat 1,000 people. The builder was John Butler & Son, and the total coast was £12,735.

The foundation stone was laid on 11 August 1862 by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, the Marquess of Abercorn, and the church was consecrated by Archbishop Richard Chenevix Trench of Dublin on Saint Andrew’s Day, 30 November 1866.

Throughout this building or rebuilding project, the Vicar of Saint Andrew’s from 1862 to 1872 was the Ven Cadwallader Wolseley (1806-1872), who was also a canon of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral (1852-1862) and Archdeacon of Glendalough (1862-1872). He was a descendant of the Wolseley family of Mount Wolseley, Co Carlow, and Wolseley near Rugeley in Staffordshire.

The Belfast-based architect William Henry Lynn (1829-1915) was born on 27 December 1829, at St John’s Point, Co Down. His father, Henry Lynn, whose family came from Fethard, Co Wexford, was an officer in the coast guard service, while his mother, Margaretta Ferres, was a doctor’s daughter from Larne, Co Antrim.

Lynn went to school at Dr Newland’s private grammar school in Bannow, Co Wexford. He trained as an architect in the Belfast office of Sir Charles Lanyon (1813-1899). By the time he was 18 he was Lanyon’s clerk of works for the building of Queen’s College, Belfast, and he became Lanyon’s partner in 1854 in the partnership known as Lanyon & Lynn, later Lanyon Lynn and Lanyon.

After a contentious breakup of the partnership, Lynn practised on his own from 1872 until he died on 12 September 1915 at home, Ardavon, 250 Antrim Road, Belfast. He had also kept a house at Innyard, near Fethard, Co Wexford.

Lynn’s original vision was ambitious for a cramped site and included rebuilding the surrounding neighbourhood in the same Gothic style. But this vision never saw the light of the day, and the full beauty of his design, including tower and spire, is difficult to discern through the narrow surrounding streets. There is a cloister-like walkway beside Saint Andrew Street, but many of Lynn’s planned features were never completed because of cost-cutting measures. For example, the central buttress of the cloister has a large lump of unfinished stone, and the empty niche above has protrusions that were clearly meant to be carved.

Perhaps Lynn’s single failure was trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, or a cruciform church into a site marked by its curved street boundary. Inside, the church had short and tall four-bay nave, transept and chancel. His other buildings in Dublin included the Unitarian Church on Saint Stephen’s Green and banks on Grafton Street Street and College Green.

On 1 October 1957, a Chapel of Divine Healing was dedicated in Saint Andrew’s Church, as a centre for the work of the Ministry of Healing in Ireland.

In January 1977, the union of Saint Andrew’s with Saint Werburgh’s, Saint Mary’s, Saint Michan’s and Saint Paul’s took effect, and the new union was grouped with Christ Church Cathedral.

Saint Andrew’s Church was closed after Divine Service on Saint Andrew’s Day, 30 November 1993, and the church was sold.

The head of Saint Andrew over the west door was one of the interesting features of the church, but has been removed since the church closed. Inside, the former church still retains the height and airiness of the original nave. Outside, there is a fine vaulted arcade with ornate stonework and pinnacles. A memorial to soldiers of the Fourth Dublin Imperial Yeomanry killed during the Boer War still stands in the former churchyard in the form of a polished pink granite column topped by a crown.

The church was remodelled by Ashlin & Coleman, the architectural heirs to Pugin and Coleman, in 1996, and until recently the building housed the Dublin Tourism office. However, Fáilte Ireland moved about two years ago to a remodelled building next door on Suffolk Street and the church is on the market for letting through the estate agents Cushman & Wakefield. They told The Irish Times last month that they expect it to a wide range of businesses because of its key location, heavy footfall and spacious facilities.

The former church is being offered on a long lease at an expected rent of over €600,000 a year. The property includes almost 20,000 sq ft of space, spread over three levels, and a former parish hall dating from 1884 at the rear of the church.