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.

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