Sunday, 1 November 2020

Remembering my mother

Lucie Katherine Sanders 17 Oct 1914 - 1 Nov 2000 

Today I am remembering with love my mother, Lucie Katherine Sanders, née Waller, on the 20th anniversary of her death on 1st November 2000, All Saints' Day. I particularly love the sparkle in her eyes in this photo.

Here is the eulogy I was privileged to give at her funeral - one of the hardest things I have ever done:

First of all, I want to thank you all on behalf of the family for being here with us today to say goodbye to my mother Lucie on her last journey.

I’m sure that she would feel embarrassed to be talked about as I am going to do now. She would have claimed to be ‘just an ordinary woman’ who didn’t merit any fuss. But all of us know that she was really a quite extraordinary woman, a special person, and I want to take a few minutes to celebrate that.

Lucie was born on 17th October 1914, at the start of the Great War. She was the second of three daughters of Jocelyn Waller of Prior Park and his wife Faerie (née Devenish) from County Roscommon. Her sister Sally was two years older than her, and Cicely was two years younger. My mother was a premature, sickly baby, and she was not expected to live. But her mother, my grandmother, refused to give up hope. In those days before incubators, in that large draughty house, keeping her warm was the difference between life and death. My grandmother insisted that she be laid on her breast to keep warm, and kept her there for several weeks, until she started to thrive. My mother grew up into a fine strong girl, and the big strong woman we remember. Strong mentally, but also physically. Well into her 80’s she could pull the cord to start a lawnmower that defeated both her sons!

The younger of us here may not realise it, but my mother Lucie was a fine all round sportswoman in her youth. She was an accomplished horsewoman who hunted and rode in point-to-points. I’ve been told that she was in great demand in the district to show off a horse for sale. No doubt an attractive young woman with a good seat was worth a few guineas on the price! Later on, in Egypt with my father after the war, she even won a camel race, to the great surprise of the men in the regiment, who hadn’t been able to bring themselves to put their money on the Padre’s wife! She also played hockey and lacrosse at school, and tennis. And she was a very good swimmer—I believe she swam in competition for TCD.

But perhaps throughout the years sailing on the Shannon was her first sporting love, no doubt because it was so important for her parents, who had met sailing on the North Shannon. The three sisters were given a present by Tom Towers of Castletown of a SOD dinghy, which was christened Surprise. She sheeted Surprise for many years. She taught Tom and me to sail in her. And she watched her grandchildren sail in her, too.  I think my grandparents must have been rather liberal parents for the time, because the three girls were allowed to travel up and down the Shannon on their own in their houseboat the Pink’Un to the different regattas. That’s a sight I would love to have seen myself. She still sailed occasionally when she was well past 70, and she was very proud to see her son as Commodore of the Yacht Club, as her father had also been.

But, as well as being a fine sportswoman, she was also clever academically. She had her early education just a few hundred yards from this church in Kilodiernan rectory, where Rev. Mr. Burroughs taught her and Cicely, together with his own sons Walter and Jerram. Earlier this week, Jerram was telling me how Lucie used to drive to school in the pony and trap, at a great rate so as not to be late. She then went to French school in Bray. I remember her talking about meeting WB Yeats there, who had come to tea with the Miss Frenches. She was quite unimpressed by the great poet, who made rather little conversation, but ate a lot of scones. From there, she went up to Trinity College, where she studied history and took her degree. She kept up an interest in history throughout her life, and when she returned to North Tipp she was a keen member of the Ormond Historical Society. She was very proud to be the first woman in the district to go to University. This was during the depression and economic war, when money was very scarce on a farm, and I am very proud of her that she worked her way through college.

After leaving Trinity, she knew she needed a professional training to be able to make her own way in the world. She went to train as a caterer at Athol Crescent in Edinburgh. With this behind her, she took a job as the Burser of St. Mary’s College, Durham—an amazingly responsible position for a girl then in her early 20s. Later, during the war, she did another very responsible job. She managed catering for the Transmission department of the BBC. She was responsible for scores of canteens all over the British Isles, and hundreds of staff. Much of the time she was travelling, living out of a suitcase. I remember her talking with horror of trying to sleep in a blacked-out train stopped in sidings during a bombing raid.

She married my father Derick Sanders in 1946. He was then serving as a chaplain to the forces. She joined him in Egypt and later Cyprus before he was demobbed. They must first have got to know each other years before in Durham where my father was teaching at Bede College at the same time as she was at St. Mary’s. But my mother always claimed to remember meeting him for the first time at Prior Park when she was only 15 and he was brought to tea by his old friend Thora Trench of Laughton. He always denied any memory of this, but a young man of 23 would hardly have noticed a 15 year old girl, no matter how lively!

Their marriage was long and happy. Tom and I, with our families, and the grandchildren and great-grandchildren that she loved so much, are the testimony of their love for each other.

In 1948, they moved to Landbeach, just outside Cambridge, where he was Rector, and my mother settled into the life of being the rector’s wife. In 1959 they moved on to Stalbridge in Dorset, where they stayed until my father’s retirement in 1978. She is being remembered in prayers in both parishes today. I imagine the transition to being the rector’s wife must have been difficult for her at times, after the independence and challenges of her own career. But she buckled down and loyally supported him, while also raising Tom and me, and finding time for her own interests. She was active in the Women’s Institute, the University Women’s Association and started a Young Wives’ Club.

Throughout my childhood, she had the knack of making both Tom and me feel very close to her and loved. Even when we were away at boarding school, we each got a long letter every week, and a fruit cake every fortnight through the post. We shall miss her reassuring presence very much.

My mother Lucie was always very clear about her roots. She saw herself as an Irishwoman, and brought her children up to be proud of our Irish heritage. So it was natural that when the time for retirement came, she should bring my father back to her own place in North Tipperary, to the Skehanagh Point house which she herself had chosen for the Shannon views that both of them loved so much. Retirement was anything but restful for her. With my father she planned and made a fine garden out of a potato field. She drove him all over the diocese to take services in parishes where there was no priest. And she nursed and cared for those she loved. When my father fell ill, she cared for him 24 hours a day for more than 10 years. And when he died, and her sister Sally was ill, she nursed and cared for her too, until her death. As she had done before for her sister Cicely and her own mother.

When her own strength began to fail, she continued to fight tenaciously to maintain her independence, and to live in her own home as long as she possibly could. We will all miss her deeply. But at the same time it is right for us to celebrate and give thanks for her long life, which she lived so well. She really was an extraordinary woman and a great spirit.


Friday, 7 August 2020

Three finds that have pleased me

I revisited Carney Commons on 1st August, hoping to find the Fragrant Orchids which were not yet in flower on my last visit. I was successful, though there were not so many as I usually see. 

Until the last few years all native Fragrant Orchids were assigned to the species Gymnadenia conopsea. Then they were divided into 3 subspecies: ssp conopsea, ssp borealis and ssp densiflora. Now following more research and DNA sequencing these subspecies are recognised as good species. G. conopsea (Common Fragrant Orchid) is found in dry meadows, G. borealis (Heath Fragrant Orchid) in upland heath and pastures, and G. densiflora (Dense-flowered Fragrant Orchid) in marshes and fens. I identified the plants I found as G. densiflora from the shape of the sidelobes of the flowers, and this was confirmed to me from a photo by a more experienced botanist. Although it is recorded around Tullamore and Mullingar, and around Adare, it has not been recorded before in North Tipperary. I'm rather chuffed! I should report it to the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland. 

Unusual white form of Lesser Knapweed, Centaurea nigra found on Carney Commons

I also found this unusual white form of Knapweed growing on the Common. I've never found one before, but a number of its thistle family relatives regularly sport such white flowers.

Comma butterfly at rest in Dromineer Garden on 25 July 2020

Lastly, to my delight I have spotted a Comma Butterfly (Polygonia c-album) in my garden several times recently. When I was a child this was a rare butterfly found only in the Welsh Borders. Since then it has spread throughout England and Wales. In 2000 it arrived in Co Wexford, from which it has been spreading North and West. Now it has reached Dromineer on the Shannon in North Tipperary - long may it flourish with us!

Wednesday, 24 June 2020

Orchids on Carney Commons, June 22nd 2020

Bee orchid - Ophrys apifera
Inspired by the sight of bee orchids in the unmown meadow of friends, I ventured out to Carney Commons to see if I could find any. Last year I found dozens, but when I visited 3 weeks ago I could find none. This time I found a single flower spike. And I found another 8 different kinds of orchids in flower too!
Marsh Helleborine - Epipactis pallustris - one of thousands

Early marsh orchid - Dactylorhizo incarnata ssp incarnata 

Fly Orchid, Ophrys insectifera. Many hundreds of them, but perhaps fewer than last year

Early Marsh Orchid, Dactylorhiza incarnata ssp. pulchella

Common Spotted Orchid, Dactylorhiza ssp. fuchsii
Not sure about this. Could it be a rather pale Western Marsh Orchid, Dactylorhiza occidentalis, or a hybrid? if the latter, between what?
Twayblade, Neottia ovata. Sorry for the photo quality!
Pyramidal Orchid, Anacamptis pyramidalis
I also found seed heads of Early Purple orchids, Orchis mascula. But it was too early to find any Fragrant orchids, Gymnadenia conopsea - I must return in a couple of weeks!

Thank God for the amazing diversity of this family of plants, displaying his creative power through evolution!

Friday, 15 May 2020

Lilies of the field - a refection for the feast day of St Brendan, 16 May 2020

“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” Matthew 6:28,29.

So says Jesus, an acute observer of the natural world, when he urges his disciples not to worry about tomorrow, because today’s trouble is enough for today. The fields and hills of Galilee in his time abounded with wildflowers and other living creatures, testifying to the lavish love God shows for all his creation. But in my lifetime,  here in Ireland as in so much of the world, modern farming practices – crop monocultures, weed killers, insecticides - have greatly reduced this wonderful diversity of life, except in ‘unprofitable land’ like mountains and bogs, and small areas preserved accidentally. We have been making a mess of the beautiful living planet God has given us – I call it out as blasphemy.

Graveyards are often the last pieces of unimproved grassland in the neighbourhood, and Killodiernan in North Tipperary, within 5km of my home, is one such. It is a place of pilgrimage for me at this time of Covid-19 restrictions. The short turf is densely packed with many species of wildflowers and grasses growing as a sustainable community, which emerge and bloom in succession throughout the season, before being mown in the autumn. At this time of year early purple orchids star, alongside bugle, and wispy clouds of pignut, amid the last of the cowslips and primroses. 
The star of the show - Early Purple Orchid
A stand of Bugle
Wispy clouds of Pignut
 Other species will take over soon, including mouse-ear hawkweed, germander speedwell, quaking grass, and three more kinds of orchids, until late summer paints the graveyard blue with devils-bit scabious. This is a rare survival, an ever-changing, beautiful tapestry of colour and texture, preserved by the accident of the church being built here, and managed sensitively by the church wardens for wildlife. Other local pastures must have looked like this to the delight of our forebears for hundreds of years, before they were reseeded with rye-grass and fertilised to maximise productivity.

This type of grassland is not natural, however. The climax vegetation here would have been woodland after the last glaciation. What we see now is the work of human beings over millennia, who felled the trees and worked with the grain of nature to make a living from the land. And since the graveyard was enclosed, generations of faithful worshippers have left their mark too by planting other exotic flowers, including snowdrops, daffodils and bluebells, montbretia and fairy foxgloves, now naturalised. What we see now is a product of both change and continuity.

Fairy Foxglove from the Dolomites clings to the lime-mortared wall

And Killodiernan church itself is a product of both change and continuity. The present building replaced the medieval parish church a mile away, in ruins since the 17th Century. It dates from 1811, as recorded on a date stone. 

Originally a simple barn-church with tower and small gallery, it was built to hold 150 people with a grant from the Board of First Fruits. Drawings by James Pain c.1830 show box pews and a central pulpit and prayer desk between the two windows on the north side of the nave. The present chancel and vestry were added in 1879, when the box pews and central pulpit were removed, making way for east-facing pews, with pulpit, prayer desk and altar table at the east-end. One of the north windows was bricked in to make room for the vestry, and a pot-bellied iron stove was also installed to provide heating, since replaced by electric heating.
Killodiernan church sits comfortably in its graveyard

Today our human society is in the grip of the corona virus, disrupting our society and its economy, and bringing sickness and death to many. We do not know what the future will bring. We hope for a return to some kind of normality, but we know it will not be what we have been used to. And even when the pandemic passes - as it will - we know that we must face up to the twin existential crises of climate change and biodiversity loss, brought on by our over-exploitation of natural resources, in other words by sinful human greed.

But Jesus tells us not to let anxiety overwhelm us. We are enfolded in the love of the God he calls Father, and guided by the Holy Spirit. There will be change, but there will also be continuity. The natural world burgeons with new life, driven by the inexorable seasons. The caring response of our communities to Covid-19 shows that we can respond to challenges we face. Our task is to work to overcome today’s evils, while making the new world more like God’s kingdom than the old world we leave behind. We are in much the same situation as St Brendan and his monks when they launched their currach into the sea in search of the island of paradise.

If you doubt this, I recommend a pilgrimage to a little bit of heaven near you – seek and you shall find!


Wednesday, 8 April 2020

Willow patterns

Golden Willows, pollarding in progress

Yesterday I finished pollarding the ornamental willows in the wildflower border between the croquet lawn and the beech hedge. Their bare stems provide winter colour, but every year they must be cut down to the stumps or they would grow too tall, and older stems lose their vivid colour. It looks rather brutal, but within a few weeks the stumps spring into growth, and by the autumn the shoots are up to 8 ft tall. In winter sun they become brilliant candles against the brown leaves of the beech.
A brutally pollarded stump

There are 3 each of 3 different varieties: Golden Willow (Salix alba 'Vitellina'), Coral Willow (Salix alba 'Britzensis'), and Violet Willow (Salix daphnoides 'Aglaia'). When I planned the planting I was aiming for a rainbow effect and chose cultivars said to be of equal vigour. For me, however, 'Britzensis' is somewhat outgrown by the other two, and though the tips of the stems are coral red, the effect is little different to 'Vitellina'. 'Aglaia' stems are such a dark red that they barely stand out against the hedge, but they do produce some 'pussy willow' blossoms in March. I sometimes wonder if I should have stuck with just 'Britzensis', but truth to tell I love them all!

'Aglaia's pussy catkins

The border beneath the willows is mostly planted with native wildflowers, though there are also snowdrops and a few daffodills,which bloom successively from now to the summer. They seed themsleves around and the only maintenance they need is a rough chop back of last years dead stems, and removing perennial weeds like docks and dandelions, which otherwise would take over. It becomes a lovely ever-changing tapestry of colour. The show begins with Red Campion (just starting now) continuing with White Campion and pink hybrids, continuing in the summer with Dog Daisy and blue Meadow Cranesbill, with Great Knapweed, Chicory and wild Marjoram continuing on to autumn.

The Wildflower Border at the end of May 2018

Sunday, 5 April 2020

Rest in peace,Tim Robinson


I was deeply saddened to learn of the death of Tim Robinson in London on 3rd April 2020 at the age of 85 from Covid-19, just 2 weeks after the death of his wife and colaborator Mairéad, whom he always called 'M' in his books. Although I never met him, he has been part of my life through his maps and books for nearly 30 years.


When I first came home to Ireland, struggling with much sadness, my refuge and garden of delights was the Burren in Co. Clare, where I escaped for weekends to walk and explore as often as I could. Tim Robinson's Burren map was my constant companion. I revelled in its bare limestone rocks eroded by water, its botanical teasures, and the traces left by its human inhabitants over millenia, from neolithic tombs, through iron age forts, to medieval abbeys and cathedrals. My original map has become dog-eared and stained from use, but I have it still. I bought a second and a third copy, but I lent them out and they haven't returned - I will need to buy yet another when Covid-19 is over and I am able to visit the Burren again.

Tim Robinson's map, showing the location of
the ruined house of  'P. J. Kelly, Botanist, d.1937'
Tim Robinson's map, showing the location of
the Glen of Clab, and Poll an Bhallain
His map introduced me to many secret corners of the Burren. Places like the ruined home and overgrown garden of Patrick O'Kelly, an amateur botanist who made a living selling Burren wild flowers by mail order in the first half of the 20th century - there I found Coralroot (Cardamine bulbifera), an uncommon plant he must have introduced that still persists. And the Glen of Clab, the lined by spring gentians (Gentiana verna), leading to the massive circular depression Poll an Bhallain - a polje caused by the collapse of an underground cavern carved out of the limestone by water.


Later on, I discovered Tim Robinson's books, the 2 volume 'Stones of Arran', and the 'Connemara' trilogy. In these books he disects the landscapes to the minutest detail, recovers the stories of their inhabitants, and relates them all in a cosmic philosophy of wonder. His writing is gloriously evocative.

Most recently I have been reading his last book of essays, 'Experiments on Reality'. In the Preface he declares a materialist faith, writing:
'My focus is, as always on the multitudinous ways in which our physicak bodies relate to the physical universe. This commitment to material nature in its wondrous plenitude encourages me to reappropriate terms, themes and tones long regarded as the property of religion, and dares me to denounce supernaturalism as blasphemy.'
Although I am sure he would deny it, for me his life's work reveals more than a little of the glory of our loving Creator God.
Tim Robinson near his home in Roundstone, Connemara, Co Galway. 
Photograph: Brian Farrell

Friday, 3 April 2020

Peas, please! - Friday 3rd April 2020

Young pea plants of the variety 'Homesteader', grown by Marty
 My wife Marty has taken me to task for calling the garden I share with her 'my' garden in this blog, although of course it belongs to us both. Like many homes with two keen gardeners, we each have our own parts and our own jobs. Marty manages our handsome front garden with the help of our skilled gardener Geraldine, and raises most of the vegetables, which she plants out into raised beds. I manage the grass, the hedges and shrubs, and the mini woodland I call the wilderness.

Honour where it is due, today's subject is peas, both as a vegetable and as flowers, and Marty has been busy with them. In the photo above you can see a tray of young pea plants in the greenhouse. The variety is an old one called 'Homesteader', which Marty got on our visit to the US last year - it's not a name I recognise on this side of the Atlantic. It is a heritage variety dating back to the early 1900s, and clearly still popular in America. Marty is delighted with the high germination rate. I look forward to picking and eating fresh peas in a little over 2 months, just cooked for a minute or two with pleanty of farmhouse butter!

My Grandfather, Jocelyn Waller of Prior Park, grew peas in the 1960s for the Erin Foods factory in Thurles, like many other local farmers - sadly the plant has been closed for many years. They had to be harvested by a contractor at exactly the right time and sent to the factory to be frozen within hours. Do you remember the Birds Eye advertising jingle, "Sweet as the moment when the pod went pop"? It was the same idea. I remember the anxiety in the house as harvest time approached. Were the peas ready? Could the contractor be got in time? Would the peas obtain the desired price at the factory? I'm not sure, but I think he soon decided peas were too much trouble as a crop, and stopped growing them.

Marty's Sweet Pea plants waiting to be planted out
Marty is also growing Sweet Peas in the greenhouse, as she does every year - the seeds were planted in the winter, and as they grow tall they are chopped to make sturdy, branching plants, to plant out when the danger of frosts is past. They are always wonderful, and during the season she picks large fragrant bunches for the house and to give away - I call her "My Sweet Pea Queen of North Tipperary". She says for the year that's in it she wants to concentrate on vegetables, not flowers, but I hope she finds a good place so that these strong plants don't go to waste - a summer without sweet peas would be no summer at all!