Sheltering an Irish Hope

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky, The flying cloud, the frosty light: The year is dying in the night; Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

THESE words of Alfred Lord Tennyson, from his poem ``In Memoriam,'' capture perfectly the mood of change that quickens the end of the old year and the beginning of the new. It is a time for reflection, both individually and collectively, and especially so this year, at the beginning of a new decade.

Such thoughts, entwined with the poetry of Tennyson, ran through my mind during a recent service in a quaint Irish church just a few days before the New Year. St. John's Church - at Donegore, some 10 miles north of Belfast - has seen many years, old and new, since it was established in 1659. Apparently a ``religious house'' has existed there from the earliest times.

St. John's has known war and rumors of war, and peace and plenty, during its long history. Set on a hill, amid rolling green Irish countryside not far from the ancient road between Dunseverick on the North Antrim coast and Tara, the ancient seat of the Irish high kings, St. John's almost breathes history. Its walls have comforted the victims of war and its memorials bear witness to the making of history. There is a plaque, for example, to a ``Captain Charles William Adair, born 1776, killed on board HMS Victory at Trafalgar, 1805.''

In the 18th century there were many Irish upheavals. A large hill near St. John's, with subterranean passages, acted as a refuge for Irish rebels during an ill-fated Rising in 1798 against the English.

Despite the dark shadows of history, there were kindlier lights. In the graveyard of St. John's there's a headstone erected to the memory of a local veterinarian by appreciative farmers. ``Alexander Cowiry of Lisburn. Died 1869. Erected by the farmers of the neighborhood as a testimonial to his usefulness during a long time in the medical treatment of their stock.''

Just across the churchyard is the family vault of a well-known 19th-century Belfast poet, Sir Samuel Ferguson, whose work helped to revive the interest in Celtic literature which inspired the famous Irish poet William Butler Yeats and others.

Some of the best stories about St. John's are told by those who knew it intimately. My late mother-in-law, Dr. Winifred Fitzsimons, lived beside St. John's as a girl, and she once told me that living beside a graveyard brought certain advantages: ``We had the quietest of neighbors,'' she used to say, with a smile.

Her cousin, Nancy Graham, who also lived as a girl in the quaintly named Moat House beside the churchyard, remembers a character called Mrs. Spires, who had a small cottage farther down the lane.

``She was very fond of her garden, and she had green fingers, but she called the plants some very odd names. For example, `cotoneasters' became `cotton Easters.' She was small and stout and always wore a flowered apron, with something to cover her head. She had a fixation with royalty, and her little house was lined with empty tea boxes and chocolate boxes, each with a picture of a member of the British royal family.''

It's a world which seems a long way from the rush and bustle of today.

THERE was time, too, for celebrated hoaxes. In the nearby village of Parkgate, a set of posters from the ``Peruvian Government'' advertised a ``Cat Fair.''

A representative from Peru would allegedly visit the village on a specific day and pay good money on behalf of his government for a selection of cats in the best condition. Payment would be according to size, color, and quality.

For weeks not a cat was to be seen around Parkgate as the owners herded their precious stock inside, and on the nominated day the village was invaded by an army of owners with cats of every description.

It dawned only slowly on these unlikely entrepreneurs that they had been the victim of an elaborate hoax. The ultimate identity of the hoaxer, and the fate of the cats, was never known!

More recently, St. John's Church was again in the news when, after a period of disrepair, it was restored to its former architectural glory. Some of the people who helped in this rebuilding process included young men who had been convicted in local courts of certain criminal offenses and, instead of being sent to prison, were ordered to carry out a specified amount of community work.

One afternoon the vicar found that he had locked his car doors but had left the ignition keys inside.

``Not to worry,'' chirped one of the co-workers, who ran down the lane toward the car. He arrived back almost immediately, carrying aloft the car keys in triumph. ``How did you get them?'' asked the vicar incredulously.

``No bother,'' replied the youth, ``I was sentenced for breaking into cars!''

IN a real sense, whatever the era and whatever the age, all of human life flows through and around a church. This is especially true of a church as old and distinguished as St. John's in Donegore, Northern Ireland. It has known the best of times and the worst of times, not least in the recent past when the story of Ireland has made such sad reading in the world's headlines.

And yet, as I sat at that service in St. John's just before the New Year, I reflected quietly also on the good news which has come from this lovely land. I remembered the Protestant and Roman Catholic groups who are working together for peace, the great courage of those caught up in the troubles, and the enormous kindness of the many people who help to comfort the injured and the bereaved.

St. John's on Donegore Hill is still a beacon of hope for all that is best in life and in Ireland. And, at the start of a new decade, that beacon of light, and all that it symbolizes, lives on.

As I walked out in the crisp night air, after the church service had ended, I moved past the headstones and the touchstones of so much history in that little corner of Ireland, and I thought afresh of those marvelous words of Tennyson that embrace the great possibilities for good in the New Year and, in our case, the decade that lies ahead:

Ring out old shapes of foul disease; Ring out the narrowing lust of gold; Ring out the thousand wars of old, Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free, The larger heart, the kindlier hand; Ring out the darkness of the land, Ring in the Christ that is to be.

Here's to A Happy New Year for all - from Ireland! Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem, `In Memoriam,' quoted here was written as an elegy for his dear friend and fellow student at Trinity College in Cambridge, England, Arthur Henry Hallam. It began as a series of short elegies composed over many years, and was published in 1850. That year was a significant one for Tennyson; during it he also married and became England's Poet Laureate.

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