Thursday, 1 July 2021

Change and continuity in a country graveyard

From the July/August 2021 edition of Newslink, the diocesan magazine for Limerick & Killaloe

Killodiernan church in its ever changing flowering graveyard

“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.

Here in Ireland as in so much of the world, within my lifetime, modern farming practices – crop monocultures, weed killers, insecticides - have gravely damaged the wonderful diversity of life in our fields and forests. We have been making a mess of the beautiful living planet God has given us – I call it out as blasphemy.

Yet some special places remain where we can still experience something of what has been lost. Old graveyards are often the last pieces of unimproved grassland in the neighbourhood, and Killodiernan in North Tipperary, 5km from my home, is one such. The short turf is densely packed with a multitude of wildflowers and grasses growing as a sustainable community, which emerge and bloom in succession throughout the season, before being mown in the autumn. 

In mid-June the graveyard is yellow with birdsfoot trefoil,
mouse-ear hawkweed and buttercups

The succession begins in April with primroses and cowslips. In May the early purple orchids star, alongside blue bugle, and wispy white clouds of pignut. Now in mid-June, the graveyard has turned yellow with bird’s foot trefoil, bulbous buttercup and mouse-ear hawkweed, amid the dainty waving heads of quaking grass, dog daisies, and two types of orchid – common spotted and a multitude of twayblades. Other species will take over in succession to them, until late summer paints the graveyard blue with devils-bit scabious. 

A splash of pink from a common spotted orchid in mid-June

This is a rare survival, an ever-changing tapestry of colour and texture, preserved by the accident of the church being built here. It is 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 ryegrass and fertilised to maximize productivity.

The graveyard is home to scores of twayblade orchids
with flowers like little green men

This type of grassland is not natural, however. The climax vegetation after the last glaciation would have been woodland. 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.

Killodiernan church itself is a product of both change and continuity. The present building dates from 1811, replacing the medieval parish church a mile away, in ruins since the 17th Century. It was built to hold 120 people as a simple barn-church with tower and small gallery, with a grant from the Board of First Fruits. Over the years succeeding generations have extended the church, reorganised the interior, and still lovingly maintain it. 

We will experience a lot more change in future, as our wider society confronts the challenges of global heating and biodiversity loss, and the Church adapts to new circumstances. A new world is coming into being in our generation. Change may make us anxious, but we must not let anxiety overwhelm us. We are enfolded in the love of the God whom Jesus calls Father, and we are guided by the Holy Spirit. Let us seek to preserve what is good and true and beautiful from the past, while we make the new world more like God’s kingdom than the old world we leave behind. 

There will be change, but there will also be continuity.



Saturday, 1 May 2021

The three-cornered dance of life

This short piece was submiited for the May 2021 issue of Newslink, the Diocesan Magazine for Limerick & Killaloe

How blessed we have been by our gardens in this second Spring of Covid lockdown! The early bulbs - the snowdrops, the crocuses, the daffodils – seemed brighter and more numerous than ever this year. As I write it is the turn of primroses, cowslips and tulips to star. Dandelions are everywhere, so bright and cheerful – if they were rare and difficult to grow, gardeners would pay fortunes for them. And I have been harvesting purple sprouting broccoli, and the first asparagus from the polytunnel - so much tastier than that from the supermarket.

Bees feasting on pear blossom as they pollinate the flowers

It is the flowering fruit trees that attract my attention just now. The wild blackthorn, damsons and cherries blooming in the hedgerows promise an autumn feast of jams and flavoured gin, and I trust the birds will leave a few Victoria plums and Morello cherries for puddings. The pear blossom is already fully open, and bees are busy fertilising it, as they gather pollen and nectar to feed their growing young. The apples and the quince are in bud and will be out by the time you read this. I look forward to fine weather so that we will have a good fruit set.

The ravishing pink of apple blossom


This prompts me to reflect on the wonderful three-cornered dance of fruit trees, insects, and fruit eating creatures. The trees offer up pollen and nectar to the pollinating insects to feed them and their young, while the insects return the favour by fertilising the flowers. The trees then bear sweet and tasty fruits, so irresistible to us, while birds and mammals like ourselves spread the trees’ seeds far and wide.

Looking forward to harvest
- Still life with quince, apples and pears by Paul Cézanne


By the grace of God, the trees, insects, birds and mammals have evolved together over millions of years to partake in this communion of life, in which all benefit and no one loses. I see it is an image the kingdom of heaven, reflecting the mutual love and communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in our triune God.


Sunday, 25 April 2021

April Joy

These last days of April are quite magical, with clear skies, warm sunshine, and nature burgeoning all around us. I feel entirely blessed. The garden is filled with bees and other insects, including butterflies. Already I have seen Brimstone butterflies, Holly Blues, Speckled Woods, Orangetips, Small Tortoiseshells and Peacocks. Unfortunately I am not patient enough to try to photograph them, but the plants stay still. Here are some that are giving me joy just now.

The red and yellow Apeldoorn tulips are now at their best, standing up in the grass among the dandelions I must deadhead before they seed any further than they have already.

The buds on the Large-leafed Lime trees in the Lime Alley are just starting to open, not all at the same time, since they were seed propagated by Jan Ravensburg from Clara, who supplied the young trees. There is plenty of natural variation among them, and I am starting to find seedlings here and there.

The Quince tree, variety 'Vranja', gave a good harvest last year. There is even more blossom than last year, and with the fine weather I am hoping for a good fruit-set this year. But I must remember to give it a bucket of water, as they prefer damp ground.

In the 'Wilderness', the native bluebells are spreading around, and I love the arching stems of the Solomon's Seal, with their delicate, drooping yellow-white bells. 

The cowslips are spreading well in the wildflower meadow. There is a good deal of variation in the size of their petals, with some as large as cultivated polyanthus. I suspect their are some genes from the common primrose in them, which usually produces the hybrid known as False Oxlip, with primrose flowers on a long stem. But these retain the classic cowslip colouration. I think I shall try to bring the largest ones into cultivation, away from others and from primroses, to see if I can develop the strain.

But perhaps my greatest joy is the little clump of Coralroot (Cardamine bulbifera) growing in the wildflower meadow. In Ireland it is an extremely rare garden escape. I found it in the old overgrown garden of botanist Patrick Kelly's ruined house outside Ballyvaughan in Co Clare. It reproduces mostly from purple bulbils which form in the leaf axils, rather than from seed. I gathered a few bulbils 2 years ago and grew them on in a pot, which I planted out last year. This year they are flowering for the first time, and I hope I will be able to naturalise them in my garden, as Patrick Kelly did in his.



Saturday, 27 February 2021

What a lovely day!

Todays anticyclonic conditions have made for a lovely day here in North Tipperary - still, dry, with occasional sunny spells, even if chilly enough for a coat when I ventured out in the afternoon to do some tidying up in the garden. Spring is such a lovely time of year, with something new to stop and admire every day. Here are some things that caught my eye today. Thanks be to God!

Mezereon (Daphne mezereum), one of many seedlings in the garden.

The darker primrose behind is Primula vulgaris ssp. sibthorpii from the Balkans, the lighter one in front is its hybrid with our native Irish yellow Primula vulgaris ssp. vulgaris

This lovely miniature daffodil is a true species from Spain, Narcissus asturiensis. I call it the Clonteem daffodil, because my Grandmother brought it with her from the house of that name where she was brought up.

My friend Caleb's Irish black bees (Apis mellifera mellifera) buzzing away at the hive. It is so nice to see them gathering pollen from the spring flowers.


Sunday, 21 February 2021

Galanthus 'Hill Poë'

This pretty snowdrop is blooming in Marty's Labyrinth garden just now, where it has been clumping up well for the last couple of years. Its double flowers with 4 to 5 outer petals are almost completely white and surround a double rosette of inner petals, marked with dark green at their tips and along their mid-section, and edged with white. 

It is not far from home, here in Dromineer. Galanthus 'Hill Poë' was discovered in the garden of the old Rectory in Summerhill, Nenagh, Co Tipperary by Mrs Hill-Poë, the Rector's wife back in the C19th. She propogated it and passed it on to friends, from whence it passed into the nursery trade. Now no galanthophile worth his or her salt would be without it.

Sunday, 14 February 2021

Living close up

This short piece appeared in the February 2021 issue of Newslink, the Diocesan Magazine for Limerick & Killaloe

The pandemic lockdowns have focussed us all on what is close to us, what is local. We value the little things more for what they are - God-given blessings. As I cocoon myself from the virus, I give thanks for the kindness of friends, neighbours, and staff in local shops, who keep me supplied with the necessities of life. I notice the courtesy of strangers who mask up, and make space for me in supermarkets and on the street, so that both of us may keep a safe distance apart. 

Since I cannot travel to visit wild places with long views, what is close up has become much more important to my spirit. The ever-changing garden I share with Marty my wife is a constant joy - we are blessed by the abundance of life in it. Lockdown must be so much more difficult for those in cramped apartments. 

Just now, as the days lengthen at the end of January, fresh life burgeons in the garden, and there is something new to see every day. Those most at risk are already being vaccinated, and the rest of us will be in due course, if not quite so quickly as we would like. All this gives me hope for the future, hope that once again we will enjoy God’s bounty, hope that we will emerge from the Covid tunnel into the light of a world changed for the better. 

I hope you enjoy these photos of a few of the things giving me joy in the garden just now.

Bright yellow spider-like flowers of Witch Hazel with a sweet scent

Pristine white Christmas roses, blooming through frost and snow since before Christmas

Snowdrops, just starting to open after pushing their way to light through the leaf litter

The Lime alley, with beech and yew hedges neatly trimmed by my good neighbour John




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.