Effortless results

I am amazed at the colourful bloom of roses that has appeared in our front garden.  Amazed because I did nothing to encourage them – no fertilising, no watering, no examining for green fly. lowres 26872 FAMILY AND MISSION FP AD_V1-2

They just showed up on their own, maybe wanting to reproach me.

I can’t help comparing their achievement with all the work that has gone into preparing for the Family and Mission Open Day on  1 July in Dalgan (click on  link for details) .  There the equivalent of fertilising, watering and attention to detail has gone on for months and I hope that that the outcome turns out as good.

The Open Day is part of the Columban Centenary Year celebrations and it has brought a lot of people together to prepare for a variety of events ranging from an outdoor Mass with Archbishop Dermot Martin, to a Pudsy’s corner for children, an area to meet Columban co-worker from abroad,  media shows, food-stalls and an open air concert with performers from at least three continents.

Some of our AITECE teachers will be there to share their experiences of teaching in China and encourage others to following in their footsteps.

The Chinese Catholic Community from Dublin will also be present with dances and songs and prepared to talk about the Church in their homeland.

Committees and sub-committees and sub-sub-committees have being meeting regularly for the past few months to put all this together and it should be a colourful and exciting sight.

Here back home, I look at the display of roses in our front garden and wonder how they produced their show all on their own. Next year I must be nicer to them or, better still, set up a committee to do the fertilising, watering and fly spraying.

The Right Snuff in China

How come a valuable collection of authentic imperial Chinese books, robes and snuff boxes ended up in Dublin?

It was not missionaries returning from China who brought them (they couldn’t afford them anyhow) but an American mining millionaire with Irish grandparents who, in 1950, thought Ireland was the safest place in the world to preserve them.

If you want to experience a touch of Qing dynasty China, and other Asian countries, go to the Chester Beatty library in Dublin Castle. No admittance fee.

One of the first items Chester collected from China was snuff bottles. They are eye-catchingly beautiful, come in all shapes and colours but in a size that fits the hand. Some are painted from the inside, others are carved. They contained powered tobacco because, while smoking was prohibited in the Qing era (they were very advanced!), snuff was  acceptable as a remedy for colds etc. The best examples were to be found in the imperial court but eventually cheaper versions were available in local markets and today imitations are in every souvenir shop in Asia.

Chester Beatty’s hope was not only to preserve those precious artefacts but to help give people an idea of the rich cultures in other parts of the world. Descriptions of the various civilisations and religions they represent are posted nearby.

It is one way of reminding people that something does not have to be ‘modern’ to be worthwhile. The scenes engraved on the snuff bottles show us a way of life in which people were closer to each other and to nature and that life could be sniffed at if you had a snuff bottle. 

The Stamp of a Patriot

Here are two men who put a stamp on their country’s history, one Chinese and one Irish.

And it was the Irishman who inspired the Chinese poet to write one of his more stirring works.

Guo Moruo (1892-1978) was a young journalist in Japan when he started following the story of Terence MacSwiney, Lord Mayor of Cork, when he began his 74-day hunger strike in August 1920.

Shortly after MacSwiney’s death, Guo wrote a long poem, ‘with hot tears,’ entitled ‘Victory in Death.’ It became a source of hope for a generation of young Chinese despairing about the future of their country after the Japanese occupied their historic Shandong province. Guo went on to be one of the most influential poets at a crucial stage of Chinese history.

This is part of a series of poem on MacSwiney that he wrote:

‘Impartial God of Death! I am grateful to you,

You have saved MacSwiney for whom my love and reverence know no bounds,

MacSwiney, fighter for freedom, you have shown how great be the powers of the human will.

I am grateful to you, I extol you: freedom can henceforth never die.’

I got to know about this from a talk given by Dr Jerusha McCormick at the Ireland and China Symposium at the RIA in April.

A new attitude to Gardens, in China and Ireland

Sr Clara, from north China, was staying with us last week.

She had just finished an ecology course in Wicklow and was still amazed at the size and age of our Irish trees. Measuring one, she said, ‘These trees are the long-term residents of earth, we are short- term so we should show them respect.‘

When she was young her whole family had to spend days out working in the fields for the government and there were few trees around for shade or to appreciate.

In the park we visited even the local weeds have their beauty and a thought struck her. ‘If you are on the other side of the world and want a garden, you shouldn’t dig up the local flowers or shrubs to replace them with flowers and plants you brought from home. They wont last in the different conditions. You would be better off planting only those that are suited to the locality or graft on to local plants.’

She was thinking about more than ordinary gardens. She is going back to help run a spirituality centre in China and is aware that the Christianity there was planted by Westerners who introduced the forms of Christianity they knew back home. Now Christians in China face a new challenge. In a more sophisticated world they have to relate the Christian message to the deep-rooted spiritual sense of their own people.  That will be the task of people like her.

Though only a short time in Ireland, she was aware that the early Christianity in this country  drew on the existing religious sense and practices but later on saints and  spiritualties from other countries had been introduced to replace the local ones, perhaps contributing to today’s alienation.

I’ll never look at  gardens in the same way again.

Westport and China

Last Sunday there was a celebration in Westport that connected that popular tourist town of the West with China.

John Blowick from neighbouring Belcarra attended school in Westport from 1894 to 1908 and then went on to study in Maynooth. As a student there he attended a talk on China by a Canadian missionary that left an indelible impression on him and he wanted to go to China!

However his future seemed bound up in Ireland until he had a visit from Corkonian Fr Edward Galvin, just back from China with the plan of setting up an Irish missionary group dedicated to that country.

Fr Blowick gave up his teaching post in Maynooth to join in Galvin’s project though his actual time in China was to be limited to short visits. He became the home organiser of the Galvin-Blowick team known as the Columban Fathers, or ‘Maynooth Mission to China.’

Yet, he was one of the first to visit and inspect the area in China where Columbans were to work until they were all expelled by 1954. It was Hanyang, a city on the Yangtze river, 900 miles upstream  from Shanghai.

When he walked through the gates of that ancient city he said to Edward Galvin, ‘Imagine, these walls were in existence when Mary and Joseph walked to Bethlehem before Jesus was born and we are the first Christians to come here!’

It was only fitting that two Chinese students, sponsored by the Columbans, were at the celebrations in Westport and that the schools there celebrated the first 100 years of the China adventure their past pupil had helped make possible.

The boy who spoke Chinese with the Emperor

The first European boy to speak with a Chinese Emperor was Thomas Staunton whose father was from Galway.

The year was 1793 and they were part of the first British diplomatic mission to China.

The leader of the mission was George Macartney  from Co Antrim, a Trinity Dublin graduate.

His secretary was George Staunton from Co Galway who despite being, officially, a Protestant had studied at the Jesuit College in Toulouse.   Half of his family were Joyces, from Galway, and that might explain his close relationship with clergy in his public and private life.

George took along his eleven year old son, Thomas, and during the year-long voyage to China had him study Chinese with the four Chinese speakers allowed on board for that purpose  — four Catholic priests on their way to Macao.

The mission was not successful basically because the Emperor Qianlong considered himself the unequalled master of the universe and the British considered their king his equal.

However Qianlong asked whether any of the diplomatic group spoke Chinese and was told there was only one, Thomas, now twelve. Qianlong was intrigued, spoke with him and gave him an embroidered purse he was carrying, an unheard of honour.

Thomas went on to be a successful translator and diplomat, his knowledge of Chinese was to define his life.

Today thousands of Irish students are studying Chinese both at home and in China. Whether they will learn much about Chinese culture and its humane attitude to life and relationships is another matter. In Ireland the economic expectations predominate and recently there were 98 jobs available for Mandarin speakers.

There is an increase both in secondary schools and private institutes teaching Chinese, and many young people avail of the Gap Year to take lessons. Yet it seems Ireland is lagging behind its European partners.  Even though travel time between Ireland and China is now closer to twelve hours than twelve months, the Irish seem to have lost the broad vision and curiosity of a George Staunton.

However, all is not lost. AITECE still sends volunteer English teachers to China, to share and learn, and maybe pick up some spoken Chinese on the way!

Our Chinese Ancestors!


This week I attended a symposium at the Royal Irish Academy about contacts between China and Ireland. Some interesting stories emerged.

In 1780  a porcelain Chinese seal with a monkey figure top was found in a bog near Portlaoise.

There was speculation in learned circles that it must be very old (since it was buried in a bog.) Later at least 60 more were discovered in different parts of the country.

Since there were no legends of Chinese invading, or even visiting, Ireland the seals must have been brought to Ireland by the Phoenicians, who possibly were even the ancestors of the Irish (or so it was theorised.)

At that time both nationalists and the English agreed that Irish culture (and language) was very different from that of Europe so it must have originated from beyond Europe, possibly the Far East! And the seals were proof of that!

Times have changed.

Nowadays experts take the more boring view that the seals probably arrived in cases of smuggled tea (tea was the item most often smuggled into Ireland, not brandy!) They were put in as a gift to the tea buyer from the Chinese merchant.

Also, the present Irish don’t want to be seen as different for anyone else, especially in Europe. They would like to see themselves as exactly the same as the British, or perhaps Americans. So, no Far Eastern ancestors need apply!

However, we will not be discouraged and will continue to search for other similarities and points of contact between the Chinese and the Irish, even if it seems we are not blood relatives.

Western vs Asian Psychology

Last Friday I attended the graduation of six CPE students – representing four continents. Two were from Asia – one each from China and Korea.

CPE, for those who are unfamiliar with it, is Clinical Pastoral Education. Based on western psychology and counselling techniques, it prepares people to listen and be attentive to others. Most of the graduates  become involved in chaplaincy work.

It is based on helping the student to be self-aware, discover ‘whom I am’ and conscious of their strengths and weaknesses.

The bias is Western – concentrating on the individual, their gifts and fragility.

But I wondered what it does to people from Asia.

While a question like, ‘How do you really feel about what happened?’ might not faze a Westerner,  someone from China or Korea could find it uncomfortable.

For a start, they don’t want to burden others by having them listen to unhappy events. They were trained to consider the feelings of others. Also, they might not like to indicate that they are not in control of their own feelings. Further, they may not see value in digging up the past, rekindling negative feelings and searching for causes.  It is better to live in the present, be happy there and draw energy from outside.

The Western inner focus on the individual and their feelings still clashes with an Eastern concern for others and their feelings. Maybe a balance will be achieved some day but for a start it would be interesting to see a CPE program from the East run on Asian psychological insights.

There must be people from China or Korea out there who have experienced a Western CPE course. How did they find, or feel about, it?




Direct Flights to Beijing: Bringing Irish and Chinese Closer?

When the first Irish Columban missionaries went to China, nearly 100 years ago, they went by boat and it took them three to four months. With so much time spent on the journey, it meant that in those early days they got home only every ten years.  Later, even as the jet era began, the journey could take days as stops had to be made along the way.

Now, from mid-June, China’s Hainan Airline is going to have directs flights between Dublin and Beijing, taking about 13 hours. There was a rumour that the Chinese government was making this gesture as part of the Columban 2018 Centenary celebrations!

However the missionary traffic alone would no longer justify direct flights, rather it is a sign of how much business between the two countries has increased,  as  well as the flow of tourists and students going both ways.

Actually Hainan Island, where the airline is based, is a long way south of Beijing —  about four and a half hours flight. The company began as a domestic carrier but has grown dramatically in recent years, taking on international flights, due to the business acumen of a man who happens to be a friend of President Xi.

Now it is business that drives closer contact and while hopefully it will be good for both economies, the increased exchange of tourists and students will provide both countries with an opportunity to know each other better.

However, this wont happen automatically, except in a very superficial manner.

The Chinese who stay in Ireland for more than a month usually spend their time within the confines of  a virtual ‘China town’ and rarely experience much of Irish life or culture beyond one or two visits to a pub.  The equivalent Irish in China do something similar and in their virtual ‘Irish Town’ will soon find a ‘genuine’ Irish pub.

The fact is, people like to live within their comfort zones and the possibility of learning from others is rarely enough to jolt them out of it.

China’s Equivalent of St Patirck’s Day


Today, 19 March, is the equivalent of St Patrick’s Day for Chinese Catholics.

Did you ever wonder why at least half of the Chinese Catholic men you meet are called Joseph?

St Joseph was proclaimed the patron of China in 1925 and today over half of the churches in China are dedicated to St Joseph. The photos here are of St Joseph’s in Beijing and St Joseph’s cathedral in Tianjin.

The reason Joseph was picked, or so it is said, was because he exemplified key Chinese ideals: humility, simplicity, authenticity, diligence and faithfulness.

I only found out this recently myself, I had often wondered why St Joseph’s name was added to that of Mary in the prayers of the Mass in our house. Also today our Chinese contingent are off to celebrate in Dublin with the Chinese Catholic Community at Westland Row Church.

What might Patrick and Joseph have in common? (Besides many Irishmen being called Patrick and churches – such as the in Maynooth College — called after the saint.)

Well, both were foreigners but people were prepared to learn from them despite that.  Patrick built on the ancient sense of sacred in the Irish to show them a more personal and compassion side of God and Joseph illustrated the Chinese ideals of authenticity and simplicity in a new way to give the people direction and hope in coping with hardship and persecution.