07 July 2013

Three weddings and some
cathedrals on the Amalfi coast

Looking down on the Amalfi coast from Ravello (Photograph: Patrick Comerford (2013)

Patrick Comerford

I spent Saturday [6 July 2013] along the Amalfi Coast, which stretches along the southern coast of the peninsula east of Sorrento.

With its steep shoreline, towering cliffs, rocky outcrops, hairpin bends, with the shimmering blue sea below and one pretty coastal town or pastel-coloured village after another, the Amalfi Coast is a popular location for motor advertising shots and the weekend traffic also showed how this a popular destination for both Italians and the thousands of tourists staying in the Naples and Sorrento area.

I had no mid-life-crisis, open-topped red sports car for today’s journey. Instead, I travelled by coach with the four dozen or so people in our group along the only land route on the Amalfi Coast – the 40 km stretch along the Strada Statale 163, running along the coastline from Positano in the west to Vietri sul Mare in the east.

The rocks of Sirenuse ... home to the Sirens who may have given their name to Sorrento (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Below us in the blue sea for the most part of the journey we could see the tiny islands that form Li Galli Archipelago. United the 19th century there were known as Sirenuse and the said to be the home of the mythical Sirens who lured sailors unto the rocks and who may have given their name to Surrentum or Sorrento.

In the 10th and 11th centuries, the Duchy of Amalfi was an independent statelet based on the town of Amalfi. This coastline was part of the Principality of Salerno, until Amalfi was sacked by the Republic of Pisa in 1137.

The Amalfi Coast is known for limoncello, a liqueur produced from locally-grown lemons (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

In 1997, the Amalfi Coast was listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site and as a cultural landscape. This area is also known for limoncello, a liqueur produced from lemons grown between February and October in the terraced gardens along the coast.

After the unification of Italy, the Amalfi coast has enjoyed a huge economic revival, boosted in the late 20th century by international tourism.

Our first stop was in Positano, a village and commune , mainly in an enclave in the hills leading down to the coast. It was a port in the mediaeval Amalfi Republic.

The church of Santa Maria Assunta has a dome made of majolica tiles and a 13th century Byzantine icon of a black Madonna. According to local legend, the icon was stolen in Byzantium and was being shipped across the Mediterranean by pirates when a terrible storm blew up in the sea near Positano. The frightened sailors heard a voice on board saying: “Posa, posa!” (“Put down! Put down!”) The sacred icon was taken off the boat and carried to the fishing village, and only then the storm abated.

Positano prospered in the 16th and 17th centuries. However, by the mid-19th century, the town had fallen on hard times, and more than half the population emigrated, mostly to Australia.

By the first half of the 20th century, Positano was a relatively poor fishing village. It began to attract large numbers of tourists in the 1950s, especially after John Steinbeck published his short story ‘Positano’ in Harper’s Bazaar in May, 1953.

“Positano bites deep,” he wrote. “It is a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone.”

After we gone through Positano and stopped briefly on the eastern edge of the town for the panoramic view and freshly squeezed orange juice and once again at a ceramic shop at Grotta dello Smeraldo before continuing on to the harbour town of Amalfi.

I had an internal debate between boats and architecture: would I go on a boat trip with the others out into the Bay of Salerno? Or would I visit the Duomo in Amalfi on my own?

The portico of the Duomo di Sant’Andrea looks down onto the Piazza Duomo below (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

I plan to visit Capri on Monday, so architecture won the day today, and I climbed the broad steep steps to the Duomo di Sant’ndrea. And I was just in time too, for a wedding was about to begin, and by the time the boat-trippers returned the bride had arrived and the cathedral was closed to visitors.

The Cloisters of Paradise with their ornate Moorish-style colonnades (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The cathedral doors were cast in bronze in Constantinople in the 11th century. But the entrance to the cathedral is through the beautifully named Chiostro del Paradiso or Cloisters of Paradise, with its ornate Moorish-style colonnades of white-washed, interlaced arches, palm trees, and inner garden.

The cloisters lead into the museum in the former Basilica di Crocifissio, with bare walls and an eclectic collection of ecclesiastical artefacts, including a bishop’s sedan chair made in Macao in the 18th century, along with paintings, mitres and vestments.

The richly decorated ceiling of the crypt below the Duomo in Amalfi (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Steps lead down to the crypt, with its richly decorated baroque ceiling and a shrine containing the body of Saint Andrew, who gives his name to the cathedral above. The apostle’s body was brought to Amalfi by the Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem, who brought it here in 1204, having plundered it in Constantinople which contains.

The body is buried deep beneath the shrine – although the saint’s head is in Patras in Greece – but the shrine includes a small vessel placed above the coffin to catch a miraculous fluid that is said to flow from the saint’s body ever since the 14th century.

Away from the bustle of the square in the front of the cathedral and back from the busy beach and harbour, the back streets and the stepped side streets were quiet and cool in the mid-day sun.

From Amalfi, we climbed up through the cultivated terraced mountainside and the hairpin bends to Scala, where we had lunch in the Margheritta Hotel, in a balcony looking down on the road we had had climbed in our two small buses.

The ornate Gospel pulpit in the Duomo in Ravello (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

From Scala, we travelled back down to Ravello, once an independent city state. This was also the setting for part of Richard Wagner’s Parsifal, and here DH Lawrence wrote part of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

The Duomo, dedicated to Saint Pantaleone, was being prepared for a wedding, but once again I had arrived in time to see the inside of the cathedral and its museum.

The duomo has two ornately decorated pulpits – an Epistle pulpit and a Gospel pulpit. The Gospel pulpit has twisted columns patterned with mosaics resting on six carved lions.

There was time to look inside the tropical gardens of the Villa Rufolo, which inspired Klingsor’s magic garden and the stage design of Wagner’s Parsifal.

Although we could see it from the balconies of Ravello, we never got as far as Salerno.

As we sat to dinner back in the Grand Hotel Moon Valley, a wedding was taking place by the pool, and some of us joined the happy families until late in the evening.

The bride dances at the third wedding in a day (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

‘White Tintoretto clouds’ and a tiny church
on the small island of Inishbiggle

Holy Trinity Church, Inishbiggle, was dedicated in 1896 ... today the island has only one Church of Ireland parishioner (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

It was the May bank holiday weekend, and it was supposedly the first holiday weekend of the summer. But the rain was heavy, and thick clouds enveloped Achill Island. I had been invited to take part in leading a guided tour of the tiny island of Inishbiggle as part of the ninth Annual Heinrich Böll Memorial Weekend, and to speak in Holy Trinity Church.

Inside Holy Trinity Church, Inishbiggle ... crowded for a history lecture and poetry reading in May (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The channel between Bullsmouth, on the eastern shores of Achill Island, and Inishbiggle has one of the strongest and most treacherous currents in Europe. Those currents are unpredictable, often making Inishbiggle inaccessible. Yet, against all expectations, 80 or more people made the morning crossing in relays on currachs and with Coast Guard volunteers.

Looking across to Inishbiggle from Bullsmouth ... the channel has one of the strongest and most treacherous currents in Europe Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Tiny Inishbiggle is squeezed between Achill and the Mayo mainland. It measures only 2.5 km by 1.5 km, with a land area of 2.6 sq km. In recent years, the population has dwindled to about 20, and the school and post office have been closed for some years. There is only one Church of Ireland parishioner on the island, and the only church, Holy Trinity Church, belongs to the Church of Ireland.

Crossing from Achill to Inishbiggle on a currach, with the poet James Harpur Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Sheila McHugh led the guided walk, and we were offered morning coffee and tea in the island school, now used for Sunday Mass and as a doctor’s clinic. From there, it was a short walk to Holy Trinity Church, where I spoke on the history of the Church of Ireland on Inishbiggle.

A recently populated island

Walking across Inishbiggle on a rainy Sunday morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Both the church and the island are unique for Inishbiggle is the only island with only a Church of Ireland church. Inishbiggle is also a new island, for it has been inhabited continuously for less than two centuries.

The island was once part of the Mayo estates of the Ormond Butlers, whose claims were confirmed to Thomas Butler, Earl of Ormond, in 1585, and again by King James I in 1612. The Butler lordship, including Achill and Inishbiggle, continued until 1696, when they leased their Mayo estates first to Sir Thomas Bingham and then to Thomas Medlycott.

There has been a steady decline in the population of Inishbiggle in recent decades (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

At the end of the 18th century, the estate, including Achill and Inishbiggle, was bought by John Browne, 1st Earl of Altamont, and then in 1785 by Sir Neal O’Donel of Newport House – for £33,598 19s 4d.

Caesar Otway believed Inishbiggle was an ideal place for growing wheat and milling flour (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

But Inishbiggle remained uninhabited until 1834. In 1837, there was no church on either Achill Island or Inishbiggle, and the Rector, Canon Charles Wilson, reported that Sunday services were held in a private house. By 1838, a few buildings had started to appear on Inishbiggle, and in 1839 the Revd Caesar Otway visited Inishbiggle. He suggested it was an ideal island for growing wheat and for a mill, but his proposals came to nothing.

The houses on Inishbiggle are in various states of maintenance and disrepair (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The Revd Edward Nangle saw Inishbiggle as an opportunity to extend the work of his Achill Mission, and by 1841 Inishbiggle had a population of 67. During the Famine, Inishbiggle developed slowly, with the arrival of both Protestant and Catholic tenants from Achill and from mainland Co Mayo, attracted by lower rents and hoping for better living conditions.

In March 1848, hundreds of people from Dooniver, Bullsmouth and Ballycroy approved a declaration thanking Nangle for supplying them with potatoes and turnips from a mission farm on Inishbiggle. Without the food, they said, they would have starved.

Population rise and fall

The Revd Canon Edward Nangle (1800-1883) ... a portrait in Saint Thomas’s Church, Dugort (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The first schoolhouse was built on Inishbiggle that year. But by 1851, the population had dropped to 61. A year later, Nangle and the trustees of the Achill Mission bought Inishbiggle from Sir Richard O’Donel. The other trustees were the Hon Somerset Richard Maxwell, the Right Hon Joseph Napier and George Alexander Hamilton.

Somerset Maxwell, who had briefly been the Tory MP for Co Cavan (1839-1840), was a grandson of Henry Maxwell, Bishop of Meath, who built Saint Mary’s Church, Newtownbarry (Bunclody), Co Wexford, and a son of the Revd Henry Maxwell, 6th Lord Farnham. Somerset Maxwell eventually succeeded as the 8th Lord Farnham. His influence may have brought a number of Cavan Protestant families to Achill, including the Sherridan family. George Alexander Hamilton MP was a son of the Revd George Hamilton of Hampton Hall, Balbriggan, Co Dublin. But, despite the trustees’ strong Church links, Inishbiggle remained without a church until the end of the 19th century.

The pulpit in Holy Trinity Church, Inishbiggle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

There were 18 families living on Inishbiggle in 1855: their family names were Cafferky, Campbell, Cooney, Fallon, Henery (Henry), Landrum, McDermott, McManmon, Mealley (Malley or O’Malley), Molly (Molloy), Nevin, Reaf and Sweeny. By 1861, Inishbiggle had a population of 145. By 1871, there were 154 people, and by 1881, 171 people.

But by the 1880s, emigration was taking its toll on the Church of Ireland community. The Rector of Achill, the Revd Michael Fitzgerald, wrote: “During the months of April and May 1883, and within the last ten days, I have lost by the rapid tide of free emigration to Canada, the United States of America, and Australia, forty-two members of my flock, thirty-six of whom belong to Achill Sound, and six to the island of Inishbiggle.”

It was a steep decline. By 1891, the population of Inishbiggle had fallen to 135. In 1901, it was still 135. Of these, 39 (29 per cent) were members of the Church of Ireland. Their family names were Brice, Calvey, Gallagher, Henry, McManmon, Malley, Miller, McManmon and Sheerin,

Ten years later, in 1911, the Church of Ireland islanders on Inishbiggle had dropped in number to 36, while the general population of the island had risen to 149. The Church of Ireland population was now 24 per cent – the island’s population was rising, but the Church of Ireland population was dropping, and that decline would have been greater but for the arrival of John Tydd Freer, a school teacher, and his family.

The family names of the Church of Ireland islanders were: Bryce, Calvey, Freer, Gallagher, Henry, McManmon, O’Malley and Sheerin. These names indicate that the members of the Church of Ireland on the island shared the social backgrounds of their neighbours, and there was an interesting degree of inter-marriage between Church of Ireland and Roman Catholic families.

By the beginning of the second decade of the 20th century, the community was in decline. A higher standard of literacy and education made it easier for their children to emigrate, because they had higher job prospects.

By 1971, Charles Crawford Freer, by then Press Officer for the Church of Ireland, reported that the Church of Ireland population of Inishbiggle had fallen from 15 to five. The Church of Ireland community on Inishbiggle was never large enough to give hope to a sustainable parish developing on the island. Today, the number has fallen to one.

Building a church

A plaque in Holy Trinity Church, Inishbiggle, recalling the generosity of Ellen Blair from Sandymount (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Although one diocesan history states Holy Trinity Church was built by the Achill Mission, the Achill Mission had long closed by the time the church was built in the 1890s with a generous bequest from Miss Ellen Blair of Sandymount, Dublin.

In 1893, Bishop James O’Sullivan of Tuam, the Rector of Achill, the Revd Michael Fitzgerald, and the diocesan architect, John G Skipton, came to Inishbiggle by boat on a five-mile journey from Achill Sound to select a site for the new church. In 1895, Bishop O’Sullivan, his wife and the rector returned to lay the foundation stone for Holy Trinity Church.

The building work was carried out by local labour. It is told that during this building work a heavy piece of wood crashed to the ground, just missing Patrick O’Malley, who was rescued thanks to the hasty intervention of Patrick Nevin. The building was completed by 1896, and Bishop O’Sullivan came to Inishbiggle on “a sunny day,” with a large number of people in rowing boats, for the consecration of the new church.

An open door and a warm welcome in Holy Trinity Church, Inishbiggle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Holy Trinity Church is built of stone with a natural pebble-dash finish, a small tower with a bell and cross. In summer, the church is even prettier as pink rhododendrons surrounding come into bloom, forming an archway. The simple, plain, white-painted interior has a small organ, five rows of wooden pews, a small pulpit, a chancel arch, a sanctuary area and a tall, three-light East Window, with a small vestry off the sanctuary area.

The cemetery wall was built by Patrick Malley as a thank offering after surviving an accident when the church was being built (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

As a mark of gratitude, Patrick O’Malley later built a stone wall around the small churchyard or cemetery. However, the cemetery has not been used for burials for 80 or 90 years.

A school was built in 1870, replacing the first school dating from the 1840s. The teacher’s cottage beyond the church on the edge of the island is now roofless and is falling into ruins.

Successive Bishops of Tuam, including Bishop John Neill and Bishop Richard Henderson, had a generous ecumenical vision for the future of the church, and in 2003 the church was rededicated to serve the Church of Ireland and Roman Catholic islanders. But the church has since returned to the Church of Ireland.

A poet’s visit

Looking from Bullsmouth across to Inishbiggle ... Frederick MacNeice left his family at Bullsmouth watching the sunset while he took the Sunday afternoon service in Holy Trinity Church, Inishbiggle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Inishbiggle was always part of the parishes of Achill and Dugort. But it was also served in summer months by visiting clergy and students, who often stayed in the Rectory at Achill Sound or in the Old Rectory in Dugort.

Those summer visitors included Bishop John Frederick MacNeice (1866-1942), father of the poet Louis MacNeice. Frederick MacNeice first visited Achill in 1911 and he first brought his son Louis with him in 1927. In 1929, the family stayed at the Old Rectory in Dugort, visiting Keel and climbing Slievemore. He crossed from Bullsmouth to Inishbiggle late in the afternoon, while his family remained at Bullsmouth watching “a beautiful sunset behind Slievemore.”

When he returned the following summer, he was a canon of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. He became Bishop of Cashel in 1931, and Bishop of Down and Dromore in 1934.

Louis MacNeice returned to Achill in 1945, and in a poem he wrote afterwards – ‘The Strand’ (1945), published in Holes in the Sky in 1948 – he talks of “White Tintoretto clouds beneath my naked feet …”

Seeking a vision for the future

Making the crossing back from Inishbiggle back to Achill Island (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

My currach crossing from Bullsmouth in May took about 10 minutes. The crossing back with the Coast Guard took half that time. Sea spray and salt water left most of us in need of a change of clothes.

Later, an interesting conversation began with Sheila McHugh and the Achill-born poet, John F Deane, on finding a new future for Holy Trinity Church, perhaps as a centre for spirituality and the arts.

But this would need a combination of the visionary and practical approaches that transformed the Heinrich Böll Cottage in Dugort into a writers’ and artists’ centre and that inspire the Heinrich Böll Memorial Weekend each year.

Is there a future for Holy Trinity Church, Inishbiggle? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. This essay was first published in July 2013 in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory)