13 April 2018

‘Where the angel of strength was the warden
and the soul of the world found ease’

Finding peace in the walled garden at Saint Mary’s Rectory, Askeaton, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

I have returned from Thessaloniki to a much-colder Askeaton this week, and from warm sunshine that felt like early summer to cold climes and grey skies.

But the weather changed this morning, the sun was bright and I was able to spend a little time in the garden this morning, reading, thinking, praying and putting the final touches to next Sunday’s services and sermons.

Even as I write this, the patio doors are open, the sun is streaming in on me at my laptop and I can see and hear the birds in the trees.

The birdsong, the sunshine and the blooming daffodils bring to mind some lines that are so familiar that they often seem trite at this stage:

The kiss of the sun for pardon,
The song of the birds for mirth,
One is nearer God’s heart in a garden
Than anywhere else on Earth.

This verse is on a plaque on a wall in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, and must be inscribed on millions of garden plaques, bird baths and sundials across these islands. The lines were penned by the English poet and hymnwriter Dorothy Frances Bloomfield Gurney (1858-1932).

Dorothy Gurney was the daughter and wife of Anglican priests. Her grandfather was Charles James Blomfield, Bishop of London (1828 to 1856); her father, the Revd Frederick Blomfield, was the Rector of Saint Andrew Undershaft in the City of London; and her brothers included Alfred Blomfield, Bishop of Colchester (1882-1894) and the architect Sir Arthur Blomfield. In 1897, she married the Revd Gerald Gurney in 1897, a former actor and former curate of Church of Saint James the Less, the bastion of Anglo-Catholicism in Plymouth; he was a son of the poet and hymnwriter, the Revd Archer Thompson Gurney (1820-1887). Dorothy and Gerald became Roman Catholics in 1919.

Dorothy Gurney’s best-known poem, ‘God’s Garden,’ is said to have been inspired by the exquisite garden at Hammerfield, Penshurst, when she was a guest of the sculptor and politician, Lord Ronald Gower.

These few but delightful hours, working peacefully in the walled garden at Saint Mary’s Rectory in Askeaton, have been possible today because over the past two or three weeks a steady group of parishioners have spent a few hours on three occasions cutting back the growth, pruning the shrubs, tending the trees, clearing the paths and mowing the grass.

I have never had a great interest in gardening – but I have an abundant appreciation of the generosity of people who tend to a garden like this, and to parishioners who turned the garden around this week so that I could sit and work in it this morning.

The word paradise comes from an old Persian word meaning an enclosed or walled garden, derived from the words pairi (‘around’) and daeza or diz (‘wall,’ ‘brick,’ or ‘shape’). In the first half of the fourth century BC, Xenophon adapted the Persian phrase pairi-daeza into Greek as παράδεισος (paradeisos).

Xenophon provides an early description of a Persian garden in his Οἰκονομικός (Oeconomicos), in which Socrates recalls the visit of the Spartan general Lysander to the Persian prince Cyrus the Younger, who shows the Greek his ‘paradise at Sardis.’ Lysander is ‘astonished at the beauty of the trees within, all planted at equal intervals, the long straight rows of waving branches, the perfect regularity, the rectangular symmetry of the whole, and the many sweet scents which hung about them as they paced the park.’

The Greek word παράδεισος (paradeisos) became paradīsus in Latin, and entered European languages as paradis in French, paradies in German, and paradise in English. It also passed into Semitic languages, including Hebrew (pardes) and Arabic (firdaws).

The tradition and style of Persian gardens has influenced the design of gardens from Andalusia to India and beyond, from the gardens of the Alhambra to Humayun’s Tomb and Taj Mahal.

A war-time structure in the rectory garden … a reminder of war in surroundings of peace (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The Oeconomicos is a Socratic dialogue principally about household management and agriculture. It is one of the earliest-known works on economics and a significant source for the social and intellectual history of Classical Athens. It can also be read as a treatise on success in leading both an army and a state. And in the rectory garden in Askeaton there is also a reminder of the affairs of state, armies and preparedness for war.

The way the growth has been cut back in the garden in the past week or two almost makes a feature of the old sentry box in the south-east corner. It was built during World War II, an evident part of the planning in Ireland for a possible invasion from Germany, which was expected along the major air and sea route along the River Shannon.

It is curious that the ruins of this cramped little building in the old walled garden was left standing when the Old Rectory was sold and the modern new rectory was built in the old garden within the last two decades.

As the possibility of another catastrophic conflagration in the Middle East unfolds, this crumbling relic of war in this peaceful setting is a reminder that even in times of peace we are never far from war.

For many US Presidents and politicians, war has too long been a substitute for intelligent diplomacy. It was this mindset during the George W. Bush administration which led the US into pursuing two expensive and indecisive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and when Barack Obama opted for yet another in Libya. Now, it seems, Donald Trump wants to use the situation in Syria for yet another war.

Their rush to war illustrates the appeal of the power of war to American political leaders, especially as an index of ‘effective’ leadership when leadership from them is missing in areas of domestic policy.

This use of war as a substitute for failed US diplomacy is one consequence of the growth of a large standing military establishment after World War II that then sought to expand US influence across the world.

In his oft-quoted axiom, Clausewitz’s declared: ‘War is the continuation of politics by other means.’ But, as Tony Benn told the House of Commons in 1991: ‘All war represents a failure of diplomacy.’

War represents the failure of diplomacy, the failure of politics and the failures of politicians. When inept leaders cannot meet their overblown promises they often resort to blaming someone else. People then believe the scapegoat is the real problem, and demand resolution through war. War is an aberration of politics rather than an extension.

It was only in the Second Temple era Judaism that the Persian and Greek word paradise came to be associated with the Garden of Eden and prophesies of restoration of Eden, and by extension its meaning was transferred to heaven.

The New Testament use and understanding of paradise parallels that of Judaism at the time. The word is used three times in the New Testament: by Christ on the cross, in response to the penitent thief who asks Jesus remember him when he comes into his kingdom, ‘Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise’ (Luke 23: 42-43); by Saint Paul in his visionary description of being ‘caught up into Paradise’ (II Corinthians 12: 3-4), and in the Book of Revelation in a reference to ‘the tree of life that is in the paradise of God’ (Revelation 2: 7; see Genesis 2: 9).

The Persian, Greek, classical and Biblical images, which bring together the concepts of a garden, the enclosed place of peace, Eden, a restored earth, the coming kingdom and beatific visions of heaven are in sharp contrast to the Valhalla of Norse mythology, which is ruled over by Odin, the god of war, and is reward for those who die in conflict and combat.

Another bombardment of towns and cities in Syria is hardly going to bring solace, comfort or peace to the over-bombed and much-victimised people of Syria, There is a real danger that today’s conversations about a looming war is more about President Trump, facing up to the failures of his own domestic politics and his inability to deliver on his election promises, is intent on creating a Valhalla or even a hell on earth rather than bringing the people of Syria closer to a place of peace and comfort.

Quotations from Dorothy Gurney’s popular poem often miss the next and final verse which tells us why we are near to God in the garden:

For he broke it for us in a garden
Under the olive-trees
Where the angel of strength was the warden
And the soul of the world found ease.

Where is the soul of the world to find this peace this coming weekend?

With imagination, Dorothy Gurney might have found composed still another verse, pointing out that when Mary Magdalene went to the empty tomb on the first Easter morning, she mistakenly supposed the Risen Christ to be the gardener (John 20: 15). As the Gospel readings last Sunday (John 20: 19-31) and this Sunday (Luke 24: 36b-48) remind us, the constant words of the Risen Christ are ‘Peace be with you’ (Luke 24: 36; John 20: 19, 21, 26) and 'Do not be afraid’ (Matthew 28: 10).

Dorothy Gurney died in 1932. Her best-known hymn, O Perfect Love, was written in 1883 for her sister’s wedding:

O perfect Love, all human thoughts transcending,
lowly we kneel in prayer before thy throne,
that theirs may be the love which knows no ending
whom thou for evermore dost join in one …

Grant them the joy which brightens earthly sorrow;
grant them the peace which calms all earthly strife;
grant them the vision of the glorious morrow
that will reveal eternal love and life.

Through the slits of that crumbling war-time pill box in the corner of the rectory garden, I can see the surrounding fields and farmland, and in the distance a horse. In the midst of strife and sorrow, we can always catch a glimpse of creative life and eternal love.

Seeing through the war-time structure to the joys of nature in the distance (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

A new book on Nangle
and fond memories of
debates on Achill Island

Patrick Comerford

It is always a compliment to be acknowledged in a new book and to be referenced in both the footnotes and in the bibliography. In addition, I have also been asked to speak at one of the launches of a new book.

Patricia Byrne’s new book, The Preacher and the Prelate: The Achill Mission Colony and the Battle for Souls in Famine Ireland, was published earlier this week, and arrived in the post yesterday.

We first met some years in succession at the annual Heinrich Böll Weekend on Achill Island, when I was giving papers on Edward Nangle and the work of the Achill Mission in Inisbiggle (2013), the work of the Achill Mission in Mweelin (2014), and in Dugort on the Trustees of the Achill Mission (2015).

I can recognise some of the events at one of those weekends in her prologue to this book, although I remain unnamed in the description of the controversy I seem to have stirred that year.

The Preacher and the Prelate tells the extraordinary story of an audacious fight for souls on famine-ravaged Achill Island in the 19th century. Religious ferment was sweeping Ireland when the Revd Edward Nangle sets out to lift the destitute people of Achill out of degradation and idolatry through his Achill Mission Colony.

A settlement grew up on the slopes of Slievemore with cultivated fields, schools, a printing press and hospital. The Achill Mission colony attracted attention and visitors from far afield.

During the Great Famine, the ugly charge of ‘souperism’ or offering food and material benefits in return for religious conversion tainted the work of the Achill Mission. Archbishop John MacHale of Tuam spearheaded the Catholic Church’s fight back against Nangle’s mission and colony, with preacher and prelate unleashed fierce passions while spewing out vitriol and polemic from pen and pulpit.

In the aftermath of the famine, the Achill Mission became one of the main landlords on the island, leading to further controversy. The fury of the island elements, the devastation of famine, and Nangle’s own volatile temperament all threatened the survival of the project.

Did Edward Nangle and the Achill Mission Colony save hundreds from certain death? Or did they shamefully exploit a vulnerable people for religious conversion? This dramatic new telling of the tale of the Achill Mission Colony brings the reader to the fault-lines of religion, society and politics in 19th century Ireland, talk – as I found myself in a heated discussion in Lavelle’s bar in Dooega after my lecture in Mweelin in 2014, and as Patricia recalls gently in this book – it is a story that continues to excite controversy and division to this day.

I have also spoken at the Heinrich Böll Weekend on Achill on ‘The poet as theologian, the theologian as poet … a theologian’s engagement with John F Deane’ (2013) and on ‘TS Eliot (1888-1965): the Nobel poet and his Irish connections’ (2015).

In her acknowledgements, she thanks me for reading her manuscript as it was going to publication. She writes: ‘Patrick Comerford cast a forensic eye over my draft manuscript and I acknowledge and appreciate his insightful and gracious comments.’

Patricia Byrne was born in Co Mayo, is a graduate of NUI Galway and lives in Limerick. She says she is ‘captivated by Achill Island.’ She is the author of The Veiled Woman of Achill: Island Outrage & a Playboy Drama (2012). She has contributed The Irish Times (‘Irishwoman's Diary’), New Hibernia Review, The Irish Story, RTE’s Sunday Miscellany, and a range of other publications. Her memoir ‘Milk Bottles in Limerick’ was listed last year among the ‘notable essays of the year’ in Best American Essays.

Her new book will be launched next month, appropriately, at the Heinrich Böll Weekend on Achill Island. This is the 15th annual literary and walking festival, and it takes place on Achill from 4 to 6 May. On the Friday evening [4 May], The Preacher and the Prelate will be launched in the Cyril Gray Hall in Dugort by local historian Sheila McHugh with a response to the book by Hilary Tulloch and a reading by the author.

I have been invited by the author to speak at the launch of her book in O’Mahony’s Book Shop, Limerick, later next month, on 24 May.

The Preacher and the Prelate: The Achill Mission Colony and the Battle for Souls in Famine Ireland, 272 pp, Dublin: Merrion Press (2018), ISBN-10: 178537172X, ISBN-13: 978-1785371721.