28 December 2013

A walk by the boathouses ...
and coffee in the Boathouse

The boathouses on the banks of the River Liffey late this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

There was a lull in the storm in Dublin today, despite the winds that have blown across these islands at up to 150 kph, cutting power to many households, disrupting sea, air, rail and road traffic, and flooding many areas.

With blue skies and a crisp clean air that felt like fresh mountain water, two of us decided to go for a walk this afternoon [28 December 2013].

Bray had been physically and spiritually invigorating yesterday, and in these lazy days it would have taken only 20 minutes to get to the beach there. However, we decided instead to go for a walk along the River Liffey, by the boathouses at Islandbridge.

It’s a ‘Wind in the Willows’ thing ... a single sculler on the River Liffey late this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Only two lone scullers from the Trinity Boathouse were out on the river in single sculls or shells, working their way between the boathouse and Chapelizod and back again. But the water was as calm as a millpond.

Single-sculling is the second slowest category of racing boat, although it is faster than the coxed pair. But the competitors are known to other rowers as among the toughest, both physically and mentally, so that single sculling is sometimes known as “King’s Class.”

Single sculling time trials and races can be used to measure each individual’s rowing ability for selection into larger boats. These two brave women are obviously determined and single-minded to get into the water in this hardy weather.

As these two women worked their way up and down the river, small family groups by the edge of the water were helping their children to feed the swans and ducks by the Trinity Boathouse.

In an idle moment, as I looked up at the Magazine Fort in the Phoenix Park overlooking the river, I wondered why the Trinity boathouse is on the south side of the River, why the UCD boathouse is on the north side of the river, and why the Phoenix Park, although it is on the northside, has a southside postal code (Dublin 8)? Is it because the President lives there?

Oh the silliness of Dublin southside snobberies!

This evening’s sunset behind Chapelizod and Palmerstown seen from a hill in the Phoenix Park (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Although the sun was beginning to set, we decided to drive along the north bank of the river to the Chapelizod Gate and into the Phoenix Park. The grazing deer provided a Christmas-themed look to the landscape, and at the top of the hill, over in the south-west, the sun was setting in the trees behind Chapelizod and Palmerstown.

We continued on to Farmleigh, the 78 acre estate that includes the official residence of the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) and the official State Guest House. Although it was now dark, it is hard to imagine that could be such an open welcome to the public at Chequers.

Farmleigh was bought from the Guinness family by the Government in 1999 for over €29 million, and since then the house has been carefully refurbished.

The house was built in the late 18th century and was bought by Edward Cecil Guinness (1847-1927) in 1873 when he married his cousin, Adelaide Guinness. A great-grandson of Arthur Guinness, he became the first Earl of Iveagh in 1919.

The Conservatory was built at Farmleigh in 1901 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

We were too late to join the last tour of the house, and instead we stopped for coffee and panini at the Boathouse Café beside the main house.

The café, managed by RASC Catering, is set alongside the ornamental lake, with a skirt of decking overlooking the water and offering a quiet rural corner so close to the heart of the city.

This was my first visit to Farmleigh and to Boathouse. I ought to return before this holiday season comes to an end.

After-dark reflections in the ornamental lake seen from the skirt of decking at the Boathouse Café in Farmleigh (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Art for Christmas (4): ‘The Levy of Christian
Children,’ by Nikolaos Ghyzis

‘Το παιδομάζωμα’ (ή ‘το σκλαβοπάζαρο’) του Νικολάου Γύζη ... ‘The Levy of Christian Children,’ by Nikolaos Ghyzis

Patrick Comerford

This morning [28 December 2013] the calendar of the Church remembers the Massacre of the Innocents at the orders of Herod. Saint Matthew’s Gospel recalls how Herod ordered the execution of all young male children in the area around Bethlehem because he imagined a threat to his throne with the reports of a new-born king (see Matthew 2: 16-18).

Although these Holy Innocents could not possibly have been Christians, yet the Church has traditionally revered them as martyrs for Christ.

On this morning, we should be conscious of the many thousands upon thousands of children who are the innocent victims of war and strife around the world. I think this morning in particular of the distressed and displaced children of Syria, living in appalling conditions this winter in makeshift camps in Syria and in neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey.

But as news fashions change day-by-day, we are soon going to forget the displaced children of South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Egypt and Libya. Who among us woke up this morning remembering the displaced boy soldiers who wandered for years around the countries of Central Africa? Who knows what has happened to them?

Remembering the innocent children who are caught up in war, I have chosen as my work of Art for Christmas the painting Το παιδομάζωματο σκλαβοπάζαρο), The Levy of Christian Children, by the Greek painter Nikolaos Ghyzis (Νικολάου Γύζη).

I drew on the imagery in this painting many years ago, as I was preparing a paper, ‘Defining Greek and Turk: Uncertainties in the Search for European identities,’ for publication in the Cambridge Review of International Affairs (Vol XIII, No 2, Spring/Summer 2000).

‘The Secret School’ by Nikolaos Ghyzis on the former Greek 200 drachma note

Nikolaos Ghyzis (1842-1901), from the island of Tinos, is one of Greece’s most important 19th-century painters, and is the major representative of the so-called “Munich School,” the major 19th-century Greek art movement. His painting The Secret School featured on the reverse of the Greek 200 drachmas banknote from 1996 until the drachma gave way to the Euro in 2001.

As part of its educational programme, the National Gallery of Greece brought a collection of significant 19th century Greek paintings to its Sparta annexe in the late 1990s, and the catalogue and poster for the exhibition were illustrated by The Levy of Christian Children by Nikolaos Ghyzis.

The Janissaries were introduced to the Turkish army in the 14th century as a permanent component in an army raised by means of feudal levies. The best of Christian boys, both in brain and brawn, were taken from their families as tribute in the levy known as the devsirme. The Janissaries were feared even by the sultans: Osman II in 1622, and Selim III in 1807 were killed by Janissaries, and it was not until 1826 that Mahmut II had the power and the strength to disband the Janissaries.

The Church of Santa Sophia or the Ibrahim Mosque in Rethymnon … was converted into a mosque by a Janissary (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

When the town of Rethymnon in Crete was captured by the Turks, the church was converted into a mosque by a Janissary, Yahya Ibrahim (John Abraham). But the innocent children taken in this levy were not all boys, nor did they all end up as Janissaries. Perhaps the most famous Muslim from Rethymnon was the Valide Sultana or Queen Mother Emetullah Rabia Gulnus Sultan, who was born a Christian in the town, the daughter of a Greek Orthodox priest.

Emetullah Rabia Gulnus Sultan (1642-1715) was the wife of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed IV and Valide Sultan to their sons Mustafa II and Ahmed III (1695-1715). She was born Evmania Voria in 1642 in Rethymnon, and grew up here when it was still part of the Venetian empire.

When Rethymnon fell to the Turks, she was taken captive and in 1646 she was sent as a slave to Constantinople. There she was given a Turkish and Muslim education in the harem department of Topkapi, where she soon caught the eye of Sultan Mehmed IV.

However, the blood of Greeks flowed through the veins of Janissaries, the viziers, and even the Ottoman sultans. Despite the subsequent claims by Ataturk in the 20th century to a pure Turkish identity, forced conversions, the wholesale transfer of villages and communities, and the families of the Janissaries and even the sultans themselves are guarantees even today that there are many Turks whose ancestry is Greek.

I wonder whether in generations to come, will the descendants of the Syrian children who are fleeing war be found among the descendants of the people who failing them politically today?

Tomorrow:Rest on the Flight into Egypt’ by Luc-Olivier Merson.