15 June 2020

A lost opportunity to
visit Bari, another
part of ‘Magna Graeca’

The Basilica di San Nicola in Bari … said to hold the relics of Saint Nicholas or ‘Santa Claus’ (Photograph: Wikipedia)

Patrick Comerford

Another planned city break has been lost this week due to the lockdown introduced in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Ryanair is advertising that Italy is ‘open’ from 1 July, but I was supposed to fly to Bari this afternoon [15 June 2020], with plans to stay in Bari for a few days this week and to travel throughout Puglia.

I had bought and read the guide books, and my plans included visiting the churches, spending time by the olive-green seas, enjoying the food of southern Italy, and visiting Lecce, the ‘Florence of the South,’ and some of the other beautiful towns of Puglia. I also planned to go in search of Jewish Bari too, and there were plans too to visit Alberobello and to stay overnight later this week one of the Puglian trulli or roundhouses.

Puglia is the ‘heel of the boot’ on the map of the Italian peninsula, and Bari, on the Adriatic sea, is the main city of the region. It is the second most important economic centre of mainland southern Italy after Naples, or the third after Palermo, if the Sicily is included.

This is a university city and the city of Saint Nicholas, and Bari was known to the Greeks as Βάριον and to the Latins as Barium. I was particularly interested in Bari because it was once part of Magna Graeca and the Greek-speaking world in classical times. It remained part of the Byzantine Empire until the Saracen invasions, and the church in Bari was a dependency of the Patriarch of Constantinople until the 10th century.

Greek people have been living in southern Italy for thousands of years, initially arriving in southern Italy in waves of migrations, from the Greek colonies of southern Italy and Sicily in the 8th century BC to Byzantine Greek migrations in the 15th century.

The Griko people (Γκρίκο), also known as Grecanici, are ethnic Greeks in Apulia and Calabria. They are believed to be descended from the Greek communities of Magna Graecia, although some scholars prefer to argue that they are descended from Greeks who arrived during the Byzantine period, or even as late as the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans.

Although most Greek people in southern Italy became entirely Italianised over the centuries, the Griko community preserved its Greek identity, heritage, language and distinct culture. However, exposure to mass media has progressively eroded their culture and language in recent decades.

The two distinctive Greek dialects, known as Katoitaliotika (‘Southern Italian’) and Grecanika, are mutually intelligible to some extent with Standard Modern Greek. The Griko language is classified as severely endangered, as the number of speakers has declined in recent decades. Today it is spoken by about 20,000, mainly elderly people.

The Italian-American singer Tony Bennett is descended from a Griko family. His father John Bendetto emigrated from the Griko town of Podargoni to the US, and Tony Bennett was born Anthony Dominick Benedetto in New York in 1926.

Before the East-West Schism, the Grikos were Catholics who adhered to the Byzantine Rite. Greeks from southern Italy in the Church included Pope John VII, Pope Zachary and Antipope John XVI. Today, most Griko people are Catholics.

Bari’s most famous saint, of course, is Santa Claus or Saint Nicholas of Myra, also known as Saint Nicholas of Bari. Early traditions say Saint Nicholas attended the First Council of Nicaea in 325, an legend says struck the heretic Arius across the face.

Saint Nicholas was first buried on the island of Gemile or ‘Saint Nicholas island,’ near present-day Fethiye. His body was later moved to Myra (present-day Demre), but when the city was captured by the Seljuk Turks in 1087, a group of merchants from Bari removed his body from the church and took it to Bari, where it is now enshrined in the Basilica di San Nicola.

With the cancellation of this week’s flights, I suppose I shall have to wait until Christmas before I see Saint Nicholas of Bari again.

Saint Nicholas Church on Gemile Island … was this is true burial place of Saint Nicholas of Bari? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Lady Louisa’s family links
Mounshannon with a hastily
boiled egg in ‘The Irish Times’

Lady Louisa Fitzgibbon continued to use her family name after she was twice widowed … but what happened to her descendants? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

When Lady Louisa Isabella Georgina FitzGibbon (1826-1898) was forced to sell off the Mountshannon Estate near Castleconnell, Co Limerick, in 1890s, and eventually died a lonely death in seclusion in a convent on the Isle of Wight in 1898, many people thought that the FitzGibbons of Mountshannon had come to an end.

This notion is reinforced in many of the accounts of the family history, and these perceptions are reinforced by the inscription on the roadside monument at Lisnary, near Castleconnell, to her eldest son, Charles Richard George Dillon (1849-1870), who died of blood poisoning at the age of 20.

However, Lady Louisa has a large number of living descendants, some of whom believed they were entitled to claim the Fitzgibbon title of Earl of Clare. As I researched the family story following my visit to Castleconnell at the weekend, I came across some interesting links between the Fitzgibbon family and The Irish Times, with an earlier family of Earls of Lichfield, and with a prominent family of Roman Catholics in Staffordshire.

Mountshannon House was burned down in 1920s, but the Fitzgibbon family still has descendants … an image beside the Fitzgibbon memorial at Lisnagry near Castleconnell (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Lady Louisa was born in 1826. When her father, Richard Hobart FitzGibbon (1793-1864), 3rd Earl of Clare, died in 1864, there was no surviving son or male heir to inherit the family titles and estates, and Lady Louisa inherited Mountshannon. By then, she had been married to the Hon Gerald Normanby FitzGibbon, youngest son of Henry Augustus Dillon-Lee, 13th Viscount Dillon, since 1847.

The Dillons were an old Irish family who managed to hold onto their family titles and estates despite having supported James II and despite many family members joining the Irish Jacobites in exile in France, and when they returned to Ireland many were MPs for Co Mayo.

The Dillon name was joined to the Lee name when Henry Dillon (1705-1787) married Lady Charlotte Lee, the niece and heiress of Robert Lee (1706-1766) at a time when the Lee line linked with Lichfield was about to die out.

The title of Earl of Lichfield title had come into the Lee family in 1674 when Edward Henry Lee (1663-1719) was merely an 11-year-old: he was promised to marriage to Lady Charlotte Fitzroy, one of the many illegitimate children of Charles II and his mistress Barbara Villiers: the two children were married to each other in 1674.

At times, family members used the name Lee-Dillon, at other times they called themselves Dillon-Lee, and the constant changes have confused genealogists throughout the generations.

The Dillons also intermarried with the Jerningham-Stafford family, and Lady Louisa’s husband, Gerald Lee-Dillon, was a second cousin of Sir Henry Valentine Jerningham-Stafford, 9th Lord Stafford, and of Edward Jerningham-Stafford, who married Marianne Smythe, the adopted daughter of Mrs Fitzherbert who had married George IV in an illicit marriage.

Although Gerald Lee-Dillon was the fifth son and ninth child of the 13th Viscount Dillon, it was not beyond possibility that he or his sons might eventually inherit the Dillon family: three of his brothers were successively the 14th, 15th and 16th viscounts. Nevertheless, at Christmas 1873, 26 years after their marriage and nine years after the death of Lady Louisa’s father, Gerald changed his name legally to Fitzgibbon, and over the next few generations their children, grandchildren and great-children moved between both sets of surnames.

Gerald died in 1880, and two years later Louisa married General Carmelo Ascene Spadafora, Marchese della Rochella, in 1882. But she continued to call herself Lady Louisa Fitzgibbon, even when she was widowed a second time, when she was forced to sell off Mountshannon, and until she died a lonely, isolated death in a convent in 1898.

The quartered Dillon and Fitzgibbon coat of arms on the Fitzgibbon Memorial at Lisnagry, near Castleconnell (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The constant name changes continued to confuse successive generations of her descendants. Their youngest son, Louis Theobald Fitzgibbon (1859-1913), was the father of Robert Francis Lee-Dillon (1884-1954), who was born with the Fitzgibbon name but changed his name to Lee-Dillon in 1924.

One of his sons was Robert Louis Lee-Dillon Fitzgibbon, better known as the writer Constantine Fitzgibbon (1919-1983). Although born in the US, he has also been regarded as British and Irish, and spent his final days in Dalkey, Co Dublin. He was the author of When the Kissing Had to Stop, a controversial 1960 novel written to undermine the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).

Constantine Fitzgibbon’s half-brother, Louis Theobald Dillon Fitzgibbon (1925-2003), was born Louis Theobald Dillon Lee-Dillon, and added to the genealogical confusion when he changed his surname by deed poll in 1962.

The brothers compounded the confusion by claiming they were heirs to the title of Earl of Clare as descendants of Lady Louisa’s brother, John Charles Henry Fitzgibbon (1829-1854), Viscount Fitzgibbon, who was killed at the Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava.

For 15 years, Constantine Fitzgibbon was married to the food writer Theodora Fitzgibbon (1916-1990), who continued to write under the name Theodora Fitzgibbon after they divorced and she married the photographer George Morrison. I worked with both Theodora Fitzgibbon and Maeve Binchy at The Irish Times.

Maeve Binchy was once the Women’s Editor in The Irish Times, which in hindsight she regarded as ‘an unusual choice: I knew nothing at all about cookery or fashion.’ She first asked Theodora Fitzgibbon to write about cookery and food for The Irish Times.

Theodora once sent a recipe for veal dishes and Maeve thought searched her files for a photograph of a casserole dish with many knives and forks sticking out of it. She typed a caption, ‘Tasty Veal Casserole, excellent for a winter evening.’ She sent the page to print and went home.

‘That evening, watching the television news, I saw an item about Dr Christiaan Barnard, and my blood ran cold. I knew now where I had seen that picture before. It was not a casserole. It was open heart surgery. What I had thought was a knife and fork was in fact a clamp and forceps.

‘My father was a lawyer. “Admit nothing,” he advised But I had to admit something. I phoned the Editor and asked him to hold the Cookery Page.’

Douglas Gageby ‘was low browed with anger,’ she recalled, ‘breathless, in the newspaper office to help sort it out.’

‘We’ll be the first newspaper to be prosecuted for cannibalism,’ he told Maeve.

‘We were down to minutes now,’ Maeve’s recollections continue. ‘I had to find a picture of the same size and shape and write a caption. I found a picture of a china egg-cup and egg. ‘Why be content with a boiled egg on a winter’s evening,’ she typed, ‘when you could have a Veal Casserole?.’

‘Theodora telephoned the next morning. “You didn’t actually kill yourself, darling,” she said. She agreed later that I almost had killed myself – and dined out often on the tale.’