28 February 2016

Exploring myths about Shakespeare’s
Irish links by the shore in Dalkey

The view from the peak of Sorrento Park across the Dalkey Islands, Sorrento Terrace, Killiney Bay and the Wicklow Mountains (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016; click on image for a full-size view)

Patrick Comerford

I am working on a paper for publication in April to mark the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare on Saint George’s Day, 23 April 1616.

There is a persistent legend that the Bard’s description of Elsinore in Hamlet is based on a description of by the composer John Dowland (1563-1626). One of Dowland’s better known works is the lute song Flow my tears. The first verse is:

Flow my tears, fall from your springs,
Exil’d for ever let me mourn;
Where night’s black bird her sad infamy sings,
There let me live forlorn.

His best known instrumental work is Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares, Figured in Seaven Passionate Pavans, a set of seven pavanes for five viols and lute, each based on the theme derived from the lute song Flow my tears.

The legend about Shakespeare and was embellished – without any supporting historical evidence – by the Irish composer, William Henry Grattan Flood, who spent much of his working life as the organist of Saint Aidan’s Cathedral, Enniscorthy, Co Wexford.

Grattan Flood claimed that Dowland was born in Dalkey, Co Dublin, and suggested that Dowland’s description of Elsinore was nothing less than a description of Coliemore Harbour in Dalkey. The story has continued to grow and grow, like Topsy, to the absurd point that it is even said that Shakespeare visited Dowland at Dalkey, arriving in Ireland at Coliemore Harbour.

In mediaeval times, Dalkey was the port for Dublin, with large ships anchoring and unloading their cargoes in the deep, sheltered waters of Dalkey Sound, and the “seven castles” of Dalkey were built to store the goods.

I could hardly resist the temptation to visit Dalkey this afternoon, to see the plaque in Sorrento Park celebrating the supposed connection with Dowland and to visit Coliemore Harbour.

Sarah Purser’s mosaic of John Dowland in Sorrento Park (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Sorrento Park is just across the road from both Sorrento Terrace and Coliemore Harbour, and I found the Dowland memorial near the south-east corner of the park, close to the entrance opposite Sorrento Terrace.

The Irish artist Sarah Purser (1848-1943) designed the memorial to John Dowland in 1937. The work was carried out by HV McGoldrick, and it is a rectangle of mosaic work set in granite outcrop near the south-east corner of the park.

It was restored in 1996 by Dalkey Community Council but has since been defaced – the face of Shakespeare’s friend has been gouged out crudely by uncultured vandals. Although you can still see Dowland’s hands plucking at the lute, it is impossible to know whether Sarah Purser portrayed him with seven flowing tears.

From the summit of the park I looked out to the Dalkey Islands, down onto Sorrento Terrace, and out across Killiney Bay towards Bray Head, the Sugar Loaf the Wicklow Mountains.

Although the roof has been removed from the once-fine Victorian bandstand, Sorrento Park is a typical Victorian park and was gift to the people of Dalkey from Lady MacDonnell, whose family built Sorrento Terrace.

The MacDonnell family handed over Sorrento Park to trustees who opened it to the public in 1894, although it had been used for many public events before that date.

Lady MacDonnell was born Blanche Ann, daughter of Francis Skurray of Beckington, Somerset, and in 1847 she married Sir Richard Graves MacDonnell (1814-1881) of Sorrento House. He was a lawyer, judge and colonial governor, and his colonial posts included Governor of the British Settlements in West Africa, Governor of Saint Vincent, Governor of South Australia, Governor of Nova Scotia and finally Governor of Hong Kong (1865-1872).

During his time in Hong Kong, MacDonnell developed Victoria Peak, and built a hospital for the local Chinese population. But he ran up such a huge budget deficit the government had to ask HSBC for a financial aid package. Several places around the world are named after him, including MacDonnell Road in Hong Kong, and the MacDonnell Ranges and Sir Richard Peninsula in Australia.

Sir Richard was a son of the Revd Richard MacDonnell (1787-1867), 29th Provost of Trinity College Dublin, and Jane Graves (1793–1882), second daughter of the Very Revd Richard Graves, Dean of Ardagh.

Richard MacDonnell was the visionary behind Sorrento Terrace, famous today as the most expensive row of houses in Ireland. His home originally sat on five acres of lands that included the lands now known as Sorrento Park.

He was a man of broad vision and liberal views and an early advocate of Catholic Emancipation when such views were unpopular in TCD.

The story is told that on one occasion he was showing a lady around the library in TCD. Clasping her hands together, she exclaimed: “Oh Mr Provost, pray Mr Provost, have you read all these books?” To this he replied: “In time my dear lady, in time.”

His house, Sorrento Cottage, is now owned by The Edge of U2. MacDonnell named the house after Sorrento on the Bay of Naples, and he compared Killiney Bay with the Bay of Naples and the Great Sugar Loaf with Mount Vesuvius.

In 1845, the family built Sorrento House, the first and largest of the houses on Sorrento Terrace. The family stipulated that each house had to adhere strictly to the design of architects Frederick Darley and Nathaniel Montgomery.

Coliemore Harbour this afternoon … like a small village in Cinque Terre (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Down at Coliemore Harbour this afternoon, the scene with colourful upturned boats was more like one of the small villages in Cinque Terre than Sorrento. There were views out to the Dalkey Islands, and we took further advantage of the views from the park above the harbour.

Queenstown Castle … one of the many Victorian Houses on Coliemore Road (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Coliemore Road is lined with an interesting collection of Victorian Houses, including Queenstown Castle and Springfield House.

Behind a more modern block of apartments known as Berwick House, is the site of Scotch Rath. Here I found a fading memorial to Walter Berwick, son of the Revd Edward Berwick of Leixlip, Co Kildare, who was the second President of the Queen’s College, Galway (now NUI Galway) from 1850 until he died in office in 1877. The memorial was erected by his wife Harriette Berwick and also remembers their only child Harriette Mary Berwick.

The memorial to Walter Berwick on the site of Scotch Rath (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

From Dalkey we continued on to Bray, for a late lunch in Carpe Diem and a walk along the beach and the promenade. It was a fitting end to a busy weekend.

When compassion is the victim of my hidden
values, others become the true victims

‘I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree’ … fresh figs in a supermarket in Rethymnon, Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford,

Sunday 28 February 2016,

The Third Sunday in Lent,

Saint John’s Church, Sandymount,

11 a.m., The Solemn Eucharist

Isaiah 55: 1-9; Psalm 63: 1-9; I Corinthians 10: 1-13; Luke 13: 1-9.

In the name of + the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen

The story is told of a well-known priest in this diocese who was once asked what he had given up for Lent. He replied: “I have given up the slice of lemon in my gin and tonic. But do not fear, I remain as bitter and tested as ever.”

This morning we have reached the Third Sunday in Lent. We are half-way through Lent, but already, I’m sure, for many of us, our Lenten resolutions have faded, and we are probably as resolute about them as we were about our New Year’s resolutions three weeks into January.

We hungered or thirsted so much for the little food or the little drink that we gave up for Lent that we soon succumbed. But instead of being made feel guilty, instead of being chided, what most of us need is encouragement and affirmation. Both are found in our readings this morning, but those readings also urge us to hunger and thirst for the real food and drink that God offers us.

Our Old Testament reading (Isaiah 55: 1-9) concludes the section known as Second Isaiah, which begins in Chapter 40. It was written during the Exile, after Babylon had fallen to the Persians. The key themes are: the way of the Lord, calling the people to enjoy God’s gifts, a new deliverance, the word of the Lord, the king, heaven and earth, God’s relationship with Israel, forgiveness, and the participation of other nations.

All who thirst for God, especially those who are impoverished and have no money, are invited to eat freely at the heavenly banquet, the meal that symbolises God’s loving generosity and abundance (verse 1).

We are told that God’s “everlasting covenant,” first with one person, David, has been extended to his successors, then to his people, and is now offered all nations, all people (verses 4-5), even those who have done evil in the past but who now forsake those ways (verse 7). God is not only to be found in the Temple, but among all who seek him:

Seek the Lord while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near …
(verse 6).

In our Psalm too (Psalm 63: 1-8), we hear what it is to thirst for the Lord (verse 1). But the same mouths that thirst for God in the wilderness, also praise him with joyful lips (verse 5).

That thirsting in the wilderness helps the Apostle Paul to illustrate our Epistle reading (I Corinthians 10: 1-13), where he urges the Christians in Corinth to thirst for the true “spiritual food” (verse 3), for the true “spiritual drink” (verse 4).

These are interesting preludes to our Gospel reading (Luke 13: 1-9), where we hear of the chilling and horrific deaths of two groups of people that made headline news at the time.

In those days, it was commonly believed that pain and premature death were signs of God’s adverse judgment. We think like that today: how often do people think those who are sick, suffer infirmities, have injuries, die because they cannot afford health care? They don’t die because they cannot afford healthcare – they die because governments prefer to spend money on weapons and wars or in giving tax breaks to the rich, rather than spending money on health care for those who need it.

Looking across the countryside in Crete from an old Venetian tower … why were the workers killed accidentally in the Tower of Siloam? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The first group in this Gospel reading, a group of Galileans, from Christ’s own home province, believed they were doing God’s will as they worshipped in the Temple. But they were killed intentionally as they sacrificed to God in the Temple. Even in death, they were degraded further when, on Pilate’s orders, their blood was mixed with the blood of the Temple sacrifices.

In a single act of capricious violence, Pilate humiliated the nation, its religion, its culture, and the very presence of God. In a single act, he violated: the altar in the Temple; the ritual practices held there; the sacred place reserved for priests; the animals made holy by prayers; and the murdered Galileans who had been standing at that altar.

Think of our horror today at people who are murdered at worship: the people in the Gospel Hall in Darkley (1983); Oscar Romero saying Mass in San Salvador (1980); or children murdered in Dunblane (1996) or in recent school shootings and drive-by shootings in the United States.

The second group in our Gospel reading, numbering 18 in all, were building workers who were killed accidentally as they were building the Tower of Siloam.

Think of our horror today at people who die accidently, not because of their own mistakes or sinfulness; people who die daily of hunger and poverty; children born to die because they are HIV +, because their parents live in poverty, because of circumstances not of their choosing; children who die in dangerous and treacherous sea crossing in the Aegean between the coast of Turkey and the Greek islands ...

How easy it is for us, for example, to talk about “innocent victims” – of wars, of AIDS, of gangland killings – as though some people deserve to die like that.

But in both cases in our Gospel reading – in all these cases – Christ says no, there is no link between an early and an unjust death and the sins of the past or the sins of past generations.

In those days, it was commonly believed that pain and premature death were signs of God’s adverse judgment. At the time, it was commonly believed that severe physical disabilities or an early death were natural and just consequences for the sins of the past, even the sins of past generations.

We think like that today: how often do people think those who are sick, suffer infirmities, have injuries die because they cannot afford health care? How often do we shift our focus so that we blame people traffickers rather than asking why people are fleeing war? How often do we forget or deny their humanity and instead listen to politicians talking of “hordes” and “swarms” of people threatening “Fortress Europe”?

In both stories, we could explain away what we might otherwise see as the inexplicable way God allows other people to suffer and die by saying they brought it on themselves by their sins, or the sins of their ancestors … or, in today’s language, by saying they cannot afford to pay for health care, or they bring it on themselves by their lifestyle, or they need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, or they ought to stay in their own countries.

My compassion is the victim of my hidden values, and so others become the victims.

Siloam provides an interesting place for Christ to challenge this “received wisdom” when he meets the man born blind and heals him at the Pool of Siloam, one of the seven “signs” in Saint John’s Gospel (see John 9: 1-7).

Now, we have another story about Siloam, as Christ links the execution of Galilean rebels with the tragedy surrounding the collapse of the Tower of Siloam.

Many may have expected him to say that their deaths were in punishment for their rebellious behaviour, in the case of the Galilean rebels, or collaborative behaviour, in the case of the workers who were building a water supply system for the Roman occupiers.

Is Christ indifferent to political and environmental disasters?

Instead of meeting those expectations, Christ teaches that death comes to everyone, regardless of how sinful I am, regardless of my birth, politics or social background, or – even more certainly – my smug sense of religious pride and righteousness. And he goes on to teach how we each need to repent – even when, in the eyes of others, we do not appear to need repentance.

Death comes to everyone. But that death need not be physical at all – spiritual death is the most deadening, for it brings with it not only loss of Communion with God, but it brings with it the loss of hope, the loss of trust, the loss of love for others and for ourselves, the loss of true compassion. And sometimes that sort of death comes suddenly and without warning.

Seek the Lord while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near …

It is so tempting to excuse or dismiss the sufferings of others. To say they brought it on themselves offers us an opt-out: we can claim to have compassion, but need not respond to it, nor need to do anything to challenge the injustice that is the underlying cause of this suffering.

Yet, in the parable of the fig tree, we are called on to wait, we are urged not to be too hasty in our judgment on those who seem in our eyes to do nothing to improve their lot.

It makes logical, economic and financial sense for the owner to want to chop down the fig tree – after all, not only is it taking up space, but it also costs in terms of time, tending, feeding, caring and nurturing. The owner knows what it is to make a quick profit, and if the quick profit is not coming soon enough he wants to cut his losses.

It takes much tender care and many years – at least three years – for a fig tree to bear fruit. And even then, in a vineyard, the figs are not a profit – they are a bonus.

Even if a fig tree bears early fruit, the Mosaic Law said it could not be harvested for three years, and the fruit gathered in the fourth year was going to offered as the first fruits. Only in the fifth year, then, could the fruit be eaten.

So, if this tree was chopped down, and another put its place, it would take longer still to get fruit that could be eaten or sold. In his quest for the quick buck, the owner of the vineyard shows little knowledge about the reality of economics.

The gardener, who has nothing at stake, turns out to be the one not only has compassion, but has deep-seated wisdom too. The gardener, who is never going to benefit from the owner’s profits, can see the tree’s potential, is willing to let be and wait, knowing what the fig tree is today and what it can do in the future.

I once saw a T-short on sale in the Plaka in Athens with the slogan: “To do is to be, Socrates. To be is to do, Plato. Do-be-do-be-do, Sinatra.”

Of course there are different types of people: there are the “do-ers” and there are the “be-ers.”

But whichever you are, we need the balance of the other. Emphasising the spiritual without understanding the world we live in leads to us being irrelevant. On the other hand, actively doing good, without any deep and truly spiritual foundations, leads to burn-out and disillusion.

We are called to hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matthew 5: 6), but wishing is not enough. Christ reminds us in our Gospel reading this morning that we are called to bear fruit too … and he is patient in waiting for faith to produce fruit.

Last week, the Greek Prime Minister accused other European leaders of failing to put compassion into action, and warned of the danger of Greece becoming “a warehouse of souls.”

Saint Paul reminds the Corinthians – and so reminds us too this morning – that we are called to be both “do-ers” and “be-ers.” In that way, all may know that they are invited to the heavenly banquet, where there will be eating and drinking for the hungry and the thirsty, and for all.

But we can decide where we place our trust – in the values that I think serve me but serve the rich, the powerful and the oppressor, or in the God who sees our plight, who hears our cry, and who comes in Christ to deliver us.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford lectures in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at the Solemn Eucharist in Saint John’s Church, Sandymount, Dublin, on the Third Sunday in Lent, Sunday 28 February 2016.

Luke 13: 1-9:

1 Παρῆσαν δέ τινες ἐν αὐτῷ τῷ καιρῷ ἀπαγγέλλοντες αὐτῷ περὶ τῶν Γαλιλαίωνὧν τὸ αἷμα Πιλᾶτος ἔμιξεν μετὰ τῶν θυσιῶν αὐτῶν. 2 καὶ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Δοκεῖτε ὅτι οἱ Γαλιλαῖοι οὗτοι ἁμαρτωλοὶ παρὰ πάντας τοὺς Γαλιλαίους ἐγένοντο, ὅτι ταῦτα πεπόνθασιν; 3 οὐχί, λέγω ὑμῖν, ἀλλ' ἐὰν μὴ μετανοῆτε πάντες ὁμοίως ἀπολεῖσθε. 4 ἢ ἐκεῖνοι οἱ δεκαοκτὼ ἐφ' οὓς ἔπεσεν ὁ πύργος ἐν τῷ Σιλωὰμ καὶ ἀπέκτεινεν αὐτούς, δοκεῖτε ὅτι αὐτοὶ ὀφειλέται ἐγένοντο παρὰ πάντας τοὺς ἀνθρώπους τοὺς κατοικοῦντας Ἰερουσαλήμ; 5 οὐχί, λέγω ὑμῖν, ἀλλ' ἐὰν μὴ μετανοῆτε πάντες ὡσαύτως ἀπολεῖσθε.

6 Ἔλεγεν δὲ ταύτην τὴν παραβολήν: Συκῆν εἶχέν τις πεφυτευμένην ἐν τῷ ἀμπελῶνι αὐτοῦ, καὶ ἦλθεν ζητῶν καρπὸν ἐν αὐτῇ καὶ οὐχ εὗρεν. 7 εἶπεν δὲ πρὸς τὸν ἀμπελουργόν, Ἰδοὺ τρία ἔτη ἀφ' οὗ ἔρχομαι ζητῶν καρπὸν ἐν τῇ συκῇ ταύτῃ καὶ οὐχ εὑρίσκω. ἔκκοψον [οὖν] αὐτήν: ἱνατί καὶ τὴν γῆν καταργεῖ; 8 ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς λέγει αὐτῷ, Κύριε, ἄφες αὐτὴν καὶ τοῦτο τὸ ἔτος, ἕως ὅτου σκάψω περὶ αὐτὴν καὶ βάλω κόπρια: 9 κἂν μὲν ποιήσῃ καρπὸν εἰς τὸ μέλλον. εἰ δὲ μή γε, ἐκκόψεις αὐτήν.

1 At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them – do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’

6 Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7 So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” 8 He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down”.’


Merciful Lord, Grant your people grace to withstand the temptations
of the world, the flesh and the devil
and with pure hearts and minds to follow you, the only God; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

Lord our God,
you feed us in this life with bread from heaven,
the pledge and foreshadowing of future glory.
Grant that the working of this sacrament within us
may bear fruit in our daily lives;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

A journey through Lent 2016
with Samuel Johnson (19)

The monument to Hodge the Cat facing Samuel Johnson’s house in Gough Square, London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

Today is the Third Sunday in Lent [25 February 2016], and I am presiding and preaching at the Eucharist this morning in Saint John’s Church, Sandymount, Dublin.

During Lent this year, I am taking time each morning to reflect on words from Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), the Lichfield lexicographer and writer who compiled the first authoritative English-language dictionary.

Hodge was one of Dr Johnson’s cats, and is remembered in a whimsical passage in James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson (1799). In this passage, Johnson is claimed to have an affection for animals in general, or at least the ones that he kept:

I never shall forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge, his cat: for whom he himself used to go out and buy oysters, lest the servants having that trouble should take a dislike to the poor creature. I am, unluckily, one of those who have an antipathy to a cat, so that I am uneasy when in the room with one; and I own, I frequently suffered a good deal from the presence of this same Hodge. I recollect him one day scrambling up Dr Johnson’s breast, apparently with much satisfaction, while my friend smiling and half-whistling, rubbed down his back, and pulled him by the tail; and when I observed he was a fine cat, saying, “Why yes, Sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this;” and then as if perceiving Hodge to be out of countenance, adding, “but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed.”

This reminds me of the ludicrous account which he gave [the writer] Mr [Bennet] Langton, of the despicable state of a young Gentleman of good family. “Sir, when I heard of him last, he was running about town shooting cats.” And then in a sort of kindly reverie, he bethought himself of his own favourite cat, and said, “But Hodge shan’t be shot; no, no, Hodge shall not be shot.”

Johnson was known to go out of his way to buy oysters to feed Hodge, even to the point of annoying his servants by pampering his pets.

After Hodge’s death, the poet Percival Stockdale wrote ‘An Elegy on the Death of Dr Johnson’s Favourite Cat’:

Who, by his master when caressed
Warmly his gratitude expressed;
And never failed his thanks to purr
Whene’er he stroked his sable fur.

Not much is known about Johnson’s other cats, except that in a letter written in 1738 he mentions a white kitten named Lily, describing her as ‘very well behaved.’

A bronze statue to Hodge by the sculptor Jon Bickley stands facing Dr Johnson’s house in Gough Square, off Fleet Street, London. It was unveiled in 1997 and shows Hodge sitting on top of Johnson’s Dictionary, alongside some empty oyster shells. The monument is inscribed with the words “a very fine cat indeed.”

Continued tomorrow.

Yesterday’s reflection.

‘Beware of the Cats’ … a sign on a front door in Beacon Street, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)