15 January 2020

The friar from Clonmel who
was the first Irish tourist
in Crete 700 years ago

Symon Semeonis, the first recorded Irish visitor to Crete, describes Iraklion as a prosperous city that ‘abounds in most excellent wine, in cheese and in fruit’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The Greek President, Prokopios Pavlopoulos, begins a State Visit to Ireland today [16 January], visiting President Michael D Higgins in Áras an Uachtaráin today, attending a state dinner this evening, and receiving an honorary doctorate in Trinity College Dublin tomorrow.

When President Higgins visited Athens in 2018, he was presented with a copy of The Lure of Greece (Dublin: Hinds, 2007), a collection of essays on the Irish involvement in Greek culture, literature, history and politics. I contributed the opening chapter to this book, which is edited by Professor John Victor Luce of Trinity College Dublin, Dr Christine Morris of TCD and Dr Christina Souyoudzoglou-Haywood of UCD.

The book counters the idea some people seem to have at times that Irish people were first introduced to Crete only half a century ago, through package holidays sold by Budget Travel from the early 1970s.

But in recent weeks, I have come across the story of Symon Semeonis, a Franciscan friar with a Greek-sounding name but who seems to have been from Clonmel, Co Tipperary. He travelled through Corfu and Crete almost 700 years ago, and he has provided the earliest-known account to reach Ireland or England of the Greek islands. I came across Symon Semeonis a few days ago when my attention was drawn to a review of The Lure of Greece back in 2008 in Hermanthea, published in Trinity College Dublin back in 2008.

The reviewer, Professor George Leonard Huxley, is very kind about my chapter in this book, concurring with my evaluation of Sir Richard Church, praising my discussion of Church’s dealings with Kapodistrias during the Greek War of Independence, and drawing the attention of readers attention to my descriptions of other Irish Philhellenes.

But in his review, Professor Huxley also wonders why no contributor to The Lure of Greece refers to the travels of Symon Semeonis, and I find myself wondering about this friar’s travels through Greece in 1323-1324.

Symon Semeonis, whose name might be rendered in Ireland today as Simon FitzSimon or Simon FitzSimmons, was the author of Itinerarium Symonis Semeonis ab Hybernia ad Terram Sanctam (‘The Journey of Symon Semeonis of Ireland to the Holy Land’).

Although there are 570 written narratives of pilgrimages between the years 300 and 1500, Symon’s narrative is the only one of Irish origin.

Symon and his companion friar, Hugo Illuminator, or Hugh the Illuminator, left Clonmel, Co Tipperary, in 1323 to begin a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In his manuscript account, he described his experiences and encounters during a journey that brought him through Ireland, Wales and England, from Chester, Coventry, London and Canterbury, on to Paris.

For Symon, Paris was ‘the home and nurse of theological and philosophical science, the mother of the liberal arts, the mistress of justice, the standard of morals, and in fine the mirror and lamp of all moral and theological virtues.’

He then continued through France, south to Avignon, and then through Venice, where he spent seven weeks, before continuing down the Dalmatian coast and the coast of Albania.

Symon is unique in his description of the social and economic conditions in Europe in the 14th century. He gives minute details of distances, prices, religion, the value of money and the manners and customs of the people and places everywhere along his way to the Holy Land.

Symon describes Chania as being ‘surrounded by a magnificent forest of cypress trees’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

He travelled through Corfu and Kephallonia before landing in western Crete in August 1323: ‘We next reached the island of Crete, of which the poet says Saturn came first from the shores of Crete.’ This reference to the tenth century Eclogues of Theodulus is the sole non-biblical quotation in his writings.

He named the first place he visited in Crete as Conteryn. It cannot be identified with any place in Crete today, but in his discussion of Symon’s travels Conn Murphy of University College, Cork, suggested it may have been a Venetian outpost named after the 11th century Doge Contarini.

His description of Crete, then under Venetian rule, is of great interest to scholars of Greek archaeology and prehistory for understanding the history of the island, particularly during the period of Venetian rule. Modern studies of the archaeology of Crete begin only a century and a half ago, so Symon’s account offers unique insights into the island as a crossroads in the Mediterranean in the 14th century.

From Conteryn, he travelled on to Canea, present-day Chania, which he describes as being ‘surrounded by a magnificent forest of cypress trees, in which forest trees of wonderful height are found, which, like the cedar of Lebanon, surpass in height both towers and steeples. So great is the perfume issuing from these materials that it seemed to be paradise or an apothecary’s preparation.’

From Chania, Symon travelled by boat along the north coast of the Crete, past Rethymnon and Mylopotamos, near present-day Panormos and Bali, to Candia, modern Iraklion.

Symon describes life in the Venetian harbour of Iraklion and in the city with precise detail (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

At Iraklion, he observed in detail the activities of the Venetian harbour and city in splendid detail, describing the ethnic mix the city, including Latin, Greek and Jewish life and customs: ‘Here and in all the island the Venetians rule in perfect peace, the Greek being subdued and deprived of the privilege of freedom.’

He describes Iraklion as a prosperous city that ‘abounds in most excellent wine, in cheese and in fruit. It exports the famous Cretan wine to every country in the world. Here also ships and galleys are loaded with cheese; and also pomegranates, lemons, figs, grapes, melons, water-melons, gourds and other most excellent types of fruit can be bought here for a very small price.’

Symon was also the first writer to record the presence in Europe of a community of Romanies or Gypsies. Outside Iraklion, he ‘saw … a tribe of people, who worship according to the Greek rite and assert themselves to be of the race of Cain. These people rarely or never stop in one place for more than 30 days but always, as if cursed by God, are nomad and outcast.’

Conn Murphy of UCC has suggested that because these people worshipped according to the rites of the Greek Orthodox Church ‘they may have been on Crete or in Greece for some time. Nevertheless, Symon is the first observer of this disenfranchised element of Venetian society.’

Kallergi Street, off Arkadiou Street in Rethymnon, recalls members of a family who led numerous revolts against Byzantine rule (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Symon’s description of Crete also includes a geographical survey of the island and a reference to a local Greek ruler ‘named Alexius, who holds sway among the rulers of the earth by reason of the exceptional strength of his position.’

Murphy suggests that the Alexius Symon refers to is Alexios Kallergis, a Cretan warlord and a descendant of the Twelve Archondopoula, the 12 aristocratic families settled on Crete during the Byzantine period from the early 11th century in order to consolidate Byzantine imperial authority on the island. These families had strong ties with the local resistance to Venetian rule and fought to maintain their aristocratic status.

The ruins of Frangokastello … at the heart of the rebellion in Sfakia in 1319 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

It is interesting to note that throughout his account of Crete, Symon does not seem to have met any actual Cretans, and makes little mention of native Greek customs apart from the customs of local women, nor does he refer to a recent revolt in 1319 in the area of Sfakia against Venetian rule.

Symon Semeonis left Heraklion on Monday 10 October 1323, and arrived four days later in Alexandria. There he received a special passport for Mendicants from the Sultan Al-Nasir Muhammad at a reduced fee. It appears this passport was authenticated by the sultan’s fingerprints.

He visited Cairo before travelling on through Gaza to Jerusalem. But his account of Jerusalem is cut short and we have little or no information about his return journey. Symon probably began writing his account in Norwich on his return to England, but we do not know whether he ever completed it or what happened to him later in life.

The only known manuscript copy of Symon’s account of his extraordinary journey was presented to the library of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, by Archbishop Matthew Parker in 1575.

His account of his experiences in what is now Greece is one of the earliest written reports of Greece to reach England, and the original manuscript in Corpus Christi College remains the first comprehensive account of a pilgrimage from Ireland to the Holy Land.

The Parker Library in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge... Matthew Parker presented the manuscript copy of Symon’s account to the library in 1575 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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