Monday, 6 September 2010

Introducing the Church of Ireland in Fingal

Holmpatrick Parish Church in Skerries traces its story back to a monastic island linked to Saint Patrick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford


Although I live on the south side of Dublin, I don’t understand the north Dublin/south Dublin differences, and I love this side of Dublin. I try most weekends to go for a walk on one of the beaches here – it’s usually Skerries, Donabate or Portrane, but those who read my blog know also that I can end up in Lousghshinney, Rush, Portmarnock or Malahide.

My grandparents were married in Donabate and they are buried in Saint Catherine’s, beside the ruins of the old Church of Ireland church in Portrane. So I’m happy this afternoon to accept your generous invitation and to introduce to you the Church of Ireland in the Fingal area.

The most recent census returns indicate large increases in the Church of Ireland population in every county in Ireland and every diocese in the Church of Ireland. The social statistician Malcolm Macourt, in a recent analysis of the census returns, shows how the Church of Ireland figures in the Republic of Ireland have increased from less than 85,000 in 1991 to over 115,000 in 115,000 in the 2006 census.

This represents an increase of over 46 per cent in 14 years, in less than half a generation – a 15-year period during which the population of the Republic of Ireland as a whole rose by 20 per cent to over 4.2 million.

Analysing these figures, Macourt says one contribution in the increase is an influx of immigrants from the United Kingdom – including at least 9,000 residents in the Republic who give their religion is Church of England.

The census statistics show the following figures for the members of the main churches outside the Roman Catholic tradition in the Republic of Ireland:

● Church of Ireland (including Protestant): 118,948
● Christian (unspecified): 28,028
● Presbyterian: 21,496
● Methodist: 10,768

The smaller groups that are usually classified as “Protestant” include Quakers, Baptists, Brethren, Lutheran and Moravian, but it is difficult to extrapolate any statistics and trends on their membership from those census figures.

Christians not fitting into either of these categories include:

● Orthodox: 19,994

Compare these figures with the figures for other groups:

● Muslims: 31,779
● Others: 54,033

The “Others” may include Jews, Buddhists and Baha’is, but they may also include smaller Protestant groups too.

The census returns show some phenomenal rises since 1991:

● Orthodox (+2814%);
● Muslims (+394%)
● Jews (13%).

Similarly, there have been rises in the statistics for the other Protestant churches or traditions, such as: Church of Ireland (+29%); Presbyterian (+55%). The popular perception of a Protestant decline has been arrested if not reversed. But, to be honest, we do not know why.

The Church of Ireland is the Church of:

● Jonathan Swift, the author of Gulliver’s Travels and Drapier’s Letters and Dean of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. He is said to have pursued his love affairs with Stella at Portrane Castle, so that for many people there it is now known as Stella’s Castle or Stella’s Tower.
● George Berkeley, the philosopher and Bishop of Cloyne.
● Hymn writers such as Henry Lyte from Co Wexford, who wrote Abide with me, and Mrs Cecil Alexander, a bishop’s wife from Derry, who wrote All things bright and beautiful and also translated Saint Patrick’s Breastplate.

The Church of Ireland and its members were intimately associated with the Gaelic revival and the literary renaissance of the late 19th and early 20th century.

The Church Ireland is the Church of great poets, dramatists and literary figures, including Nobel Prize winners. Think of:

● Sean O’Casey
● George Bernard Shaw
● W.B. Yeats
● Samuel Beckett

In the past, the members of the Church of Ireland have included:

● 1798: Lord Edward FitzGerald; Archibald Hamilton Rowan; Henry Monroe and Betsy Grey at the Battle of Ballinahinch; the Grogans and the Boxwells in Wexford.
● 1803: Robert Emmet and Thomas Russell.
● Later: William Smith O’Brien; Charles Stewart Parnell.
● 1916: Countess Markievicz and Sean O’Casey were both born into Church of Ireland families. And we should not forget that in 1916 too the Irish Citizens’ Army took its name at a meeting in the rooms of a Fellow of Trinity College Dublin who was a priest in the Church of Ireland.
● 1921/1922: Ernest Blythe and Erskine Childers were on opposing sides in the Irish civil war.
● 1937: Douglas Hyde, first President of Ireland, was the son of a Church of Ireland rector.
● Today, members of the Church of Ireland can be found in all political parties. And, given that we are on the north side of Dublin, I should point out that many of the members of U2 were brought up in Church of Ireland families on this side of Dublin.

Despite the RTÉ soapbox image of the Church of Ireland, not all of us are plumy rectors or from the landed gentry. There are strong working class parishes in Dublin in Finglas, Irishtown and Tallaght, for example; and the backbone of many rural parishes is the same as Roman Catholic parishes: small shopkeepers, small farmers, people like your parents, and people like you.

Getting to know your neighbour is always a good idea. Good neighbours are essential.

The large number of Church of Ireland parishes in the area covered by membership of this rotary club, are in parish groupings across area cross the Fingal, South Dublin and city boundaries. They are not just the churches. They are also part of the story and the history of Fingal.

They are centred on:

● Castleknock, which includes Castleknock (Saint Brigid), Mulhuddart (Saint Thomas), and Clonsilla (Saint Mary).
● Holmpatrick, which includes Holmpatrick (Skerries), Kenure (Rush), and Balbriggan (Saint George’s), but also Includes the ancient church sites of Baldongan, Balrothery, and Balscadden.
● Howth, which includes Baldoyle, whose manor and lands were given by King Sitric towards the founding of Christ Church Cathedral.
● Malahide, which includes Malahide (Saint Andrew’s) and Balgriffin (Saint Doulough’s), but also includes Portmarnock.
● Swords, which includes Swords (Saint Columba’s), Donabate (Saint Patrick’s) and Kilsallaghan (Saint David), and also includes Portrane.
● Santry (Saint Pappan), Finglas (Saint Canice) and Glasnevin (Saint Mobhi), which includes the old parish of Cloghran (Swords), including the site of the airport and this hotel, which was united with Santry in 1876; the church was closed at the end of the 19th century and was demolished in 1944.
● Drumcondra and North Strand.
● The inner city parishes of Saint George’s and Saint Thomas’s, Saint Michan’s and All Saints’ Garngegorman, which are part of the Chrust Church Cathedral group, and Saint Laurence’s in Chapleizod complete the Church of Ireland presence on the northside, alongside.

Many old parish churches have gone in parish reorganisation, and with church closures. But some of the churches stand on sites that have been in continuous use as places of worship and sacred places since monastic and pre-Norman times, reflected in the names of parish churches in Swords, Santry, Finglas, and other places.

Some of the churches in Fingal that I think are worth visiting, if you have not visited them before include:

The Hamilton monument in Holmpatrick Church, recalling a remarkable man and a remarkable family story (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

● Saint Patrick’s, Donabate, with its mediaeval, castle-like tower, its late mediaeval grave slabs in the porch, and the magnificent, stuccoed private gallery of the Cobbe family of Newbridge House, replete with private fireplace.
● Saint Doulough’s in Balgriffin, one of the finest mediaeval churches – not only in Fingal but in Ireland.
● Holmpatrick in Skerries, which is in direct continuity with a church and monastery on the Skerries rocks that claimed a foundation dating back to Saint Patrick. It has an engaging monument to the prolific James Hamilton, the ruins of Saint Patrick’s Monastery, and an interesting mediaeval tower and grave-slabs.
● Saint Columba’s, Swords – with its pre-Norman monastic ruins and round tower.
● Kenure in Rush – a perfect example of an estate church, built by the Palmer family.
● Balrothery and Lusk – now closed but still in two of the most interesting locations in Fingal, and with commanding presences.

The former Church of Ireland parish church towers like a mighty castle above the village of Lusk (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The stories of two interesting clerics

I could tell two interesting tales about clerics from the 18th century who left ther legacy in Fingal.

Archbishop Charles Cobbe (1686-1765), who first built Newbridge House in Donabate, first came to Ireland in 1717 as chaplain to his cousin – the Lord Lieutenant, the Duke of Bolton. Despite a limited intellectual capacity he enjoyed rapid promotion through three minor bishoprics and became Archbishop of Dublin in 1742. Some years earlier, he had bought much of the Donabate and Portrane peninsula in 1736 for £5,526 5s 6d.

At one time, it was said, there were only two freeholding families in the Peninsula, the Cobbes of Newbridge House, and my grandmother’s family, the Lynders family of Portrane,

Archbishop Cobbe’s portraits in the hall of Newbridge House and the Chapter House in Christ Church Cathedral show him wearing a long grey wig and the robes of a bishop. His guests at Newbridge House included the great Methodist preacher John Wesley. When the archbishop died in 1765 at the age of 79, it was said he was “the eldest bishop in the Christian Church.” He was buried in Saint Patrick’s Church, Donabate.

The charming interior of Saint Patrick’s Church in Donabate (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The Revd Anthony Tanner, who was the Vicar of Holmpatrick and Balscadden at the beginning of the 18th century, came to a sorry end when he was brutally murdered nearby in Loughshinny in 1741.

Tanner is said to have owned most of the land around Loughshinny when he married Alice Cannon from Popeshall in November 1740. Six months later, on 3 May 1741, after dining with his friend, Sir Robert Echlin of Kenure House – whose monument in Lusk churchyard is worth looking at in – Tanner was returning home to his house in Lougshinny and was crossing a stile when he was attacked. The vicar’s younger brother, William Tanner, was accused of employing a poor fisherman, James Cappogue, to carry out the deed. William hoped that with his brother’s death he would inherit his lands in Loughshinny. But he did not know that the vicar’s newly-wed wife, Alice, was already four months pregnant – their daughter, Margaret, was born in October 1741.

William Tanner and James Cappogue were tried and convicted for murder. Cappogue was sentenced to be hanged drawn and quartered, and was executed in Saint Stephen’s Green on 4 November, just weeks after baby Margaret was born. However, William Tanner managed to draw out the proceedings. He went to court no less than 10 times until eventually he was discharged and released.

Margaret Tanner later inherited her father’s lands in Loughshinny. She married John Dempsey, a local lawyer. The Dempsey family were proprietors of Loughshinny in 1762, at the time the local copper mines were developed. They were also involved in the early attempts to build a pier at Loughshinny.

For many years, a large stone house stood at the entrance to the farmyard where Tanner was murdered. However, the house was demolished in the early 1940s to make way for the present-day farmhouse, the farmyard is private property and entry is prohibited. But the murder of Anthony Tanner is still remembered in Loughshinny.

Schools and clergy

The East Window in Kenure Parish Church, Rush (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

But the parishes are not just the churches, and the history, they are also the school. One of the largest national schools in Fingal is attached to Saint George’s Parish in Balbriggan, and has one of the highest proportion of children who are foreign born or born to immigrants.

And the parishes are not just the churches, the history and the schools, they also include the clergy.

In the Church of Ireland today, we are facing many of the same problems the other churches are facing: maybe not celibacy, but certainly sexuality, vocations and authority. What is the role of the Rector today? It is as pressing a question as: what is the role of the parish priest?

It presents itself in different ways: at one time in the past, villages and towns like Balbriggan, Rush, Lusk and Donabate might have expected to have their own resident rector. Today, their rectors live in Skerries or Swords. A rector shared by many churches and villages finds it difficult to be part and parcel of everyday life in that village.

Exciting times in ministry

On other hand, we are now at an exciting time in ministry in the Church of Ireland. We have 19 full-time students about to move from first year to second year in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, preparing for ordination and parish ministry in a year’s time, along with another five part-time students moving into their final year and preparing to work as worker priests. They will be joined by more part-time and full-time students later this month.

They are male and female, from a diverse social background, from North and South. It is a healthy situation.

But it does not leave room for complacency. We have a large number of people who leave the full-time ministry of the Church of Ireland each year.

Nor does our healthy situation, and the fact that are clergy are male and female and are free to marry mean that we have no problems about sexuality, or problems about the behaviour of clergy. The fact that these problems are not of the same magnitude, nor that they receive extensive and quizzical coverage in media, does not mean they do not exist for the Church of Ireland.

And if I say that by and large, my colleagues, my fellow priests in the Church of Ireland, are wonderful people to work with, I have to say the same about my colleagues in the other churches too, including the Roman Catholic Church. Dublin Airport taxi drivers – who are often a litmus test of what people think and say – are generally surprised when I say Catholic priests are not my rivals but my colleagues, and my friends. Last week, during a conference on Interfaith relations, it was just so natural for Archbishop Neill and Archbishop Martin to sit together at dinner, their friendship is far deeper that polite ecumenism and co-operation.

In the churches, we think in terms of co-operation rather than competition – we are not in business, we are serving the Kingdom of God. And for that reason, the Church of Ireland parishes in Fingal, as any other part of Ireland, are not just the churches, the history, the schools, and the clergy, but are first and foremost the people.

And the people who make up the Church of Ireland in this area are as mixed as the people you know are. There are the old, long established families, in every social group, that we all know in this area … Families that have been living here for generations, in some cases even for centuries. And there are new suburban parishioners in places like Malahide, Swords, Donabate, Skerries and Balbriggan. They have their needs, expressed especially in the need for schools, but they are indistinguishable from their neighbours.

No longer do names, places of education, political loyalty or accents play a role in identifying or distinguishing members of different churches in this part of Ireland. No longer are there separate tennis clubs, rugby clubs or sailing clubs. Although, I often have to ask how much of this in past was also a myth, and I think particularly of the stories of cricket in the Donabate/Portrane peninsula or the story of sailing in Skerries.

Problems and issues:

Some of the problems, challenges and issues we are dealing with in the Church of Ireland at present include:

● Unemployment
● The impact on families of the collapse of businesses and the changes in farming
● Immigration, integration and racism
● Secularisation and antipathy
● Church attendance and commitment
● Loss of denominational identity
● Loss of sense of community

With the President of the Rotary Club of Dublin Fingal, Gerry Fitzmaurice after today’s lunch (Photograph: Pat McGonagle, 2010)

The local Church of Ireland parish church is first and foremost a place of worship for a local Christian community. But please see it too as a resource, part of the wider but local community identity, a focus for your area, your village. As business people, the parishioners and clergy are your partners, your neighbours, your customers, but most of all your friends.

The rector is available for advice, and for help, I know the church is available for celebration – not just for the parish but for you and for the wider community. You will be welcome for celebrations like carol services and for moments of crisis, even for prayer without proselytism.

Get to know us. We will be happy to get to know you.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a Canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This essay is based on notes prepared for an address at a lunch of the Rotary Club of Dublin Fingal in the Clarion Hotel, Dublin Airport, on Monday 6 September 2010.

Ely Cathedral: the Ship of the Fens dominates the landscape of East Anglia

Ely Cathedral and its towers rise above the surrounding landscape, so that it has long been known as the “Ship of the Fens” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

Students and visitors love to draw comparisons between Oxford and Cambridge. The two university cities share some curiosities, including the names of some colleges, such as Trinity, Corpus Christi, Jesus, St John’s and Pembroke. But there are differences too, including the names of buildings, such as courts and quads, and the names of colleges, such as Queens’ and Queen’s, Magdalene and Magdalene, or St Catharine’s and St Catherine’s.

One noticeable difference, though, is that Christ Church is both an Oxford college and a diocesan cathedral, while Cambridge has no cathedral and no diocese bearing its name. Instead, Cambridge is part of the Diocese of Ely. And so, one afternoon this summer, I took a 15-minute train journey from Cambridge to Ely for Choral Evensong in Ely Cathedral.

As you approach Ely, the cathedral and its towers rise above the low-lying wetlands of the Fens, so that it has long been known as the “Ship of the Fens.” It is said the cathedral can be seen from almost every parish in the Diocese of Ely, which includes most of Cambridgeshire, parts of Norfolk and Essex, and one parish in Bedfordshire.

Mists and myths of the Fens

Ely is 23 km (14 miles) north-east of Cambridge. With about 15,000 people, it is the third smallest city in England – after Wells in Somerset and the City of London, and the sixth smallest city in the United Kingdom – Saint David’s in Wales and Armagh are both smaller. Despite its size, the cathedral has given Ely city status, though this was only recognised officially in a royal charter in 1974.

The name Ely (EE-lee) means “Eel Island,” and for centuries the Isle of Ely was an isolated island in the low-lying Fens where the Bishops of Ely exercised extensive independent powers until 1837. The Isle of Ely remained a separate county until 1965. The Fens are a place of mystery. It was here that Hereward the Wake held out against William the Conqueror. And there are tales of villages lost in mist and time, of payments made in eels, of people walking about on stilts, and of islands isolated for centuries.

The story of early Ely is told in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History (ca 731) and in the Book of Ely, an anonymous 12th century chronicle. The city began with an abbey founded in 673 AD on the Isle of Ely by Saint Ethelreda (Audrey), an Anglo-Saxon princess and Fenland queen. Despite being twice married, she succeeded in her determination to become a nun. When she died, her followers buried her in an old Roman marble coffin found near Cambridge, and a shrine was built to her memory. Ethelreda was succeeded as abbess by her sister, Saint Sexburgha, and later by Saint Werburgh, who gives her name to a city centre church in Dublin.

The Prior’s Door is a 12th century entrance to the cathedral, with a Norman stone carving depicting Christ enthroned in majesty( Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The abbey was destroyed by Danish marauders in 870, but was rebuilt a century later as a Benedictine monastery by Bishop Athelwold of Winchester. Under William the Conqueror, Abbot Simeon began a new building in 1083, and this work continued under his successor, Abbot Richard. The Diocese of Ely was formed in 1108 out of the See of Lincoln, and the monastery became a cathedral in 1109.

Unique symmetry

The nave of Ely Cathedral is the fourth longest cathedral nave in England (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Ely Cathedral is cruciform in shape and for its time was a model of symmetry. The nave, at 165.5 m (537 ft) is the fourth longest cathedral nave in England. The Octagon or “Lantern Tower,” which replaced the central tower, is a unique structure and the glory of Ely Cathedral.

The unique Octagon or Lantern Tower is the glory of Ely Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The main transepts were built at an early stage, crossing the nave below a central tower, and are the oldest surviving parts of the cathedral. Building work continued throughout the 12th century, when the western transepts and tower were completed under Bishop Geoffrey Ridel (1174-1189) in an exuberant Romanesque style with a rich decoration of intersecting arches and complex mouldings.

The Romanesque south-west transept is one of the oldest surviving parts of Ely Cathedral and has one of the most ornate Romanesque interiors in England (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The Galilee or entrance porch was added under Bishop Eustace (1198-1215) in the Early English Gothic style. Under Bishop Hugh of Northwold, a new eastern end was begun in 1234, with a grand 10-bay structure. His chancel was completed around 1252, and adopted several of the stylistic elements already used in the Galilee Porch.

The free-standing Lady Chapel, built between 1321 and 1349, is 100 ft by 46 ft, and was built in an exuberant Decorated Gothic style: sedilia-like niches around the walls are flanked by pilasters of Purbeck marble and covered by sinuous arches. The niches were once filled with an extensive sculpted cycle illustrating the life-story of the Virgin Mary, but they were damaged during the Reformation and the Lady Chapel was stripped of all decoration.

When it was completed in 1340, the Octagon was the largest crossing span in northern Europe (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The great Norman crossing tower collapsed in 1322, damaging the first four bays of the Early Gothic choir. These bays were rebuilt, and the tower was replaced by the Octagonal Lantern. Although it is supported on eight massive masonry piers, the lantern is built from oak timbers. When it was completed in 1340, the Octagon was the largest crossing span in northern Europe and it remains Ely Cathedral’s most distinctive feature, visible for miles across the Fens.

At the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the cathedral suffered only minor damage, but Saint Etheldreda’s shrine was destroyed, many of the statues in the Lady Chapel were severely damaged, and Bishop Thomas Goodrich ordered the destruction of all the mediaeval statues, painting and stained glass.

Bishop Thomas Goodrich ordered the destruction of all the mediaeval statues, painting and stained glass (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Restoration and inspiration

Ely Cathedral has undergone several major restorations: under James Essex in the 18th century; under George Peacock in 1839; under George Gilbert Scott , when the painted wooden ceiling of the nave was decorated by Henry Styleman le Strange and Thomas Gambier Parry; and between 1986 and 2000.

The nave ceiling was painted during the Victorian restoration (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The Victorian Gothic architect Augustus Pugin was once found weeping in the Lady Chapel, disturbed by the destruction of its beauty. But he was inspired by the Octagonal Lantern Tower later when he was designing the chapel for the Loreto Abbey in Rathfarnham in south Co Dublin.

The south gallery of the nave in Ely Cathedral now houses the Stained Glass Museum, with a collection dating from the 13th century, including modern glass by William Morris and John Piper. For several years, the curator was the Cambridge art historian, Dr Carla Hicks, who died this summer.

David Wynne’s sculpture in the South Transept captures the moment when the distraught Mary Magdalene meets the Risen Christ on Easter Morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Modern works of art in the cathedral include Jonathan Clarke’s sculpture, The Way of Life, Hans Feibusch’s Christus (1981), with Christ’s arms outstretched in welcome to show the strength of his compassion for the world, and David Wynne’s sculpture (1967) in the South Transept, capturing the moment when the distraught Mary Magdalene meets the Risen Christ on Easter Morning.

The Lady Chapel with David Wynne’s statue of Mary (Photograph: Max Gilead/Wikipedia)

But Ely’s most controversial modern work is David Wynne’s new statue of Mary in the Lady Chapel. Robed in stark blue, she is rejoicing in the news that she is to be the mother of the Christ Child.

Episcopal connections

William of Kilkenny, Bishop of Ely from 1254 to 1256, had resigned as Bishop of Ossory before being consecrated (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

It was interesting to come across the monument of William of Kilkenny, who was Bishop of Ely from 1254 to 1256, and Lord Chancellor of England. His name indicates his Irish background, for William of Kilkenny was appointed Bishop of Ossory in 1231 but resigned in 1232 before being consecrated. By 1234, he was in England, and he was sent to Rome twice as a royal emissary twice, once in 1234-1235 and again in 1237. He was Archdeacon of Coventry from 1247, and became Bishop of Ely in 1254.

William of Kilkenny accepted this second episcopal appointment, and was consecrated in 1255 at Bellay in Savoy by the reforming Archbishop of Canterbury, Boniface of Savoy. However, he survived for little more than a year and died in Spain in 1256 while he was on a diplomatic mission for the king. His heart is buried in Ely for burial. His only known relative, a nephew, lived in Waterford and was knighted in 1254.

There were other bishops with dual identities: Louis II de Luxembourg was Archbishop of Rouen in France and Bishop of Ely at one and the same time. As Bishop of Rouen, he was a leading French collaborator with the English regime in France. When his personal safety became precarious, Henry VI made him Bishop of Ely in commendam in 1437. But he may have never visited the diocese before he died in 1443.

Bishop Alcock’s Chapel recalls the founder of Jesus College and is set aside for prayers for the victims of torture and abuse (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

William of Kilkenny endowed two divinity scholarships at Cambridge, and many of his successors as Bishop of Ely had strong links with Cambridge: Hugh de Balsham (1258-1286) founded Peterhouse, the first college in Cambridge; John Alcock (1486-1500) founded Jesus College; Matthew Wren (1638-1667), a former Master of Peterhouse, endowed a new chapel for Pembroke College. Stephen Sykes (1990-2000), one of the most eminent Anglican ecclesiologists, was Dean of Saint John’s College, Cambridge, Professor of Divinity at Durham and the Regius Professor of Divinity in Cambridge before becoming Bishop of Ely.

Bishop West’s Chantry Chapel, completed in 1530, has an exquisite altar, an elaborate Renaissance ceiling and a window by Ninian Comper (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Other bishops played pivotal roles in English history. Lancelot Andrewes (1609-1619) oversaw the translation of the Authorised Version of the Bible. Matthew Wren (1638-1667) was a protégé of Lancelot Andrewes. His nephew, Christopher Wren, who designed a splendid Gothic door for the north face of Ely Cathedral in the 1650s, later rebuilt Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London. Francis Turner (1684-1691) preached at the coronation of James II and was one of the nine bishops of the Church of England who lost office for refusing to take the oath of allegiance to William III.

Visiting Ely today

Ely has Europe’s largest collection of mediaeval monastic buildings still in domestic use (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Many of the early monastic buildings survive to the south of Ely Cathedral, so that Ely has Europe’s largest collection of mediaeval monastic buildings still in domestic use. They include the Porta or great gateway to the monastery, which now houses the library of the King’s School.

The Porta or great gateway to the monastery now houses the library of the King’s School (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

A few steps from the west door of the cathedral, on Saint Mary’s Green, is the house where Oliver Cromwell lived for ten years from 1636 to 1646 while he was the tithe collector in Ely. He had been an undergraduate in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, where I was staying. The 16th century half-timbered house is now a tourist information office and houses a museum with exhibits from Cromwell’s time and the English Civil War.

Oliver Cromwell’s House in Ely ... he lived here for ten years (Photograph: Oxyman/Wikipedia)

The city stands on the River Great Ouse and was a significant port until the 18th century, when the Fens were drained and Ely ceased to be an island. Today, Ely retains many of its historic buildings, with charming winding streets, and a market each Thursday and Saturday. The river is a popular boating area with a large marina, Olympic rowers, riverboats and swans. Cambridge University’s rowing team has a boathouse on these river banks and trains here for the annual Boat Race with Oxford. The connection lives on.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This essay was first published in the September 2010 editions of the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory).