10 August 2019

Poems and prayers of
lament for exiles and
persecuted people

Patrick Comerford

Tisha B’Av (the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av) begins at sunset this evening [10 August 2019], and continues until tomorrow evening [11 August 2019].

This is the major day of communal mourning in Judaism. Tisha B’Av recalls the destruction of the first and second temples in Jerusalem (586 BCE and 70 CE respectively), but many other tragedies that have befallen Jewish people over the course of history are said to have taken place on this date.

Tradition says that on this day too the Jews were expelled from England in 1290 and from France in 1306, that the Inquisition edicts were signed in Spain on this day in 1492, and the pogroms and World War I that culminated in the Holocaust occurred on this day.

On Tisha B’Av, the Book of Lamentations is read with a special melody, pondering the meaning of grief and loss. As a sign of mourning, it is customary to fast, refrain from bathing, from wearing leather shoes, and from sexual relations.

Leading up to Tisha B’Av, a three-week mourning period, ‘the Three Weeks,’ began on 17 Tammuz (21 July 2019). According to the Mishnah, Moses broke the Tablets after the Sin of the Golden Calf, and the Romans breached the walls of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

Nine days before Tisha B’Av, a new period of more intense mourning begins. Traditional Jews do not eat meat, cut their hair or wash their clothes unless they are to be worn again during the nine days – observances that are seen as signs of joy or luxury and inappropriate for a time of mourning.

The Shabbat immediately preceding Tisha B’Av, Shabbat Hazon (vision), takes its name from the reading) for the day (Isaiah 1). It happens that this is also the reading in the Revised Common Lectionary for tomorrow [11 August 2019]. It describes Isaiah’s vision of national disaster about to befall the people.

Uniquely on Tisha B’Av, Torah study, meant to be joyful, is not permitted. Some parts of the Bible or Talmud are allowed, such as Job or Jeremiah, or sections of the Talmud or Midrash that discuss the destruction of Jerusalem. In synagogues, lights are dimmed and the ornamental parokhet or covering is removed from the ark as a sign of mourning before the evening service. People remove their leather shoes and do not greet each other.

I am preparing resources for priests and readers in the Diocese of Limerick and Killaloe, and from tomorrow, the readings are from Isaiah for two weeks, from Jeremiah for six weeks, and then from Lamentation for two weeks. So, reminding myself of the significance of Tisha B’Av helps my reflections on these readings.

What do these readings and these memories mean for us today?

On this Tisha B’Av, a coalition of progressive Jewish organisations in the US proposes that Jews throughout the US mark Tisha B’Av this year by standing in solidarity with immigrant communities, holding protests and vigils at local Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) offices and detention centres.

‘The idea of this holiday is a moment to mourn catastrophes that have happened to the Jewish community,’ Rabbi Salem Pearce, director of organising at T’ruah, told Marjorie Ingall of the Jewish magazine Tablet. ‘It would be a missed opportunity not to mourn the catastrophe that’s happening before us right now.’

She notes that the same rhetoric once used about Jews is now being used to demonise other communities: ‘Words like ‘vermin,’ ‘lack of moral values,’ threats to the ‘native’ population, ‘outsiders’ …’ She trailed off.

T’ruah has commissioned a new prayer by Rabbi and poet Mónica Gomery, that concludes in a shofar blast. It reads in part:

God of transformation, God of t’shuvah: May this call of the shofar be a bridge between Olam Hazeh [the world we live in] and Olam Haba [the world to come]. May this call reaffirm for us that just as we can be transformed in the season of turning, our world too can be transformed.

God of transformation, God of t’shuvah: May this call blast into our consciousness the possibility of redemption, of an end to the dehumanizing and targeting of immigrants, of a world in which all people find sanctuary, safety, and home.

Another prayer, by Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, pleads for safety for immigrant children and families:

Elohei haruchot l’chol basar
God of the spirits of all flesh
We came here from all over this great country and beyond
To say no.
To say no to those who would tear children from their parents’ arms.
To say no to those who are in no rush to reunite them now.
To say no to a policy that deprives people of all ages
of the basic international human right to seek asylum in our country.
To say no to those making our border famous for brutality and heartbreak.

But more than that
Av Harachamim
Father of all fathers
Mother of all mothers
Source of all compassion—
We are here to say yes.
Yes to children and to families. Yes to the sanctity, to the preciousness, to the dignity of all life, created in Your image. Yes to the truth of Your Oneness, and ours.
Yes to the breathtaking beauty of our world—
And yes to the vital moral fabric of our lives.

To those who would tear that fabric apart,
We are here to say—we will always show up to stitch it back together.
We walk in the footsteps of our ancestor Abraham
Who ‘stitched worlds together’
Who saw connection everywhere
Who was commanded to be a blessing to all the families of the earth.
We know that it is so much easier—and faster—to tear things apart
Than it is to stitch them together.
But we will keep showing up for as long as it takes.
Because we are parents ourselves
Because we are teachers
Because we are witnesses
Because we are weavers
Because we are threads
in the tapestry of Your creation.
We will stitch together what has been torn apart.

Dear God, please give us strength. Give us wisdom. Give us courage.
Gather us all in the embrace of your unending love.
Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad.
Listen, you who struggle,
And bear witness to the One God who holds us all.

This prayer is followed by reading the names of the six immigrant children known to have died in immigration custody in the US in the last year:

Darlyn Cristabel Cordova-Valle, 10
Jakelin Caal Maquín, 7
Felipe Gomez Alonso, 8
Juan de León Gutiérrez, 16
Wilmer Josué Ramírez Vásquez, 2
Carlos Hernandez Vásquez, 16

It concludes with Kaddish, the traditional prayer for the dead.

‘After the fall’: a poem by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat for Tisha B’Av:

The Mishna says
senseless hatred
knocked the Temple down

not the Romans with their siege engines –
or not only them, but
our ancestors too

who slipped into petty backbiting
ignored Shabbat
forgot how to offer their hearts

we’re no better
we who secretly know we’re right

we who roll our eyes
and patronise, who check email
even on the holiest of days

who forget that
a prayer is more than a tune
more than words on a page

in Oslo parents weep
and we’re too busy arguing
motive to comfort them

across the Middle East parents weep
and we’re too busy arguing
borders to comfort them

in our nursing homes parents weep
shuddering and alone
and we’re too busy —

even now what sanctuaries
what human hearts
are damaged and burned

while we snipe at each other
or insist we’re not responsible
or look away?

Two Celtic crosses in
Curragh Chase recall
poets and campaigners

Walking in the woods at Curragh Chase, near Kilcornan and Askeaton, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

The Mothers’ Union branches in the parishes in the Diocese of Limerick had a coffee afternoon yesterday in the de Vere Café in Curragh Chase yesterday [9 August 2019] to mark Mary Sumner Day, celebrating the founder of the Mothers’ Union.

The name of the café celebrates the fact that Curragh Chase, about 10 km east of Askeaton, was the estate of the de Vere or Hunt family for 300 years, from 1657 to 1957.

Today it is a forest park, popular with campers and walkers, particularly at this time of summer. But the Hunt or de Vere family is celebrated in quotations from the poet Aubrey de Vere that line the café walls, and two large Celtic crosses that remember many family members.

Two large Celtic crosses on the Curragh Chase estate commemorate many members of the family.

The woodlands cross commemorating Robert Stephen Vere de Vere and his family (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

In the woodland walks, a large cross commemorates Robert Stephen Vere de Vere (1872-1936), an Irish judge in the British Colonial Service. He was born on 13 July 1871, the son of Major Aubrey Stephen Vere O’Brien of Adare, Limerick, Ireland and changed his surname to de Vere by Royal Licence after inheriting Curragh Chase on the death of his father in 1898.

He was educated at Winchester School and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was graduated BA (1891), and LL.B. (1894). He then entered the Middle Temple to study law and was called to the bar in 1898.

His wife Isabel Moule, was a daughter of Handley Moule (1841-1920), Bishop of Durham and a former Cambridge theologian.

He joined the Colonial Civil Service in Limerick and was a magistrate before going to South Africa during the Boer War.

He was posted to the Gold Coast as a District Commissioner (1903-1905) and then to the Seychelles as a legal adviser and crown prosecutor. During World War I, he was a Military Censor. From 1922 to 1926, he was the British Judge in the Anglo-French Condominium of New Hebrides, before spending two years in Cyprus as President of the District Court.

He became Chief Justice of the Seychelles and acting Governor in 1928, creating a diplomatic incident when the outgoing Chief Justice and acting Governor, Justin Louis Devaux, refused to hand over power until his own departure a month later. In 1931, de Vere was posted to Grenada as Chief Justice, retiring in 1935. He died on 15 September 1936.

The cross to his memory has inscriptions on four sides of the base that commemorate his work, his wife, his career and his devotion to the Curragh Chase estate.

The inscription on raised letters at the front of the base reads:

To the glory of God
to the beloved memory
of Robert Stephen Vere
de Vere, this memorial
was set up by his wife
Isabel Catherine
God is Love

The inscription on the right side of the base reads:

He served God and man
by public work freely
given at home and in his
colonial appointments:
Gold Coast, New Hebrides,
Cyprus, Seychelles, Grenada,
as Chief Justice and friend
of all in need.
1872 + 1936

My work is with my God
his servants shall serve him

The inscription at the back of the base, quoting Isaiah 6: 3, a well-known hymn and Psalm 121 reads:

The whole earth is full of his glory

For the beauty of the earth,
hill & lake & flower & tree,
for the splendour of the skies,
and the wonders of the sea,
Lord of all to thee we raise,
this our grateful song of praise.

I shall lift up mine eyes unto the hills
from whence cometh my help.
My help cometh from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.

The inscription on the left side of the base reads:

These woods and walks
tended by his own hand
are witnesses of his deep
devotion to Curragh Chase

Bless the Lord O my soul
and all that is within me
bless his holy Name
Bless the Lord O my soul
and forget not all his benefits

The second cross is on the top of rocky outcrop (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The second cross is on the top of a rocky outcrop looks across the lake at Curragh Chase and over to the house.

The inscription at the front of the base reads:

To the memory of
Sir Aubrey de Vere
b. 28 Augt 1788 d. 5 June 1848
and of
Mary his beloved wife,
sister of Lord Monteagle of Brandon,
b. 26 Nov. 1788 d. 11 Feb 1856
and of their children

The inscription on the right side of the base reads:

Brevt Major Horatio Francis
Captn. Royal Engineers
b. 12 Oct 1828 d 22 Augt 1865

William Cecil
Captain Royal Navy
b. 20 Apl. 1823 d. 2 Feb. 1869

The inscription at the back of the base reads:

Sir Vere E.P. de Vere
b. 12 Oct. 1808 d. 23 Sep. 1880
Mary Lucy his beloved wife
b. 14 June 1818 d. 16 Jan

Aubrey de Vere b. 1814 d. 1902
and Sir Stephen de Vere Bt.
b. 26 Jy. 1812 d. 10 Nov. 1904

The inscription on the left side reads:

Mary Theodosia
b. 20 Nov 1817 d. 21 Augt 1830

Catherine Louisa
b. 20 Feb 1820 d. 24 Feb 1834

Eleanor born 13 March 1811
married Hon Robert O’Brien 1835
died 6 March 1889

The poet Sir Aubrey (Hunt) de Vere, 2nd Baronet (1788-1848) was the son of Sir Vere Hunt, 1st Baronet and the Hon Eleanor Pery, daughter of William Pery, 1st Baron Glentworth. He was educated at Harrow, where he was a childhood friend of Lord Byron, and Trinity College Dublin. He married Mary Spring Rice, a daughter of Stephen Edward Rice and Catherine Spring, and sister of Thomas Spring Rice, Lord Monteagle, in 1807, and succeeded to his father’s title and estates in 1818.

Sir Aubrey suffered financial troubles because of his ownership of Lundy Island, which his father had bought unwisely in 1802. He was High Sheriff of Co Limerick in 1811. He changed his surname from Hunt to de Vere in 1832.

Wordsworth said Aubrey de Vere’s sonnets were the most perfect of the age.

His third son Aubrey Thomas de Vere (1814-1902), who was born at Curragh Chase House, was also a poet and critic who was strongly influenced by Wordsworth and Coleridge.

At Oxford, he came under the influence of John Henry Newman, and he was received into the Roman Catholic Church by Cardinal Manning in Avignon in 1851, Later, he was a professor at the Catholic University in Dublin. He is buried in the churchyard at Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton.

His sister Eleanor married the Hon Robert O’Brien, a brother of the patriot William Smith O’Brien.

Their brother, Sir Stephen Edward de Vere, 4th Baronet (1812-1904) was the second son of Sir Aubrey de Vere, 2nd Baronet. In 1847, he travelled in one of the ‘coffin ships’ that transported famine emigrants to North America.

His reports led to the 1847 Passenger Act that made coffin ships illegal. He became a Roman Catholic in 1847, and was a Liberal Party MP for Co (1854-1859), and High Sheriff of Co Limerick in 1870. He became the fourth baronet in 1880 when his oldest brother, Vere Edmond, died.

Sir Stephen de Vere also built a smaller house in the 1850s on Foynes Island in the 1850s. There he wrote poems, political pamphlets and translated several editions of the works of Horace, and a built a Gothic revival Roman Catholic church in Foynes, where he was buried in 1904.

The ruins of the house at Curragh Chase and the lake seen from the cross on the rocky outcrop (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)