31 August 2018

How two philanthropists gave
Kilkenny its first public library

The Carnegie Library on John's Quay, Kilkenny, the gift of Andrew Carnegie and the Countess of Desart (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

When I first took an interest in researching the genealogy and history of the Comerford family almost 50 years ago in the late 1960s, one of the first libraries I used was the Kilkenny City Library on John’s Quay.

In a day when libraries were often dour and lacking in adequate library, the staff there were cheerful and helpful, and they generously allowed an enthusiastic teenager on day trips open-shelf access to important sources such as William Carrigan’s four-volume History of the Diocese of Ossory.

It was a time long before the internet offered so many facilities to genealogical researches, and I am reminded of their cheerful attitude each time I see the library in its attractive setting on the banks of John’s Quay, reflected in the waters of the River Nore.

The library, which opened in 1910, was built through sponsorship from Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919). It was designed prepared by the Tyars and Jago practice in association with E Stewart-Lowrey and Son on a site donated by Ellen Odette Cuffe (1857-1933), Countess of Desart, widow of William Ulick O’Connor Cuffe, 4th Earl of Desart.

Lady Desart was born Ellen Odette Bischoffsheim in London, and became a philanthropist and politician, as well as President of the Gaelic League. She could be described as the most important Jewish woman in Irish history.

She was the daughter of Henri Louis Bischoffsheim, a wealthy Jewish banker of German origin. He was responsible for founding three of the largest banks in the world: the Deutsche Bank, Paribas Bank, and Societe Generale. She married William Cuffe (1845-1898), 4th Earl of Desart, in Christ Church in Down Street, Mayfair, on 29 April 1881. Her younger sister, Amélie Bischoffsheim, married Sir Maurice FitzGerald, 20th Knight of Kerry. For much of their life, the couple lived at Desart Court, between Kilkenny and Callan.

The library on John’s Quay is one of the many philanthropic projects in Kilkenny she sponsored with or in memory of her brother-in-law, Captain Otway Frederick Seymour Cuffe (1853-1912), a former Mayor of Kilkenny. Other projects included Aut Even Hospital (1915) and the Desart Hall. She also established local woodworking and woollen industries.

This Carnegie Library. is a distinctive landmark in the streetscape of Kilkenny. It is a detached, three-bay, single-storey classical-style building, with an elegant bowed Doric portico at the centre, single-bay, single-storey, gabled flanking end bays, and four-bay, single-storey side elevations. The classical theme of the composition is enhanced by finely-detailed dressings to the window openings, and an open work steel turret on an octagonal plan with a copper-clad square-profiled base and a lead-lined ogee dome.

In a cost-effective measure that appealed to Carnegie’s frugal agent, James Bertram (1872-1934), the library was built almost entirely in fine concrete block imitating local Kilkenny limestone. This was an early use of concrete block in the Kilkenny area.

Most of the original fabric has survived in intact, although the unique fittings made by the family-owned Kilkenny Woodworkers Company were removed some time in the 1990s.

Before the library was built, the Kilkenny Circulating Library had a reading room for members in the Tholsel which is now known as City Hall. The annual subscription fee was 11s 4d.

In 1903 and 1904, Kilkenny Corporation agreed to adopt the Public Libraries (Ireland) Act 1855, which allowed the establishment of public libraries in towns with populations of more than 5,000. The Library was to be supported from the rates, but and the maximum rate that could be levied was one penny in the pound.

Kilkenny Corporation approached Andrew Carnegie for a grant to aid the establishment of a free library. The Scottish-born US steel industrialist and philanthropist provided grants for building public libraries in the US, the UK, Ireland and throughout the English-speaking world.

He built and equipped libraries on condition that local authorities provided the site and maintained the service. He promised £2,750 for Kilkenny but then cut this to £2,100 because the rate struck by the Corporation was too low – the rate was to yield £140 but yielded only £105.

The site at John’s Quay was bought for £600 by Lady Desart, who also paid for the furniture. The foundation stone was laid in 1908. The library was handed over to Kilkenny Corporation in 1910 and was opened on 3 November by Lady Desart. Later that day, she was conferred with the Freedom of the City.

Membership of the Library was free to the residents of the borough, but there was a charge for non-residents of 2s 6d or a half crown.

The Reading Society books were transferred to the new library in 1911.

The library was all contained in a square shaped single floor. Originally it had six rooms: a gymnasium used for the library, a reference room, librarian’s room, lending department, reading room and the ladies’ room with an attached toilet.

Until 1972, the Carnegie Library was the only purpose-built facility offering a range of library services in Co Kilkenny. The main changes to the library over the years reflected changes in library practice, as it moved from closed access collections to open access and the rooms were reduced in number.

A country library service did not begin until 1923. The Kilkenny County Library Committee first met that year in the library on John’s Quay. Lennox Robinson attended that first meeting, when Lady Countess of Desart was co-opted to the committee.

Constant debates arose about the censorship of books. On 19 December 1923, for example, it was agreed to remove the works of George Bernard Shaw from circulation.

By 1924, 2,415 volumes had been circulated to various small repositories around the county, known as ‘centres’ and later as ‘adult centres,’ and run by local volunteers. By 1925, 52 centres had been set up around Co Kilkenny, 5,412 volumes were in stock, there were 5.410 registered readers, 2,243 books were in the centres, and 15,820 books had been issued. That year, Kilkenny County Council took responsibility for the County Library Service.

The Kilkenny People reported late last year [25 October 2017] that plans to develop a new city library at 75 and 76 John Street — the former Meubles site — have been shelved in favour of plans to develop the Carnegie library and transform John’s Quay into a cultural quarter.

The chief executive of Kilkenny County Council, Colette Byrne, said the development would be ‘far more than just a library,’ and would offer a multi-functional space of at least 1,5000 sq metres that involves extending the Carnegie Library to the rear.

The proposed designs include the public realm around the library, including the Evans Home building behind the library, towards John Street. The estimated cost of the project is about €4.5 to €5 million, and €2.5 million of that will have to be found locally. The council has plans to relocate the Butler Gallery from Kilkenny Castle to a fully-renovated Evans Home.

As for Lady Desart, she was appointed to the Irish Free State Senate as an independent Senator in December 1922, becoming one of the four women in the new Senate and the first Jew to serve as a Senator in Ireland.

She remained a senator until she died at Waterloo Road in Dublin on 23 June 1933. In her will, she left £1.5 million to the charities she was associated with. She is commemorated in the Lady Desart pedestrian bridge, which was opened beside the library in 2014.

September in the Rathkeale and
Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes

Christ in conversation with the Syro-Phoenician woman ... a modern icon (Sunday 9 September, Mark 7: 24-37)

September has five Sundays in the month, so there is a joint group celebration of the Eucharist in Castletown Church on Sunday 29 September at 11 a.m.

Sunday 2 September (Trinity XIV): 9.30, the Eucharist (Holy Communion), Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton; 11.30, Morning Prayer, Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin, Tarbert.

Readings: Song of Solomon 2: 8-13 ; Psalm 45: 1-2, 6-9; James 1: 17-27; Mark 7: 1-8 , 14-15, 21-23.

Hymns: 350, For the beauty of the earth (CD 21); 630, Blessed are the pure in heart (CD 36); 601, Teach me my God and King (CD 34).

Sunday 9 September (Trinity XV): 9.30, the Eucharist (Holy Communion), Castletown Church; 11.30, Morning Prayer, Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale.

Sunday School: Now that the children are returning to school, Shirley Sheahan is organising the Sunday School in Rathkeale. The start-up date is Sunday 9 September, at Morning Prayer in Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale. All children in the Group of Parishes are welcome.

Readings: Proverbs 22: 1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Psalm 125; James 2: 1-10 (11–13),14-17; Mark 7: 24-37.

Hymns: 34, O worship the King (CD 2); 494, Beauty for holiness (CD 29); 514, We cannot measure (CD 29).

Sunday 16 September (Trinity XVI): 9.30, Morning Prayer, Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton; 11.30, the Eucharist (Holy Communion), Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin, Tarbert.

Readings: Proverbs 1: 20-33; Psalm 19 or the Canticle Song of Wisdom; James 3: 1-12; Mark 8: 27-38.

Hymns: 59, New every morning (CD 4); 324, God whose almighty word (CD 19); 666, Be still my soul (CD 39).

Sunday 23 September (Trinity XVII): 9.30 a.m., Morning Prayer, Castletown Church; 11.30, the Parish Eucharist (Holy Communion 2), Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale.

Readings: Proverbs 31: 10-31; Psalm 1; James 3: 13 to 4: 3, 7-8a; Mark 9: 30-37.

Hymns: 10, All my hope in God is founded (CD 1); 145, Ye servant of the Lord (CD 8); 231, My song is love unknown (CD 14).

Sunday 30 September (Trinity XVIII): Fifth Sunday joint group celebration: 11 a.m., Parish Eucharist (Holy Communion 2), Castletown Church.

Readings: Esther 7: 1-6, 9-10, 9: 20-22; Psalm 124; James 5: 13-20; Mark 9: 38-50.

Hymns: 712, Tell out my soul (CD 40); 643, Be thou my vision (CD 37); 446, Strengthen for service (CD 26).

Advance notices:

Friday 28 September: clothes swap and gathering at 8 p.m. in the Rectory, Askeaton. Women of the parishes and friends are invited to a fun evening to help ‘A Mother’s Journey’ build a playground for children in Morocco.

Friday, 5 October, 8 p.m.; Harvest Thanksgiving Service:, Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale.

Readings: Joel 2: 21-27; Psalm 126; I Timothy 2: 1-7; Matthew 6: 25-33.

Hymns: 37: Come, ye thankful people, come (CD 3); 39: For the fruits of his creation (CD 3); 47: We plough the fields and scatter (CD 3); 596: Seek ye first the kingdom of God (CD 34).

Sunday 11 November, (Remembrance Day):, 11 a.m., joint service with remembrance, silence and Holy Communion, Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale.

A harvest gift of fresh figs and ripe cherries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

30 August 2018

Grace’s Castle, a modern
courthouse in Kilkenny
dating from the 13th century

Grace’s Castle on Parliament Street, Kilkenny, is a modern courthouse on the site of a mediaeval castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Earlier today, I enjoyed the view of the classical façade of Grace’s Castle on Parliament Street, in the historical centre of Kilkenny. This is a very modern courthouse, but it stands on the site of an early mediaeval castle or fortress that was first built by the Grace family in 1210.

The Grace family was descended from Raymond le Gros, who came to Ireland in 1170. The family primarily lived at Courtstown Castle in Tullaroan, about 15 km from the city, and Grace’s Castle served as their townhouse.

From the beginning, the family was active in the life of Kilkenny city and county. Two members of the family were abbots of Jerpoint Abbey, Oliver Grace of Tullaroan was Keeper of the Peace in Co Kilkenny in the 15th century, and later, in 1834, William Grace became Mayor of Kilkenny.

Grace’s Castle remained a private residence until it was leased to the state in 1566 by James Grace, who was then Governor of Ireland. The castle was rebuilt and converted into a prison and was used as a goal for about 200 years.

Garret Comerford (ca 1550-1604) of Inchiholohan or Castleinch, Co Kilenny, was the Queen’s Attorney-at-Laws for Connaught, MP for Callan, Second Baron of the Exchequer and Chief Justice of Munster. His third son, Nicholas Comerford, was the King’s Gaoler in Kilkenny in the early 17th century, and his children included Nicholas Comberford (ca 1600-1673) of Stepney, an important cartographer in the mid-17th century.

The mediaeval remains of the castle that survived in the jail at Grace’s Castle were incorporated I then 18th century into the basement area of the gaol. When Grace’s Castle was converted to a courthouse in 1792, the work incorporated fabric of the earlier Bridewell dating from 1566, and the basement retains fabric of the mediaeval castle dating from 1210.

This classical-style courthouse is a seven-bay, double-height building over a projecting raised basement, built in 1792. Archival material suggests Sir Jerome Fitzpatrick, a campaigner for prison reform and a former medical doctor in the army, took charge of extensive renovations to convert the building into a courthouse.

Fitzpatrick’s internal configuration shows the influence of James Gandon (1743-1823), including the courthouse he built in Waterford City in 1784 but that was demolished around 1849.

However, Grace’s Castle, as it appears today, is primarily the result of a comprehensive redevelopment by the Kilkenny-born architect William Robertson (1770-1850), who had returned from London around 1801 and had developed a busy architectural practice in Kilkenny, with the Earl of Ormonde as an early client, carrying out extensive work at Kilkenny Castle in the decades that followed.

He also enlarged the barracks at Kilkenny, reported to the Dean and Chapter of Saint Canice’s on the fabric of the cathedral in 1813, and he designed Jenkinstown Castle for the Bellew family, the Gothic gateway for Shankill Castle, Gowran Castle for Lord Clifden, the chancel of Saint Mary’s Church (Church of Ireland), Gowran, Saint Canice’s Roman Catholic Church, Kilkenny, and Cappoquin Bridge in Co Waterford.

William Robertson died in Mayo 1850 at Rosehill, the house which he had built for himself near Saint Kieran’s College on College Road, Kilkenny. His large library – ‘the result of Fifty Years’ collecting’ – was sold at auction in Dublin over a number of days the following April.

Robertson’s classical scheme for Grace’s Castle, surmounting a somewhat haphazard base, forms an elegantly distinctive building. He remodelled the façade, adding features such as a balcony and stone staircase, and designing the pedimented tetrastyle Tuscan frontispiece added at the centre.

Here, the engaged Tuscan columns form a tetrastyle frontispiece to the centre, supporting the frieze with a moulded surround to the pediment with modillions. There are paired engaged Tuscan columns to end bays, a frieze, moulded cornice, and blocking course over, incorporating panels to the end bays having swags.

The courthouse is set back from Parliament Street with a landscaped forecourt that is enclosed by paired flights of 20 cut-limestone steps leading up to the entrance level.

The courthouse was extended in 1855-1856 with a four-bay three-storey return to east, and it was extended to the rear ca 1870.

The building was renovated around 1977, when the interior was remodelled. Despite these late 20th century renovations, some early fittings survive inside that offer an element of artistic importance, including fine timber joinery and decorative plasterwork features.

More recently, a 3000 sq m extension was added at the rear of the courthouse, with modern facilities and additional courtrooms. The brief involved refurbishing the existing courthouse building along with building the new 3,000 sq m extension. The work provided new and improved accommodation for all court users, including two new courtrooms, judges’ chambers, and office accommodation for the Circuit and District Courts.

All public and staff areas are fully accessible, including the courtrooms, redesigned to be accessible to anyone with mobility difficulties. The courtrooms have also been equipped with induction loops to aid people with hearing difficulties.

Kilkenny Courthouse is used today for sittings of the Circuit and District Courts. The front of the building retains some of the original features of the jail, which are visible from street level, and Grace’s Castle remains one of the earliest-surviving civic institutions in Kilkenny.

Grace’s Castle is one of the earliest-surviving civic institutions in Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Kieran’s, the Tudor
revival college in Kilkenny
that predates Maynooth

Saint Kieran’s College, Kilkenny, is a picturesque set of Tudor-Gothic revival buildings dating from the 1830s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I am on my way to Kilkenny this morning, travelling by bus and train, from Askeaton through Limerick, Limerick Junction, Clonmel and Waterford, for this evening’s institution in Saint Canice’s Cathedral of a former student, the Revd David MacDonnell, as the Incumbent of the Kilkenny Union of Parishes and his installation as the Dean of Ossory.

Earlier this week, I was discussing how I had recently rediscovered my lecture notes for 12 modules of 12 of lectures each on Islamic Studies and Byzantine Studies in 2003-2004 on the NUI Maynooth Campus at Saint Kieran’s College, Kilkenny.

Saint Kieran’s College on College Road, Kilkenny, is set back from the road in landscaped grounds, and is a picturesque, impressive set of Tudor-Gothic revival buildings dating from the early Victorian period.

Saint Kieran’s College, which predates Maynooth by 13 years, was founded in 1782 as a diocesan college under the patronage of the Bishop of Ossory. Grattan’s Parliament had relaxed the Penal Laws that year, and records show a lease was signed for an old house in Kilkenny on 12 October 1782. This makes Saint Kieran’s the oldest Catholic college in Ireland and ‘the first Catholic College in the Kingdom.’

During its history, the college has been at a number of different locations, but always at the heart of the city, and moving to its present location in 1836.

The core college buildings at Saint Kieran’s College were designed by William Deane Butler (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The core college buildings were built under the direction of William Kinsella (1793-1845), Bishop of Ossory, to plans designed by the Dublin-born architect William Deane Butler (1793/1794-1857).

William Deane Butler was the second of the 13 children of George Butler, a Dublin solicitor, and his wife, Elizabeth Shea. He trained as an architect under Samuel Beazley and Henry Aaron Baker.

His other works include Saint Mary’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, Kilkenny, the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Monasterevin, the county gaols in Ennis and Portlaoise, courthouses in Ballyconnell, Bray, Callan, Clifden, Cootehill, Newtownbutler and Urlingford, the Railway Station at Amiens Street, Dublin, and a gate lodge at Dublin Zoo.

Butler was appointed architect in ordinary to the Lord Lieutenant in 1853. He was married three times, had 13 surviving children, and died on 28 November 1857.

The foundation stone of Saint Kieran’s College was laid on 24 October 1836, the east wing was completed by September 1838, the west wing was completed in 1839, and the central block was built in 1847-1849.

The terminating ranges completing the main college buildings are the work by AWN Pugin’s son-in-law, George Coppinger Ashlin (1837-1921), and Ralph Henry Byrne’s nephew, Simon Aloysius Leonard (1903-1976) of WH Byrne & Son, Dublin. Leonard’s range was built by Walsh Brothers of Dublin reusing the fabric of the dismantled Saint John’s Roman Catholic Church in nearby Maudlin Street, originally built in 1840.

The college is simple but elegant, centred on the elevated chapel, and is an important landmark on College Road. The college buildings are well maintained, with most of the historic fabric still intact both outside and inside, and it is enhanced by the variety of openings in each range, as well as the distinctive glazing patterns and the finely-carved details.

This is a detached, 19-bay, two-storey over part-raised basement Tudor Revival college building. The double-height projecting central chapel is single-bay at the front and four-bay deep, projecting central chapel. There are two nine-bay, two-storey recessed flanking lateral wings. The east wing was completed in 1838 and the west wing in 1839. These wings have single-bay, two-storey gabled projecting central bays with canted oriel windows on the first floor.

At the rear or north side, there are nine-bay, three-storey over raised basement elevations.

The elliptical-headed openings arcaded bays were added in 1875 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This building was renovated and extended in 1875, with the addition of a single-bay, two-storey, gabled projecting terminating block with an attic to the right (east). This has a two-storey canted bay window, and five-bay two-storey side elevations. In addition, a series of elliptical-headed openings were added to the east and west wings, forming arcaded bays.

The 17-bay mainly three-storey school buildings to the north, enclosing a courtyard, date from 1933. The college was completed in 1955 with the addition on left or west side of a single-bay, two-storey over part-raised basement gabled projecting terminating block that has a six-bay, four-storey side or west elevation. This addition has a half-dormer attic and a three-stage canted bay window.

The interesting details in this composition include the projecting bays, the open arcades, the gablets at the windows, the half-dormer attic windows, the cut-limestone chimney stacks, the gables with cross finials at the apexes, the octagonal corner turrets on the chapel, the gabled buttresses, the ogee domes, recesses and finials, the battlemented parapet, the pointed-arch windows openings, the cut-limestone steps, the carved cut-limestone doorcase and the tongue-and-groove timber panelled double doors.

The college chapel forms the centrepiece of the main building (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The college chapel, which forms the centrepiece of the main building, has a range of interesting artistic items, with an altar carved by Harry Stafflesser of South Tyrol, delicate stained-glass panels from the Harry Clarke studios, timber pews, panelled wainscoting incorporating a Gothic-style reredos, a timber panelled gallery, a decorative plasterwork cornice to the ceiling, a pointed-arch chancel arch, and trefoil-headed timber panelled wainscoting.

The complementary and elegant arched gateway on College Road was erected in 1941 but dates from 1782. This is a Tudor-headed carriageway with tooled limestone ashlar piers, chamfered reveals, a hood moulding over, iron double gates, cut-stone date stones or plaques.

Originally, this was the gateway to Jenkinstown Castle and estate in Co Kilkenny. It was reassembled on site at the entrance to Saint Kieran’s in 1941 and it remains a picturesque feature on College Road.

Sadly, the Kilkenny Campus of Maynooth University closed this year in June 2018.

The elegant arched gateway was first built in 1782 for Jenkinstown Castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

29 August 2018

Hanging pictures with meaning
from Venice, France and Cyprus

The Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute and the Grand Canal in Venice

Patrick Comerford

My taste in art is wide, and both deep and shallow at one and the same time.

The works on my walls include icons, original paintings, and old photographs of houses I have lived in or that are associated with the Comerford and Comberford families in the past.

I am happy to frame old postcards, prints and bookplates, hang up posters from art exhibitions may years ago, and even frame photographs of houses and pre-war Greek banknotes that have gone out of circulation and have long lost their value and currency.

Last weekend, we had friends to stay in the rectory, and in a moment of haste we bought two large prints to fill walls on two of the guest bedrooms that had looked a little bare for a little too long.

One shows the Grand Canal in Venice, with the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute, a sight I have known in the past and hope to see again before the end of the year.

A field of lavender in France … or is it Tuscany?

Another shows a field of lavender. It could be in France, it could be in Tuscany, but wherever it is it is a reminder of bright summer days as the autumn evenings begin to close in and begin to realise that winter follows soon after.

The microclimate in Askeaton is noticeably different and much wetter than other places I have lived in on these islands, so I need reminders of summer sunshine and holidays on the continental as the days get wetter and the clouds become turn greyer.

I suppose I am also missing some of the paintings and prints hanging on the walls and on the stairs at home in Knocklyon.

A bride prepares for her wedding in Cyprus

One is a bright, colourful picture of a bride preparing for her wedding. I bought this limited edition print in Nicosia when I was working in Cyprus during Easter 2000, just a few weeks before my ordination.

Another is a second limited edition print also bought in Nicosia that Easter, and shows two small boys, probably brothers, the older boy protecting his younger brother, who may have been blinded. They are Greek Cypriot refugees from Northern Cyprus, huddled in a tent after fleeing the Turkish invasion in 1974.

I had visited Cyprus earlier in 1987, and the memories of the Turkish invasion were raw then and continued to hurt deeply when I returned in 2000.

Two refugee boys from Northern Cyprus huddled in a tent

At the time I bought this print in Nicosia, I was hurt and broken as it reminded me of my own two sons back home in Dublin, and I fretted and prayed about their future.

After framing the print, I came across a copy of the original photograph of the two boys who inspired this print or painting. It is still heart-breaking. I wonder whatever happened to these boys, who must now be in their mid-40s, and I still pray for them.

But the plight of the refugees in the Mediterranean still lives with us, and that image continue to remind me to speak up today for the refugees and to condemn our poor response to their plight and needs.

Old photographs are
reminders of the story
of the Jews of Corfu

The Holocaust Memorial by Georgios Karahalios (2001) remembers the 2000 Jews of Corfu who were murdered in Auschwitz in 1944 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

As I continue to sift through old files and photographs from discs that I once thought lost but that have now been recovered and transferred to a memory stick, I have come across photographs I took in Corfu 12 years ago when I was one of the lecturers at the Durrell School of Corfu and that year’s summer seminar, ‘The Emergence of Modern Greece: Politics, Literature and Society’ (21-27 May 2006).

The photographs include some of the 2001 Holocaust Memorial, with its harrowing bronze statues by Georgios Karahalios, and they reminded me of the stories and history of the Jews of Corfu.

In the past, I have written about the Jewish communities in Athens, Thessaloniki, Rhodes, Rethymnon, Chania, and Zakynthos, so it was good to be reminded in the past few days of the centuries-long stories and traditions of the Jewish Community in Corfu.

The remnants of the former Jewish Ghetto are found beneath the walls of the New Fortress, a stark reminder of the once vibrant community that lived in Corfu Town for almost a millennium. All that remains of the vital Jewish presence in Corfu today is a small and highly assimilated community, numbering about 80 Jews, most survivors of the Holocaust, and La Scuola Greca Synagogue, built in the 18th century and still standing in what was once the ‘Jewish Ghetto.’

The first written evidence of Jews in Corfu is found in the ‘Itinerary’ of the Spanish Rabbi Benjamin Ben Yonah or Benjamin de Tudela, who wrote that during his visit to Corfu in the 12th century he met a lone Jewish dyer named Joseph.

The first Jews in Corfu came first from Romaniote or Greek-speaking communities in the Balkans, and Corfu became a centre for study of the Torah in the 13th century. In 1267, ‘numerous Jews lived in the island.’ Corfu was conquered that year by the House of Anjou (1267-1336), which passed decrees to protect the Jewish community.

At times, the Jews of Corfu were persecuted by both Byzantine and Angevin rulers, but in the 14th century they obtained some rights, including documents of protection and exemption from most taxes.

Since the earlier years the native ‘Romaniote’ Jews of Corfu lived on Kambielou hill, later called Ovriovouni, Ioudaico Oros, or Hebraida (‘Jewish Hill’ or ‘Mount Judaic’). It is still known by this name today.

The Venetians occupied Corfu from 1387 until 1797. In 1425, they forced the Jews to live among the Gentiles in Corfu. In 1492, some of the Sephardic Jews who were expelled from Spain settled in Corfu. They were joined in 1494 by Jews who had been expelled from Apulia in Italy.

In the narrow streets of Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The first synagogue built by these immigrants, Kahal Kadosh Italiano Corfiato, or Poulieza, was destroyed in 1537. Another synagogue, Vecchia or Midrash, was built in the Jewish quarter on Palaiologou Street.

The new immigrants wished to integrate into the local Romaniote or Greek-speaking community. However, the Romaniotes feared they would lose the privileges they had gained under Venetian rule, and the immigrants formed the new ‘Apulian’ community in 1551. They lived within the citadel and had their own synagogue and cemetery.

When the Venetian State decided to expel the Jews from its territory in 1571, the Jews of Corfu were exempted because, according to the resolution of the Senate, ‘this Jewish Community has proved beneficial to the city and to the island.’

In 1589, some former Marranos from Portugal, led by Don Samuel Senor, also settled in Corfu.

The Venetians passed a decree in 1602 imposing a ‘badge’ on Jews – a yellow cap for men and a yellow head cover for women, or a round yellow badge.

Some Jews on Corfu owned land, including vineyards. Others prospered under Venetian rule, lending money to the Venetian rulers, providing provisions for the army and even joining the ranks, and financed public works, including building a bridge.

The ‘General Pronoitis of the Seas’ imposed a harsher decree in 1622, forcing the Jews to move permanently to a ghetto that today includes Vilissariou Street, Aghias Sophias Street and Palaiologou Street.

In this densely populated area with many shops, Jews began developing their religious life and professional activities, but additional decrees were introduced in 1707. Yet Jews played a leading role in the financial, social, spiritual and patriotic life of the island.

Jews contributed to the Venetian war effort during the Turkish siege of Corfu in 1716, Isaac Abdelah fought against the Turks, Daniel Bessos fought in the Battles of Bizanio and Solomon Mordos fought on the Albanian Front. The date the siege ended, 6 August, was celebrated in the synagogue.

The Romaniote cemetery was on Avramiou Hill, towards the slope of the new citadel. This area was donated by Marshal Scholemburg ‘as a gesture of gratitude to the Jews for their bravery and gallantry during the Turkish siege in 1716.’ The Sephardic cemetery was in the Saroko area, near the Monastery of Platytera. It was ceded by the Venetians in 1502 in return of land.

The Venetian decrees were abolished when the Democratic French occupied Corfu in 1797-1799. More Jews came from Italy and the Ottoman Empire, and by 1802 the Jewish community had grown to 1,229, out of a population of 45,000 on Corfu. The new privileges and freedoms were still valid when Napoleon occupied the island in 1807.

The Liston is part of the British architectural legacy in Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The British seized Corfu and the other Ionian islands in 1814, limiting some of the Jews’ privileges. A ‘blood libel’ in 1856 led to continuing attacks on Jewish homes and businesses. The fate of the 4,000 Jews rapidly worsened, due to a series of discriminatory measures, including the loss of the right to vote.

When the Romaniote Jews left the Kahal Kadosh Toshavim or ‘Greca’ Synagogue on Ovriovouni, during British rule, they built the Nuova or New Synagogue, which his still open today on 4 Velissariou Street.

Jews supported the integration of Corfu and the other Ionian islands into the modern Greece state on 2 June 1864, and the Greek state granted the Jews of Corfu equal rights with the rest of the population. Since then, the Romaniote and Apulian communities that had once been separate, have integrated. At least three Jews joined the city council, and Eliias da Mordo became a deputy mayor and in 1870 he became Mayor of Corfu.

In the late 19th century, the Jewish population numbered almost 5,000 people, most of them poor and some working in menial jobs. They spoke a mixture of Greek, Hebrew and Pugliese Italian. The wage earners among them were porters, street vendors and the owners of small shops. Education was minimal, with most young men leaving school to help their parents raise large families, and most young girls never attending school.

This is the community that produced Lazarus Mordos, a prominent doctor, the Olivetti family of typewriter fame, Albert Cohen, the famous poet and the grandparents of George Moustaki, the internationally acclaimed French singer.

In 1891, the Jewish Community – then about 5,000 people – suffered another series of attacks stirred by a second ‘Blood Libel,’ and fuelled by religious superstitions, commercial competition and political interests.

Ironically, the young murdered girl, Rebecca Sardas, was Jewish. But the mob attacked Jews and looted houses and shops. Over half the community moved abroad, mainly to Egypt, but also to France, Italy and England. Those who were left behind were the poorest and the least able. Two further ‘blood libels’ in 1915 and 1918 caused further emigration, and some Jews left for Palestine.

Despite the community’s financial difficulties, the Talmud Torah school continued holding sessions until the early 20th century. In 1915, the Chief Rabbi, Abraham Schreiber, assisted by teacher Moissis Haimis, founded an evening school for the needy Jewish pupils who were offered free meals. The number of pupils rose from 30 to 230. Rabbi Schreiber founded a Rabbinical School in 1925.

In the Jewish school, the subjects included Hebrew, Italian and Greek language. In 1939-1940, 208 boys and girls were at the elementary school and 76 at the kindergarten.

The novelist and playwright Albert Cohen (1895-1985), who lived most of his life in Geneva and wrote in French, was born Avraham Cohen in Corfu in 1895. The family left for France in 1900. A large plaque on the synagogue’s outer wall bears the inscription: ‘A child was born in this neighbourhood and here he took his first steps. That child was Albert Cohen.’

He is the author of a trilogy about the Jews of Kephalonia, but his masterpiece id Belle du Seigneur, set in Geneva in the 1930s and published in English as Her Lover .

The French singer and songwriter Georges Moustaki was born in Alexandria to parents from Corfu. Two of his songs are said to have become resistance hymns to the Greek military junta.

Lawrence Durrell, his brother, Gerald, and other members of their family moved to Corfu in 1935. Prospero’s Cell: A Guide to the Landscape and Manners of the Island of Corcyra is Durrell’s coming-of-age memoir. He married Eve Cohen, of Alexandria, and later married Claude-Marie Vincendon, a descendent of the Montefiore family.

Church and State come together in Corfu to remember the island’s incorporation into the modern Greek state (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

At the outbreak of World War II, the Jewish community of Corfu numbered around 2,000, most of them elderly or young children.

After the fall of Italian fascism in 1943, the Nazis took control of the island and Corfu’s mayor at the time, Kollas, was a known collaborator. The Nazis formed the occupation government, and additional anti-Semitic laws were passed. By April 1944, the Germans had lists of all the Jews, who had to attend frequent roll calls on the Spianada or esplanade.

The last rabbi to hold office in Corfu was Rabbi Yakov Nehama (1931-1944), was arrested by the Nazis and was deported to Auschwitz, where he died on 8 June 1944.

In early June 1944, the Allies bombed Corfu as a diversion from the Normandy landings. The end of World War II was in sight. But on 8 June 1944, two days after D-Day, an ordinance was passed ordering all Jews to remain in their homes.

On 9 June, about 1,800 Jews were brought to the Kato Plateia (lower square) and then held in the nearby Old Fortress, where they were forced to hand over their valuables. On 10 June, the Nazis rounded up prepared to deport the men, women and children to extermination camps and slave labour camps.

About 200 Jews managed to flee, and many local people provided them with shelter and refuge. But the rest were held at first in the Old Venetian Fortress in dank, cramped quarters. By 17 June, all had been taken in small boats to Athens to begin a long overland journey by train. The final destination was Auschwitz-Birkenau, where 1,600 of the Jews of Corfu were immediately sent to the gas chambers.

By 17 June 1944, the Jewish people were taken in small boats from Corfu to Athens to begin the journey Auschwitz-Birkenau (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The mayor of Corfu issued a proclamation, thanking the Germans for ridding the island of the Jews so that the economy of the island would revert to its ‘rightful owners.’ Their homes and shops back on Corfu were looted.

Farewell My Island, a brief documentary by Isaac Dostis, relates the roundup and deportation of the Jews from Corfu and includes survivor testimonies in Greek, with English subtitles. It is 22 minutes long, precisely the time it took to get from the roundup area to the deportation barges.

The losses were significant on islands like Corfu, Crete or Rhodes, where most of the Jewish population were deported and killed. In contrast, larger percentages of Jews were able to survive in places where the local population was helpful and hid persecuted Jews, including Athens, Larissa and Zakynthos.

Of the 1,900 Jews of Corfu, about 180 survived the Holocaust. Many of them emigrated to Israel or settled in big cities. In 1946, the Jewish community of Corfu had 140 members, and the synagogue and the school were almost ruined. In time, the community re-formed and resumed normal life.

The few survivors were joined in Corfu by survivors from other places, in total 185 people. By 1948, there were only 125 Jews, and by 1958 only about 85.

In the narrow streets of Corfu, close to the offices of the Durrell School (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Corfu has about 60-65 Jews today, including doctors, engineers, mathematicians and business figures. Only a few Jews live in the ghetto, an area still known as Evraiki (Jewish). The community celebrates Passover together with a Seder and services, and a cantor from abroad leads High Holiday prayers in the synagogue, but there is no regular minyan. The last Jewish wedding was in 1993.

A prominent area in the old town is known to this day as Evraiki, meaning the Hebrews’ or the Jews’ suburb, recognising the Jewish contribution and continued presence in Corfu city. But little is left of the Jewish quarter today: the shells of bombed-out buildings, former shops, and one active synagogue, the only one of the three synagogues at the time of the Holocaust.

The Greek synagogue or La Scuola Greca is on Velisariou Street, next to the former Talmud Torah. The synagogue (open daily from 10 to 4) is a yellow stucco, two-storey building with a gabled roof, dating from the 18th century.

In Venetian style, it dates back to the 17th century. The prayer room is located on the second floor, with a section for women on the mezzanine. The tevah and aron kodesh, made of wood with a Corinthian colonnade, face each other to the west and east, in a style similar to the synagogue in Chania in Crete.

Outside the Church of Aghios Spyridon, the patron saint of the island, a bust commemorates the late Bishop Methodius, who used to attend all holiday services at the Greek synagogue.

There was a special kaddish for the Jews of Corfu, followed by a candlelight procession, at a reunion of Corfiote Jews and their descendants on 10 June 2002, 58 years after the deportation of the Jews of Corfu. A memorial plaque with the family names of those who died in the Holocaust was installed in the synagogue.

Research by the Association of Friends of Greek Jewry (AFGJ) documented these family names: Akkos, Alchavas, Amar, Aron, Asias, Asser, Bakolas, Balestra, Baruch, Ben Giat, Besso, Cavaliero, Chaim, Dalmedigos, Dentes, Ftan, Elias, Eliezer, Eskapas, Ferro, Fortes, Ganis, Gerson, Israel, Johanna,Koen, Kolonimos, Konstantinis, Koulias, Lemous, Leoncini, Levi, Matathias, Matsas, Minervo, Mizan, Mordos, Moustaki, Nachon, Nechamas, Negrin, Osmos, Ovadiah, Perez, Pitson, Politis, Raphael, Sardas, Sasen, Serneine, Sinigalli, Soussis, Tsesana, Varon, Vellelis, Vivante, Vital and Vitali.

In an arson attack on the synagogue at Passover in 2011, some prayer books were destroyed.

Off Solomou Street, in Plateia Neou Frouriou (New Fortress Square), just in front of the wall of the New Fortress, stands the bronze Holocaust memorial. The sculpture by Georgios Karahalios on a stone base was erected in 2001 by the city and the Jewish community.

The sculpture shows a naked woman who cradles an infant while a naked man seems helpless in protecting a boy who hides his face in the man’s thigh.

The Holocaust memorial was dedicated on 25 November 2001.

A plaque at the base memorial reads:

Never again for any nation

Dedicated to the memory of the
2000 Jews of Corfu who perished
in the Nazi concentration camps of
Auschwitz and Birkenau in June 1944
by the Municipality
and the Jewish Community of Corfu
November 2001

Outside the Church of Aghios Spyridon, a bust commemorates Bishop Methodius, who attended all holiday services at the Greek synagogue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

28 August 2018

My ‘Autumn Almanac’ on
an afternoon in Askeaton

Autumn colours in the Rectory Garden in Askeaton this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

As I go for my afternoon walks around Askeaton or in the fields behind the rectory gardens, I notice since the heavy rain last weekend that the trees are now turning to autumn colours, the skies are grey for a considerable part of the day, and already the evenings are beginning to close in.

Earlier today, at lunchtime, I heard Ronan Collins on RTÉ play ‘Autumn Almanac’ and although this was a hit for the Kinks back in 1967, it seemed so appropriate on an autumn afternoon.

There are some songs remain with me despite the passing of the decades, and even half a century later I found myself singing along to the lyrics of ‘Autumn Almanac,’ remembering all the words, and associating it with so many places I knew in the years immediately after this was a hit.

For people of my generation, the 1960s are still recalled with more than a twinkle. For me, 1969 was the year I finished school, and if 1968 was the year of revolution, then 1967 gave us ‘the Summer of Love.’

I can recall how much fun I got from the songs of the Kinks in my late teens in the late 1960s, at school, and then as I set out on the road to become a journalist, making freelance contributions to the Lichfield Mercury and using Lichfield as a base as I hitch-hiked across England before joining the staff of the Wexford People.

Morning lights on a stroll along Beacon Street in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

‘Autumn Almanac’ still sounds so English that this afternoon it instantly brought back all those memories.

The song was written by Ray Davies and recorded by the Kinks in 1967. Some writers have placed this and other songs by Davies in the pastoral-Romantic tradition of the poetry of Wordsworth, among others.

The years 1964-1967 marked the most successful period for the Kinks. Ray Davies became something of a social commentator, with his observations on Swinging London in ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion,’ the urban environment in ‘Waterloo Sunset,’ the impact of Harold Wilson’s taxation policies on the rich in ‘Sunny Afternoon,’ and his description of traditional working-class lifestyles in ‘Autumn Almanac.’

His songs from that period are so English, that Ray Davies performed ‘Waterloo Station’ at the closing ceremony for the London 2012 Olympics, describing it as his love letter to the city.

Ray Davies later said Autumn Almanac’ was inspired by a local hunchbacked gardener in Muswell Hill, where he grew up in North London. It was a big success in the UK, reaching No 3 on the singles chart, but in the US it failed to reach the Billboard Hot 100.

‘Autumn Almanac’ captures perfectly working-class English life in the autumn in the late 1960s: tending the garden, never moving away too far from where you grew up, holidays in Blackpool, meeting your friends in the pub on a rainy Friday evening, enjoying football on a Saturday afternoon, roast beef on Sundays, tea and toasted buttered currant buns … and bemoaning the fact that we never had a proper summer this year.

As I heard those words, ‘This is my street, and I’m never going to leave it,’ I instantly found myself transported back to Beacon Street, my favourite street in Lichfield. But I moved on, and I think the singer is saying that everyone who hears his song needs to move on too.

And this evening, as I remember my holidays in Greece this summer, I also know that ‘tea and toasted, buttered currant buns can’t compensate for lack of sun.’

From the dew-soaked hedge creeps a crawly caterpillar
When the dawn begins to crack,
It’s all part of my autumn almanac
Breeze blows leaves of a musty-coloured yellow
So I sweep them in my sack,
Yes, yes, yes, it’s my autumn almanac

Friday evenings, people get together
Hiding from the weather,
Tea and toasted buttered currant buns,
Can’t compensate for lack of sun
Because the summer’s all gone

La la la la, oh my poor rheumatic back
Yes, yes, yes, it’s my autumn almanac
La la la la, oh my autumn almanac
Yes, yes, yes, it’s my autumn almanac

I like my football on a Saturday
Roast beef on Sundays, all right
I go to Blackpool for my holidays
Sit in the open sunlight

This is my street and I’m never gonna to leave it
And I’m always gonna to stay here if I live to be ninety-nine
’Cause all the people I meet,
Seem to come from my street
And I can’t get away because it’s calling me, come on home
Hear it calling me, come on home

La la la la, oh my autumn almanac
Yes, yes, yes, it’s my autumn almanac
La la la la, oh my autumn almanac
Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes
Bop bop bop bop bop, whoa
Bop bop bop bop bop, whoa

Autumn colours in the fields behind the Rectory in Askeaton this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Reading a play by Euripides
again as a commentary on
a Sunday Gospel reading

Iokasti, a restaurant in Koutouloufari in Crete … are there comparisons between Iocasta and her daughter in ‘The Phoenician Women’ and the Greek-speaking Syro-Phoenician woman in Saint Mark’s Gospel? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I am preparing a set of reflections, liturgical resources, sermon ideas and related hymns for the clergy and readers of Limerick and Killaloe for Sunday morning [9 September 2018], when the Gospel reading tells the story of the Canaanite or Syro-Phoenician woman who meets Christ in the region of Tyre and Sidon (Mark 7: 24-37).

The NRSV translation says she is ‘a Gentile, a Syrophoenician origin’ (verse 26). But the original Greek text describes her as ‘a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth’ (ἦν Ἑλληνίς, Συροφοινίκισσα τῷ γένει), which is reflected in the Authorised Version or King James Version, which says the ‘woman was a Greek, a Syrophenician by nation,’ and the NIV, which says the ‘woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia.’

As I was reading and preparing my reflections on these readings, I found myself returning to a blog posting from seven years ago, written as I found myself re-reading one of the great Greek tragedies, The Phoenician Woman by Euripides, in preparation for a sermon in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, on the parallel account of this encounter in Saint Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 15: 10-28).

In both the play by Euripides and these Gospel stories, we encounter Phoenician women; we are confronted with a mother who speaks up for her daughter while the majority of men in the drama appear to be disinterested and self-centred; we are forced to ask questions about the outsider and the stranger; and we also face questions about human-sacrifice and the proper exercise of kingship and when to abandon power and privilege.

In stimulating the audience to empathy, and to see the world through the eyes of others, especially the ‘weaker’ or lesser in status among the members of society, Euripides invites us to create the compassion and understanding that are necessary to healthy relationships between family members, members of the city or country, and members of other nations.

Introduction to the play:

The Theatre of Dionysus beneath the slopes of the Acropolis in Athens … the tragedies and comedies of the great playwrights, Euripides, Aeschylus and Sophocles, were first performed here (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The play The Phoenician Women (Φοίνισσαι, Phoinissai), a tragedy by Euripides, was written between 411 and 409 or even 408 BC, in the aftermath of a major defeat of Athens, then facing a military disaster. The play is one of three representing the final period of tragic despair in the work of Euripides: Orestes, The Phoenician Women and Bacchae.

Euripides was a popular playwright who made a controversial but compelling case in Athens for rethinking the great war with Sparta, a war that, in some ways, was a product of Athenian aggression. In The Phoenician Women, the horrors of war are central, and the play is permeated by the ethical ambiguities of fraternal conflict.

The play was very popular throughout antiquity, becoming part of the so-called ‘Byzantine Triad’ of plays, along with Hecuba and Orestes, studied in the school curriculum.

The Phoenician Women is a variant by Euripides on the story as told by Aeschylus in his play, Seven Against Thebe, in which the sons of Oedipus, Polynices and Eteocles fight for the crown of Thebes, ultimately killing each other. However, in the version of the myth by Euripides, Iocasta has not yet committed suicide.

The play’s title, of course, is misleading. It refers not to the principal women in the play, Iocasta and her daughter Antigone, but to the members of the Chorus. Traditionally in classical Greek tragedy, the chorus is a group of wizened old men. But, in this play, Euripides makes the Chorus a group of Phoenician women who are on their way from Tyre to Delphi, but who are accidentally trapped in Thebes by the war.

Unlike the chorus in some other plays by Euripides, the chorus in this play does not have a significant role in the plot, but represents the innocent and neutral people who are often trapped in the middle of war.

Euripides is unique too among the writers of ancient Athens for the sympathy he shows towards all victims of society, including women and foreigners. His conservative male audiences were frequently shocked by the ‘heresies’ he puts into the mouths of his characters.

He is the great democratiser of drama, making his choruses women on occasion. He is not alone in doing this, however, and in Eumenides Aeschylus makes his chorus represent the female furies. But Euripides goes further by making the chorus foreign women. His audience would immediately recognise the lack of status of such a group, lowered in their eyes by being both women and foreigners.

The audience would ask why Euripides names the play after an anonymous group of characters who not part of the main action. But perhaps the playwright is asking us to see the world through a different set of eyes.

In keeping with the tone of moral ambiguity that separates Euripides from Aeschylus and Sophocles, the two other great writers of Greek tragedy, he builds a powerful family drama around deep existential questions, and raises more questions for us than he answers:

● Is treachery every justified?
● Should all promises be kept?
● Is the life of a family member worth more than the fate of a city?
● Is it fate or human weakness that perpetuates suffering?

The cast:

The Odeon or Theatre of Herodes Atticus on the southern slopes of the Acropolis … ‘The Phoenician Women’ has been staged here regularly (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Oedipus (Οἰδίπους): the disgraced and former King of Thebes. He has blinded himself after learning that he has killed his father and married his mother. Now Oedipus lives as a self-imposed prisoner in the royal palace, cursing himself, his family, and especially his two sons, Eteocles and Polynices.

Iocasta (Iοκαστη): the wife and mother of Oedipus, and former Queen of Thebes. She has been shamed by the revelation that she has married her son, and now lives in mourning in the palace. Her sons are on the brink of war, and Iocasta, though disgraced, is the one character who appears capable of brokering a truce.

Polynices (Πολυνείκης): the second son of Oedipus and Iocasta, his name means ‘Much Strife.’ He goes into voluntary exile in order to share the throne with his brother, Eteocles. After the passage of a year, however, Eteocles refuses to give up the throne. Polynices marries into the royal family of Argos and raises an army against his former city, demanding his brother’s abdication.

Eteocles (Ἐτεοκλῆς): the elder son of Oedipus and Iocasta, his name means ‘Truly Glorious.’ He ascended the throne when Oedipus was disgraced, agreeing to abdicate after a year and go into exile so that his brother Polynices could return to rule. After a year, Eteocles refuses to share power, provoking a civil war that threatens to engulf Thebes. He shares his father’s and his brother’s short temper.

Antigone (Ἀντιγόνη): the elder daughter of Oedipus and Iocasta, but younger than her two brothers, her name means ‘unbending.’ She shares her brothers’ temper, but not their propensity for breaking oaths. She has been largely removed from the family intrigue.

Ismene (Ἰσμήνη): the younger daughter of Oedipus. She is milder and more innocent than her sister, Antigone. She too has largely been sheltered from the family’s tragedy due to her young age.

Creon (Κρέων): Iocasta’s brother and a member of the original ruling family in Thebes before the arrival of Oedipus. Creon has great political influence in Thebes, where he has sided mainly with Eteocles. Creon is prudent but opportunistic, and simultaneously tries to distance himself from the stigma surrounding his sister’s family while using the opportunities he finds to increase his power and influence.

Eurydice (Εὐρυδίκη): the wife of Creon and the mother of Heamon and Menoeceus. She is more cautious than her husband and seems to be acutely aware of the danger of trying to profit from political turmoil.

Haemon (Αἴμων): the elder son of Creon and Eurydice, he is betrothed to Antigone. He is mild-mannered and is largely deferential to his father.

Menoeceus (Μενοικεύς): the youngest son of Creon and Eurydice, he is named after his grandfather, Menoeceus, who was King of Thebes before Laius, Oedipus’ father and Iocasta’s first husband and Oedipus. He is admirably moral and selfless, somewhat unlike his father.

Teiresias (Τειρεσίας): a powerful but blind seer or prophet of Thebes, he is blessed and cursed with the ability to see the future. He is something of a social pariah after revealing the true parents of Oedipus. Yet, Teiresias continues to hold considerable influence in Thebes. His prophecies are always true but rarely welcome. Because he is wary of the temper of Oedipus and his family, he is often hesitant to share his insights for fear of the repercussions.

The Messenger: a captain in the Theban armies, serving under Eteocles.

The Tutor: in charge of Antigone.

The Phoenician Women (Φοίνισσαι): the Chorus of women who give their name to the play. They are on their way to Delphi to serve Apollo as attendants, but the looming civil war in Thebes leaves them stranded, and so they become the chorus in the play.

Outline of the play:

The Phoenician Women begins a year after the events dramatised by Sophocles in Oedipus Rex. Iocasta, who is still alive in Euripides’ version of the myth, laments the tragedy of her family’s past and future as her two sons, Polynices and Eteocles, get their armies ready to fight for control of Thebes.

The play opens with a prologue in which Iocasta, the Queen of Thebes, summarises the story of Oedipus and the city of Thebes. She tells how her husband blinded himself when he discovered that he was also her son. She then explains how their sons Eteocles and Polynices have locked Oedpius away in the palace, hoping the people might forget what has happened.

Oedpius, however, curses the two brothers, proclaiming that neither shall rule without killing the other brother. In an attempt to avert this prophecy, Polynices and Eteocles agree to rule for one year each in turn.

After this monologue by Iocasta, the play moves to a dramatic τειχοσκοπία (teichoskopia), a ‘viewing from the walls.’ This literary motif or device is first used by Homer in the Iliad (Book 3, 161-244), where Helen describes the Greeks to her father-in-law, King Priam. In The Phoenician Women, it is a young girl, Iocasta’s daughter, Antigone, who asks the questions, and an old servant who has the answers.

Their back-and-forth questions-and-answers concern the army from Argos camped outside the city gates. Through listening to this conversation, the audience is invited to see through their minds’ eyes the great warriors and their devices. In this way, Euripides makes a virtue out of necessity, for large armies could not be depicted on an Athenian stage. Through this conversation, we experience war and siege through the eyes of a little child.

However, after the first year, Eteocles refuses to allow his brother to rule for his year, and instead forces him into exile instead. In his forced exiled, Polynices goes to Argos, where he marries the daughter of the King of Argos, Adrastus, and persuades Adrastus to send a force to help him reclaim Thebes.

Iocasta arranges for a ceasefire so that she can try to mediate between her two sons. She asks Polynices about his life in exile, and then listens to the arguments of both brothers.

This three-pronged argon is a heated and formal argument, although in previous plays Euripides had staged such arguments between two parties. Here, we have three parties: Iocasta, Polynices and Eteocles.

Polynices, who has come to attack Thebes with the support of the forces sent by his father-in-law, King Creon of Argos, arrives first. His mother Iocasta asks him questions about his status as a foreigner in Argos.

Through this series of back-and-forth questions-and-answers – the second in the play – we are invited to empathise with the weaker members of society, which for Euripides are the foreigners in Athenian society. This brings to mind some of the the thoughts in the Old Testament reading on Sunday week; ‘Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate’ (Proverbs 22: 22).

Polynices explains again that he has been defrauded and is the rightful king. This is a departure from the convention, for traditionally he was seen as the brother who is more to blame for the conflict.

Eteocles, in turn, says he desires power above all else and will not surrender it unless he is forced to. He is shown to be both greedy and impious, for he cares for the gods only when they are of service to him.

Iocasta reprimands them both. She warns Eteocles that his ambition may end up destroying the city. And she reprimands Polynices for bringing an army to sack the city he loves.

But the two brothers reject her advice. Having argued at length, they are unable to agree, and war is inevitable.

Eteocles then meets his uncle Creon to plan for the coming battle.

A third staging of questions-and-answers comes when Creon rejects each one of the suggestions for repelling the forces of Argos. Eteoocles has all the questions, and Creon has all the answers. Creon tries to allow Eteocles to come up with a viable strategy that he thinks is his own.

The chorus now breaks into song, and some scholars believe that we have here an attempt by Euripides at genuine Semitic poetry.

The singing of the chorus is followed by the entrance of the old blind prophet, Teiresias. The introduction of a blind ‘seer’ is clever device by Euripides. And he turns things further when he has Teiresias rely on the support of his young daughter. This is a scene borrowed from Sophocles’ use of Antigone to support Oedipus, but Sophocles has Teiresias led not by a boy, but by a girl.

Eteocles asks Creon to petition Teiresias for advice, and he delivers his usual oracle – only human sacrifice can save the day. Creon is advised that he must kill his son Menoeceus – who is the only pure-blooded descendant from the founding of the city by Cadmus – as a sacrifice to Ares, the god of war, in order to save the city. Perhaps the original audience realised Euripides was poking fun at the religion of the day and the way in which oracles were often inhumane in their demands.

Certainly, Creon finds he is unable to comply with the oracle and orders his son to flee to the oracle at Dodona. However, Menoeceus secretly goes to the serpent’s lair instead to sacrifice himself to appease Ares.

Battle then begins off-stage, and we are informed of the progress of the battle through a messenger who reports to Iocasta and tells her that her sons have agreed to fight in single combat for the throne. He gives a vivid, blow-by-blow account that is almost like a live news update on a television news channel today, and in his eye-witness account he gives details of all the action.

Mother and daughter, Iocasta and Antigone, rush to the battle scene to try to stop them, but the brothers have already fought and wounded each other mortally. Both express their regrets, and Polynices is particularly poignant when he says, ‘My friend became my enemy, but the bond between us remained.’

Again, Euripides invites us to consider how important it is to see the world through the eyes of others. He has each brother say a quick prayer to a god before charging the other in a killing that would earn the disapproval of the gods. Then, ‘both men breathed out their wretched lives as one.’

Iocasta, who is overcome with grief, kills herself, leaving Antigone without a mother.

Iocasta’s daughter Antigone enters, lamenting the fate of her brothers.

She is followed by the blind old Oedipus, who is also told of the tragic events.

All this is reported to Creon by a messenger in a speech. Out of the power vacuum, Creon conveniently comes out on top of the political order in Thebes and he assumes control of the city. He banishes Oedipus from Thebes, and he orders that Eteocles – but not Polynices – should be buried honourably in the city.

Antigone fights Creon over this order and because of this she breaks off her engagement to Creon’s son Haemon. She decides to accompany her father into exile, and the play ends with them leaving for Athens.

Classical masks from the theatre in Athens on display in the Acropolis Museum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The challenges posed by Euripides

This is a politically radical and subversive play. Through his portrayal of the war between the two brothers, a war that is so bad it brings sorrow even to the Phoenician women in the chorus, Euripides clearly intends to undermine public support in Athens for the war with Sparta.

Patriotism is a significant theme in the story, as Polynices talks a great deal about his love for the city of Thebes but has brought an army to destroy it. Creon is also forced to make a choice between saving the city and saving the life of his son.

The constant prayers to Pallas Athena, the patron of Athens, by Polynices, challenge inherited perceptions and values that could be expected among the audience.

In an earlier play, The Suppliant Women, Euripides had made Theseus articulate the reasons for not going to war, with his mother speaking in favour of war.

In The Phoenician Women, it is the mother and sister – women, like the chorus – who argue passionately against war and for peace.

As members of the audience, we are challenged to have empathy with and to see the world through the eyes of others, especially those who are weaker or have a lower status in society – advice that runs through the New Testament reading for Sunday week with consistent constancy (see James 2: 1-17). Euripides invites us to have the compassion and understanding necessary for healthy relationships between family members, and between the members of society.

The end of The Phoenician Women poses problems, like the ending of Saint Mark’s Gospel. There is a ‘long ending’ in some manuscripts, with imported material that tries to harmonise the story with the way it is told by Sophocles in his Theban plays, particularly Antigone.

Some scholars would remove parts of this, giving us a ‘short ending,’ while others regard the play as we have it as finished and complete.

‘This day has initiated a tide of suffering for the house of Oedipus. May our lives be blessed with happier fortune!’ say the chorus. The principal actors in the drama, mother and sons, are dead. Oedipus, who had cursed his sons, is brought to repentance, and the concluding wish is paralleled by similar endings in Greek tragedy. Nothing further needs to be said.

Through his use of back-and-forth series of questions and answers, Euripides invites us, the audience, to empathise with the weaker members of society, the women, especially foreign foreigners. They have distinctly fewer rights in Athens than native Athenian citizens. But The Phoenician Women also challenges us in the audience to consider our own biases, with the play’s constant emphasis on the importance of recognising the limitations of one’s own point of view.

Some Gospel parallels

The Syro-Phoenician Woman … a modern icon by Brother Robert Lentz, OFM

In the Gospel story on Sunday week, we have an encounter between Jewish culture and Hellenistic culture. But in The Phoenician Women we also come across what may be an interesting encounter between Hellenistic culture and Semitic culture as Euripides appears to make a genuine attempt at Semitic poetry.

For further Gospel parallels in The Phoenician Women, we might also consider:

● The king who weeps over the death of his son;

● The king who goes into voluntary exile to share the kingdom with his brother;

● The blind prophet who delivers his usual oracle that only human sacrifice can save the day;
● The competition for power and privilege between two brothers in the play and the ambition of the mother of the sons of Zebedee for James and John in the kingdom;

● The Pieta-like image of the woman mourning the death of her sons;

● Our understanding of sacrifice and atonement.

Actors promoting a theatrical performance of classical drama in the square at Monastiraki in Athens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)


Like next Sunday week’s Gospel story, the play asks whether it is fate or human weakness that perpetuates suffering.

In stimulating the audience to empathy, to see the world through the eyes of others, especially the ‘weaker’ or lesser in status members of society, Euripides invites us to create the compassion and understanding that are necessary for healthy relationships between family members, members of the city or country, and members of nations.

At the end of the play, in Andrew Wilson’s translation, Oedipus says to Antigone: ‘Go up to the mountains, where Dionysus’ Sanctuary is kept holy, by the young girls who’ve dedicated their lives to him …’ But Antigone replies: ‘Dionysus? The god I put a doeskin on for, and danced myself into a stupor up the side of a mountain? I honoured his mother, Semele – put in all that effort for the gods – And what did they ever give me in return?’

These were shocking, if not sacrilegious and blasphemous words in their time, for the play was first staged in the Theatre of Dionysus on the slopes of the Acropolis, where the front-row seats were reserved for the priests of Dionysus.

When the Syro-Phoenician woman confronts Christ on behalf of her daughter in the Gospel on Sunday week reading, has she already prayed in the same way and so much to other gods that she now expects nothing on behalf of her daughter?

This posting is based on an earlier essay posted on this blog on 9 August 2011.

A table for one at Iokasti, a restaurant in the mountain village of Koutouloufari in Crete recalls the play by Euripides (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)