29 April 2014

Comparing and contrasting three favourite
university buildings in Dublin and Oxford

Inside the Museum Building ... my favourite building on the campus in Trinity College Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

I have spent much of the past two days in Trinity College Dublin, at a 24-hour residential meeting of the Ireland and Northern Ireland boards of the Anglican mission agency Us (formerly the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, USPG).

After a mid-day celebration of the Eucharist in the College Chapel, most of our discussions took place in the board room in the TCD Long Room Hub, dined at Commons in the Dining Room, where we also had lunch each day, and had breakfast in No 40, on the east side of New Square.

The Trinity Long Room Hub building opened in 2010 in Trinity’s historic Fellows Square on the busy intersection between the university campus and Nassau Street. This pivotal location was chosen by the university to highlight the centrality of the arts and humanities to its mission and to society.

Each window in the Long Room Hub opens onto a different and unexpected vista on the campus (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

The building’s striking modernity is in sharp contrast with its classical surroundings, bringing together the past and the present in the arts and humanities. Each of its many windows opens onto a different and unexpected vista on the campus.

The Trinity Long Room Hub houses the Arts and Humanities Research Institute of TCD, one of five flagship research institutes of the university, and the one dedicated to promoting and facilitating innovative research across its nine arts and humanities member schools, including the School of Religions, Theology and Ecumenics.

This is a signature building at the heart of the campus in TCD, and its prominent location signifies the centrality of the Arts and Humanities in the university and in society. The Trinity Long Room Hub takes its name from the Library’s iconic ‘Long Room’ to mark its strong links with the Library and to express the vital importance of its unique collections for the activities of our scholarly community.

The hub runs diverse programmes of academic events, public lectures, seminars and conferences, and hosts major research projects.

In contrast to the Hub, my favourite building on the campus is the Museum Building on the south side of New Square, close to No 40 and beside the Berkeley Library.

The Museum Building is a Palazzo-style building inspired by Byzantine architecture in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Early this morning, after breakfast, I brought one of our board members from London to visit the Museum Building, which was built between 1853 and 1857 by Thomas Newenhan Deane and Benjamin Woodward.

This is a Palazzo-style building, inspired by Byzantine architecture in Venice, and finished in Lombardo-Romanesque detailing, with 108 highly-decorated carved capitals.

The Museum Building was built from a vast number of different and contrasting forms of stone. There is a college tradition that it includes some form of stone from every quarry working in Ireland at the time of it was built.

The exterior walls were first built with Calp Limestone, and then faced with Ballyknockan Granite from Co Wicklow. The quoins, columns and 108 capitals, as well as the string course which can be seen half way up the building, are all of Portland stone from the Isle of Portland in Dorset. The tympanum over the heavy wooden main door to building and which displays the college coat of arms is of Caen stone.

Initially Deane and Woodward had planned to build the interior walls with plastered rubble, but later decided to use Caen Stone.

The large domed central hall makes heavy use of Irish stone. The Romanesque arches between each column use alternating yellow and red stained blocks that sit on bases and capitals of carved Portland Stone. The central staircase and floors of the upper balconies are also made of Portland Stone.

The main entrance hall has 14 full columns and 18 half-columns of marble from Cornwall, Galway, Cork, Armagh, Offaly, Kilkenny, and Fermanagh.

The carvings throughout the building are by the brothers John and James O’Shea, who gathered wild flowers to use as models from the college botanical garden in Ballsbridge. There are seven carvings that relate specifically to Aesop’s Fables, and one is said to refer to Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution.

The Museum Building was restored in a three -ear conservation programme in 2010-2013, when many of the O’Shea carvings were also restored to their original state.

The Museum Building in Oxford was also designed by Woodward and Deane and decorated by O’Shea and Whelan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The Museum Building in Trinity College Dublin is interesting to compare with the the Oxford University Museum, also designed by Thomas Newenham Deane and Benjamin Woodward and built in 1861.

The designs of both museums design were directly influenced by the writings of John Ruskin, who made many various suggestions to Woodward. They also display the influence of Pre-Raphaelite principles of architectural style.

In Oxford, the Irish stone-carvers O’Shea and Whelan also created lively freehand carvings of animals and plants in the Gothic manner.

Three university buildings – two in Dublin and one in Oxford – complementing each other and offering interesting contrasts and comparisons.

27 April 2014

Pondering the names of Beaulieu
and Quasimodo on Low Sunday

For over 800 years, Beaulieu has been home to just two families – the Plunketts and the Tichbournes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

After a few weeks absence, it was good to be back in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, this morning [27 April 2014] for the Cathedral Eucharist.

This Sunday, the Second Sunday of Easter, is traditionally known as Low Sunday, although in some parts of Europe it is also known as Saint Thomas Sunday, Quasimodo Sunday and Quasimodogeniti.

The traditional English name of Low Sunday may reflect the contrast with the high celebrations of Easter last Sunday, although some say the word “Low” may come from the Latin Laudes, the first word of a sequence used in the Sarum Liturgy. The name is Quasimodo Sunday comes from the first words of the introit in Latin.

In Victor Hugo’s novel Notre Dame de Paris or The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831), Quasimodo is so names because he was found abandoned on the doorsteps of Notre Dame Cathedral on the Sunday after Easter, 1467, by Archdeacon Claude Frollo.

As the bells rang out in the cathedral this morning, I was invited to serve as subdeacon, assisting at the liturgy and with a chalice at the administration of the Eucharist. The Revd Garth Bunting presided, Canon George Butler was the canon-in-residence and preacher and this morning’s Eucharist was sung by the Ashtead Singers from Surrey.

The beach at Bettystown, below Relish, this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Later two of us drove out to Laytown on the coast of Co Meath and then on to Bettystown for a walk on the beach. Although the temperature only ever reached 13 at most, there was a bright blue sky and bright sunshine.

We were warmly welcomed and had a delightful lunch in Relish, looking out over the beach and out to the Irish Sea, before leaving by the terrace at the back of the restaurant for another walk on the sandy stretch of beach at Bettystown.

Later we followed the coast north to Mornington, and drove along the banks of the Boyne estuary, first along the south side into Drogheda, and then back out on the north side as far as Baltray. On our way back into Drogheda, we stopped once again at Beaulieu Cross to look at Beaulieu, a beautiful country house dating from the 17th century, with a four acre walled garden and landscaped grounds.

Beaulieu overlooks the banks of the River Boyne and is halfway between Drogheda and Baltray. The house and garden are open to visitors this year from 1 June to 5 September 2014, including Heritage Week.

But how did Beaulieu get its French-sounding name? Some say it comes from the Irish baile for a town or townland, but no-one seems to know. By 1650, it appears as Beaulieu on a map of the area.

For over 800 years, this house has been home to just two families – the Plunketts and the Tichbournes. This was originally the site of a Norman fortress, and the Plunkett family first lived in a motte-and-bailey and towerhouse-style castle before building a Jacobean house in the early 17th century.

The Plunkett Jacobean house was redesigned as a grand mansion in the English style and is a rare example of late 17th century Irish domestic architecture to have survived without alterations.

Sir Henry Tichbourne, Governor of Drogheda and defender of the town in the siege of 1641, built the house on the banks of the River Boyne after the restoration of Charles II in 1660. It is one of the earliest examples in Ireland of an unfortified house, and was probably designed by a Dutch architect.

The Boyne Estuary at low tide late this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

The walls are of rough stone, possibly salvaged from the ruins of the Plunkett castle said to have stood beside the present house. They were covered in lime render with fine Dutch bricks surrounding the windows and doors. Legend has it that these little red bricks were brought up the Boyne as ballast in boats. The same boats may have brought the stuccodores, woodcarvers and other craftsmen who decorated Beaulieu.

The house was completed by 1666, and the interior decorations, including the paintings, wood carvings and grand staircase were the last improvements added in 1723.

Beaulieu’s high eave roof and dormered attic are carried on massive modillion cornices, typical of the Caroline period and other houses built in the south and east of England. The small, red brick window dressings reflect Dutch fashions of the time. The front door is protected by heavy oak and iron shutters and there is evidence that a massive ditch and a tall wooden palisade once protected the curtilage, where a yard and barracks housed a garrison.

The original heavier sash windows were replaced in about 1722 for lighter versions. Some of the original windows can be seen along the gallery overlooking the magnificent two-storey hall. The grand, Georgian-style staircase was installed in the early 18th century, but the original, simpler staircase stands to the right of the hall.

Beside the house are four acres of walled garden and grassy terraces. The garden is thought to be designed by the Dutch artist van de Hagen who painted the picture over the hall fireplace, the drawing room ceiling.

Family letters show Sir Henry Tichbourne was growing exotic fruits, such as figs and nectarines, at Beaulieu in the 1720s, and he boasted about them to his half-brother, Lord Molesworth.

Beaulieu House has been home to the same family since the 1660s, and the present owner, Gabriel De Freitas, is the tenth generation in direct descent from Sir Henry Tichbourne. Today, her family promotes Beaulieu as a “romantic location” for weddings, conferences, banquets and special occasions.

From Beaulieu, we returned along the banks of the Boyne estuary, through Drogheda, and onto the M1, continuing to wonder about the names of Quasimodo and Beaulieu on Low Sunday.

Beaulieu is promoted today as a “romantic location” for weddings, conferences, banquets and special occasions (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)


Almighty Father,
you have given your only Son to die for our sins
and to rise again for our justification:
Grant us so to put away the leaven
of malice and wickedness
that we may always serve you in pureness of living and truth;
through the merits of your Son
Jesus Christ our Lord.


Acts 2: 14a, 22-32 or Genesis 8: 6-16, 9: 8-16; Psalm 16; I Peter 1: 3-9; John 20: 19-31.

Post Communion Prayer:

Lord God our Father,
through our Saviour Jesus Christ
you have assured your children of eternal life
and in baptism have made us one with him.
Deliver us from the death of sin
and raise us to new life in your love,
in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit,
by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

26 April 2014

Spanish rain in Russborough and
a reminder of Russia’s past in Kiev

Bluebells in the rain in the woodlands behind Russboeough House, Co Wicklow, this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

In My Fair Lady, Professor Higgins and Colonel Pickering are successful in teaching Eliza Doolittle that “the Rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.” The song is a key turning point in the musical as they try to break her Cockney accent and speech patterns.

The truth is, however, very different – Spanish rain falls mainly in the northern mountains. Nevertheless, I was all washed out in Torremolinos for most of Sunday and all of Monday this week, and whenever I ventured out for a walk on the nearby beach or for a coffee on either day I found how heavy the rain in Spain can be, even on the Costa del Sol.

The rain cleared away completely for my visits to Granada and the Alhambra on Tuesday, to Gibraltar on Wednesday, and my closing early morning walks on the beach on Thursday.

But that heavy rain seems to have followed me back to Ireland, and today was as rainy a day as any in winter.

Undeterred, two of us were determined to see the countryside this afternoon, and drove up into the mountains, through Brittas and Blessington, and along the shores of the lakes.

Russborough House was designed in 1741 for the Leeson family, Earls of Milltown (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

At the last moment, we decided to visit Russborough House, the Palladian mansion built in the 18th century as the Co Wicklow country seat of the Leeson family, Earls of Milltown.

The house was designed in 1741 by Richard Cassels, and took 10 years to build. It was bought in 1952 by Sir Alfred and Lady Beit to house their art collection. The collection includes works by Goya, Vermeer, including his Lady writing a Letter with her Maid, Peter Paul Rubens and Thomas Gainsborough.

After this week’s visit to Spain, it would have been interesting to see Goya’s Portrait of Dona Antonia Zarate. Unfortunately, the last tour of Russborough had started by the time we arrived in the late afternoon, and instead we settled for double espressos and a walk around the grounds, including the bluebell covered woodlands and the grave of one of Edward Nugent Leeson (1835-1890), 6th Earl of Milltown.

On the way back, I was listening to ‘The Great Gate of Kiev,’ the tenth and final movement in Pictures at an Exhibition, composed for piano by the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky in 1874. It is a moving piece of music, but also a reminder of the centuries-old dimensions to the present conflicts between Moscow-backed Russian nationalists in Crimea and East Ukraine and the Ukrainian government in Kiev.

Mussorgsky’s great works include the opera Boris Godunov, which is considered his masterpiece, and the orchestral tone poem Night on Bald Mountain. But the piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition is his most famous piano composition, and has become a showpiece for virtuoso pianists.

Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (1839-1881) is one of the group of Russian composers known as “The Five.” Many of his works are inspired by Russian history, folklore and nationalism themes.

Mussorgsky probably first met the artist and architect Viktor Hartmann in 1870. Both were devoted to the cause of Russian art and quickly became friends.

Hartmann’s sudden death at the age of 39 in 1873 shocked Mussorgsky and many others in the art world in Russia. Their mutual friend, the art critic Vladimir Stasov immediately organised an exhibition of over 400 works by Hartmann in the Academy of Fine Arts in Saint Petersburg in February and March 1874.

After viewing the exhibition, Mussorgsky was inspired to compose ‘Pictures at an Exhibition,’ which was written over the space of six weeks and depicts an imaginary tour of an art collection. The title of each movement alludes to a painting by Hartmann.

Mussorgsky links the suite’s movements in a way that depicts the viewer’s own progress through the exhibition. Two ‘Promenade’ movements serve as portals to the suite’s main sections. Their regular pace and irregular meter depicts the act of walking. Three untitled interludes present shorter statements of this theme, varying the mood, colour and key in each to suggest reflection on a work just seen or anticipation of a new work glimpsed.

Viktor Hartmann, ‘Plan for a city gate in Kiev, main façade,’ watercolour, Russian Academy of Sciences, Institute of Russian Literature (Pushkin House), Saint Petersburg

The drawings and watercolours were produced by Hartmann during his travels abroad, and include works he had completed in Poland, France and Italy. The tenth and final movement depicts an architectural design for Kiev, the capital city of Ukraine.

Most of Hartmann’s pictures from the exhibition have since been lost, making it impossible to be sure which works Mussorgsky had in mind, although the musicologist Alfred Frankenstein claimed in The Musical Quarterly in 1939 to have identified seven of the pictures.

The theme reaches its apotheosis in the suite’s finale, ‘10, Богатырские ворота (В стольном городе во Киеве)’ Bogatyrskiye vorota (V stolnom gorode Kiyeve), The Bogatyr Gates (in the Capital in Kiev).

The title of this movement is commonly translated as “The Great Gate of Kiev” and sometimes as “The Heroes’ Gate at Kiev.” Bogatyrs are heroes that appear in Russian epics called bylinas.

Stasov noted at the time that “Hartmann’s sketch was his design for city gates at Kiev in the ancient Russian massive style with a cupola shaped like a Slavonic helmet.”

Mussorgsky’s final movement is inspired by a spirit of Russian nationalist fervour. Hartman had submitted a design for the proposed new, grand entrance to Kiev, which was to commemorate Alexander II's narrow escape from an assassination attempt there in 1866.

No winner was ever selected from the competition, and the gate was never built. But Hartmann’s impressive fired the pride of many Russians in their nation and heritage. His sketch included a chapel, and as Kiev had a long history of religious importance Mussorgsky adopted a sense of reverence in his tribute to the proposed gate and the city of Kiev.

The movement includes a theme is based on the baptismal hymn in the Russian Orthodox Church, .with the suggestion of bells, and the extended leave-taking acts as a coda for the suite as a whole.

The piece is known today primarily through the orchestral version created by Maurice Ravel in 1922. Douglas Gamley scored a spectacular version of ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’ for full symphony orchestra, male voice choir and organ, and the finale has inspired musicians, composers and performers from Rimsky-Korsakov and Vladimir Ashkenazy to Michael Jackson.

So, in the end, there is no Great Gate of Kiev. But this movement is a reminder of how Kiev has been closely associated for generations with stories, images and depictions of Russian nationalism and identity.

Rain on the beachfront in La Carihuela last Monday (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

‘Mid-Lent is passed and Easter’s near,
The greatest day of all the year’ ...
John Betjeman,
an Anglo-Catholic poet

Patrick Comerford

Sir John Betjeman (1906-1984), who was the British Poet Laureate from 1972, once described himself in Who’s Who as a “poet and hack.” He had a passionate interest in Victorian architecture and in railways, and contributed to guide books as well as being a popular figure on television.

Betjeman was a troublesome poet who persisted in believing, and in his poetry he explored his thoughts about his Anglican faith, about Englishness and about Christianity in general. He remains one of the most significant literary figures of our time to declare his Christian faith, and one of the great makers of the Christian imagination in the last century.

In a letter written on Christmas Day 1947, he said: “Also my view of the world is that man is born to fulfil the purposes of his Creator i.e. to Praise his Creator, to stand in awe of Him and to dread Him. In this way I differ from most modern poets, who are agnostics and have an idea that Man is the centre of the Universe or is a helpless bubble blown about by uncontrolled forces.”

During his life, he crossed paths at different times with two other great Anglican literary giants: the poet TS Eliot, who was once his teacher, and the apologist CS Lewis, who was his tutor in Oxford.

He was a lifelong friend of the Irish poet Louis MacNeice, and he spent time in Dublin during World War II, when he was an active parishioner in Clondalkin, Co Dublin. Many of his poems recount his encounters members of the Church of Ireland and his love of Church of Ireland country parish churches.

Early life, Oxford and CS Lewis

Magdalen College, Oxford ... John Betjeman was an undergraduate, and CS Lewis was his tutor (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

He was born John Betjemann on 28 August 1906 in Highgate, and he was baptised in Saint Anne’s Church, Highgate Rise. Although his family was of Dutch ancestry, on the outbreak of World War I his parents, Mabel (née Dawson) and Ernest Betjemann, changed the family name to the less German-sounding Betjeman.

At Highgate School, his teachers included the poet TS Eliot. From there he went to the Dragon School, Oxford, and Marlborough College, Wiltshire, where his friends and contemporaries included the Irish poet Louis MacNeice, the spy Anthony Blunt, and the illustrator and cartoonist Graham Shepard.

At Marlborough too, his reading of the works of Arthur Machen (1863-1947) won him over to High Church Anglicanism – it was a conversion that would influence and shape his writing and his work in the arts for the rest of the life.

Betjeman entered Oxford with difficulty, having failed the mathematics part of the matriculation exam, and was admitted to Magdalen College. However, his tutor, CS Lewis, regarded him as an “idle prig,” while Betjeman found Lewis unfriendly, demanding and uninspiring, describing him as being “breezy, tweedy, beer-drinking and jolly.”

Betjeman appears to have spent most of his time at Oxford indulging his social life, developing his interest in church architecture, and following his own literary pursuits. He had a poem published in Isis, the university magazine, and in 1927 was the editor of Cherwell, the student newspaper whose contributors included WH Auden, Graham Greene, Cecil Day-Lewis and Evelyn Waugh.

But Betjeman never completed his degree at Oxford. He twice failed the compulsory Scripture examination, Divinity, known to students as “Divvers,” and was later allowed to enter the Pass School. His tutor, CS Lewis, told the tutorial board he thought Betjeman would not achieve an honours degree of any class. Betjeman passed “Divvers” at a third sitting, but finally left Oxford at the end of Michaelmas term 1928 after failing the Pass School.

For the rest of his life he blamed his failure on CS Lewis, and the two writers were never reconciled, even later in life. Nonetheless, Betjeman had an enduring love of Oxford, and received an honorary doctorate in 1974.

After Oxford, he worked briefly as a private secretary, school teacher and film critic for the Evening Standard before becoming an assistant editor at the Architectural Review. His first book of poems, Mount Zion, was published in 1931 by an Oxford friend, Edward James.

Betjeman developed the Shell Guides with Jack Beddington for Britain’s growing number of motorists. By the beginning of World War II, 13 Shell Guides had been published. Betjeman had written Cornwall (1934) and Devon (1936), and later he collaborated on Shropshire (1951) with his friend the artist John Piper (1903-1992), whose works include the stained glass windows in Coventry Cathedral and the East Window in the chapel in Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield.

Betjeman in Ireland

John Betjeman and family at Collinstown House, Clondalkin, Co Dublin, where they lived in the 1940s

Betjeman was rejected for active service in World War II but he moved to the Ministry of Information, and came to Dublin in 1941 as the British press attaché to the British High Commissioner, Sir John Maffey (later Lord Rugby), working from 50 Upper Merrion Street, Dublin.

From 1941 to 1943, the Betjemans lived at Collinstown House, Rowlagh, Clondalkin, where their daughter Candida was born. The Georgian house, which was rented from the Jameson distillery family, has since been demolished. John and Penelope Betjeman were registered vestry members in Saint John’s Church, where he regularly read the Sunday lessons.

He also had a close association with Monkstown Parish Church, which he regarded as John Semple’s greatest work of architecture, displaying his “original genius” and “eccentric taste.”

He said Monkstown Church was “one of my first favourites for its originality of detail and proportion.” He also liked Semple’s Saint Mary’s in Saint Mary’s Place, near Dorset Street, known to generations of Dubliners as “the Black Church” but now closed.

In 1943, he gave a lecture to the clergy of the Church of Ireland, “Fabrics of the Church of Ireland,” in which he made the point that the “fabric of the church is very much concerned with worship. The decoration of a church can lead the eye to God or away from him.”

As press attaché, his roles in Dublin included smoothing relations between Britain and the neutral Irish Free State, contributing to radio programmes such as Irish Half Hour aimed at Irish recruits in the British army, and entertaining important British visitors, including the actor Laurence Olivier, who was filming his production of Shakespeare’s Henry V on the Powerscourt Estate at Enniskerry, Co Wicklow.

According to documents unearthed by a recent Channel 4 documentary, Betjeman told Whitehall that the only way to lure Ireland into the war was to end partition. He said a “defensive union of the whole of Ireland” should be made “indissoluble,” he urged Britain to stop attacking the Irish Free State, including “anti-Irish articles and cartoons,” and he argued that “de Valera is Britain’s best friend in Ireland.”

Betjeman’s main sources of information included the journalists of The Irish Times he drank with in the Palace Bar in Fleet Street.

It is said the IRA planned to assassinate him, but the order was rescinded after he met an Old IRA man who was impressed by his works.

Betjeman wrote a number of poems based on his experiences in Ireland during the ‘Emergency,’ including ‘The Irish Unionist’s Farewell to Greta Hellstrom in 1922,’ which includes the refrain “Dungarvan in the rain.” ‘Greta’ was recently identified as Emily (Sears) Villiers-Stuart, an American married into a well-known West Waterford landed family.

In Dublin, he also became friends with Patrick Kavanagh. The Irish poet celebrated the birth of Betjeman’s daughter with his poem ‘Candida,’ and another well-known poem contains the line: “Let John Betjeman call for me in a car.”

When Betjeman’s posting in Dublin ended in 1943, his departure made the front page of The Irish Times. After World War II, he returned to London, his wife Penelope became a Roman Catholic in 1948, and the couple drifted apart. He later developed a close, life-long friendship with Lady Elizabeth Cavendish, whose family lived in Lismore Castle, Co Waterford.

Poet Laureate and popular poet

By 1948, Betjeman had published more than a dozen books, including five verse collections, and by 1958 sales of his Collected Poems had reached 100,000; it has now sold over two million copies. He was appointed Poet Laureate in 1972, and this role, along with his popularity on television, brought his poetry to a wider audience.

He voiced the thoughts and aspirations of many ordinary people while retaining the respect of many of his fellow poets. He died at his home in Trebetherick, Cornwall, on 19 May 1984, and is buried at Saint Enodoc’s Church.

Betjeman and Church architecture

Betjeman had a love of Victorian architecture and was a founding member of the Victorian Society. But he also loved old Church of Ireland country parish churches. In ‘Ireland with Emily,’ he writes of those parish churches in rural Kildare, Roscommon, Westmeath and Laois, first published in New Bats in Old Belfries (1945):

There in pinnacled protection,
One extinguished family waits
A Church of Ireland resurrection
By the broken, rusty gates.
Sheepswool, straw and droppings cover,
Graves of spinster, rake and lover,
Whose fantastic mausoleum
Sings its own seablown Te Deum
In and out the slipping slates.

His favourite church in Ireland was the Church of Ireland parish church in Monkstown, Co Dublin. This church was originally built in 1789, but was remodelled in 1830 by John Semple. In 1974, Betjeman became the first patron of the Friends of Monkstown Church, corresponding regularly with the rector, Canon William Wynne. The church also featured in a BBC documentary, Betjeman’s Dublin.

Betjeman’s poetry and faith

Betjeman’s poems are often humorous, and his wryly comic verse is marked by a satirical and observant grace. As WH Auden observed, he was “at home with the provincial gas-lit towns, the seaside lodgings, the bicycle, the harmonium.”

His poetry is redolent of time and place, continually seeking out intimations of the eternal in the manifestly ordinary. In a 1962 radio interview he explained that he could not write about “abstract things,” preferring places and faces.

Betjeman was a troublesome poet who persisted in believing, and in his poetry he explored his thoughts about his Anglican faith, about Englishness and about Christianity in general.

He remains one of the most significant literary figures of our time to declare his Christian faith. In a letter written on Christmas Day 1947, he said: “Also my view of the world is that man is born to fulfil the purposes of his Creator i.e. to Praise his Creator, to stand in awe of Him and to dread Him. In this way I differ from most modern poets, who are agnostics and have an idea that Man is the centre of the Universe or is a helpless bubble blown about by uncontrolled forces.”

He was a practising Anglican and his religious beliefs and piety inform many of his poems. In response to a radio broadcast by the humanist Margaret Knight, he expressed his views on Christianity in The Listener in 1955 with his poem ‘The Conversion of St. Paul,’ which ends:

What is conversion? Not at all
For me the experience of St Paul,
No blinding light, a fitful glow
Is all the light of faith I know
Which sometimes goes completely out
And leaves me plunging into doubt
Until I will myself to go
And worship in God’s house below —
My parish church — and even there
I find distractions everywhere.

What is Conversion? Turning round
To gaze upon a love profound.
For some of us see Jesus plain
And never once look back again,
And some of us have seen and known
And turned and gone away alone,
But most of us turn slow to see
The figure hanging on a tree
And stumble on and blindly grope
Upheld by intermittent hope.
God grant before we die we all
May see the light as did St Paul.

The Mystery of Faith in four poems

Betjeman was a life-long Anglo-Catholic. In four poems – ‘Churchyards,’ ‘Advent 1955,’ ‘Christmas’ and ‘Lenten Thoughts of a High Anglican’ – Betjeman makes the mystery of the Christian faith a central issue.

Professor Kevin J. Gardner of Baylor University, in Faith and Doubt of John Betjeman: An Anthology of Betjeman’s Religious Verse (London: Continuum, 2006), says that in these four poems Betjeman finds the sudden and wondrous appearance of God in the most unlikely of places, giving him “a sense of spiritual security” that “renders him susceptible to the embrace of mystery and miracle.”

1, Churchyards

‘For churchyards then, though hollowed ground, / Were not so grim as now they sound’ … the ‘saddleback’ grave in Saint Michael’s Churchyard, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Although it is one of his less-known poems, ‘Churchyards’ is one of the four poems – alongside ‘Advent 1955,’ ‘Christmas,’ and ‘Lenten Thoughts of a High Anglican,’ and– in which Betjeman makes the mystery of the Christian faith a central issue.

He recalls the old English churchyards at the heart of village life, with their traditional headstones, and “Close to the church when prayers were said, / And Masses for the village dead.” Today, the churchyard is giving way to a “garden of rest,” although “Graveyard’s a much more honest name.”

Mid-Lent is passed and Easter’s near
The greatest day of all the year
When Jesus, who indeed had died,
Rose with his body glorified.
And if you find believing hard
The primroses in your churchyard
And modern science too will show
That all things change the while they grow,
And we, who change in Time will be
Still more changed in eternity.

2, Advent 1955

‘A present that cannot be priced / Given two thousand years ago’ … the Christmas scene seen in a stained-glass window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In the second of these poems, ‘Advent 1955,’ Betjeman talks about how people today take the real meaning of Christmas for granted. No one seems to appreciate the real gift anymore. Yet this is God’s gift, the greatest gift of all, the birth of Christ.

‘The time draws near the birth of Christ’.
A present that cannot be priced
Given two thousand years ago
Yet if God had not given so
He still would be a distant stranger
And not the Baby in the manger.

3, Christmas

The third of these four poems, ‘Christmas,’ is one of Betjeman’s most openly religious pieces, in which the last three stanzas proclaim the wonder of Christ’s birth in the form of a question: “And is it true...?”

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?

And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

4, Lenten Thoughts of a High Anglican

His poem ‘Lenten Thoughts of a High Anglican,’ is another of the four poems in which Betjeman makes the mystery of the Christian faith a central issue.

If Betjeman’s imagination wanders in the joys of the beauty of worship and church architecture in ‘Sunday Morning, King’s Cambridge,’ then his mind wanders in the joys of beauty in a very different way in ‘Lenten Thoughts of a High Anglican’ – although he reaches similar conclusions.

‘Lenten Thoughts of a High Anglican’ – which in Betjeman’s drafts is titled ‘Lenten Thoughts in Grosvenor Chapel’ – was the first spontaneous poem he wrote after his appointment as Poet Laureate in October 1972. It was first published in the Sunday Express on 13 May 1973, and was included in the collection A Nip in the Air (1974).

Alongside the joviality found in many of his poems, this poem has an unusual tonal complexity. Betjeman describes a mysterious and sexually alluring woman who receives Holy Communion each Sunday. In an attempt to refocus the devotional attention of the parishioners, the priest tells them not to stare around or to be distracted during his celebration of the Eucharist.

But Betjeman’s experience contradicts the admonitions from the priest. In a peculiar way, through this mysterious and alluring woman, he suddenly becomes aware of the presence of God. The intrigue and arousal surrounding the women he describes as the “mistress” speaks to the poet of the mystery of God.

From 1972 until his death in 1984, Betjeman worshipped at the Grosvenor Chapel in London, which had been redesigned and transformed, with an Anglo-Catholic emphasis, in 1912 by Sir Ninian Comper in 1912. It was a favourite church of Bishop Charles Gore, and for many years the congregation included such people as the writer Rose Macaulay, author of The Towers of Trebizond.

In an interview with the Sunday Express, Betjeman said: “I saw this woman in church one Sunday. I didn’t know who she was. She was the most beautiful creature; and she had a slightly sad expression. And I didn’t even know her name – but it was probably all the better for that. She might have been terrible.”

“I like there to be a mystery between me and my beloved,” he continued. “And I don’t think there was anything wrong with looking at her in church, do you? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with loving the beauty of the human figure whether it’s in church or in the street … I’m not sure if [the poem] is any good but I hope it will please people. I’ve always wanted my verse to be popular because I wanted to communicate.”

Betjeman’s Dublin-born daughter, the author and journalist Candida Lycett Green, has identified the woman who inspired this poem as Joan Price, who used to go to church at Betjeman’s church, the Grosvenor Chapel. She was the Beauty Editor of Harpers & Queen – now Harper’s Bazaar – and was married to Michael Constantinidis, a sidesman at the Grosvenor Chapel.

Two important places of Anglican worship

Betjeman celebrates the social and cultural significance of the Church of England, yet he points to the social and spiritual failures of the Church, particularly the snobbery and hypocrisy of the clergy and churchgoers.

Two of his poems, ‘In Westminster Abbey’ (1940) and ‘Sunday Morning, King’s Cambridge’ (1954), are set in two of the most important centres of worship in England, one with political significance, the other with academic significance.

Taken together, these two poems give us a poet who believes deeply in Christ and who holds out hope for the Church of England and Anglicanism. One represents a place of public worship the closely links the Church with the political power in the nation; the other represents the very beauty of Anglican worship in a place associated not only with the academic, architectural and musical excellence of the nation.

1, In Westminster Abbey

‘Now I’ll come to Evening Service / Whensoever I have the time’ … ‘In Westminster Abbey’ is one of John Betjeman’s most savage satires (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

‘In Westminster Abbey’ is one of Betjeman’s most savage satires. This poem is a dramatic monologue, set during the early days of World War II, in which a woman enters Westminster Abbey to pray for a moment before hurrying off to “a luncheon date.”

She is not merely a chauvinistic nationalist, but also a racist, a snob and a hypocrite who is concerned more with how the war will affect her share portfolio than anything else. Her chauvinistic nationalism leads her speaker to pray to God “to bomb the Germans” … but “Don’t let anyone bomb me.” But her social and ethical lapses are a product of her spiritual state, which is a direct result of her nation’s spiritual sickness.

But she lets God know prayer and her relationship with God are low down her list of priorities:

Now I feel a little better,
What a treat to hear Thy Word,
Where the bones of leading statesmen
Have so often been interr’d.
And now, dear Lord, I cannot wait
Because I have a luncheon date.

2, Sunday Morning, King’s Cambridge

A Sunday morning at King’s College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Some years ago, in a book review in the Times Higher Education Supplement, Timothy Mowl of the University of Bristol described ‘Sunday Morning, King’s Cambridge’ as of the “least important” of Betjeman’s poems, “because it is about a place, not people in a place.”

Here he is at his best as he fuses together in one poem his different passions, and in ‘Sunday Morning, King’s Cambridge’ he presents a happy marriage of architectural detail, finely observed, and the sense of the worship of the eternal captured in a moment. He presents the beauty and splendour of Anglican worship, ablaze with colour.

In ‘Sunday Morning, King’s Cambridge,’ the moment of worship exists out of time as the living and the dead, the choir and the poet, join in the eternal praise of God. In this poem, Betjeman captures a joyful and spontaneous reaction, albeit an emotionally restrained expression, and a sense of wonder in the celebration of Anglican worship.

Stanza 1 describes the procession of the choir of the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, and the spiritually overwhelming aesthetics of the chapel – the stalls, the stained glass, and especially the stunning fan-vaulted ceiling, “a shower that never falls.”

Stanza 2 sees the poet’s mind wander away from the service as he imagines being outside among the “windy Cambridge courts.” Again there is a great emphasis on the vast variety of colour, but all the colours are transformed into “waves of pearly light” reflected off the Cambridge stone. The image suggests that the divine is not to be found exclusively in the chapel but in the world, the space that contains both God’s works and humanity’s work.

Stanza 3 is a geographical and historical expansion of these images and ideas. Here, the white of the “windy Cambridge courts” contrasts with the “vaulted roof so white and light and strong.”

Betjeman imagines the tombs that fill churches throughout East Anglia, with the effigies of the deceased captured for eternity in postures of prayer:

... the clasped hands lying long
Recumbent on sepulchral slabs or effigied in brass.

The prayers of these dead are a “buttress” for the vaulted ceiling of the chapel at King’s, which, built near the end of the Gothic period, needs no architectural buttresses. Christianity exists not because of aesthetics but because of prayer, and the sanctuary is supported, not because of the marvels of 15th century engineering, but by a tradition of faith. In ‘Sunday Morning, King’s Cambridge,’ the moment of worship exists out of time as the living and the dead, the choir and the poet, join in the eternal praise of God.

The poem has no irony, except perhaps in the last line:

To praise Eternity contained in Time and coloured glass.

Here Betjeman illustrates the futility of our human desire to share in God’s timelessness. All of us are being confounded by our foolish need to control God and time.

A final poem: Loneliness

‘The last year’s leaves are on the beech ... The Easter bells enlarge the sky,’ John Betjeman (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The chilling poem ‘Loneliness’ is included in Betjeman’s 1974 collection, A Nip in the Air. While it speaks of how “The Easter bells enlarge the sky,” it shows Betjeman’s deep fear of death. He suffered nightmares about Hell because he was married to one woman (Penelope Chetwode) but was living with another (Lady Elizabeth Cavendish).

The last year’s leaves are on the beech:
The twigs are black; the cold is dry;
To deeps beyond the deepest reach
The Easter bells enlarge the sky.
O ordered metal clatter-clang!
Is yours the song the angels sang?
You fill my heart with joy and grief –
Belief! Belief! And unbelief...
And, though you tell me I shall die,
You say not how or when or why.

However, the poet Hugo Williams hears Betjeman speaking frankly to God: “If he has a well-developed sense of his mortality it is no more than any poet needs to make poetry out of.” Betjeman’s religious values come through in his poems, and he affirms his belief even while fearing it might be false.

Betjeman celebrates the social and cultural significance of the Church of England, yet he points to the social and spiritual failures of the Church, particularly the snobbery and hypocrisy of the clergy and churchgoers. In his poems, he describes the perils of faith and the struggle to believe. He was a troublesome poet who persisted in believing, and in his poetry he explored his thoughts about his Anglican faith, about Englishness and about Christianity in general.

Poems by John Betjeman © John Betjeman Society.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin, and a Canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

This essay and these photographs are published in Koinonia (Kansas City, MO), Vol 7, Issue 25 (Lent/Easter 2014), pp 12-18.

25 April 2014

In the courts of the Gardens of Paradise
and in the city of dreams and music

Looking out from a window in Alhambra across the city of Granada (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

One day in mid-week, before dawn broke, I took a two-hour journey by bus from the coast at Torremolios to the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains, 738 metres above sea level, to see the city of Granada and the Moorish citadel and palace at Alhambra.

The city of Granada was once described by the composer Andrés Segovia as “a place of dreams where the Lord put the seed of music in my soul.”

A Flamenco busker on the Mirador de San Nicolás on hill-top of Albayzin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

After breakfast along the way, our first stop was at the Mirador de San Nicolás in one of the highest points of the old hill-top quarters of Albayzin, for the spectacular views across the city and the Darro valley, to the Alhambra and the Generalife Gardens to the south, with the Sierra Nevada in the background.

We climbed through the sloping, narrow cobbled streets of the Albayzin, paved with river stones, to the square crammed with tourists catching their first glimpse of Alhambra. There, as we stood and sat in wonder, we were entertained by a pair of busking Andalucían gypsies – a Flamenco guitarist and dancer.

We retuned through the university city of Granada to reach the Alhambra, the Generalife and the Gardens.

The Alhambra has survived neglect, plunder, earthquakes and explosives (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014

The Alhambra dates from 889, but it was thoroughly rebuilt in the mid-11th century by Mohammed ben Al-Ahmar, the Moorish King of Granada who built the palace and walls. Later it was turned into a royal palace by Yusuf I, Sultan of Granada, in 1333. The palaces were built for the Nasrid dynasty, the last Muslim emirs in Spain, and were finally surrendered to Spain’s “Catholic Monarchs”, Ferdinand and Isabella, in 1492.

The Emperor Charles V built a new palace on the site in 1527, but eventually the whole place fell into disrepair, damaged by neglect, plunder, earthquakes and even an attempt by Napoleon’s army to blow the place up.

The Alhambra was rediscovered in the 19th century by writers and travellers, and was romanticised in 1832 by Washington Irving (1783-1859) in his Tales of the Alhambra – he also wrote The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip van Winkle. The new attention created an interest in restoration, and today this is one of Spain’s major tourist attractions and a Unesco World Heritage Site.

The gardens of Alhambra are designed to reflect the beauty of Paradise (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Throughout the Alhambra, the buildings and the gardens are designed to reflect the very beauty of Paradise, with gardens, fountains, streams, a palace, and a mosque, all within an imposing fortress wall, flanked by 13 massive towers.

We made our way first through the gardens to the Generalife (Jennat al Arif, “The Garden of Lofty Paradise”), with its secluded courtyards, gardens, patios and villas, protected by towers fortifications, underground cisterns, stables and the former garrison. Here the sultans of Granada could escape from the palace intrigues in the Alhambra and the busy life of the city in their search for tranquillity.

But the main part of the complex is the Palace of Alhambra, with its creative architectural combination of space, light, water and decoration to create one of the most intriguing works left behind in Spain after almost eight centuries of Islamic presence in the Iberian Peninsula.

The palace buildings include the rooms opening onto central courts, squares and rooms connected with each other by smaller chambers, passages, arches and colonnaded and pillared arcades, fountains with running water, pools designed to reflect the buildings, and a creative use of blue, red, and a golden yellow throughout.

The rich arabesque decorations of the interior of the Alhambra (Photograph: Patrock Comerford, 2014)

The buildings are covered with calligraphic inscriptions and sacred arabesque and geometrical patterns, the walls are panelled with painted tiles, and the ceilings are decorated with stalactites.

Alhambra was a castle, a palace and a courtly residence. The royal complex incorporates three main parts: the Mexuar, the Serallo and the Harem. The Mexuar houses the functional areas for business and administration. The ceilings and floors are made of dark wood and are in sharp contrast to the white, plaster walls. The Serallo, built in the 14th century, contains the Patio de los Arrayanes (Court of the Myrtles). The Harem is elaborately decorated and contains the living quarters for the wives and mistresses of the monarchs.

The large Hall of the Ambassadors was the grand reception room with the throne of the sultan. Later, it was here that Christopher Columbus received formal support from Isabel and Ferdinand for his project to sail to the New World.

The Court of the Lions, with the Fountain of Lions at its centre where the alabaster basin is supported by 12 marble whitte lions (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

A low gallery supported on 124 white marble columns surrounds the Court of the Lions. The Fountain of Lions in the centre of the court is an alabaster basin supported by the figures of 12 lions in white marble, representing strength, power, and sovereignty. It is said that each hour, one lion would produce water from its mouth.

Muhammad XII of Granada, known as Boabdil, was the 22nd and last Sultan of Granda. He surrendered of Granada, the last Muslim-ruled city in Spain, in 1492 without the Alhambra itself being attacked, to the forces of the Spain’s “Catholic monarchs,” King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile.

When Boabdil burst into tears after his surrender at Santa Fe, burst into tears, his mother reproached him, saying: “You weep like a woman for what you couldst not defend as a man.”

Inside the Palace of Charles V on the slopes of Alhambra (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

The Alhambra reflects the culture of the last centuries of the Moorish rule of al-Andalus, reduced to the tiny Nasrid Emirate of Granada. It is a testament to Moorish culture in Spain and the skills of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian artisans, craftsmen, and builders of the era. It remains a captivating example of Muslim art and architecture in its final European stages, relatively uninfluenced by Byzantine styles.

On the way back down the slopes, we stopped briefly to visit the Palace of Charles V, a 16th century Renaissance palace that was still awaiting completion when it was abandoned.

From the Alhambra we made our way back down to the city of Granada, and as we sat out for lunch in a café in the Plaza Bib-Rambla, we were entertained once again by a busking Flamenco troupe that included a guitarist, a singer and two dancers.

The Royal Chapel was built over the former terrace of Granada’s Grand Mosque (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

From there we walked through the narrow side streets to the Capilla Real or Royal Chapel of Granada. After they had taken Granada, Ferdinand and Isabella chose the city as their burial place, and the Royal Chapel was built over the former terrace of Granada’s Grand Mosque.

Spanish visitors and tourists alike queue to enter the crypt where the Catholic Monarchs, are buried beneath their effigies, alongside their daughter Juana la Loca (“the Mad”) and her husband Felipe el Hermoso (“the Fair”).

Outside the doors of the Royal Chapel, we peered into the Palazzo de la Madraza, originally an Islamic university and now part of the University of Granada.

The lengthy queues precluded a visit to the neighbouring cathedral, built on the very site of the Nasrid Grand Mosque shortly after Granada was taken by Ferdinand and Isabella. But from the plaza in front we admired its architectural styles. The cathedral is modelled in the Gothic style of the Cathedral of Toledo, but was completed in a Renaissance style, with five naves instead of the usual three and later Baroque additions.

We also stepped inside the Ayuntamiento or City Hall facing onto Plaza de Carmen. The first things the visitor sees are large statues of Ferdinand and Isabel. But this building is designed in a distinctively Moorish style, with an elaborately carved entrance, an ornate stairway and a central in Moorish-style courtyard with a fountain.

Flamenco buskers in the Plaza Bib-Rambla (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

There was time for one last double espresso in one of the many cafés on Plaza de Mariana Pineda. This one of Granada’s many pretty squares and is named in honour of Mariana de Pineda y Muñoz (1804-1831), a revolutionary heroine from Granada who is generally known as Mariana Pineda.

Mariana married a revolutionary army officer, but by the age of 18 she was widowed in with two children. In 1828 she aided a jail break by condemned revolutionaries. When a search of her house uncovered a flag emblazoned with the slogan “Equality, Freedom and Law,” Mariana was arrested and charged with conspiracy. After a failed escape attempt, she was publicly executed by the garrotte on 26 May 1831.

The playwright Federico García Lorca based his play Mariana Pineda on her story, and she became a popular figure in the resistance to Franco’s regime.

From this “place of dreams” that could “put the seed of music in [your] soul” we returned through the countryside of Andalucía, beneath the slopes of the Sierra Nevada to the Torremolinos and the beaches of the Costa del Sol.

The countryside in Andalucía on the return journey from Granada and the Alhambra to Torremolinos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

24 April 2014

A day in Gibraltar, one of the most
southerly outposts of Europe

The Rock of Gibraltar ... is this part of the European Union, or just another territorial anachronism from by-gone wars (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

Is Gibraltar a country? Is Gibraltar a separate state? If not, where is a part of it? It elects no MPs to the British House of Commons, and it has its own parliament.

Is Gibraltar part of the European Union? Crossing the border from Spain at the town of La Línea de la Concepción, in the province of Cádiz on the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula, we joined a long queue of buses and cars to show our passports.

Gibraltar is not in the Eurozone, but then neither is the United Kingdom – although when I went shopping and to pay for coffee I found I was dealing in Euros, Sterling and the Gibraltar pound.

Crossing the frontier between Spain and Gibraltar (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Gibraltar is neither a colony nor a part of the United Kingdom, and its legal status is that of a British Overseas Territory. It has an area of 6 sq km (2.3 square miles) and a northern border with the Province of Cádiz in Andalusia, Spain. The Rock of Gibraltar is the only landmark of the region. At its foot is the densely-populated city area, home to almost 30,000 Gibraltarians and other nationalities.

It ranks at 241 in the list of the world’s 249 countries and dependencies by land area – smaller than the Isle of Man (193), Andorra (195), Malta (207), Lichtenstein (219), Jersey (223), Guernsey (226), San Marino (227), but slightly larger than the two smallest, Monaco (248), which is the smallest country with a coastline and the smallest UN member state, and the Vatican City (249), which is listed as the smallest country in the world.

When you count the population, Gibraltar ranks at 221 out of 243, with more inhabitants than the Vatican City, but fewer than any of the other European microstates I’ve named.

To draw comparisons with places in Ireland and England, Gibraltar has a smaller population than, say, Dun Laoghaire, and a smaller land area than the borough of Kilkenny; it has a smaller population than Lichfield, and is less than half the size. Calling it a microstate might be too much of a compliment.

Gibraltar has been a British possession since 1704, when an Anglo-Dutch force captured it from Spain during the War of the Spanish Succession. At the time, Britain was fighting on behalf of the Habsburg pretender to the Spanish throne, and it has clung onto this tiny rock ever since. Legally, the British claim to Gibraltar was secured in 1713, when the Treaty of Utrecht ceded this tiny enclave to Britain “in perpetuity.”

It became an important British naval base, but today the economy is based largely on tourism, online gambling, questionable financial services, and shipping.

A bobby on the beat on the streets of Gibraltar (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Everywhere there are red pillar boxes, the red telephone boxes that are disappearing rapidly from the streets of England, English pubs and bars offering Sunday carveries, and English high street shops and brands, including Marks and Spencer, NatWest, Zara and BHS.

We visited the Anglican Cathedral, Holy Trinity, on Cathedral Square, the King’s Chapel, beside the Convent, which is the Governor’s Official Residence, watched the changing of the guard, peered into Trafalgar Cemetery, and took the cable car to the top of the Rock to see the Barbary apes and gaze across the Straits of Gibraltar to the nearby coastline of Morocco.

The Barbary Apes ... linked with legends about the continuing British presence in Gibraltar (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

The sovereignty of Gibraltar is a major point of contention in Anglo-Spanish relations, as the residents found earlier this year when Spain reasserted its claims to this rocky outcrop that no-one else seems to bother about. Time and again, the people of Gibraltar have voted against proposals for Spanish sovereignty and they now govern their own affairs, although some powers, such as military policy and foreign relations, remain the responsibility of Whitehall.

Under the British Nationality Act (1981), the people of Gibraltar have full British citizenship, although they have their own Governor, parliament and elected government.

Gibraltar has also been recognised as part of the European Union since 1973, as a dependent territory of the United Kingdom. After a 10-year campaign, voters there have been able to vote in elections for the European Parliament since 2004 – as part of the South West England constituency.

It might be easy to understand Spanish ire in this situation and to draw comparisons with the gradual reintegration of Hong Kong with China and the process of decolonisation.

On the other hand, I was reminded that Spanish claims are one-sided: apart from the Canary Islands, Spain holds on to Ceuta and Melilla, two autonomous cities in North Africa that are an integral part of Spanish territory although they are surrounded by the Moroccan mainland. These are well-known, and travel agents along the Costa del Sol offer day trips to these two outposts.

What seems to be less well-known is that Spain also has a number of other minor territories in Morocco that it classifies as plazas de soberanía or sovereign territories: the Islas Alhucemas includes a small peninsula and two tiny islands; Islas Chafarinas are three tiny islands; there is the tiny territory of Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera; and there is Isla Perejil, a small uninhabited islet close to Ceuta.

All these are guarded by Spanish military garrisons and administered directly by the Spanish central government. Their currency is the Euro and, just like Ceuta and Melilla, they are an integral part of Spain, and so – like Gibraltar – they are also part of the European Union, although they are not part of NATO.

On our way back from Gibraltar late yesterday, we had to take everything off the bus, and walk through the Spanish police and customs. Did they want us to feel uncomfortable after just one day’s visit to this outcrop?

Franco staged his fascist invasion of Spain in 1936 from Cueta, and a generation later sealed off the tiny strip of border that links Gibraltar and Spain. It did not reopen until the 1980s when Spain joined the EU.

Gibraltar symbolised resistance to the Nazis during World War II. Later, in the post-war years it came to symbolise a protest against Franco’s Fascism. It would be a crying shame if this little corner of England became a symbol for UKIP and the looney right in next month’s European elections.

23 April 2014

Bullfighting may be part of Spanish
culture ... but I’m still not going

Hotels along the Costa del Sol promote bullfighting as a tourist attraction (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

I have never been to a bullfight and I have no intention of ever going to one.

I have been both a vegetarian and a pacifist for over 40 years, but this is not my reason for finding the very thought of bullfighting distasteful and disgusting.

It just goes beyond my capacity for understanding to try to grasp why hundreds or even thousands of people could imagine it is enjoyable to spend an evening watching an animal being prodded, goaded and tortured by people for fun before it finally killed cruelly to applause. It is even worse to consider that bulls are breed especially for this single purpose.

Throughout this week, I have come across posters and flyers inviting tourists to go to the bullfight. It is on offer, along with other tourist attractions like dolphin viewing and pony rides on the beach, as if a bullfight is in the same category as going to a floorshow or spending an evening at an exhibition of Flamenco dancing.

Inside the bullring in Mijas (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

And yet, the poet Federico García Lorca, who was from this part of Spain, once described bullfighting as an “authentic religious drama.” The gore and passion of the toreo have inspired the work of Spanish artists for centuries, from Goya to Picasso. Five years of Spanish at school in the 1960s also taught me that bullfighting, like flamenco dancing and singing, is an integral part of the Spanish way of life. But I had forgotten all this until I visited Picasso’s birthplace in Málaga a few days ago.

I was told yesterday that Málaga has the oldest bullring in Spain. Perhaps this explains why, from his childhood, Picasso was a lifelong fan of bullfighting, and he continued to watch bullfights later in life when he lived in exile in southern France.

Picasso painted many images of bullfights, matadors and picadors. Perhaps it is his understanding of the gore, the violence and the humiliation of the bullfight that comes through in one of his greatest works portraying the brutality and suffering of war.

Guernica by Pablo Picasso ... the violence of the bullring provides the language and images that respond to the horrors of war

Perhaps the violence of the bullring provided the language and images that allowed him to respond to the horrors of war in his Guernica, which makes him one of the great tragic artists of history.

In his Guernica, Picasso depicts people, animals and buildings suffering and destroyed by the violence of the Spanish Civil War.

The mural is dominated by two images: a wide-eyed bull standing over a grieving, anguished mother who cradles her dead child in her arms; and a horse, representing the Spanish people, with a gaping wound in his side and falling in agony after it has just been run through by a spear and gored by a bull.

The mortally wounded horse shapes two other images – a human skull and a bull goring the horse from underneath. The bull’s head is shaped by the horse’s front leg, while his nose is formed by the horse’s kneecap.

Under the horse is a dead, dismembered soldier, his severed hand still grasping a sword. Yet there is hope, for a flower is growing from this shattered sword. On the wall behind the bull, a dove is holding an olive branch as a symbol of the hope for peace.

Picasso could hardly have painted the bulls and the horse in Guernica without drawing on his experience and knowledge of the bullfight.

Picasso’s protest against the brutalities of the Spanish Civil War was commissioned by the Republican government in 1937 and was inspired by the bombing of the Basque town of Gernika-Lumo on 26 April 1937 by a German Nazi Condor Legion fighting on Franco’s side, only a few months after the murder of García Lorca.

It was the first air raid on a civilian population in Europe. The village was pounded with high-explosive and incendiary bombs for over three hours. The non-combattant people who lived there, including women and children, were cut down indiscriminately as they fled their burning homes. Guernica burned for three days, leaving 1,600 civilians killed or wounded in its smouldering remains.

The Fascist planners of the bombing campaign knew Guernica had no strategic value as a military target, but it was a cultural and religious center for Basque identity. The devastation was intended to terrorise the people and break the spirit of the Basque resistance to Fascism and the Nazi supporters of Franco. In London, The Times labelled it the arch-symbol of Fascist barbarity.

Picasso decided that Guernica should not return to Spain until democracy returned to Spain. It now hangs in the Museo Nacional Central de Art Reina Sofía in Madrid.

As he was painting Guernica, Picasso was also working on The Dream and Lie of Franco, a series of sketches that depict Franco as a monster that first devours his own horse and later does battle with an angry bull.

Posing as a matador in Mijas ... but I am not going to the bullfight (Photograph: Barbara Comerford, 2014)

During an afternoon in Mijas a few days ago, I took the opportunity to visit the bullring, which was built over 100 years ago at the beginning of the 20th century. I was able to walk through the tendidos or stalls, the corrales where the bulls are kept, the callejón where the matadors wait before the fight, the patio de caballos, where the horses are kept, and to climb to the presidencia, which includes the president’s box.

I even stuck my face through the tacky cut-out stand that allowed me to have my photograph taken as a matador, with capa and muleta in hand ... although the capa looks more like a mobile phone.

But I have no intention of ever going to a bullfight, and could never encourage other tourists to see this is an evening’s entertainment. It is not a sport. It is not as though the matador and the bull are battling like Chelsea and Ateltico Madrid last night to go into the next round ... there is never a draw, one must die, and that almost always, perhaps inevitably, means the bull, who has no choice about being in the ring.

No matter how much bullfighting has inspired one of the greatest anti-war works of art, I cannot regard it as a sport or part of Spanish culture. It remains violent, it is cruel and it is inhumane, and has no place in a civilised European society. It is already banned in Catalonia and on the Canary Islands. Hopefully, the other parts of Spain will follow suite, and soon.

22 April 2014

Waiting for Franco’s funeral

A modern democracy … the Spanish flag flying on the beach at La Carihuela this week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

Last month in Ireland we remembered the fiftieth anniversary of the death of the playwright and author Brendan Behan who died 50 years ago on 20 March 1964 at the age of 41.

During this week in Spain I have wondered about how the Spanish people recovered from the horrors of the civil war in the 1930s and the brutality of the Franco regime, and made the transition to democracy.

While Franco was dying, I stayed awake on many late shifts on the Foreign Desk of The Irish Times, waiting for Franco’s funeral. But the dictator died on 20 November 1975, on a night that I was off work. The same happened to me three months earlier when Eamon de Valera died on 29 August 1975, once again on a night when I was off after sitting through many late shifts.

I had joined the staff of The Irish Times within the past year. Who was I to complain at the time that after two consecutive runs of long, late-night shifts I was never got to shout the old hackneyed phrase: “Hold the Front Page”?

I am reminded in Spain this week of the story told by Ronnie Drew in Sez He and by many others in the past month of how Brendan Behan decided to go to Spain on holidays while it was still struggling Franco’s brutal regime.

When he arrived at Madrid Airport, Behan found the police had obviously been advised about his political views and were waiting for him when he went to the passport checkpoint.

“What is the purpose of your visit to Spain, Mr Behan?”

“I have come to attend General Franco’s funeral.”

“But the Generalissimo is not yet dead.”

“In that case,” says Brendan, “I’ll wait.”

It is said he was deported soon afterwards.

21 April 2014

An afternoon walking through
the ‘white village’ of Mijas

The white-washed narrow streets of Mijas, with their geranium-filled hanging baskets, seem to be a world apart from the resorts on the Costa del Sol below (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

Mijas is a white-washed, mountainside village, 30 km south-west of Málaga and about 450 metres (about 1,500 feet) above sea level. The village is like a balcony looking out across the countryside of Andalusia and down onto Fuengirola below and the coastal resorts of the Costa del Sol.

Two of us caught a bus from Torremolinos to Fiengirola late one morning, and from there took a second bus up to Mijas, a small town packed each day with day-trippers taking an Easter break from the brash resorts.

Mihas is like a balcony above the surrounding countryside and the resorts of the Costa del Sol (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Mijas relies on the tourist industry, and the town is filled with cafés, restaurants, museums and souvenir shops.

The Hermitage of San Sebastián has a tiny chapel that dates from the late 17th century, when it was built with alms. This is a typical Mudejar church, built in a Spanish architectural style dating from the 13th to the 16th century, and combining Moorish and Gothic styles. Inside, a peaceful atmosphere is created by that plain white walls that provide a sharp contrast with the ornate altar and cupola above it, decorated with rococo plaster.

An invitation to enter the Secret Garden at the Aroma Café (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Mijas has managed to retain much of its “white village” charm, with its cobbled, narrow winding streets, dazzling whitewashed walls, charming plazas and squares, and breathtaking views.

The street where it stands, Calle San Sebastián, is one of the most beautiful and picturesque along the Costa del Sol.

There we had lunch in the Aroma Café and Secret Garden before continuing to explore the side streets with their white-washed houses, decorated with geranium-filled pots and hanging baskets.

The first settlers in Mijas in prehistoric times were the Tartessians. The remains of the original fortifications can still be seen in parts of the wall. The area’s mineral wealth of the area attracted the Greeks and the Phoenicians to the village, and Mijas was described by Ptolemy in his Geography in the 2nd century AD.

The Romans knew Mijas as Tamisa. They were followed by the Visigoths and then by the Moors, who were ruling this part of southern Spain by the year 714. The Muslim rulers allowed the people here to hold onto their property, their religion, and their customs – but at a price: a third of their goods, agricultural produce and livestock. The Moors pronounced the name Tamisa as Mixa, and this in turn became Mijas.

Lions on a fountain in a square in Mijas (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

During the time of the Emirate of Córdoba, the village was conquered by Umar ibn Hafsun. The village remained under the rule of Bobastro, who was defeated by Abd al-Rahman III in the late 9th century.

In 1487, Mijas resisted the advance the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella during the siege of Málaga. But when Málaga fell, the inhabitants surrendered, most of the people were sold as slaves, and the town was repopulated by Christians.

A few decades later, during the Revolt of the Comuneros, Mijas remained loyal to the Spanish monarchs, who gave it the title of Muy Leal (“Very Loyal”). Soon after, Joanna of Castile gave the place the title and status of a royal borough villa (town) and exempted the place from paying royal taxes.

But none of this saved Mijas from the marauding adventures of pirates, who continued to work along the coast below until the early 19th century.

The people of Mijas continued to survive mainly through farming, fishing, and their vineyards. But the pirates threatened the safety of the fishermen, and in the mid-19th century the Philloxera plague destroyed all the local vineyards.

The local peace was also disturbed in 1831, when General Torrijos landed on a beach below at El Charcón. With a small force of 52 men, he crossed Mijas, climbed the hill the hill above and took a stand against the absolutism of Ferdinand VII. The revolt eventually collapsed, and the general and his tiny force were shot on the San Andres beaches on 11 December 1831.

The village remained isolated well into the 20th century, and there was no ’phone service even into the 1950s, when the first small hotel was built.

Today, the attractions for day-trippers to Mijas Pueblo include the town’s traditional bullring, which opened in 1900, and donkey trips that offer children – and some adults – tours around the area. Although the viewing platforms around the rim of Mijas offer spectacular views of the African coastline, the Atlas Mountains, Gibraltar and a good part of the Costa del Sol, cloud cover worked against taking in these sights during my afternoon visit.

La Iglesia de la Immaculada Concepcion … stands on part of the ruins of the Moorish mosque (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Near the bullring, I visited the Iglesia de la Immaculada Concepcion, a church that dates mainly from the early 18th century church but standing on part of the ruins of a Moorish castle that stood here from the 8th until the late 15th century. The original church was built on the site of a mosque in the 1500s, and there are still traces of the Mudejar tower of the old mosque.

A wedding party of three in Mijas (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Later as we sipped coffee in a café in a small square, children passed by on “donkey taxis,” and a newly-wed bride in her white costume sat at the table next to us with her husband and their photographer … a wedding party of three.

On the way back to Mijas to Torremolinos, we caught a bus that by-passed Fuengirola, but that took us through Benalmádena, and by the the largest Buddhist stupa in the West, standing tall at 33 metres, with a Tibetan meditation hall beside it.

Some historians say the name of the town comes from the Arabic Ibn al-ma’ din or “son of the mines” for the iron and ochre bed found in the area. Others say it comes from the Arabic word Bina al-ma’din, “the construction or building of the mine.” And others still suggest derivation from Arabic phrases meaning “people between springs” (Bena-A La Ena) or Bina al-Madina, “the state of al-Madina’s family,” referring to a rich Muslim family in Málaga who owned the area.

However, as the bus made its way through the brash areas of the resort, the most prominent names that afternoon appeared to be those on Irish pubs, including ‘The Irish Times’ (I kid you not), ‘Kitty O’Sheas’ and ‘O’Driscolls.’ Who is going to explain this invasion and untangle the etymology of these names for future generations?

A sign of the Times? One of the many Irish pubs in Benalmádena (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)