22 February 2015

An island beach walk, an old Jewish
cemetery, and a musical start to Lent

Walking on the beach on Bull Island this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

An “Orange Alert” storm warning is in place throughout Ireland this evening, there are high winds and the rains are heavy, with occasional flashes of lightning.

But before the storm broke, two of us headed out to Dollymount on Clontarf Road, immediately north of Dublin’s inner city, for a walk along the Bull Wall and the beach on Bull Island.

Despite the churning waters and rising tides, families in large number were enjoying the new vistas created by nature and the spectacular views along the beach north to Sutton and Howth Head and out to the Irish Sea.

Watching the ferries leaving Dublin Port from Bull Island this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Close to the beach a number of ferries and cargo ships were making their way out of Dublin Port and gliding along the water, parallel to the beach. They were so close it was possible to imagine that one could still be hardy and foolish enough to swim out towards them, despite the threatened storm.

Even as the rains began to fall, car loads were still driving across the single-land wooden bridge linking Dollymount with Bull Island. Winter storms add an additional attraction to the sea and sand at this time of the year.

The gate lode to oldest Jewish cemetery in Dublin has a plaque saying in was ‘Built in the Year 5618’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

On our way out to the Bull Wall, we stopped in Ballybough in search of Dublin’s oldest Jewish cemetery. The hint that the hidden cemetery is there is found on a gable-ended house with a plaque that is inscribed “Built in the Year 5618.”

The reference is to the year 1857 in the Hebrew Calendar. The house was built as a gate lodge for a much older cemetery that is almost 300 years old.

In the 1700s, a small number of Jews had settled in the Annadale area off Ellis Avenue (now Philipsburg Avenue), in Fairview. Most of these Marrano Jews were descendants of families who had fled the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal, and some also came from the Netherlands.

In 1718, Alexander Felix (David Penso), Jacob Do Porto, and David Machado Do Sequeira, on behalf of the Jewish community in Dublin, leased a plot of land for a burial ground from Captain Chichester Phillips, MP, of Drumcondra Castle.

The plot was bought in 1748 by the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in London acting with Michael Phillips, of Crane Lane Synagogue, Dublin, with a leasehold for 1,000 years at the annual rent of one peppercorn.

The gate lodge was built in 1857 to replace a temporary hut built by the Cohen family in 1798.

A glimpse of the old Jewish graveyard and the graves in Ballybough (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

I caught a glimpse of the cemetery itself, which has more than 200 graves. In 1908, Lewis Harris was elected an Alderman of the City of Dublin. However, he died the day before he was to be made Lord Mayor and was buried in Fairview Strand, beside his wife Juliette.

Burials had stopped around 1900, with just a few burials in 1901, 1908, 1946, and 1958. After that last burial in 1958, most Jewish burials in Dublin now take place in Dolphin’s Barn.

Today, 148 tombstones are still standing in the cemetery and are inscribed in Hebrew, and English, with the Jewish calendar month of death, along with the birth, age and place of origin of the person. The Cohen tombstones all have a depiction of hands over their remains. The reason for this is to show that they were descendants of the Cohens who were the Priests of Israel and the hands are shown as blessing the people.

Looking across Dublin port at the twin towers of the Pigeon House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Before arriving in Ballybough, we also visited Dublin Port. It is ten years or more since I travelled across the Irish Sea on a ferry from Dublin Port, and today – perhaps because it was a Sunday afternoon – the place seemed eerily quiet, despite the steady flow of shipping out of the port.

It is estimated that about two-thirds of port traffic in the Republic of Ireland passes through Dublin Port. The Port is located on both sides of the mouth of the River Liffey, out to its mouth. The main part in on the north side of the river, and covers 205 hectares at the end of East Wall and North Wall, from Alexandra Quay. The smaller part of the port, on the south side of the river, covers 51 hectares and lies at the beginning of the Pigeon House peninsula.

But the mediaeval port of Dublin was a short distance upstream, on the south bank of the Liffey, below Christ Church Cathedral, from its current location. In 1715, the Great South Wall was built to shelter the entrance to the port, and Poolbeg Lighthouse at the end of the South Bull Wall was built in 1767.

Looking east along the River Liffey this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Cmerford, 2015)

When James Gandon’s Custom House was built further downstream in 1791, the port moved downstream to the north bank of the river estuary. In 1800, Captain William Bligh, better known for his part in the mutiny on the Bounty, recommended building the Bull Wall. When the Bull Wall was built in 1842, the North Bull Island formed slowly as sand built up behind it.

We had driven along the north banks of the Liffey on our way to and from the port and the Bull Island.

With the Revd Dr Patrick McGlinchey and the Revd Mpole Samuel Masemola in the Chapter House of Christ Church Cathedral

Earlier in the day, I was in Christ Church Cathedral, where I was deacon at the Cathedral Eucharist for the First Sunday in Lent, reading the Gospel (Mark 1: 9-15) and assisting at the administration of Holy Communion.

The Dean, the Very Revd Dermot Dunne, presided at the Eucharist, and the preacher was my colleague, the Revd Dr Patrick McGlinchey. It was also good to see the Revd Mpole Samuel Masemola from South Africa robe for the Eucharist this morning. He is the Assistant Chaplain at the Anglican Chaplaincy in Oslo, which is part of the Diocese of Europe in the Church of England.

The setting was Collegium Regale by Herbert Howells (1892-1983). This setting and its name find their origins in a challenge from Eric Milner-White when he was the Dean of King’s College, Cambridge.

Throughout Lent, I am reflecting each morning on a hymn setting or a piece of music associated with Ralph Vaughan Williams. It is interesting that Howells was confirmed in his conviction that he should become a composer when he was in his late teens and heard the premiere of Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis at the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester Cathedral in September 1910.

Howells recalled later in life how Vaughan Williams sat next to the awestruck aspiring composer for the remainder of the concert and shared with him his score of Edward Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius.Both Vaughan Williams and the Tudor composers, including Tallis, profoundly influenced Howells’s, and the friendship between Howells and Vaughan Williams developed into an interesting musical understanding.

‘The Passion of the Christ’ … a Lenten
reflection in Bunclody Union of parishes

Patrick Comerford

The following feature is published in The Bunclody Union Newsletter this morning, 22 February 2015, the First Sunday in Lent:


‘The Passion of the Christ’ … released during Lent 2004, became the highest-grossing non-English language film ever.

Eleven years ago, I brought my two sons to see The Passion of the Christ (2004), Mel Gibson’s movie that dramatises his interpretation and synthesis of the passion narrative in the Four Gospels.

The Passion of the Christ is an appropriate movie to consider as we prepare for Lent. It largely tells the story of the last 12 hours of Christ’s life, from the Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane to (briefly, albeit very briefly) his Resurrection, with flashbacks to his childhood, the Sermon on the Mount, the saving of the women about to be stoned, and the Last Supper, with a constructed dialogue entirely in Aramaic, Latin and Hebrew.

When the movie was released on on Ash Wednesday (25 February) 2004, it stirred considerable controversy, with allegations of anti-Semitism, the amount of graphic, if not exacerbated or gratuitous, violence, particularly during the scourging and crucifixion scenes, and serious questions about its interpretation of the Biblical text, narrative and message.

On the other hand, there were many claims of miraculous savings, forgiveness, new-found faith, and even one report of a man who confessed to murdering his girlfriend although police had decided previously she had died by suicide.

The Passion of the Christ was a box-office success – it grossed more than $370 million in the US, and became the highest-grossing non-English language film ever. As we left the cinema, my then-teenage sons were not so much shocked as stunned. They noticed too how everyone left the cinema in silence.

The success and attention of the movie, apart from the media controversies, raises many questions for us:

● How do we convey and proclaim the message of Christ?

● Are we using means that are out-dated, not speaking to people, who are truly willing to listen and to learn?

● Where did we get the idea that no-one would come to church after confirmation age?

● Where did we get the idea that no-one would come to church and sit in the dark in uncomfortable chairs?

● Where did we get the idea that no-one would hear the Gospel story and still come out wanting to tell others and to share the experience?

Sometimes when movies ridicule the Church, I wonder: do we deserve it?

How many of you have bad experiences of weakly-thought out ideas at school assembly?

– By kind permission of Revd Patrick Comerford

Through Lent with Vaughan Williams
(5): ‘O God of earth and altar’

Patrick Comerford

For my reflections and devotions during Lent this year, each day I am reflecting to reflecting on and invite you to listen to a piece of music or a hymn set to a tune by the great English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).

Today [22 February 2015] is the First Sunday in Lent, and the readings in the Revised Common Lectionary are: Genesis 9: 8-17; Psalm 25: 1-9; I Peter 3: 18-22; and Mark 1: 9-15.

This morning, as I prepare for the Cathedral Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral later this morning, I have chosen the hymn, ‘O God of earth and altar,’ by the English writer Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936).

This hymn is over 100 years old, yet its concerns are very relevant today, as we are invited to pray about the plight of a world torn by poverty, war and misrule and offered cheap and trite answers by cruel opportunists whose only interest is in power.

The hymn was first published in the English Hymnal (1906), edited by Canon Percy Dearmer and Vaughan Williams (No 562), and is included in the New English Hymnal (No 492), where it is set to the English folk melody, King’s Lynn, arranged by Vaughan Williams. Although the hymn is not included in the Irish Church Hymnal, Edward Darling and Donald Davison, in their Companion to Church Hymnal, suggest the solemn, robust tune underlines the message of the text.

Vaughan Williams, who also used this tune in his ‘Norfolk Rhapsody No 2,’ first heard it in East Hordon, Essex, on 23 April 1904. At the time, he was travelling around the English countryside, collecting traditional folk songs to use in his own compositions. He heard this tune a second time in King’s Lynn on 9 January 1905 when he was introduced in the Tilden Smith, a pub in the old North End, by the Revd Edward Evans or the Revd Alfred Huddle to the singers Thomas Anderson, a 70-year-old fisherman, and James ‘Duggie’ Carter.

The weather that day was rough and the fishermen were unable to get out on The Wash. They had gathered in the Tilden Smith, and among them were Duggie Carter and Joe Anderson, who were singing out songs like the ‘Captain’s Apprentice,’ ‘Dogger Bank’ and ‘The Mermaid.’

The words of the original song that provides this tune tell of a young poacher who was transported to the convict settlement in Van Diemen’s Land, Tasmania. The melodies are said to have influenced some of Vaughan Williams’s later works, including his Norfolk Rhapsodies and Sea Symphony.

The Tilden Smith then stood at the heart of the North End, which was a self-contained fishing community, just a few streets away from Saint Nicholas Chapel, also known as the fishermen’s church. The nearby Fisher Fleet was home to hundreds of boats, while up to 1,000 people lived crammed into the warren of cottages. It has since been bulldozed by slum clearance and to make way for new roads, and the Tilden Smith was renamed The Retreat.

‘Duggie’ Carter sang ‘The Captain’s Apprentice’ and Joe Anderson sang ‘Young Henry the Poacher,’ which Vaughan Williams used in the English Hymnal in 1906 as the tune for Chesterton’s poem. The hymn, no. 562, bears the name King’s Lynn. Both Carter and Anderson were known well by the curate of Saint Nicholas’ Chapel, the Revd Alfred Huddle, and would have sung in the Chapel regularly, as well as in more secular settings.

GK Chesterton, who was born in 1874 in Campden Hill, Kensington, was a prolific and well-known journalist, author and poet. He found Christianity provided the answers to the many dilemmas and paradoxes he found in life.

He was a friend and contemporary of writers such as George Bernard Shaw, Hilaire Belloc and HG Wells. He died in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, in 1936. His ‘Father Brown’ mystery stories (1911-1936) remain popular and have been adapted for television.

O God of earth and altar,
Bow down and hear our cry,
Our earthly rulers falter,
Our people drift and die;
The walls of gold entomb us,
The swords of scorn divide,
Take not thy thunder from us,
but take away our pride.

From all that terror teaches,
From lies of tongue and pen,
From all the easy speeches
That comfort cruel men,
From sale and profanation
Of honour and the sword,
From sleep and from damnation,
Deliver us, good Lord!

Tie in a living tether
The prince and priest and thrall,
Bind all our lives together,
Smite us and save us all;
In ire and exultation
Aflame with faith, and free,
Lift up a living nation,
A single sword to thee.

Collect of the First Sunday in Lent:

Almighty God,
whose Son Jesus Christ fasted forty days in the wilderness,
and was tempted as we are, yet without sin:
Give us grace to discipline ourselves
in obedience to your Spirit;
and, as you know our weakness,
so may we know your power to save;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

Lord God,
you renew us with the living bread from heaven.
Nourish our faith,
increase our hope,
strengthen our love,
and enable us to live by every word
that proceeds from out of your mouth;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Tomorrow: ‘The Five Mystical Songs,’ 1, ‘Easter

Patrick Comerford adds on 27 March 2015:

This hymn was sung as the opening hymn at the burial of Richard III on 26 March 2015 in Leicester Cathedral, contrasting the imperfections of earthly life – ‘not least as exemplified by our faltering rulers,’ an explanatory note suggested.