30 September 2019

Should we heed the
Angel of Death as
political vocabulary
becomes more violent?

the language of gorgiveness and hope in the face of death and mass murder … a fading rose on the fence at Birkenau (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

In my sermon yesterday [29 September 2019], I speak about the Archangel Michael, and tried to say how the few Biblical references to him and the attributes ascribed to him and other angels in the rabbinical and patristic traditions are relevant to today’s struggles against evil and oppression.

Some churches have translated their celebrations of the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels to today [30 September 2019], and so many congregations may not have had to reflect on the Biblical meaning of Saint Michael and All Angels.

But if we leave the archangels and angels aside, there is a danger of handing them over to ‘New Age’ thinking that exploits the foibles and needs of vulnerable people.

Discussing yesterday’s reflections and sermon with a friend earlier today, I realised how that most frightening images of an angel, the Angel of Death, is relevant to the rise of political extremism today across Europe and in North America.

As Donald Trump and Boris Johnson play with words, repeating mantras such as ‘Make America Great Today’ and ‘Get Brexit Done,’ the storm clouds rumble and the far-right continues to seize the opportunities it is offered.

John Bright, who made his ‘Angel of Death’ speech in the House of Commons in 1855, was the first MP to refer to the ‘Mother of Parliaments’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I was reminded today how the Angel of Death plays a very terrifying role in an oratorio written by the great English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), Dona nobis pacem, written as fascism was on the rise across Europe, and the world once again stood on the brink of war, chaos and destruction.

The fifth movement in this oratorio is called ‘The Angel of Death.’ Vaughan Williams derived his text for this movement from a speech in the House of Commons on 23 February 1855 by the great Victorian politician and reformer, John Bright, in which he condemned the Crimean War.

John Bright (1811-1889), who was almost a lone voice in opposing the Crimean War, was a leading Quaker, a Radical and Liberal statesman, and one of the greatest orators of his generation. The historian AJP Taylor says ‘John Bright was the greatest of all parliamentary orators … the alliance between middle class idealism and trade unionism, which he promoted, still lives in the present-day Labour Party.’

Bright was an MP from 1843 to 1889, opposing the Corn Laws and promoting free trade, electoral reform and religious freedom. He was almost a lone voice in opposing the Crimean War. In a speech in Birmingham in 1865, he became the first politician to refer to Westminster as the ‘Mother of Parliaments.’

Bright’s speech in the Commons in 1855 draws on images in the Passover story in the Book Exodus, where the Angel of Death kills the firstborn children of Egypt, but spared any Israelite where the lintels and the door posts have been painted the lintels of his door posts with the blood of the lamb (see Exodus 12: 21-32).

Of course, the Exodus story makes no mention of the ‘Angel of Death’ as the author of this tenth and final plague. But his eloquence helped to popularise this image, although his speech did not stop the Crimean War and 600,000 people were left dead.

Afterwards, Benjamin Disraeli told Bright: ‘I would give all that I ever had to have delivered that speech.’ However, the speech did not prevent the Crimean War. As Bright had predicted, the campaign wasted many lives. More were lost through incompetent preparations than on the battlefield. Despite the technical military advances the British military had acquired, the war was marked by incompetence and 600,000 people were left dead.

Shocked by the disaster, and frustrated by his inability to avert the war, Bright experienced a nervous breakdown. He lost his seat as MP for Manchester, although he was soon elected MP for Birmingham in 1858.

At the time Vaughan Williams was writing this oratorio, Bright’s speech was finding new relevance in England with the rise of Nazism and Fascism on Continental Europe, and a fear of yet another great war.

Bright’s words were given new prominence in those fearful days in the 1930s, with the rise of Nazism and Fascism on Continental Europe, and a fear of yet another great war. They were quoted by the pacifist former Dean of Canterbury, HRL (‘Dick’) Sheppard (1880-1937) in his We Say No (1935). This book was published a year before he founded the Peace Pledge Union and a year before Vaughan Williams’s Dona nobis pacem was first performed.

Vaughan Williams wrote Dona nobis pacem, a cantata for soprano and baritone soli, chorus and orchestra in six sections or movements:

1, Agnus Dei

2, Beat! beat! drums! (Whitman)

3, Reconciliation (Whitman)

4, Dirge for Two Veterans (Whitman)

5, The Angel of Death (John Bright)

6, Dona nobis pacem (the Books of Jeremiah, Daniel, Haggai, Micah, and Leviticus, the Psalms, the Book of Isaiah, and Saint Luke’s Gospel)

In the fifth movement, Vaughan Williams creates an atmosphere of anxiety and expectation, which leaves us wondering whether the war will ever end, whether we shall ever find peace.

The ostinato bass which has played out the ‘veterans’ in the last movement now plays in the Angel of Death.

The fifth movement begins with the baritone soloist and a quotation from John Bright’s speech in which he tried to prevent the Crimean War: ‘The Angel of Death has been abroad throughout the land...’ Darkness seeps through the music, first quietly then with a dramatic interjection of Dona nobis pacem.

In the final movement that follows, the fearful news of the presence of the Angel of Death causes the chorus to burst into another cry for peace, but only more trouble rolls across the land: ‘We looked for peace, but no good came... The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved...’

The Angel of Death has been abroad throughout the land;
you may almost hear the beating of his wings.
There is no one as of old …
to sprinkle with blood the lintel
and the two side-posts of our doors,
that he may spare and pass on.

Vaughan Williams uses these words to create an atmosphere of anxiety and expectation, which leaves us wondering whether the war will ever end, whether we shall ever find peace.

These words have relevance once again today as we worry about an increasing use of bellicose language and the vocabulary of hate by politicians who in previous generations might have been expected to be the ‘leaders of the free world.’

Footage has emerged on social media today of Boris Johnson asking for support for his use of military metaphors to describe the Brexit debate. The Guardian reports this afternoon how, at a Conservative conference fringe event in Manchester, he asks: ‘Do you think it’s OK for me to call it [the Benn Act] the 'surrender act’? Am I fighting a losing battle to use these military metaphors or should I stick to my guns?’

A vocabulary that relies on offensive and incendiary words and phrases such as surrender, collusion, battle and sticking to guns draws on Trump’s rhetoric and ignites a toxic political climate that incites violence.

It is probably without reward to point out that while Vaughan Williams was writing about the Angel of Death, the politicians who engaged in surrender and appeasement were Conservative Prime Ministers such as Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain, who caved in to the demands of Mussolini and Hitler, Lord Rothermere, the proprietor of the Daily Mail, Lord Beaverbook, proprietor of the Daily Express, and the ‘Cliveden Set.’

‘The Falling Angel,’ Marc Chagal (1947)

But if the image of the Angel of Death disturbs us, we are not the first.

Not only do I find myself asking why Pharaoh and his army had to drown. Why could events not take another turn so that they arrive late, after the people cross and after the waters return?

To make matters worse, Moses and the Israelites later sing a triumphant song of gratitude to God for wiping out their enemies, declaring: ‘God is a Man of War’ (see Exodus 15: 3). The Bible does not get any more masculine and militaristic than that.

Why is this Shirat Hayam (‘Song of the Sea’) so violent and unforgiving?

Where is God’s compassion and mercy?

Truth, Justice, Mercy and Peace … four figures on the façade of Westminster Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This story is part of a longer Biblical passage known to Jews as Beshalach (בְּשַׁלַּח‎ – ‘when he let go).’ It is read in synagogues on a Saturday around January or February, a Saturday that is known as Shabbat Shirah, after the ‘Song of the Sea.’

The story calls up the contrasting images of God parting the waters of Creation (Genesis 1: 6) and God promising after the Flood that the world would never be flooded or drowned again (Genesis 9: 11). So, this is a story that we need to search through for promises of new creation and God’s redemption.

Traditional Jewish commentaries have been sensitive to the ethical problems this story creates. The Talmud says that when they see the Egyptians drowning, the angels are about to break into song. But God silences them declaring, ‘How dare you sing for joy when my creatures are dying’ (Talmud, Megillah 10b, Sanhedrin 39b).

Rabbi Johanan says that when the Egyptians are drowning in the sea, the angels want to sing a song of rejoicing. But God rebukes them, asking them rhetorically: ‘The work of my hands is being drowned in the sea, and you want to sing songs?’

The Talmud reminds us that our personal elation should never make us forget the misfortunes afflicting others (Berachot 31a). The mediaeval commentaries, the Tosafot, say this is the source for the Jewish custom of breaking a glass at the end of a wedding ceremony. And this is also given as the reason why Jews spill out drops of wine on Seder night, the night of the Passover meal, as a reminder that the cup of deliverance and celebration cannot be full when others have to suffer.

The mediaeval rabbis point out that God continues to pour out pity and mercy for the rest of life even while wrongdoers are destroyed. Even when the oppressors engage in gross evil, God is open to forgiveness.

When DreamWorks made the movie Prince of Egypt (1998), they realised it was not politically correct to show the Israelites singing for joy at the death of their foes, so they had them begin to sing the ‘Song of the Sea’ as soon as they left Egypt. The song ‘When You believe,’ which became a hit single, refers to God’s power but conveniently avoids any mention of violence.

‘The Song of the Sea,’ or ‘The Song of Miriam’, is so challenging, so disturbing, that the General Synod of the Church of Ireland dropped it from the canticles in the 2004 edition of the Book of Common Prayer.

There is a dichotomy. If we are not happy that evil has been punished, then we do not care enough. But if we are not sad at the loss of life, then our humanity is weakened. The Prophet Ezekiel reminds us: ‘As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live’ (Ezekiel 33: 11).

Perhaps the two shores of the sea represent two sides of the one story. Perhaps, for us, we must pass through the middle, preserving and valuing life, yet not drowning in war and hate. The middle path between justice and mercy is a difficult one to tread and at any moment we can be washed away. We need to tread carefully and try not to get wet.

‘Dona nobis pacem’ with the Eastman-Rochester Chorus, the Eastman School Symphony Orchestra and Michaela Anthony, soprano

The synagogues of Dublin:
3, Marlborough Green

The site of the former Marlborough Green Synagogue, off Marlborough Street, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Dublin’s first recorded synagogue was in Crane Lane, off Dame Street. The congregation was first formed by Marrano or Sephardic Jews of Spanish and Portuguese descent who arrived in Dublin in the late 1650s and early 1660s.

The community moved to a new synagogue at Marlborough Green, off Marlborough Street, Dublin, in the mid-18th century. Some sources date this move to 1746, but the more likely date is 1762, the same year as the consecration of a new Church of Ireland parish church, Saint Thomas’s, on Marlborough Street.

The new synagogue was in the premises of a former glass factory, according to one account, or the former townhouse of George Felster, a wealthy merchant, according to another account.

The synagogue was visited by the Revd Dr Thomas Campbell, a friend of Samuel Johnson, in 1777, when he found the attendance meagre and the services irregular.

Despite the small size of the Jewish community in Dublin in the second half of the 18th century, the city reportedly had two rabbis in 1785.

However, political and economic circumstances led to the decline and disintegration of the Jewish community in Dublin. Many Jewish residents in Dublin moved to London, and the synagogue on Marlborough Green closed its doors in 1790 or 1791. Dublin was without a formal congregation again until 1822.

The furnishings were moved to the lodgings of Abraham Lyons or Lyon in Fishamble Street, beside Christ Church Cathedral. Some of these furnishings were sequestered for non-payment of rent. The Torah Scrolls were moved to London, although some accounts say they were rescued later and presented to the synagogue that opened at 40 Stafford Street in 1822.

When Marlborough Green Synagogue closed in 1790 or 1791, the furnishings were moved to the lodgings in Fishamble Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

One of my favourite hymns in recent years has been ‘The God of Abraham Praise’ (Church Hymnal No 323), by Thomas Olivers (1725-1799), who was inspired to write this hymn after hearing the Jewish Yigdal sung in the Great Synagogue in Duke’s Place in London in 1770.

‘Leoni,’ the name Olivers gave to the tune of this hymn, is a tribute to a great singer of the 18th century who once ran a theatre and opera company in Dublin and who may have officiated regularly as a cantor or assistant rabbi at the Marlborough Green Synagogue in Dublin.

Praying for the Messiah to come is a daily part of prayer in Judaism, and at the heart of Jewish prayer life is a prayer known as the Amidah (18 Blessings). It is often said three times a day and includes: ‘The offspring of your servant David may you speedily cause to flourish.’ The Yigdal, which is part of daily morning prayers in many congregations, focuses on the 13 Articles of Faith that Maimonides (1130-1205) says every Jew should believe in.

The tune is a Hebrew melody Thomas Olivers heard sung in 1770-1772 by Myer Lyon (Meier Leoni), the cantor of the Great Synagogue in London. Jewish tradition says the Yigdal was sung to this tune at the dedication of Solomon’s Temple … although the tune probably dates from the mid-14th century.

The version sung by Leoni was probably written by Daniel ben Judah, a Jewish liturgical poet who lived at Rome in the mid-14th century.

According to Simeon (Simcha) ben Isaac Luzzatto (1583-1663), a prominent rabbi in 17th century Venice, Daniel ben Judah was the author of this hymn containing the 13 articles of belief of Maimonides. This poem is sung by the Sephardim on the eve of Sabbaths and holy days, is included in the Romaniot ritual for Saturday evening and forms part of the morning prayer among the Ashkenazim.

Myer Lyon (ca 1750-1797) was a hazzan or cantor at the Great Synagogue in London. But during his life he was better known by the stage name Michael Leoni, which he used as a tenor opera singer in London and Dublin, and as the mentor of the singer John Braham.

Myer Lyon may have been born in Germany ca 1750. According to the memoirs of the actor James de Castro, he was born in Frankfurt-on-Main and was invited by ‘the German Jews’ to London, where ‘a very rich Jew, Mr Franks, instantly patronised him.’

The first record of him is in October 1760, when David Garrick (1717-1779) refers to him as ‘ye boy Leoni.’ In his teens, he was appointed meshorrer or choirboy to Isaac Polack, hazzan at the Great Synagogue in London, in 1767 at an annual salary of £40, on the understanding that he was to behave as a Yehudi Kasher or observant Jew.

When his voice came to the attention of the aristocracy and the actor David Garrick, he was given permission by the synagogue elders to appear on stage, where he adopted the name Michael Leoni. He sang a role in Garrick’s The Enchanter at Drury Lane Theatre, and was ‘received with great applause.’

Leoni’s reputation encouraged a number of Christians to come to the Great Synagogue on Friday nights to hear him, including the hymn-writer Thomas Olivers.

Because of financial problems, the synagogue decided to cut Leoni’s stipend by £8 a year in 1772. But he continued to sing in both the synagogue and in the theatre continued for some years.

He appeared frequently on the stage in London from 1770 to 1782, achieving successes in 1775 in Thomas Arne’s Artaxerxes (1775) and as Carlos in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Duenna at the Covent Garden Theatre. The Morning Chronicle noted The Duenna could ‘never be performed on a Friday, on account of Leoni’s engagement with the Synagogue.’

An 18th century map shows the location of Marlborough Green, east of Marlborough Street and north of Abbey Street

Leoni performed in Dublin theatres regularly between 1781 and 1784, and in his history of Irish Jews, The Jews of Ireland (Shannon, 1972), Louis Hyman suggests Leoni officiated in Marlborough Green synagogue, at least during the High Holidays. ‘It is tempting to speculate whether he assisted in 1781 at the marriage of Isaac Franks, of Manchester, who may have found the Jewish authorities in England, in their nervousness concerning the insidious perils of proselytising, unduly hesitant about accepting his fiancée, Miss Nash, daughter of a wealthy Quaker of Norfolk, as a convert to Judaism.’

Leoni’s success and his limited stipend at the synagogue led him to change his career in 1783 and chance his arm as an opera promoter as well as a performer. A rumour spread that he was dismissed by the synagogue for performing in Handel’s Messiah, but the rumour was unsubstantiated.

Leoni began his venture in Dublin with the composer Tommaso Giordani. One of Leoni’s most applauded songs in Dublin was an Italian version of Eileen Aruin. Leoni and Giordani took over the New Theatre in Capel Street, Dublin, to be devoted exclusively ‘to the Exhibition English Opera.’

The new opera house opened on 15 December 1783. During this time, once again, Hyman says ‘it may be safely surmised’ that Leoni officiated as cantor at the synagogue in Marlborough Green, Dublin.

However, this venture turned out to be a disaster, and without enough capital the theatre closed its doors after only seven months. Leoni was still in his mid-30s, and he never fully recovered from the financial consequences of this season in Dublin.

He appeared in 1787 in a benefit performance at Covent Garden Theatre, which was also the first stage appearance of John Braham. He last appeared on stage in London in 1788. He moved to Jamaica to become hazzan or cantor to the Jewish community in Kingston, where he died in 1797.

His former pupil, John Abraham, better known as John Braham (1774-1856), sang at the Theatre Royal in Dublin for 15 nights in 1809 for a fee of 2,000 guineas. He was on stage in Dublin again in 1823 and 1825. His daughter Francese Elizabeth Anne Braham (1821-1879) married as her fourth husband Samuel Chichester Parkinson-Fortescue (1823-1898), MP for Co Louth, and Chief Secretary of Ireland (1865-1866, 1868-1870), and 1st Lord Carlingford (1874-1898) and 2nd Lord Clermont (1887-1898). She was a society hostess and Lord Carlingford’s influence in society was due largely to her. She died on 5 July 1879, aged 58.

The site of the former Marlborough Green Synagogue, off Marlborough Street in Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Tomorrow: 4, Stafford Street Synagogue

Saturday: 2, Ballybough Cemetery

29 September 2019

‘I repent better in the waning
season when … all creatures
look keenly about them’

The symbolic foods that are part of Rosh Hashanah traditions include pomegranates and apples … Rosh Hashanah begins tonight (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

In this season of the Jewish High Holy Days, I have begun a series of blog postings on the synagogues of Dublin.

The Jewish High Holy Days this year begin this evening. Rosh Hashanah begins at sundown this evening [29 September] and ends at sundown on Tuesday [1 October 2019]. For some Jews who observe only one day, it ends at sundown tomorrow [30 September].

Rosh Hashanah (רֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה), literally the ‘head of the year,’ is the Jewish New Year and a time of inner renewal and divine atonement. The Biblical name is Yom Teruah (יוֹם תְּרוּעָה), which literally translates as the ‘day of shouting or blasting.’

The customs associated with Rosh Hashanah include attending the High Holy Day services in synagogues, when the shofar, a cleaned-out ram’s horn, is sounded, and reciting a special liturgy about teshuva, akin to repentance. Many people go to a repentance or Tashlich service where they throw breadcrumbs or pebbles into running water as a symbol of casting away their sins.

On the second night of Rosh Hashanah, it is customary to eat a new fruit, a symbol of newness. The symbolic foods that have become traditional include pomegranates and apples dipped in honey, hoping to evoke a sweet new year.

This day is also seen as a traditional anniversary of the creation of the first man and woman, Adam and Eve.

A traditional greeting during this holiday is Shanah Tovah, which translates from Hebrew to English as ‘Good New Year.’

On Rosh Hashanah, religious poems, called piyyutim, are added to the regular synagogue services. A special prayer book, the mahzor, is used on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and a number of additions are made to the regular service, when the Shofar is blown at several intervals.

The late year, by Marge Piercy

I like Rosh Hashanah late,
when the leaves are half burnt
umber and scarlet, when sunset
marks the horizon with slow fire
and the black silhouettes
of migrating birds perch
on the wires davening.

I like Rosh Hashanah late
when all living are counting
their days toward death
or sleep or the putting by
of what will sustain them—
when the cold whose tendrils
translucent as a jellyfish

and with a hidden sting
just brush our faces
at twilight. The threat
of frost, a premonition
a warning, a whisper
whose words we cannot
yet decipher but will.

I repent better in the waning
season when the blood
runs swiftly and all creatures
look keenly about them
for quickening danger.
Then I study the rockface
of my life, its granite pitted

and pocked and pickaxed
eroded, discoloured by sun
and wind and rain—
my rock emerging
from the veil of greenery
to be mapped, to be
examined, to be judged.

‘Rosh Hashanah Table’ … a ceramic glazed tile (20x30x1.5 cm) by Joel Itman, featured for Rosh Hashanah and September 2019 in a Jewish Art Calendar published in Italy (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Marge Piercy, ‘The Late Year’ from The Crooked Inheritance. Copyright © 2006 by Marge Piercy.

‘You will see heaven opened
and the angels of God
ascending and descending’

‘Michael and his angels fought against the dragon’ (Revelation 12: 7) … Jacob Epstein’s sculpture of ‘Saint Michael’s Victory over the Devil’ at Coventry Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 29 September 2019

Saint Michael and All Angels

(The Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity, Trinity XV)

11 a.m.: The Parish Eucharist (Holy Communion 2), Joint Group Service

Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick

Readings: Genesis 28: 10-17; Psalm 103: 19-22; Revelation 12: 7-12; John 1: 47-51.

An icon of the Archangel Michael in the Church of Saint George in Aghios Georgios in Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

What does your name mean to you?

Did your parents call you after a favourite family member, a grandparent, uncle or aunt, good neighbour?

Did they think your name would secure your place in the family?

Or did they think it would make you seem sophisticated, elegant, strong, beautiful, proud?

How do you feel when someone forgets your name, especially someone who should matter to you? Or calls you by the wrong name?

It irritates me that one particular person gets my surname wrong in minutes at meetings. And when I try to correct it, he gets it wrong again, and invariably mispronounces it.

It is not a very difficult name to remember or spell. So, I constantly feel that he does not think me or my opinion matter, and would not care whether or not I was at those meetings.

The meaning of names is important to identity. My name places me in time and space, connects me with my family and the places they have lived. Getting my name wrong denies that.

The other option for the Gospel reading this morning (Luke: 16 19-31) tells the parable of Dives and Lazarus.

Dives knows Lazarus by name. He never acknowledges him while he is alive and begging at his gate, covered in sores. But when he dies, he looks up and recognises Lazarus, and knows his name.

Although he passed him by and ignored him every day, he knew who he was and knew his name.

But Dives is not actually named in that Gospel story, despite how we have inherited its telling. Dives is simply the Latin word for a rich man, used in the Vulgate translations of the Bible.

I once heard a sermon by Archbishop Rowan Williams in which he said Dives had lost his actual name because he had lost his humanity. We are known to God by name. By separating himself so severely from God Dives has lost his humanity, his name that identifies his humanity and gives him his place in the human family.

When I worked at The Irish Times, Michael Jansen was a friend and colleague. We shared many of her hopes and fears, values and visions while she worked in the Middle East. Later, when she moved to Cyprus and shortly before my ordination, she invited me to spend Orthodox Easter in her village on the outskirts of Nicosia.

Friends and readers alike were surprised to find Michael is a woman. Most of us presume Michael is a man’s name. Yet the name Michael (Hebrew: מִיכָאֵל‎, Mîkhā'ēl; Greek: Μιχαήλ, Mikhaíl) is not gender specific. The Talmudic tradition says Michael means ‘who is like El (God)?’ It is a popular mistake to translate the name as ‘One who is like God.’ It is meant to be a question: ‘Who is like the Lord God?’

The name was said to have been the war-cry of the angels in the battle fought in heaven against Satan and his followers. With a name like that, is it any wonder that my friend Michael lived up to her father’s expectations, taking a strong stand against the twin evils of oppressive violence and political corruption?

There are few references to Saint Michael by name in the Bible (Daniel 10: 13, 21, 12: 1; Jude 9; Revelation 12: 7-9; see also Revelation 20: 1-3). Yet he has inspired great works in our culture, from John Milton’s Paradise Lost to Jacob Epstein’s powerful sculpture at Coventry Cathedral and poems by Philip Larkin and John Betjeman.

In all our imagery, in all our poetry, in stained glass windows throughout these islands, Saint Michael is depicted and seen as crushing or slaying Satan, often Satan as a dragon.

Culturally, today’s feast day of Saint Michael and All Angels has been an important day for the Church: the beginning of terms, the end of the harvest season, the settling of accounts.

It is the beginning of autumn, and as children in West Waterford we were told that Michaelmas Day is the last day for picking blackberries. It is a superstition shared across the islands, from Achill to Lichfield, from Wexford to Essex and Cambridge.

In his poem ‘At the chiming of light upon sleep,’ first drafted on Saint Michael’s Day 1946, the poet Philip Larkin links Michaelmas and a lost paradise with chances and opportunities he failed to take in his youth.

This is a day to allow the mind to wander back to childhood memories, and a time for contemplation and unstructured prayers, giving thanks for the beauty of creation. September is the beginning of the Church Year in the Orthodox tradition, so this too is a day to think about and to give thanks for beginnings and ends, for starting and ending, for openings and closings, for memories and even for forgetfulness.

Yet Michael is mentioned by name in the Bible only in the Book of Daniel, the Epistle of Jude and in the Book of Revelation.

After a period of fasting by Daniel, Michael appears as ‘one of the chief princes’ (Daniel 10: 13). Michael contends for Israel and is the ‘great prince, the protector of your (Daniel’s) people’ (Daniel 10: 21, 12: 1).

In the Epistle of Jude (verse 9), Michael contends with the Devil over the body of Moses, a story also found in the Midrash. In the Book of Revelation (Revelation 12: 7-12), we read of the war that ‘broke out in heaven’ between Michael and his angels and the dragon.

In later Jewish and Christian traditions, Michael is the ‘viceroy of heaven,’ ‘the prince of Israel,’ and the angel of forbearance and mercy, who teaches clemency and justice, who presides over human virtue.

Rabbinic lore and the Midrash made Michael the protector of Adam, the rescuer of Abraham, Lot and Jacob, the teacher of Moses, and the advocate of Israel; Michael tried to prevent Israel from being led into captivity, to save the Temple from destruction, and to protect Esther.

In the early Church, he is associated with the care of the sick, an angelic healer and heavenly physician associated with medicinal springs, streams and rivers. The Orthodox Church gave him the title Archistrategos or ‘Supreme Commander of the Heavenly Hosts.’ Saint Basil the Great and other Greek fathers placed Michael over all the angels and so called him ‘archangel.’

In the Middle Ages, Michael became the patron of warriors, and later the patron of police officers, soldiers, paratroopers, mariners, paramedics, grocers, the Ukraine, the German people, of many cities, including Brussels, Coventry and Kiev, and, of course, of Marks and Spencer.

Saint Michael was popular in the early Irish monastic tradition, and legends associate him with Skellig Michael off the Kerry coast.

More practically, Michaelmas Day became one of the regular ‘quarter days’ in England and in Ireland. It was one of the days set aside for settling rents and accounts. Traditionally, in England and Ireland, university terms and court terms began on Michaelmas.

In the modern world, where angels and archangels are often the stuff of fantasy, science fiction and new-age babble, it is worth reminding ourselves about some Biblical and traditional values associated with Saint Michael and the Angels. Angels are nothing more than – but nothing less than – the messengers of God, the bringers of good news.

Saint Michael’s virtues – standing up for God’s people and their rights, taking a clear stand against manifest evil, firmly opposing oppressive violence and political corruption, while always valuing forbearance and mercy, clemency and justice – are virtues we should always keep before us.

There is no special preface in the Book of Common Prayer for the Eucharist at Michaelmas because in the Preface to the Eucharist we already declare: ‘And so with all your people, with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven, we proclaim your great and glorious name, for ever praising you and saying ...’

We should always be prepared, like Saint Michael and the angels to ask and to answer the question: ‘Who is like the Lord God?’ and to join the whole company of heaven in proclaiming God’s great and glorious name.

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

‘There was a ladder … reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it’ (Genesis 28: 12) … ‘you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending’ (John 1: 51) … ascending and descending angels on a frosted-glass door in Coventry Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 1: 47-51 (NRSVA):

47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ 48 Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ 49 Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ 50 Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ 51 And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’

A statue of Saint Michael vanquishing the devil remains in front of the former Convent of Mercy in Rathkeale, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Liturgical colour: White


Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Woe is me, for I am lost;
I am a person of unclean lips.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Your guilt is taken away,
And your sin is forgiven.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Collect of the Day (Saint Michael and All Angels):

Everlasting God,
you have ordained and constituted the ministries
of angels and mortals in a wonderful order:
Grant that as your holy angels always serve you in heaven,
so, at your command,
they may help and defend us on earth;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Collect of the Day (Trinity XV):

who in generous mercy sent the Holy Spirit
upon your Church in the burning fire of your love:
Grant that your people may be fervent
in the fellowship of the gospel;
that, always abiding in you,
they may be found steadfast in faith and active in service;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Introduction to the Peace:

Hear again the song of angels:
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace. (Luke 2: 14)

The Post-Communion Prayer (Saint Michael):

Lord of heaven,
in this Eucharist you have brought us near
to an innumerable company of angels
and to the spirits of the saints made perfect.
As in this food of our earthly pilgrimage
we have shared their fellowship,
so may we come to share their joy in heaven;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Post-Communion Prayer (Trinity XV):

Eternal God,
we have received these tokens of your promise.
May we who have been nourished with holy things
live as faithful heirs of your promised kingdom.
We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Blessing:

The God of all creation
guard you by his angels,
and grant you the citizenship of heaven:

Saint Michael in a fresco in a church in Georgioupoli in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)


346, Angel voices, ever singing (CD 21)
492, Ye servants of God, your master proclaim (CD 28)
332, Come let us join our cheerful song (CD 20)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

Saint Michael depicted in a stained-glass window in Saint Michael’s Church, the Church of Ireland parish church in Killorglin, Co Kerry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

28 September 2019

A unique taste of Corfu
in a traditional tipple

The Vassilakis distillery and winery … the home of the kumquat liqueur in Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Port in Porto … Guinness in Ireland … whisky in Scotland … limoncello in Sorrento … retsina or ouzo throughout Greece … and (if I may say so, even after this morning’s rugby match) sake in Japan.

But in Corfu, Kumquat is the traditional tipple.

It is everywhere in Corfu … on the supermarket shelves, in souvenir shops, and even as an aperitif … before and after dinner. And there is kumquat syrup, kumquat marmalade, kumquat sweets, kumquat biscuits ... for all I know, there is even kumquat soup.

It was a little too sweet for my taste, but I was in Corfu and I had to taste and to visit a kumquat distillery to learn how this unusual orange-coloured liqueur came to be one of the trademarks of Corfu.

Corfu is the only place in Greece where this fruit is cultivated. The tiny orange fruit is originally from China and South Japan, and the name means golden fruit. In Asian countries, the kumquat is also favoured as a bonsai and is sometimes given as a gift.

A large barrel at the Vassilakis shop (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The kumquat found its way from China and south Japan to Europe in the late 18th century, and it was introduced to Corfu by an English agronomist in 1860. Since then, it has become one of the main agricultural products of the island. The fertile soil, abundant water and mild climate favour its growth in Corfu, and there are 6,000 kumquat trees throughout the island.

The kumquat, or marumi kumquat, is part of the citrus family and looks like a small orange. The leaves are dark green, the blossom is white, and it grows either in bunches or separately. The tree is about 2-3 meters high and the round fruit is about 2 cm in diameter. The thick, fleshy peel is yellow-orange in colour and is sweet inside. The fruit ripens in December, changing colour from green to orange, and the harvesting season lasts from January to May.

It can be eaten as a fruit, and can be used to make sweets, jams, syrups, and liqueurs. The liqueur can be made by macerating kumquats in vodka, gin, brandy or other clear spirits.

The colour indicates whether the liqueur has been made from the rind or from the fruit itself. If the colour is bright orange spirit, then it has been made only with the skin. It is very sweet in taste and extremely fragrant as well. Being also quite strong in taste, it is the favourite choice for making cocktails, as well as for adding flavour to creams, puddings, and other desserts.

The white liqueur is considerably less sweet and local people often serve it after meals, the same way they serve ouzo, tsikoudia, and tsipouro in other parts of Greece.

The vats at the Vassilakis distillery and winery in Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Earlier this month, I visited the factory of the Vassilakis distillery and winery in the area Agios Ioannis area of Triklino. An exhibition area offers visitors an opportunity to taste and buy a variety of products throughout the year.

The Vassilakis Distillery and Winery, known for the ‘Corfiot Lady’ or ‘Corfiot Dame’ brand, was founded in 1960 by Theodore Vassilakis. The distillery makes and bottles traditional kumquat liqueurs, as well as ouzo and several wine labels. The company products also include traditional sweets such as mandoles, mandolato and loukoumi, as well as extra virgin olive oil.

Vassilakis took his first entrepreneurial steps 60 years ago when he opened a small shop selling dried nuts and sweets in the San Rocco area in the centre of Corfu Town in 1959.

He opened a shop in Athens in 1960 and this became his centre for delivering his products throughout Greece. At the same time, he obtained his first distillery licence for kumquat, and opened a small distillery lab.

He built the distillery and winery at their present location in Corfu in 1966, and with love and passion the family overcame the financial and economic difficulties they faced.

Vassilakis expanded the business to Kephallonia in 1980 with Vassilakis Vineyards and a winery (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Vassilakis expanded the business to Kephallonia in 1980 with Vassilakis Vineyards and a winery. The labels include well-known varieties such as Robola, Moschato and Mavrodaphne, and some more special labels, including Protogonos and Grovino.

Vassilakis opened a new shop at the Achilleion Palace in 1990, with an exhibition area, cellar and snack bar inside a beautifully landscaped garden.

He began exporting kumquat liqueurs from Corfu in 2000, first to the Netherlands and Germany. Today, kumquat liqueurs are known well beyond Corfu, and the Vassilakis Distillery and Winery continue to create new products.

Grapes on the vine at the Vassilakis Distillery and Winery in Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The synagogues of Dublin:
2, Ballybough Cemetery

The Jewish Cemetery on Fairview Strand, Ballybough is Ireland’s oldest Jewish cemetery and one of the earliest Jewish burial grounds on these islands (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The 300-year-old Jewish Cemetery at 67 Fairview Strand, Ballybough, dates from 1718. It is Ireland’s oldest Jewish cemetery and one of the earliest Jewish burial grounds on these islands. It merits consideration for National Monument status, according to a conservation and management plan commissioned by the Dublin City Council.

The façade of the caretaker’s cottage has a shield with an inscription that reads ‘Built in the Year 5618’ – the Hebrew calendar dating for 1857-1858 CE. The inscription is well-known on northside Dublin and has caused mirth among generations of Dublin schoolboys, but the Jewish new year that begins tomorrow evening [29 September 2019] is 5780.

Many Dubliners think the cottage is either a mortuary chapel or a synagogue, so any list of Dublin synagogues must also take account of the cemetery in Ballybough.

A small number of Jews had settled in the Annadale area off Ellis Avenue (now Philipsburgh Avenue), Fairview, by the 1700s. Most of them were Marranos, descended from Jewish families forced to convert to Christianity by the Inquisition. Some had fled from Spain and Portugal, others had arrived indirectly through the Netherlands.

Acting on behalf of the community, Alexander Felix (David Penso), Jacob do Porto, and David Machado de Sequeira, on behalf of the Sephardic community, and Abraham Meirs on behalf of the Ashkenazic community, leased a plot of land for a graveyard from Captain Chichester Phillips (1647-1728) of Drumcondra Castle. Phillips had been MP for Askeaton, Co Limerick (1695-1699) and probably gave his name to Philipsburgh Avenue.

A 40-year lease was signed on 29 September 1717, and the lease was granted on 28 October 1718. The foundation date of 1718 makes this cemetery older than the Alderney Road cemetery in Mile End, London, acquired by the Great Synagogue, London, in 1725.

The Jewish community sought assistance from German and Polish Jews in London to build a wall around the cemetery. At first they failed to receive support from the Bevis Marks Synagogue or Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in London. But eventually the Bevis Marks community not only funded the wall but provided a supervisory agent from London.

Many members of the Jewish community in Dublin had Sephardi roots. By 1748, the congregation was in financial difficulty and was £7 10s in arrears with paying the rent on the cemetery lease. Members of the Bevis Marks Synagogue came to their assistance, and in the name of Michael Philips, a member of the Crane Lane synagogue, bought the freehold of the cemetery from Michael Phillips, grandson of Chichester Phillips, for £34 10s. The title deeds for the cemetery were deposited at Bevis Marks and remain there until the 20th century.

The small site is only about one-seventh of an acre in size. The cemetery has more than 200 graves, and Louis Hyman lists the inscriptions in an appendix in The Jews of Ireland (pp 267-273).

The cemetery has almost 150 headstones with inscriptions in both Hebrew and English, and holds about 200 graves. The oldest legible headstone marks the grave of Jacob Wills (1701-1777). He was born in France, the son of Yochanan Weil, and lived in London before moving to Dublin, where was a jeweller and goldsmith on Essex Quay. In the synagogue he was known as Jacob Frenchman, but in secular life he was known as Jacob Will or Wills. He died on 11 March 1777.

In the past, visitors have shown particular interest in three or four Rothschild family graves – although they are not related to the banking family.

The mortuary house built in 1857 served as the caretaker’s cottage (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The mortuary house was built in 1857, 139 years after the cemetery first opened, as a defence against grave robbery and the theft of headstones, and served as the caretaker’s cottage.

The largest tomb belongs to Lewis Wormser Harris of Suffolk Street, a former alderman, who was been elected Lord Mayor of Dublin. He would have been the city’s first Jewish Lord Mayor but died the day before he was due to take office in 1876. Eighty years later, Alderman Robert Briscoe became Dublin’s first Jewish Lord Mayor in 1956.

The only burials in the 20th century were of members of the Harris family: Juliette Harris, widow of Alderman Lewis Wormser Harris (1908), their son, Ernest Wormser Harris (1946), and his wife, Maude Jeanette Harris (1958), the last burial.

The cemetery officially closed in 1978. Meanwhile, a new cemetery, dedicated to Sir Moses Montefiore, had opened on Aughavannagh Road in Dolphin’s Barn 80 years earlier in 1898. It was established by Robert Bradlaw and the Dolphin’s Barn Jewish Burial Society. Bradlaw was one of the founders of the Saint Kevin’s Parade Synagogue.

Until recently, the cottage at Fairview was lived in by the cemetery caretakers, Con and Gloria O’Neill. Gloria was so devoted to her task that she was even seen handwashing the gravestones.

Dublin City Council took ownership of the cemetery on Fairview Strand two years ago [2017] from the Dublin Jewish Board of Guardians, who could no longer afford its upkeep. It had been a Jewish cemetery for 300 years.

The Irish Times reported two months ago [15 July 2019] that the cemetery is to be refurbished and reopened to the public more than 40 years since its closure, under new plans from Dublin City Council.

However, the fabric and character of the cemetery is under threat due to the overgrown condition of the grounds, the dilapidated state of the mortuary house and encroachment from neighbouring sites.

‘Of particular concern, given international experience, is the risk of anti-Semitic vandalism leading to the defilement of this sacred space’ if its poor condition is not addressed, the plan states.

The conservation report notes the grounds have been ‘colonised’ by invasive plants, including Japanese knotweed, and mature trees are displacing memorials, damaging their stonework and metalwork.

In recent years, the cottage has suffered from break-ins and squatting. While there are ‘no obvious examples’ of anti-Semitic vandalism, the report said, this is a risk, and the house and cemetery would ‘remain a focus for anti-social behaviour’ unless a strategy was put in place to ensure the ‘preservation of the built heritage and the sanctity of the burials, while also making the site more secure and accessible to the public.’

The council has carried out historic research, cleared weeds and secured the house. It plans further conservation and restoration work before the cemetery opens to the public. There have been suggestions the house should be used as a museum or interpretive centre. The report recommends it be restored for use as a caretaker’s house for surveillance of the cemetery.

Most members of Dublin’s Jewish community are now buried in Dolphin’s Barn cemetery or in the Progressive Jewish Cemetery at Woodtown, near Rathfarnham.

The cemetery in Ballybough was a Jewish cemetery for 300 years (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Monday: 3, Marlborough Green Synagogue

Yesterday: 2, Crane Lane Synagogue

27 September 2019

Brexit slogans and mantras
become meaningless in
the face of tourist crises

Thomas Cook’s collapse left 50,000 British tourists stranded in Greece this week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

It has been said this week that it would have cost the British government the same amount of money to rescue Thomas Cook as is being spent on the operation to rescue stranded tourists in Greece, Spain and Turkey — Thomas Cook’s most popular summer destinations.

Thomas Cook’s bankruptcy could strike a devastating blow to communities that are economically reliant on package tourism. Greek commentators say the Greek economy is facing a disaster, and early estimates this week spoke of losses of at least €300 million.

Thomas Cook was the biggest UK holiday operator in Greece. It sent 3 million visitors a year to the islands, employed 1,000 people on the ground, and almost 50 Greek hotels had franchise agreements with Thomas Cook.

About 50,000 tourists were left stranded in Greece this week, with about 20,000 in Crete alone. The tourists, mainly British, were also on the islands of Corfu, Kos, Rhodes, Skiathos and Zakynthos, according to a Greek tourism ministry official quoted in the Athens daily newspaper Kathimerini.

Tourism officials likened the company’s collapse to a massive earthquake that would reverberate through the Greek economy.

‘It’s a seven-richter earthquake and we are expecting a tsunami,’ said Michalis Vlatakis, president of Crete’s travel bureaux and travel agents. ‘It’s not only the contracts of the visitors who have come and are now lost, it’s all those contracts that won’t materialise because people who were expected to come up until 10 November simply won’t travel.’

Manolis Tsakalakis, a hotelier in Rethymnon and president of a local owners’ association in Crete, told the Financial Times that hotel owners in Crete had not received any payments from Thomas Cook for the past two months.

‘Thomas Cook is one of the biggest tourism operators in Crete,’ he added. ‘He explained how most hotels in Crete have accumulated considerable debt to suppliers — ‘a million or two euros at a big resort, for example, or half a million at a smaller hotel.’

Scores of hotels and operators on Corfu, Kos, Rhodes and Zakynthos are owed money, and it is not clear whether will get it back. Two hoteliers told the Financial Times that the Atol protection scheme funded by the British travel industry would cover the bills for guests who were staying with them at the time of the liquidation announcement, but not for those who had already checked out.

Thomas Cook had 48 own-brand hotels in Greece and employed 1,000 to 1,200 people in Greece through a combination of in-destination customer support teams, quality management, contracting and hotel employees. Kos, Rhodes, Corfu and Crete were Thomas Cook’s most popular islands in Greece.

The company was regarded as one of the best employers in the tourist industry in Crete, where its hotels were part of a chain with hundreds of suppliers and small-scale tourist businesses.

Undoubtedly, bad management and failures to manage and control company indebtedness contributed to the collapse of Thomas Cook. But would it have been allowed to go so suddenly, causing a disaster for so many workers and holidaymakers by a British government that was no obsessed with ‘Brexit’ and all the shibboleths and mantras that go with that, including controlling borders, leaving Europe and the much-abused ‘Dunkirk Spirit.’

It is certainly not a government that is listening to the people rather than the privileged.

A choice of passports is becoming important for holidaymakers (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

But if a ‘no-deal Brexit’ goes through, I can imagine more nightmares unfolding, many with the most bizarre consequences.

The tourist season in southern Europe and the Mediterranean now continues into the first week or two in November. So, I imagine a scene like this after a ‘no-deal Brexit’ and after 1 November:

Now young, newly qualified policemen draw the short straw for the roster at the passport control kiosks at an airport serving many hotels and resorts. It may be on a Greek island … but equally it might be in Spain, Turkey or Italy.

They draw the short straws because it is the weekend, and find they are working the night shifts on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, while their older colleagues enjoy the weekend.

A late-night flight from Stansted is late. When it finally lands, it is obvious most of the passengers have been drinking … after all, their departure was delayed, and it is the beginning of their holiday.

Some are in their sleeveless T-shirts as they get off the plane and line up at one of the two kiosks where our lonely pair are ready to check the passports. Needless to say, there is no-one among the women wearing a spider brooch.

They are about to present themselves at the one kiosk that says ‘EU/EEA passports,’ each shifting with just a little anxiety from one foot to the other. No-one is queuing at the other kiosk, ‘Other Passports.’

The first on the queue presents his passport. A few seconds elapses. It is inspected quizzically. It is put through a small scanner that refuses to read it and pushes it back out again.

A few minutes elapse.

The two young, sorely-pressed policemen look knowingly at each other.

Was that a suppressed smile or a grimace? Two heads nod back in the shortest and almost unnoticeable of reverse gestures.

‘Sorry sir, this passport says you are an EU citizen.’


‘But you are not.’

‘But this is my passport.’

‘Other queue.’

He shifts across, but is the first at the other kiosk.

‘Sorry sir, this passport says you are an EU citizen.’


‘But you are not.’

‘I am British.’

‘Do you have a visa?’


More fidgeting, more murmuring.

Finally a rubber stamp is taken out: ‘ADMISSION REFUSED.’

And so the process continues, slowly, for the next hour or two.

Nine people get through: two families who are Polish – and who faced racist taunts by some of the hooligans on the flight who kept calling out the names of Farage and Johnson; and the couple who had the foresight to apply for Irish passports earlier this year.

But over 200 people are left crammed into a small corridor, without air conditioning, and without any vending machines selling water.

The humour is lost when a call goes out: ‘Far queue.’

Meanwhile, inside the airport, their bags are rolling round and round the carousel with the clothes and packed water they so desperately need and thirst for.

And, inside the airport, another 200 people whose flight was delayed know their plane has landed, but cannot understand why they are not allowed to board their flight home.

It’s 2 or 3 in the morning, and 400 people now realise a British passport has become as useful as a passport from Abkhazia, Northern Cyprus, Somaliland or South Ossetia.

The situation is tense. Temperatures are rising. The two young police recruits at the kiosk decide to call their colleagues in. There is a situation that is about to get out of control.

The older police who manipulated the weekend roster have been taught a bitter lesson.

And the ‘Leave’ voters on both sides of the airport begin to realise what it means when another country decides to take control of its borders without caring about the impact on European friends and neighbours.

The synagogues of Dublin:
1, Crane Lane, Dame Street

Crane Lane, leading from Dame Street to Wellington Quay … Dublin’s first synagogue was located here from the 1660s until about 1762 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

As I reminisced about the synagogues I have visited in about a dozen countries over the past decade I so, I realised that in this blog I had not paid similar attention to the synagogues and former synagogues in Dublin.

In the coming weeks, leading up to and including the Jewish high holy days (Yamim Noraim) – Rosh HaShana (30 September 2019) and Yom Kippur (9 October 2019) – I hope to look at the synagogues of Dublin.

Over the past 350 years or so, there has been a dozen and a half or more synagogues in Dublin, from small congregations meeting in rented, upstairs rooms, to the elegant synagogue that stood for over a century on Adelaide Road, and the modern synagogue on Rathfarnham Road, Terenure.

I was born only doors away from the synagogue on Rathfarnham Road, and in my childhood and teens knew many of the synagogues off Clanbrassil Street and the South Circular Road, in an area of Dublin that was known as ‘Little Jerusalem.’

In A Short History of the Jews of Ireland (1945), Bernard Shillman traces the first Jews to moved to Ireland back to 1232. However, Jews were expelled from both Ireland and England in 1290.

In the centuries that followed, there are records of individual Jews and a number of Conversos or Marranos who lived in Ireland, including William Annyas, who was Mayor of Youghal, Co Cork, in 1555, and Francis Anes was mayor in 1569, 1576 and 1581.

Tradition says the Spanish and Portuguese Jews formed a small congregation in rooms in Crane Lane in the 1660s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Jews were first free to settle in Ireland under Cromwellian edicts issued in 1656. A Jewish community soon gathered in Dublin. Around 1660, a small group of Conversos or Jews from Spain and Portugal whose families had been forcibly converted to Christianity, arrived in Dublin. They had secretly continued to practice their Judaism.

Three or four families of Spanish or Portuguese descent and two or three of Polish or German origin had settled in Dublin by 1660.

Tradition says the Spanish and Portuguese Jews formed a small congregation in rooms in Crane Lane, leading from Dame Street down to Wellington Quay. Some historians describe this as one of the oldest Jewish communities formally formed on these islands.

Initially, the congregation followed Sephardi rituals and practices. But the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim worshipped together. Later, the congregation became increasingly Ashkenazi, although it retained certain Sephardi customs.

The first rabbi attracted to this small community in Dublin, Aaron be Moses (ca 1635-ca 1715), was born at Novogrodek in Poland around 1635. He had worked in Lemna and in Vilna, and was living to London by 1695. He moved to Dublin in the first decades of the 18th century, and there he combined the roles of rabbi, teacher, marriage-broker and scribe, before returning to England.

This community maintained close links with the Bevis Marks Synagogue or Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in London, and founded the first Jewish cemetery in Dublin, at Ballybough.

The community split in 1753, and a rival congregation was formed. But peace was restored and the small congregation continued to worship in the Crane Lane premises until it moved to new premises in a former glassworks in Marlborough Green, off Marlborough Street, close to the present Abbey Theatre and on the other side of the River Liffey.

Various dates have been given for this move, between 1746 and 1762, but Louis Hyams, in his The Jews of Ireland (1972), prefers the latter date.

In his introduction to Jewish Dublin, the late Asher Benson pointed out that until recently the precise location of the upstairs synagogue in Crane Lane was a matter of pure conjecture.

However, when Stan Mason and Mason Technology bought the former synagogue at Greenville Hall on the South Circular Road, he helped, in an amazing coincidence, to pinpoint the location of the Crane Lane Synagogue.

He realised this was the second time Mason Technology had moved into a former synagogue in Dublin. The company had previously worked from premises on Crane Lane, which retained the women’s gallery from the former synagogue.

Sadly, what remained of the Crane Lane Synagogue was later destroyed in a fire in the building.

The synagogue in Crane Lane closed its doors around 1762 and moved to Marlborough Green (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Tomorrow: Ballybough Cemetery.

26 September 2019

The missing anti-war
message in a poem
on a corner in Adare

‘Ye morning airs, how sweet at dawn’ … flowers in Adare on a September morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

While I was in Adare one morning earlier this week, I notice the poem ‘Oh, sweet Adare,’ by Gerald Griffin (1803-1840), the West Limerick novelist, poet and playwright, on the side of a pub wall.

Its position on a corner means it is not always noticeable, and this lengthy poem is not quoted fully [the missing verses are in square brackets]:

Oh, sweet Adare! Oh, lovely vale!
Oh, soft retreat of sylvan splendour.
Nor summer sun nor morning gale
E’er hailed a scene more softly tender
How shall I tell the thousand charms,
Within thy verdant bosom dwelling,
When lulled in Nature’s fostering arms,
Soft peace abides and joy excelling?

Ye morning airs, how sweet at dawn
The slumbering boughs your song awaken;
Or, linger o’er the silent lawn,
With odour of the harebell taken.
Thou rising sun, how richly gleams
Thy smile from far Knockfierna’s mountain
O’er waving woods and bounding streams,
And many a grove and glancing fountain.

Ye clouds of noon, how freshly there,
When summer heats the open meadows,
O’er parched hill and valley fair,
All coolly lie your veiling shadows.
Ye rolling shades and vapours gray,
Slow creeping o’er the golden heaven,
How soft ye seal the eye of day,
And wreathe the dusky brow of even.

[Where glides the Maigue as silver clear,
Among the elms so sweetly flowing,
There fragrant in the early year,
Wild roses on the banks are blowing,
There, wild ducks sport on rapid wing,
Beneath the alder’s leafy awning,
And sweetly there the small birds sing,
When daylight on the hill is dawning.]

In sweet Adare, the jocund spring
His notes of odorous joy is breathing,
The wild birds in the woodland sing
The wild flowers in the vale are breathing
There winds the Maigue, as silver clear,
Among the elms so sweetly flowing –
There fragrant in the early year,
Wild roses on the banks are blowing.

The wild duck seeks the sedgy bank,
Or dives beneath the glistening billow,
Where graceful droop and cluster dank
The osier bright and rustling willow;
The hawthorn scents the leafy dale,
In thicket lone the stag is belling,
And sweet along the echoing vale
The sound of vernal joy is swelling.

[Ah, sweet Adare; ah, lovely vale!
Ah, pleasant haunt of sylvan splendour;
Nor summer sun, nor moonlight pale
E’er saw a scene more softly tender.
There through the wild woods echoing arms
Triumphant notes of joy were swelling,
When, safe returned from war’s alarms,
Young Hyland reached his native dwelling.]

The window in an antique shop in Adare (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Gerald Griffin was born in Limerick on 12 December 1803, one of three sons and four daughters of Patrick Griffin, a brewer. From the age of seven, he was raised at ‘Fairy Lawn,’ a cottage at Loughhill, between Askeaton and Foynes. He was educated in the classics in various schools from the age 11, taking a special interest in Virgil.

His family broke up when his parents moved to Pennsylvania in 1820, and Gerald, his brother Daniel and their two sisters moved to Pallaskenry, where their elder brother, Dr William Griffin.

In his teens, he edited the Limerick Advertiser, with the assistance of William Maginn and John Banim. He wrote a play, The Tragedy of Aguire, which was staged in 1842, two years after his death. Thomas Davis said it was one of the greatest historical dramas since Shakespeare. Griffin also contributed to the Literary Gazette and other publications.

When he returned to Limerick in 1827, he lived in Pallaskenry with his brother, and there he wrote his Tales of the Munster Festivals (1827) and The Collegians (1829). He was in Ennis, Co Clare, when Daniel O’Connell was elected MP in 1829, and this event that provides the conclusion of The Collegians, which is based on events in a trial in 1819 reported by Griffin, in which Daniel O’Connell acted as the defence, lawyer.

After the publication of The Collegians, Aubrey de Vere offered Griffin a room at Curragh Chase to write in peace, but he refused this. He continued to live in Pallaskenry, but travelled widely, visiting Taunton, Paris and Scotland. In 1838, he entered the Christian Brothers monastery in North Richmond Street, Dublin, as Brother Joseph, having burned his manuscripts, including Aguire. He moved to North Monastery, Co Tipperary, in 1839 and died there of fever on 12 June 1840.

Griffin’s ‘Eileen Aroon’ was much admired by Tennyson, and Both Dion Boucicault’s Colleen Bawn (1860) and Sir Julius Benedict’s The Lily of Killarney (1862) were based on his pay The Collegians.

The poem ‘Oh, sweet Adare!’ may read like popular doggerel today, but its subtle anti-war message is contained in the final verse, missing from the pub wall in Adare. This poem included in many anthologies in the 19th century, and later became a popular folk song.

Gerald Griffin’s poem on the corner of ‘Aunty Lena’s’ in Adare, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

25 September 2019

Dyott memorials survive
in the Dyott Chapel in
new library in Lichfield

The Dyott coat-of-arms on a family memorial in the Dyott Chapel in Saint Mary’s Church, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

During my visit to the new Library in Saint Mary’s Church, Lichfield, last week, I spent some time looking at the Dyott Chapel on the north side of the church and the monuments there to members of the Dyott family.

One of my earliest freelance features in the Lichfield Mercury was on the Dyott family, and I was reminded too that there were many connections between the Dyott family of Freeford and the Comberford family of Comberford Hall in the 17th century.

I was in Lichfield last week at the invitation of Lichfield Civic Society to speak about the Comberford family’s links with Lichfield. A previous speaker, in June 2016, was Richard Dyott who spoke about the history of the Dyott family of Freeford.

Freeford Manor is an 18th-century country house and Grade II listed building near Lichfield, and has been the home of the Dyott family since the late 16th or early 17th century.

A window depicting Saint Richard and Saint George – commemorating family names – in the Dyott Chapel in Saint Mary’s Church, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

At the time of the Domesday Book, Freeford (Fraiforde) was a substantial manor with about 720 acres, held by a one Ranulph as a tenant of the Bishop of Chester.

There was a leper hospital at Freeford in early mediaeval times, as well as a quarry that provided building stone for Lichfield Cathedral. Edward II stopped at Freeford in 1326, before entering Lichfield. John of Freeford was the MP for Lichfield in 1377. He had three daughters but no sons, and when he died the estate became divided and was not reassembled for 300 years.

John Dyott (1519-1580) appears to have moved from Dorchester on Thames to Stychbroke, near Lichfield, in 1549. He was a barrister and was Bailiff of Lichfield on three occasions. Dyott family tradition says he made the Manor of Freeford his home in 1549.

This John Dyott of Stychbroke was the father of Anthony Dyott, MP for Lichfield and the first of four Dyotts to sit for Lichfield at Westminster. Anthony Dyott consolidated the family’s hold on Freeford Manor by 1616 and also acquired lands to the east in Whittington.

His son, Anthony Dyott, was a barrister of the Inner Temple and Recorder of Tamworth and became MP for Lichfield. He successfully reassembled the three parts of the Manor of Freeford.

The elaborate memorial to Sir Richard Dyott in the Dyott Chapel in Saint Mary’s Church, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

His son, the first of many members of the family known as Richard Dyott, married into the Dorrington family of Stafford.

Through many intermarriages over the next 400 years, the Dyott family became linked with many prominent Staffordshire families.

Sir Richard Dyott of Lichfield was one of the trustees of the Comberford estates in the 17th century

Sir Richard Dyott was one of three members of the trust into which William Comberford placed all his interests in the Comberford estates on 16 May 1641, the two other trustees being to a trust formed by three trustees, Sir Richard Dyott of Lichfield, John Birch of Cannock and Thomas Wollaston. The trust was formed to ensure that Comberford Hall and other the estates remained in the hands of the Comberford family in the face of a looming crisis.

Although the Dyott family supported the Royalist side during the English Civil War, the family managed to survive with its property intact. Richard Dyott was charged by the Cromwellians with involvement in the Battle of Edgehill, but pleaded that although he was present, he took no part in the battle.

An inscription in Dam Street, Lichfield, marking the spot where John ‘Dumb’ Dyott shot Lord Brooke (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Richard Dyott’s deaf-mute brother, John ‘Dumb’ Dyott, is said to have fired the shot from the cathedral tower that killed Richard Greville, Lord Brooke, on Dam Street on 2 March 1643 during one of the sieges of Lichfield. John Dyott was William Comberford’s godson, while his brother, Matthew Dyott of Stychbrooke, was married to Mary Babington, a distant cousin of William Comberford, and a sister-in-law of another Comberford trustee, John Birch.

Freeford Hall was saved for the Dyott family, and another Richard Dyott was MP for Lichfield in 1690-1715. When he died in 1719, his son, also Richard Dyott, decided to move from Lichfield to Freeford. He built a new, three-bayed, red brick house about 1730, and this was extended and improved throughout the 18th century.

Richard’s son, also Richard Dyott, had a son, Matthew Dyott, who married Elizabeth, Boulton, sister of Matthew Boulton, a leading member of the Lunar Society in Birmingham.

Two Richards later, Richard Dyott, who had a townhouse on the site of the former Woolworth shop in Market Street, Lichfield, began building a new Freeford Manor to replace Freeford Hall.

The memorial to Richard Dyott, Recorder of Lichfield, who died in 1813 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

A century later, yet another Richard Dyott was Recorder of Lichfield again and was the High Sheriff of Staffordshire in 1798 This Richard became the first President of the Staffordshire Agricultural Society and was known as an agricultural improver. He had no children, and when he died in 1813 the Freeford estate was inherited by his brother, General William Dyott.

William’s military career, spanning almost half a century, brought him to Ireland, Nova Scotia, the West Indies, Egypt and the Netherlands, and he was an aide de camp to King George III.

A posting to Egypt in 1801 brought an end to William’s romantic interest in Maria Gresley of Drakelow Hall, north-east of Lichfield, near Burton upon Trent.

But during another posting to Ireland in 1805, Dyott proposed to Eleanor Thompson of Greenmount, Co Antrim. William and Eleanor were the parents of a daughter and two sons. But in 1813, on the excuse of health concerns, Eleanor moved to London and Bristol to avail of the Turkish baths in Downing Street and to enjoy the hot springs at Clifton.

A year later, in 1814, Eleanor sought a legal separation. William accused her of having an affair with her physician Charles Dunne, and took a civil action for ‘criminal conversation’ in 1815. In her counterclaim, Eleanor said William was guilty of adultery and cruelty.

William presented a divorce petition in Parliament, and, despite an admission to his brother-in-law that he had taken ‘improper liberties’ with a young maid, he obtained his divorce and along with it a quarter share of his wife’s interest in over 1,200 acres of plantations and several hundred slaves on the island of St Croix in the Virgin Islands.

William and their children moved to Hanch Hall, three miles north-west of Lichfield, in 1817 and they never again saw Eleanor. When his sister-in-law died in 1826, William moved into Freeford Hall and commissioned the Lichfield architect Joseph Potter to make alterations.

General William Dyott’s memorial in the Dyott Chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

William Dyott strongly opposed most progressive reforms of his day, including the abolition of slavery, granting workers’ rights and extending access to education. Initially, he opposed the railway, but eventually the Dyott family became important investors in the development of the railways in the Lichfield area.

When General Dyott died in 1847 at the age of 86, his coffin was taken in a funeral procession from Freeford through the streets of Lichfield at night to the Dyott crypt at Saint Mary’s Church. His memorial in Saint Mary’s describes him as ‘a most kind, most indulgent father’ and refers to ‘the affection of his family,’ but there is no reference to his family.

Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Dyott was buried at midnight in 1891 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

He was succeeded by his son, yet another Richard Dyott (1808-1891). He was a director of the South Staffordshire Railway and MP for Lichfield from 1865 to 1880. His coat-of-arms, shown on the colourfully-decorated Victorian railway bridge in Upper John Street, beside Lichfield City rail station, are also displayed on many family monuments in the Dyott Chapel in Saint Mary’s: or, a tiger passant sable, armed and langued gules.

When Lieutenant-Colonel ‘Dick’ Dyott died in 1891, 15,000 people attended his burial at midnight in Saint Mary’s Church, Lichfield.

The coats of arms of the Anson and Dyott families on the south side of the bridge at John Street in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This Richard Dyott had no children, and the Dyott estate was inherited by his first cousin, Richard Burnaby who changed his family name to Dyott. His son predeceased him, and so at his death his grandson, Richard Dyott, inherited Freeford. The time this Richard Dyott spent at Freeford was the longest by any family member. He married Mary Paget of Elford Hall, whose family donated the site for Saint Mary’s and Saint George’s Church in Comberford 100 years ago. He died in 1965.

No longer are members of the Dyott family buried at midnight in the crypt beneath the Dyott Chapel in Saint Mary’s Church, Lichfeld. But Freeford Manor retains its Georgian character and in September each year the annual Sheriff’s Ride takes a traditional stop at Freeford Manor.

Heraldic symbols of the Dyott family in a memorial in the Dyott Chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)