Tuesday, 30 April 2019

Amid all the changes,
some things stay the
same in Rethymnon

Sunset at Rethymnon in Crete last night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019; click on image for full-screen view)

Patrick Comerford

I have said often that one of my glimpses of heaven is watching the sun set behind the Fortezza in Rethymnon.

Although this is still late Spring, the tourist season is still not up and running and snow still covers the tops of the mountains in Crete, there is a feeling of summer in the air, and I went to Rethymnon last night to enjoy the sunset and to walk around the old harbour and the marina.

When I first stayed in Rethymnon in the late 1980s, I spent three weeks in a private apartment overlooking the pier at the end of the small, horseshoe-shaped town beach. There were small beach bars on the beach back then and I learned to swim in its crystal-clear waters. The pier at the east end of the beach was little used, and most of fishing, pleasure and commercial boats in Rethymnon tied up in the old harbour.

Over three decades later, the Marina of Rethymnon is a large port zone with a capacity of 176 vessels, land facilities, large car parks, and mooring for cruise ships and passenger ferries.

Modern sculpture on exhibition at the Marina in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Fishing boats have been encouraged to move here from the old harbour, with facilities to sell their catch, mend their nets and repair the boats. Two tourist pleasure boats in the style of ‘pirate ships’ are moored here too, although I imagine they may move back into the old harbour as the high season approaches.

The new piers feature exhibitions of modern sculpture, children use the vast open areas to skate and cycle, and it is a place for families to promenade in the evening before sunset.

The old town beach, squeezed now between the Marina and the Old Harbour, has all but disappeared, the water has lost its appealing quality, and no-one would think of swimming here today. Indeed, a sign prohibiting swimming here has fallen over and is partly covered in sand.

Lost in the sands of time … an old sign prohibiting swimming and diving at the old town beach (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

And yet, the water in the marina must have been clean, as I spotted a sea turtle slowly swimming between the boats and raising his head.

‘There is nothing permanent except change,’ according to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who maintained that change is the only reality in nature. Of course, Plato criticised Heraclitus, arguing that if something is constantly in a state of change, it ceases to be real or meaningful.

But, amid all the changes, some things seem to remain constant. As the sun set behind the old harbour, the features that stood out against the skyline included the old Venetian Fortezza, the old Venetian harbour with the lighthouse built by the Egyptians in the 1830s after the Turks briefly handed Crete over to the Egyptians, and the Ottoman minaret of the Nerantze mosque – planned as the tallest minaret in the East Mediterranean, with the snow-capped White Mountains (Λευκά Όρη, Lefka Ori) in the distance to the east.

The lighthouse at the old harbour was built by the Egyptians in the 1830s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

We walked around the harbour and below the Fortezza as darkness began to settle over the old town, and then strolled through the narrow streets with their Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman reminders, before finding a table for two at Kyria Maria, a small taverna on Moschovitou, a narrow street linking the old harbour with the Rimondi Fountain.

It is still Easter week, and after dinner we were presented with two dyed eggs, one red, one green.

We cracked them against each other and greeted one another:

Χριστός Ανέστη (Christos Anesti!, ‘Christ is risen!’)

Aληθώς Aνέστη (Alithos Anesti!, ‘He is risen indeed!’)

Sunset at the Marina and the Old Harbour in Rethymnon in Crete last night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019; click on image for full-screen view)

The joys of trees and
flowers in full bloom in
Rethymnon at Easter

A lemon tree in full fruit in Kastrinogiannaki Street in Rethymnon (Photograph; Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

This is one of the earliest times of the year I have been in Rethymnon. I have been coming here since the 1980s, and have been here as late as October. And while I have been in Greece throughout the year, and in other parts of Greece for Easter, including Mount Athos and Thessaloniki, I think this is my first time in Crete in April.

One of the advantages of being here at a different time of the year, is seeing new growth and fresh growth in the flowers and the trees in the fields, in the gardens and by the roadside.

Lemon trees and orange trees are in full fruit here this year, and are being sold in abundance. But I am also noticing the wild flowers and garden flowers on my walks through the streets or down to the beach.

A small vineyard between Platanias and Pavlos Beach (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

A little vineyard I have come to admire behind the streets of Platanias, on the way down to Pavlos Beach, is being well tended to, but a field beside it is now covered in wild flowers of different colours.

An orange tree in full fruit in a tiny square off Vitséntzou Kornárou Street in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

As I was growing up, I never learned the names of trees, flowers or plants, so I am totally at a loss to describe them or name them. But here are some of the flowers I have been admiring during my walks in recent days during this Easter season:












Photographs: Patrick Comerford, Rethymnon, 2019

Monday, 29 April 2019

Having a cracking good time
at Easter in Crete this year

Easter eggs outside a house in Panormos, east of Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Today is Easter Monday in Greece and was a public holiday throughout Greece, with family celebrations and meals continuing throughout the day. Dyed eggs can be seen everywhere, in baskets and on tables outside houses, shops and restaurants and as decorations in hotel lobbies and on bar counters.

One Easter tradition that every visitor to Greece notices is the tradition of dying red Easter eggs as a symbol of Orthodox Easter. Although it is also quite common to dye eggs in other colours, Greek Easter is rarely or almost never celebrated without red eggs.

The red eggs embody a number of traditions:

1, The deep red dye symbolises the blood of Christ shed at his Passion and Crucifixion.

2, The hard shell symbolises the sealed tomb.

3, Cracking the egg symbolises Christ’s resurrection from the dead.

Eggs are traditionally dyed red on Maundy or Holy Thursday, but this can be done on any day leading up to Sunday. They are the first food eaten after the strict fasting of Lent in some families, while others enjoy them after dinner when everyone is gathered around the table to play the game that involves cracking the eggs.

The first red egg that is dyed is considered to be the egg of the Virgin Mary and is saved in the home for protection against the evil eye until the next year when a new ‘first egg’ is dyed.

One tradition says Mary Magdalene was bringing cooked eggs to share with the other women at the tomb when the eggs in her basket miraculously turned brilliant red as she saw the risen Christ.

A different legend involves Mary Magdalene’s role in spreading the Gospel. According to this story, after the Ascension, she went to the Emperor of Rome and greeted him, saying ‘Christ is Risen!’ (Χριστός ἀνέστη!), which is still the traditional Greek greeting throughout the season of Easter. On hearing this, the Emperor pointed to an egg on his table and stated, ‘Christ has no more risen than that egg is red.’ Immediately the egg on his table turned blood red.

At big family feasts on Easter Day, family members crack their eggs together. One says Χριστός Ανέστη (Christos Anesti!, ‘Christ is risen!’), to which the other replies, Aληθώς Aνέστη (Alithos Anesti!, ‘He is risen indeed!’).

Eggs on a table in Panormos, east of Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The egg-cracking game or τσούγκρισμα (tsougrisma) is an integral part of Easter celebrations and the person with the strongest egg that is not cracked is said the be blessed with good luck for the rest of the year.

Eggs are traditionally dyed red on Maundy or Holy Thursday, but this can be done on any day leading up to Sunday. They are the first food eaten after the strict fasting of Lent in some families, while others enjoy them after dinner when everyone is gathered around the table to play the game.

The first red egg that is dyed is considered to be the egg of the Virgin Mary and is saved in the home for protection against the evil eye until the next year when a new ‘first egg’ is dyed.

Many shops sell packets of blood-red dye. Since Greek Easter eggs are not just for celebration purposes, but they are also meant to be eaten.

After the egg-cracking is over, not a bit of the eggs is wasted. They are peeled, cut, and served with salt and vinegar. Some families make a small tray with the eggs along with leftover cold lamb, and other small pieces to be served with red wine or ouzo to guests who visit today (Easter Monday) or later in this week after Easter.

Easter candles in a shopfront in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Other family traditions at Easter include:

1, Tsoureki (Τσουρέκι): this delicious sweet Easter bread is a three-braid bread representing the Holy Trinity.

2, Easter candles: God-parents, favourite aunts and grandparents often buy special Easter candles for children with gifts attached to them with brightly-coloured ribbons.

3, Roasting Lamb: Families get together before noon on Easter Day to roast the lamb on a spit and join in a long lunch with lots of meat, potatoes, salads and drinks.

4, Magiritsa (Μαγειρίτσα): This dish contains the offal of the lamb just before it is roasted, along with some green vegetables (lettuce, dill and onion) boiled together. It symbolises the end of the 40-day fast in Lent.

The traditional Easter hymn still being sung throughout this week is:

Χριστὸς ἀνέστη ἐκ νεκρῶν,
θανάτῳ θάνατον πατήσας,
καὶ τοῖς ἐν τοῖς μνήμασι,
ζωὴν χαρισάμενος!

Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs
Bestowing life!

A decorative basket of multi-coloured dyed eggs in the hotel lobby at La Stella in Platanias, east of Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Parthenon Marbles and
Star of Vergina express
Greek pride in identity

Classical columns and Parthenon reproductions at the Acropolis Bar in Platanias (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Ask most people about the Book of Revelation, and they will instantly respond with images of the ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ and Armageddon. But – and I kid you not – on one recent visit to Athens I heard someone referring to the ‘four horsemen of the Acropolis.’

While I am in Crete this week, enjoying in the Greek Orthodox celebrations of Easter, I have also been putting the final touches to a posting of liturgical and preaching resources for Sunday week [12 May 2019] that also a discussion of the reading that Sunday in the Book of Revelation (Revelation 7: 9-17).

In my posting, I plan to refer also to the previous chapter, where Saint John the Divine has a vision in the cave on the island of Patmos that includes the ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’:

● a white horse symbolising conquest (6: 2)
● a red horse representing internecine violence (6: 4)
● a black horse for famine and inflation (6: 6)
● a pale green horse prefiguring fear and death (6: 8)

A reminder of the Parthenon frieze at the Acropolis Bar in Platanias (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

I may joke about the Four Horseman of the Acropolis, but in this part of Rethymnon, in the eastern suburban village and resort of Plantanias, there is a bar on the way to the beach here that is known as the Acropolis Bar.

Although the temperatures are now in the mid-20s each day, the Acropolis Bar in Platanias has not yet opened for the summer season, like many similar places in Platanias and the neighbouring hillside village of Tsesmes, east of Rethymnon in Crete.

But the decorative features outside the bar include many reproductions of the Parthenon frieze from the Acropolis in Athens, interspersed between classical columns.

Last week [25 April 2019], the Cambridge Union hosted a debate, ‘This House would return looted art back to its country of origin.’ Speaking for the motion were Alice Procter, tour guide and art historian, best known for running the often sold-out Uncomfortable Art Tours, telling the ‘ugly truth’ about the artefacts in Britain’s museums; Dame Janet Suzman, actor and director of both stage and screen and an Academy Award nominee, who currently co-chairs the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles; and the archaeologist Professor Lord Renfrew, a former Master of Jesus College, Cambridge, and a former President of the Union.

Speaking against were Dr Tiffany Jenkins, author of Keeping Their Marbles; Dr Kevin Childs, writer and lecturer on art history; and Dr Neil Curtis, Head of Museums and Special Collections at the University of Aberdeen.

The Star of Vergina at the Vergina restaurant in Platanias (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Of course, there is difference between looted art and legitimately acquired treasures of the past.

But at the same time, the British Culture Secretary, Jeremy Wright, was ruling out returning objects held in national museums to their countries of origin. In an interview last week, he told The Times that if you ‘followed the logic of restitution to its logical conclusion,’ there would be no ‘single points where people can see multiple things.’

It is an absurd argument. Basically, it is only English museum visitors who matter – Greeks, and anyone else who comes to Athens to see the Acropolis, do not need to see ‘things’ and do not need a single point where they can see the Parthenon Marbles, in the very place they are supposed to be.

Nor does his argument deal with the way the marbles were barbarously hacked from the Parthenon frieze by Lord Elgin.

A statue of Athena at the Vergina restaurant in Platanias (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019) (

Greeks take pride in their cultural and classical legacies, but at the same time can wear this pride very lightly.

Two of us have had lunch a few times this past week in Vergina, a restaurant in Platanias whose very name celebrates Alexander the Great and his father Philip II of Macedon.

Around the place are copies of classical statues, reproductions of Minoan images from Knossos, elements of Byzantine brickwork, and countless images of the 16-point Star of Vergina, from which the restaurant takes its name.

The Vergina Sun (Ήλιος της Βεργίνας) or Star of Vergina, a symbol in ancient Greek art in the 6th to 2nd centuries BC, became a popular symbol of Greek identity after archaeological excavations in Vergina in the late 1970s uncovered the tomb of Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great.

It is seen as the historical symbol of ancient Macedonia and became part of the controversy in the 1990s over the name and symbols adopted by the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (now North Macedonia).

An agreement signed with Greece last year [17 June 2018] includes both sides accepting the name North Macedonia and removing the Star of Vergina from public use in North Macedonia.

Symbols of the past are important for present-day Greek identity. Brexit is not going to put an end to demands for the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Greece.

Reminders of a Byzantine past at the Vergina restaurant in Platanias (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Sunday, 28 April 2019

Easter embers still
glow in the Venetian castle
ruins in Panormos

A hush had descended on cobbled streets of Panormos on Easter afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

A friend who lives in Thessaloniki reminds at this time of the year that if the Turks ever invade Greece they are going to do it on Easter Day.

Nothing moves on this day in Greece, or so it seems to many visitors.

After all last night’s bell-ringing, bonfires and firecrackers, a hushed calm descends on every town and village. The only movement seems to come from families visiting each other, stopping on the way to buy highly decorative cakes or elaborate flower arrangements to bring with them.

I wondered whether any taxis or buses would operate in Rethymnon today. But because this is also a resort area, the taxi rank in Platanias had a few white taxis every time I passed by, and an hourly shuttle bus was running between the bus station in Rethymnon to Panormos 20 km east, serving the hotels that stretch along the coast and beachs in the suburbs and on the fringes of the town.

Two of us spent Saturday night at the Easter celebrations in Tsesmes, the small village above Platanias, and as families were preparing for their Easter meals together, we caught the bus out to Panormos, once a fishing village but now a pretty resort, with boutique accommodation, three small horseshoe-shaped beaches and an old harbour.

Christ Pantocrator in the dome of the Church of Aghios Georgios in Panormos on Easter afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Few of the restaurants were opened this afternoon, but we were delighted to have a lazy, long, lingering lunch on Easter afternoon in Porto Parasiris, overlooking Limanaki, the middle of the three beaches.

There was time to finish a book, walk on the beach and around the harbour with its crystal-clear waters, stroll through the back streets, stop to pray in the Church of Aghios Georgios, with its splendid dome and majestic fresco of Christ Pantocrator, and seek out the mediaeval castle of Milopotamos.

Crete has been a crossroads of civilisations since antiquity because of its geographical position between Asia, Europe and Africa. It is believed that Panormos stands on the site of the Roman city Panormus.

The fifth or sixth century Basilica of Aghia Sophia, which I visited two years ago [2017], was once the largest in Western Crete, indicating how Panormos was an important Church centre in early Christian times.

Looking out on the harbour of Panormos from the ruins of the Castle of Milopotamos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Panormos is also known as Kastelli of Milopotamos or the Castle of Milopotamos because the castle of Mylopotamos (Castello di Milopotamo) above the harbour was built by the Genoese pirate Henry Pescatore ca 1206-1212.

Within decades, the castle had passed to the Venetians in their conquest of Crete. The egg-shaped fort was oriented from north to south and was equipped with seven towers and two gates, one on the sea side and one on the south side.

The castle was besieged by the Kapsokalives family in 1341, when it was held for the Venetians by Alexios Kallergis, but the failed to capture it. Hayreddin Barbarossa (1478-1546) and his pirates attacked the castle and set it on fire in 1538. But the Venetians restored it immediately because of its strategic location.

Venetian rule came to an end here in 1647 when the castle was seized by the Turks as they marched from Rethymnon on Iraklion (Candia), although the Venetian General Gildasi (Gil d’Has) tried in vain to retake it in.

Today, all that is left of this once strategic Venetian fort is a small part of the wall that looks like a pile of stones on a rocky outcrop above the beach and harbour, with the ruins of a church, where the emblem of the Kallergis family can still be seen.

Within the walls of the castle and church ruins, the embers of last night’s Resurrection bonfire were still smouldering late this afternoon, as I peered through the last remaining arch out across the harbour below.

Looking down on the beach from the balcony of Porto Parasiris, with the ruins of the Castle of Milopotamos to the right (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Battered coins and ragged banknotes
are a metaphor for the Greek economy

Torn and ragged banknotes in a tin box outside an antiques shop in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Walking through the streets of Rethymnon at the weekend, I came across a stash of old money that was as good as being given away for nothing.

Old banknotes, old coins, well-worn, battered, torn and in tatters, randomly put together without selection or discrimination, they were piled up in old tin boxes outside Παλαιοπωλειο (Palaiopoleio), a colourful antiques shop across the street from Aghias Varvaras (Saint Barbara) Church in the centre of the old town.

What these coins and banknotes must have bought in the past. But they are worthless now, piled up like junk in old tin boxes, the torn notes held down by a rusty weight to prevent them being scattered in the light breeze.

In one way, they are invitations to come in on off the street and explore the Alladin’s Cave of treasures inside the shop. But in another way, this random and ragged collection of paper money and spent coins is like a metaphor for the Greek economy or like a farewell to the stories of Greece’s past economies.

At the end of last week, Standard & Poor’s stopped short of raising Greece’s sovereign rating, confirming it at B+ with a positive outlook, although the market had widely anticipated an upgrade.

Standard & Poor’s praised Greece’s fiscal progress and noted the favourable debt restructuring it has secured. But they referred to a number of risks, including a possible backtracking of financial reforms before this year’s general election campaign, as well as the international environment that is causing uncertainties.

The European Parliament elections take place at the end of next month and a general election is due in October. Speculation that they general election may be called earlier has died down in recent weeks.

With this latest Standard & Poor’s rating, Greece remains four notches below investment grade, deep into junk territory. All other major rating agencies have kept Greece in junk status: Moody’s has given Greece a B1 rating while Fitch has retained its BB- rating since last August, just before Greece emerged from its last bailout programme.

Who would wish to return to the days of the Drachma and the Lepta?

Old coins in a tin box outside the antiques shop (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The Drachma (δραχμή) was the currency in Greece throughout several periods in history. It began as an ancient Greek currency unit issued by many city states over a period of 10 centuries, from the Archaic period throughout the classical period, the Hellenistic period up to the Roman period under Greek imperial coinage.

Greek banknotes have a history of 180 years, beginning in 1822 and finishing in 2002 when the Drachma was replaced by the Euro. During these years, about 300 different banknotes were issued or circulated in Greece and if you count the varieties, the total number reaches the 400.

The drachma was reintroduced in May 1832, shortly before the establishment of the modern state of Greece, and the drachma was divided into 100 lepta.

Notes were issued by the National Bank of Greece from 1841 until 1928, when the Bank of Greece was created. Early denominations ranged from 10 to 500 drachmae. Smaller denominations (1, 2, 3 and 5 drachmae) were issued from 1885, with the first 5-drachma notes being made by cutting 10-drachma notes in half.

Greece joined the Latin Monetary Union in 1868, and the drachma became equal in weight and value to the French franc.

When the Ottoman occupation of Crete ended in December 1898, the Cretan government under Eleftherios Venizelos established the Bank of Crete with the assistance of the National Bank of Greece. For 30 years, the Bank of Crete had the exclusive privilege of issuing banknotes in Crete.

Between 1917 and 1920, the Greek government issued banknotes worth 10 lepta, 50 lepta, 1 drachma, 2 drachmae, and 5 drachmae. The National Bank of Greece introduced 1,000-drachma notes in 1901, and the Bank of Greece introduced 5,000-drachma notes in 1928. The Greek government again issued notes between 1940 and 1944, in denominations ranging from 50 lepta to 20 drachmae.

The shortage of banknotes became so severe in 1941 that the government authorised an emergency issue of old, worn-out notes from previous issues that were awaiting destruction at the at the Bank of Greece. The punch-cancelled notes remained in circulation for another year before finally being replaced.

During the German-Italian occupation of Greece in 1941-1944, catastrophic hyperinflation and Nazi looting of the Greek treasury led to much higher denominations being issued, culminating in 100,000,000,000 drachma notes in 1944.

After Greece was liberated in November 1944, old drachmae were exchanged for new ones at the rate of 50,000,000,000 to 1. Only paper money was issued. The government issued notes of 1, 5, 10 and 20 drachmae, with the Bank of Greece issuing 50, 100, 500, 1,000, 5,000, and 10,000 drachma notes. This drachma also suffered from high inflation. The government later issued 100, 500, and 1,000 drachma notes, and the Bank of Greece issued 20,000 and 50,000 drachma notes.

In an attempt to halt inflation, Greece joined the Bretton Woods system in 1953, and the drachma was revalued a year later at a rate of 1,000 to 1, with the new currency was pegged at 30 drachmae to $1 (US). The Bretton Woods System was abolished in 1973, and over the next 25 years the official exchange rate gradually declined, reaching 400 drachmae to $1. The Greek drachma was officially replaced by the Euro on 1 January 2002, and it has not been legal tender since 1 March 2002.

Now these old notes have no currency. Their condition makes them useless and worthless, even to collectors. But they are a reminder of times past, when I wandered around with pockets full of notes with high numbers and low value.

Inside, the antiques shop is a veritable Alladin’s Cave (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Saturday, 27 April 2019

Waiting between Good Friday
and Easter Day in Rethymnon

The Harrowing of Hell and the Resurrection in a fresco in the Church of the Four Martyrs in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

George Koros (1923-2014) was one of the finest Greek solo violinists of our time. He was born on the island of Evia in 1923, and he started playing the violin at the age of eight, when his father – who was a church cantor and a teacher of Byzantine music – decided to replace the mandolin with a violin and a bow without strings.

His professional career began a year later, when he began playing at weddings and feasts with his father.

His mother spurned an opportunity for him to have a classical musical education. But Koros later revolutionised Greek folk music through the introduction of the fiddle as an accepted instrument. He became an acclaimed, self-made musician, who composed about 2,000 songs. But despite his reputation in Greek folk music, for me he stands out for his Byzantine hymns, particularly during this Easter weekend in Crete.

In these hymns, Koros returned to his roots in Byzantine music and with his violin he recreates the tradition of the early hymns he learned from his father in church as a boy.

George Koros died in 2014, and was buried in Kiffisia in Athens.

As I was reflecting here in Crete on this Saturday in the Greek calendar – between Good Friday and Easter Day – I recalled how many years ago (2008), during a series of Saturday reflections in Whitechurch parish in Dublin, I invited people to listed to Koros using his violin to plaintively recall the sorrow of the tomb in two pieces: I see thy resting place (Τον Νυμφωνα Σου Βλεπω) and Life in the Holy Sepulchre (Η Ζωη εν Ταφω).

In the Western tradition of the Church, we seem to have contemplated the cross, and then moved to the empty tomb. At times, the deep joys of the Resurrection have often been overshadowed in the Western Church by the way of the Cross, as though the Cross leads only to death. But we have also neglected Christ’s resting place, his tomb, and given little thought to what was happening in the Holy Sepulchre on this day.

Here in Greece, this day, Holy and Great Saturday, is observed solemnly by the Orthodox Church, with hymns and readings that truly explore the theme of the Harrowing of Hell in depth. For this is the day on which Christ’s body lay in the tomb, this is the day on which he visited those who were dead.

The icon of the Harrowing of Hell reminds us that God reaches into the deepest depths to pull forth souls into the kingdom of light. It reminds us how much we are unable to comprehend – let alone take to heart as our own – the creedal statement about Christ’s descent into Hell – ‘He descended into Hell.’

Christ’s descent into Hell is captured in Saint Peter’s Pentecost sermon in Acts 2. In the Petrine letters, we are told that when Christ died he went and preached to the spirits in prison ‘who in former times did not obey … For this is the reason the Gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that … they might live in the spirit as God does’ (see I Peter 3: 15b to 4: 8).

In the NRSV, I Peter 4: 6 reads the gospel was ‘proclaimed even to the dead …’, reflecting the original Greek: “εἰς τοῦτο γὰρ καὶ νεκροῖς εὐηγγελίσθη …’ The New International Version, however, says the Gospel ‘was preached even to those who are now dead …’ But the word ‘now’ is not in the Greek text. It was inserted to rule out the idea that Christ preached to those who were dead when they were preached to, and instead it says that he brought his good news to people who were dead at the time I Peter was written. If you remove the word ‘now,’ the English becomes ambiguous on that point, just like the Greek is ambiguous there.

The Early Church taught that after his death Christ descended into hell and rescued all the souls, starting with Adam and Eve, who had died under the Fall.

The Harrowing of Hell is intimately bound up with the Resurrection, the Raising from the Dead, for as Christ is raised from the dead he also plummets the depths to bring up, to raise up, those who are dead. The Harrowing of Hell carries us into the gap in time between Christ’s death and resurrection.

In Orthodox icons of the Harrowing of Hell, Christ stands on the shattered doors of Hell. Sometimes, two angels are shown in the pit binding Satan. And we see Christ pulling out of Hell Adam and Eve, imprisoned there since their deaths, imprisoned along with all humanity because of sin. Christ breaks down the doors of Hell and leads the souls of the lost into Heaven.

It is the most radical reversal we can imagine. Death does not have the last word, we need not live our lives entombed in fear. If Adam and Eve are forgiven, and the Sin of Adam is annulled and destroyed, who is beyond forgiveness?

In discussing the ‘Descent into Hell,’ Hans Urs von Balthasar argues that if Christ’s mission did not result in the successful application of God’s love to every intended soul, how then can we think of it as a success. He emphasises Christ’s descent into the fullness of death, so as to be ‘Lord of both the dead and the living’ (Romans 5).

However, in her book Light in Darkness, Alyssa Lyra Pitstick, says that Christ did not descend into the lowest depths of hell, and only stayed in the top levels. She finds untenable his view that Christ’s descent into hell entails experiencing the fullness of alienation, sin and death, which he then absorbs, transfigures, and defeats through the Resurrection. Instead, she claims, Christ descends only to the ‘limbo of the Fathers’ in which the righteous, justified dead of the Old Testament awaited the coming of the Messiah.

Her argument robs the Harrowing of Hell of its soteriological significance. For her, Christ does not descend into hell and experience the depths of alienation between God and humanity opened up by sin. She leaves Christ visiting an already-redeemed and justified collection of Old Testament saints to let them know that he has defeated death.

However, Archbishop Rowan Williams has written beautifully in The Indwelling of Light on the Harrowing of Hell. Christ is the new Adam who rescues humanity from its past, and who starts history anew. ‘The resurrection … is an introduction – to our buried selves, to our alienated neighbours, to our physical world.’ He says: ‘Adam and Eve stand for wherever it is in the human story that fear and refusal began … (This) icon declares that wherever that lost moment was or is – Christ (is) there to implant the possibility … of another future.’ [Rowan Williams, The Dwelling of the Light: Praying with Icons of Christ, p 38.]

I ask myself: what is the difference between the top levels and bottom levels of hell? Is my hell in my heart of my own creation? In my mind, in my home, where I live and work, in my society, in this world? Is hell the nightmares from the past I cannot shake off, or the fears for the future when it looks gloomy and desolate for this planet?

But is anything too hard for Christ?

On this day, the icon of the Harrowing of Hell tells us that there are no limits to God’s ability to search us out and to know us. Where are the depths of your heart and your soul – where darkness prevails, and where you feel even Christ can find no welcome? Those crevices even I am afraid to think about, let alone contemplate, may be beyond my reach. I cannot produce or manufacture my own salvation from that deep, interior hell, hidden from others, and often hidden from myself.

Christ breaks down the gates of Hell, and as the icon powerfully shows, he rips all of sinful humanity from the clutches of death. He descends into the depths of our sin and alienation from God; and by plumbing the depths of hell he suffuses all that is lost and sinful with the radiance of divine goodness, joy and light. If hell is where God is not, and Jesus is God, then his decent into hell pushes back hell’s boundaries. In his descent into hell, Christ reclaims this zone for life, pushing back the gates of death, where God is not, to the farthest limits possible.

The music associated with today in the Orthodox tradition, the icons and the reading, remind me that Christ plummets even those deepest depths, and that his love and mercy can raise us again to new life.

On this Saturday in Crete, as I prepared to take part in this evening's Easter celebrations of the Resurrection in the parish church in Tsesmes, in the eastern suburbs of Rethymnon, I have been thinking of Christ lying in the grave, and thin of how we can ask him to take away all that denies life in us, whether it is a hell of our own making, a hell that has been forced on us, or a hell that surrounds us. Christ reaches down, and lifts us up with him in his Risen Glory. Christ is Risen. Χριστός Ανέστη.



Good Friday in the streets
and churches of Rethymnon

The Square in front of the Church of the Four Martyrs in Rethymlon was crowded as each church brought its own Epitaphios in procession through the streets (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Throughout the afternoon yesterday [26 April 2019], I spent much of Good Friday, visiting the churches in the heart of Rethymnon to see the decoration of the Epitaphios, the ceremonial bier of Christ. In each church, the Epitaphios is dressed with ribbons, topped with the Book of the Four Gospels, and strewn with petals.

All through the day, people queue up in church to reverence the Epitaphios, some coaxing their children to slip under the bier, all kissing the representation of the dead Christ and the Gospels, and then moving on to reverence the tall, bare cross erected in front of the icon screen.

As the day grew longer, the queues in the churches grew longer too.

The tourist season has not started properly yet, although a few hotels and restaurants are opened already. But, apart from tourists, most of the streets of Rethymnon were still and calm throughout the day. The one furtive piece of buying was by godparents, grandparents and kind aunts seeking Easter candles for children.

Before darkness bean to fall, we went to the Church of the Four Martyrs, the newest and largest church in the centre of Rethymnon.

In the evening, people from the cathedral and other parish churches throughout Rethymnon paraded their Epitaphios solemnly through the narrow streets of the town, headed by brass bands and robed clergy. All converged late in the evening in the large public square in front of the Church of the Four Martyrs, the largest church in Rethymnon, where we had waited throughout the evening for the climax of this unique Greek commemoration.

Brass bands, uniformed soldiers, flower-bedecked biers, robed choirs all stood before the steps of the largest church in the town as The Bishop of Rethymnon, Metropolitan Evgenios of Rethymnon and Avlopotamos, spoke from the steps of the church of the need for love and to dispel fear. There was a ripple of titters as he repeated it in English, ‘Don’t panic.’

We followed the procession of the Epitaphios from the Church of the Four Martyrs back to the Cathedral, headed once again by a brass band, uniformed soldiers in red berets, robed clergy and Metropolitan Evgenios. As people dispersed, they carried their candles home with them.

Throughout today, people are preparing to celebrate the Resurrection after dark this evening.

Tomorrow is a day for families, and nothing moves in Greece on Easter Day.

The Epitaphios in the Cathedral in Rethymnon before the Good Friday processions through the streets last night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Friday, 26 April 2019

Good Friday in Rethymnon
brings promises of new life

Walking down to an empty beach at Pavlos Beach in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

I have gone into the centre of Rethymnon this evening [26 April 2019] to follow the Good Friday processions of the Epitaphios or the bier of Christ through the streets.

This is an experience that is unique to Orthodox countries, although the piety, colour and music have many parallels with the Good Friday processions in Barcelona and other parts of the Mediterranean.

Everything comes to a stop throughout Greece on this evening. Yet, Good Friday apart, it is surprising how many shops, restaurants, tavernas and hotels are still closed.

Two of us are spending this Easter weekend in La Stella, a boutique hotel between Platanes and Tsesmes on the eastern suburban fringes of Rethymnon. But many of the hotels, including Varvara’s Diamond, where we stayed last year, are still closed or being redecorated or refurbished ahead of the summer season. A new hotel close to the beach is the busiest – with workers rushing through all the hours to have it completed before the planned opening next month.

We had lunch yesterday afternoon in Vergina in Platanias and dinner in Pagona’s Place in Tsesmes. In both places, the welcome back was warm and over-generous. However, many of our other favourite restaurants here, including Finikas, Myli and Merem, are still closed.

An old tree trunk lies in an empty patch beside Pavlos Beach (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Crete has climbed from fifth place to the fourth spot on Tripadvisor’s 2019 list of the best destinations to visit in the world. Greek newspapers reported earlier this month that the only three destinations that were ranked higher than Crete were London, Paris and Rome. In the rankings for 2019, Crete beat out Bali, which fell from fourth to fifth place this year.

Tripadvisor’s recommendations for Crete, which it describes as a Mediterranean jewel, include the fortresses and monasteries of Rethymnon.

This is late April and, while snow still covers the mountains behind Rethymnon, the temperatures are climbing into the mid-20s. But the beach is still deserted, and during an hour or two on Pavlos Beach yesterday afternoon, no-one else was using the sunbeds, and we had the long stretches of white sand all to ourselves, well almost.

Good Friday and Easter add an extra meaning to death and life in nature too. Beside the new-build hotel, the trunk of an old dead tree lies in a plot of land that has been marked out but is still waiting to be developed.

But colourful flowers are in bloom everywhere. Walking around the gardens at La Stella, the colours of the spring flowers and the sound of birdsong are reminders of the perennial promise of new life that Easter brings.

Empty sunbeds at Pavlos Beach in Platanias (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Stories of love, sacrifice and
redemption on Good Friday

Redemptive love, self-sacrifice, atonement and hope … venerating the Cross in the parish church in Tsesmes in Rethymnon on the evening of Holy Thursday (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Today is Good Friday in the Greek calendar [25 April 2019], and later in the day I hope to take part in the Good Friday processions and commemorations in Rethymnon.

But in my reading in Greece this week, I have been reminded of a story of redemptive love, self-sacrifice, atonement and hope that illustrates how these are themes shared in Judaism and in Christianity.

The writings known collectively as Midrash were composed between the years 400 and 1200, and are often contemporaneous with the Talmud. They provide rabbinical exegesis of and commentaries on Biblical books.

In Greece this week, I am interested in how Jerusalem and Athens are contrasted in 10 stories in the Midrash in Eichah Rabbah. Tertullian famously asked: ‘What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?’ And for more than 2,000 years, philosophers and theologians have wrestled with the irreconcilable opposition between Greek rationality, represented by Athens, and biblical revelation, depicted as Jerusalem.

The Midrash on the Book of Lamentations or Eichah Rabbah (איכה רבה), a commentary on the Book of Lamentations (Eichah), is one of the oldest works of Midrash, along with Bereshit Rabbah and the Pesiḳta ascribed to Rab Kahana. In Eichah Rabbah, Jerusalem and Athens are contrasted in 10 stories.

This book is a dirge on the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem and the national destruction that came along with both events. The rabbis regarded this exegesis or commentary as especially appropriate to study on the Ninth of Av (Tisha B’Av), the day recalling the destruction of the Temple.

Historians agree that Phannias ben Samuel (Pinhas ben Shmuel) was the last Jewish High Priest, the 83rd since Aaron. He was from the tribe of Eniachin in the priestly order Jachin, and not from one of the six families from which high priests were traditionally chosen. He died during the destruction of Herod’s Temple on Tisha B’Av in 70 CE.

However, Eichah Rabbah says that Zadok was the last High Priest in the Temple in Jerusalem, and that after the destruction of the Temple in the year 70, two of his children – a small girl and her younger brother – were taken captive by two Roman officers.

The boy was later traded with a prostitute to settle the officer’s debts to her. The girl, for her part, was exchanged by the other officer with an innkeeper for a supply of wine.

Perhaps the writer was also commenting on the Book of the Prophet Joel, where it is written: ‘They drew lots for my people, traded boys for whores, sold girls for wine to drink’ (Joel 4: 3).

Some time later, the prostitute and the innkeeper met and conceived a plan: why not marry off their ill-gotten young charges and use them to breed for profit? They did not realise their traded possessions in human trafficking were brother and sister.

The young couple were placed alone in a room. The girl, weeping and crying, asked with indignation why she, the high-born daughter of a high priest, had been married off to a mere slave.

The boy asked the girl about her family, her home and where she had grown up. She described her family home in Jerusalem, her neighbours and the streets where she once lived, and the younger brother she had not seen since she had been taken into captivity.

This younger brother had a mole on his shoulder, she recalled, and she told how she would kiss him when he came home from school.

The boy asked her whether she would still recognise this birthmark. She said yes, and when he bared his shoulder they recognised each other.

The story concludes with the observation: ‘They embraced each other and kissed each other until their souls departed.’

In telling the story, the rabbis emphasise that this boy and girl remained chaste, but they also fulfil the rabbinic law that one should die a martyr’s death rather than transgress the prohibition on incest.

In this sweet embrace, the Spirit of God, the Kiss of God, draws their souls into the existence of God, and their sacrificial love had been caught up into – is consumed in – the pure love of God.

Preparing the Cross for Good Friday in the parish church in Tsesmes in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Thursday, 25 April 2019

Why the calendar means
I have a second opportunity
to celebrate Easter in Greece

Carrying the bier with the Epitaphios through the streets of Thessaloniki on Good Friday last year (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I am in Rethymnon in Crete, celebrating Greek Orthodox Holy Week and Easter this weekend. I did the same in Thessaloniki last year, when the Orthodox dates also fell a week later in the calendar than they did in the West.

But many people ask me is Easter always a week later in Greece, does it ever fall on the same day, and why is there a difference. Why is Greek Easter on a different date so often?

Although most of the world now follows the Gregorian calendar, the Eastern Orthodox Church still uses the earlier Julian calendar for calculating the dates of festivals such as Easter that are not fixed.

In some years – for example, in 2010, 2011, 2014 and 2017 – the dates happen to be on the same day in both calendars. But in Greece, Cyprus, Romania and other countries this year, Good Friday is tomorrow, 26 April 2019, and Easter Day is on Sunday 28 April.

The fasting of Lent is continuing in Greece throughout this week as Holy Week.

The preparations for Easter begin today on Thursday. Easter bread (τσουρέκι, tsoureki) is baked and eggs are coloured with red dye, because red is the colour of life and also symbolises the blood of Christ.

Tomorrow, Good Friday is a day of mourning. The most devout do not eat or cook at all, and if any cooking is done, it is only simple foods such as tahini soup. Flowers are taken to churches to decorate the Epitaphios (Ἐπιτάφιος), a bier with a representation of the body of Christ, which is carried in a procession later in the day during a Service of Lamentation.

On Saturday, many families prepare mayiritsa (μαγειρίτσα), a soup made from lamb or goat kid – or, perhaps, chicken – offal and tripe, cooked on the stove with onions and herbs, and with an egg and lemon sauce that are mixed in at the end. Usually it is left on a low heat when everyone goes to church in the evening so it can be eaten when they get back.

On Saturday evening, people go to church with special white candles that are lit just before midnight as the ‘Eternal Flame’ on the altar behind the icon screen passes rapidly through the people. At midnight, the whole of Greece comes to life to the sound and sight of church bells, ships’ horns, floodlights and fireworks.

After midnight, as Easter Day begins, there are early morning prayer services and a celebration of the Divine Liturgy or the Eucharist.

Traditionally, people carry their flame home and use it to light other candles in the house. Families then gather around the table and break their fast with soup, bread and eggs.

On Easter morning, a meal of roast lamb is eaten in many households at a feast of eating and drinking that continues until well into the night.

But, I never answered: why is Orthodox Easter usually on a date that is different than Easter in Ireland, England, or most of the rest of the world?

Of course, the Gospel accounts of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection do not give us a precise date that matches our modern calendar

The problems go back to the year 325 AD, when the Church held the First Ecumenical Council, or the Council of Nicaea. Before then, churches celebrated Easter at various times.

To bring unity among the churches, the Church Fathers at Nicaea produced a formula to calculate a date for Easter that would be accepted throughout the Church. They agreed that Easter would be celebrated on the first Sunday that occurs after the Paschal full moon or first full moon that follows the vernal or Spring equinox, but always after Jewish Passover.

The paschal full moon can fall on different days in different time zones, which can present another problem in calculating the date of Easter. If people in different time zones were to calculate the date of Easter depending on when they observed the paschal full moon, the date of Easter would then depend on which time zone I live in. For this reason, the Church does not use the exact date of the paschal full moon but an approximation.

For calculation purposes, the full moon is always set on the 14th day of the lunar month. The lunar month begins with the new moon. For the same reason, the Church set the date of the spring equinox at 21 March, even though the actual vernal equinox can occur on 20 March.

These two approximations allowed the Church to set one universal date for Easter, regardless of when we observe the paschal full moon in our time zones. The Church Fathers at Nicaea hoped this system would guarantee that all parts of the Church could celebrate Easter together on the same day.

Why, though, did they select the Vernal Equinox?

Before the invention of calendars and other modern methods of tracking years and seasons, people relied on the position of the sun in the sky and obvious signs in nature to indicate the passing of time. When the equator and the hemispheres of the Earth became common knowledge, it was understood that the slightly tilted rotation of the earth causes different hemispheres to experience different seasons. While one hemisphere experiences spring and summer, the other hemisphere experiences autumn and winter.

When day and night are of the same length of time it is called an equinox. The vernal equinox occurs in the Northern Hemispheres in late March, bringing spring to these parts of the earth. The council chose this equinox, fixed on 21 March as part of the calculation to ensure Easter would be celebrated in the spring at the same time. But, of course the actual Spring Equinox can fall on 19, 20 or 21 March.)

The Jewish Passover is celebrated on the 15th day of the month of Nisan, which is the first month of the year for the Jewish calendar. It is a time practicing Jews celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread in commemoration of God freeing the people from slavery in Egypt. Passover is celebrated for eight days, with many ceremonial traditions, and is one of three important Jewish annual holidays.

The Church Fathers believed it was important for the Church to celebrate Easter after the Passover in order to preserve the sequence of events leading up to the Crucifixion and Resurrection.

According to the timeline in the Synoptic Gospels (Saint Matthew, Saint Mark, Saint Luke), Christ celebrates the Passover with his followers at the last Supper on the night before he was crucified. According to Saint John’s Gospel, Christ is crucified on the day the Passover is being celebrated. In either case, celebrating the Resurrection before the Passover would dislocate the original sequence of events.

Many people are mistaken in thinking that the date of Easter is determined by the date of Passover, and so they are surprised when Western Christians sometimes celebrate Easter before the Jewish celebration of Passover. Passover was relatively late this year and was celebrated last Friday night, 19 April, and ends on Saturday, 27 April.

At the Council of Nicaea, the Church Fathers thought they had finalised a universally accepted date for Easter. For decades, the church in Rome and in Alexandria relied on different calculations by astronomers and mathematicians using different observations and calculations. Even in the western church, matters were not settled to the satisfaction of everyone. The ‘Insular’ or Celtic churches refused to calculate Easter using a full moon that was observed after midnight, which seemed to celebrate darkness rather than light.

The debate over the date to celebrate the most significant feast in the Christian calendar caused visible disunity in the royal household in Northumbria: Queen Eanfled and her court observed Easter on a different day than did King Oswiu; while one royal faction was celebrating Easter, the other was still fasting during Lent.

The debate was settled at the Synod of Whitby in the year 664, when the Roman practices was imposed on those who had followed the Irish practice, including calculating the date of Easter and the style of the monastic tonsure.

However, no-one had foreseen the Great Schism that divided the Church in 1054, and how this would change the equations.

The Roman Empire was already divided between the Eastern Byzantine and Western Roman Empires, with their own emperors. Although the church tried to maintain its unity, it soon divided too.

Although the churches were divided on several issues, they still believed Easter should be celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon to follow the vernal equinox. However, the western church no longer found Easter had to fall after Passover.

Because of the date differences between the Julian and Gregorian calendar, the Orthodox celebration of Easter always occurs after the Jewish celebration of Passover.

Matters became more divisive when the West switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar in 1582. The Orthodox Church continued to use the original formula of the Council of Nicaea to calculate the date of Easter, but was also left using the dates in the Julian calendar. By using two different calendar systems, the vernal equinox now fell on 21 March in the Gregorian calendar and on 3 April in the Julian calendar.

The two churches consequently found that in most years they were celebrating the same Easter holiday on two different days. While one Church was in a celebratory mood, the other was still going through the fasts and disciplines of Lent.

The Orthodox Easter now falls anywhere between 4 April and 8 May and the western Easter can fall anywhere between 22 March and 25 April. In rare instances, the dates align, and we celebrate Easter simultaneously. However, because of the way the two calendars work, this will not happen again for another quarter century – not until 2034.

But this year, I have a second opportunity to celebrate Easter and the Resurrection in Platanias and Tsesmes in Rethymnon.

A week in Crete to
celebrate Easter
for a second time

La Stella Hotel, near Rethymnon, is on the road leading from Platanias up to the smaller village of Tsesmés

Patrick Comerford

After some busy weeks in parish throughout Lent, Holy Week and Easter, I am back in Crete for a week and – because Easter is a week later in the Orthodox calendar – an opportunity to experience Good Friday and Easter Day for a second time once again this year.

Last year, two of us celebrated Greek Easter which was a week later in 2018 too, during a week’s break in Thessaloniki. But this time I am back in Crete, and staying near Rethymnon, the Venetian and university town that I have known since the 1980s.

I arrived at Chania airport late last night [24 April 2019] on a Ryanair flight from Dublin, and it was a 65 km transfer to La Stella, a boutique hotel in Platanias, where we are staying for the next week.

The village of Platanias is 4 or 5 km east of Rethymnon and just 500 metres from the from the long sandy beach that stretches in lengths east of Rethymnon.

Two decades ago, Platanias was an unremarkable suburb of Rethymnon on the old road between Rethymnon and Iraklio. But it has grown and developed over the last 20 or 25 years, and there is a number of luxury hotels here too, as well as the usual Greek rent rooms and pensions in the centre of the resort.

This is my fifth time since 2015 to stay in this part of Rethymon. I have stayed both Julia Apartments and the Varvaras Diamond Hotel in previous years. But for this Easter, I am staying in La Stella Hotel, on the road leading from Platanias up to the smaller village of Tsesmés.

La Stella is a comfortable boutique hotel, with two swimming pools, a pool or snack bar, a breakfast area, games room and night bar, with chill-out lounges scattered all over the place. It was rebuilt in 2007 and renovated and upgraded again in 2011, and offers 27 apartments or suites, including 13 one-room studios, 12 two-room apartments and two three-room suites.

It is just a short walk from here to the pretty village of Tsesmés, with its quiet tavernas. Restaurants like Pagona’s Place have a unique cuisine, brought here almost a century ago by the ancestors of the families living here today as they fled the persecution of Greek-speaking people in Cesmes in Anatolia.

The name of the road from here up to Tsesmes recalls the mainly Greek town of Nikomedeia (Νικομήδεια), now İzmit, about 100 km east of Istanbul, in the north-west part of Anatolia. An Allied report on 1 June 1921 described the Turkish atrocities in Izmit as ‘considerable and ferocious.’

Nearby are other pretty, traditional villages such as Adele, or Maroulas, with its Venetian tower houses and churches, and Arkadi with its historically important monastery is 17 km to the south.

During this week, I plan to visit Rethymnon tomorrow [26 April 2019] for the Good Friday liturgies, including the procession of the Epitaphios through the city, and to attend the late-night Easter Liturgy in the parish church in Tsesmés on Saturday night [27 April 2019].

I hope this week to also visit a place that is making a difference and bringing about change for vulnerable lives. In the back streets, away from the gaze of tourists, the Voluntary Welfare Clinic Rethymno (Εθελοντικό Ιατρείο Κοινωνικής Αλληλεγγύης Ρεθύμνου) works in Kastrinogiannaki, a narrow side-street where there are no tourist shops, yet only a few steps away from the seafront, the restaurants and the bars.

The doctors, dentists, nurses, pharmacists and other volunteers who run this clinic are not part of any EU-funded or government-funded programme, and they believe in a free public system.

At the end of their busy working days, they provide free attention, advice and consultation for anyone who is without health insurance. That includes migrants without proper papers, but also includes many Greeks who have fallen on hard times.

They refuse to call themselves a charity, because they see health care as a human right. The clinic is open to all people without access to health care. It is a gesture of solidarity by experts and professionals who have already seen their own salaries and incomes cut in public spending cuts and in the decline in the Greek economy. Some of the hidden work here also includes helping refugees and migrants trace missing family members. But they are hard-pressed, the workload is heavy, and the numbers needing attention continue to grow.

During the week, I may also visit a monastery or convent, go for walks on the beach, visit icon workshops, meet old friends, browse in the bookshops, ramble around archaeological sites, seek out churches, buildings and streets of architectural and historical interest, and enjoy long lazy lunches in the sun and dinners in the sunset.

And – if the water is warm enough – I may even swim in the Mediterranean. But the temperatures here are in the low and mid 20s during the day, so it’s not much warmer than Askeaton last weekend.

I am about to head off to breakfast now. But join me over the next week as I reacquaint myself with places I now know so well but also explore new corners of Crete, try to get up to speed with Greek politics and even brush up on my rusty acquaintance with the Greek language.

I am hoping the weather is warm enough this week to go for a swim (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

Loughmoe Castle is
an eye-catching sight
by the rail and the river

Loughmoe Castle … a sight to behold beside the railway line, between Thurles and Templemore (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

On my regular train journeys between Limerick and Dublin, I never cease to be amazed by the sight of Loughmoe Castle, which stands out by the tracks in rich green pastures, between Templemore and Thurles railway stations.

Loughmoe Castle is a 15th century tower house that was extensively added to in the 17th century. The castle was home to the Purcell family, who were given the palatinate title of Baron of Loughmoe by the Butlers, Earls of Ormonde.

The village near the castle is now known incorrectly as Loughmore, which would mean the ‘Big Lake.’ But the original Irish name is of the area is Luach Mhagh, meaning ‘the field of the reward.’ This name alludes to the legend of how the Purcells first gained possession of this area.

Many years ago, the story says, a king lived in Loughmoe Castle, and the densely wooded land around it was terrorised by a boar and sow of gigantic size, who uprooted crops and killed anyone and everyone they encountered.

To rid the countryside of these beasts, the king offered their slayer the hand of his daughter, the Castle of Loughmoe and the vast lands around it.

After all other hunters had tried and failed, a young man named Purcell set out to stalk the beasts. He made his way through the forest by leaping from branch to branch, until he finally reached the spot where the creatures lay. With his bow he peppered them with arrows from above, but to no avail. Finally, two of his shots went into the mouths of beasts, who fled in pain and terror. They were later found dead near Thurles, and Purcell claimed his generous prize.

The area in which the castle stands is known as ‘the field of the reward,’ referring to the Purcell’s royal rewards, and the legend is alluded to in the Purcell family coat of arms, which depicts the heads of four boars.

The true story of how the Purcell family came to Loughmoe is less romantic.

Hugh Purcell accompanied Strongbow’s army to Ireland in 1169. Shortly before 1200, his son, also Hugh, arrived in Loughmoe. Through his marriage with a member of the Butler family, Hugh acquired lands in Loughmoe.

Sir Hugh Purcell founded a Monastery of Franciscans or Grey Friars in Waterford in 1241.

After the Butlers established the Palatinate of Tipperary in 1328, the Purcells were created ‘Palatinate’ Barons of Loughmoe. It was not a peerage title, but more of an hereditary honorific, like the titles of the Knights of Glin and the Knights of Kerry, or the supposed title of Baron of Danganmore associated with the Comerford family.

Loughmoe Castle is a 15th century tower house to which a 17th century fortified house has been added (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Loughmoe Castle is situated between the railway line and the River Suir. ‘The magnificent remains,’ as John O’Donovan described them in 1840, comprise an earlier tower-house and a later mansion house.

Although it looks like one large castle, it is actually a 15th century tower house to which a 17th century fortified house has been added, which makes it look like an H-plan house.

Loughmoe Castle is four storeys high in the middle block, with an attic and semi basement, while the newer towers at either end are five storeys high. The roof probably had dormer windows that provided light for the top rooms. There are many mullioned windows, each containing six, eight or 12 panels.

The castle has some fine, large fireplaces, of which the most ornate and interesting are on the first floor of the old tower. This has a moulded stone frame with leaf-work carving and two shields at each end. Two of these are defaced, but the other two depict the heraldic arms of the Purcell and Butler families, who intermarried on several occasions over the generations.

The tower house was much modified in keeping with the later 17th century portion, but it can be clearly identified with its rounded corners, gun loops and machicolations. It is said there is a hidden prison chamber on the top floor.

The basement floor is now missing but the level of the floor can still be made out.

During the Jacobite and Williamite wars in the late 17th century, the Purcells sided James II and the last Baron of Loughmoe, Nicholas Purcell (1651-1723), fought at the battles of the Boyle and Aughrim and signed the Treaty of Limerick. He did not flee Ireland, unlike other ‘Wild Geese,’ after the wars, but chose to stay in Ireland. Because of their support for the 1641 rebellion and the Jacobite cause, the Purcells temporarily lost their estates. However, on each occasion, they succeeded in regaining Loughmoe Castle, possibly because of their kinship with the Ormonde Butlers.

The wealth and influence of the Barons of Loughmoe waned during the early 18th century, and considerable portions of the estate were sold to meet mounting debts.

The last Baron of Loughmoe, Nicholas Purcell, was a maternal nephew of James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormonde. Nicholas died without male heirs on 24 March 1723, and the estate was divided between his sisters and daughters. The Purcell-Whites were the last to live in Loughmoe Caastle, and remained there until about1760.

The English composer Henry Purcell (1659-1695) is said to be related to the Purcell family of Loughmoe. He was the son of Henry Purcell, who is said to have been born in Ireland, and the grandson of Thomas Purcell of Gortanny and Ballyross, Co Tipperary.

The Loughmoe part of the estate was sold to the Goolds in 1787, then parts of it to George Adair in 1857, to the Cardens in 1875 and then under the 1923 Land Act to the Land Commission. The Land Commission conveyed the freehold on favourable terms to former tenants. Loughmoe Castle is now in the care of the Office of Public Works.

I am particularly interested in Loughmoe Castle because my direct ancestors include Mary Purcell, a daughter of Thomas Purcell of Loughmoe Castle, and her husband, Richard Comerford ‘fitzThomas’ (1564-1637), of Ballybur Castle, Co Kilkenny.

Richard Comerford’s first wife was Joanna Sweetman, daughter of John Sweetman of Castle Eve, Co Kilkenny, and aunt of William Sweetman of Castle Eve, executor of Richard Comerford’s will with John Purcell of Crannagh Castle, Co Tipperary. She was alive when Thomas Comerford died in 1589, but she died without having any children.

Richard Comerford of Ballybur Castle then married his second wife Mary, a daughter of Thomas Purcell (1538-1609) of Loughmoe Castle.

Richard’s will, dated 21 April 1637, was witnessed by his first cousin, Richard Comerford of Danganmore, Peter Rothe, Walter Butler and James Purcell, his brother-in-law. He died on 15 June 1637, aged 73, and was buried according to his will in Grange Church, near Desart, Co Kilkenny.

4.14: The surviving fraction of the wayside cross dedicated to Richard and Mary Comerford was inserted in the north-west corner of Grange Church by Michael Comerford and others in the late 19th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Two monuments in Cuffesgrange, Co Kilkenny, commemorated Richard and Mary (Purcell) Comerford, a wayside cross and an altar tomb. The remaining base of the wayside cross was later inserted in the masonry of the north-west corner of the parish church in Cuffesgrange. This fraction was covered in cement when Carrigan visited Grange in the early 20th century, but is now clearly visible. It reads:

... Rich ... Comerford de Ballibvr eqvitis et Dominae Mariae Pvrcell vxoris eivs qvi hanc crvcem in honorem Almae crvcis Dni. nri. fieri fecervnt, 20 jvlii ...

Translated, this reads:

[Pray for the souls of] Rich[ard] Comerford of Ballybur, Knight, and of Mrs Mary Purcell, his wife, both of whom had this cross erected in honour of the Holy Cross of our Lord, 20 July ...

The second monument in the graveyard in Grange was an altar-tomb with an ornamental reredos and Latin inscription, which was re-erected in 1869 by the Kilkenny historians John Hogan of Ormond House, Kilkenny, and William Healy, and the Carlow historian, Bishop Michael Comerford (1831-1895), a founder member of the Ossory Archaeological Society. The inscription reads:

D.O.M.
Sacrum
Amoris mortisque monumentum Richardus Comerford, Armiger, Dominus de Ballibvr, vire vere pivs, probvs, prvdens, fortis variis, in Revblica mvnerbus pace belloque svmma integriate perfvnctvs, obiit 15 Junii, 1637. Posvit Richardo Marito avo charissimo sibi ac liberis Maria Purcell, obiit Marie Pvrcell. Defunctis Viator bene pecare


Translated, this reads:

To God Omnipotent, Most High,
Sacred.
A monument of love and death. Richard Comerford, Esquire, Lord of Ballybur, a man truly pious, upright, prudent, valiant, having fulfilled various offices of state in peace and war with strictest rectitude, died on 15 June 1637. Mary Purcell erected [this monument] to Richard, her most beloved husband, herself and children. Mary Purcell died ... Traveller, pray piously for the departed.


Richard and Mary Comerford had three sons and eleven daughters. Their second but eldest surviving son, John Comerford (ca 1598-ca 1667), who inherited Ballybur and the other family estates.

John was the last Comerford to live at Ballybur Castle and, despite his kinship with the Ormonde Butlers, and unlike the Purcells of Loughmoe, he never recovered his castle and estates after the wars and po9litical turmoil of the 1640s and 1650s. He is my direct ancestor through his descendants who moved first to north Co Kilkenny and then to north Co Wexford.

Mary Purcell of Loughmoe Castle married Richard Comerford of Ballybur Castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)