Dean's Blog

Dean John Mann



The Dean's "twice a week" blog is published on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Links to monthly archives of the blog are provided at the bottom of this page.




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24th September 2016

Choosing the moment to do things that have to be done in the garden is dependent on both weather and when work allows. With some holiday yet to come, I have designated four days in late October to the pleasant, but necessarily carefully paced, task of digging out and re-planting the herbaceous border in the front of the deanery. For someone with what is largely a desk job, that is an exciting prospect. But what if it rains? I hope it doesn’t, because I can’t change the days!

In the meantime the replanting scheme goes on in my head. When I put in the small plants five years ago I planted a tall iris too far forward – that’s going towards the back – and I must leave enough space for the annuals. I have decided to add two standard roses, but where are they to go? How do you achieve the organised and natural look? I expect the answer to that is to hand it to an expert and pay them to do it for you. That I have no intention of doing, so we shall live with the consequences.

Speaking of which, there was a programme on not long ago about how many people take their car to a dealer to change a headlight bulb, rather than do it themselves, and that some places charge a hour of a mechanic’s time to change the bulb, which takes a few minutes. I had this in mind while replacing a blown bulb yesterday morning. This car is newish to us and I hadn’t had cause to do this before. The first thing I found was that the more than 300-page manual told me everything except what I wanted to know (sounds familiar?) I.e. what bulb I needed to buy. So I fiddled with the thing and got the old one out, then trotted along to the garage and, yes, they had what I wanted.

Returning home I was determined to prove that the introductory comment on“changing a bulb” in my manual was open to challenge (I shall remove the maker’s name). I quote, “Changing the vehicle bulbs requires considerable technical skill. Therefore if you do not feel confident with the procedure, X recommends having the bulbs changed by a X dealership or other professional assistance.” I think I got it in within a minute, certainly no more than a minute and a half. Yes! Little things…..

The Ulster Orchestra is playing a concert in the cathedral after Evensong this coming Wednesday night – it’s to last an hour and is free, do come along – as part of its 50thanniversary celebrations. Last night was the opening concert of the season in the Ulster Hall and the place was packed for a wonderful occasion.

Rafael Payare’s energetic conducting style seemed to sweep the orchestra along, and the repertoire for the evening – Glinka, Shostakovich and Rachmaninov – all showed the wonderful string sound that the orchestra always seems to produce. The percussion was pretty amazing in the second cello concerto by Shostakovich too, but it is hard to take one’s eyes off the conductor. He seems able to direct the orchestra with every part of his body, from a delicate ballet-like movement of his fingers to the steps of Fred Astaire. He crouched and swayed, then stood, and filled the hall with height and lightness, and arms raised to the roof. Which, at his command, the orchestra lifted.


20th September 2016

I am following Alice Oswald’s poem Dart down the river which bears its name from its two sources high on Dartmoor down to the estuary. I have done it before, in fact used part of the journey in a retreat talk that I gave some years ago. She has some beautiful lines as she describes characters along the way, including an elderly couple in a nursing home that go once a month for a walk to see a waterfall on the river:“….. he’s blind, she’s in her nineties …… She guides him, he propels her. She sees it. He hears it. Gently resenting each other’s slowness ….” Such a captivating picture.

But why I mention the poem is for a few lines later on. She talks of the river and those that are beside it at this point (for me, whether she intends it or not) like the Celtic saints, with blessing in the look, the touch, the ‘presence’ of Christ in the very connection with God’s creation, when seen as such:

Now the blessing, the readiness of Christ
be with all those who stare or fall into this river.
May the water buoy them up, may God grant them
extraordinary lifejacket lightness. And this child
watching two salmon glooming through Boathouse Pool
in water as high as heaven, spooked with yew trees
and spokes of wetrot branches – Christ be there

watching him watching, walking on this river.

The flow of nature, whether in a river or through a season, in growth or decline, is felt most keenly in the garden as autumn brings maturity and harvest, while managing the closing down of plants for winter in all the ways that they can. Leaves are disappearing from the summer-fruiting raspberry canes and I will be at them soon to prune for next year’s crop, the plum tree needs attention and the rhubarb is drawing its goodness back to its crown. We have a cloche over most of the young lettuce, whilst runner beans are in full production and the autumn-fruiting raspberries are still contributing a few berries each day.

There have been many poems on the flow of life, but Dart is interesting both factually and in itself, as are all Alice Oswald’s poems. Michael Longley comments on her latest collection Falling Awake that she is, “At heart a contemplative and devout artist, she is nevertheless always on the move, always taking risks…”

I had a fifty-year old half-inch Bartholomew map of South Devon out yesterday on my knee as I read Dart quietly myself. The colour scheme and notation on the Bartholomew maps are a work of art in themselves, but the detail is small and I had both glasses on and a magnifying glass in my hand. Across the room came the suggestion, "Can’t you get a large print edition?”. Such is life.


17th September 2016

Clive James in his recent book Latest Readings, published as the writer confronts his death, speaks in the context of a shortness of time when he states his belief that ‘… culture is a matter not of credentials, but only of intensity …’ By this I think he means that the evidence of mass enthusiasm for some popular book or art work, that the purists may consider not top quality, may be seen not necessarily as artistically equivalent, but as culturally equivalent.

The crowds at Culture Night in Belfast last night were not weighing the worth of one thing against another, but enjoying the variety that makes the evening creative of something that attracts such numbers, especially in the Cathedral Quarter, that is both energising and entertaining. Yes, there are productions that challenge, but there are plenty that make us feel good about ourselves and bring people together in common activity, shared food, captivating visual displays and, inevitably, in listening to music.

This is my sixth Culture Night in St Anne’s and we gave up counting visitors a couple of years ago, as at least 10,000 pass through the doors in the space of six hours or so. We host singers and the ever popular Ulster Youth Jazz Orchestra, but quieten the cathedral for our daily cycle of prayer too, with much increased congregations. Choral Evensong on a normal Friday will rarely have a congregation out of single figures. Last night, we estimated 270, whilst Sung Compline at 9.00 p.m. produced a full cathedral with many standing at the back and in the aisles. There must have been something in the region of 900-1,000 quietly appreciating, at whatever place in their hearts and minds, seven teenage girls and two of the clergy singing ancient words of commitment and committal as the day ends and we go to our rest.

Today, David Jardine is leading a day of prayer for healing the hurts that are still so much felt in our land, and indeed, in the whole world. St Anne’s seems to me to have the capacity to be many things to many people. It is a very special place. It is a place of meetings and partings, of sorrow and of celebration, of searching and of security; a place where many know the presence of God and the power of Christ to transform lives; a place of renewal and challenge, of quiet and peace and a sacred space in the heart of the City, as well as, occasionally, a place of energizing and very loud music!


13th September 2016

The Paralympic athletes have provided many moments of inspiration in the past few days, and to see our country’s representatives doing so well is heart-warming after the great success of the early games at Rio. The influence of sport on those with the determination to become really good is immense, though for every athlete that they interview on TV with a medal around their necks, extolling the virtues of the hard work paying off, we often remark on those who have worked just as hard but were a fraction of a second, or a few millimetres behind them. Competition can be both cruel as well as rewarding – as we know.

Two fictional legal trials have been running this past week too. Ross Poldark, after an hour of tortuous intrigue was acquitted, as we knew he must be before it started (the third series is already being filmed), whilst the agonising and much more real courtroom drama of Helen Titchener's trial in The Archers has been unfolding on Radio 4. We have discussed much of this at home as the characters have gradually been revealed, and the emotions shredded, for the listeners to follow with their own inner responses of anger, frustration or whatever.

I suppose that all of this has made me think about just how much in life we are dealing with at second hand, or from a distance, and yet are responding from our own experience, raking up our own views, prejudices and all the rest. But, do we truly reflect, or do we just respond?

The ordination services (which are all more or less over now for another year) remind us all of the need for reflection in ministry. In fact it has been said that the best leaders in any field are by nature ‘reflective’. Theologically, how we are taught to be reflective, is to go round and round the circle of dwelling on Scripture, considering how it illuminates and inspires us in what we do and say, leading us to the work of mission and ministry in our daily lives, then prayerfully bringing that experience back to our study of God’s Word. It is a template for action, but also for a creative understanding of theology.

But,it’s time to leave this off and go and have breakfast. I have a prompt every morning as the first plane leaves the City Airport and flies over the deanery. That’s time to move. A new day begins and an hour from now I will be in St Anne’s. There goes the second plane now. Signing off….


10th September 2016

Pulling my glasses from the pocket of casual shirt yesterday, they came with a dried up piece of bog cotton. Looking at it my mind was instantly transported, for I knew where and when it was from, and the washing machine and iron had done it little harm. Sounds and smells are particularly redolent of occasions, but sight too of an object that links events across time takes us back just as surely.

This bog cotton I took on my way up cronk ny airey laa (it means ‘hill of the day watch’ from where the vikings were sighted) one of the highest hills on the Isle of Man, on a Sunday afternoon in August. We had had a pub lunch and then wandered hither and thither on the west of the island before calling with one of my sisters in Port St Mary for the evening. We needed to climb a hill and get the blood pounding, so we stopped the car and took off through the heather to the top, to look out over Ireland, and consider the life of the hermits that lived on the steep seaward slope of this hill, that falls straight to the rocks and water below. Their little hermitage, with its keeill, is at lag ny keeilley, which, indicated by the translation of its name, is on a small flat area about half way down the slope. It can’t be accessed from the top, but takes an hour’s walk round the north side of the hill. It is the place of silence and sunsets and solitude.

We weren’t quite on our own at the top of the hill however, which is much more accessible and makes for not more than a Sunday afternoon stroll. With us was an artist who was seeking inspiration for her commission to create something large and visual for the walls of the new mental health unit at Noble’s Hospital just outside Douglas. We talked of the colours of the hills, with the dwarf gorse mingling with the ling and bell heather, and the bog cotton; of Irish poets and the ancient legends of the Isle of Man.

John F Deane, the Achill Island born, and prolific, writer, and someone whose poetry never fails to enrich, described the sight of the tufts of bog cotton in one of his poems (I really can’t remember which just now) as like the saints lifting from earth to Paradise. We talked of these things and of summers past and hopes of things to come.

We passed white heather on our way back to the car, as painted lady butterflies enjoyed the last of the sun’s heat, and we were eaten to death by midges on approaching and passing through a gap in the stone wall, as the gentle breeze dropped and the shadow of the hill above us deepened.

I will glue this bog cotton into my diary and one day will recall it all again.


6th September 2016

I got a surprise on Sunday when I was handed two bound copies of my blogs (2014 and 2015), printed and laid out by Jean Barber and with the St Anne’s blue, hardback binding with gold lettering arranged by Campbell Dixon. Many thanks to them both. It really is very kind, unexpected, and accords them far more importance than they deserve. I gather that similar volumes have gone into the archive. There is even a suggestion that a selected few might be made into a printed booklet. Maybe it is a nice way of saying that’s a good place to stop….

Often these blogs get done very speedily and there are typos and other infelicities, but Verner or Karen pick up many of the mistakes and make corrections too, so it is a team effort really. I was contemplating the deliberate corruption of words the other day, thinking how some become so ingrained that it is possible to forget what is actually right. Take for example, ‘You are only’, which becomes ‘You’re only’ which then, unaccountably but frequently, appears as ‘Your only’ and now in an advert for Dublin airport it is ‘Euronly ’ … a few miles or hours from Europe. Such playing on words is part of the stuff of advertising, and the Church is not averse to using it itself, with the long-ago discovery that Church is only Church when UR in it.

The Friends of Belfast Cathedral on a visit to Mountstewart last Saturday were introduced to another of those secrets that “things are not quite as they look”, as we were told that the much-photographed and striking entrance hall is to have its familiar black and white checkered (sorry, it should, of course, be chequered!) floor lifted, to return it to the stone flags that lie beneath it. What look like squares of black and white marble turn out to be linoleum tiles. We lingered long in the house whilst the rain fell outside then managed a walk round the lake in the damp but brighter early evening, finishing with Evening Prayer and high tea in St Mark’s Newtownards. Another good day for the Friends.

Had we been on the north coast for the weekend it would have been altogether busier as the Air Show drew its crowds. Yesterday the show was back to a flock of linnets rising from the grass as we got near, to settle just far enough away again to tease us to approach, then lifting with a chatter of happy twittering and move on another few yards. Back at the deanery, we have a new tame robin, with a still speckled head and partial red breast. When I went to the garage for the car on Saturday morning, it flew to watch me over the gate from the plum tree. I returned to the house and it was quickly round to the window to plead for crumbs. Helen obliged, whilst talking sweet nothings to its cocked head and knowing eye.


3rd September 2016

How is it that I managed to buy Sweet Williams in ASDA yesterday on my way back from retreat? I always think of them as a May flower, and yet here they were, fresh and lovely, grown in Armagh, for sale very cheaply, in September.

The deanery garden has thrown up some surprises this year too. Mostly it has been lushness, with plenty of rain to sustain the exuberant growth. The sunflowers are over eight feet high, but the sweet peas are above head-height too, as are the raspberries, runner beans, teasels, and the phlox isn’t far behind. It’s miraculous really how all of these things will either be cut right back, or pulled up, and then will do it again next year. What must it take out of the soil?

The net effect is impressive, as we move around what is not a large garden, hardly able to see one another through a thicket of growth of one kind or another. The cogs are turning on what is to be moved, replaced, tried a different way this autumn, so as to achieve the right effect – and the required harvest – in 2017. The first batch of sweet pea seeds is about to be sown.

Today we are promised rain – which is a pity as the Friends of St Anne’s Cathedral have a pilgrimage down the Ards Peninsula this afternoon, and we were hoping to see that fabulous garden at Mountstewart in the sun. However, as we know, a gap in the showers and half an hour of sunshine at the right moment is all we need – and not impossible.

And so the summer passes; the children return to school, the roads get busier again and the diary between now and Christmas is best looked at a day at a time. There is much to be thankful for; holidays to recall, and for us a wedding too; the Olympics and much other sport besides.

On a more serious note, the first anniversary of the world reaction to the little Syrian boy’s body washed up on a Greek island has just passed, with the plight of refugees, and the reasons for them fleeing their homelands, hardly having changed. The situation in Calais apparently hardening; the G20 meeting in China, with the dangers of climate change still the greatest threat to human survival, about to start.

The poet Micheal O’Saidhail, whose poetry frequently encompasses individual suffering and sacrifice, in a poem he wrote over a decade ago, suggests that our feelings of helplessness should not freeze us into doing nothing. In ‘butterfly’ - and I am referencing this from memory, I don’t have it with me – the flickering of a red admiral’s wings is enough to change the weather. Something so fragile, so at risk itself, can begin a movement with hopeful consequences. Individual women and men have done this too, throughout the world, making a difference from a very small beginning, and not least here in Northern Ireland.


Links to previous months


August 2016

July 2016

June 2016

May 2016

April 2016

March 2016

February 2016

January 2016



December 2015

November 2015

October 2015

September 2015

August 2015

July 2015

June 2015

May 2015

April 2015

March 2015

February 2015

January 2015



December 2014

November 2014

October 2014

September 2014

August 2014

July 2014

June 2014

May 2014

April 2014

March 2014

February 2014

January 2014



December 2013

November 2013