02 September 2019

How Corfu became home
to Dionysios Solomos,
national poet of Greece

The Greek flag flying on a boat in the Ionian Sea … Greece’s national poet, Dionysios Solomos spent most of his working life in Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Greece’s national poet, Dionysios Solomos (1798-1857) was born on the Ionian island of Zakynthos in 1798, but he spent most of his working life here in Corfu, and – although he was buried in Zakynthos – he died in Corfu on 9 February 1857.

Dionysios Solomos (Διονύσιος Σολωμός) was born into a family that originally hailed from Crete. His grandfather was from Iraklion but moved to Zakynthos after Crete was captured by the Ottoman Turks in 1669.

He was the central figure in the Heptanese School of poets, based in Corfu and the Ionian Islands. He is best known for his Hymn to Liberty (Ὕμνος εις την Ἐλευθερίαν), whose first two stanzas were set to music by Nikolaos Mantzaros and became the Greek national anthem in 1865. His other great poems include Τhe Cretan (Ὁ Κρητικός), The Day of Easter (Η ημέρα της Λαμπρής) and The Free Besieged (Ἐλεύθεροι Πολιορκημένοι). However, none of his poems, apart from the Hymn to Liberty, was completed.

Solomos was born on Zakynthos, the illegitimate child of a wealthy count, Nikolaos Solomos, and his housekeeper, Angeliki Nikli. Count Nikolaos Solomos married the poet’s mother a day before he died on 27 February 1807, making the young Dionysios legitimate and a co-heir to the family estate, along with his half-brother.

The poet spent his childhood years on Zakynthos until 1808, and then studied law and literature in Italy.

He gained fame early on with his ‘Hymn to Liberty’ (1823), a 158‐quatrain poem – the first two stanzas are sung as the Greek national anthem.

After frictions and economic disputes with his brother Dimitrios, Solomos move to Corfu, the most important intellectual centre of the Ionian islands at the time. Corfu offered him a more stimulating environment and the isolation he sought for a solitary lifestyle.

His happiest years were the first years he spent on this island. Here he soon found himself at the centre of attention from admirers and poets in a group of well-educated intellectuals with liberal and progressive ideas. The most important people in his circle included Nikolaos Mantzaros who composed the tune for his Hymn to Liberty that would become the Greek anthem.

However, Solomos later alienated himself from many of these friends and after a third stroke he did not leave his house. He died in Corfu on 9 February 1857 from apoplexy. When the news of his death became known, Corfu’s theatre closed down, the Ionian Parliament suspended its sittings, and mourning was declared. His body was later moved to Zakynthos and buried there in 1865.

His poem ‘The Free Besieged’ regained fame and popularity in Greece some years ago with the 1998 film Eternity And A Day (Μια αιωνιότητα και μια μέρα) by Theodoros Angelopoulos.

The film tells the story of Alexandros (Bruno Ganz), a poet in Thessaloniki with a terminal illness who is spending his last day getting his affairs in order before checking himself into a hospital.

Alexandros has one final project – to complete the unfinished poem, ‘The Free Besieged,’ by Dionysios Solomos.

As the story unfolds, he saves a young boy (played by Achilleas Skevis), a Greek-speaking illegal immigrant from Albania, first from police in traffic in Thessaloniki and later from child kidnappers in a warehouse, and tries to help the boy return home. In one eerie scene, with recollections of the Crucifixion, man and boy are at the snowy mountain border between Greece and Albania, where a barbed wire fence has the bodies of fleeing refugees clinging to it after being killed by border police.

It was a harrowing scene that came to mind when I visited Greek-speaking parts of southern Albania last week.

In one scene, Alexandros and the unnamed boy are on a bus journey when they come across the poet Solomos (Fabrizio Bentivoglio), who recites verses from this poem <Η ημέρα της Λαμπρής> (‘The Easter Day’), with the opening line: «Καθαρότατον ήλιο επρομηνούσε ...»

During the bus journey the dying Alexandros and the boy take through Thessaloniki, the poet Solomos gets on the bus. He sits across from Alexandros and the boy, and recites his unfinished poem, The Day of Easter. When Solomos gets to the unfinished last line of the poem, ‘Sweet is the life ... and, ...’ he repeats these first few words and is unable to complete the line. As he leaves the bus, Alexandros asks: ‘Tomorrow, how long does it last?’

Close to the end of the film, the dying Alexandros imagines he has met Anna once again, and he says to her: ‘One day, I had asked you, how long does tomorrow last?’ Anna answers: ‘An eternity and a day.’ She leaves, and Alexander is left alone, facing the sea.

The Greek anthem is based on the Hymn to the Liberty (Ὕμνος εἰς τὴν Ἐλευθερίαν) written by Solomos in a single month, May 1823, in Zakynthos in the home of his friend Loudovikos Stranis.

In 1828, the composer Nicolaos Mantzaros from Corfu set the Hymn to the Liberty by Solomos to music. He composed two choral versions – a long one for the whole poem and a short one for the first two stanzas. His 6/4 tempo is reminiscent of the Tsamiko, a traditional Greek men’s dance.

Although King Otho decorated both the poet and the composer in the 1840s, he retained his royal anthem, which was of German origin and praised King Otho and his Germanic dynasty. However, when Otho’s dynasty was overthrown, the new King George I adopted the Hymn to the Freedom as a new patriotic anthem in 1864.

The anthem has been performed at every closing ceremony in the Olympic Games as a tribute to Greece as the birthplace of Olympics.

The Liberty or Ελευθεριά (Eleftheria) of the anthem is female, and this is also a popular female name in Greece. But this Eleftheria is not as erotic and earthly as the Liberty of Delacroix. Instead she is more like an exiled ancient goddess, identified by Solomos with Greece itself.

In his hymn, the poet recalls the history of the Greek Revolution, and describes the pains and sacrifices of the rebels, criticises their dissensions, and calls for unity for the sake of Eleftheria.

However, the Greek anthem runs to only the first two of the 158 stanzas in the Hymn to Freedom. All 158 stanzas would make it the longest national anthem.

On this day, Greeks must be wondering who will say a strong and singular No to the forces of fascism in Golden Dawn that are bringing Greece to the precipice of violence? And who for the sake of Liberty will voice a strong and singular No to German and international fiscal demands that are bringing Greeks to the brink of defeat once again?

Σε γνωρίζω από την κόψη
Του σπαθιού την τρομερή,
Σε γνωρίζω από την όψη
Που με βιά μετράει τη γη.

Απ’ τα κόκκαλα βγαλμένη
Των Ελλήνων τα ιερά
Και σαν πρώτα ανδρειωμένη
Χαίρε, ω χαίρε Ελευθεριά!

Και σαν πρώτα ανδρειωμένη
Χαίρε, ω χαίρε Ελευθεριά!

Και σαν πρώτα ανδρειωμένη
Χαίρε, ω χαίρε Ελευθεριά!

I shall always recognise you
by the dreadful sword you hold
as the Earth with searching vision
you survey with spirit bold.

From the Greeks of old whose dying
brought to life and spirit free
now with ancient valour rising
let us hail you, oh Liberty!

Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin
notes in ‘Newslink’ September 2019

The Baptism of Tamsin Anabel Foley in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton

Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes

Rathkeale, Askeaton, Castletown and Kilnaughtin

Priest-in-Charge: The Revd Canon Patrick Comerford,
The Rectory, Askeaton, Co Limerick.

The fifth Sunday of the month in September provides an opportunity to celebrate the end of Summer in the Rectory in Askeaton after a united group Eucharist in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton. Summer this year was filled with the celebration of baptisms and the fun of barbecues. Autumn sees the return to school and plans for the Harvest.

Tamsin Anabel Foley was baptised in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, on Sunday 21 July

Tamsin Anabel Foley, daughter of Nicky White (Nantinan) and Rob Foley (Cork), who were married in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, last year, was baptised in Saint Mary’s on Sunday 21 July.

The parish summer barbecue took place in the Rectory Gardens after the United Group Eucharist on Sunday 30 June.

Enjoying the parish barbecue in the Rectory in Askeaton

It was good to see Edward Buckingham back in the pulpit as reader emeritus in this group of parishes when he led Morning Prayer and preached in Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin (Tarbert) on Sunday 5 August.

As President of Irish CND, Canon Patrick Comerford was one of the speakers at the annual Hiroshima Day commemorations in Merrion Square, Dublin, on 6 August. Later in the month, he spoke in Tarbert on 15 August at the annual service commemorating 17 people, including some parishioners, who drowned in a tragedy on the Shannon Estuary in 1893.

An altar from Saint Brendan’s Church, Tarbert, is on loan to Saint Mark’s Chapel in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick

The Dean of Limerick, the Very Revd Niall Sloane, has written to thank Kilnaughtin Parish for lending Saint Mary’s Cathedral an altar that had been stored in Saint Brendan’s Church. This altar now provides a focus point in Saint Mark’s Chapel, a place for quiet and reflection in the cathedral, and there are plans to invite parishioners to a re-hallowing or blessing service in the weeks to come.

September Services:

Sunday 1 September (Trinity XI): 9.30, the Parish Eucharist (Holy Communion 2), Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton; 11.30, Morning Prayer, Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin, Tarbert (with the Revd Joe Hardy).

Sunday 8 September (Trinity XII, the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary): 9.30, the Eucharist (Holy Communion 2), Castletown Church; 11.30, Morning Prayer, Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale.

Sunday 15 September (Trinity XIII): 9.30, Morning Prayer, Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton; 11.30, the Parish Eucharist (Holy Communion 2), Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin, Tarbert.

Sunday 22 September (Trinity XIV): 9.30 a.m., Morning Prayer, Castletown Church; 11.30, the Parish Eucharist (Holy Communion 2), Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale.

Sunday 29 September (Trinity XV, Saint Michael and All Angels): 11 a.m., United Group Service, the Parish Eucharist (Holy Communion 2), Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, followed by an end-of-summer celebration at lunchtime in the Rectory.

September Diary:

Mothers’ Union: Opening Eucharist to mark the new season on Monday 9 September at 8 p.m. in Saint Mary’s Church.

Harriet Monsell: Patrick Comerford is speaking in Ardagh on 13 September on Mother Harriet Monsell (1811-1883), who is commemorated in the calendar of the Church of England. She was a sister of William Smith O’Brien (1803-1864) of Cahermoyle House.

Heritage Walk: Saint Kieran’s Heritage Association is organising a walk and talk on Sunday 22 September. The walk starts at Ardagh Community Centre, at 2 pm, strolls on to Cahermoyle, and then to Rathronan Graveyard for an ecumenical blessing of the graves and wreath-laying, before moving on to Community Centre in Ardagh for a talk and ‘cuppa.’ All are welcome, and the walk can be joined at any stage.

Clothes Swap: Another fund-raising clothes swap takes place in the Rectory on 27 September. Further details from Barbara Comerford.

Harvest Plans: This year’s Harvest Thanksgiving service takes place in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, on Friday 4 October, which is also the Feastday of Saint Francis of Assisi. This year’s guest preacher is Canon Aisling Shine, of Drumcondra Parish and Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

Fine food and fare at the parish barbecue in the Rectory in Askeaton

This is an edited version of the parish notes for the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes in the September 2019 edition of ‘Newslink,’ the magazine of the Church of Ireland United Diocese of Limerick, Killaloe and Ardfert.

Island hopping from
Corfu to Antipaxos and
Paxos in the Ionian Sea

The harbour of Gaios, the main port on the east coat of Paxos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

‘Island Hopping’ is one of the popular images of a holiday in the sun in Greece. This is more difficult on a holiday in Crete, which has a small number of offshore islands but is not part of an extended archipelago.

Island hopping is more adventurous from other bases, such as the Dodecanese in the eastern Aegean, the Cyclades, which include Santorini and Mykonos, and the Ionian Islands off the western coast of mainland Greece.

On previous visits to this part of Greece, I have enjoyed island hopping in the southern parts of the Ionian Islands, travelling between Zakynthos, Kephalonia and Ithaki. But during these two weeks which I am spending in Corfu, I have also spent a day visiting the paired islands of Paxos and Antipaxos.

Together, Paxos or Paxi and Antipaxos or Antipaxoi (Παξοί και Αντίπαξοι) together form the smallest island group in the Ionian Islands, and their collective name in Greek is a plural form. Until local government reforms in 2006, the province of Paxoi (Επαρχία Παξών), including Paxos and Antipaxos, was one of the provinces in the Corfu Prefecture. But this was abolished in 2006.

Today, these islands together form the municipality of Paxoi, which has an area of 30,121 sq km. Paxos is the largest of the islands, with a surface area of 76 sq km or just under 30 square miles. It is about 13 km long, 5 km wide and tipped up towards the west.

In Greek mythology, Poseidon created the island of Paxos by striking Corfu with his trident, making a place of peace and quiet for himself and his wife Amphitrite.

Paxos may have been inhabited from prehistoric times, but the Phoenicians are the first recorded settlers on the island. The name of Paxos is said to be derived from Pax, referring to the trapezoidal shape of the island.

The Battle of Paxos was fought between the ancient Greek and Illyrian fleets during the First Illyrian War in 229 BC. The battle is described by Polybius, the Greek historian of the Hellenistic period, whose great work The Histories covered the period of 264 BC to 146 BC (see The Histories, Book 2, Chapter 2).

The Romans ruled Paxos from the second century BC. Paxos was constantly attacked by pirates during the Byzantine period and well into the Middle Ages. After various rulers and the Crusaders had passed through Paxos, the island was captured by the Venetians at the end of the 14th century, and remained a part of the Venetian empire for about four centuries.

During the Napoleonic wars, the Ionian Islands were captured first by the French and then by a Russian-Ottoman alliance. On 13 February 1814, the island of Paxos surrendered to the British naval frigate HMS Apollo commanded by Captain Charles Taylor and a combined force of 160 troops from the 2nd Greek Light Infantry from Kephalonia and the 35th Regiment of the Royal Corsican Rangers.

When Britain established the Ionian Union in 1815, both Paxos and Antipaxos became part of the new political administration. Half a century later, in 1864, Paxos and Antipaxos, along with the other Ionian Islands, including Kephalonia, Zakynthos, Ithaki and Lefkhada, were ceded to Greece and became part of the modern Greek state.

In the ‘Blue Caves’ on the west coast of Paxos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The first stop on the ‘island-hopping’ boat trip was on the west coast, which is dominated by steep white, chalky cliffs that are greatly eroded at sea level, and to visit some of the many ‘blue caves’ that are explored every day by the small boats from Corfu.

We then sailed down the west coast of Paxos to neighbouring Antipaxos (Αντίπαξος), a small island covering 5 sq km, about 3 km south of Paxos and with a tiny population of 20.

Antipaxos is known for its wine and two of the finest sandy beaches in the Ionian Sea. This tiny island is largely covered in vineyards, and has several beaches and one harbour, Agrapidia. The three main beaches are Vrika (white sand), Mesovrika (pebbles) and Voutoumi (pebbles).

After swimming in the clear blue and turquoise waters of a small cove south of Voutoumi on the north-east side of the island, it was a 15-minute journey to Gaios, the main port and harbour in Paxos.

A small quiet cove south of Voutoumi on the north-east side of Antipaxos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Paxos, with a population of about 2,500, remains one of the least commercial Islands in the Ionian Sea and is truly beautiful, with scenery that has made it an artists’ paradise, with clear aquamarine sea and pebble beaches that have to be seen to be believed.

Olive oil, soap and fishing were the main economic activities until they were supplanted by tourism in the mid-1960s. This brought a building boom that has greatly changed the coastline around Gaios.

Although Gaios is largest town on the island, it is still relatively small and quaint with Venetian architecture, a maze of side streets and a pedestrianised square on the seafront.

The bell-tower of a church in the narrow streets of Gaios (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Restaurants and snack bars are scattered throughout the town, offering a high standard of local Greek cuisine, and the facilities include two book shops, a post office, banks, chemist, doctor’s surgery, gift shops, gymnasium, jewellery and craft shops, as well as supermarkets, bakeries and butchers, and a range of waterfront bars.

Semi-permanent British inhabitants of Paxos have included Audrey Good, former commander of the UN refugee bases in Epirus following the Greek Civil War; the late actor Peter Bull (author of It isn’t all Greek to me); and the actor Susannah York.

Some members of the Agnelli family of FIAT have built a palatial holiday home – complete with a faux mediaeval tower – on the small island of Kaltonisi near the southern tip or heel of Paxos, close to the popular beach of Mongonissi.

These arrivals and the development of the coastal area, mostly by Italians, are said to have made Paxos one of the most expensive places in Greece to buy property.

Ferries, hydrofoils, small boats and sea taxis arrive constantly throughout the day at the port of Gaios. But they leave in the late afternoon, and once again Gaios becomes a picture-postcard Greek harbour town.

But as we sailed out of Gaios in the afternoon sun, we could see that much of the landscape of Paxos is still covered in olive groves that stretch from Gaios through Magazia to Lakka, the harbour community in the north.

We were back in Mesongi on the east coast of Corfu late in the afternoon, and from there returned to Agios Georgios.

Arcaded shops off the main square of Gaios in Paxos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)