25 May 2019

Two prayers and a poem
at the end of the day

‘I have been one acquainted with the night’ … South Main Street in Wexford late at night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Since I recovered a prayer book that I thought was long lost, Service of the Heart, I have been using material in it for my personal, evening prayers for the last few months.

This Service of the Heart was published in London half a century ago by the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues in 1967, and the edition I have is dated 1969. I came across it while I was living in Wexford, and I thought I had lost it in recent moves between Dublin and Askeaton. So, I was delighted to rediscover it on a bookshelf in the Rectory a few months ago.

Two of the principal contributors to this book were Rabbi John Rayner and Rabbi Chaim Stern, who wrote or rewrote many of the prayers included here.

For 20 years, John Desmond Rayner (1924-2005) was the head of the Liberal and Progressive movement in Anglo Jewry, and his obituary in the Guardian said ‘some people took his Angloism to be a little too close to Anglicanism.’

He was born Hans Sigismund Rahmer in Berlin, and came to Britain with some of the last Jewish children rescued in 1939 in the kindertransport programme organised by Sir Nicholas Winton, who was named by Theresa May in her speech in Downing Street yesterday. He changed his name at school in Durham, and went on to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, becoming a Hebrew scholar and a Bible and Talmud expert.

He began his ministry at the South London Liberal Jewish synagogue in Streatham before moving to St John’s Wood Road. He was chairman of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, and president of the Union for Liberal and Progressive Synagogues, and co-edited Service of the Heart and The Gate of Repentance.

Dr Chaim Stern (1930-2001), an American Reform rabbi, is regarded as the foremost liturgist of Reform Judaism. He was born in Brooklyn, New York, and studied in Orthodox yeshivot as a child. But the Holocaust caused him to become far more secular than his family.

An outspoken political activist, he travelled to Mississippi to fight for civil rights as a Freedom Rider in 1961. In 1962, he became rabbi of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in London. Although Stern returned to the US in 1965, he was back in London in 1967-1968 back, lecturing at Leo Baeck College and serving as rabbi of Westminster Synagogue. He was a senior rabbi in Miami, Florida, when he died in 2001.

He co-edited two prayer books for the Liberal Jewish Movement in England, On the Doorposts of Your House and Gates of Joy, and edited the new liturgy of the Reform movement.

One of the prayers I have used on evenings this week is a new prayer for a Sabbath Eve Service, writer by John Rayner and Chaim Stern:

When day departs and the darkness of night descends, our eyes are drawn upward to the heavens. We see immensities beyond our power to comprehend; and awed by the grandeur of the design of the Creation, our hearts cry out: ‘O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth.’

A similar, longer version of this prayer was written for a Weekday Evening Service by Chaim Stern and John Rayner, with additional quotations from Psalm 19: 2-5a and Psalm 8: 10:

‘The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament tells of the work of his hands. Day unto day pours out speech, and there are no words, their voice is not heard – yet their call goes out to the ends of the world.’

When day departs and the darkness of night descends, our eyes are drawn upward to the heavens. Then, even more clearly than the light of the sun, we see the grandeur of Creation’s design. We see immensities beyond our power to comprehend, and our hearts cry out: ‘O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the world!’

Although the world is but a beam of dust in a universe that is vast beyond imagining, we trust in God, and believe that he rules all things far and near, great and small, from the remotest star to the air around us. We therefore submit ourselves to his will, and in the dark of evening we seek the light of his presence.

Along with these prayers, I have been reading a well-known poem by Robert Frost, included in Service of the Heart in a section of prayers under the heading ‘Loneliness’:

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say goodbye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

‘When day departs and the darkness of night descends’ … High Street in Wexford late at night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Robert Frost, ‘Acquainted with the Night’ from The Poetry of Robert Frost, ed Edward Connery Lathem. Copyright © 1964, 1970 by Leslie Frost Ballantine. Copyright 1936, 1942 © 1956 by Robert Frost. Copyright 1923, 1928, © 1969 by Henry Holt and Co.

A tangled family tree saw
the loss of a great house,
art collection and family titles

Russborough House, near Blessington, Co Wicklow, home to generations of the Leeson family and the Earls of Milltown (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I was writing yesterday about the scandals surrounding the marriage of George Townshend, 3rd Marquess Townshend, and how, without legislative parliamentary intervention, Tamworth Castle and his family titles almost passed to the illegitimate children of his estranged wife and her bigamous partner.

But at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, a tangled family tree saw one of the great Irish country houses, Russborough in Co Wicklow, and its great collection of art pass out of the hands of the Leeson family, and the rightful heirs to the title of Earl of Milltown pass into obscurity.

The Leeson family fortune was made by Joseph Leeson, a Dublin brewer who owned a brewery behind his house on Saint Stephen’s Green and engaged in property speculation.

His son, Joseph Leeson (1711-1783) travelled on grand tours of Europe in 1744 and again in 1750, amassing on his travels a large art collection of paintings, sculpture, furniture, and antiques which would later furnish Russborough House, near Blessington, Co Wicklow.

Joseph Leeson became Baron Russborough of Russborough (1756), Viscount Russborough (1760) and Earl of Milltown (1763).

His titles passed in succession to his sons, Joseph Leeson (1730-1801), as second earl, and Brice Leeson (1735-1807) as third earl, and then to Brice’s grandson, yet another Joseph Leeson (1799-1866), as the fourth earl.

The fourth earl’s three sons then inherited Russborough and the titles one after another: Joseph Leeson (1829-1871), fifth earl, Edward Leeson (1835-1890), sixth earl, and Henry Leeson (1837-1891), seventh earl.

Henry Leeson (1837-1891), 7th Earl of Milltown, a Dublin barrister, was Vice-Chamberlain of Ireland (1859-1862) and Chamberlain to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland (1862-1874). He never married, and he had only lived at Russborough for ten months when he died on 24 March 1891.

None of these three brothers had any children, and the sixth earl’s widow, the former Lady Geraldine Stanhope, continued to live at Russborough until she died in 1914. While she lived on at Russborough, a series of wrangles and claims to the family titles followed, one after another.

The coat-of-arms of the Earls of Milltown in frosted glass in Russborough House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The first claimant to the title was John Leeson (1827-1905), a railway official in India. He was a son of Major Joseph Leeson (1796-1847), a major in the East India Company and a grandson of Hon John Leeson (1767-1835), who in turn was the second son of the third earl.

John Leeson, the claimant to the title of 8th Earl of Milltown in 1891, was married twice in India, and was the father of two daughters, who lived in the Punjab. For some reason, however, John Leeson never legally pursued his claims to the titles. He had no sons, and his younger brother, Henry Corbett Leeson, had already died on 29 September 1887. So, when John Leeson died on 25 January 1905, the claims to the Milltown title ought to have passed to his nephew, Henry Leeson’s son. However, Henry’s son was never traced in India and he remains unnamed in the family trees produced by genealogists.

Questions were raised about the validity and legality of marriages in India, and how to prove these legally. But part of the problem may have been created by a Victorian form of prejudice and racism unwilling to accept what were known as ‘Anglo-Indian’ families.

Instead, the claims to title of Earl of Milltown were assumed by John Leeson’s second cousin, Robert William Frederick Leeson (1842-1906). This Robert Leeson was a son of the Revd Joseph Leeson (1813-1850), who was born in Dublin and became Vicar of Fishlake, Yorkshire, and Chaplain to Lord Cloncurry, and a grandson of Captain the Hon Robert Leeson (1772-1842), third son of the third Earl of Milltown.

Robert Leeson was seven when his father the vicar died. His claims were difficult to pursue because he could never prove a negative: that Henry Corbett Leeson had no legitimate male descendants who stood between him and inheriting the titles.

Robert never married, and although he had two sisters, he had no brothers to continue claiming the family titles. He died at the age of 62 on 19 June 1906 of tubercular disease after a fall while attempting to board a tramcar.

Since then, no further claimants to the Milltown titles came forward. Yet it is possible that there are many living descendants in the male line of the Hon Robert Leeson (1773-1850), who was the fourth son of the first Earl of Milltown.

His many male children and descendants included Sir William Edward Leeson (1801-1885), Genealogist of the Order of Saint Patrick. So, undoubtedly, there are probably many male descendants of the Leeson family living today who are potential or prospective claimants to the title of Earl of Milltown. The title, therefore, should be regarded as being dormant rather than extinct.

Meanwhile, the Milltown collection of art in Russborough eventually came into the hands of the National Gallery of Ireland originated from Russborough house, Blessington, Co Wicklow. Designed by Richard Castle, Russborough, was built for Joseph Leeson (1711-1783), the first Earl of Milltown, in 1763.

In 1897, the widowed Lady Milltown, still in her mid-50s, wrote to Sir Walter Armstrong, then director of the National Gallery of Ireland, to offer the Milltown collection at Russborough to the gallery in memory of her late husband. The offer was accepted and an extension, completed in 1903, was built to house the collection.

However, Lady Milltown and Armstrong argued over his attribution to Pater of works from the collection which she believed to be by Watteau. A long delay ensued before the collection was delivered to the gallery in March 1906.

Further confusion and ill-feeling were created by the number of varying schedules or inventories that were created from the initial offer that Armstrong had approved by Sir Walter Armstron, to the delivery to the gallery of a much large volume of paintings and artefacts in 1906.

Lady Milltown was not satisfied with the arrangements made by the gallery board to house the collection and corresponded with them, through her solicitors, detailing her complaints and demands for changes.

Lady Milltown was convinced the gallery had not honoured the terms of the agreement. The correspondence continued until late 1913, and the matter remained unresolved when she died on 5 January 1914.

Later that year, however, the board of the gallery approved a loan of paintings, furniture, and other works from the Milltown Collection to Sir Edmund Turton (1857-1929), a Tory MP and a nephew of the fifth, sixth and seventh earls, who was then living at Russborough House. The loan from the Milltown collection to Turton would cause much confusion in the years that followed. The Turton loan continued until 1929 when Turton’s widow contacted the gallery about the condition of some of the paintings.

It became evident that there was no exact inventory of the loan. In December 1929, Thomas Bodkin, the director of the gallery, wrote to Lady Turton: ‘I have been trying … to reconcile the scattered and somewhat formless inventories which we possess of the pictures, furniture, and other articles which the board of the National Gallery lent to your husband.’

Efforts to establish a definite inventory and to assist Lady Turton in returning some of the loan continued until 1931 when Russborough House was sold to Captain Daly. The balance of the Turton loan was finally returned by Captain Daly in 1934, with the exception of paintings by George Barrett that were to remain on loan at Russborough.

Russborough was later bought by the Beit family, the Milltown collection remained the property of the National Gallery of Ireland, and no-one came forward to secure a provable claim to the title of Earl of Milltown.

The Library in Russborough House, near Blessington, Co Wickow, with one of the three stucco ceilings in the house by the Lafranchini brothers (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)