It is my sixth Christmas here; it is the sixth Christmas Eve counting the minutes until departure for the Christmas round of services. In those years, things have not changed. Since 2010, there has been no reason to revise the opinion that they will come – in the parishes, villages and towns of rural Ireland, they will come. Wave upon wave of them, will fill spaces empty all year. In the darkness of tonight or the light of tomorrow morning, they will come as if the moment was different from any other.
In 2010, my first Christmas here, the roads were described as impassable, the temperature was minus fifteen. In our little cluster of six Protestant churches with an official Church of Ireland population of just 353, an aggregate of total of 317 attended church. While people in Dublin felt the pavements were too dangerous for walking, country people drove miles on packed snow and ice to be present.
What brought them there? What will bring the hundreds of thousands of Irish rural dwellers from the warmth of their homes to draughty buildings, hard seats and singing that has to compensate in quantity for its lack of quality? It is hard to say, but they will come, regardless.
Who knows what people think? There are those who declare themselves non-believers who will stand at Christmas and join heartily in the carols. Perhaps it is about tradition, about a sense of community, about connecting with forebears.
Writing this piece on Christmas Eve 2011 and looking back at Christmas 2010, looking for an explanation of why the came in their hundreds, words from the poet Philip Larkin, a definite non-believer, offered assistance. He wrote a poem called “Church Going”, maybe in its lines there is something of what it is that will bring the crowds to the church door. Under the cover of the throng, perhaps there are many Larkins, present in church, as he was present, for some reason indefinable:
Once I am sure there’s nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence.
Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new –
Cleaned, or restored? Someone would know: I don’t.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
‘Here endeth’ much more loudly than I’d meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.
Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches will fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?
Or, after dark, will dubious women come
To make their children touch a particular stone;
Pick simples for a cancer; or on some
Advised night see walking a dead one?
Power of some sort will go on
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,
A shape less recognisable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative,
Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation – marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these – for which was built
This special shell? For, though I’ve no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;
A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.