02 November 2014
Today is traditionally marked as All Souls’ Say [2 November], while yesterday, 1 November, was All Saints’ Day and in Ireland traditionally marked the first day of winter.
The month of November is Mí na Samhna in Irish, and Samhain marked the beginning of winter, in the same way that Imbolc (1 Feabhra or February, Lá Fhéile Bríde, or Saint Brigid’s Day), marked the beginning of Spring, Bealtaine (1 May) announced the arrival of Summer, and Lughnasa or Lúnasa on 1 August hailed the start of autumn.
The meaning of the word is linked with a festival and or assembly held on 1 November in mediaeval Ireland, but its meaning may also refer to “summer’” – from sam (summer) and fuin (end), although summer ended much earlier than this time of the year.
We are about halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. This was the time when cattle were brought back down from the summer pastures and when livestock were slaughtered for the winter.
But the cattle were still out grazing in the green fields this afternoon, there was a clear blue sky, and the countryside was basking in lights that made it look more like early autumn or late summer than the beginning of winter.
I was the deacon at the Choral Eucharist in the Christ Church Cathedral this morning, reading the Gospel (Matthew 23: 1-12) and assisting at the administration of the Holy Communion. This morning, Canon Ken Kearon preached his last sermon as a canon of the cathedral prior to his consecration as Bishop of Limerick.
Later, two of us headed south in the bright sunshine, and we stopped to admire the green and yellow fields, and the view across Greystones and the harbour and out to sea, before going to lunch in the Happy Pear.
It was bright enough and warm enough to sit out on the street while we had lunch al fresco, and lingered a little longer over two perfect double espressos.
Initially, we thought of going for an afternoon stroll on the beach in Greystones, but it was so warm and sunny we had second thoughts and decided instead to drive further south to Brittas Bay.
It is almost four years since I was in Brittas Bay [3 January 2011], and we had planned a walk on the beach there last Friday [31 October 2014] after visiting Kilpatrick House in search of further details about Ludwig Wittgenstein’s time in Ireland.
I imagined that during the winter months he spent at Kilpatrick House, between December 1947 and April 1948, Wittgenstein went for many walks along the sand dunes at Brittas Bay.
However, the grey clouds and the threat of rain on Friday steered us away from Brittas Bay, and instead we went for lunch at the at the Avoca Garden Café in Mount Usher Gardens near Ashford, and a stroll through the garden centre and shops.
We headed south to Brittas Bay this afternoon, but the road works on the N11 at Jack White’s we almost missed the turn to the coast, and were heading towards Arklow before we found our way back again onto the coast road.
Brittas Bay is between Wicklow Town and Arklow, and on summer days it is one of the most popular beaches near Dublin for day-trippers. The beach at Brittas Bay stretches for 5 km of almost-uninterrupted white sand dunes and clean beaches, and the powdery sand and sand dunes form an Area of Scientific Interest (ASI) that is both rare and unique.
The name Brittas comes from the Old French bretesche, meaning “brattice, boarding or planking,” and refers to wooden defences associated with a motte or castle-mound of the Anglo-Norman period. Today, wooden boardwalks from the car parks to the beach are a measure to protect the 100 hectares of sand dunes, with their wildlife and plants.
The main car park was closed, but we found another one at the southern end of the beach, and used a small pathway to cross the dunes to the beach.
Down on the beach, a few families were playing with kites, there was a small number of lone stragglers, and two people – a woman in a wet suit and a man in swimming shorts – were brave enough to try swimming in the waves and the cold water.
Behind the beach, beyond the dunes, the sun was setting somewhere in the west in the Wicklow Mountains, out in the east, the wind generators were whirling away at their work on the sand banks in the sea. We walked a little north first, towards Mizen Head enjoying the clear skies and rolling waves.
Four years ago, I wrote of how Brittas Bay must have featured in countless school essays in Irish, each entitled “Cois Farraige,” and each with the opening words: “Lá brea samhraidh a bhí ann. Bhí an grian ag tainbh ...” We left reluctantly, imagining we were catching not the first bright days of Samhain but the last lingering beams of Samradh.
On the way back, we missed the signs to Jack Whites and the N11 and ended up on the northern edges of Arklow. But the traffic was light, and we were back in south Dublin before darkness had closed in.
I was back in Crete this summer, staying in Rethymnon, an old Venetian town on the north coast that for years has been as close as I get to being at home in Greece.
There was time for walking on the beach, swimming in the sea, long lingering meals with friends, visits to galleries and exhibitions, trips into the mountains, time for prayer in churches and monasteries, and time to listen to some old but favourite stories.
The best-known storyteller in modern Crete was Nikos Kazantzakis, author of the book that gave birth to Zorba the Greek, perhaps the best-loved Greek films. The book was first published in Greek in 1946 as Life and Times of Alexis Zorbas (Βίος και Πολιτεία του Αλέξη Ζορμπά).
The Oscar-winning film was produced in 1964 and next month marks the fiftieth anniversary of the release of the joint British-Greek production. The film was directed by the Cypriot-born Michael Cacoyannis and the cast includes Anthony Quinn as Zorba, Alan Bates, Irene Papas and Lila Kedrova.
Half a century later, most people now know syrtáki as a typical Greek folkdance. But as we drove across the mountains to visit the Monastery of Preveli and some remote beaches on the south coast, we were told that syrtáki was invented by Anthony Quinn as the dance scene was being filmed on a beach near Chania. And while Zorba has become a stereotype of hardy Cretan men, Anthony Quinn had a mixed Irish and Mexican background.
With two old myths shattered, I returned to the original novel by Kazantzakis.
An old story
Basil (Alan Bates) is a half-English, half-Greek writer raised in England who returns to his father’s village in Crete to inherit some land and to restart an old mine. On the way, he meets Zorba, a gruff but boisterous peasant and musician.
When they arrive in Crete, they stay with Madame Hortense (Lila Kedrova), a French war widow, in her self-styled Hotel Ritz. Zorba wants to log trees in the local forest to fuel the mine, but the land is owned by a nearby monastery. He visits the monks and gets them drunk. Later, on the beach, he begins to dance in a way that mesmerises Basil. Meanwhile, they also get to know a young widow (Irene Papas).
Basil sends Zorba to buy cables and supplies in Chania – in the book the town is Iraklion or Candia, where Kazantzakis was born and is buried. There, Zorba squanders the money on drink and women. When he returns, he rows with Basil and a local man who overhears the content of their conversation drowns himself in the sea. At the funeral, the villagers blame the young widow for his death, and despite the best efforts of Basil and Zorba, she is murdered by the young man’s father.
When Madame Hortense contracts pneumonia, word spreads that “the foreigner” is dying. The poor villagers crowd around her hotel, planning to steal her few possessions, and when she dies the house is ransacked and stripped bare. But she is refused a funeral because of her religion: “There will be no funeral. She was a Frank, she crossed herself with four fingers. The priest will not bury her like everybody else.”
Zorba eventually builds his machine to take timber down the hill and it is blessed by the priests. But all his efforts to make it work turn to disaster and everything is wrecked.
The film ends with the spine-tingling "teach me to dance" sequence, the two men alone together on the beach, realising that although life’s dance can be learned along many different paths, sometimes the destination is the same, no matter what route is chosen. And they dance syrtáki together on the beach.
The myth about syrtáki
Zorba the Greek was filmed on location in Crete, mainly in Chania and the surrounding area. The score, written by the Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis who is from Chania, has remained popular ever since.
It was made on a tight budget of $783,000, but grossed up to $23.5 million worldwide, making it a commercial success and one of the top earning films of 1964. It won three Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actress (Lila Kedrova), Best Art Direction, Black-and-White (Vassilis Photopoulos) and Best Cinematography, Black-and-White (Walter Lassally).
On our way to Preveli on the south coast, we were told the story of syrtaki (συρτάκι), the dance Giorgos Provias choreographed for the film. Many think it is the archetypal Greek folkdance, and it is danced in countless restaurants, tavernas and resorts during the holiday season. But it is not a traditional Greek folkdance, and instead is a mixture of the slow and fast versions of a dance known as hasapiko.
The music was composed by Theodorakis, but the movements were contrived on location by Anthony Quinn. Superstitious actors wish each other well on stage with the greeting, “Break a leg.” Quinn had actually broken a bone in his foot on location, yet remained determined to continue filming. He improvised unexpectedly by mixing the slow and fast versions of hasapiko.
When he was asked by the production team what he was dancing, he replied: “Syrtáki.” His reply played on a Greek word for dragging, for Quinn should have been hopping when he was dragging his leg. No-one imagined that half a century on, syrtáki would be a popular Greek dance.
Syrtáki is danced in a line or circle, with dancers holding their hands on the neighbours’ shoulders. The dance begins with slower, smoother actions, gradually transforming into faster, vivid ones, often including hops and leaps. The Guinness World Record was set in 2012 by 5,614 people dancing syrtáki for five minutes in Volos.
As for Anthony Quinn (1915-2001), who was born Antonio Rodolfo Quinn Oaxaca in Chihuahua, Mexico, denied being the son of an “Irish adventurer.” He said his mother Nellie had Aztec ancestors, while his father, Frank Quinn, was the Mexican-born son of an Irish immigrant and once rode with Pancho Villa.
A writer’s inner conflicts
The adventurous Zorba is the antithesis of the bookish Basil. Zorba is a potential symbol of freedom in Basil’s quest to find freedom. In Zorba’s view, only people who want to be free are truly human.
In many ways, the conflicts that unfold in the book provide a way for Kazantzakis to work through his own inner conflicts. At one time he had rejected Christianity and sought fulfilment in Buddhism and other philosophies. But he returned to Christianity and later wrote powerful novels about the sufferings of persecuted Christians in Asia Minor and about the life of Saint Francis of Assisi.
For Zorba, the journey is more important than the destination. He claims to be an atheist, yet realises that Christianity is central to the villagers’ way of life. He tells Basil: “The highest point a man can attain is … Sacred Awe!”
As Basil sets out for Crete, he wants to rid himself of the Buddha and abstract thinking. He finishes writing a book or paper on Buddha only to realise that he has exorcised the Buddha within. Kazantzakis eventually abandoned his own experiments with Buddhism, and despite strong criticism of his writings, he received an Orthodox funeral in Crete, where was buried on the bastion above Iraklion, looking out to the sea. The simple epitaph on his grave reads: “I hope for nothing, I fear for nothing, I am free.”
Kazantzakis prefaces his autobiographical novel Report to Greco with a prayer: “Three kinds of souls, three kinds of prayers: 1, I am a bow in your hands, Lord, draw me lest I rot. 2, Do not overdraw me, Lord, I shall break. 3, Overdraw me, Lord, and who cares if I break!”
Icons and the True Cross
In Zorba, the monastery has a treasured icon whose name changes from Our Lady of Mercy to Our Lady of Revenge, and Zorba also tells a story in which his grandfather takes a piece of wood and claims it is part of the True Cross.
I was reminded of these episodes later that morning when we arrived at the Monastery of Preveli. The monastery is famed for its role in struggles against both the Turks and the Germans in the 19th and 20th centuries, and is celebrated in Greek lore, literature and movies for its part in helping allied soldiers escape Crete during World War II.
Preveli, 37 km south of Rethymnion, is not one but two monasteries, with two sets of buildings. The Lower Monastery, dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, is now deserted and fenced off. It is another 3 km to the Upper Monastery, dedicated to Saint John the Theologian.
During the Turkish occupation of Crete, Abbot Ephrem secured the monastery’s privileges and estates through the protection of the Patriarchate. As a sign of its new status, he returned from Constantinople with a Cross containing a relic of the True Cross that remains the most revered relic in Preveli.
The monks in Preveli were actively involved in successive revolutions that secured Crete’s autonomy in 1896, followed by political union with Greece a century ago in 1913.
During the German occupation of Crete in World War II, 5,000 Greek and allied troops who fought in the Battle of Crete in 1941 found themselves stranded on the island. Many found shelter in Preveli and the monks found hiding places for the others in neighbouring homes and farms.
The Abbot helped organise their escape to Egypt on two submarines from the Palm Beach below the monastery. In a revenge attack the Germans plundered the monastery, stealing its most precious relic. The icons and relics were rescued and are now in the monastery museum, while the Cross has a special place of honour in the main church or katholikon in the monastery.
A monk’s disbelief
The monastic community in Preveli has dwindled in numbers, with only three monks living in the monastery today. It is a crisis in monastic vocations hitting many monasteries throughout Greece. But I was warmly invited into the katholikon by one of the monks.
He quickly realised I was a priest and asked me which Church I was from and who my bishop was.
“Michael Jackson,” I replied, “he is my archbishop,” and I handed him my card.
“Michael Jackson?” he asked quizzically. And he filled the vaulted church with laughter that was heartier than Zorba’s. He then brought me around the church, pointing out the icons, the patriarch’s throne, and other treasures. He then put on his stole, took the treasured Cross from its shrine, and blessed me.
I felt blessed as I left for the Palm Beach on the shoreline below.
Canon Patrick Comerford is a Lecturer in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This feature was first published in the November 2014 editions of the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory).