Tuesday, 27 October 2020

Imelda May celebrates her
Comerford grandparents
and their role in 1916

Joseph Comerford and Mary Morrissey were married ten years after the 1916 Rising … grandparents of the singer Imelda May

Patrick Comerford

The Dublin singer Imelda May has shared photographs on social media of her maternal grandparents – James and Maisie Comerford – who took part in the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916.

The hit singer was part of the line-up in RTÉ’s 90-minute centenary show four years ago, which was broadcast live from the Bord Gais Energy Theatre. Later she said the weekend ‘was very special.’

‘It was such a pleasure to work on it,’ she said in 2016. ‘Congratulations to our President Michael D Higgins too. His heartfelt speeches were moving, honest, inspiring and uplifting.’

Later, she shared an historical photo of her grandparents, who were both involved in the 1916 rising, Maisie Morrissey and Joe Comerford, who later married in 1926, ten years after the Easter rising.

Joseph Comerford was a labourer and living at 12 Thomas Davis Street and Mary Morrissey was a machinist and living at 39 South Earl Street, when they were married in Saint Catherine’s Church, Dublin, on 2 June 1926. The witnesses were Daniel Morrissey and Margaret Comerford). Mary was the daughter of Patrick Morrissey; Joseph was the son of Joseph Comerford, a plumber.

Joseph Patrick Comerford was born at 12 Thomas Davis Street on 7 December 1901, the son of Joseph Comerford, a plumber, and Margaret (née Murray) Comerford. With a little research earlier this week, I found which branch of the Comerford family Imelda May’s grandfather was descended from.

Imelda May at Live at Chelsea at the Royal Hospital Chelsea (Photograph: Egghead06/CCO/Wikipedia)

The Irish singer, songwriter and musician Imelda Mary Higham was born Imelda Mary Clabby in Dublin on 10 July 1974, the youngest of five siblings. She is professionally known as Imelda May. She has been described as ‘a unique vocal talent,’ and is known for her musical style of rockabilly revival. She has been compared to female jazz musicians such as Billie Holiday.

She began her career in music at 16, performing with local bands and musicians. She formed her own band in 2002, and released her debut studio album, No Turning Back. After the release, she moved to London with her then-husband, guitarist Darrel Higham.

She released her second studio album, Love Tattoo in 2009, and collaborated and toured with a number of artists after its release. Her third studio album, Mayhem, was released in 2010, her fourth studio album, Tribal in 2014, and her fifth studio album Life Love Flesh Blood in 2017.

Her grandfather was a son of Joseph Comerford and Margaret Murray, who were married on 22 June 1896 in Saint Audeon’s Church, Dublin. This Joseph Comerford was born in October 1869 in Portarlington, Co Laois, the son the son of Edward Comerford, an iron moulder, and Margaret (née Byrne), and she was the daughter of John Murray, a labourer.

Saint Michael’s Church, Portarlington, built in 1839-1842 … nine Comerford children were baptised in Portarlington between 1857 and 1874 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

In recent months, I have been researching this branch of the Comerford family. They originated in Portarlington, Co Laois, and later lived in the Kilmainham, Inchicore and Harold’s Cross areas of Dublin. I plan eventually to migrate this research over to my Comerford family genealogical site after I have found out more about this branch of the family.

But, as I updated my research on this family yesterday, I traced the ancestry of Imelda May’s mother back to a Comerford family living in Portarlington in the mid-19th century:

Edward Comerford, metal caster and iron moulder, of Portarlington, married Mary Byrne. They were the parents of at least nine children:

1, Mary, baptised Portarlington, April 1857.
2, Edward Comerford (1858-1938), baptised Portarlington 1858, of whom next.
3, Thomas Comerford, baptised Portarlington, September 1860.
4, Christopher Comerford, baptised Portarlington December 1862.
5, Patrick Comerford, born March 1865, baptised Portarlington, April 1865.
6, Catherine, born 21 August 1867, baptised Portarlington, September 1867.
7, Joseph Comerford (1869- ), born 23 October 1869, baptised Portarlington, and the great grandfather of Imelda May.
8, Francis Comerford, baptised April 1872.
9, Anne, baptised Portarlington May 1874.

Mary Conway married Edward Comerford in Saint James’s Church, Dublin, in 1880

The first-named son:

Edward Comerford (1858-1938), iron moulder, Great Southern and Western Railways, Inchicore, Dublin. Born in Portarlington in November 1858, he lived at 35 Kilmainham (1880), Richmond Road, Kilmainham (1884), 2 Saint Mary’s Terrace, Inchicore (1886-1888), 4 Woodfield Cottages, Inchicore (1890), 31 Phoenix Street, Kilmainham (1892), 25 Phoenix Street (1894-1898), and 19 Abercorn Terrace, Dublin (1900-1911). He married Mary Conway, daughter of John Conway, smith, and his wife Mary of 34 Kilmainham, on 17 September 1880, in Saint James’s Church, Dublin (witnesses, James McDonald, Margaret Conway).

Edward Comerford died on 26 May 1938 at Our Lady’s Hospice, Dublin; his widow Mary died on 11 March 1942 at 3 Wharton Terrace, Harold’s Cross; they are buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.

They were the parents of at least 13 children:

1, Margaret (1883-1883), born at 3 Saint James’s Place, Inchicore, 3 January 1883, died 5 January 1883.
2, Ellen Christina (1884-1957), born Richmond Road, Kilmainham, 17 January 1884; ‘tailoress.’ She married on 12 January 1910 Richard Cullen (1875-1947), bookbinder, of 10 Turvey Avenue, Kilmainham, in Goldenbridge Church, Dublin (witnesses Daniel Joseph O’Neill, Catherine Comerford). They lived at 3 Tyrconnell Street. Richard died 10 November 1947; Ellen died 14 March 1957. They are buried in Old Lucan Cemetery.
3, Catherine (‘Kitty’), born at 2 Saint Mary’s Terrace, Inchicore, 11 April 1886; she married twice.
4, Elizabeth (‘Lily’), born at 2 Saint Mary’s Terrace, Inchicore, 1 June 1888, married on 23 November 1910 Henry Baldwin, fitter, of 19 Abercorn Terrace, son of John Baldwin, fish merchant, in Saint James’s Church (witnesses John Comerford, Kathleen Gallagher). The family lived in Santry. They were the parents of nine children, including two who died young: Ned, aged 3, and Margaret (‘Moggy’), as well as: Cissie (Mary), unmarried; Charlotte (‘Lottie’), married Jimmy Devlin; Kitty (lived in Oldham), married Joe Thornton; Lily (lived in Leyland), married Mick Kane; and Doreen, married Patrick O’Malley.
5, John (‘Johnny’) Joseph Comerford, born 4 Woodfield Cottages, Inchicore, 16 April 1890; he later lived in Drumcondra.
6, Edward (‘Eddie’) Comerford, born 31 Phoenix Street, Kilmainham, 5 April 1892. He married Maggie Clarke, and lived at 19 Abercorn Terrace. He died in the 1970s. They had no children.
7, Anne (1894-1895), born 25 Phoenix Street, 10 May 1894, died 26 August 1895, buried Kilmainham.
8, Patrick (‘Paddy’) James Comerford (1896-1966). He was born 14 March 1896, 25 Phoenix Street, Kilmainham; he married Josephine Reilly (born 1896) and they lived in Mount Brown, Kilmainham, Dublin. He died on Christmas Eve, 24 December 1966, and is buried in Bluebell Cemetery. Their children include two daughters: Rosaleen, who died in 1997; and Anne.
9, Jeanette Frances (1898-1900), born 27 February 1898, 25 Phoenix Street; died 27 June 1900, 19 Abercorn Terrace; buried in Glasnevin.
10, Margaret Anne (1900-1909), born 18 March 1900, died 25 April 1909, 19 Abercorn Terrace; buried in Glasnevin.
11, Michael (‘Mick’) Thomas Comerford, born 8 March 1902, 19 Abercorn Terrace.
12, William (‘Bill’) Laurence Comerford, born 2 February 1904, 19 Abercorn Terrace.
13, Alfred (‘Alfie’) Bernard Comerford (1906-1941), ‘machinist’, born 25 April 1906, 19 Abercorn Terrace, died 10 September 1941, buried Bluebell Cemetery.

One of Edward Comerford's younger brothers was:

Joseph Comerford (1869- ). He was born on 23 October 1869, and baptised in Portarlington. He moved to Dublin and married Margaret Murray, daughter of John Murray, a labourer, on 22 June 1896 in Saint Audeon’s Church, Dublin. They lived at 12 Thomas Davis Street, Dublin. Their children included:

Joseph Patrick Comerford (1901- ), who was born at 12 Thomas Davis Street on 7 December 1901. He took part in the Easter Rising in 1916, when he was a member of the Irish Citizen Army in 1916. He married Mary Morrissey, machinist, daughter of Patrick Morrissey of 39 South Earl Street, were married in Saint Catherine’s Church, Dublin, on 2 June 1926 (witnesses: Daniel Morrissey and Margaret Comerford). She too took part in the 1916 as a member of Cumann na mBan.

Their children included:

1, Joe Comerford (deceased), a taxi driver.
2, Madge, a seamstress who married Tony Clabby. She died at the age of 46 and was the mother of five children, including the singer Imelda Mary Higham (born Imelda Mary Clabby 10 July 1974), professionally known as Imelda May

Ellen Christina Comerford and Richard Cullen were married in 1910

Cappagh Castle and its
tales of mediaeval knights
and a Victorian burning

Cappagh Castle, Co Limerick … probably built by the Kinghts of Glin at the end of the 15th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

While I was visiting Saint James’s Church, Cappagh, at the weekend, I also visited the ruins of Cappagh Castle, at the end of a small road east of this village between near Rathkeale and Askeaton in west Limerick.

Cappagh Castle is said to have been built by Dermott McEinery ca 1199-1216 in the reign of King John. But the present castle which we see today is formed of the ruins of a 70 ft tower house, built ca 1460-1480 by the Knights of Glin.

Sir John FitzJohn FitzGerald, the first Knight of Glin, also owned Glin Castle and Beagh Castle in Co Limerick.

Cappagh Castle is a tower house and its remains are within an inner bawn, of which just the north and west walls survive. The north side is a strong tower, with an inner and outer enclosure. The outer enclosure has turrets at the eastern angles and the castle is fenced by low crags to the west.

The keep is about 70 ft high and measures 41 ft by 30 ft. It is five storeys high, with the third and fourth storeys resting on vaults. The east end contained the stairs, while the porch and small vaulted rooms were at the south-east.

Cappagh Castle was recorded in 1578, when it was standing on an artificial mound, with five floors and 20 metres in height.

The castle passed into the hands of Sir William Drury (1503-1577), President of Munster, later into the possession of Ulick Browne, and then in 1587 to Sir Gilbert Gerard (1523-1593).

Cappagh House was built in 1607, indicating the change in fashion among landed families away from castles to large houses as their preferred residence.

Cappagh Castle and Callow Castle fell to Irish forces during the Confederate Wars, after a blockade in 1642. The castle was described as ‘ruined’ a little more than a decade later, when the Civil Survey records in 1654-1656 that Cappagh had been held by Gerratt Curnoge, an ‘Irish Papist’, and had been given to Nicholas Dowdall, an English proprietor.

The Peppard family was living at Cappagh from the early 18th century. When the bridge across the River Deel River was built in the townland of Scart in 1747, Cappagh was on the main road from Limerick to Shanagolden.

According to legend, Fitzgerald of Ballyglehane Castle (Hollypark) gave the use of Cappagh Castle to his unmarried brother in 1827. When Fitzgerald’s wife expressed a wish to live at Cappagh Castle, the brother blew up and burned down the castle the day before she was due to move in.

Eyre Lloyd of Wales and William Hammond of Dublin were proprietors of the townland of Cappagh ca 1840. At that time, Robert Peppard lived at Cappagh House, then described as an irregular, two-storey house, part of it built 120 years previously with later additions.

The last family member to live at Cappagh House died in 1938. The house had a number of owners in the 20th century and the interior was badly burnt by fire in 1983 but has since been restored.

As for Cappagh Castle, the banqueting hall was used for many years as a handball court by the Cappagh handball club, the ball being played on the west wall. The club moved to a newly-built court in 1969.

In recent decades, Cappagh Castle was owned by Patrick Fitzgerald, an authority on local history. The castle is now owned by PJ Barry and his family, who live in a bungalow nearby.

Cappagh Castle seen from the road near Cappagh village (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Monday, 26 October 2020

A saint’s icon from Crete
brings my mind back to
a church in Thessaloniki

Saint Dimitrios of Thessaloniki … a new icon by Alexandra Kaouki of Rethymnon

Patrick Comerford

I was posting preaching and liturgical resources this morning on another forum for next Sunday, which is All Saints’ Day (1November 2020), and later in the day was working on my Sunday sermon. As I thought about the saints that have been influential in my own spiritual growth and life, I was reminded that today in Greece is the feast day of Saint Dimitrios of Thessaloniki (Άγιος Δημήτριος της Θεσσαλονίκης), one of the most popular saints and martyrs in the Greek Orthodox Church.

I was reminded of the popularity of Saint Dimitrios throughout Greece this morning by a new icon of the saint by my friend Alexandra Kaouki, the icon-writer with a studio in Rethymnon in Crete.

I have missed a number of planned visits to Greece this year because of the pandemic lockdown. But seeing her icon this morning brought me back not only to her studio below the Fortezza in Rethymnon but also to my many recent visits to Thessaloniki. The most famous church in the city is the Church of Aghios Dimitrios, named after the martyred Roman soldier who is the city’s patron saint and whose feast day is today (26 October).

The church was first built as a small oratory shortly after the year 313 on the ruins of a Roman bath and on the site of the saint’s martyrdom ten years earlier on the orders of the Emperor Galerius.

A new church was built on the same site in the fifth century. This was a large, three-aisled basilica, but was burnt down in 634. Soon after, the present five-aisled basilica was built on the site, and it remains the largest church in Greece.

The Church of Aghios Dimitrios often serves as the de facto cathedral of Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Byzantine sources record that the city’s patron, Saint Demetrios, was also venerated in the Church of the Panagia Acheiropoietos (Παναγία Ἀχειροποίητος) is a fifth-century Byzantine church in the city centre, at Aghias Sofias Street, opposite Makedonomachon square, a short distance to the north of Egnatia Street.

The Church of Aghios Dimitrios became a mosque in 1493, but it was restored to Christian worship in 1912. It was destroyed by fire again in 1917, but restoration work began immediately after the catastrophe of 1917.

Very few fragments of sculptures, mosaics or frescoes survived the fire of 1917, but those that have survived are representative of the successive phases of the church’s history.

Items that survived the 1917 fire and others that came to light during recent excavations include:

● The fountain of the holy water and holy oil associated with the cult of Saint Dimitrios.
● Architectural sculptures, including columns and parapets, from the first architectural phase of the church in the fifth century.
● Corinthian-style capitals from the first architectural phase of the church.
● Two small fifth century pillars from the sanctuary.
● The restored ambo (pulpit) of the church; it dates from the sixth century, and in the seventh century was placed in the wall where it is now exhibited.
● Fragments of middle Byzantine sarcophagi.
● Fragments of icons of the Virgin Mary from the 11th and 12th century relief decoration of the church.
● Fragments of a 13th century ciborium.
● Decorative fragments from a 14th century burial monument.
● A mosaic votive inscription from the decoration of the church destroyed by the 1917 fire.

Today, the church often functions as the de facto cathedral of Thessaloniki.

The crypt under the sanctuary and the transept is said to be the place where the saint was martyred, and has been an archaeological site since it was discovered in 1918.

The remains of Saint Dimitrios were returned from Italy in 1980 and are part of the exhibition open to the public, with items that survived the 1917 fire and others that came to light during recent excavations:

Inside the Church of Saint Dimitrios … rebuilt after the catastrophic fire in 1917 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

‘House of God, Gate of
Heaven’: Saint James’s Church
in Cappagh, Co Limerick

Saint James’s Church, Cappagh, Co Limerick … built in 1839 and rebuilt in 1986-1987 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

Saint James’s Church is one of the few public facilities in the village of Cappagh in West Limerick, about 5 km south-east of Askeaton. Cappagh is the third smallest parish in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Limerick.

Cappagh has no public house, post office or shop, one of the few villages in Co Limerick without any of these amenities.

Cappagh was part of the old tuath of Nantenan, in the territory of Uí Fidgeinte, from the fourth century on. Cappagh takes its name from An Ceapach, meaning ‘the tillage plot.’

Saint James’s Church was built in Cappagh in 1839 to replace an older church damaged by a storm. The church was extensively renovated in 1986 and officially reopened on 15 February 1987.

A mass house was used in the parish during penal times. However, almost nothing remains of this now, and the one remaining wall is virtually indistinguishable from the boundary wall of a field, covered by ivy and briars.

Samuel Lewis described the church as a large plain thatched edifice in 1837, built on Cappagh Hill to replace the 18th-century mass house in Ballymorrisheen. He noted Cappagh was on the road from Adare to Shanagolden, with 694 inhabitants.

The earlier church was blown down on the ‘Night of the Big Wind’ on 6 January 1839. That year, Father Jeremiah Halpin acquired the site for a new church and designed and took charge of the building, which was completed within a year and dedicated to Saint James.

The Latin-inscribed foundation stone now lies in the churchyard (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The foundation stone that once stood over the front door is now placed at the side. The inscription in Latin reads:

Hanc Capellam Sto Jacobo
Apostolo dedicatum fieri
Fecit Rev J Halpin PP
Joanne Ryan DD Episcopo
Anno Domini 1839


For many years, this church had only a mud floor and no seating.

A parochial house was built in 1849 by Lord Southwell for the parish priest, Father Richard Mulcahy.

While the church was being rebuilt in 1986, Mass was celebrated in the community hall for six months during the work. The church was officially reopened on 15 February 1987 with Bishop Jeremiah Newman concelebrating Mass with 11 priests.

A plaque lists all of the donors to the church, including Father Robert Somers PP, who donated the church altar and chancel. He had been an invalid for some years and when he died in 1871 at the age of 48, he was buried in the church. P and J Hayes donated the Altar rails, and Kennedy James Hayes donated the baptistery.

‘House of God, Gate of Heaven’ … the porch window at Saint James’s Church, Cappagh (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The church has double buttresses on the corners of the nave and the chancel. The porch is a modern addition, with a window depicting Saint James and inscribed ‘House of God, Gate of Heaven.’

The three-light, round-headed window above the altar, framed by a tall pointed arch, depicts Saint William, the Sacred Heart, and Saint Michael. This window was donated by the White family of Nantenan in memory of William White who died in the Boer War on 12 March 1901. The White family coat of arms is depicted on this window, with the motto A Deo Fortuna et Honor.

The front window was donated by Mary A McDonnell, and Emily White donated the chancel window.

Senator Michael O’Dea donated the stained-glass windows on either side of the nave. The window on the right is in memory of his only son Bernard, who died on 8 December 1916. This window depicts Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, a Cistercian monastery and writer’s tools, common symbols of Saint Bernard.

The window on the left is in memory of Michael O’Dea’s mother, Lucy, who died on 25 June 1902. This window depicts Saint Lucy, who was martyred by the Emperor Diocletian in the fourth century. Images in the window include a dish with two eyes, s a symbol of Saint Lucy.

The side altar with a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes was donated by Mrs White of Nantenan in1877. The side altar of Saint Joseph was donated by Thomas and Margaret Hayes of Callow in 1883, who also donated the Stations of the Cross.

The Celtic cross marking the grave of the White family of Nantenan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Two parish priests are buried within the church: Father Richard Mulcahy and Father Robert Somers. Four parish priests are buried in the church grounds: Father Patrick Woulfe, Father David Barry, Father William Boyce, and Father P Fitzgerald.

Patrick Woulfe, who was parish priest in 1926-1934, was the author of an influential study of Irish surnames, Sloinnte Gael is Gadhaill. David Barry was a regular contributor to the church history journal, Irish Ecclesiastical Record.

Other priests associated with the parish include Father ‘Patch’ Carroll, who was vice-president of Notre Dame University in Indiana and a prolific author whose writings include plays, poetry, memoirs and novels.

The other noticeable grave in the churchyard is that of the White family of Nantenan, with a large Celtic cross bearing the names of John P White (1840-1982), who is buried at Saint John’s Limerick, his wife Emily (MacMahon) White (1840-1906), Captain JJ White (1863-1940) and Lieut-Col MWH White (1908-1997) of the 9th Gurkha Rifle.

Saint James’s Church, Cappagh, has double buttresses on the corners of the nave and the chancel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Sunday, 25 October 2020

Sunday intercessions on
25 October 2020
(Fifth Sunday before Advent)


Let us pray:

Heavenly Father,
we pray for the rulers of the world,
that all their choices and decisions
may reflect our love for you, for neighbours,
and for your creation,
and in doing so they may pursue justice, mercy and peace.

We pray for all who vote at this time in the United States,
we pray for governments making difficult and demanding decisions,
for the members of Nephet,
the National Public Health and Emergency Team,
for those working in hospitals, schools and public health,
that they may reflect our love for you and for others.

Lord have mercy,
Lord have mercy.

Lord Jesus Christ,
teach us day-by-day
to love God with all our hearts,
with all our souls,
with all our minds.

In the Anglican Cycle of Prayer,
we pray this week for the Church in Wales,
and the Most Revd John Davies,
Archbishop of Wales and Bishop of Swansea and Brecon.

Throughout the Church of Ireland this month,
we pray for the Diocese of Cashel, Ferns and Ossory,
for Bishop Michael Burrowes,
and for the people and priests of the diocese.

We pray for our bishop, Kenneth,
and for his ministry, mission and witness …

In the Diocesan Cycle of Prayer, we pray this week
for the Diocesan Synods and Diocesan Councils
of both Tuam, Killala and Achonry
and Limerick and Killaloe.

Christ have mercy,
Christ have mercy.

Holy Spirit,
dwell in our hearts, that we may love our neighbours as ourselves:

We give thanks for new life …
for Simon Michael Foley …
for his parents, sister, and grandparents …

We pray for those in need and those who seek healing:

In our hearts, we name individuals, families, neighbours,
care homes, hospitals, voluntary groups …

We pray for those who are sick or isolated,
at home or in hospital …

Sylvia … Alan … Margaret … Lorraine …
Ajay… Joey … Ena … Trixie …
Eileen … Niall …
We pray for those we have offered to pray for …
and we pray for those who pray for us …

We pray for all who grieve and mourn at this time …
Liz and Kirk Beasley and their families …
the families of Margaret Glynn … Sylvia Mitchell …
Bertha Marsh … Canon Marie Rowley-Brooks …
may their families find comfort and support in the prayers of friends …
may their memories be a blessing to us …

Lord have mercy,
Lord have mercy.

A prayer for today in the prayer diary
of the Anglican mission agency USPG
(United Society Partners in the Gospel):

God of yesterday, today and for ever,
thank you that in you
we may affirm our heritage and forge new paths.
Pour your blessing upon your church, as we commemorate the past, seek your will in the present, and lay our plans for the future before you. Amen.

Merciful Father …

These intercessions were prepared for use the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes on Sunday 25 October 2020.

When it comes to loving
God and loving others,
there are no Ifs or Buts

‘Love All’ … a sculpture by Rachel Joynt in Templeogue Village, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 25 October 2020,

The Fifth Sunday before Advent (Bible Sunday).

9.30 a.m.: Morning Prayer (Morning Prayer 2), Castletown Church, Kilcornan

11.30 a.m.: The Parish Eucharist (Holy Communion 2), Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale

The Readings: Deuteronomy 34: 1-12; Psalm 90: 1-6, 13-17; I Thessalonians 2: 1-8; Matthew 22: 34-46.

‘Love is the answer’ … a window display in a shop in Skerries, Co Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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

Did you remember to put the clock back last night?

Did you get an extra hour’s sleep last night?

Many years ago, almost 40 years ago, I was living on High Street in Wexford, across the street from the opera house, then the Theatre Royal.

This weekend marked one of the highlights of the Opera Festival. Many of the star singers would sing and take part in the service this Sunday morning in Saint Iberius’s Church, which was just around the corner from the theatre and from where I lived.

It was one Sunday when the church would be packed, an ecumenical congregation in the early days of ecumenism.

On the Saturday night, as the clocks changed … instead of putting my alarm clock back an hour … I put it forward one hour. Quick calculations and you’ll realise I turned up at church two hours too early!

Realising my own stupidity, instead of hanging around on the corner of Main Street and Rowe Street for two hours, I skipped back to my flat for a coffee, switched the clock back, fell asleep, and turned up at church … an hour late.

Changing the clocks at the end of October sometimes seems like a silly rule, a nonsense, especially when we notice from this evening how quickly the evenings are closing in.

There is no such objective thing as time. It’s not a quantity. I could not swop my lost hour or two that Sunday morning for an hour or two later in time. I cannot swop with you my Monday this week for your Tuesday next week.

But we have simple rules, conventions and commands that make life easier for all of us. If we decided on our own rules for measuring time, none of us would ever catch a bus, watch our favourite television shows, hold down a job or – in non-pandemic times – get to church on time.

Simple commands are not an imposition or a denial of human rights when we realise they are for the good of us all: put the clock back; drive slowly; don’t drink and drive; wash your hands; wear a mask …

Most conventions like this are for our own good and for the good of others. And we accept them, not as slaves, but out of love … for ourselves, for one another, for our neighbours.

My wearing a mask protects you; you wearing a mask protects me; when we both wear masks, we protect each other.

And it’s the same when it comes to the Ten Commandments. Our understanding of commands and commandments today is clouded by our understanding of individual freedoms rather than the common good.

It makes common sense not to allow idols that represent unlimited power, ill-gotten gains or political fanaticism to take the place of God.

It makes sense to honour not just our parents but all who go before us in age, in shaping our community, in passing on the faith and good values to future generations.

It makes sense to me that others are told not to murder me, not to steal from me, not to plan and plot to trick me out of house and home.

And it should be a joy to know that these limitations are there for my safety and security, for your safety and security, out of care and love for God and for one another.

Wear a mask … drive slowly … thou shalt not murder.

Among Jews, the word for a commandment is mitzvah (מִצְוָה). And each mitzvah brings its own joy in being fulfilled. That joy alone – knowing I have done the right thing, what is pleasing to God, what benefits others – is joy enough on its own.

The joy of doing something good, for its own sake, without having to be told to do so, without expecting any rewards or favours in return, gives rise to the popular exclamation, ‘It’s a mitzvah!’

It’s a feminine noun that means ‘good deed.’ Chasidic teachers say that because the root word (tzavta, צותא) means ‘together’ or ‘connection,’ every mitzvah is a way to connect with God.

Look what happens to Matthew 22:36-40 when the word mitzvah is properly used: ‘Teacher, which mitzvah in the law is the greatest?’ Jesus replied, ‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first mitzvah. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” On these two mitzvot hang all the law and the prophets.’

The command to love, to love God and to love our neighbour, is at the heart of the Gospel. It is summarised in the two great commandments in this morning’s Gospel reading (Matthew 22: 36-40; see Luke 10: 27; Leviticus 19: 18).

It’s surprising, then, how Saint Paul, on more than one occasion, reduces it all down to one great commandment. For example, he writes: The commandments … are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law (Romans 13: 8-10).

And again: For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Galatians 5: 14).

In other places, he writes: The only thing that counts is faith working through love (Galatians 5: 6). Or: Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in harmony (Colossians 3: 14).

In the Orthodox Liturgy, the priest introduces the Creed with the words: ‘Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess ...’ In other words, our statement of belief, in ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Trinity consubstantial and undivided,’ is confirmed, realised and lived out in our love for one another.

To love our neighbour as ourselves means to love them as we are ourselves, as being of the same substance – created in the image and likeness of God. The Church Fathers teach that we find our true self in loving our neighbour, and that love is not a feeling but an action.

To love one another is 50% of it all. And 50% was never a fail mark in my days.

When we love one another, not in feelings but in action, then loving God becomes a reality, and everything else fits into place.

And if we do anything, and claim we are doing it because the Bible says so, or because it suits us politically, but it goes against one of these commandments, it’s not Biblical, it’s not Christian.

This morning’s collect urges us to hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the words of the Bible. How do we show that we do this? By loving God and loving others.

If we have some prejudices against people because of their sexuality or their gender, their ethnicity or their social background, their language or their lifestyle, it’s not Christian, no matter how we search for or twist a Biblical passage. It’s not a mitzvah, it’s prejudice.

And Christ tells us in this morning’s Gospel reading there are no qualifications, no Ifs or Buts, no room for excuses or prejudices, no terms and conditions. Love God … full stop. Love others … full stop.

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

.
‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Matthew 22: 39) … hearts hanging in decorations in a bar in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 22: 34-46 (NRSVA):

34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ 37 He said to him, ‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: 42 ‘What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?’ They said to him, ‘The son of David.’ 43 He said to them, ‘How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,

44 “The Lord said to my Lord,
‘Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet’”?

45 If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?’ 46 No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

‘How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord’ (Matthew 22: 41) … a copy of Michelangelo’s statue of David in Florence (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical Colour: Green (Ordinary Time, Year A).

The Collect of the Day:

Blessed Lord,
who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning:
Help us to hear them,
to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them
that, through patience, and the comfort of your holy word,
we may embrace and for ever hold fast
the blessed hope of everlasting life,
which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ.

The Post Communion Prayer:

God of all grace,
your Son Jesus Christ fed the hungry
with the bread of his life and the word of his kingdom.
Renew your people with your heavenly grace,
and in all our weakness
sustain us by your true and living bread,
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

‘Satisfy us with your loving-kindness in the morning’ (Psalm 90: 14) … an early winter morning at the Rectory in Askeaton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Hymns:

515, ‘A new commandment I give unto you’ (CD 30)
525, Let there be love shared among us (CD 30)

‘Brother, sister, let me serve you’ (Hymn 517) … a painting in Saint Munchin’s College, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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.

Putting the clock forward instead of back on High Street, Wexford, ignored a simple rule or convention … and I missed church that Sunday morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Saturday, 24 October 2020

A missed opportunity to
visit Selskar Abbey, ‘almost
at the end of the world’

The ruins of Selskar Abbey, described in the 1355 as ‘by Wexford, which is almost at the end of the world in Ireland’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

When I was back in Wexford last month during my late summer road trip, I missed once again finding an opportunity to visit Selskar Abbey in the heart of Wexford town. The church dates from the early 12th century, and it is claimed as the site of the first Anglo-Irish treaty, signed in 1169.

Selskar Abbey is said to have been built on the site of Viking place of worship dedicated to Odin. However, there are several indications that the area was home to an earlier Christian site, predating the arrival of the Vikings in 800. This site would have overlooked the River Slaney at the time, as the land around Redmond Square and the train station was not reclaimed until later years.

At one time, historians claimed the name Selskar is a corruption of the name Saint Sepulchre, referring to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. An alternative theory suggests the name derives from an old Norse phrase meaning ‘seal rock’ (seal skar), referring to a rocky outcrop nearby in the River Slaney.

At the time, this site would have overlooked the River Slaney, as the land around Redmond Square and the train station was not reclaimed until later years. It is a curiosity that parts of the abbey complex stood inside and other parts outside Wexford’s mediaeval town wall.

When Dermot MacMurrough, King of Leinster, was forced into exile, he returned to Wexford with a large Anglo-Norman force that immediately laid siege to Wexford. The siege was lifted when the Bishop of Ferns persuades the people of Wexford to surrender.

It is claimed in Wexford Henry II spent Lent at Selskar Abbey in 1172, doing penance for the murder of Saint Thomas Becket in Canterbury in 1170. However, it is unclear whether there is any truth in the story.

The leading Anglo-Norman commander, Raymond FitzGerald or Raymond Le Gros, and Basila de Clare, a sister of ‘Strongbow,’ Richard de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, are said to have been married at Selskar Abbey in 1174.

The surviving ruins seen today are of the abbey founded ca 1190 by Alexander de la Roche. This was a house of Augustinian canons, and its proper name was the Priory of Saint Peter and Sain Paul.

There is an amusing entry about the Abbey of Saint Selskar in the Calendar of Papal Letters in January 1355, when a mandate was given to the Bishop of Ferns ‘to inform himself of the destruction by fire of the Muniments of the Prior and Convent of SS Peter and Paul, Selker (sic) by Wexford, which is almost at the end of the world in Ireland.’

John Topcliffe, Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, complained to Henry VIII in 1512 that the monks who ‘time out of mind’ had chosen their own Prior, had elected a ‘good blessed religious man’ as Prior but that the Abbot had turned him out.

At the dissolution of the monastic houses during the Tudor Reformation, Selskar Abbey was closed in 1542 and handed to John Parker, Master of the Rolls in Ireland. It later passed to the Stafford family, but it continued in use as a Church of Ireland parish church, although other churches in Wexford were closed, including Saint Peter’s. In 1615, there were 20 churches in Wexford Town.

The abbey was destroyed by Oliver Cromwell in 1649, when the stones from several churches in the town were used to repair Wexford Castle.

The Church of Ireland parish church in Selskar was rebuilt in 1818-1826 at a cost of £1,384 12s 3¾d, pf which £830 15s 4¾d was a gift from the Board of First Fruits. The tower, first built in the 1300s, was restored and used as a sacristy and belfry. However, parts of the abbey were dismantled.

The church was consecrated on 9 November 1826, and the Revd William Strong, Rector of Wexford in 1824-1832, was the first minister of the new Saint Selskar’s Church. Later, he became Prebendary of Saint Audeon’s in Dublin (1833-1847) and Archdeacon of Glendalough (1847-1861).

It was reported in 1837 that there were three services on Sundays and Christmas Day and on four days in the week in Saint Iberius Church, while in Saint Selskar Church there was one service each Sunday and on Christmas Day in Saint Selskar’s. The Holy Communion was celebrated twice a month in Saint Iberius Church and six time a year in Saint Selskar’s.

However, in the aftermath of World War II, the Church of Ireland population of Wexford was declining and it was increasingly difficult to keep two parish churhes open in the town.

A decision was taken to close Selskar Church and focus on Saint Iberius Church on North Main Street. The church was closed, the slated roof was removed, and the east window was put in storage in Saint Iberius Church, with the hope that one day it would be restored to its original home.

The late Sam Coe, who was once a churchwarden in Wexford, told me he had held every office in the Church of Ireland that was open to a lay member of the church. He was a well-known tour guide into his old age, and when I was living in Wexford in the early and mid 1970s, he brought me to visit the ruins of Selskar Church.

Selskar Abbey reopened to the public in July 2012 and is now part of the Westgate Heritage Tower. The refurbished tower is closed to the public, as the stairway is too tight and narrow. The middle floor of this tower is still intact, and the top floor has a narrow platform that extends around the outside walls.

Although the grounds are closed to the public, walking tours of the site can be arranged. However, once again, I missed an opportunity to visit Selskar Church when I was back in Wexford last month … and it’s not even ‘at the end of the world.’

Selskar Abbey reopened to the public in July 2012 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

When the Precentors of Limerick
looked after their own kith and kin

The carved wyvern biting his tail under the seat in the precentor’s stall in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

After a project looking at my predecessors as Precentors of Limerick was postponed last month due to the pandemic limits on public events, I thought it might still be interesting to look at past precentors in a number of blog postings.

In recent postings, I recalled some previous precentors who had been accused of ‘dissolute living’ or being a ‘notorious fornicator’ (Awly O Lonysigh), or who were killed in battle (Thomas Purcell). There were those who became bishops or archbishops: Denis O’Dea (Ossory), Richard Purcell (Ferns) and John Long (Armagh).

There was the tragic story too of Robert Grave, who became Bishop of Ferns while remaining Precentor of Limerick, but – only weeks after his consecration – drowned with all his family in Dublin Bay as they made their way by sea to their new home in Wexford (read more HERE).

In the 17th century, two members of the Gough family were also appointed Precentors of Limerick. In all, three brothers in this family were priests in the Church of Ireland and two were priests in the Church of England, and the Rathkeale branch of the family was the ancestral line of one of Ireland’s most famous generals (red more HERE).

In the mid to late 18th century, two members of the Maunsell family were Precentors of Limerick: Richard Maunsell (1745-1747) and William Thomas Maunsell (1786-1781).

Canon Richard Maunsell (1713-1791), who was the Precentor of Limerick in 1745-1747, was born in Cork, educated at Trinity College Dublin (BA 1735; MA 1738), and was ordained deacon in 1738 and priest in 1740. Almost immediately he found a senior position in the Diocese of Limerick when he was appointed Prebendary and Vicar of Killeedy in 1741.

It was probably no mere coincidence that his father-in-law, William Burscough, was then the Bishop of Limerick (1725-1755). Burscough had come to Ireland in 1712 as chaplain to the Lord Lieutenant, Lord Carteret – a sure stepping-stone in those days to becoming a bishop in the Church of Ireland. But Burscough was a scholar too: he was Fellow of Wadham College, Oxford, in 1699-1719, he delivered the Boyle Lecture in 1723, and helped to found the Incorporated Society in 1733.

Burscough was Bishop of Limerick for 30 years, but when he died in 1755, he was buried in New Ross, Co Wexford.

Meanwhile, Richard Maunsell had been appointed Precentor of Limerick in 1745. But he remained Precentor for only two years, and in 1747, while his father-in-law was still Bishop of Limerick, he became Chancellor of Limerick and Rector of Rathkeale and Kilscannell. So, he was also one of my predecessors in this group of parishes, and he remained here for almost half a century, until he died in 1791.

While Maunsell was in Rathkeale, he added to his clerical income by becoming Rector and Vicar of Kilcornan in 1782. This too is now a parish within the Rathkeale group of parishes, and his appointment to Kilcornan may have come about because his only daughter Elizabeth had married the local landlord, John Thomas Waller of Kilcornan, in 1782. He died in 1791.

Canon William Thomas Maunsell (1729-1818), who was the Precentor of Limerick and Rector and Vicar of Loughill in 1786-1791, was born in Limerick and was educated at TCD (BA 1751; LLB 1774). He came to the Diocese of Limerick as a Vicar Choral of Limerick Cathedral and Prebendary of Donaghmore.

After his time as Precentor of Limerick, this Canon Maunsell became Chancellor of Limerick and Rector of Rathkeale and Kilscannell (1791-1803). At the same time as he was Precentor and then Chancellor of Limerick (1786-1803), he held a number of church appointments, including Precentor of Kildare (1766-1818), Archdeacon of Kildare (1772-1818).

He was a son-in-law of William Twigge, Archdeacon of Limerick, and his son, William Wray Maunsell (1782-1860), was Vicar of Saint Michael’s, Limerick, and Archdeacon of Limerick for almost half a century (1814-1860).

Archdeacon Maunsell was a son-in-law of another Bishop of Limerick, Charles Mongan-Warburton (1754-1826), who was bisop in 1806-1820; his son, Canon Robert Augustus Maunsell (1825-1878), became chaplain at the British Embassy in Paris.

Indeed, over time, no less than 21 members of the Maunsell family are counted among the clergy of the Diocese of Limerick.

Friday, 23 October 2020

‘I’m a very lucky refugee. And we
need to do this for other people’


Patrick Comerford

I have been writing over the last few days about three Holocaust survivors who were born in Vienna and eventually settled in Northern Ireland – Inge Radford and Edith (Medel) Sekules and her husband Kurt Sekules – and about the Czech-born dance teacher and choreographer, Helen Lewis, a Holocaust survivor who moved from Prague to Belfast.

In my Friday evening reflections this evening, I have been moved by an interview Inge Radford’s daughter, Dr Katy Radford, gave to the Belfast Telegraph two years ago [19 November 2018].

Dr Radford has spent a lifetime working to build relationships across the divide and to champion the marginalised. She is project manager at the Institute for Conflict Research and has worked with many organisations, including the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the Commission for Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition.

In her interview, Katy Radford recalled a ‘privileged middle-class upbringing’ in south Belfast, even though her mother had fled the Nazis as a child and had lost half of her family in the Holocaust.

Katy talked about her pride in her Jewish heritage and in her Northern Ireland identity. She grew up in a Reform community, and the first rabbi she had was a woman.

Although she did attend a synagogue regularly as a child, she grew up with a pronounced sense of Jewish identity but not of religious observance. ‘We were always aware of heritage. We were always aware of the family narrative,’ she said.

Her mother had always encouraged me to connect to her Jewish culture and she got a sense of her Jewish identity from travelling. From the age of 15, she started visiting her family in Israel regularly and learnt about religion and ritual in what she describes as ‘a much more liberal way.’

She returned to Belfast in her 30s with a very different understanding of what a Jewish community was about.

She told the Belfast Telegraph that one of the things she is most proud of about her mother was an incident when Syrian refugees started to arrive in Northern Ireland.

Amnesty International had organised an event in Belfast, and Inge Radford made a determined effort to take part in it. It was raining heavily that day, but she made her way from Millisle to Belfast in a Zimmer frame walker on the bus.

She was saying: ‘I’m a very lucky refugee. And we need to do this for other people.’

For Katy Radford, this typifies the childhood and the values that her mother gave her.

She recalls an expression in Judaism – a mitzvah (מִצְוָה‎). It is an expression that includes a sense of heartfelt sentiment beyond mere legal duty, as ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Leviticus 19: 18).

Katy Radford explained: ‘A mitzvah is a duty, an obligation. But it’s also a privilege. A mitzvah is something you have to do but it’s your privilege to do it. If, say, I visit someone who is unwell, it’s not that I have to do it, it’s a benefit to me that I do that thing.’

‘No reward can match the reward of having done good,’ the Baal Shem Tov said. ‘Does G-d need your mitzvahs? No. G-d desires your mitzvahs. A mitzvah is a jewel of immeasurable value, the embodiment of divine desire. And so the sages taught, ‘The greatest reward of a mitzvah is the mitzvah itself’.’

Shabbat Shalom.

Helen Lewis, Holocaust
survivor from Prague who
taught dance in Belfast

A suitcase packed for Theresienstadt … an exhibition in Prague … Helen Lewis was deported there from Prague in 1941 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

As I was writing earlier this week about Lily Comerford (1900-1965), a key figure in creating what we now regard as traditional Irish dancing, I was disturbed by the story of her meeting Hitler in Germany in the 1930s and by my own perceptions of the role Irish dancing has sometimes played in perpetuating myths about Irish nationalism and identity.

Her story, in many ways, is in sharp contrast with the story of another dance teacher and choreopgrapher who was her near contemporary: Helen Lewis (1916-2009) was a Holocaust survivor who made her name in Belfast as a dance teacher and choreographer, and who was known too for her memoir of her Holocaust experiences.

Helen Lewis was born Helena Katz on 22 June 1916 into a German-speaking Jewish family in Trutnov in Bohemia, 160 km north-east of Prague. It was then part of the Austrian empire, became part of Czechoslovakia in 1918, and is now in the Czech Republic, close to the border with Poland.

She was an only child in a comfortable though not especially religiously observant, Jewish home in Trutnov. Her father died in 1934, and when Helena completed her studies at the Realgymnasium or local grammar school in Trutnov in 1935, she and her mother Elsa moved to Prague.

In Prague, she studied dance with the dancer and choreographer Milca Mayerová, a pupil of Rudolf Laban. She also studied philosophy at the German University of Prague and took lessons in French.

She married Paul Hermann, from a Czech Jewish family, in Prague in June 1938. She continued to teach at Mayerová's dance school, and experimented with choreography.

Nazi Germany invaded Czechoslovakia on 16 March 1939 and absorbed Bohemia into a Nazi ‘protectorate.’ From August 1941, many thousands of Jews were deported. Helena’s mother, Elsa Katz, was deported in early 1942, and the Hermanns were sent to Terezín (Theresianstadt), 70 km north of Prague, in August 1942.

Terezín or Theresienstadt was both a waystation to the extermination camps, and a ‘retirement settlement’ for elderly and prominent Jews to mislead their communities about the Nazis’ plan for genocide. The conditions there were created deliberately to hasten the death of the prisoners, and the ghetto also served a propaganda role, most notably during Red Cross visits and in making propaganda films.

Helena worked in the children’s homes, where she and colleagues managed to give children some education. After untreated appendicitis, she spent months in the camp hospital.

Helena and Paul stayed in contact while they were in Terezín. But they were separated in May 1944 when they were moved to Auschwitz and they never met again. Paul died on a forced march in April 1945.

Theresienstadt heads the list of concentration camps inscribed on the wall around the Aron haKodesh in the Pinkas Synagogue, Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In Auschwitz, Helena expected Josef Mengele would send her to the gas chambers because of her evident ill health and extensive scarring, but she twice avoided selection. She was transferred to Stutthof, a forced-labour camp in north Poland, where more than 85,000 detainees were killed.

A chance remark led to Helena’s selection for a bizarre Christmas entertainment, when she was compelled to dance the valse from Leo Delibes’s comic opera Coppélia for the SS guards in December 1944.

As Soviet troops approached Stutthof, the German guards forced the remaining prisoners to leave the camp on 27 January 1945 and march for weeks through the Polish winter. With little food and brutal ill treatment, thousands died on the forced march.

Helena was seriously ill with typhoid fever, and when she fell in the snow she was abandoned. She took shelter in a house where German soldiers gave her food. Later, a Russian army major gave her a handwritten note that allowed her to pass through Russian territory to a Red Cross hospital.

When she reached her uncle’s house in Prague, she weighed only 30 kg, and recovery was slow. Back in Prague, she learnt of her husband’s death; her mother, who had been deported early in 1942, had died at Sobibór extermination camp.

A postcard arrived from Harry Lewis in October 1945. The two had briefly been sweethearts, but he left Prague for Britain in the pre-war wars. Now he had seen her name on a Red Cross list of survivors.

They married in Prague in June 1947, just months before the Communist take-over of Czechoslovakia. They left Prague to begin new lives in Belfast, where he set up a handkerchief-making business. She had frequent nightmares until her first son Michael was born in 1949; giving birth to him seemed somehow to cancel out the worst of the memories of despair and terror.

After her second son Robin was born in 1954, Helen returned to teaching dance. In 1956, she helped the pupils of Grosvenor High School (now Grosvenor Grammar School) to stage The Bartered Bride, a comic opera by the Czech composer Bedřich Smetana.

She also worked on a production of Dvořák’s The Golden Spinning Wheel at the Belfast Ballet Club, and Macbeth at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast. She went on to choreograph many works with the director Sam McCready, who noted that she ‘brought a whole European dimension to dance in the theatre.’

She worked with amateur opera in Belfast and with Mary O’Malley on many productions in the Lyric Theatre. Helen Lewis is credited with the introduction of modern dance to Belfast audiences, founding and directing the Belfast Modern Dance Group from 1962.

In the 1970s, she choreographed specially written short ballets, some performed in Dublin and Cork. One was based on Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘A Lough Neagh sequence.’

As ‘the Troubles’ unfolded from the late 1960s, she felt a pressing need to tell her story. She took part in community events and discussions throughout the 1970s and 1980s, speaking out against bigotry, genocide and ethnic cleansing.

Encouraged by the writers Michael Longley and Jennifer Johnson, Helen Lewis started writing her memoir, A Time to Speak. It became a bestseller, was translated into many languages, including Czech, and was serialised several times by RTÉ and the BBC.

She spoke frequently in interviews about the Holocaust. She was made MBE (2001) for services to dance and received honorary doctorates from Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Ulster.

A month before her death, a one-woman show based on her life and adapted by Sam McCready was performed at the Lyric Theatre during the Belfast Festival in 2009.

Harry died in 1991 and Helen died at her home in Belfast on 31 December 2009, aged 93. They were survived by the sons, Michael and Robin. A dance studio at the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast is named after her.

She trained and influenced scores of dancers over three decades.She believed that ‘dance by its very nature has the special power of drawing people together.’ Her gifts as a teacher are remembered by generations of dancers who continue to teach her work throughout the world.

Years after the Holocaust, she acknowledged that survival was almost as traumatic as seeing others die, and she found it difficult to try accept that she had lived while others perished. She eventually concluded that there was no way to understand or explain, it was simply her fate.

Inside the Spanish Synagogue in Prague … Helen and Harry Lewis were married in Prague in 1947 before leaving for Belfast (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Thursday, 22 October 2020

Tales of the Viennese Jews:
16, three Holocaust survivors
who lived in Northern Ireland

Children of the Kindertransport ... Frank Meisler’s bronze sculpture at Liverpool Street Station in London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The Tales from the Vienna Woods is a waltz by the composer Johann Strauss II (1825-1899), written just over a century and a half ago, in 1868. Although Strauss was baptised in the Roman Catholic Church, he was born into a prominent Jewish family. Because the Nazis had a particular penchant for Strauss’s music, they tried to conceal and even deny the Jewish identity of the Strauss family.

However, the stories of Vienna’s Jews cannot be hidden, and many of those stories from Vienna are told in the exhibits in the Jewish Museum in its two locations, at the Palais Eskeles on Dorotheergasse and in the Misrachi-Haus in Judenplatz.

Rather than describe both museums in detail in one or two blog postings, I decided after my recent visit to Vienna to post occasional blog postings that re-tell some of these stories, celebrating a culture and a community whose stories should never be forgotten.

In the past week, I have been reminded of the stories of three Holocaust survivors who were born in Vienna and who moved to live in Northern Ireland after World War II: Inge Radford, who lived in Belfast and later in Millisle, Co Down, and Edith (Medel) Sekules and her husband Kurt Sekules, who lived for over half a century in Kilkeel, Co Down.

Inge Radford (1932-2016) was born in Vienna, one of 10 children, and six members of her family died in the Holocaust.

Inge escaped to England on the Kindertransports in July 1939. But in 1942 her widowed mother and five brothers, Sigmund, Kurt, Walter, Herbert and Fritz, were deported from Vienna to Minsk in the former Soviet Union, now the capital of Belarus. They were initially incarcerated in the Minsk ghetto and then transferred to the labour camp in the village of Maly Trostinec, where they were murdered.

Maly Trostinec had no permanent gas chambers but there the Nazis used mobile gas vans. In May 1943, 500 people were murdered every day in the gas vans that went daily to and from Minsk and Maly Trostinec.

However, five members of her family escaped the Holocaust. A local voluntary committee in Sevenoaks, Kent, raised money to bring Inge and five other children out of Europe and guaranteed the £50 a child expected by the British government.

At 16, Inge’s eldest sister, Elli, went to live with relatives in the US. Her 13- and 14-year-old brothers, Ernst and Erich, went to live on farms in Denmark, while her nine-year-old sister Rose, and Inge, then seven, went to England, separately and unknown to each other, under the auspices of the Jewish Children’s Refugee Organisation.

Inge later said the fact that these five siblings grew into relatively unscarred and useful citizens was due to the many people who tried ‘to minimise the trauma of family separation and loss for us and for hundreds of other refugee children.’

‘Homes and hearts were opened to us’ she said. Many children stayed with their ‘adopting’ families through school, university, marriage and parenthood. ‘For me,’ she said later ‘these new, kind and loving relationships blurred the picture of a small, smiling woman surrounded by several boys all waving as the train pulled out of Vienna station.’

Inge’s sister Rose lived happily with a Yorkshire Baptist family until she joined their older sister in the US. Inge went first to the Isle of Man and then lived half her life in England and the second half in Northern Ireland. She was reunited many years later with her two sisters who went to the US and her two brothers in Israel.

She was a social worker, a probation officer, and worked in the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast. Her husband, Professor Colin Buchanan Radford, was a French academic and dean of the Faculty of Arts at Queen’s University Belfast. He was made OBE in 1994 for services to the arts.

They lived in south Belfast and later in Millisle on the Ards peninsula in Co Down. Inge died in March 2016.

Their daughter, Dr Katy Radford, is project manager at the Institute for Conflict Research and works with other organisations including the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the Commission for Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition. She was made an MBE in 2011 for her contribution to community relations in Northern Ireland.



Edith Sekules (1916-2008) and her husband Kurt Sekules (1907-2001) were both born in Vienna: Kurt was born in 1907, the son of Ludwig Lajos Sekules and Else (Hitschmann); Edith was born Edith Mathilde Medel on 8 June 1916 into a middle-class Jewish family, the daughter of Eugen Mendel and Marianne (Bielitz).

Edith grew up in a sophisticated, secular family, enjoying a vibrant Jewish culture. Her love of classical music and literature was nourished in Vienna in the 1920s and 1930s, when she frequented the city’s opera and musical recitals. But problems in her father’s motor business forced Edith to abandon her studies and enter the catering industry to help her family.

Meanwhile, she had met Kurt Sekules, a radio engineer, and they married in 1936. Two years later, the Nazis marched into Vienna and annexed Austria. Edith soon lost her job at the prestigious Hotel Bristol and Kurt was also dismissed.

In the midst of this crisis, their first child Ruth was born in May 1938. The young Sekules family, like many of Vienna’s Jews, resolved to leave Austria as soon as they could.

Edith’s younger sister Lottchen, known as Lotte, left for London having found a job in domestic service. Their mother followed Lotte to England, where she too found work as a domestic and cook.

Kurt applied for a job in Estonia, and he, Edith and their baby daughter boarded a plane for Tallinn on 28 September 1938, the same day that Chamberlain left England to meet Hitler in Munich. Her father and grandmother, however, were forced to remain in Vienna, in the ever-worsening conditions for Jews. They both died the following year.

Edith and Kurt applied to emigrate to Australia and in 1939 their applications were approved in 1939. However, because they were German nationals when war broke out, their permits were cancelled. In June 1940, Estonia became part of the USSR and, when Hitler attacked Russia, the Sekules family became enemy aliens.

They were arrested by the secret police and taken in cattle trucks to Harku, a detention camp near Tallinn, along with many Jewish refugees who were arrested because of their German passports.

They were shunted eastward from camp to camp ahead of the advancing Nazi army, each time in crowded cattle trucks. Rations were basic, space was minimal and the work that allowed prisoners to earn extra food was arduous. Many prisoners did not survive the harsh, Siberian winters.

The family spent some years in Soviet detention camps, including Oranki in Gorki in modern-day Russia, Aktyubinsk in modern-day Kazakhstan, and Kok Uzek at Karaganda in Kazakhstan.

During the winter of 1944, Edith suffered a miscarriage and underwent an operation without any anaesthetic. After the operation, she was allowed a 15-minute rest and ordered to walk the half-hour journey back to the camp alone.

But when World War II ended, the prisoners were not released. Returning Russian soldiers were given priority on the railway lines, and Edith and Kurt did not begin their long journey back to Vienna until January 1947. By then they had three young children, Ruth, Walter and Leah.

Economic conditions in post-war Austria were hard, and there was still a pervasive anti-semitic climate. The Sekules family decided to move to Northern Ireland, where Kurt’s parents had escaped before the war. They travelled via London, where Edith was reunited with Lotte and her mother.

Until a letter from the Kok Uzek camp arrived in London after the war, Edith’s mother had assumed that Edith and Kurt had died in the Holocaust. She had had trees planted in their memory in Israel that Edith visited some years later.

Kurt’s parents and his brother Robert also left Austria before war broke out. They settled in Derry after getting visas under a British government scheme to set up factories in Northern Ireland, and founded an artificial flowers business. The fate of Kurt’s sister Stella and her children remains unknown.

With the help of a family friend, Bernhard Altmann, Edith and Kurt set up the Kilkeel Knitting Mills, a successful knitwear business in Kilkeel, Co Down. Their fourth child, Esther, was born in 1954.

Edith spoke of her experiences at Women’s Institutes and in schools, and spoke at the first two years of Holocaust Memorial Day in Northern Ireland. According to her obituary in the Jewish Chronicle, she attributed her survival to her determination to save her family.

The couple visited Vienna in 2000 when Kurt was 92 and Edith was 83. It was their first visit to Vienna in over 50 years. They went into the same cafes where they used to go when they were a young couple, and took the same walks they had enjoyed in the 1930s along the banks of the Danube.

Edith Sekules published a memoir, Surviving the Nazis, Exile and Siberia (London: Valentine Mitchell), in 2000. Kurt died at 93 in Kilkeel in 2001; Edith died at 91 on 20 February 2008. They were survived by their son, three daughters, 10 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.

Walter Sekules told the Sunday Independent last year how he is worried by the rise of the Far Right in Europe and the growing expressions of hatred of foreigners and immigrants. Asked if he could ever forgive those people who adopted the evil policies that led to the Holocaust and those who would still spread hatred today, he responded: ‘I’m sorry that they haven’t learned better.’

Other postings in this series:

1, the chief rabbi and a French artist’s ‘pogrom’

2, a ‘positively rabbinic’ portrait of an Anglican dean

3, portraits of two imperial court financiers

4, portrait of Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis

5, Lily Renée, from Holocaust Survivor to Escape Artist

6, Sir Moses Montefiore and a decorative Torah Mantle

7, Theodor Herzl and the cycle of contradictions

8, Simon Wiesenthal and the café in Mauthausen

9, Leonard Cohen and ‘The Spice-Box of Earth’

10, Ludwig Wittgenstein and his Jewish grandparents

11, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his Jewish librettist

12, Salomon Mayer von Rothschild and the railways in Vienna

13, Gustav Mahler and the ‘thrice homeless’ Jew

14, Beethoven at 250 and his Jewish connections in Vienna

15, Martin Buber and the idea of the ‘I-Thou’ relationship

16, Three Holocaust survivors who lived in Northern Ireland.

Philip Baker, the Jewish
refugee from Latvia who
became Irish chess champion

Philip Baker (1879-1932) was the Irish Chess Champion on four occasions in the 1920s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

When Philip Baker filled out the census form in his small, single lodging room on Castle Street, Tralee, on the night of 31 March 1901, he may well have thought he was the only Jew living in Co Kerry.

He was a 22-year-old draper, and he gave his religion as ‘Hebrew’ and his place of birth as ‘Russia.’ There were four Jewish short-term guests staying at the Great Southern Hotel in Killarney that night, all linen manufacturers from London in their 20s. But the only other Jew who was resident in Kerry at that time was Amélie Bischoffsheim (1858-1947), wife of Sir Peter FitzGerald, Knight of Kerry, who were living at Glanleam on Valentia Island.

The paths of Philip Baker and Lady FitzGerald probably never crossed. She was the London-born daughter of the Dutch banker Henri Louis Bischoffsheim (1829-1908); her sister Ellen (1857-1933), the Dowager Countess of Desart, later became a Senator in the new Irish Free State and has been described as ‘the most important Jewish woman in Irish history.’

But Philip Baker’s accomplishments as a poor Latvian Jewish refugee fleeing the pogroms in the Tsarist empire are worth recounting. For Philip Baker (1879-1932) was an Irish Chess Grand Master who won the Irish Championship on four occasions in the 1920s, including three consecutive years, and a clothing factory owner who was regarded as a model employer. In time, he became the patriarch of an important Irish legal family.

The brothers David and Philip Baker were born in Riga in Latvia, then part of Imperial Russia. They were the sons of Simon Baker, a Jewish grocer or draper, and they came to Ireland at a young age, fleeing the pogroms in Tsarist Russia.

David Baker began his working life in Dublin as a ‘rags and metal merchant,’ a ‘draper’ and a ‘wool merchant,’ and at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, he lived in a number of houses in the narrow streets off the South Circular Road that became known as Dublin’s ‘Little Jerusalem,’ including Spencer Street, Raymond Street, and Greenville Terrace.

He married Yetty (Gertrude) Berman on 25 July 1899. She was a daughter of Abraham Berman, a self-employed draper and traveller, of 5 Oakfield Place, and his wife Rachel, both originally from Telshi in the Kovno district of Lithuania. David and Yetty were the parents of at least three daughters and a son. Like his brother Philip, David Baker too was noted chess player and played first board for the Clontarf Chess Club. He later moved with his family to Leeds.

Philip Baker was born in Riga on 31 March 1879. He began his working life in Ireland as a draper and a cap factory representative, and eventually owned his own clothing factory. He was a 22-year-old draper and was living in Upper Castle Street, Tralee, Co Kerry, at the time of the 1901 census.

The Aliens Register (1914-1918) shows he arrived in Dublin from Tralee on 31 January 1903. He was living at 15 Vernon Street, Dublin, on 9 September 1904 when he married Fanny Berman, a sister of David Baker’s wife Yetty. Her father Abraham Berman was 71 when he died at 5 Oakfield Place on 26 October 1919. Her widowed mother, Rachel Freda Berman, died at the age of 73 on 27 May 1922.

At first, Philip and Fanny also lived in the streets of ‘Little Jerusalem’ off the South Circular Road, including St Alban’s Road, Raymond Street and Wolseley Street. Their children included Edmund Salem Adam Baker, born 1905, died an infant; Joshua Baker (1906-1979); David Baker, born 1908; Isaac Baker, born 1911 (married Ellen Kelly); Sarah Rebecca, born 1911 (married Lazare Scheps); Sheila, born 1916 (married Barry Spain); and Sylvia ‘Lammie’ (1918-1984), who married Henry Aimers Wheeler (1916-1993), archaeologist, Office of Public Works and a president of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland.

Philip joined the Sackville Chess Club, which was founded in 1902, and soon became an Irish Grand Master. He was the Leinster champion in 1922 and 1926, and first became the Chess champion of Ireland in 1924, when he finished first in the Tailteann Games. With the Sackville Chess Club, he won the Armstrong Cup in 1926 and 1929, and he was the Irish Champion again for three consecutive years, in 1927, 1928 and 1929.

Later, as the proprietor of his own clothing factory, Philip was recognised as a model employer. He died at 77 Kenilworth Square, Rathmines, Dublin, on 18 April 1932, aged 53.

Philip Baker’s son, Professor Joshua Baker (1906-1979), earned a double first in Hebrew and Oriental Studies and Legal Science at Trinity College Dublin, and earned a gold medal and a scholarship to the US, where he completed his doctorate.

Josh Baker had a demanding practice as a senior counsel and legal expert, yet he lectured at TCD for 30 years in Hebrew and as Reid Professor of Criminal Law. His friend and colleague, Professor Jacob Weingreen, in his obituary in the Jewish Chronicle, praised his ‘lucid, analytical mind, genial personality, special sense of humour, and many acts of friendship.’

Another son, David Baker, was the Hebrew/Gaelic interpreter when the leaders of Israel and Ireland met.

Philip Baker’s eldest daughter Sarah married Leslie (Lazare) Scheps, a Swiss Jewish immigrant. Their daughter Rosalind married Judge Henry Barron (1928-2010), who was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1997. He presided over the inquiry into the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, in which 33 people were killed in 1974, and granted Ireland’s first legal divorce in 1997. He was also president of the Irish Jewish Museum.

A chess set in a shop window on the island of Murano in the Venetian lagoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)