Donal Broughan died suddenly and unexpectedly from a heart attack at his Mountrath home at 5 am yesterday. To attempt to encapsulate his character in words would involve a vocabulary that has become platitudinous, and Donal did not like platitudes.
My first encounter with him was in August 2010, he appeared at a Wednesday evening service in Borris-in-Ossory. His prayer book made his presence immediately noticeable amongst the dozen regulars – while we had ordinary, green covered books, Donal had a red covered deluxe edition! At the end of those midweek services, he would often have a battery of questions, regarding the sermon and wider theological matters.
Donal was a polymath, wide ranging and diverse in his competencies; reflecting on mediaeval philosophy at one moment and 1960s rock music the next; delighting in the natural world and then turning to DIY. Whatever he did, he did it meticulously, his Saturday morning RTE radio programme was never a gathering together of a few records, every item was researched and prepared with care.
Donal had an incisive mind, never content with sloppy answers or arguments that lacked coherence. He would read posts here and occasionally feel compelled to comment. On 18th October last year, he was prompted to react to my suggestion there would be no more Protestant poets. Donal believed I was mistaken, his comments included a quote from a great Welsh poet:
I’m sure you are familiar with one of the greatest lyric poets of the 20th century; and certainly one of the greatest religious poets of all time, the Anglican priest R. S. Thomas. So, this is for anybody who might stop by and who hasn’t read him:
I have seen it standing up grey,
Gaunt, as though no sunlight
Could ever thaw out the music
Of its great bell; terrible
In its own way, for religion
Is like that. There are times
When a black frost is upon
One’s whole being, and the heart
In its bone belfry hangs and is dumb.
But who is to know? Always,
Even in winter in the cold
Of a stone church, on his knees
Someone is praying, whose prayers fall
Steadily through the hard spell
Of weather that is between God
And himself. Perhaps they are warm rain
That brings the sun and afterwards flowers
On the raw graves and throbbing of bells.
Despite a hugely paradoxical personality, he wrote with ferocious honesty and stark clarity about nature and about the nature of the human soul. His ‘Collected Poems’ is a constant bedside companion.
Donal was always more charitable to the church than I, and more conciliatory in his assessment of the relationship between theological reflection and scientific fact. If Donal knew his Anglican poets, he also knew his Anglican scientists and was dismissive of a suggestion that there might be no point in the church’s existence, in a comment last April, he observed:
While it is fascinating knowing about how the universe works, it has no direct implications for theology. Why there is something instead of nothing isn’t a scientific question at all. To paraphrase Rev Professor John Polkinghorne – God is as much the Creator today as God was 13.7 billion years ago.
There’s a worldview offered by an Anglican priest that is part of the reality I experience, so I see every point in the church’s existence.
The soft voice and gentle questions have gone, and at his funeral tomorrow no poem or song or reflection will be adequate.