Not surprisingly, sad news reaches me from Egypt, a country I again visited with some well informed older historian friends. Just tagged along, feeding off the knowledge and helping make up the numbers at the dinner table. An immensely enjoyable trip. The man who actually owns the whole of Howth was with us. Honestly, the entire peninsula, his family about the place for over five hundred years. Great guy, touching eighty but what fun, what energy. Odd thing was, when he pronounced the word Howth he did so with the w silent and o’s & h’s long. Phonetically it sounds something like Hooothhhh. It’s the little things that mark us out. There you go, and he owns it, so it’s the right pronunciation. Learn something new every day.

The tragedy that is modern Egypt continues. Besides traipsing through the pyramids we visited the national museum in Cairo. A riot just finishing up as we arrived. All that remained, as the smoke cleared over the rubble strewn Tahrir Square (now better known as Martyr’s Square), was a policeman determinedly beating some young fellow with a stick. We slipped in the side door.

Having visited countless museums never did I see such treasures so casually laid before me as I did that day. Hopelessly under-staffed, with many of the exhibits in flimsy, dusty early twentieth century display cabinets, I thought to myself, a disaster is waiting to happen – crowds of rioters gather nightly within fifty yards of the front door. But this expected disaster I thought would arrive from the outside, not the inside.

During my visit, always the auctioneer, I gazed at their most prized national possession, the famed solid gold burial mask of Tutankhamen, trying to assess its value on the open market. And it’s weight – later enquiries revealed it to be approximately 23 pounds, surprisingly light. Anyhow, this treasure, taken from the tomb of Tutankhamen by the archeologist Howard Carter, had rested unmolested in the case since 1922. At the time I was there a thought did come to me about the constant radiant heat from the simple bulbs that shone down from each corner of the case. They couldn’t be doing it any good. But it’s a museum, they know what they’re doing. Right? Don’t start worrying about things that don’t concern you, move on with your own life. But the following unfortunately happened soon after my visit.

Over the past decade of strife in hard-pressed Egypt a lot of the more experienced museum staff had been retired, replaced by cheaper, less qualified help. But the day came when this short-sighted policy was cruelly exposed. A bulb blew in one of the display cases. Of course it had to be the case with their most treasured national possession. The nearest man goes to sort it. No problem. Raising the case top he leans in to replace the bulb. Problem. His elbow cracks off the long pointed beard of the mask. It drops off with a thud, what with gold being such a heavy substance. It’ll be no easy job getting it back on but our man is up to the task. Looking about, he’s hit by a stroke of genius. From his tool box he takes out a tube of glue and gets to work. Sorted. Less said, soonest mended. Handywork done, he closes up the case and heads off to mop the toilets. No bother to him, sure who needs experts.

Problem was, the glue was an insoluble epoxy resin. Not only did it mark the surrounding surfaces – our man being a little messy what with all the leaning in – it also dribbled down the aforementioned chin. Now we do have a problem. Ah but sure, why leave it there. The next museum man along (our first man now busy cleaning the toilets) sees the problem and takes it upon himself to put things right. Thoughts into action, and I’m not making this up. He ups with the top of the case and gets to work. He runs the blade of a screwdriver up and down the chin to remove the glue.

Some seriously nasty score marks on Egypt’s most treasured possession later, and just some of glue dribbles gone, he goes at it again. Puts a bit of elbow into it this time. But that nasty glue staining remains, as do his new insults. The boys have a huddle. Decide to stay schtum. But what can you do, visitors have eyes. And cameras. Word gets out. ‘Procedures are being reviewed’ as they say, but the damage is done.

Of course this sort of thing could never happen in Ireland……..

Cormac’s Chapel, consecrated in 1134 and situated atop The Rock of Cashel in Co. Tipperary is one of our most important buildings. A rare early Irish Romanesque church of sophisticated form, it was built for King Cormac MacCarthaigh. And there it sat for nearly eight hundred years, unmolested. It’s interior walls glowing with a rare, so rare in fact that it was unique, surviving medieval full fresco cycle of untainted form. It decorated, in their entirety, the complete interior walls of the church, floor to ceiling. Luminous in unfaded glory, scenes of early Celtic life & legends were interlaced with swirling floral and geometric motifs as our painted early native born Kings, depicted glorious in the full majesty of their rule, looked down from the higher niches of the church. Later Christian symbols were also added; Christ, Solomon and the Queen of Sheba with the temple of Jerusalem. All balance to the carnage of quarrellious early Irish rule. It was, put simply, our mask of Tutankhamen. Unrivalled. A pre-Renaissance Celtic answer to the much later frescoed interior of the Italian Papal Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi.

To explain. Fresco is a form of mural decoration whereby the pigment (using water as the medium) is painted upon freshly laid down wet plaster. As the paint dries it binds, seeping into the also drying plaster. The colour becomes fast with the very plaster itself. Resilient, and employed since antiquity, it just doesn’t fall off the walls, or fade away.

The following came to my ears from an old Trinity professor, now dead, over a few pints in McDaids. We have to go back to the year 1900, or thereabouts. His father, also a professor before him, was then a young student in tweeds eagerly touring Ireland seeking out her treasures. Pre colour reproduction, pre decent roads, Ireland’s cultural treasures were not as well exposed then as they are today. One had to put in the work to see them. And so it was on this particular cultural tour he visited Cashel. Hearing locally of a colourful, but now unused church – a ‘new’ one built beside it just two hundred years before – he went to find the local priest and gain the key.

He climbed the rock, unlocked the creaking doors and entered. There he stood, mouth agape in the ‘old’ church at such early splendor. Complete, fresh as the day it was painted. Silently he tremored in wonder at his find. However, unbeknownst to him, this was not an entirely new discovery as such. Others had seen it. But none had understood it’s importance. Nor did they understand the further importance of the contemporaneous additions to the cycle. You see, as the years passed the fresco was added to; Irish kings to the roll made their appearance. Their likenesses not painted from posthumous lore, but by artists who actually knew their subject. Most rare, and an important revelation. Thrilled at the discovery, he made speed to Dublin in order that he inform his art department colleagues and arrange a most urgent visit to visually record in detail this unsung treasure of early Celtic history. Never before photographed, these images would disseminate around the art world. ‘His’ discovery would be published, his name would be made. Quite heady stuff for such a young man.

Before leaving he told the priest that he would be back the following Sunday with his colleagues from Dublin to look again at his wonderful church. The priest delighted, waved him off.

That evening as his housekeeper served him his dinner the priest got to thinking. How many would there be down from Dublin? Five, ten, fifteen? The young man didn’t say. He began to fret. That night it troubled his sleep. He couldn’t possibly leave the dusty, dirty church as it was if gentlemen and scholars were coming down especially to see it. And all from Trinity too. No. By morning his decision was made, a spring clean to end all spring cleans. He’ll not have the visitors troubled by dirt. After a hearty breakfast he got word to his handyman to meet him up at the rock. Instructions were given, his handyman was to get the church ready for the esteemed visit.

The handyman had a lot of respect for the priest. He was a good man. Since he’d arrived he’d done wonders for the parish. And now this, visitors down from Dublin to see their little church high up on the rock. No, he’ll not be found wanting either. That week there was great comings and goings up on the rock as he roped in some extra hands to help. The floor hadn’t been swept or scrubbed in nearly a millennium. As for the pews, they were nearly just as bad. All the stops would have be pulled out if was going to be ready in time. The priest would not be embarrassed in front of the visitors, not on his watch. The priest, in turn, had trust in his man and left him to carry on with the special job in hand.

The busy week came to an end, the big day finally arrived. That Sunday morning, just before mass in the ‘new’ church, the handyman gave the key to the priest, who slipped it under his vestment. The priest, again fretting, didn’t know the time of the visitors arrival but now he was primed. No surprises would catch him. And his housekeeper was primed too, teas and sandwiches could be presented at a moments notice down in the parish hall. All was good, mass commenced, the congregation stood.

Just as the mass ended tweeds and hats could be seen towards the back of the church. The visitors. The priest straightened himself and with confident flourish ended the mass on a high note. Wishing God’s speed to all and that they keep their morals high, he urged them to go forth into the day. But the celebrants did not flow exitwards that day. They held back in high expectation. Word had gotten round the parish of the strangers visit. Their little church was going to be world famous some said, and they wanted to be in at the start, to tell of the day the Trinity men came down from Dublin. The priest, a little put out, he wanted this to be his show. But no matter. He walked off stage, and with a sweep disrobed himself of his vestment. Murmurs and shuffling from the still-full church echoed into his sacristy. No matter, let them wait. He adjusted his collar in the mirror.

Confident now that he was looking his best (Mary the housekeeper instructed to double press the suit that morning) he walked out again onto the alter. If he was going to be crowded out at least his voice would be heard. Stepping forward he motioned all to sit down. A gradual quietness enveloped the church. He cleared his throat as he stood at the lectern once more.
“Parishioners, it is with great pride I inform you today that we have important visitors to the parish. Visitors from Trinity. Men who have come to see our little church”.
He allowed himself a depreciating chuckle before continuing.
“But just before we go I’d like to give special mention of thanks to Joseph (the handyman) and his team for the good work done over the past few days”.
Slight tensing of nervousness was sensed by those parishioners nearest the visitors, who looked at each other in trepidation.
He continued, “Certainly from the toing’s and froing’s over the past week I’m expecting great work to be seen”. He allowed himself another slight chuckle. Sure wasn’t it grand, and sandwiches ready on the nod of his head.

Knowing full well that he had the key on his person he announced to no one in particular, “Sure we’ll be going nowhere without the key! Excuse me a moment”, then strode back from whence he came.
He then waited a few moments more in the sacristy, thrilling in the expectant crowd awaiting his return. Quite the showman. Moments later he marched forward, across the alter and down the centre aisle. A man of action, past visitors and all. Out they followed him, and across to the locked door of the church. Spread wide behind him, the crowd spearheaded by the visitors, jostled for position. With sure hands and a click of the lock, the newly oiled doors spread wide before priest and his gathered flock. Before them behold.

Murmurs of appreciation came from the crowd behind the visitors. So white, so clean, the air still wet with whitewash. Man dear but the horses weren’t held back on this job; the floor re-routed and sanded down, the pews scrubbed and varnished a dripping brown. This made the tween clad men upset. But the walls, the pièce de résistance, this, this made them cry. Here Joseph had outdone himself. Finding the whitewash inadequate – the colour of the fresco stubbornly coming through the first and second coat – he gathered what young men he could from the town and scrubbed it down to the stone. Some fragments remained – mainly those high up where the ladders couldn’t reach – but generally it was a star job. The new walls, sparkling clean in their whiteness, stood witness as the priest’s hands clapped hard in appreciation, “Well done Joseph, well done indeed”.

It has been put about since that the sandstone structure of the church somehow contributed to the loss of the fresco. That it became waterlogged over the centuries, bubbled and fell. This wasn’t so.

Damien Matthews

 

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