03 January 2014

Soaked up to my knees by the waves
in Kilcoole between the storms

The waves breaking against the East Coast shoreline beside the railway line in Kilcoole, Co Wicklow (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

The strong storms, the heavy rains and the cold weather continue to wreak havoc across these islands. It has hovered around 7-8 C in Dublin today, but the wind chill factor made it feel like –7 or lower.

The rains and the tides have brought flooding to parts of Dublin and Wicklow, but these have not been as high or as heavy as the rides and flooding in other parts of Ireland.

I was in the hospital in Tallaght for a short time this morning for tests. But by noon, the skies were clearing, and seemed like a good idea to go to Kilcoole, Co Wicklow, to see today’s high tide from the defence walls that separate the coastline from the main east coast railway line linking Dublin and Wexford.

We parked just behind the railway station and at first I thought the sound beyond was a train trundling along the line. But, as the steady sound continued, I realised it was the high tide beating against the rocks of the defence wall.

As I stood on the steps between the railway line and the sea, I was soaked up to my knees by the waves (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Crossing the railway line to the steps down to the beach in between the rocks that reinforce the break-wall between the sea and the railway, it was the first time I have ever seen the steps covered by waves.

As I stood on the steps in the break-wall between the railway line and the sea, one wave after another crashed in, and I was covered briefly up to me knees in water. It was beautiful if chilly.

Despite the cold temperatures and the high waves, it was possible to see for miles along the coast, south and north. We walked along the wall for a short distance north towards Greystones. But by now I was wet from me knees to me toes and in need of a change of shoes and socks.

Luisne, originally built as Darraghville ... the spirituality centre is seeking to discern the way forward into the future (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

On the way back to Greystones, by now in my bare feet, we stopped briefly to photograph Luisne, an old house that is home to a centre for spirituality about a mile north of Kilcoole. This once elegant historic house is surrounded by 40 acres of beautiful unspoilt Wicklow countryside.

Open and without walls, Luisne describes itself as “a contemporary monastic settlement inspired by the early monasteries and the scientific revelation that all life is intimately interconnected and richly diversified.”

The programmes at Luisne include meditation twice a day and regular extended meditation practice in weekly classes and weekend workshops, as well as classes on art appreciation, astronomy, cookery, herbal remedies, vegetarian cooking, mindfulness and yoga.

The Luisne Spirituality Centre was established in 2004, but the presence of the Holy Faith community dates back to the 1890s, and the house is a century older.

The original house, Darraghville, was built by John Darragh, a former lord mayor of Dublin, ca 1782, on lands first leased from the Gardiner family, Earls of Blessington – they gave their name to Gardiner Street, Gardiner Square, Blessington Street and other Georgian streets in Dublin.

Darraghville is a two-storey over basement, five-bay, Georgian residence, with a projecting semi-hexagonal bay to the west, parapet hipped roof to the east, and treble-hipped “A” roofs to the west. There are Venetian windows with sidelights feature on the two principal façades.

The house retains many of its original features, including decorative plaster ceilings, stone flooring, vaulted basements, and staircases and woodwork of architectural importance. The façade was brickwork, but is now concealed behind painted render. The three-storey extension to the north probably dates from the mid-19th century.

Photographs from the 1870s record the resplendent grandeur of a lower walled garden with an extensive glassed greenhouse, tea-house and an ornamental bridge. The lower garden is now overgrown, but the walls and entrances remain, and it still features a meandering stream, the bridge base and the old tea-house, very much in need of restoration.

A second walled garden beside the house is well maintained. It may have had a tennis court and fruit trees originally, but is now a vegetable patch, fruit trees and flower beds, as well as a small greenhouse.

John Darragh traded as a china and earthenware merchant on Lower Ormond Quay, Dublin. When his widow Mary died in 1799, the Darraghville estate passed to the Newton family, and George Newton built a new house on the site. In 1894, the Holy Faith Sisters bought Darraghville and opened new schools, including a junior boarding school for boys in 1898, where the more famous pupils included the comedian Jimmy O’Dea.

The ministry of the Luisne Spirituality Centre began in 2004, and the estate is still farmed and used for grazing livestock. However, the Holy Faith Congregation can no longer afford to fund the Luisne Centre. Plans are at an early stage to set up a charitable trust, Luisne Limited Company, to manage Luisne in the years to come so it can continue and expand.

I had a change of shoes in the car, but needed socks if I was going to go to lunch. We stopped in Greystones, and then, after a little rime browsing in the Village Bookshop, two of us had lunch in the Happy Pear.

Evening lights on the beach as the sun sets behind me in Bray late this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

The storm was still resting, and we decided to stop again to have another look at the breaking waves – this time in Bray. The tide had receded a little, but the sound of the waves against the pebbles on the shore was still a joy to the ear.

Behind me, the sun was setting in the south-east. Another gale is expected tonight. But the exhilaration on the beaches of Co Wicklow today was better than any shot in the arm in an hospital.

● The next meeting to discuss the future of Luisne is at 8 p.m. on Thursday next, 9 January 2014.

Art for Christmas (10): ‘Starry Night’
by Vincent van Gogh

‘Starry Night’ by Vincent van Gogh

Patrick Comerford

A well-known Dutch brand of beer has been advertising itself throughout this Christmas holiday season with the slogan “Starry, Starry Night.”

It is sad when beer becomes confused with Christmas cheer, when songs from the 1970s become confused with the work of artists, and when Dutch breweries try to convince us they are making as much a contribution to our society as Dutch artists.

Last year [2013], the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam celebrated its 40th year and reopened its doors to the public on 1 May 2013. For several years, the Van Gogh Museum daily played Don McLean’s Vincent (the real title for Starry Starry Night). It was written not as a Christmas song but as a tribute to Vincent van Gogh and was the No 1 record in Britain in 1972. The Van Gogh museum holds a copy of the sheet music alongside a set of Van Gogh’s paint brushes and the hat he wore while painting Starry Night.

This morning [3 January 2014], continuing my series on works of Art for Christmas to meditate on, I have chosen Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night, and two related paintings by the same artist, Starry Night Over the Rhône and Café Terrace at Night.

Vincent Willem van Gogh (1853-1890) was a Dutch-born post-Impressionist painter whose work, with its rough beauty, emotional honesty and bold colour, has been influential throughout the last century.

He was born on 30 March 1853, in Groot-Zundert, in the southern Netherlands, the oldest child of the Revd Theodorus van Gogh, a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church, and Anna Cornelia Carbentus.

At an early stage, he felt a call to ordained ministry, and he went to Amsterdam to study theology in 1877. His uncle, Johannes Paulus Stricker (1816-1886), was a theologian and author of Jezus van Nazareth volgens de Historie Geschetst (Jesus of Nazareth, Drawn according to History), the first historical approach to the biography life of Jesus Christ in the Netherlands, published in 1868. When Van Gogh failed the exam, and then failed a three-month course at a Protestant missionary school near Brussels.

In 1879, he began working as a missionary in Petit Wasmes, a coal-mining village in Belgium. But in 1880, he decided to become a full-time artist. He aspired to become an artist in God’s service, in order “to try to understand the real significance of what the great artists, the serious masters, tell us in their masterpieces, that leads to God; one man wrote or told it in a book; another in a picture.”

Starry Night (De sterrennacht) was painted by Van Gogh in June 1889 while he was in an asylum. It measures 73.7 cm × 92.1 cm and has been in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City since 1941.

The painting shows the night view through the window of the artist’s room in the sanatorium at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, in southern France, although it was painted from memory during the day from memory. This painting is one of Van Gogh’s best-known works and marks a decisive turn towards greater imaginative freedom in his art.

In December 1888, Van Gogh suffered a breakdown that ended with him being taken to hospital in Arles. In May 1889, he decided to enter the asylum at Saint-Rémy, where he stayed for the next year. His time there was very productive, although interrupted by incapacitating nervous attacks. Inspired by the landscape surrounding the asylum, he painted Starry Night in June 1889.

In the centre of the painting we see the village of Saint-Rémy under a swirling sky, seen from the asylum looking north. The Alpilles are to the far right, but the hills in between seem to be those to the south of the asylum, and the cypress tree to the left was added to the scene. During his time in Arles, Van Gogh had already moved the constellation Ursa Major from the north to the south in his painting Starry Night Over the Rhône.

‘Starry Night Over the Rhône’ by Vincent van Gogh

In Starry Night Over the Rhône, painted in Arles in September 1888, Van Gogh depicts the River Rhône at night. This oil on canvas painting measures 72.5 cm × 92 cm and is in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

Working by night under a gas lamp, Van Gogh painted this work directly from nature. “It does me good to do what’s difficult,” he wrote at the time. “That doesn’t stop me having a tremendous need for, shall I say the word – for religion – so I go outside at night to paint the stars.”

‘The Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum’ by Vincent van Gogh

The first painting in which Van Gogh used a starry background is Café Terrace at Night, also known as The Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum. This is a coloured oil painting on an industrially primed canvas, measuring 80.7 cm x 65.3 cm. The painting is on view in the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo in the Netherlands.

This work was painted in Arles in mid-September 1888. The painting is not signed, but described and mentioned by the artist in his letters on many occasions. When it was first exhibited in 1892, the painting was entitled Coffeehouse, in the evening (Café, le soir).

Visitors to Arles can still stand at the north-east corner of the Place du Forum, where Van Gogh set up his easel. He looked south towards the artificially-lit terrace of the popular coffee house, as well as into the enforced darkness of the rue du Palais leading up to a building to the that is not seen in the painting. Beyond this building is the tower of a former church, now the Musée Lapidaire. To the right, Van Gogh also indicates a lighted shop and some branches of the trees surrounding the square, but he omits the remains of Roman monuments beside the little shop.

Van Gogh also painted a star-lit background in his Portrait of Eugène Boch.

On 27 July 1890, Van Gogh is believed to have shot himself in the chest with a revolver. However, no gun was ever found, there were no witnesses and the place when he shot himself is unclear. He died two days later on 29 July 1890 at the age of 37, and was buried in the municipal cemetery in Auvers-sur-Oise.

In the first two choruses of Vincent (the proper title for Starry, Starry Night), Don McLean pays tribute to Van Gogh by reflecting on his lack of recognition:

They would not listen
they did not know how
perhaps they’ll listen now.

In the final chorus, McLean sings:

They would not listen
They’re not listening still
perhaps they never will.

Van Gogh was not recognised as an artist until after his death. Although the lyrics suggest “This world was never meant for someone as beautiful as you,” they recognise that Van Gogh was trying to “set [people] free” with the message in his work.

And I find Van Gogh’s starry nights, in his various paintings, are a joyful way of preparing for the Gospel reading (John 1: 1-18) next Sunday [5 January 2014]: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1: 5).

Tomorrow: http://www.patrickcomerford.com/2014/01/art-for-christmas-11-salisbury.html, by John Constable.