26 January 2014
62 places this average Anglican
can return to at the age of 62
In a Guardian blog posting last weekend, Andrew Brown, who also writes for the Church Times and who is a shrewd and insightful analyst of religious affairs in general and Anglicanism in particular, pointed out the “the demographics of the Church of England mean that even staying still is a recipe for future catastrophe: the average age of congregations is now 62 …”
Now that I am 62, I suppose I have become a very average Anglican. What a delightful realisation.
I thought of marking my 62nd birthday on this blog by looking at 62 of my favourite churches … all average, but nevertheless delightful. Or looking back on 62 favourite beach walks, 62 favourite river-side walks, 62 beautiful islands I have visited ... instead I have decided to share 62 places that I have enjoyed visiting or living in over the past 62 years.
Some I have lived in; others I have visited only briefly … or perhaps only once. But this morning these 62 places are to the forefront of those cells in my brain involved in recollection, and recollection with pleasure.
An Irish comedian jokes about the difference between a house and a home: “A house is where you live; a home is where your children put you in old age.” There is a popular American saying “Home is where your story begins.” But home is also where your heart returns.
Some of these places have been involved in beginning parts of my story, and so have been home to me in different ways. Home includes my grandmother’s farm outside Cappoquin, where my first memories still reside; home is Lichfield where my faith was first given an adult expression; home is Wexford where I matured in my early 20s and realised my place with others; home is where I live today, with family and with hope for the future.
This morning, my memories return to many places, even when they have not been home, with thoughts and prayers of thanksgiving.
Ten places in Ireland:
Sunset seen through the trees above the River Dodder in Rathfarnham (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
I was born on Rathfarnham Road, in a terrace of houses between Terenure Laundry and Terenure Synagogue. Later, I lived briefly with my foster parents on Rathfarnham Road, and my parents later moved to Rathfarnham Wood. I often enjoy walks along the banks of the River Dodder, between where I work and where I live. I suppose if there is any part of Dublin that I might be from, then Rathfarnham, between where I work and where I live, might symbolise that.
Cappoquin, Co Waterford:
Cappoquin’s Main Street ... little has changed here since my childhood (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
My earliest memories are staying on grandmother’s farm outside Cappoquin. The farm has long been sold, but I still find myself in Cappoquin every year or every second year. And when I walk around its streets, little has changed from the Cappoquin of my childhood that I can walk around in my sleep.
A winter afternoon shrouded in mist on the quays in Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
The Wexford People, in the days of Austin Channing and Gerry Breen, gave me my first salaried position as a journalist. I felt at home in Wexford immediately, and lived there in the early 1970s, first of all in School Street, then in High Street, and for a while in Rosslare Strand. I got involved in parish life, Wexford YMCA, the Labour Party, Wexford Wanderers Rugby Club, poetry readings, and much more. I was very conscious of family roots in Wexford, and that may have helped. If home in the Irish sense is which county you want to win the next All-Ireland Hurling Final, then I still hold out hopes for the Wexford Hurlers.
Achill Island, Co Mayo:
Dugort beach ... Achill on a summer’s day is like an Aegean island in the sun (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
I first visited Achill in 1974, and have returned again and again. It is a haven, especially when I want a quiet place to read and to think. Quiet places are good places for thinking, especially when you need to think out loud, and the beach in Dugort is one of those places.
Bettystown and Laytown, Co Meath:
Looking back on my childhood, it seems my father wanted a place each summer that would allow him to commute into work each day, and to return to play golf in the evening. This accounts for long summer holidays in my childhood in Kilcoole, Co Wicklow, Bettystown and Laytown, Co Meath, Termonfeckin, Co Louth, and Virginia, Co Cavan. They were also close to Gormanston, where two of us were at school. I still return to Bettystown as one of my favourite places for walking on the beach, especially in the depths of winter.
A glimpse into the past ... Rothe House in Parliament Street, Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
I hope to be back in Kilkenny next month for the Dublin and Glendalough Clergy Conference, and last year I must have been there on ten or or more occasions ... for book launches, lectures, board meetings, cathedral concerts, or simply just for the pleasure of it. If I lived there, you would have to peel me out of the place in order to get me to leave.
Portrane and Donabate, Co Dublin:
My grandparents were married in Donabate, and are buried in Portrane. I still have cousins living on this peninsula, and I help out once a year at a second-hand book stall raising funds for a charity working in Romania and Albania. The beaches in this tiny corner of Fingal draw me back again and again.
Skerries, Co Dublin:
When I was moving house in the mid-1990s, it was a question of whether to live by the sea or by the mountains. I thought of Skerries, but ended up in Knocklyon; however, the M50 has been completed since then, and Skerries is only 40 minutes away these days. I have provided cover during the vacancy in Holmpatrick Parish, written for Skerries News, brought the facilitators at the Anglican Primates’ meeting here for dinner, and organised retreats with the sailing club as a venue. I enjoy walking the two beaches, and along the harbour, at least once a month, and Skerries has an array of delightful cafés and restaurants.
Drogheda, Co Louth:
During my school days in Gormanston, I enjoyed many Saturday afternoons in Drogheda, and the town holds many happy memories from my days as a teenager. Many of those memories bubbled up in a very gentle way when I was in Drogheda with a group of students last weekend.
Bunclody, Co Wexford:
Bunclody on the banks of the River Clody and River Slaney … once known as Newtownbarry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
My grandfather’s family came from Bunclody, and generations of the Comerford family are buried outside the village in Old Kilymshall and Templeshanbo. The family moved across the Blackstairs Mountain from Co Kilkenny to this part of Co Wexford in the 18th century. Bunclody is a pretty place on the banks of the River Clody and the River Slaney, and one of my favourite stretches of river is along the banks of the Slaney from Bunclody down to Wexford. Canon Norrie Ruddock is buried in a small churchyard on the banks of this stretch of the Slaney; from the time he was 20, he was persistent in encouraging me to conisdre ordained ministry, and before he died he entrusted me with his Home Communion set, with a long list of those who had used it over the generations ... a true sign of apostolic succession.
Ten places in England:
If home is where life stories begin, continue and end, then I still feel at home in Lichfield. I first came here in 1970 in search of family roots, and soon became a freelance contributor to the Lichfield Mercury. My adult faith had a wonderful beginning in the chapel of Saint John’s Hospital on a Thursday afternoon in 1971, and my vocation to ordained ministry began to find expression attending Evensong in Lichfield Cathedral that evening. It is a true pleasure to still have friends here; I return two or three times a year as a pilgrim or on retreat to say thank you, and I contribute occasionally to the Lichfield Gazette.
The sign at the entrance to Comberford Village in Staffordshire
Although the family tree became jumbled at one stage, I first stayed in Lichfield because I was visiting Comberford, following my great-grandfather’s search for the family roots shortly before his death in 1902. I once imagined Comberford Hall would be an ideal retreat centre, with the village church close-by, across the fields. Comberford Hall has been sold, yet again, in recent months, and the church Comberford village closed at the end of last year. The dream may have come to an end, but this is still one of the charming places I like to identify with.
Cloister Court in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, in the snow (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Since 2008, I have stayed each year in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, studying patristics on modules with the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies. I was also invited by the Revd Peter Waddell to preach in the college chapel two years ago, when Cambridge was covered in a blanket of snow. A few years earlier, I was invited to preach in the chapel of Christ’s College by the Revd Christopher Woods. Most tourists spend just a day or two in Cambridge, looking at the Chapel in King’s College and perhaps hiring a punt along the Backs. In the last few years, I have been allowed to get to know Cambridge from the perspective of both the student and the academic, and I now enjoy an intimate acquaintance with its side streets, college courts and chapels, and the walks by the Backs and the Cam, and when I’m there I feel at home at the quiet Eucharist each weekday morning in Saint Bene’t’s Church around the corner from Sidney Sussex.
I first got to know Quemerford in my search for family stories and roots. It’s no longer a village but part of the neighbouring town of Calne. But it is a quiet, friendly and welcoming place.
The Cross of Nails in Coventry Cathedral (Photograph; Patrick Comerford)
The chapel in Gormanston is a mini-replica of Coventry Cathedral, which is perhaps the most architecturally-influential church built in the post-World War II decades. I was strongly influenced in the 1970s by the Ministry of Reconciliation at Coventry Cathedral and the work of the Community of the Cross of Nails, as well as the Lifestyle Movement founded in 1972 by Horace Dammers, when he was a residentiary canon and the Director of Studies at Coventry Cathedral (1965-1973).
When I have visited Quemerford, I have stayed at the White Hart Inn in Calne, an old coaching inn that dates back to the mid-17th century. The M4 now bypasses Calne, and this and the closure of the bacon family have restored a charming atmosphere to Calne, between Chippenham and Marlborough in North Wiltshire. This is one of Wiltshire’s oldest market towns, and the White Hart is set on the corner of the Green, close to Joseph Priestly’s house. My favourite room may even be older than the rest of the village and date back to the 16th century. It looks out onto the cobbled courtyard, which opens out onto the Green.
A cousin by marriage once claimed in the early 1970s that he had pleasure in a student prank walking the length of a cinema queue for Love Story in Oxford, telling everyone: “He dies in the end.” TS Eliot wrote famously: “Oxford is very pretty, but I don’t like to be dead.” I was back in Oxford most recently at the end of October, visiting Ripon College Cuddesdon and Wycliffe Hall. For me, Oxford is still the “city of dreaming spires,” a term coined by the English poet Matthew Arnold in 1865. In his poem Thyrsis, he describes the view of Oxford from Boars Hill:
And that sweet city with her dreaming spires,
She needs not June for beauty’s heightening
Lovely all times she lies, lovely to-night!
Tolleshunt Knights, Essex:
Each year, while I am part of the course at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, I have spent a quiet day at the Monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights, Essex. This is a mixed monastic community of men and women, and is warmly welcoming to Christians of all traditions. The monastery is built around a former Church of England rectory, and plays an important role in ecumenical dialogue.
The Moat House ... a Jacobean gem in the heart of Tamworth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Much of the old town centre of Tamworth was destroyed in the building frenzies of the 1960s. It was a tragic mistake, and looking at the old photographs collected by local journalist and historian John Harper it might otherwise have been as charming as neighbouring Lichfield. Apart from the castle, some of the oldest and most historic buildings in the town include Saint Editha’s parish church, which includes some important Pre-Raphaelite windows and the Comberford Chapel, and the Moat House, a Jacobean-era town house on the banks of the River Tam, built by the Comberford family.
Saffron Walden, Essex:
Saffron Walden is a pretty, picture-postcard, market town in Essex, with colourful timber-framed and gabled town houses and cottages. Similar architectural charm can be found in neighbouring Bishop’s Stortford. Both towns are close to Stansted Airport, but I wonder how many Ryanair passengers arriving from Ireland stop to enjoy the charms of either town.
Ten places in Greece:
I have been a regular visitor to Rethymnon for the past four decades. It remains my favourite town in Greece, with its mixture of Venetian and Ottoman architecture, its charming narrow streets lined with the tables of restaurants and tavernas, and its rich cultural life. If I ever decided to live in Greece, this would be my first choice for a home.
The White Tower is a symbol of Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
I had visited Thessaloniki many times as a journalist and had felt at home here long before I realised that my grandfather had caught malaria here during World War I, and had been invalided home. I returned again in 2011 to retrace his steps, and wondered was that why I had felt so at ease in Greece’s second city.
Tourist sites such as the Acropolis have been closed by recent protests (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
My first visit to Athens in the 1980s was funded with part of a legacy from an uncle, my father’s half-brother. I returned again and again while I was a journalist with The Irish Times and have returned many times since. Each time I visit Athens, I place flowers on the grave of Sir Richard Church, an Irish general and Greek senator who was involved in Greece’s struggle for independence.
The Monastery of Vatopedi on Mount Athos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
One year, friends in the Greek Press Office and Ministry of Information arranged for me to spend Orthodox Easter in the monastery of Vatopedi on Mount Athos. It was an unforgettable experience. I felt honoured to have been welcomed as a priest by the abbot, and was made welcome at all the liturgical celebrations. As I left, I was told to remember always that this is my monastery.
The convent on the small islet of Vlahérna stands on a small islet off the coast of Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
I was invited to give a paper in Corfu some years ago on Irish figures involved in the Greek War of Independence in the early 19th century. The cheapest and most direct way to get to Corfu was to book a package holiday, and forego the accommodation. Some of the package-holiday people on the same flight were amused at what I was doing: “There can’t be much demand for teaching early 19th century Greek history in Dublin,” I was told. “No wonder you have to go to Greece to work.”
The small white-washed convent on the tiny islet of Vlahérna, 2 km south of Corfu town and joined to the island by a narrow causeway, is one of the most photographed place in Greece, featuring in almost every guide book. When I visited it, I was surprised it was so small despite having so many visitors.
I first visited Rhodes at the height of the Greek-Turkish crisis over the rocky islets of Imia (Limnia) in 1996. I later returned for family holidays, and have also visited Rhodes while I was on holidays in Turkey. One year, when I was taking part in a conference on the small, off-shore island of Chalki, I brought a number of other academics and journalists back to Rhodes to meet some Muslim families in the old town, who spoke informatively about life as Muslims in Greece. The group aptly called themselves the “Rhodes Scholars.”
I have also visited the old Jewish quarter in Rhodes, and written about the horrific experiences of the Jews of Rhodes during World War II. I hope my sons will remember that they have been welcomed to pray in a synagogue by an old woman who survived Auschwitz. I am conscious this morning that today [26 January 2014] is World Holocaust Day.
Iraklion is a gutsy, sometimes gritty, working city in Crete. Too many Irish holiday-makers and tourists pass through Iraklion on their way to sun, sand and sea, without giving it any regard. But this is the city of El Greco and Nikos Kazantzakis, with fine Venetian and Ottoman remains, and once a centre of Byzantine iconography. I climbed the bastion last summer to visit the grave of Kazantzakis once again, in a day that also included meals with friends and a visit to an art exhibition in the former Saint Mark’s Basilica.
High on a plateau in the mountains above Rethymnon, the Monastery of Arkadi is a symbol of Greek resistance and independence. It dates back to at least the 16th century, and the monastery played an active role in the Cretan resistance. In 1866, 943 Greeks, mostly women and children, sought refuge in the monastery. After three days of battle and under orders from the abbot, they blew up barrels of gunpowder, choosing to sacrifice their own lives rather than surrender. Today, this monastery is an oasis of peace away from the busy resorts.
Fishermen taking care of their nets in the fishing harbour at Pythagoreio on the island of Samos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Samos is the island of Pythagoras, the philosopher and mathematician who gave us the concept of the cosmos. I have visited Samos four or five times while I was staying in western Turkey. It may not be the place where the whole cosmos comes together, but at least Greeks and Turks come together there.
The small island of Kastellorizo is the setting for the 1991 Italian movie Mediterraneo (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
I could have chosen so many other Greek islands I have visited over the years: Kos, Kalymnos, Patmos, Symi, Leros, Santorini, Pserimos, Kephallonia, Chalki, Zakynthos, Ithaki, Vlahérna, Lipsi, Leros ... but Kastellorizo must be the most remote of them all, half-way between Rhodes and Antalya, and the only way I could get there was on a small boat from the southern Turkish port of Kas. The 1991 Oscar-winning movie Mediterraneo, by Gabriele Salvatores, is set on the island.
Ten places in Turkey:
When I first stopped in Istanbul I was sorry I did not get to see the city. But I have since returned to Istanbul ... Byzantium, Constantinople ... three cities in one, and was delighted to visit so many places at the heart of Church history and at the heart of the Byzantine and Ottoman civilisations.
The Library of Celsus in Ephesus, one of the great libraries of the Classical world (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Strolling through the streets of classical Ephesus on a hot summer’s day, I heard a tourist exclaim: “Oh there’s the Library of Celsius.” Well it was hot summer day. And she did take delight in the sight that appeared before her.
The ruins in the Agora are all that remain of classical Smyrna in Izmir today (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
One day, while I was staying in Kusadasi, I caught the bus to Izmir to see what survives of a once-thriving Greek city. I was horrified years ago by the frightening newsreel from the 1920s of the wholesale destruction of this city by Ataturk's forces, and the slaughter of the Greek and Armenian population. Nothing has survived, and the former Greek and Armenian quarters have been levelled, replaced by modern offices, shops, factories and housing, and by a park. No monument marks the old quarters, no signs tell the stories of their people. Smyrna is one of the seven Churches in the Book of Revelation, but all that survives from the Classical and Hellenistic periods is the the ruined agora and its stoa.
Sirinçe is a peaceful village nestling in the mountains above Selçuk and Ephesus (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
I once spent a pleasant day in Sirinçe, a peaceful village nestling in the mountains above Selçuk and Ephesus, about 30km from Kusadasi. It was once a Greek-speaking town, but the people were forced to leave in the 1920s, and today it is a village of only 600 people. The Greek author Dido Sotiriou tells the story of the village in her novel Bloodied Land (1962), drawing on her memories of her childhood in Kirkindje — then a prosperous town of over 1,000 Greek households.
Kaya Köyü (Levessi):
The villagers of Levessi were forced to abandon their homes in 1923 ... the ruins stand as a witness to a sad time in the history of Europe (Patrick Comerford)
It is a sad fact that – despite the war between Greece and Turkey between 1919 and 1922 – the people of Levessi or Karmylassos had always been good neighbours to one another, with some exceptional cases of intermarriage. Their lives inspired Louis de Bernières in 2003 when he wrote Birds Without Wings, his prequel to Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, where the village of Levessi is thinly disguised as Eskibahçe. Sitting at dinner in Istanbul restaurant in the modern village of Kaya Köyü, below the hills on which the ruined village still sits, I have watched the fading lights of the evening, and sadly contemplated the reality that no lights are coming on in the houses and shops in Levessi. But one Sunday, I quietly celebrated the Eucharist inside the ruins of the Basilica of the Panayia Pirgiotissa (Παναγια Πυργιώτισσα), built as recently as 1888.
Later, outside, some light bells jingling announced the arrival of two tourists on a pair of camels, accompanied by a baby camel. As they strolled by, I was reminded of Rose Macaulay’s account of the travels of the eccentric Aunt Dot (Dorothea ffoulkes-Corbett), Laurie, and Father Hugh Chantry-Pigg through Turkey on her camel and those opening lines in that very Anglican novel, The Towers of Trebizond:
“Take my camel, dear,” said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.
Fishing boats and tourist boats by night in the harbour in Fethiye, south-west Turkey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Modern Fethiye (Μάκρη, Makri) stands on the site of the ancient city of Telmessos. The surviving ruins of the classical city include the Hellenistic theatre near the port. But the most breath-taking sights are the remaining Lycian tombs, scattered through the streets of the city. The most dramatic of these is the massive Tomb of Amyntas, carved into the cliff-face above the city.
The theatre at Miletus ... after it was enlarged in the Roman period it could hold 25,000 people (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Saint Paul said his farewell to the elders of Ephesus in the port of Miletus. The port has long been silted up, but it is still possible to see its outline and to imagine how important this was as a city. The theatre of Miletus is a reminder that this part of Anatolia was at the heart of the Hellenistic and Classical world.
The Temple of Apollo in Didyma, about 17 km from Milerus, is a vast complex. In the corner of a garden to the right of the temple, it might be possible to miss the stone-carved head of Medusa. Yet this picturesque carving has become as much a symbol of tourism in Turkey as the red tulip or the beach at Ölüdeniz. Carvings of the snake-haired Medusa were used in order to protect important buildings and places from the evil eyes.
Myriad Lycian rock tombs in the hills above Kaş were carved out of the cliff-faces in the 4th century BC (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
I ended up in Kaş by accident one morning on my way to Kastellorizo. Kaş was founded by the Lycians, and a rich Lycian necropolis can be seen in the cliff-faces above the town, while the streets are littered with Lycian sarcophagus-type tombs. It was known to its Greek inhabitants as Andifli until they were expelled in the 1920s. And yet, walking around the town, it still feels like a Greek town, and the mosque on the acropolis above Kaş still bears many marks from its time as a Greek Orthodox church.
The beach at Ölüdeniz ... the most photographed beach in Turkey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Kusadasi has attractive beaches, including Ladies’ Beach, and the less-known Paradise Beach, below the Palmin Sunset Hotel. But Fethiye has Ölüdeniz, the most photographed beach in Turkey. Apart from swimming and beach walks, I have also enjoyed this beach as a starting point for tours of the islands off the Anatolian coast, and for visits to Butterfly Valley, and a place to watch paragliders descending from the top of Babadağ, the mountain above the beach.
Ten places in the rest of Europe:
When Henry of Navarre became the heir to the French throne in 1593 he was a Protestant. But he was so eager to become king he declared: “Paris is worth a Mass.” His change of mind earned him the resentment of the Huguenots and of his former ally, Queen Elizabeth. But he gained Paris and the allegiance of the vast majority of the people, and he was crowned King of France in Chartres Cathedral on 27 February 1594.
What is Paris worth? It is certainly worth more than the few weekends and the half-dozen or more times I have been there. On my last visit, I enjoyed a jog each morning up the slopes of Montmartre.
I know someone who says there are two types of people: those who prefer Paris, and those who prefer Rome; I am happy to go back to either, but would be happier to go back to both.
Venice ... an easy and pleasant place to get lost (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
I have a recurring dream of being lost in the back streets of Venice, not knowing which bridge to cross, or which narrow alleyway to turn into.
But unlike the 1973 movie Don’t Look Now starring Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, this is not a frightening dream. At every twist and turn, on every island, there is another beautiful beautiful church with beautiful masterpieces and paintings, another beautiful work of architecture, or another quiet piazza or curious bridge.
Perhaps the most interesting places I have visited in Venice are not Saint Mark’s basilica or square, nor the Rialto Bridge or the Bridge of Sighs, but the Jewish ghetto with its synagogues, the original Italian ghetto; the Armenian Monastery on the small island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni in the Lagoon, west of the Lido; and the tiny island of Torcello, where the story of Venice begins, with the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, founded in 639.
Tourists believe throwing coins in the Trevi Fountain guarantees a return visit to Rome (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Samuel Johnson, the pithy Lichfield lexicographer, once said: “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” I suppose I could say when someone tires of Rome, they are tired of life. Like everyone else I know, I have walked my legs off every time I have visited Rome.
Nobody I know ever thinks of a city break in Bucharest. But the Romanian capital was once known as the “Paris of the East,” and it has elegant, tree-lined boulevards, beautiful churches, parks, museums and galleries, and even has its own Arc de Triomphe. I first went there shortly after the Ceaușescu regime fell a quarter of a century ago. I have since returned as a journalist to cover an election campaign, when I was working with a mission agency to forge links between the Anglican church in central Bucharest and a city centre Romanian Orthodox parish, and for family visits.
If Bucharest is the “Paris of the East,” then Florence was the “Athens of the Middle Ages.” Florence is the birthplace of the Renaissance; this is where Dante wrote, where Brunelleschi built, where Giotto dreamed, where Michelangelo painted and carved. Culturally it is one of the most important cities in Europe. And it is at the very heart of Tuscany.
Fair Juliet’s Balcony in Verona (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
One year on holidays I enjoyed reading A Season With Verona by Tim Parks, one of the best sports books I have read in years. He goes on the road to follow the fortunes of Hellas Verona, his local soccer team, and ends up visiting some of the most beautiful cities in Italy.
While I was staying near Venice once, I visited Verona for dinner, to see Juliet’s Balcony and to go to the Opera in the Arena di Verona), a Roman amphitheatre that is one of the best preserved buildings of its kind. That night it was Verdi's Aida. I could go back to Verona for more ... more opera rather than more football.
I was surprised when I was given a short posting in Budapest by The Irish Times and realised I was in the heart of central Europe and in one of its most beautiful cities. From my hotel room I had a view across the Danube to the Parliament Buildings, and only a stroll from Castle Hill and the Castle District, with the former Royal Palace, the 700-year-old Saint Matthias Church, the equestrian statue of King Stephen, and the Fisherman’s Bastion.
That package holiday deal that gave me the cheapest and fastest way to get to Corfu also left me with time to visit Albania, once one of the most isolated countries in Europe, and one of the most difficult places to visit. I caught a ferry to Saranda, known to Greeks as Άγιοι Σαράντα (Agioi Saranda, the Forty Saints), 14 km east of Corfu. It is home to an ethnic Greek minority, but lost more than half of its ethnic Greeks in the decade between 1991 and 2001.
I travelled 14 km south, to visit Butrint and its archaeological site, close to the Greek border. In the early 6th century, it became the seat of a bishop and new buildings included a basilica and a large octagonal baptistry, one of the largest Early Church buildings of its kind.
Bruges and Ghent:
The Ghent Altarpiece ... the fully opened panel on display
Working as a Foreign Affairs journalist involved a number of visits to Brussels. But once, on a private visit to Brussels, I travelled to Bruges. Halfway between the two is Ghent; Bruges and Ghent are two gems of Flanders. Bruges includes the Lake of Love (Minnewater) and the Beguinage Convent. We had lunch in the Market Square, visited the Church of Our Lady with its statue by Michelangelo, walked by the canals, and visited the Chapel of the Holy Blood.
We were so enthralled by Bruges that we forget to get off the train in Ghent on our way back to Brussels. In Ghent, Saint Oliver Plunkett was consecrated Archbishop of Armagh in Saint Bavo Cathedral, which is home of the Ghent Altarpiece, with its panel depicting the “Mystic Lamb.” Now that’s a good excuse to return.
Once I was invited by the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna to take part in a panel discussion on dialogue between Europe and the Mediterranean world, between Christians and Muslims. The other panellists included the former UN Secretary General, Boutros Boutros Ghali from Egypt. I stayed on an extra day to see the city of Mozart and the Habsburgs.
I have since stopped off in Vienna during flights to and from China. On one occasion I had an opportunity to visit the former Jewish ghetto and to visit its museums and synagogues. It was a first-hand moving experience of the Holocaust. On another, I arrived from Beijing in time to experience the celebrations of the 8 September in the Stephensdam, Saint Stephen’s Cathedral, with its celebrated with its multi-coloured tile roof. This was Mozart’s parish church when he lived at the Figaro House nearby; he was married there, two of his children were baptised there, and his funeral took place in the Chapel of the Cross.
Six places in the Middle East and Africa:
‘Little Jerusalem’ ... a painting in Little Jerusalem in Wynnfield Road, Rathmines (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
I first taken to Jerusalem to celebrate receiving a degree. It was a truly educational visit. Being there in reality put in place many of the things I had read about and studied. I returned again a few months later, and I have travelled throughout Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. On one visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I banged my head against the lintel as I stooped to leave. The priest in charge must have heard the crack, and took pity on me. I still treasure the cross he gave me, and the pectoral cross that was later given to me at the 1998 Lambeth Conference by the then Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem, Riah abu el-Assal.
But the term Holy Land should not be limited to or confined to these two political units. On visits to Damascus, Egypt, Turkey, Greece and Italy I have also been conscious of being in Bible lands. Yet I am reminded of those visits to Jerusalem and Damascus when I eat in two of my favourite Palestinian restaurants in Dublin: Little Jerusalem in Rathmines and Damascus Gate in Camden Street.
When I was visiting Jerusalem, I also visited Bethlehem, and the Church of the Nativity, and stepped down into the crypt where a star is said to mark the place of Christ’s birth. Even there, in the cloisters beside the Church, I was taken offguard to bump into someone from Ireland who appeared to be a complete stranger but who remembered me.
The minarets of al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
The present political turmoil and street protests in Egypt remind me constantly of my visits to Egypt, and the times I have spent in Cairo working on Christian-Muslim dialogue. Nothing prepares the first-time visitor for the experience the sight of the pyramids at first hand.
On one visit, I stayed in the apartment that was the Deanery for All Saints’ Anglican Cathedral, and was woken each morning by the call to prayer from a neighbouring store-front mosque. As a Christian, it is good to be reminded in Muslim countries through the call to prayer from mosques and minarets of the need to punctuate the day with the rhythm of regular prayer.
Late at night, I felt surprisingly safe walking through the streets of Cairo. Although I imagine this is hardly possible today, on the other hand I am convinced I would receive the same warm welcome in Cairo from Christian and Muslim religious leaders, in both All Saints’ Cathedral and in al-Azhar Mosque.
It is no longer safe for foreigners to travel overland from Cairo through the Sinai peninsula to Saint Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai. But while I was working on a programme on Christian-Muslim dialogue I stayed in the monastery as a guest of the monks. Father Justin gave me a full tour of the monastery buildings, including the library and a unique mosque inside the monastery itself.
Then, late at night, I climbed the mountain in time to reach the pinnacle before sunrise, when I celebrated the Eucharist for our small group, using bread and wine from the meal the evening before in the monastery. A panorama of three continents spread below us. The journey back down was much easier than the climb up, and I was back in Saint Catherine’s in time for a late breakfast.
As apartheid was about to crumble, and shortly before Nelson Mandela was released from prison, I travelled throughout South Africa with Christian Aid and the South African Council of Churches, visiting churches and meeting church leaders, to see how they were providing safe space for the ANC and other groups to organise and to prepare for democracy. My visit brought me to Johannesburg, Soweto, Alexandria, Pretoria, Bloemfontein, Kimberley, Bethlehem, Cape Town and Khayelitsha on the Cape Flats, and to the borders of Lesotho.
One of the first places I visited in Johannesburg was Saint Mary’s Anglican Cathedral, where the deans had included Desmond Tutu and Gonville ffrench-Beytagh, who had been so influential in forming my understandings of Anglicanism, Christian faith and discipleship. John Darragh, the Irish-born SPG missionary who helped to build Saint Mary’s, was one of the early strong Anglican voices to speak out against the racism that would develop into apartheid, and he is commemorated in Darragh House and the baldacchino over the high altar in the cathedral.
Windhoek and Walvis Bay, Namibia:
As the South Africans were withdrawing from what they called South-West Africa in 1990, I also travelled throughout Namibia, to see how churches and church leaders were providing safe space for SWAPO and others to prepare for democracy. I met the SWAPO leadership, and travelled to Windhoek, through the Kalahari and Namib Deserts, to Swakopmund and Walvis Bay, and as far north as the border with Angola, where I stayed in a mission station.
One day, driving west from Windhoek through the arid desert, we saw elephants walking on the brow of a dusty hill. And then, shortly before sunset, the Atlantic coast opened before us, with flocks of flamingoes dotted all along the horizon.
Six places in Asia:
When I first arrived in Beijing in May 1979, I was refused to permission to get off the plane because there were no diplomatic relations between Ireland and China. I travelled on to Tokyo, but on my way back a few months later, I was allowed off ... Dessie O'Malley had been there in the meantime n a diplomatic and trade mission, the Cold War between Dublin and Beijing was over, and now my passport was recognised; I could go shopping in the airport. Since then, I have been back to China a number of times with the Dublin University Far Eastern Mission and the China Forum of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland.
A replica of the Nestorian Stele stands in the Muen Church in Shanghai. It dates from the Tang dynasty was erected in 781, recording 150 years of early Christianity in China. It is a reminder of the centuries-old presence of Christianity in China. Shnaghai is the most cosmopolitan city in China, and it is still possible to see the architectural legacy of the French, British and Russian presence pre-dating World War II.
The former Anglican Cathedral, now Holy Trinity Church, is oldest cathedral of its kind in China, and was designed in the Gothic Revival style by Sir George Gilbert Scott. Three Irish Anglican missionaries were bishops in Shanghai, including the last Irish Anglican bishop in China, Bishop John Curtis, who left China in 1950.
The warmest welcome I received in China was in the remote mountaintop village of Haima in Guizhou Province, 1752 km south-west of Beijing, in a remote rural and coal-mining part of China. The Miao people there feel more remote and further from Beijing than I do in Dublin. I visited the local church and schools, and the people there generously shared their food for the long journey back by road to Guizhou.
I stopped off in Hong Kong twice when I was visiting Japan in 1981. It changed dramatically in many ways when I returned in 2005 and 2006, after it had returned to Chinese rule, and yet, paradoxically, so many things had not changed.
On my later visits, I was a guest of the Anglican Church in Hong Kong, the newest province of the Anglican Communion, and visit schools, parishes, old people’s homes, Ming Hua Theological College, and Saint John’s Cathedral, and met the bishops, clergy, parishioners, theological educators and students.
Asia Bunka Kaikan in Tokyo ... I was a student here during the summer of 1979
I was never outside Ireland and Britain until 1979, when the late Douglas Gageby nominated me for a Fellowship with Nihon Shimbun Kyokai that allowed me to study for a full term in Japan. I was 27, and it was a long journey for a young journalist travelling east of Greenwich for the first time. My stopovers in Karachi on the way out and in Islamabad on the way back were my first experiences of visiting a Muslim country.
In Tokyo, I stayed in Asia Bunka Kaiikan, a student hostel in the Bukyo-ku district, and travelled throughout Japan, as far north as Hokkaido, and as far south as Hiroshima, visiting Kyoto, Nara, and Mount Fuji too, and was invited to lecture in Sophia University. At the time it was a rare and almost exotic experience for someone from Ireland, but the only Japanese I have retained is enough to say please and thank you, Good Morning and Good Evening, and to count to four.
During that summer term in Japan, I spent some time in Hiroshima where I met survivors of the 1945 Atomic bombing. I was already involved in the protests in Carnsore, Co Wexford, taking part in the occupations of the proposed site for a nuclear reactor. But my visit to Hiroshima and my meetings with those survivors was life-changing. On my return to Ireland I became involved in re-founding the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and today I am still President of Irish CND, an honour for a man of my age.
62 more places
I suppose I could have listed 62 more places. There is no photograph here for Dublin itself, and no photographs for many of my other favourite beaches, including Kilcoole, Rush, Greystones, Laytown, Kilmuckridge, Brittas Bay, Courttown, Loughshinny, Curracloe, Ardmore, Keel, Rosslare, Keem, Paradise Beach below the Palmin Sunset Hotel in Kusadasi, Ladies’ Beach, Antonio’s Beach in Zakynthos ... There are no photographs from my mother’s home village, Millstreet, Co Cork. No photographs of houses I have lived in in Harold's Cross, Donnybrook, Ballinteer, Templeogue and Frhouse. Nor any from Belfast, where I had a student placement on the Shankhill Road in the 1980s, Glenstal Abbey, Rostrevor or Armagh, And none from Ballinskelligs, Co Kerry, where I was sent to learn Irish in 1966 and leaned French (of sorts).
In England, I have missed out on Wilderhope Manor and Wenlock Edge in Shropshire, Ealing Abbey and other favourite places in London, Chester, Liverpool ...
There were so many other places to choose from in Greece, Italy, Turkey, Cyprus and throughout Europe ... in South Korea ... Florida ...
Where do I stop?
And now I’ve noticed I have selected 63 photographs, not 62.
Next year should I contemplate 63 favourite beaches, islands, poems, river-side walks, churches and cathedrals, hymns, pieces of music ... ?