Sunday, December 03, 2017


EDWARD HOPPER'S 1942 painting NIGHTHAWKS is perhaps my favourite painting. 
Heading for a pizza recently I spotted this couple having a smoke outside the Dáil Bar on Middle Street in Galway. The scene reminded me so much of Hopper's painting: the corner location, the Dáil Bar instead of Phillies, the couple with a girl in a red dress, the conversation, the deserted space apart from one bystander, looking elsewhere, caught up in his own thoughts. 

NIGHTHAWKS Edward Hopper 1942

A sepia photoshopped "mood" version of Galway Nighthawks.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Happy Christmas 2017

I have been a little quiet of late on the blogging front, mainly because both work and teaching occupy most of my time. Hopefully I will get some more writing done in the New Year. In the meantime would like to wish you and your families a happy and peaceful Christmas season as well as a prosperous and adventurous New Year.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017



(Barna stream 8th August 2017)

Sunday, July 30, 2017


My apologies to Time – and also to a part-time model 
with a panda tattoo on the internet –
but my take on the crisis that is Donald Trump, 
and the crossroads where American democracy is now at, 
and where it has to choose a direction; a new direction that is right in
itself and not mandated by a failed experiment. 

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

RIHLA (Journey 65): St. MacDara’s Island, Connemara, Ireland: Finials and Fishermen

MacDara's Island

Rihla (The Journey) – was the short title of a 14th Century (1355 CE) book written in Fez by the Islamic legal scholar Ibn Jazayy al-Kalbi of Granada who recorded and then transcribed the dictated travelogue of the Tangerian, Ibn Battuta. The book’s full title was A Gift to Those who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling and somehow the title of Ibn Jazayy's book captures the ethos of many of the city and country journeys I have been lucky to take in past years.

Some of the best journeys you can take are those closest to you. This Rihla is about the island hermitage of St Sionnach MacDara (on the island od Cruach na Cara a.k.a. Cruach Mhic Dara or Oileán Mhic Dara), the patron saint of Connemara fishermen, that is located off the south-west coast of Connemara near Mace Head and the annual fishermen’s pilgrimage to the island held on the 16th July every year.

Little is known about the life of St. Sionnach MacDara and yet he is venerated in a very significant way on Iorras Aithneach (Iar Ros Ainbthech – Western Promontory of the Storms), the Carna Peninsula in south Connemara. His ecclesiastical feast day is listed in O’Hanlon’s Lives of the Irish Saints as being on September 28 and yet Connemara fishermen also perform an intensely secular patrún or pattern in his honour on their turas or pilgrimage to the island on the 16th July every year, weather permitting. In addition to the Oratory church on the island there is a church dedicated to him in Moyrus and also a Holy Well.

Not bad for an almost unknown saint.

Tradition associated with St Mac Dara meant that any fishing boat passing through the sound between Masson Island and MacDara had to lower their sails three times (modern boats with outboard motors still cut their motors in respect of the tradition) otherwise bad luck would hit them.

His given or forename Sionnach means fox, but Tim Robinson in his book, Connemara – A Little Gaelic Kingdom feels it should be Síonach which means a storm or stormy weather, and very appropriate as MacDara is one of the two saints associated with the Iorras Aithneach (of the storms) peninsula.

What is most likely is that Sionnach MacDara was a monk or cenobite in one of the early or mid-6th century St Enda’s, St Brecan’s or St Ciaran’s monasteries on Inishmore of the Aran islands. St Enda is considered the father of Irish monasticism and his foundations followed the asceticism of the Egyptian “desert Fathers”, living in community but with a life dictated by manual labour, study and prayer. St Ciarán Mac an tSaeir (of Clonmacnoise fame) is the other major saint associated with the Conmaicne Mara tribal area of Ioras Aithneach and perhaps this points to MacDara being a cenobite in his Inishmore monastery and they may have left the Aran islands around the same time, circa 541 CE, with MacDara heading to establish his “hermitage” island off Mace Head and Ciarán joining Senan on Scattery Island at the mouth of the Shannon before moving inland and founding Clonmacnoise.

Landing at Aill na hIomlachta 
(The Rock of the Ferrying)

Looking East South East

The 6th century saw the rise of the Irish “island hermit” tradition, such as that seen separate to the main complex on Skellig Michael (see Rihla 63) on the south peak; on Church Island near Valentia, Co Kerry; on Inismurray in Co. Sligo; or on High Island off NW Connemara where cenobites wanting to remove themselves from the community moved to almost inaccessible islands to become “Green Martyrs” (as distinct from Red Martyrs who were killed for the “cause” – very few instances in early Christian or pre-Viking 9th C Ireland) . The difficulty is often that these type of ascetic hermits then attract a community to themselves hoping to partake in the holiness and this is what appears to have happened on St MacDara’s Island.

The oratory, which is a corbelled stone roofed rectangular church was beautifully restored by the OPW in the 1970’s, a restoration first mooted by R.A. Macalister in a paper presented to the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland in 1895, following his visit to the island, “A very little outlay would put the whole structure in sound state, and doubtless, preserve it for another 1200 years.”

Of note Macalister in his visit, found lying face down one of the carved finials that previously had been attached to the apex of the east gable end. The native fishermen of the 1800s considered the carved head in the centre of the stone to be that of St. MacDara himself. This finial (and presumably the other at the western end) subsequently went missing and was nowhere to be found when the OPW went about restoring the Oratory. There is some difficulty in accurately dating the church with some authorities believing that originally the roof was a wooden construct and that sometime later, perhaps after the main Viking incursions had settled down, the roof was remade of more weather resistant (and available) stone. What is important is that “mouse-ear” carved finials were a feature of early Christian monastic gable-ends as depicted in the Temptation of Christ in the late 8th C Book of Kells.

The carved finials as depicted in the Book of Kells. Finials are decorative carvings or pediments placed at the apex of towers (like a cross on a church bell tower or a crescent moon on a mosque minaret), or on the gable end apexes.

The carved gable-end finials were also a feature of some early “chapel-like” reliquaries such as the Monymusk casket of St Columba and indeed the gable struts of early 3rd or 4th century BCE Germanic North Sea wooden longhouses may have influenced the design as well as being the direct forerunner of the wooden gable-end cross-beamed curved apexes of the Scandinavian longhouses. What is not in dispute is that the replacement finials commissioned by the OPW are very fine carvings and are weathering very well.

I went to the island on the 16th July this year, landing with the first boat of the day. The festival is now called Féile Mhic Dara and this year I reckoned about 1200-1500 people made it to the island and with the marketing of the Wild Atlantic Way being such a success the numbers are only going to get bigger and I suspect that at some point the traditional and “good-humoured” free ferrying of pilgrims to the island by local fishermen (remember to bring your own, or borrowed, lifejacket flotation device ­ – not mandatory but important) will come under pressure.

Unfortunately I was on call and had to head back to the mainland just before the mass began and I was unable to observer how many people still might have maintained the ancient tradition of a seven times circumambulation of the chapel and the placing of seven pebbles on the altar. I had hoped to see this done, and perhaps ask a participant why he or she still did it. As a custom it would echo the penitent tawaf circumambulation of the Kaba in Mecca, (and perhaps also the Stoning of the Devil) and be an echo of the Middle-Eastern tradition of Early Christian monastic communities that gave rise to the stylites of Syria and the island hermits of the west coast of Ireland such as Sionnach MacDara.

Even without this oblique association between the patrúns of East and West I found the geography, the historical context, the convergence of the Galway Bay hookers at the small harbour, the gathering of fishermen’s families from all over Connemara speaking Irish, the gathering of the sky and sea on an ancient landscape, the acceptance of tourist pilgrims, and finally the architecture of the conversation between mankind and God absolutely fascinating, all of them speaking to a distant time and place… in the now. 

Wednesday, June 28, 2017


Battle of Maniaki May 20, 1825

Rihla (The Journey) – was the short title of a 14th Century (1355 CE) book written in Fez by the Islamic legal scholar Ibn Jazayy al-Kalbi of Granada who recorded and then transcribed the dictated travelogue of the Tangerian, Ibn Battuta. The book’s full title was A Gift to Those who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling and somehow the title of Ibn Jazayy's book captures the ethos of many of the city and country journeys I have been lucky to take in past years.

Some of the most interesting journeys you can take are those that are accidental, unplanned, happenstance almost; where the outcome, because of a decision to undertake that journey then becomes not so much a revelation but “enlightening”. This Rihla is about “METAMORPHOSIS”, the transfiguration of an individual and place in the course and cause of revolution.


I found myself sitting, happenstance, on a hot late June day, out of the heat, in the small covered portico of the ancient Church of the Metamorphosis (Μεταμωρψδη – Transfiguration) on the road between Chora (Χωρα) and Messini in the SW Peloponnese. Why stop here, I wondered. I had intended visiting the Mycenaean Nestor’s Palace ruins as well as the museum in Chora, but forgot it was a Monday and that the archaeological attractions were closed for the day. It is wonderful, I thought while biting into a succulent peach, when travelling or exploring to lose track not just of time but of entire days. Given my surroundings I should have perhaps switched to the modified post-Byzantine Revised Julian calendar of the Orthodox Church rather than its Roman Gregorian replacement. Perhaps I could have metamorphosed the day of the week!

Where to next, I wondered aloud?

Church of Metamorphosis,
Metamorphosis, Messenia, Greece

The old church was very basic in its construct, a very “still” place, and almost certainly an early physical manifestation of hesychastic Eastern Orthodox doctrine. The Metamorphosis or Transfiguration of Christ as depicted in the Gospels is a major component of Eastern Orthodoxy, one of the twelve feasts. Indeed there is a suggestion that in contrast to the Roman Catholic church’s primary theological ceremonial emphasis, that marking the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Eastern Orthodox church’s most important theological celebration, is now that of Jesus Christ’s (mankind’s) encounter (transfiguration) with the Divine Light on Mt. Thabor. It is a theological contrast between a theology of fear and a theology of enlightenment.

Transfiguration mosaic from
St. Catherine's Monastery, Sinai.

Choosing enlightenment I took out my Anavasi 1:80,000 topographical map of Messinia to scan the road ahead. Not far away was the village of Maniaki and slightly beyond it there was depicted on the map a Church dedicated to the Holy Trinity at a place called Tampouria. My translator said that this was the word for a military "breastwork" or redoubt. On the map there was an associated legend of a small Greek flag but the Legends section of the map did not detail what these small Greek flags indicated. I suspected, but was not certain, they indicated a site associated with heroes or events of the Greek Wars of Independence. There were similar flags on the village of Nedoussa (where Nikitaras Stamatelopoulos, the “Turk-eater” was born) to the east in the foothills of the Taygetus mountains – which I had passed close to a few days previously on my way to Mystras – and also further north in Ano Psari and Pamoboyni.

I left the old Church of the Metamorphosis behind me, turned left at the Touloupa Chani junction and winded my way up the road to Maniaki. On that stretch I passed a observation post for the rural fire service with an attendant fire tender parked ready on standby. From that spur of the Egaleo mountains the firemen could survey the entire territory southwards towards Kalamata to the east and Pylos to the west, and thus be able to intervene early in any fire outbreak.

For a similar reason of good visibility, further up the mountain just beyond the village of Maniaki, Gregorias Dikaios a.k.a. Papaflessas, Orthodox priest, revolutionary fighter and Minister for the Interior and Chief of Police since 1822 in the Provisional Administration of Greece established his redoubt, built his breastworks, and on the May 20, 1825 met his death confronting the army of Ibrahim Pasha.  

Papaflessas Memorial Tampouria, Messina, Greece


“Of these agitators the best known and most influential was the Archimandrite Dikaios, popularly known as Pappa Phlesas, a priest whose morals were a scandal to the church, as his peculations were to the national cause, yet, for all that, a brave man, as he proved by his heroic death on the field of battle.”

W. Alison Philips (1897)
The War of Greek Independence
1821 to 1833

Georgis “Papaflessas” Flessas a.k.a. Gregorius Dikaios was born in 1788 in Poliani village, located about 21km north of Kalamata in the Vromovriseika Mts. The village was also the birthplace of Christos “Anagnostaras” Koromilas. His family were descendants of klephts, mountain outlaws who continuously opposed the Ottoman occupiers of Greece.

Papaflessas Memorial Tampouria, Messina, Greece

Young George Flessas from an early age was determined to root out the Ottomans and get under their skin. While attending the famous school at Dimitsana he published a satire against the local Turk governor and had to quickly “disappear” for his own safety into the monastery at Velandia, where he decided to become a priest and took the monastic name Gregory Dikaois. Even there, and also when asked to leave because of his argumentative bent, at his next port of call in the monastery of Rekitsa he was turbulent, fighting with his superiors, and with local administrators. Accused of treason he disappeared to Zakynthos for a time before finally making it to Constantinople, being ordained into the highest rank of priesthood, and beginning his formal revolutionary metamorphosis by joining the secret Filiki Eteria organisation that had been established in Odessa in 1814 and run along Freemasonry lines with the leaders calling themselves the “Invisible Authority”.

Once ordained Papaflessas was dispatched as a “missionary” and spent 1819 and 1820 preaching Greek independence rather than theology in Wallachia. By January 1821 he was back “home” in the Kalamata area initiating members into the Filiki Eteria and organising revolutionary meetings. On the 23rd March 1821 Papaflessas, Nikitaras, Anagnostaras made their way from the Monastery of Mardaki to Almyros Kalamata to take delivery of a landing of military supplies. Although there is some dispute about when and where the Greek War of Independence (1821-1832) began but March 25, 1821 is the official date.

church of Holy Trinity, Tampouria, Messinia, Greece

This dispute over who did what, how much and when they did it, was and is a feature of the Greek War of Independence's multi-layered historiography. What is not in dispute are the atrocities, the ethnic cleansing, the indiscriminate rape, torture, and extermination of men, women and children conducted by both sides, but by the Greek side in particular during the early phases. This cleansing was conducted with an enormous ferocity and appetite for vengeance and in many cases unappeased Greek blood-lust was also to be subsequently directed against themselves. Indeed unlike most countries where a Civil War between opponents of the “road ahead” usually followed the original War of Independence, as in the US or in Ireland, the Greek War of Independence from the Ottoman Porte was characterised by being conducted at the same time as two internal Greek Civil Wars between 1824-1825.

Navarino Bay from North. The Venetian Paelokastro on top
of headland to right of picture. In distance is Pylos where the Navarino neokastro is.
In middle is Voidokilia Beach and beyond on right Sfaktiria Island.

Despite fighting alongside the famous freedom fighter Theodoras Kolokotronis at the Greek victorious battle of Dervenakia in July 1822, Papaflessas, as he was now known in a nom de guerre, accepted as Gregorius Dikaios the post of Minister of Internal Affairs and Chief of Police in the first Provisional Greek independent government. In that position as Minister of Internal Affairs he had to sanction the capture and imprisonment on Hydra in February 1825 of his friend and commander Kolokotronis, as a consequence of Kolokotronis’ civil war opposition to the new administration.

On February 24, 1825 Ibrahim Pasha, the son of the ruler of Egypt and at the request of the Ottoman Sultan, landed in Modon (Methoni) with 4,000 infantry and 500 cavalry and a month later was joined by a further 6,000 French trained and battle-hardened Egyptian infantry, as well as 500 cavalry, to confront and supress the nascent Greek revolution.

1880's Map 

On the 19th April 1825 an irregular force of 7,000 Greeks and Albanians under Skourti, set out to try and intercept Ibrahim’s advance as well as trying to relieve the garrisons in the Neokastro in Pylos and on Sfaktiria but were routed by the discipline of Ibrahim’s Arabs and forced to retreat. Unimpeded Ibrahim captured the old Navarino fortress (paleokastro) to the north of Navarino bay on the 29th April, Sfaktiria island on the 8th May and finally the new Navarino castle at Pylos on the 11th May. Anagnostaras, Papaflessas fellow-villager and friend, was killed in the defence of Sfaktiria.

Following these set-backs and recognising the extreme danger posed by Ibrahim’s campaign to establishing the new independent Greece Papaflessas pleaded with his colleagues to release Kolokotronis so that he may command an army to confront Ibrahim Pasha. The Interim Government refused and Papaflessas stated that he would take and lead an army himself to make a stand. The Government were more than willing to allow their truculent Interior Minister to depart. Always the showman Papaflessas marched off to his destiny accompanied by his two mistresses.

Looking North from Tampouria, Greece

Papaflessas arrived and after discussing with villagers the best place to observe the plains dug into three positions above the village of Maniaki, erecting temporary breastworks on the karst exposed hills, with about 3,000 troops. He instructed that the Breastworks (Tampouria) be set on the oblique and not the crest of the hills as this made them easier to defend. One of the three main positions was commanded by his nephew and he was expecting his brother to join him with about 700 more infantry. During the night of the 19th May 1825, the night before the Battle of Maniaki, about 2,000 of the Greeks melted away when they perceived the size of Ibrahim’s force camped in the valley below them.  The following morning one column under Ibrahim Pasha's French commander took the easterly approach and Ibrahim pasha the westerly, splitting his own detachment in two to meet up again for the final assault on Papaflessas' position. 

Papaflessas vowed to die where he stood in defence of Greek independence. His wish for martyrdom was granted and he and 600 of his troops lost their lives, including his nephew, an Italian volunteer and his flag-carrier. 

Some reports state that Ibrahim Pasha kissed the head (decapitated)
of Papaflessas in honour.

Following the battle Ibrahim sought out his headless body and head of his adversary and set these upright up on a post once the body parts had been cleaned. This was an act of honouring his opponent and he is reported to have said, concerning Papaflessas,

“That was a brave and honourable man! Better have spent twice as many lives to save his; he would have served us well.” 

Unlikely! Pappaflessas would have continued in whatever guise to be a “turbulent” priest. Papaflessas metamorphosis, a bit like that of Henry VIII’s Beckett, from truculent priest to martyrdom had been achieved and today is marked, is remembered, by a blue Greek flag, a collective memory, on a map and on the ground.  


The actual Battle of Maniaki took place about 4 km north of Maniaki on a small hill now known as Tampouria. Tampouria derives from Ταμποúρια a Greek word that defines a temporary or hastily erected Military fortification known as a breastwork or sconce. A signpost indicating its position, is nestled in a grove of tall Cypresses, about 2km beyond the turn-off for the village of Maniaki. There is a short winding road to an open parking area and then perhaps the most beautifully constructed external stairway I encountered in Greece.

Icons and Imperial Byzantine Eagle on Candle Box. 
The official flag of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul, which 
represents the Orthodox community worldwide
is a double-headed eagle holding an orb and a cross. In this church the eagle
is holding two orbs, while outside fluttering in the wind is the more recently
adopted, and a more belligerent flag, with the eagles holding an orb and a sword,
rather than a cross. (The double-headed eagle was originally a Hittite 14C BCE motif and was adopted by the Byzantine Palaiologan dynsaty when they wrested back control of
Byzantium from the Latins in 1250s)

After a short climb you encounter the 1975 refurbished Church of the Holy Trinity. Through a window can be seen the icons as well as the Byzantine imperial flag adopted by many Greek orthodox churches. Outside the Greek flag on its pole flutters in the late afternoon wind, and as well as an obelisk, there is upright stone engraved memorial slab to the fallen as well as a black stone sculpture of Papaflessas.

To the east and below behind the sculpture are the alonia (drying floors) of the joint villages of Ano and Kato Papaflessas, formerly known as Kondogoni, but renamed in his perpetual honour. Bones from the battle were gathered and are in an ossuary in the Church of the Resurrection on an outcrop east of Maniaki village.

Tampouria I found to be a strange place. In the middle of an ancient landscape well used to glorious death many Greeks considered Maniaki to be a 19th century Thermopylae, and Papaflessas to be Leonides. A natural rampart which for a brief moment in time held the hopes of a nation, and of its defenders within its hastily erected stone redoubts... and then let them go.   


For Papaflessas perhaps Tampouria was his Mt. Tabor. The statue depicts a proud, defiant man and is a sculpture that engages your eye, framed by the sky and the rocks, of the place where he lost his life defending his ideals of Greece, of a place where perhaps he finally found enlightenment...and was at peace.