07 November 2017

Some funeral songs on
the first anniversary of
Leonard Cohen’s death

Leonard Cohen at the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham in 2012 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Many of the radio programmes today have been marking the first anniversary of the death of Leonard Cohen, playing tracks from his albums throughout the day.

I have said with humour and full sincerity that when my coffin is being taken into the church at my funeral (later than sooner, I hope), that I want to hear Leonard Cohen’s ‘If it be your will’ … and when my coffin is being carried out I want to hear his ‘Dance me to the end of love.’

For almost 50 years I have been an enthusiastic fan of Leonard Cohen’s poetry, music and song. I have been collecting his books of poetry since the late 1960s, I listen to his albums constantly, and I have been to most of his concerts in Ireland, including the O2, Lissadell House, the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, and in the 1970s in the Stadium on the South Circular Road.

I have drawn on his poetry and his imagery in lectures on spirituality and Judaism and in Good Friday reflections and sermons.

Leonard Cohen died on 7 November 2016. By the time the announcement was made, he had already been buried. He died during the week I had been visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau, and exploring the Jewish Quarter of Kraków with intensity.

Leonard Cohen’s poetry and songs were marked by the scars of the Holocaust and reflected with intensity the spirituality of Central European Jewish spirituality. The rhythms of his music and his imagery also drew on the time he spent over many years in Greece.

A month before he died, I had bought his last album, You Want It Darker, which is both deeply spiritual and at the same time gives voice to his expectations of imminent death.

In an interview with the New Yorker magazine to coincide with this album, he declared a determination to keep working at his craft until the end, yet seemed to be aware that death was coming: ‘I’ve got some work to do,’ he said. ‘Take care of business. I am ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.’

Early last year, shortly before his first muse, Marianne Ihlen, died, he wrote her a farewell letter telling her: ‘I will follow you very soon.’

The title track of You Want It Darker sounds like the bleak, religious confession of a man facing his own mortality. It is filled with allusions to Jewish liturgy, Christian liturgy and Biblical texts. The backing vocals are provided by the cantor and choir of a synagogue in Leonard Cohen’s home city, Montreal:

If You are the dealer, I’m out of the game
If You are the healer, I’m broken and lame
If Thine is the glory, then mine must be the shame
You want it darker – we kill the flame.
Magnified, sanctified is your holy name
Vilified, crucified in the human frame
A million candles burning for the help that never came
You want it darker – Hineni, Hineni, I’m ready, my Lord.

Here Cohen is quoting the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead (‘magnified, sanctified …’). He addresses God directly as the God who has dealt Cohen out of the game, and who has ignored the ‘million candles’ lit in vain hopes of salvation.

It is dark, but those who reach into the dark depths that are met on the most intense journeys in spirituality know that this too is accepting the majesty of God and the inevitability of death.

The Hebrew word Hineni which Cohen repeats in this song literally means: ‘Here I am.’ When it is uttered by Abraham and repeated by other Biblical figures, it is an assertion of moral responsibility: Here I am. I am not running away. Here I stand.

The word Hineni is also the title of the Cantor’s Prayer on Yom Kippur, in which the cantor confesses to being unworthy to represent the congregation and stand before the Almighty. It is almost as if Cohen is making a similar confession. I may be a poet, a hero, and a star, but You know as well as I do that I am unworthy of all that. I am here before You – ready for You to take me.

The song is enriched by extensive Jewish collaboration. The track features background vocals from Gideon Zelermyer, cantor of the Shaar Hashomayim synagogue in Montreal, along with the Shaar Hashomayim choir.

The Shaar cantor and choir also contribute to another song on the album, ‘It Seemed the Better Way.’

This was an 82-year-old poet at the end of a long and deeply spiritual life. It is not surprising, therefore, that this song echoes the language and rhythm of the Kaddish, the prayer for mourners that reaffirms faith in God.

Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name throughout the world
which He has created according to His will.
May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days,
and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon;
and say, Amen.

May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity.
Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honoured,
adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He,
beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that
are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen.

May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us
and for all Israel; and say, Amen.

He who creates peace in His celestial heights,
may He create peace for us and for all Israel;
and say, Amen.

‘If It Be Your Will’ … Leonard Cohen and The Webb Sisters, Live in London

I am often humbled when I listen to Leonard Cohen’s song, If it be your will. He ended many of his concerts singing this poem, which for me is about submission to God’s will, accepting God’s will, leaving God in control of my spirit:

If it be your will
That I speak no more
And my voice be still
As it was before
I will speak no more
I shall abide until
I am spoken for
If it be your will

If it be your will
That a voice be true
From this broken hill
I will sing to you
From this broken hill
All your praises they shall ring
If it be your will
To let me sing
From this broken hill
All your praises they shall ring
If it be your will
To let me sing

If it be your will
If there is a choice
Let the rivers fill
Let the hills rejoice
Let your mercy spill
On all these burning hearts in hell
If it be your will
To make us well

And draw us near
And bind us tight
All your children here
In their rags of light
In our rags of light
All dressed to kill
And end this night
If it be your will

If it be your will.

Leonard Cohen sings of his nearly complete subjection to the divine will.

If he is told to be silent, he will be silent; if he is told to sing, he will sing.

If he is allowed to express his true voice (‘if a voice be true’), he will sing in praise of God from the ‘the broken hill’ ... from Calvary?

The mercy of God, the compassion of God, the love of God, redeems the burning hearts in hell ... if it is God’s will.

Leonard Cohen’s great hope in this will leads to prayer, to the one who can “make us well’ if we devote ourselves to God, pray to God, sing to God.

But he still prays to God to act on behalf of the suffering.

Cajoling God in song and poetry, Cohen says God has the power to ‘end this night’ of the darkness of the human condition, in which people are dressed in only dirty ‘rags of light’ that are fragmented, that are not fully whole and illuminated.

In this song, I imagine Christ on the cross as he speaks to God the Father as his agony comes to its close:

If it be your will
That I speak no more
And my voice be still
As it was before.

The broken hill is Golgotha where he has been crucified, the rugged and rocky Mount of Calvary.

‘Let the rivers fill’ may refer to the water of his thirst, the water of his sweat, the water that streams from his side, the waters of baptism, the Living Water that will never leave us to thirst.

If it be your will
To make us well
Let your mercy spill
On all these burning hearts in hell
All your children here

Timothy Radcliffe says: ‘We must wait for the resurrection to break the silence of the tomb.’ We must speak up when it is necessary, and to have the courage to speak is ‘ultimately founded upon the courage to listen.’ But at the grave, at times of desolation, at times when there is no answer, we may also be called to be silent.

I have also said that I would like to hear Leonard Cohen’s Dance Me to the End of Love (1984) as my coffin is carried out at my funeral.

I love its Greek chords, but more importantly, I am moved by the spirituality in this song that speaks tenderly, lyrically and poetically about a love that is eternal, that goes beyond human love, that transcends human suffering and that is consumed in the Love of God.

The song was first performed by Cohen on his 1984 album Various Positions. Although on first hearing, this song sounds like a love song, perhaps about a newly-married couple dancing at their wedding. But Dance Me to the End Of Love is about the horrors of the Holocaust.

In an interview, Cohen said the song recalls how in Auschwitz and other death camps, ‘a string quartet was pressed into performance while this horror was going on, those were the people whose fate was this horror also. And they would be playing classical music while their fellow prisoners were being killed and burnt.’

The members of the string quartet were going to be killed afterwards in the crematorium but were allowed to play music. This playing of music is joy and happiness to the members of the quartet, the last piece of love and joy they will experience before their own end.

The words ‘Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin’ refer to the string quartet’s instruments that are going to be burned in crematorium.

The words ‘Let me feel you moving like they do in Babylon’ compares the sufferings of the exiled Jewish people on Babylon with the sufferings of the Holocaust, and the words of the Psalmist ‘How shall we sign the Lord’s song in a strange land?’ (Psalm 137: 4).

When the Jewish Czech composer Viktor Ullmann was deported to the concentration camp in Theresienstadt in 1942, he decided to remain active musically. There he became a piano accompanist, organised concerts, wrote critiques of musical events, and composed, as part of a cultural circle that included Karel Ančerl, Rafael Schachter, Gideon Klein, Hans Krása, and other prominent musicians there. He wrote: ‘By no means did we sit weeping on the banks of the waters of Babylon. Our endeavour with respect to arts was commensurate with our will to live.’

On 16 October 1944, he was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and there he was killed in the gas chambers two days later on 18 October 1944.

In his interview, Leonard Cohen spoke of the music and the words ‘Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin,’ ‘meaning the beauty there of being the consummation of life, the end of this existence and of the passionate element in that consummation.’

But he conceded that ‘it is the same language that we use for surrender to the beloved, so that the song – it’s not important that anybody knows the genesis of it, because if the language comes from that passionate resource, it will be able to embrace all passionate activity.’

However, The Irish Times once said: ‘When Leonard Cohen takes to the stage, it’s no less than a cultural event of Biblical dimensions.’

When I listen to this song as a prayer, then the song too talks about being ‘gathered safely in’ and talks to me of being able to trust in the love of God despite the greatest horrors that can be faced in life. While our knowledge of this love is limited by our capacity to imagine it, it has, in fact, no limits at all:

Oh let me see your beauty when the witnesses are gone…
Raise a tent of shelter now, though every thread is torn
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic ’til I’m gathered safely in.

And when I am dying, I hope no matter how and when that happens (hopefully many, many and many more years from now), I hope I am consumed in the love of God, and that the dance goes on.

Leonard Cohen at the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham on 11 September 2012 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Dance Me To The End Of Love, by Leonard Cohen

Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic ’til I’m gathered safely in
Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love
Oh let me see your beauty when the witnesses are gone
Let me feel you moving like they do in Babylon
Show me slowly what I only know the limits of
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love

Dance me to the wedding now, dance me on and on
Dance me very tenderly and dance me very long
We’re both of us beneath our love, we’re both of us above
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love

Dance me to the children who are asking to be born
Dance me through the curtains that our kisses have outworn
Raise a tent of shelter now, though every thread is torn
Dance me to the end of love

Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic ’til I’m gathered safely in
Touch me with your naked hand or touch me with your glove
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love

Leonard Cohen was a generous artist, generous in his tributes to his musicians on stage and generous to his audiences, staying on stage for four or five hours at each concert. ‘May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us.’

‘If it be your will’ … Leonard Cohen on stage at Lissadell House, Co Sligo, in 2010 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Reminders of the Limerick
Soviet on the centenary
of the Russian revolution

Jack Monday’s Coffee House seen from Thomond Bridge … a reminder of the events that came to be known as the Limerick Soviet (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Today marks the centenary of the October Revolution. The revolution not only brought down the Romanov family and the Russian Tsarist empire, but it changed the map of Europe irrevocably, and set the stage for most major events in world politics that unfolded in the century that followed.

Although it was known officially known in Soviet literature as the Great October Socialist Revolution and is commonly referred to as Red October, the October Uprising, the Bolshevik Revolution, or the Bolshevik Coup, it actually began on 7 November 1917.

The Russian calendar had slipped behind the Gregorian Calendar or Western Calendar by almost two weeks, and so in the Russian calendar of the day, 7 November 1917 was still computed as 25 October 1917.

The events in Saint Petersburg were led by the Bolsheviks and Vladimir Lenin and set in chain the larger Russian Revolution of 1917, leading later to the formation of the Soviet Union.

But as I strolled through Limerick last week, I was reminded that Limerick had its own revolution within 18 months that came to be known as the Limerick Soviet.

I had lunch last week in Jack Monday’s, a café on Thomondgate, with a balcony at the back that overlooks the River Shannon and Thomond Bridge and across the river to King John’s Castle.

Inside Jack Monday’s Coffee House on Thomondgate, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

A bilingual plaque on the wall of Jack Monday’s reminds Limerick people and visitors alike of those events almost 100 years ago: ‘Thomond Bridge was the location of a British military barricade during the historic general strike of April 1919, popularly known as the Limerick Soviet.’

The Limerick Soviet was a self-declared Soviet that existed for almost two weeks, from 15 to 27 April 1919 in Limerick. At the beginning of the Irish War of Independence, the Limerick Trades and Labour Council organised by a general strike as a protest against the army’s declaration of a ‘Special Military Area’ under the Defence of the Realm Act.

The special military area was to cover most of Limerick city and a part of Co Limerick. But, in response, the Limerick Soviet ran the city for almost two weeks, printing its own money and organising food supplies.

The Irish War of Independence developed was at its height in 1919. Robert Byrne, a trade union activist and member of the IRA, was arrested and sentenced to one year in prison with hard labour. Byrne led his fellow prisoners in a campaign of civil disobedience, and went on hunger strike. He was taken to hospital under armed guard after three weeks.

On 6 April 1919, the IRA tried to spring Byrne from hospital. But in the gunfight that broke out, Constable Martin O’Brien of the RIC was killed and another policeman was seriously injured; Byrne was also wounded and died later on the same day.

Byrne’s funeral was a tense public event on the streets of Limerick. It was attended by an about 15,000 people, and there was growing concerned that trouble would break out. Martial law was imposed on Limerick city and part of the county on 9 April 1919. This meant that movement in and out of the city was restricted and the army had the power to seize vehicles and disperse gatherings.

Police permits would be required of everyone entering or leaving the city. Workers required permits to enter the city and known Republicans could not get a permit.

Troops and armoured vehicles were deployed throughout the city to enforce the declaration, which was to come into force on Monday 14 April 1919. But on Sunday 13 April 1919, a general strike was called by the city’s United Trades and Labour Council, to which Byrne had been a delegate.

The plaque on the wall of Jack Monday’s recalling the Limerick Soviet (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

From 14 April, running the strike was devolved to a committee that was said to have described itself as a Soviet. The committee followed the example of the Dublin general strike in 1913, but the term ‘Soviet,’ meaning a self-governing committee, was a new and innovative word, made a popular term after the October Revolution in Russia 18 month earlier.

The uprising may have gone unnoticed by the rest of the world but for the fact that a large number of international journalists were in Limerick at the time to report on a trans-Atlantic air race between Ireland and America that had been organised at the same time, beginning at Bawnmore, Co Limerick.

The race was called off when the plane that was due to part in the race was ditched off the coast of Wales. The assembled journalists from all over the English-speaking world now turned their attention to the story of an Irish Soviet and interviewed the organisers.

The role of the international media in reporting the establishment of a workers’ Soviet in Limerick was told in a recent documentary, The Limerick Soviet, produced by the Cork-based Frameworks Films.

The chair of the Trades Council, John Cronin, was described as the ‘father of the baby Soviet.’

Ruth Russell of the Chicago Tribune reported on the religious piety of the strike committee. She noted that ‘the bells of the nearby Saint Munchin’s Church tolled the Angelus and all the red-badged guards rose and blessed themselves.’

The general strike was extended to a boycott of the troops. For two weeks, the strike committee ran the city even going so far as to issuing its own currency, controlling food prices and publishing newspapers.

Many city businesses accepted the strike currency. This is explained by a local historian, Liam Cahill, who told the film: ‘The Soviet attitude to private property was essentially pragmatic. So long as shopkeepers were willing to act under the Soviet dictates, there was no practical reason to commandeer their premises.’

Outside Limerick, there was some sympathy in Dublin, but not in Belfast, for the strikers, and there was no support from the National Union of Railwaymen, for example.

After two weeks the Sinn Féin Mayor of Limerick, Phons O’Mara, and the Catholic Bishop of Limerick, Denis Hallinan, called for the strike to end. The Strike Committee issued a proclamation on 27 April 1919 stating that the strike was over.

While the strike was described by some as a revolution, Liam Cahill says: ‘In the end, the Soviet was basically an emotional and spontaneous protest on essentially nationalist and humanitarian grounds, rather than anything based on socialist or even trade union aims.’

But was there ever a Limerick Soviet?

According to Liam Cahill, The Irish Times was the first newspaper to refer to the strike ‘a Soviet’ and warned it was an attempt to emulate what was happening in Bolshevik Russia. The term ‘Soviet’ was not intended as a compliment but as warning that this was the same type of events as seen in Russia after the October Revolution.

As for Jack Monday, he was a West African fitter working on a ship that docked in Limerick during the War of Independence. Inspired by the stories they heard of the Irish fight, the crew on-board decided to fly the Irish flag as the ship was leaving. Maritime custom says a ship should fly the flag of the country of departure when leaving. British troops, enraged that the Union Jack was not fluttering, boarded the ship. A scuffle broke out, and two members of the auxiliary forces or ‘Black and Tans’ were stabbed.

Jack Monday was taken from the ship and imprisoned. It was only during the Civil War that followed that he was eventually released. He immediately joined the new Irish army, probably becoming the first black soldier in the army.

Large models of tin soldiers outside Jack Monday’s … reminders of a military conflict? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)