30 October 2016

Walking on the beaches in Portrane and
Donabate as the evening closes in

Evening lights on the Burrow Beach in Portrane (Photograph; Patrick Comerford, 2016; click on image for full-screen view)

Patrick Comerford

These last few days have been beautiful, with clear blue skies and warm sunshine. The clocks went back last night, so the mornings are brighter but it was noticeable this evening how the darkness is going to close in so early from now on.

Tomorrow’s unusual bank holiday has added to the opportunities provided this weekend, and so there have been visits to Wexford on Friday [28 October 2016] to enjoy some of the programmes of the Wexford Festival Opera, and to Co Meath yesterday [29 October 2016], which included a walk along the banks of the River Boyne at Trim and through the vast ruins of Trim Castle.

I was in my stall in Christ Church Cathedral this morning for the Sung Eucharist, and later six of us went for lunch in Mykonos, the Greek taverna on Dame Street.

But the afternoon was still warm and bright, and rather than staying on in the city centre, two of us went out to Portrane and Donabate to walk on the beaches and to catch the sunset.

I had ideas too of photographing Stella’s Tower in Portrane. Next year marks the 350th anniversary of the birth of Jonathan Swift, and as I began to plan an essay on the best-known Dean of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, I thought the story of Stella’s Tower or Portrane Castle and its associations with Swift would be worth taking another look at.

After a walk on the beach at Portrane, and a visit to cousins at the Quay, the early dusk caught me unawares, and I never found my way into the field where the ruins of the castle stand.

Instead, we went on to Donabate, where the tide was out and two of us enjoyed a long walk on the sandy beach, catching glimpses of the setting sun behind the sand dunes.

I was back in south Dublin in time to hear the History Show presented by Myles Dungan on RTÉ Radio 1, and my interviews with Louise Dervin about how the bodies of JJ Murphy and the ‘Pickled’ Earl of Mayo were brought back from Italy and India in unusual circumstances for burial in Ireland.

Sunset behind the sand dunes on the beach in Donabate this evening (Photograph; Patrick Comerford, 2016; click on image for full-screen view)

An architect and an artist brings his
work to the Wexford Festival Opera

‘Divine Teardrop’ by Peter Cassidy … part of his exhibition coinciding with the Wexford Festival Opera (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

One of the joys of the Wexford Festival Opera is the way it attracts so many other cultural events to the town and to Co Wexford, including readings, plays, exhibitions, recitals, lectures, poetry, drama, walking tours and music.

There are exhibitions in the most surprising locations, and artists and designers set up their stalls and display their work in sometimes the most unlikely places.

Peter Cassidy hardly needed the festival to attract him to exhibit his works in Wexford this year. Although his architectural practice is based in Dun Laoghaire, he has been living in Co Wexford for the best part of two decades.

Between the lecture by John Julius Norwich on Friday morning, and the staging of Vaughan Williams’s short opera, Riders to the Sea, on Friday afternoon, I visited some of the exhibitions that had been attracted to Wexford by the festival, and particularly enjoyed Peter Cassidy’s exhibition of his paintings in a corner of the foyer in the Clayton White Hotel.

Peter studied in Bolton Street College and qualified as an architect in the mid-1980s, and Peter Cassidy Architects was established in 1993 as a small niche practice in Dun Laoghaire, specialising in providing a high quality of professional architectural service delivered in a personal and focused way.

His projects completed to date include new residential and commercial developments, new medical centres and care homes, restoration work at residential and institutional buildings for public and religious organisations, alterations to clerical, health and other buildings and private houses.

Having lived most of his life in Dublin, he now lives in Co Wexford with his family at Rathmoon, which is both his home and his studio. His design of Rathmoon was inspired by Irish ring forts and crannogs, and was completed in 2002, although he says the garden has taken longer to complete.

Over the last 30 years, most of his time has been spent working as an architect. But painting has always been a big part of his life.

He studied Fine Art in Dun Laoghaire College of Art and Design, and has a number of commissions over the years, including large scale works for Saint Michael’s Church in Dun Laoghaire. He has work hanging in both public and private buildings.

It was on the strength of his crucifixion painting, completed in Saint Michael’s in 1991, that he was awarded a scholarship for a year in the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence, Italy.

His exhibition in the Clayton White Hotel is his third exhibition and continues until Tuesday [2 November 2016].

At Peter Cassidy’s exhibition in the Clayton White Hotel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Talking about the ‘Pickled Earl’ and bringing
the bodies home on ‘The History Show’

Palmerstown House, near Johnstown, the family home of the Earls of Mayo outside Naas, Co Kildare (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

I have contributed two essays to a new book on death and the Irish, which has been edited by my friend and colleague, Salvador Ryan, Professor of Church History in Maynooth. Death and the Irish: a miscellany is published by Wordwell, and is being launched next week [10 November 2016] in the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin. I was interviewed by Louise Dervin in Christ Church Cathedral and Saint Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, yesterday about these chapters for The History Show, presented by Myles Dungan and which goes out on RTÉ Radio 1 at 6.05 p.m. this evening [30 October 2016].

In one chapter, ‘Bringing the bodies home,’ I tell the story of the difficulties faced by the families of Jeremiah James Murphy and the 6th Earl of Mayo when it came to bringing their bodies home after their tragic deaths abroad in the 1850s and the 1870s.

Air travel has reduced the stress when grieving Irish families have to arrange to bring home the bodies of loved ones, but it was not so easy in Victorian days. Families either had to accept someone was going to be buried overseas and or had to find innovative, sometimes even irreverent, ways to bring home the bodies for burial.

Jeremiah James Murphy (1795-1851), of Lota Park, outside Cork, was in his 50s when he went on the grand tour of Italy. He died in Pisa on 29 November 1851, but getting his body home to Ireland proved difficult for his family. The sailors at Naples feared taking the coffin on board would bring them bad luck at sea. The Murphy family, however, out-witted the sailors by putting his body in an upright piano which they then shipped back to Ireland. He was buried almost two months later on 18 January 1852 in Carrigrohane, Co Cork ... still in the upright piano.

Richard Southwell Bourke (1822-1872), of Palmerstown House, Co Kildare, was the 6th Earl of Mayo. He was murdered in India in 1872 and is buried in Johnstown Churchyard, near Naas, Co Kildare. He is known as the ‘Pickled Earl’ since his body was preserved in a vat of rum on the long journey back to Ireland following his assassination.

When he became the Viceroy and Governor-General of India in 1869, .he gave instructions that should anything happen to him his body was to be brought back for burial in Johnstown. He was visiting a convict settlement in the Andaman Islands when he was attacked by an Afghan convict, Sher Ali Afridi, who murdered him on 8 February 1872. His partially-embalmed body was shipped home to Ireland, but in order to delay decomposition, his body was placed in a rum-filled cask ... and so he became known as the ‘Pickled Earl.’

To add spice to the story, when the cask was opened the body was there but there was no rum. Had it leaked out? Had it evaporated? Had it been drained off by the crew?

The memorial window in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, commemorating Richard Burke, 6th Earl of Mayo, and his murder in India (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

In my second contribution to the book, I tell the story of ‘Abide with Me,’ one of the most popular funeral hymns in the English-speaking world. It is said to have been a favourite of a wide range of people, from George V to Gandhi, it was played by the band on the deck as the Titanic was sinking, and Nurse Edith Cavell repeated its words as she faced her firing squad. Since 1927, this hymn has been sung at every FA Cup Final in Wembley.

This perennially popular funeral hymn was written as he was dying by a priest of the Church of Ireland, the Revd Henry Francis Lyte (1793-1847). Although born in Scotland, Lyte was brought to Ireland, and was educated in Portora and Trinity College Dublin.

After his ordination, Lyte’s first appointment was as curate of Saint Munn’s Church, Taghmon, Co Wexford. He described his 18 months in Taghmon as a ‘dreary curacy.’ Taghmon was too remote from town life, and he bemoaned the loss of ‘the comfort, the society and the carelessness’ of constant intrusions, the long dinner parties, and the time he had to give to neighbours and parishioners.

But the spiritual outlook and religious values of the unhappy curate were changed as he watched the death of a neighbouring rector, the Revd Abraham Swanne, and took over his duties in the parish of Killurin, on the banks of the Slaney, between Wexford and Enniscorthy.

Lyte’s health never recovered fully after his experiences in Taghmon and Killurin. In September 1847, he preached his farewell sermon, on the subject of the Eucharist, returned to his vicarage and that evening wrote ‘Abide with Me.’ The hymn is marked in part by Lyte’s experience of comforting the dying Abraham Swanne, who kept repeating the words ‘Lord, abide with me.’

Lyte died in Nice on 20 November 1847 and was buried in the English Cemetery there. He is commemorated by plaques in Saint Munn’s Church in Taghmon, Co Wexford, but ‘Abide with Me’ is his greatest memorial.

The History Show seeks to bring the past to life and to explain ourselves to ourselves, searching out fresh angles on familiar topics, with informative, reflective, stimulating and entertaining radio. It is broadcast on Sundays from 6.05 p.m. on RTÉ Radio 1.

Henry Francis Lyte’s first appointment was as curate of Saint Munn’s Church, Taghmon, Co Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)