23 April 2016

‘Wood banks and brakes
wash wet like lakes’ in
Virginia and Rathangan

In the Bluebell Woods in Killinthomas, near Rathangan, Co Kildare, this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

I usually try to go for a walk on a beach at the weekend. But on Friday afternoon [22 April 2016], on my way to Belturbet, Co Cavan, I went for a walk along the shores of Lough Ramor in Virginia, and this afternoon [23 April] I went for a walk in the bluebell woods at Killinthomas, near Rathangan, Co Kildare.

Killinthomas Woods is an area of outstanding natural beauty, developed by Kildare County Council and Coillte. It is a mixed hardwood conifer forest with very diverse flora and fauna just a mile outside Rathangan village.

In all, the wood covers about 200 acre, and throughout the wood there are 10 km of signposted walks, leading into a wide variety of ecosystems. Although the woods are managed, the biodiversity among the trees has been left undisturbed.

A carpet of bluebells in Killnthomas Woods (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

In Spring and early Summer, these woods are carpeted with bluebells and wild garlic. Bluebells grow best in partially shaded areas and grow under deciduous trees. But bluebells do not do well when they are sown with other flowers and they do not like being overcrowded by other varieties.

The trees and flowers are late this Spring, and the bluebells may not be at their best until the bank holiday weekend next weekend and the beginning of May.

The trails in the wood wrap around the trees, and this afternoon, two of us set off from the car park along Father Doyle’s Walk. All the walks are signposted from the carpark and through the forest.

When we found ourselves back in the car park, we set off once again along the Camp Walk that leads onto the Bluebell Walk, which is the highlight of the forest at this time of the year. The combination of drifts of bluebells and wild garlic, primroses and celandine topped by the fresh green leaves of the mature beech trees is good for soul.

There are Bluebell woods throughout Ireland and Britain. As a species, bluebells are a common indicator for ancient woodlands, so that bluebell woods may date back to at least 1600, if not earlier.

In Springtime, bluebell woods have carpets of flowering bluebells (hyacinthoides non-scripta) underneath newly forming leaf canopies. The thicker the summer canopy, the more the competitive ground-cover is suppressed, encouraging a dense carpet of bluebells, whose leaves mature and die down by early summer.

Other common woodland plants that accompany bluebells include the yellow rattle and the anemone.

Bluebells were beloved of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The Victorian poet and Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889), was a regular visitor to this area. Between 1886 and 1889, Monasterevin, Co Kildare, became one of his few sanctuaries in Ireland. He stayed there on at least seven occasions, as the guest of the Cassidy sisters and, although he was free of any pastoral duties, he said Mass in the oratory, occasionally assisting the parish priest, Bishop Michael Comerford (1830-1895), at the Holy Communion.

Hopkins had a keen fondness for bluebells, and he expressed this in his poem May Magnificat:

And azuring-over greybell makes
Wood banks and brakes wash wet like lakes

Long before he first visited Co Kildare, Hopkins wrote in his journal on 9 May 1871:

In the little wood opposite the light they stood in blackish spreads or sheddings like spots on a snake. The heads are then like thongs and solemn in grain and grape-colour. But in the clough through the light they come in falls of sky-colour washing the brows and slacks of the ground with vein-blue, thickening at the double, vertical themselves and the young grass and brake-fern combed vertical, but the brake struck the upright of all this with winged transomes. It was a lovely sight. – The bluebells in your hand baffle you with their inscape, made to every sense. If you draw your fingers through them they are lodged and struggle with a shock of wet heads; the long stalks rub and click and flatten to a fan on one another like your fingers themselves would when you passed the palms hard across one another, making a brittle rub and jostle like the noise of a hurdle strained by leaning against; then there is the faint honey smell and in the mouth the sweet gum when you bite them.

A year later, in the summer of 1872, Hopkins wrote of bluebells:

“I do not think I have ever seen anything more beautiful than the bluebell I have been looking at. I know the beauty of our Lord by it.”

By the shores of Lough Ramor in Virginia, Co Cavan, on Friday afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

On Friday, on our way to Belturbet, two of us stopped at the Lakeside Manor Hotel in Virginia to take in the late afternoon lights on Lough Ramor.

It was warm, but every now and then the sun was partly covered by white and grey clouds that added to the silver streaks in the sky and on the lake water.

Later that evening, as we drove back from Belturbet to Dublin, there was a full moon in the sky and it reflections cast silver streaks of a very different hue across the dark waters of the lakes of Co Cavan.

Spring seems to have arrived in this part of Ireland. The bluebells should be in full bloom when April turns to May next weekend.

Evening lights on Lough Ramor in Virginia, Co Cavan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

May Magnificat, Gerard Manley Hopkins

May is Mary’s month, and I
Muse at that and wonder why:
Her feasts follow reason,
Dated due to season—

Candlemas, Lady Day;
But the Lady Month, May,
Why fasten that upon her,
With a feasting in her honour?

Is it only its being brighter
Than the most are must delight her?
Is it opportunest
And flowers finds soonest?

Ask of her, the mighty mother:
Her reply puts this other
Question: What is Spring?—
Growth in every thing—

Flesh and fleece, fur and feather,
Grass and greenworld all together;
Star-eyed strawberry-breasted
Throstle above her nested

Cluster of bugle blue eggs thin
Forms and warms the life within;
And bird and blossom swell
In sod or sheath or shell.

All things rising, all things sizing
Mary sees, sympathising
With that world of good,
Nature’s motherhood.

Their magnifying of each its kind
With delight calls to mind
How she did in her stored
Magnify the Lord.

Well but there was more than this:
Spring’s universal bliss
Much, had much to say
To offering Mary May.

When drop-of-blood-and-foam-dapple
Bloom lights the orchard-apple
And thicket and thorp are merry
With silver-surfed cherry

And azuring-over greybell makes
Wood banks and brakes wash wet like lakes
And magic cuckoocall
Caps, clears, and clinches all—

This ecstasy all through mothering earth
Tells Mary her mirth till Christ’s birth
To remember and exultation
In God who was her salvation.

A note on Shakespeare in
‘The Irish Times’ today

Patrick Comerford

The following paragraphs are included in ‘The Church of Ireland Notes’ in ‘The Irish Times’ this morning [23 April 2016]:

Tomorrow morning there will be 1916 commemorative services in Christ Church, Taney, and in St Nahi’s church, Dundrum, where the preacher will be Canon Patrick Comerford from the Church of Ireland Theological Institute.

There will also be commemorative services in Cashel cathedral and in St Mary’s church, Tipperary, where the Co Tipperary Ryan Youth Orchestra will perform the Irish premiere of Salute to 1916 by the late Danny Ryan.

Today marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare on April 23rd, 1616. Canon Comerford, in his monthly column in two diocesan magazines – the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory) – looks at Shakespeare’s Irish connections.

Prof Comerford gives particular attention to Irish characters in Shakespeare’s plays, his use of Irish phrases and colloquialisms, and his supposed links with Dalkey, Co Dublin, through his friend the composer John Dowland. This feature on the bard and Ireland is also available at: http://www.patrickcomerford.com/2016/04/ england-and-world-celebrate- shakespeare.html

Similarly, the website of the United Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough carries the following news report and photograph today:

Looking at Shakespeare on his 400th anniversary

Today (Saturday) marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare on 23 April 1616. Canon Patrick Comerford, who writes a monthly column in the diocesan magazine, the Church Review, looks at Shakespeare’s interesting Irish connections in his contribution this month.

Professor Comerford, who lectures in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, gives particular attention to Irish characters in Shakespeare’s plays, his use of Irish phrases and colloquialisms, and his supposed links with Dalkey, Co Dublin, through his friend the composer John Dowland.

This interesting feature on the Bard and Ireland is also available at:


Sarah Purser’s mosaic of John Dowden in Sorrento Park in Dalkey builds on the legend that William Shakespeare once visited Dalkey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford).

Sir John Leslie: a reference in
his obituary in ‘The Irish Times’

Sir John Leslie: December 6th, 1916-April 18th, 2016. During the second World War he led a unit that held up the German advance at Boulogne-sur-Mer, buying time for the British evacuation at Dunkirk. Photograph: Naoise Culhane

My work on the genealogy of the Leslie family is referred to an obituary of Sir John Leslie in ‘The Irish Times’ this morning [23 April 2016], and provides much of the background information on his family history:

Sir John Leslie: A second world war hero who delighted in dance

Captain Sir John Leslie, who has died in his 100th year, was a proud Irishman who fought in the British army in the second World War, an Ulster landowner, an accomplished painter of watercolours and a disco-dancing enthusiast who celebrated his 85th birthday with a visit to Privilege, a vast venue dedicated to eardrum-shattering “house music” on the Spanish island of Ibiza.

In recent years he could fairly lay claim to the title of “Ireland’s oldest raver”. Announcing his death this week, his family described dance music as “perhaps his most endearing hobby”, along with membership of the Order of Malta and restoring historic buildings.

The Leslie family of Castle Leslie, Co Monaghan, was known for its allegiance to Ireland and Britain.

John Leslie was the eldest son of Sir Shane Leslie, a writer who had changed his first name from John, converted to Catholicism, embraced Irish nationalism while maintaining friendships with Éamon de Valera and Winston Churchill, to whom he was related. The family had a tradition of producing independent spirits, some would call them eccentrics, of which John Leslie – always known as Jack – was proud to be one.


In earlier centuries the Leslie family included warlike bishops, politicians, social reformers, agricultural innovators, philanthropic women, pre-Raphaelite painters, furniture collectors, writers and war heroes, and they claimed to trace their ancestry back to Attila the Hun, according to writer and Anglican clergyman Patrick Comerford.

Another Anglican clergyman, Jonathan Swift, after a visit to Castle Leslie, dipped his quill in acid and wrote about the library there: “With rows and rows of books upon the shelves Written by the Leslies/All about themselves”.

In 1940, when the British Expeditionary Force in France was retreating and being evacuated under fire, Leslie was an officer in the Irish Guards. He commanded a unit which held up the German advance at Boulogne-sur-Mer for two crucial hours, buying time for the British evacuation at Dunkirk and saving the lives of many of his comrades.

“Bullets were whizzing past my head on both sides,” he said afterwards. “Over and over again, I thought my time had come.”

Captured by the Germans, he spent five years as a prisoner of war, passing the time painting watercolours. He took a considerable risk by sending a postcard through the camp mail to British prime minister Winston Churchill asking him to intervene to exchange prisoners who were in a bad way.

This alerted the Germans to the fact they held a valuable hostage, Leslie’s paternal grandmother Leonie Jerome, and Churchill’s mother, Jennie Jerome, a celebrated society beauty, were sisters. That postcard is now in the Imperial War Museum in London.

New York

After the war, he moved to New York and later travelled around Europe, settling in Rome in a former monastery. At the age of 78 he returned to his family’s home at Castle Leslie.

He had earlier made over the house to his sister, the writer Anita Leslie. She too had served in the second World War as a mechanic and ambulance driver in the Middle East, and was honoured by France with the Croix de Guerre.

In turn she would pass Castle Leslie on to her younger brother Desmond, who was known for his interest in UFOs, and her son Richard King.

In 2002, Jack Leslie inadvertently disclosed to the press in advance the news that the castle would be used as the venue of the wedding of former Beatle Paul McCartney to Heather Mills.


John Norman Ide Leslie was the eldest son of Shane (John) Leslie and Marjorie Ide, whose father Henry had been governor general of the Philippines. Leslie was educated in England, at the Catholic Downside school and Magdalene College Cambridge. He joined the Irish Guards in 1937 at the age of 21. He became the fourth baronet of Glaslough and Pettigo when his father died in 1971.

In his 80s Leslie was to be seen “bopping” in nightclubs in the towns of Monaghan, Clones and Carrickmacross, waving his arms around in time to the beat and sporting his trademark Tam O’Shanter.

In 2015, Leslie received France’s highest decoration, the Légion d’honneur at a ceremony in the French embassy in Dublin in recognition of his wartime courage. Leslie never married. His older sister Anita died in 1985, and his younger brother Desmond in 2001.

Finding relics of Shakespeare
in Cambridge and Donabate

The Cobbe portrait … supposed to be William Shakespeare, who died 400 years ago in 23 April 2016 (Photograph: Wikipedia)

Patrick Comerford

Today [23 April 2016] marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon. His great Spanish contemporary Miguel Cervantes died in Madrid on 22 April 1616.

To celebrate this unusual coincidence, UNESCO marks 23 April as the International Day of the Book. However, these dates are a little further apart than it appears: Spain adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1582, but England was still using the Julian calendar in 1616. So Shakespeare’s death on 23 April 1616 in the Julian calendar was the equivalent to 3 May 1616 in the Gregorian calendar. In other words, Shakespeare did not die on the day Cervantes was being buried, for the two great writers died 11 days apart.

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza on a monument to Miguel Cervantes in Madrid (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

But there are still some coincidences that survive for pub quizzes. For example, it is also claimed that Shakespeare was born on 23 April, and everyone knows that today is also Saint George’s Day.

Saint George is not only the patron saint of England, but also the patron saint of many other places, including – as I found out during recent visit – both Lisbon and Barcelona.

But, how many people realise that on the day William Shakespeare died in Stratford-upon-Avon Oliver Cromwell was being admitted to Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge University?

Oliver Cromwell’s portrait in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Thomas Carlyle noted: “Whilst Oliver Cromwell was entering himself of Sidney Sussex College, William Shakespeare was taking his farewell of this world … Oliver’s father saw Oliver write in the album at Cambridge; at Stratford, Shakespeare’s Anne Hathaway was weeping over his bed … They have their exits and their entrances and one people in time plays many parts.”

Two days after his admission to Sidney Sussex, Oliver Cromwell marked his 17th birthday. I have often sat beneath Cromwell’s portrait in the College Hall, but I can hardly imagine him as the sort of man to celebrate this event with a wild undergraduate party, or even crossing Sidney Street to buy a bottle of wine in Sainsbury’s. On the other hand, if he had a little more sense of fun and was a little more engaged with life, he might not have left Sidney Sussex without a degree.

Shakespeare’s contribution to the English language and literature is rivalled only, perhaps, by the language of the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Version or Authorised Version of the Bible.

Now a handwritten manuscript, hidden for years in an archive in Cromwell’s old college, is bringing new insights into the way the Bible was translated into English. Scholars recently found a draft of the King James Bible that was produced between 1604 and 1610 by Samuel Ward (1572-1643), a Cambridge theologian who was the Master of Sidney Sussex College at the time Cromwell was admitted as a fellow commoner.

Professor Jeffrey Miller of Montclair State University, New Jersey, found a notebook containing the writings late last year (2015) and has been working since then to verify its contents.

Dr Nicholas Rogers, the archivist at Sidney Sussex, was present when the discovery was made. “It is a delightful surprise,” Dr Rogers has said. “It is nice to find something other than Cromwell documents, for which the college is known.”

Samuel Ward was elected Master of Sidney Sussex College in 1610, six years before Cromwell arrived. This small notebook is in his own handwriting from that time. The manuscript had once been catalogued in the college archive as annotations for a single section of the Bible. But it now casts light on how the edited text of the King James Bible was put together.

The King James Bible was eventually completed in 1611. The discovery of the manuscript indicates Ward worked on the draft while he was the Master of Sidney Sussex. The evidence shows how he took on various segments of the Bible to translate and compile from existing Hebrew and Greek documents. He also worked on the Apocrypha, which was published as part of the original King James Bible although is often omitted from later editions.

In 1623, Samuel Ward was appointed Lady Margaret’s Professor of Divinity in Cambridge. But he lost his Calvinist friends when the First English Civil War broke out, and because of his sworn allegiance to the crown he refused to take the Oath of the Solemn League and Covenant.

In 1643, Cromwell’s sympathisers made Ward a prisoner in Saint John’s College. When his health gave way, Ward was allowed to retire to Sidney Sussex College. On 30 August 1643, while he was in the chapel in Sidney Sussex, he was gripped by a seizure. He died on 7 September and was buried in the college chapel – three centuries later, Cromwell’s head was buried nearby in the ante-chapel on 25 March 1960.

The plaque in the ante-chapel in Sidney Sussex College marking the burial of Cromwell’s head in his old Cambridge collge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Earlier this month, I was writing about Shakespeare’s Irish connections, including the Irish characters in his plays, his supposed use of Irish idiomatic and colloquial terms, and the legend about his connections with Dalkey through the composer John Dowden.

But there is also another connection between the Bard and Ireland through the Cobbe Portrait, an unattributed panel painting of William Shakespeare painted from life, and believed by some to be the only surviving painting of Shakespeare.

The portrait was inherited by the Cobbe family of Newbridge House in Donabate through an association with Shakespeare’s patron, Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton.

Above the subject’s head, the Cobbe portrait is inscribed with the Latin words ‘Principum amicitias!’ – “the friendships of princes” or “the alliances of princes.” This may be an allusion to Horace’s Odes 2.1, where the words are addressed to Asinius Pollio, a poet and playwright.

Archbishop Charles Cobbe’s portrait in the Chapter House, Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The Cobbe family came to Ireland when Charles Cobbe (1689-1765) was appointed a chaplain to his cousin Charles Paulet, 2nd Duke of Bolton and the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Charles Cobbe later became Archbishop of Dublin (1743-1765), and I found myself sitting beneath his portrait during a board meeting in the Chapter House in Christ Church Cathedral on Tuesday evening.

The Lynders family came to Portrane about the same time as the Cobbe family came to Donabate, and my grandmother's family and the Cobbe family were said at one time to be the only freeholders on thaat peninsula.

The Shakespeare portrait is said to have passed to the Cobbe family through the wife of the archbishop’s cousin, Southampton’s great-granddaughter, who inherited some Wriothesley heirlooms.

Later generations of the Cobbe family of Donabate have included several prominent Irish politicians, clergy, writers, activists and soldiers, including the writer and social reformer Frances Power Cobbe, and General Sir Alexander Cobbe VC. The Newbridge Estate, acquired by Archbishop Cobbe in 1736, remained the Cobbe family home until 1985. It was then acquired by Fingal County Council in a unique arrangement with the family, who continue to maintain it as a family home.

However, until 2006, the portrait was completely unknown to the literary and arts world, and generations of the Cobbe family thought that it might be Sir Walter Raleigh. It was identified as Shakespeare only 10 years ago, although not all art and literary exerts are convinced. The Cobbe portrait is now displayed at Hatchlands Park in Surrey, a National Trust property, and has been the centrepiece of two exhibitions in Stratford-upon-Avon and New York.

Newbridge House, Donabate, Co Dublin … the Cobbe portrait was identified here in 2006 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)