31 December 2015

2015: a year symbolised by the tragic
death of a small child on a beach

The heart-breaking photograph of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi is the one abiding image of 2015

Patrick Comerford

The major story of 2015 must have been the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, and the one abiding image that shall remain with me from 2015 is the heart-breaking photograph of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old the Syrian boy who was washed up on a beach in Turkey in early September as his family tried to make the perilous crossing to Kos.

His five-year-old brother met a similar death as they and their families fled from the northern Syrian town of Kobani, the scene of fierce fighting between Islamic State insurgents and Kurdish forces earlier this year.

I was deeply heart-broken when I first saw this photograph, and immediately had images of my own sons at that age playing on beaches on Achill Island or the island of Crete in Greece.

If one horrific symbol has come to represent this year it is barbed wire. Who would have thought that countries like Hungary, Slovakia and Poland would be erecting razor-wire and barbed-wire fences along their borders 70 years after the end of World War II and only 25 years after they rejoiced in their own liberty?

Who would have thought that once again one whole group of people was going to be categorised, labelled, marginalised and dehumanised because of their religion and their ethnic identity just seven decades after the end of the Holocaust?

There were positive images too: the compassionate image of the Turkish policeman carefully carrying the little boy’s body from the sea; the crews from the Irish naval service rescuing helpless people in the Mediterranean; the volunteers who are working in Greek islands like Lesbos, Samos, Kos and Rhodes, or in the parks of Athens, to rescue, feed and clothe the refugees; home-grown response from groups like Ireland AM and the Jacket off Your Back; and people like the Irish journalist Valerie Cox who sacrificed her holidays so they could provide basic needs in Kos for the most needy people in Europe.

The refugee crisis took on gross proportions as the year rolled on, and it now overshadows all our memories of the economic crisis and political in Greece earlier the year. The Angela Merkel who was being praised late in the year for opening Germany’s borders to the refugees passing through Greece was the same German Chancellor who earlier in the year on behalf of Europe’s strongest economies had tried to squeeze the lifeblood out of one of Europe’s weakest economies.

Perhaps Alexis Tsipras should be acknowledged as Europe’s politician of the year in 2015. He was a tough negotiator on behalf of his country, he risked his political reputation for the sake of his country, he was principled yet realistic, and he faced down critics within his own party for the sake of seeking his own country’s good.

Had Germany and other stable European economies had stood by Greece, then politics might not have become so polarised across the continent. And if the European dream had been shown to have a vision for the weak and the faltering, the wind might have been taken out of David Cameron’s sails as he tried to unpick the European enterprise with his demands for changes and his threat of a Brexit.

If the attacks in Paris at the beginning of the year at Charlie Hebdo and at the Batalclan theatre at the end of the year are fuelling the rise of Islamophobia – and the growing popularity at the French polls of the National Front may indicate this – then Isis has been handed yet more victories in its battle to portray all Europeans as the enemies of Islam.

The rise of Donald Trump in his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination has moved from the silly and ludicrous to the dangerous and frightening. It became even more frightening when the American evangelist Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, came out in support of Trump and spoke not of countering extremism of “the war with Islam.”

Amid an outcry over Donald Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims entering the US, Franklin Graham has come out in support of his plan, saying that he has been advocating a similar stance for months. “For some time I have been saying that Muslim immigration into the United States should be stopped until we can properly vet them or until the war with Islam is over,” Graham wrote on Facebook on Wednesday.

It might be as logical to argue that all Americans should be excluded from the US until all handguns and personal weapons have been destroyed. The figures for shootings and deaths because of this problem continue to spiral in a frightening way in the US, but no-one is talking about those who resist changes in the law as “far-right extremists” or “white supremacists.”

In the past Franklin Graham has described Islam as “a very evil and wicked religion” and claimed “true Islam cannot be practiced in this country [the US],” because, in his understanding, the practice of true Islam requires wife-beating, child murder and adultery.

Franklin Graham remains President of Samaritan’s Purse and heads up Operation Christmas Child. Samaritan’s Purse continues to exploit images of distressed Syrian refugees in Greece as part of its fundraising efforts, creating what seems to be one of the most unbelievable ideological paradoxes today.

The rise of Islamic State has destroyed the economy in Tunisia with one single rampage, has damaged tourism in the Sinai Peninsula with one carefully thought-through attack, and is threatening the stability of Turkey. In both instances, the ordinary decent citizens and businesses of countries with Muslim majorities are the victims of the Islamist militants, who have also wreaked havoc this year in Beirut, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria.

In the West, we somehow forget that more Muslims than Christians are the innocent victims of Islamist extremism. The forgotten civil war in Yemen shows that Saudi Arabia can continue to act with impunity as it claims more and more areas of the Middle East as parts of its sphere, and until the West faces down Saudi Arabia – and deals with Israel as it would with any other state – there can never be a shard of hope for peace in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, elections in Britain, Greece, France, Spain, Portugal, Turkey and elsewhere seem to indicate that politics are becoming increasingly polarised across Europe.

In Ireland, the referendum on marriage equality earlier this year and the floods, storms and high tides that have inundated the land since the arrival of winter have been the two main news stories of the year. But the old stories of continuing corruption in banking and in public life are still there too, and despite public outpourings of grief following the death of traveller families in fires in south Dublin, discrimination of all sorts remains a social problem throughout Ireland.

During the year, I spoke about the problems created by Isis and similar groups at conferences organised by the Three Faiths Forum, when I was invited to give one of the Dr Kieran Flynn Memorial Lectures in the Lantern Centre in Dublin [21 April], and when I was invited to speak at a conference in Dundrum Methodist Church organised by the Methodist Missionary Society [25 April 2015]. I also brought a group of students to visit the Irish Islamic Centre and mosque in Clonskeagh.

A hot air balloon journey over the ‘Fairy Chimneys of Cappadocia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

I spent some weeks this year travelling in Turkey, Italy and Greece.

Immediately after Easter, I spent a week in Cappadocia, where I stayed in the Maccan Cave Hotel, which is built around a cave in Goreme. This was an ideal base for visiting sites associated with the Cappadocian Fathers and the Patristic tradition, including churches and monasteries hewn from the rock face in central Turkey, many with frescoes that survived the Iconoclast heresy.

There were visits too to the Sufi holy shrine at Konya, an evening with “whirling dervishes,” a hot air balloon flight over the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia, a descent into the labyrinth of ancient underground city, and two brief stopovers in Istanbul.

On the balcony of Sicily … a view from Taormina across the coast of Sicily (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

In July, I visited Sicily for the first time, and stayed in the Hotel Villa Linda in Giardini Naxos. During that week, I climbed the slopes of Mount Etna, visited the classical theatres in Taormina and Syracuse, explored the site of the first Greek settlement in Sicily at Naxos, and walked through the beautiful baroque city of Noto.

Walking along the harbour of Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

In September, I spent a week in Julia Apartments in Platanes on the eastern outskirts of Rethymnon, with breakfasts on the balcony overlooking the gardens, lazy days by sea on the long sandy beach, lingering meals in the evenings with friends, visits to the churches, museums and architectural delights of Rethymnon, and some quiet days in the mountains, in the Monastery of Arkadi and the Venetian village of Maroulas.

Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield, with the Master’s House and the chapel on the left … the location for five films made by Dave Moore (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

I returned time and again to Lichfield this year, staying in both the Hedgehog on Stafford Road, and in the Premier Inn on the corner of Swan Road and The Friary.

In January, the local historian David Moore interviewed me for five short films he made for his YouTube channel. In this films, filmed in the chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, I talked about family and local history, my views about war and peace, my vision for the future, and how a visit to Saint John’s when I was a teenager became what I describe as my self-defining moment.

In May, I was invited to take part in a guided tour of Dr Milley’s Hospital, organised by local historian Kate Gomez and the local history group Lichfield Discovered.

With Canon Andrew Gorham after preaching in the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield

I was back in Lichfield in June when I was invited by Canon Andrew Gorham to preach at the Patronal Festival Eucharist in the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital [24 June 2015]. This was a particularly moving evening as the chapel of Saint John’s has played such a key role in my faith development, in shaping my life, and in determining so many decisions.

The Master of Saint John’s Hospital, Canon Andrew Gorham, presided at the Eucharist, and a reception was held afterwards in the gardens of Saint John’s Hospital, an almshouse dating back to the late 15th century. The attendance included the Lord-Lieutenant of Staffordshire, Dr Ian Dudson CBE, the Deputy Mayor of Lichfield, Mrs Sheelagh James, and former Mayor Mrs Norma Bacon.

During those few days I also visited the Roman site at wall, and went for walks in the countryside around Wall, Chesterfield and Shenstone, and also visited Christ Church, Leamonsley, with its unique Pre-Raphaelite ceiling paintings.

In October, I stayed over in Lichfield again after a meeting in Birmingham of Midlands supporters of Us. That visit also provided opportunities to continue on my ‘Pugin Trail’ when I visited Saint Chad’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, and te revisit Saint Philip’s Anglican Cathedral, the cathedral of Charles Gore. Which has been celebrating its 300th anniversary this year.

There were three or four visits to Cambridge this year (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

I was back in Cambridge three or four times during 2015. Before the council of Us (USPG) met in the High Leigh Conference Centre in Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire, I spent a Sunday morning in Cambridge, taking part in the Eucharist in Saint Bene’t’s Church, which feels like my own parish church when I am in Cambridge. Later that morning I went for a walk along Paradise Island, one of the nature preserves along the banks of the River Cam. I was back again later that week for an afternoon of architectural photography, browsing in the bookshops of Cambridge, and dropping into Sidney Sussex College.

In August and September, I was back in Sidney Sussex College as I took part once again in the annual summer school of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies. Each morning I was able to attend the Daily Eucharist in Saint Bene’t’s Church, there was time to catch up with some old friends, for more browsing in the bookshops, and some more architectural photography.

I was in Cambridge again in November for a meeting of the Trustees of Us in Westcott House, one of the two Anglican theological colleges in Cambridge. I stayed in the Travelodge, and there was some time to relax watching the rowing crews on the river, and to search for some gems of Eric Gill’s sculpture throughout Cambridge.

During two working visits to London, I visited Dr Johnson’s House off Fleet Street, and, in preparation for the a feature on the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Wellington, went in search of places associated with the Duke of Wellington, including Wellington Barracks and his tomb in the crypt of Saint Paul’s Cathedral.

I stayed at the High Leigh Conference Centre in Hertfordshire in July, when I was elected to the Trustees of Us (the new name for the Anglican mission agency USPG, the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel). During the conference, we had interesting discussions about empowering women and challenging discussions about human trafficking and gender-based violence in Pakistan, South Africa, Central Africa, Britain and other parts of the world.

It was appropriate that these discussions took place so soon after the appointment of the first women as bishops in the Church of England. If there is a face for Anglicanism this year then it must be Bishop Libby Lane, who was consecrated Bishop of Stockport in the Diocese of Chester on 26 January 2015 in York Minster.

High Leigh also offered opportunities for country walks and riverside walks in the Lea Valley in rural Essex and Hertfordshire, lunch in the Rye house, an old pub by the canal, and an exploration of new architectural finds in the Salisbury Arms, one of the oldest pubs in Hoddedson.

In August, I spent a weekend in the Lord Byron, an old pub in Trumpington, outside Cambridge. There were walks along the Cam and by Byron’s Pool, lunch in the Orchard in Grantchester, and more searches for the work of Eric Gill.

Of course, there were regular return visits to Co Wexford throughout the year. There was a wedding reception in the Seafield Hotel, with walks on the beach in Ballymoney. Later, I was back for walks on the beaches in Courtown, Cahore, Morriscastle and Kilumckridge and walks by the shore in Wexford, where I was disappointed to find that Dolce Vita in Trimmer’s Lane has closed.

I stayed in the Millrace Hotel in Bunclody, and explored the 18th century domestic and commercial architecture of the planned town of Newtownbarry, which owes an unusual legacy to the Wyatt architectural dynasty from Lichfield. There were visits too to the Book Café and Zozimus Bookshop in Gorey, to Enniscorthy, to the grave of John Kelly in Saint Anne’s churchyard in Killanne, and to the sites of the Celtic monastic foundations in Taghmon and Ferns.

Before the end of the year, I was back in Wexford again for the launch of the Journal of the Wexford Historical Society in the Talbot Hotel earlier this month.

There were a few visits to Kilkenny, staying overnight in the Pembroke Hotel earlier in the year, and visiting later in the year for the Arts Festival. There was a lecture in the Parade Tower in Kilkenny Castle by Alexander Lingas, uncovering the lost traditions of Byzantine music. There was lunch in Café Sol. There were visits to Saint Canice’s Cathedral, to Rothe House, and to the Hole in the Wall. And there was a glass of wine in Petronella, the new restaurant in the Langton House in Butterslip, one of my Comerford ancestral homes.

I stayed too in the Charlemont Arms Hotel in Armagh during the General Synod of the Church of Ireland, in Barberstown Castle, Co Kildare, during a wedding, and in the Station House Hotel in Kilmessan, Co Meath, which provided an opportunity to visit the ruins of Bective Abbey and the site of the Battle of the Boyne at Oldcastle, Co Meath.

I spent Ash Wednesday on a retreat based in the Sailing Club in Skerries. I missed the one-retreat in Saint John’s Monastery in Tolleshunt Knights that was once part of the IOCS summer school in Cambridge. But my week in Crete provided an opportunity for a day in Arkadi, a monastery in the mountains above Rethymnon.

A walk by the North Strand and harbour in Skerries earlier this year (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

There were walks on the beaches in Bettystown and Laytown (Co Meath), Balbriggan, Dollymount, Donabate, Malahdie, Portmarnock, Sandycove and Skerries (Dublin), Bray, Greystones and Kilcoole (Co Wicklow), Cahore, Courtown, Kilmuckridge and Morriscastle (Co Wexford), Dugort and Keel (Achill Island, Co Mayo), and on beaches in Crete and Sicily. There were walks by the sea in Blackrock, Burrishoole, Carlingford, Clontarf, Dun Laoghaire and Howth, by the lakes in Virginia, Co Cavan, and by the banks of the rivers Liffey, Dodder, Slaney, Nanny, Boyne and Cam, by the canals in Dublin, by the Boating Lake in Farmleigh, and by Stowe Pool and Minster Pool in Lichfield, and in the gardens at Mount Usher, Co Wicklow, the Botanic Gardens, Dublin and Beacon Park, Lichfield.

There were walks in the countryside throughout Ireland and England, and walks in the mountains in Ireland, in Sicily and in Crete.

My publications included my regular contributions to the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough), the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory), occasional contributions to The Irish Times, the Lichfield Gazette and the Church of Ireland Gazette papers in Koinonia on TS Eliot, the spirituality of cinema, Richard Hooker, and the Lichfield carol-writer Frederick Oakeley, and a feature in the annual report of the Friends of Lichfield Cathedral.

I also contributed two chapters to a new volume of the Treasures of Ireland, edited by Professor Salvador Ryan, published by Veritas and lunched in Maynooth by the former Minister for Education, Mary O’Rourke, a chapter to an Irish Times ebook on the Marriage Equality Referendum, edited by Denis Staunton, and wrote a paper on the Greek poet CP Cavafy for the Hellenic Foundation for Culture (Ελληνικό Ίδρυμα Πολιτισμού).

Some of my photographs have been shown in an exhibition organised by Lichfield Discovered and the Lichfield Waterworks Trust in Saint Mary’s Church, Lichfield, as part of the programme for Lichfield Heritage Weekend, in a new book edited by Professor Salvador Ryan of Maynooth, to illustrate a book of Cambridge memories by Professor M. Harunur Rashid in Bangladesh, on this year’s Christmas card for the Tui Motu InterIslands Magazine in New Zealand, and on the forthcoming Epiphany card of Bishop Jeffrey Lee of Chicago.
I preached regularly in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, as a member of the chapter, and in the Chapel of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and preached at the Harvest Thanksgiving Services in Christ Church, Taney, and Straffan Parish Church, Co Kildare. I also preached or took services in All Saints’ Church, Grangegorman, Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, Saint Werburgh’s Church in Dublin’s city centre and Zion Parish Church, Rathgar.

I was invited again this year to speak at the Heinrich Böll Summer School in Achill. There I spoke on the trustees of the Achill Mission, opened an exhibition of photographs, and spoke about TS Eliot and his Irish connections. This year marked the fiftieth anniversary of the death of TS Eliot, and apart from the paper in Achill and in Koinonia, there was a lecture in a Lenten programme in CITI, and material for many talks and sermons throughout the year.

I was a lecturer on this year’s programme of monthly lectures of the Genealogical Society of Ireland, speaking in Dún Laoghaire Further Education Institute on ‘The Comerfords in Ireland: disentangling myths and legends to find true origins.’

There were baptisms and weddings, which are always a joy, but far too many funerals.

I was upset that I did not get to funerals of the Revd Dr Roger Grainger – he made interesting observations of my lecture on TS Eliot in Achill, we later shared memories of Lichfield, and he sent me signed copy of one of his books shortly before he drowned tragically in a rainstorm in Achill; of Bishop Peter Barrett – we had been students together in the Irish School of Ecumenics, and later collaborated on a number of projects in Trinity College Dublin and the Diocese of Cashel, Ferns and Ossory; Dara Gallagher – we had been at school together in Gormanston and kept up our friendship through Facebook; and Canon Bob Reed – he had always been a welcoming presence in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin.

I continue to lecture in Anglicanism, Liturgy, Church History and Patristics at CITI, on the staff at Trinity College Dublin as an Adjunct Assistant Professor, and as the Visiting Lecturer in Anglicanism at the Mater Dei Institute, which is in process of being integrated into Dublin City University. I was also invited to co-chair the opening session of an international conference on Martin Luther in Maynooth University, and took part in an earlier seminar on Luther in the Emmaus Retreat Centre in Swords.

I remain a member of the General Synod of the Church of Ireland, the Dublin and Glendalough Diocesan Synod, and the boards of Us in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. I was elected a Trustee of Us in Britain this year, and became a member of the Dublin and Glendalough Diocesan Council.

In the back streets of Greek towns like Rethymnon, away from the gaze of tourists, other lives face difficulties (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

I continue to live with the symptoms of Sarcoidosis and a severe deficiency of Vitamin B12. These cause breathing problems, coughing, night sweats, joint pains and occasional loss of balance. But I live with them, and, as I have said in the past, I have them, they do not have me. There are too many other problems at home and in the world to worry about and that demand my priorities.

At the end of the year, I was involved in the Black Santa Appeal at Saint Ann’s Church in Dawson Street, which broke all records in fundraising this Christmas.

This year, the Dublin Black Santa Appeal has raised in excess of €40,000, exceeding all previous records. It has helped to make this a Happy Christmas for many people who depend on the support of local charities in Dublin.

In Crete, I was humbled by the work of medical professionals in Rethymnon. The Voluntary Welfare Clinic Rethymno (Εθελοντικό Ιατρείο Κοινωνικής Αλληλεγγύης Ρεθύμνου) works from a storefront crèche in Kastrinogiannaki Street, providing free attention, advice and consultation for anyone without health insurance. That includes migrants without proper papers, but also includes many Greeks who have fallen on hard times.

They refuse to call themselves a charity, because they see health care as a human right. The clinic is open to all people without access to health care. It is a gesture of solidarity by experts and professionals who have already seen their own salaries and incomes cut in public spending cuts and in the decline in the Greek economy. Some of the hidden work here also includes helping refugees and migrants trace missing family members.

The Voluntary Welfare Clinic Rethymno (Εθελοντικό Ιατρείο Κοινωνικής Αλληλεγγύης Ρεθύμνου) can be contacted at Kastrinogiannaki 12, Rethymnon Old Town 74100, Crete (Καστρινογιαννάκη 12, Παλιά Πόλη, 74100).

Visit their website here, watch their work on this video, like their Facebook page or contact the clinic directly: ethiatreio@gmail.com

If, like me, you want 2016 to be a better year than 2015, then there are plenty of organisations, charities and NGOs you can support. Your support, from a cheery message to workers and volunteers to a donation, really makes a difference. In the year to come, I hope to continue supporting Us (formerly USPG, the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel) in Ireland and Britain, and in Greece I hope to continue supporting the work of the Voluntary Welfare Clinic in Rethymnon.

I pray that 2016 is a better year for refugees fleeing in turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa, caught in the Mediterranean in Malta, Greece or Turkey, trudging through the cold weather in southern and central Europe or clinging to any desperate action in Calais that may bring them hope.

I pray that 2016 is a better year for those in our own society, in Ireland and in Britain, who are marginalised because of religion, ethnicity, gender, age, sexuality, spending capacity, poverty, health, intellectual ability or any other distinctive mark that allows others to ignore, pillory or refuse to help them.

I pray for a lot less hate and a little more love in 2016.

May you be blessed in 2016, and may you be a blessing to others.

Father Stratis Dimou was the founder of the NGO Agkalia (Hug) in Lesvos, which has helped thousands of refugees and immigrants in the last few years. In this image he is carrying Aylan Kurdi in his arms, one of the drowned refugee children who the sea brought out on the shore of Alikarnassos on Wednesday in Turkey. Father Stratis also died on on the same day. Thanks to Damian Mac Con Uladh for drawing my attention to this image.

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