Part 1: Erin’s Green Isle
It is amazing how much of the American psyche is bound up with the nations of the British Isles – the traditional “Three Kingdoms” of England, Scotland, and Ireland, with Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man, Jersey, and Guernsey. With us, as with Anglo-Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Anglo-South Africa, the Anglo-Caribbean, and for that matter the Indian Sub-Continent to a great degree, our national pre-history is bound up – as are much of our art, architecture, literature, and customs – with their place of origin, those little islands in the stormy North Sea.
I have visited them many times, and – as with the rest of Europe, that Mother Continent from whence most of us Americans have sprung – always have a strange sense of homecoming when I do. The conflicts that have historically wracked the British Isles – latterly, that of the Protestant Revolt in the 16th century and the Civil Wars a hundred years later – determined the religious, cultural, and political history of the United States, as the settlers brought the conflicts between Celt and Saxon, Protestant and Catholic, Calvinist and Anglican, republican and Royalist with them to the New World. So too did they bring the folk memories of St. Patrick, King Arthur, Robin Hood, and all the rest with them. All of these haunt and shape us still, as they did our civil wars of 1775-83, and 1861-65.
It was a year ago last September that I visited Glastonbury for the first time in three decades – the Isle of Avalon, where legend tells us that St. Joseph of Arimathea first brought the light of Catholicism to the heathen Celtic Britons, along with a relic of Christ’s Blood. Sticking his staff into the ground when he arrived at Wearyall Hill, it took root and blossomed. Cut down by the Puritans during the Civil Wars, its cuttings survive, and still bloom at Christmas as their parent did; some of the blooms are sent to the Monarch then and are sometimes to be seen in the Royal Christmas Message. The relic of the Precious Blood supposedly continues to tint the waters of the Chalice Well a slight red. Either way, St. Joseph’s heritage was continued in the great Abbey of Glastonbury, where King Arthur’s grave is shown, and whose abbot was martyred with a pair of companions by Henry VIII. Although in recent years the town has become a New Age centre, the Catholic shrine continues to offer the Sacrifice of praise to God, despite the Bishop recently driving out the Benedictines who had recently resettled there, due to their adherence to the Traditional Latin Mass.
That experience was very much on my mind when a school chum suggested we go the Isles for Spring Break. I agreed, and we left Austria behind, flying into Dublin. We arrived on a Friday night, and the following morning began our tour of Dublin. First place on the agenda, after a walk down O’Connell Street, was the Bank of Ireland – up until 1802, the home of the Irish Parliament. In that year, the act of Union was passed with Great Britain, which merged the Irish Legislature with the one in Westminster. At that time, the old building was given to the Bank.
They turned the House of Commons chamber over to business, but kept the House of Lords room intact. There is a poetic irony in this. Catholics could not vote for the Irish Parliament after the conquest of the Isle by King William in 1690-92. Although soon suffering buyer’s remorse, in 1802 they supported the Union, hoping for a better deal from Westminster than they could expect from the solid Protestants who made up the Irish Commons. But Ireland’s own House of Lords numbered many members of ancient Gaelic and Norman noble clans; they often had apostatised in order to hold on to their properties and privileges, and yet had may Catholic relatives – and so did what they could to mitigate anti-Catholic legislation. Looking at the Speaker’s chair and the mace in the Lords’ chamber, it seemed to me a minor blessing that it had survived.
Sunday found us at Traditional Mass at St. Kevin’s Church, Harrington Street. It is a beautiful church, and one would think untouched by the post-Vatican II wreckovations.
But the truth is far different. It suffered as badly as any church in the Emerald Isle. But after it was made over to the Latin Mass by the Archdiocese of Dublin, its new congregation sought out the original plans from the National archives, and completely restored the church to its original appearance. The choir was lovely, and the congregation devout. After the Mass we met old friends and new, and I was grateful for this remnant of the old Irish piety that has slipped into oblivion in so many places. We then went to St. Stephen’s Green, where so many died in 1916.
Monday, we explored Dublin further. We saw Trinity College, for years the Oxbridge of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy; to-day there is a Blessed Sacrament chapel in the English Baroque college chapel; one can only wonder what such alumni as Oliver Goldsmith or Oscar Wilde would make of it. We then made our way to Dublin Castle, where the Lords Lieutenant reigned over the British administration of the island. The lovely State Apartments remain intact, including St. Patrick’s Hall, where once the Viceroy presided over a gala ball on St. Patrick’s Day, and where the Irish presidents are now inaugurated. Here too is the Thorne Room. Its titular chair once seated the Lord Lieutenant when presiding over its court, and occasionally the Monarch himself. Its leg are short; after King James II was defeated and William of Orange took his place, they had to be cut – the Dutch usurper was much shorter than his Stuart Father-in-Law. Then we saw perhaps the most poignant building of all in the complex – the Chapel Royal.