Brian is a Christian Brother from Northern Ireland. He was born near Banbridge in County Down and went to school in The Abbey, Newry, also in County Down. His early life was that of any schoolboy growing up in a rural Ulster community. Indeed, his attachment to his Ulster identity remains with him today. From his schooldays onward a passion for poetry and words lies deep in his psyche and has found expression in recent years in books and in events where his finely-crafted poems have found an audience. More than anything else his poetry gives voice to his spiritual, sense of identity and attachment to place. What follows is his own personal account of his life as a Christian Brother and as an Ulster poet. A video accompanies this story.
I have for long been interested in the fields of traditional Irish Spirituality and Folklore. Although born in Banbridge in County Down, where my father’s people lived, I resided for periods in Camlough, in South Armagh, the home of our maternal family. Camlough lies at the heart of a picturesque region west of Newry in South Armagh, in the neighbourhood of Slieve Girkeen (The mountain of the Grouse – or Camlough Mountain); the Curved Lake or Cam Loch, and, Slieve Gullion, legend-linked to both Fionn Mac Cumhail and Cu Chullain.
Words, Books and Language
As a boy growing up, on those nights when Father was not on bed-time supervision, Mother saw to us, and it was on these occasions that I got into the habit of reading in bed. At that time I was fascinated by retellings of the old Irish legends and by Grimm’s Fairy Tales. I have kept my copy of Grimm, gifted to me on my ninth Christmas, until now. Botany and Political History were also attempted, but hardly digested.
I was also becoming interested in Bible History. Bible History was not being done officially in school, but I had found an old text belonging to mother. Reading such stories as The Children of Lir and the biblical account of Joseph and his Brothers always made me cry.
The Emerging Poet
And other interests, too, were beginning to form, for gradually I was beginning to develop a love for and a deep interest in serious poetry. This also stemmed from my perusal of several anthologies which belonged to my parents and which I had found stored away in tea-chests at home, along with other literature my parents had used at school.
So far as I can recall one of these volumes, Bell’s Standard Elocutionist contained such old-fashioned favourites as Byron’s The Destruction of Sennacherib and Moore’s The Minstrel Boy. There were also readings from Shakespeare in it, which I grew to love, not that I understood them very clearly, but I used to mutter portions of them to myself repeatedly and relish their sonority so much so that I could almost taste them in my mouth. I hardly realised it but in some cases I was unconsciously memorising this material.
Following the Vein
Even today I find myself enlivening a lonely car-journey with a private recital of, “There is a tide in the affairs of men which taken at the turn leads on to fortune…”, and so on. Old essay anthologies also formed part of my reading matter too at this time, and I was fast developing a taste for such authors as Leigh Hunt and W.N.P.Barbellion and R.L Stevenson, so much so, that I nurtured a very private ambition to become an essayist myself one day.
However, a difficulty in all this reading was that it was a solitary kind of occupation, for even the lovers of books whom I would sometimes encounter, were not really familiar with Shakespearean speeches or the essays of E.V. Lucas, being generally much more at home with the authors of Western or detective stories.
Mother and I, Poets Together
Until she was struck down by her final illness, Mother and I in private were wont to amuse ourselves by capping verses from our favoured poets. She was particularly fond of Tennyson, and right up to the end almost, could recite from memory great swathes of The Lady of Shallott and Morte d’Arthur and I think she had Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard off by heart.
It is a cool morning in October as I open my door to admit the day into this quiet home of mine.
In the March 2004 our mother died, and for some months afterwards I looked after the dwelling-house. This had been an old farmhouse owned by mother’s people, its rough grey face weather-carved, yet pulsating with life, and occupying a half-hidden hollow among the little hills that climb ever upwards towards the bulk of the purple mountain which rises behind us, and which, in turn, serves as a footstool for great Slieve Gullion that rears its crest among the craggy mountains just beyond.
The front door opens on to a yard – called the street in this locality. My street faces northwards, and serves as a platform from which to view events of significance – a blazing summer sunset perhaps, or the clouds of rooks which wheel around the venerable Church Rock tower over yonder, bickering noisily among themselves before they settle for the night.
Awe and Wonder
And once, on a morning such as this, I watched a pair of swans, pewter flames in the half-light, winging their way up to the neighbouring lake, and leaving in their wake the echoing lament of their passing. Here too I stood as a boy upon a brilliantly starlit night to gaze awe-struck, and not a little frightened, at a comet that was passing in profound silence through the frigid infinity of the heavens.
And somehow at that moment, or certainly around that time, my child-soul caught consciousness, and this countryside became templified into sacred space for me.
The Land Speaks
For this is an ancient landscape, and there, stretched out before me like a net straining to catch the meaning-music of the placenames, whose origins are lost in history, is the warp-and-weft of the surrounding townlands: Cross, Divernagh, Carrivekeeny, Maghernahely, Carrickcloghan; and closer to hand, there is Carrckcruppen, the gravestones of whose cemetery I can sometimes see glimmering mysteriously through the trees, and where the remains of so many generations of the parish lie buried.
And, as these placenames would indicate, how once upon a day, and indeed until not so long ago, Irish, which would link us with deep antiquity indeed, was the commonly used language. Now it has all but melted away, like snow off a ditch, although courageous efforts are currently being made to revive it…
Even a mere generation ago the variety of English spoken here featured many words of Irish, and some of the physical features of the landscape echoed Gaelic names – names like Páirc-a’-tobair, the well-field; and the Brocar, or field of badgers…
In some way in all this, I am reminded of Robin Flower the noted English-born Celtic scholar, who spent much time living among the people of the Blasket Islands off the Kerry coast.
In his book, The Irish Tradition, Flower, describes how he “…was wandering idly one day along a road upon an island which lies three miles out into the Atlantic beyond the most westerly point of Ireland.” As he walked, Flower encountered an old man digging potatoes in a field and the two fell into conversation. Flower describes how, during their conversation, the old man began to recite from memory lengthy passages from ancient and generally long-forgotten Gaelic poems and tales, and he continues: “… I listened spellbound and, as I listened, it came to me suddenly that … I was hearing the oldest living tradition in the British Isles… Tomorrow this too will be dead, and the world will be the poorer when this last shade of that which once was great has passed away.”
Just down the road is the Glen, a deep gash in the earth that was perhaps formed by some cataclysmic upheaval when all the world was young. Only a few hundred yards in length, and with steeply sloping sides, the atmosphere here is one of mystery. The Glen is home to a small forest of beeches, whose autumn foliage of golden-leaf, even on the most overcast of days, turns the dark valley into a brightly glowing crucible.
However, beneath the beechen canopy the light is subdued enough, filtering down, as it does, in hazy streamers through the uppermost branches and rendering the wood reminiscent of a church interior, with the great grey tree trunks as pillars; for although bird-song is perfectly audible here, the overall spirit of the place is one of stillness.
Along the western-most lip of the valley meanders a tiny stream of clear water in its bed of golden sand, and whose chuckling music provides contrast to the cloak of solemnity which seems to enwrap us here…
But soon now we will fare forth a-walking, you and I. But no ordinary walk this, no mere prosaic stroll between the fences of the everyday, but a pilgrimage to the hidden places of soul, where paradox dwells and where the prosaically rational awaits to be transformed into something quite different…
And so let our path lead upwards…