The Wonder of God’s Creation – Fr. Séan McDonagh, SSC

Many thanks to Fr Séan McDonagh SSC for sending us the following articles:

Each summer for the past nine years I have looked forward to spending a week with Dr John Feehan exploring God’s creation. Dr Feehan recently retired from University College Dublin where he was a senior lecturer in the School of Biology and Environmental Science. He is a man of enormous erudition and has researched and written on many aspects of the natural world here in Ireland. He trained as a geologist and the stamp of that training can be seen in his book, The Landscape of Slieve Bloom. In all his writing and lecturing Dr. Feehan has always attempted to go beyond the rocks, which form the bedrock of the landscape, and explore the living world, including the impact which humankind has had on shaping the landscape.

In collaboration with Grace O’Donovan, John Feehan produced The Bogs of Ireland in 1996, which is the most comprehensive single volume on bogs in Ireland. In 2003 he produced another magisterial work Farming in Ireland: History, Heritage and Environment. This is the first book to look at the broad sweep and long history of agriculture in Ireland from the arrival of the first farmers on the island about 6,500 years ago, right up to the present challenges presented by the European Union Common Agriculture Policy (CAP). Successive chapters deal with the changes which have happened over the millennia and how this has affected the landscape and the people. The book is 600 pages long and it is full of wonderful illustrations of plants and farming technology over the millennia.

Dr Feehan’s Curragh of Kildare gives a wonderful insight into this landscape, starting with the rocks and moving on to explore its flora and fauna. Among the flowers of the Curragh one finds Bird’s-foot trefoil, Autumnal hawkbit, Lady’s bedstraw, Wild thyme and Tormentil, to mention just a few. The Curragh is the home to around 40 species of birds. Among the birds are skylarks, meadow pipits, chaffinches, snipe, song thrushes and stonechats. The book highlights the importance of the aquifer which supplies water for the Grand Canal and also for St. James’ Brewery in Dublin, where the world famous Guinness is still brewed.

In the chapters that follow he chronicles the human impact on the area, beginning with the agriculture tradition, especially sheep farming. In earlier times the Curragh was known for its hares. These, unfortunately, are rarely seen today. Instead, there is an abundance of rabbits, foxes and grey squirrels.

The Curragh has long been associated with the military, both in the British times and more recently when independence arrived in 1921. Today the Curragh is the Irish Defence Force Training Centre and also the largest military base in Ireland. People who are interested in horse-racing in Ireland and Britain know that the Curragh is the headquarters of flat racing in Ireland. The Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby was run there on June 26th 2011.

Dr Feehan also highlights the religious significance of the Curragh. The Curragh plain lies close to three important places in pre-Christian Ireland. The Hill of Allen lies to the north-west. This is associated with the mythical hero Fionn mac Cumhaill. Dún Alinne, on the other hand, was an important ritual centre in pre-Christian Ireland and Kildare lies to the west.

Kildare is always associated with Saint Bridget who lived from around 450 to 526 AD. She built her monastery on the site of a sacred oak tree which, once again, had great religious significance in pre-Christian Ireland. Her feast day is on the first day of February each year. This coincides with the old pre-Christian Celtic feast of imbolc which marked the arrival of spring in Ireland. Given this continuity, it is easy to see why Bridget was seen as a special patron of farm animals, crops and even the fertility of the land. In the various lives of St. Bridget which appeared in the Middle Ages many of the miracles attributed to her have to do with food – butter, milk, bacon, cattle, sheep and fruit.

The story of how the convent, which Bridget founded, came to own much of the Curragh is well-known. Bridget approached a local chieftain and requested land for her foundation, The man was mean and wanted to frustrate her plan to build a monastery by offering her the ridiculously small amount of land which her cloak would cover. However, once she spread the cloak on the ground it began to expand and expand until it covered the whole Curragh.

Flowers Associated with Our Lady

One of my all-time favourite books by Dr Feehan is The Wildflowers of Offaly, which was published in 2009. Incidentally, Offaly is his native county. On the back cover there is a wonderful endorsement from the well-known Irish Times journalist Michael Viney. It states that the book is “a revelation of Offaly’s wildflower beauty and diversity by one of Ireland’s top ecologists and communicators of nature. His up-close-and-personal portraits give each plant a vivid and distinctive presence, aided by superlative illustrations – another landmark in books about our countryside.”

As we are coming close to celebrating the feast of the Assumption of Our Lady into Heaven, I will share some of Dr Feehan’s insights on the religious dimension of some flowers in this article. At the top of page 339, Dr. Feehan gives the reader the name of a particular flower in English, Latin and Gaelic. The flower is known as Lady’s Bedstraw, Gallium verum in Latin and Boladh cris in Gaelic. On the top of the page there is both a photo of the flower and a line drawing to help the reader identify the plant.

Bedstraws grow in open meadows associated with limestone grasslands. A distinctive feature of this flower is that it has four-petalled flowers and very narrow leaves. These leaves arise in whorls from a stem that is often square in section, with downward-pointing hooks on the angles to assist the plant in climbing upwards among more robust vegetation. Lady’s bedstraw has a more robust stem and does not have hooks. While the flower of most bedstraws are white, Lady’s bedstraw is immediately recognisable because of its bright yellow flowers. Most other flower books would continue to give details about the organs of the plant – roots, stems and leaves and maybe refer to its medicinal use in the past, but would not refer to the cultural or religious significance of the flowers.

In The Flowers of Offaly Dr Feehan goes well beyond the morphology of the plant and gives us information about how it was used by people in the not-too-distant past. Because of its honey-like smell, for example, it was used to give a pleasant odour to bed-linen. The flower was also used to curdle the milk used in making Cheshire cheese. It was responsible for the distinctively yellow colour of Double Gloucester Cheese.

Mixed with alum, the root of lady’s bedstraw makes a beautiful red dye. The yellow flower was also used to make a yellow dye. This was often used for dyeing hair.
Before the advent of modern medicine, Lady’s bedstraw had a number of medicinal uses. It was used as a sedative and also as a medicine for people who were suffering from hysteria, epilepsy or other nervous conditions. A powder made from lady’s bedstraw was used to soothe inflamed skin

The ‘lady’ in Lady’s bedstraw refers to Our Lady. He tells us that the scientific name Galium verum, meaning ‘true bedstraw’ got its name from the Medieval legend that the plant offered itself to Our Lady on the night that Christ was born. As a reward, the flower became golden instead of white associated with other bedstraws.

Another flower that is called after Our Lady is Lady’s smock. The scientific name is Cardamine pratensis. The Gaelic name is Biolar gréagáin. It is a plant that is found in wet grassland and marshy places. Its rosettes of cress-like compound leaves can be seen from early spring-time. However, it normally flowers in April and is at its best in June. In favourable places it can grow to one metre in size, but normally it is much shorter. The flowers are 10-20mm across. The colour is pale to deep lilac, though sometimes it can be white. The biodiversity value of the plant is seen in the fact that it is a favourite food of the orange tip butterfly. These lay their eggs at the base of the calyx. When the larvae hatch they have a ready source of food in the ripening seedpod.

Lady’s smock was used in traditional medicine as a cure for scurvy. Dr. Feehan writes that “it also enjoyed considerable reputation as a cure for epilepsy.” Once again the ‘lady’ in Lady’s smock refers to Our Lady. The smock in the name is traditionally thought to have come from the resemblance of a wet meadow covered with this flower, to a smock laid out to dry.