27 February 2015

Returning to the Unicorn after many
years and strolling in a Victorian park

The Victorian lake and ‘temple’ in Blackrock Park this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

I have often passed by Blackrock Park, but usually I have been on my way somewhere else. I have stayed at least once in the Blackrock Clinic for a procedure related to my sarcoidosis, I have had an afternoon stroll through Blackrock Markets, and I have visited some of the bookshops and coffee shops, but until this afternoon I had never been in Blackrock Park.

Four of us had lunch this afternoon in the Unicorn in Merrion Court off Merrion Row, close to Saint Stephen’s Green. This is one of Dublin’s oldest Italian Restaurants. It dates back to 1938, but has stood the test of time, retaining a warm, modern and informal environment.

The Unicorn in close to O’Donoghue’s Pub on Merrion Row, forever linked with the Dubliners and politicians, and Toner’s on Baggot Street, with its associations with James Joyce, WB Yeats and Patrick Kavanagh, making the Unicorn a favourite restaurant for journalists, and politicians.

It has been years, if not decades, since I had been in the Unicorn for either lunch or dinner, but I was not surprised to casually bump into people I know.

A busy day on Baggot Street this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Later, in search of a nearby beach for a walk, we drove from Baggot Street through Ballsbridge, thinking we might end go for a walk in Seapoint or Sandycove.

But instead, on impulse, we decided to stop at Blackrock Park, thinking we would walk along the shoreline behind the railway line.

The park is a classic Victorian affair with tree-lined avenues, gently sloping pathways, the occasional sculpture and breath-taking views from the mounds out over Dublin Bay and across to Howth Head.

Looking out across Dublin Bay to Howth Head from the pathway behind the railway line at Blackrock (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Blackrock Park was built in 1873 to win back some of the Dublin holiday makers who had deserted Blackrock after the arrival of the railway stretching the length of the east coast of Ireland.

The park was laid out on reclaimed, ugly swampland that was abandoned after the railway line from Dublin to Wexford had been built.

In summer, the park is the venue for family-friendly events and festivals, including an annual Teddy Bears’ Picnic. Even this afternoon, as the sunshine held out the bright promise of winter turning into spring, small family groups were in the park for afternoon strolls, and schoolchildren were making their way hurriedly through the park to Blackrock Station.

The Victorian bandstand is padlocked and covered in graffiti (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

But the playground and the park look neglected in many places. The Temple in the artificial lake, which might be an attractive feature in another park, looks inviting from a distance. But when you get closer it looks neglected and more like a sad, abandoned and rusting pump house. The 1890s bandstand and the Victorian Tudor-revival pavilion ought to be two Victorian gems, but they are daubed with graffiti and paint, and the bandstand is padlocked.

In the 18th century, Merrion Strand extended as far as the site of Blackrock Station and spread along the present area of Blackrock Park. Later, the Vauxhall Gardens occupied the site of the present main entrance to Blackrock Park opposite Mount Merrion Avenue, from 1793 until it was sold in 1804.

The Dublin to Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire) railway line was the first in Ireland and opened to traffic on 17 December 1834. But the new railway line was soon to prove a disaster for Blackrock. A foul-smelling swamp formed between the sea and the town, and the rocks that gave Blackrock its name had were lost under the swamp and wasteland. Their memory remains in the name of Rock Road, which forms the south-west boundary of the park.

Once the once-pleasant strand was lost, people taking the train from Dublin in search of seaside locations in the summer months by-passed Blackrock, preferring Monkstown, Kingstown or even Dalkey. Blackrock as a resort lost its summer lodgers and people in search of sea-bathing and fresh air, and was almost deserted.

In search of new injection of life, the Blackrock Town Commissioners borrowed £3,000 in 1873 to develop a park on the site of the swamp. The park was ready for public use about a decade later. What had been a swamp became the People’s Park, with walks, rockeries, parterres and flowers. A small portion of water was kept to form two picturesque lakes, each with an island planted with shrubs and one with a fountain. Once a week, a military band played in the ornamented bandstand.

We were joined by a friend as we followed the commuters down a narrow alley to Blackrock Station. There we crossed a footbridge over the railway line to the narrow path that runs beside the shore, above the small coves and beaches and the former Blackrock Baths.

Below us, the water seemed gentle as it lapped against the shore. Although no-one was bathing, a father and his small daughter were enjoying the sand the tide.

Dan McCarthy’s sculpture of “Cut-Out People” dates from 1986 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

We back-tracked and returned to Blackrock Park, and found the second smaller lake no longer exists. The formal Victorian park was transferred to the new Dun Laoghaire Corporation in 1930, and to Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council in 1994.

The Peace Fountain in the pond was erected in 1986 to mark the International Year of Peace, but was not switched on until 12 March 1987. The sculpture of “Cut-Out People” is by Dan McCarthy and dates from 1986. It forms an interesting silhouette against the sea and skyline from several viewpoints, but is not labelled.

The sun was still not setting, but as we left the park the sun was casting its long rays through the trees and out onto the blue waters of Dublin Bay.

The Tudor-revival pavilion … daubed with graffiti and under lock-and-key (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Through Lent with Vaughan Williams (10):
‘The Five Mystical Songs,’ 5, ‘Antiphon’

“George Herbert (1593-1633) at Bemerton” (William Dyce, 1860)

Patrick Comerford

For my reflections and devotions during Lent this year, each day I am 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).

For the weekdays of this week, I am reflecting on ‘The Five Mystical Songs,’ composed by Ralph Vaughan Williams between 1906 and 1911. Vaughan Williams conducted the first performance of the completed work at the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester on 14 September 1911.

This work sets four poems by the 17th century Welsh-born English poet and Anglican priest George Herbert (1593–1633), from his 1633 collection The Temple: Sacred Poems.

His first biographer, Izaak Walton, described Herbert on his deathbed as “composing such hymns and anthems as he and the angels now sing in heaven.” The Temple was edited by his friend Nicholas Ferrar and was published in Cambridge later that year as The Temple: Sacred poems and private ejaculations. It met with such popular acclaim that it had been reprinted 20 times by 1680, and went through eight editions by 1690.

George Herbert is commemorated in the Church of England and in calendars throughout the Anglican Communion on this day [27 February]. Many of his poems have become hymns that are well-known and well-loved by generations of Anglicans, including the fifth of these mystical songs, as the hymn ‘Let all the world in every corner sing,’ as well as ‘Teach me, my God and King’ and ‘King of Glory, King of Peace.’

Trinity Lane, Cambridge, in the snow, with the walls of Trinity College on the right ... both George Herbert and Vaughan Williams were students at Trinity College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Both George Herbert and Vaughan Williams were students at Trinity College Cambridge, and the composer's father, the Revd Arthur Vaughan Williams, served as a curate in Bemerton, the Wiltshire parish where Herbert had been vicar 200 years earlier. Vaughan Williams wrote his ‘Five Mystical Songs’ for a baritone soloist, with several choices for accompaniment: piano only; piano and string quintet; TTBB chorus, a cappella; and orchestra with optional SATB chorus, the choice Vaughan Williams used at the premiere.

Like Herbert’s simple verse, the songs are direct, but have the same intrinsic spirituality as the original text. They were supposed to be performed together, as a single work, but the styles of each vary quite significantly.

The first four songs are personal meditations in which the soloist takes a key role. However, the final ‘Antiphon’ is the most different of all the hymns. This the climactic finale to Vaughan Williams’s ‘Five Mystical Songs’ and it is a staple of the sacred choral repertoire and a superb culminating work for both concert and worship settings.

This is a triumphant hymn of praise, sung either by the chorus alone or by the soloist alone. Unlike the previous four songs, a separate version is provided for a solo baritone. It is also sometimes performed on its own, as an anthem for choir and organ: ‘Let all the world in every corner sing.’

I have chosen this fifth mystical song ‘Antiphon,’ as my Lenten meditation this morning [27 February 2015], the day in which we also commemorate George Herbert in the calendars of many churches throughout the Anglican Communion.

This poem has been set to music by many other composers and it is included in the New English Hymnal (Hymn 394) and the Irish Church Hymnal (Hymn 360) as the hymn, with a well-known tune ‘Luckington’ by Basil Harwood. This version was also sung at the enthronement of Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury 12 years ago on 27 February 2003.

In my own collection of music, ‘Antiphon’ is the concluding track (No 17) in the collection Choral Classics recorded by Lichfield Cathedral Choir in 2008 with Philip Scriven as Director and Martyn Rawles on the Organ, a programme of popular choral music from the 16th century to the present day.

5, Antiphon

Let all the world in ev’ry corner sing:
My God and King.

The heavens are not too high,
His praise may thither flie;
The earth is not too low,
His praises there may grow.

Let all the world in ev’ry corner sing: My God and King.

The Church with psalms must shout,
No doore can keep them out;
But above all, the heart
Must bear the longest part.

Let all the world in ev’ry corner sing:
My God and King.

Tomorrow:He who would Valiant be’ (Monk’s Gate)