31 December 2011

Yes, that was 2011. But what about the year ahead?

Patrick Comerford

What are going to be your abiding memories of 2011? The deaths of Obama bin Laden, Muammar Gadafy, Ratko Mladic, Steve Jobs, Amy Winehouse, Vaclav Havel and Kim Jung-Il? The mass murders in Norway?

Perhaps the tsunami in Japan, the earthquakes in New Zealand? The Arab Spring throughout North Africa and the Middle East? The potential collapse of the Euro? The tenth anniversary of 9/11? Or the fall ofGeorge Papandreou, Silvio Berlusconi or Hosni Mubarak?

If the abiding memory from Britain is the closure of the News of the World, then I am reminded of the quote often ascribed to News of the World reporters caught in compromising or awkward situations – “We made our excuses and left.” This time, there were no excuses, made, possible or offered, but the death of that one red-top also threatens the demise of any credibility that had been left with investigative journalism.

In England, perhaps those memories are dominated not by the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, but by the summer riots, or by the “Occupy” protests outside Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London, with the consequent resignation of Canon Giles Fraser from the chapter and the fall of Bishop Graeme Knowles as the Dean of Saint Paul’s.

Deaths, defeats and triumphs

With President Michael D Higgins at the launch of the ‘Wexford Ambassadors’ programme

At home, the main news stories included the deaths of Garret FitzGerald, Declan Costello and Brian Lenihan, the loss of economic sovereignty to the IMF, the ECB and the EU, the electoral collapse of Fianna Fail, and the election of a new government that has its hands tied not by its own policies and decisions but by the mistakes of politicians who have washed their own hands of all responsibility, trying to shift the blame to those who had funded their election campaigns in the past.

There is more than one happy outcome to the election of Michael D Higgins as President of Ireland – at least there is less likelihood that the decade of centenaries ahead of us are going to be hijacked by those who would otherwise have the Armalite in one hand and the Anniversary programme in the other.

The visits to Ireland by Barack Obama and Queen Elizabeth were boosts to national esteem and self-image.

But then, so too were the Irish sporting triumphs of the year, including Ireland’s defeat of England at cricket by three wickets, when Kevin O'Brien hit the fastest hundred in World Cup history.

The year in Ireland was also marked by the end of Mary McAleese’s term as President; the collapse of diplomatic relationships between Dublin and the Vatican; the closure of the Sunday Tribune; the collapse of Sean Quinn’s business empire; and the passing of Anglo Irish Bank and the Irish Nationwide Building Society.

President McAleese ... offered a warm welcome at Áras an Uachtaráin

Beach walks and more

For me, the year began as it ended, opening with a walk on the beach in Brittas Bay, Co Wicklow, on New Year’s Day, and ending this afternoon with a walk on the beach in Bettystown, Co Meath. In between, of course, there were copious double espressos in the Olive in Skerries, and lunches and dinners in Relish in Bettystown, the Beach House in Bray, and in many other places in between and further afield.

It was a year marked by sadness, with the death of former colleagues, including Seán Cronin, Ella Shanahan, Patrick Laurence and Caroline Walsh from The Irish Times (Garret FitzGerald also wrote on a regular basis for The Irish Times, Kader Asmal from days in the Anti-Apartheid Movement, CND and other campaigns, and former clerical colleagues including Canon John Crawford, Canon Robin Armstrong who worked closely with USPG for many years, Canon Eric Despard who was once one of my tutors, and the Revd Margaret Gilbert, one of the earliest women in NSM ministry in the Church of Ireland.

There were new beginnings in the Church too, with the enthronement of Archbishop Michael Jackson in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, and there were new secular and social beginnings too, with the launch of the “Wexford Ambassadors” programme.

Early in the year, I was asked to be chaplain at the Anglican Primates’ Conference in the Emmaus Retreat Centre in Swords, Co Dublin. It was a week away, and an insightful week too.

The fading evening lights on the beach in Donabate one evening last month (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

During the year, I continued to have regular walks on the beach, especially in Sutton, Portmarnock, Malahide, Donabate, Portrane, Rush, Loughshinny, Skerries and Balbriggan, in north Dublin, Bettystown, Laytown and Clogherhead in Co Meath, and Bray, Greystones, Kilcoole and Brittas Bay, in Co Wicklow, and walks along the harbours or piers in Dalkey and Dun Laoghaire, with occasional forays to the beaches of Co Wexford and Co Louth.

There were riverside walks too by the Dodder in Rathfarnham, the Liffey in Islandbridge, the Slaney in Co Wexford, the Shannon in Athlone, the Nore in Inistioge and Kilkenny, the Kings River in Kells, lakeside lakes on the Farnham estate in Cavan, on the Castle Leslie Estate in Co Monaghan, in Blessington, Co Wicklow, and in England walks by the Minster Pool and Stowe Pool in Lichfield, by the Tame in Tamworth, by the Thames in London, and by the Cam in Cambridge.

As I climbed up the rocks behind the beach in Loughshinny one morning, I came by a hidden waterfall and was reminded of TS Eliot’s lines in ‘Little Gidding’:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.

I travelled throughout Ireland during the year to attend the ordination of deacons and priests in Antrim, Armagh, Bagenalstown, Belturbet, Edenderry and Lurgan, as well as Dublin, and preached at the ordination of the Revd Paul Bogle as priest in Saint Brigid’s Cathedral, Kildare, as well as attending the institution of the Revd Martin Hilliard as Rector of Kells in Inistioge, Co Kilkenny, and the institution of the Revd Stephen Farrell as Rector of Zion Parish in Dublin.

I stayed in Athlone during the clergy conference and in Armagh during the General Synod of the Church of Ireland. In Belfast, I stayed at Edgehill College, where I spoke at the retreat for students and staff at the beginning of the academic year. Earlier in the year addressed the ethics committee of Saint Patrick’s Hospital, Dublin.

Thanks to the kindness and generosity of family members, I also stayed in Ferrycarrig Hotel, Co Wexford, Castle Leslie in Co Monaghan and the SAS Radisson in Farnham, Co Cavan.

There were visits to Wexford town and Arthurstown, Ballyhack, Barntown, Bunclody, Edermine, Enniscorthy, Fethard-on-Sea, and Templeshanbo in Co Wexford; to Killarney, Co Kerry, Adare, Co Limerick, and Moneygall, on the borders of Co Tipperary and Co Offaly, even before Barack Obama got there; to the monastic sites at Kells, Co Meath, and a first attempt to climb the Hill of Tara, Co Meath; a late lunch in Virginia, Co Cavan; a visit to unique and impressive church inCollon, Co Louth, visits to Maynooth, Co Kildare, Enniskerry and Glencree, Co Wicklow, Waterford and Tramore and Passage East in Co Waterford, and to the two cathedrals in Armagh and the cathedrals in Cavan, Clonflert, Enniscorthy, Kildare and Monaghan.

And there was also a failed attempt, at the suggestion of David Diebold, the editor of Skerries News, to visit Lambay Island – although the journey was almost as exciting as the prospect of landing on the island.

Thanks to Joe Kennedy, I was able to have private visit to the ruins of Saint Mary’s Church, Callan, to photograph old Comerford family tombs and monuments, and from there I went on to Ballybur Castle, the former Comerford family ancestral home near Cuffesgrange. There were two visits also to the Irish Jewish Museum in Little Jerusalem in Dublin’s Portobello.

Visiting England

Strolling under the overhanging trees in the countryside near Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

During the past year, there were regular visits to England too.

I was back in Lichfield twice, staying in the Bogey Hole in Dam Street, close to the Cathedral, and later at the Hedgehog on Stafford Road. The first visit was for a retreat based on the Chapel in Saint John’s Hospital, and attending the Saint Chad’s Patronal Festival and the installation of new canons in Lichfield Cathedral. I was back again in August to see the Anglo-Saxon Hoard exhibition in the Cathedral.

During those visits, I also had lunch in the Moat House in Tamworth, once one of the Staffordshire homes of the Comberford family, returned to Comberford village, had walks in the countryside, setting out along Cross-in-Hand Lane behind the Hedgehog, or hopping off the bus between Lichfield and Tamworth. There were meals too with old and valued friends.

In Birmingham, I visited Saint Philip’s Cathedral and old Saint Martin’s, and also visited Saint Chad’s Cathedral as part of my continuing fascination with Pugin’s church buildings.

In Leicester, I took part in an interfaith conference organised by the Saint Philip’s Centre for bishops and clergy of the Church of Ireland.

Summer shade in a quiet corner of Cambridge, off King’s Parade (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

I was back in Cambridge on three occasions, staying in Sidney Sussex College during the annual summer school of the Institute for Orthodox Studies, visiting friends and colleagues at the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, and enjoying “Shakespeare in the Park at Saint John’s College.” From Cambridge, there was also a visit to the Monastery of Saint John the Evangelist, near Tolleshunt Knights in Essex, for a quiet day.

I stayed at the High Leigh conference centre in Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire, during the annual council meeting and conference of USPG – Anglicans in World Mission.

I was in London twice, staying at the Penn Club in Bloomsbury, and Saint Matthew’s in Westminster. On the first occasion, I was invited to Lambeth Palace for dinner after a private viewing of the exhibition marking the 400th anniversary of the translation of the Authorised Version or King James Version of the Bible.

The second visit to London was to give a on mission and prayer paper at a conference organised by Affirming Catholicism. During that visit I was also given a guided tour of Westminster by Caroline Linehan, who works there as a Preventive Conservator, visiting the House of Lords and the House of Commons, and getting an insider’s impression of Pugin’s great triumph. I also took time for a walking tour of literary Bloomsbury.

I was invited to Liverpool by the former Dean, Justin Welby, now Bishop of Durham, to preach at the annual law service in Liverpool Cathedral. This was a great occasion of Church and State in Merseyside. I stayed in the Cathedral Close, and there were invitations to dinner in the cathedral and lunch with the High Sheriff of Merseyside. But I also took in an open-top bus tour of Liverpool and visited the Roman Catholic Cathedral, which is only a few steps along the aptly-named Hope Street from the Anglican Cathedral.

My remarks in that sermon and some of my comments on the presidential election campaign brought nasty and threatening reaction from people who warned me that I would have been better to keep my mouth shut. These very people have their voices heard today because I and other members of the National Union of Journalists took a principled stand against censorship while they were hell-bent on carnage and destruction. On the other hand, the Church of Ireland Gazette described me as “outspoken” and “straight-talking.”

Towards the end of the year, I was back in Newcastle for a football match. Just as Lansdowne Road will never be the Aviva Stadium as far as I am concerned, so I can never imagine bringing myself to call Saint James’s Park the Sports Direct Stadium. During that visit I also found time for a walk on the beach, talking the train out through Tynemouth to Whitley Bay and Cullercoats.

Weeks in Turkey and Greece

A mixture of Greek and Turkish heritage in the harbour of Kastellórizo (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

My foreign travel brought me to Turkey and to Greece twice, with two stopovers in Budapest. In Turkey, I spent a week in Ovacik, near Fethiye, and delighted in visiting the Lycian rock tombs along the south-west coast of Anatolia.

From the port of Kas on the southern Anatolian coast, I caught a small boat to Greece, spending a day on Kastellorizo, the most isolated of all the Greek islands. There were two failed attempts that week to get to Rhodes. I never got to know whether the trips were cancelled because the travel agent made mistakes, because the ferry company was facing financial problems, or because of strikes in Greece.

I was back in Greece in October, spending the best part of a week in Thessaloniki., visiting churches and monasteries, and trying to trace what I imagine were my grandfather’s footsteps here while I was stationed in the northern Greek city in the cold winter of 1915-1916 during World War I.

Church visits and family outings

In Liverpool Cathedral with the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Liverpool, Dr Patrick Kelly, and the High Sheriff of Merseyside, Professor Helen Carty

As well as preaching n Liverpool Cathedral, I preached regularly in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, and in the chapel of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and I regularly took services in Kenure Church, Rush, Holmpatrick Church, Skerries and Saint George’s Church, Balbriggan, while the parish was without a rector. I also preached in All Saints’ Church, Grangegorman, Saint Mark’s Church, Armagh, the Chapel of Edgehill College, Belfast, and Whitechurch Parish Church in Rahfarnham, and spoke in Rathfarnham Parish Church.

I took part in a retreat on Ash Wednesday retreat in Skerries – in the Sailing Club – and spoke at a memorial service for deceased staff members of The Irish Times, in the Unitarian Church in Saint Stephen’s Green, and took part in the annual commemoration of International Workers’ Memorial Day, organised by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. At the end of the year, I led an Advent Carol Service in Saint Nahi’s Church, Dundrum, and took part in the annual candle-lit carol service in Marlay Park, Rathfarnham.

There was great fun with friends, family and colleagues at the Christ Church Cathedral post-auction dinner and ball in Castle Durrow, Co Laois, and the Hellenic community’s annual dinner in Donnybrook. There were dinners with family and friends in Donabate, Malahide, Rathmines, Ashford, and Wexford, in Lichfield, Cambridge, Leicester, and London. There was a family wedding in Clontarf and Portmarnock, and a family funeral in University Church, Saint Stephen’s Green – but, like all funerals, it was mixed with joyful reunions with family members long unseen.

And, of course, during the summer there was the great Portrane sale, where once again my Lynders cousins have raised an impressive amount of money to support projects in Romania and Albania.

I remain on boards and committees of USPG here and in Britain. I have stood down as secretary of the Church of Ireland’s Interfaith Working Group, and from the board of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. But I remain a member of the Standing Committee and, the Commission for Christian Unity and Dialogue, I have been made a member of the Anglicanism Working Group, and I have been re-elected to the General Synod.

I continue as President of the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, speaking at CND’s annual Hiroshima Day commemoration in Merrion Square on 6 August, and joining a CND delegation in talks with the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin.

I continue to write regularly for the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory), and I write occasionally for The Irish Times, the Church of Ireland Gazette, Koinonia, and the Skerries News. I contributed to the programme for a Dutch symposium on Liturgy and Music, I was a panellist again on radio and television shows, and I was interviewed too by the Dundrum Gazette about my concern over the dilapidated state of the Ely Arch in Rathfarnham.

From Beijing to Wexford

Early in the year, the Mandarin translation of China and the Irish, which was published in Beijing by the People’s Publishing House, was launched in Dublin Castle at the beginning of the Chinese New Year. This collection of essays is edited by Jerusha McCormack, and Richard O’Leary of Queen’s University Belfast and I have co-written a paper, ‘Heroism and zeal: pioneers of the Irish Christian missions to China’ (pp 77-92).

At the end of the year, I was back in Wexford for the launch of the Journal of the Wexford Historical Society. My paper in the Journal is a study of the life and career of my great-grandfather: ‘James Comerford (1817-1902): rediscovering a Wexford-born Victorian stuccodore’s art.’

My five-year contract at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute as Director of Spiritual Formation came to an end in August. But I began a new contract in September as Lecturer in Anglicanism and Church History.

I continue my research on Pugin’s Irish churches. My sarcoidosis is stable although the remission promised a year or two ago has never arrived. Taking my tablets is akin to sorting through Bertie Bassett’s multicoloured liquorice allsorts every morning and every evening. I continue with regular hospital tests, check-ups and consultations, and visit my GP once a month for a B12 injection. But I continue to enjoy my beach walks – even they do nothing for my symptoms, they make my soul and my intellect feel happier and lighter.

The hopes and fears of all the years

Unemptied bins spilling over onto the streets of Thessaloniki during a strike by public workers a few weeks ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Facing into 2012, if I have half the blessings I received in 2011 and give and receive much of the love experienced in the past year, I shall be more than happy.

But we must all be facing 2012 with anxiety and trepidation. The crisis that has hit our whole, wider economy is threatened with implosion. As Fintan O’Toole said in The Irish Times earlier this week, “the economic model that has dominated since the 1980s – based on ever-increasing, debt-fuelled consumption in the West – is incapable of sustaining itself without, at the very least, radical reform. Its unhealthy effects have been all too visible, not just in the body politic, but in the body.”

Have we lost our priorities as well as our sense of direction as we walk on into the future? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

I am worried not about the banks or the bond holders, or selfishly not even worried about the pension funds. I am more worried about the future facing those who are already caught in the poverty trap.

I am distressed by the poverty facing people in Greece. I am worried that Helena Smith’s story this week about Dimitris Gasparinatos and his wife Christina in Patras forced to hand over their children because of poverty is not so much a story from the end of the year but rather a story of what the year ahead may hold for too many:


No comments: