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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28th June 2016

A damp and cool weekend in Donegal, including morning prayer in small country parish church near the sea, we bringing the congregation up to six. A world away from St Anne’s yet underlining again the genius of anglican worship, working as it does when two or three are gathered together – or even sitting alone – as well as with hundreds.

The weather wasn’t great, it has to be admitted, but, “This is Donegal”, as we were reminded by our hotel hosts. A small fire of peat and wood kept the evening cosy. No one was over-hot, and, judging by the smoke issuing from other chimneys and the active peat diggings, calculating the requirements for heat and drying out is an art well-mastered in that part of south west Donegal.

It is beautiful. The cattle deep in pastures where reeds, grass and buttercups vie for height and lushness; the raised bogs wild with bog cotton bright against the grey-black sky; the verges thick with wild flowers beneath the constant falling and rising of the skylarks.

It is hard not to be drifting back and forth though the momentous fallout of last Thursday’s referendum decision. A three-year-old Time magazine article in our hotel bedroom predicted that this would happen, writing from the US perspective, it feared the worst, focusing on David Cameron’s political gamble. Folly and depression, set against inevitability, the author of the article had little positive to contribute. At that stage a poll suggested 43% out, 37% in, the rest ‘don’t know’. Where are we going? What are we to become? We shall see.

Dinner was in the restaurant of the small hotel. Here the optimism of youth and the ability of the young was concentrated in a musician, still in her teens, who played the piano for more than two hours, improvising without music. We had lilting Irish and Scottish melodies interwoven with gentle moods, both sad and happy. Helen said she played the piano as if she were playing a harp. We learnt later that she can do that as well.


25th June 2016

25th June and half way between one Christmas and another! Planning is already underway for December 2016, believe me. With Christmas Day falling on a Sunday this year there will be all sorts of complications to both black santa and the service schedule. Time enough for that you will be saying, but, I hope, happy that we are thinking about it all the same.

Before that, we have the summer ahead – if our summer wasn’t experienced just in a few days earlier this month! Tomorrow brings the end of the year in another reckoning, as the choir works on an academic year, and they will be officially finished until September. There will be a little concert at coffee time, as members of the choir provide their party pieces from 12.30 p.m. to 1.00 p.m. and we say farewell to some of our girls and sopranos. Sadly, I am going to miss it, but the choir will be reassembling for an extra service on 3rd July at 3.30 p.m. as the opening of the Battle of the Somme is commemorated in St Anne’s, two days after the events marking the 1st July 1916 are remembered in France.

So, change there is, and we enter a few weeks of services led musically by a cantor or visiting choir. These are different, but no less‘cathedral’ services, as our liturgy is designed to suit the setting and our quieter, “down period” is enjoyable in its own way. I hope that all those who are getting away for a break have a great time and that the sun shines. Remember us, as we will remember you!


21st June 2016

I shall be voting to remain in Europe on Thursday. In reality I took this decision some weeks ago, not that I have been deaf to the arguments to and fro over those weeks, but in the end there is nothing particularly new being brought forward. Many of the fears that are aroused by both sides in the debate cannot be proven one way or the other, and the future can never be predicted with any degree of certainty, so balancing these as best one can, it comes down to the bigger picture, in my mind, and the key two or three questions: “Are we better sharing the advantages and problems of Europe or better managing them alone?” “Is Britain’s place as, to some extent, representing the USA in Europe, through the special relationship, still important?” And the personal one, “Do I think of myself as one who believes in multiculturalism, with all the potential difficulties of clashing cultures, or are we better separate and distinct?”

I know how I answer these questions and, as a general principle, I am, over most things, in a “better together” camp. That is not to say that I didn’t, over forty years ago, baulk at the new-fangled and rather bland-looking five and ten “new pence” pieces replacing “our” shilling and florin that came in as we became more Europe-orientated. What happened to the half-crown that was the chorister’s fee for a wedding? How would life as we knew it go on without pounds and ounces, feet and inches? Equally, I am in no doubt that it was the right thing for Britain to do. Today the arguments are different and the memory of two world wars in Europe have largely receded into history. Looked at it from beyond these shores, Europe is better with Britain in it; stronger, more united, less likely to capitulate to its own internal problems or an external threat.

Quite often I stand in the nave of the cathedral and stare at one or two of the magnificent and unusual stained glass windows that adorn it. They are, to my mind, quite fabulous. These are of the great figures of the Old Testament, such that the writer to the Hebrews speaks of in awe at their faith. Most of them were rebuilding Israel from ruins or fighting to maintain it, or trying desperately to bring about peace. They are all men. David and Jonathan, whose bond was close, face one another across the east end of the nave; Abraham and Moses look across to Gideon and Nehemiah. These were nation building leaders who in their day followed the inspiration that they felt and knew from the God they served. Thus it will always be, until the one whose kingdom is not of this world returns in glory. Whatever happens on Thursday, may God in his mercy bring blessing to those most in need and direction for our country as the years pass and we become what we shall become.


18th June 2016

The deanery garden is having its usual ups and downs. The canterbury bells look absolutely gorgeous; white, pink and purple they blend so well with catmint and peonies in a cottage garden jumble with iris and lupin, with hollyhocks (covered in rust) and sunflowers (some succumbing to slugs) to come. The sweet peas have shown a little colour in the past couple of days and the nasturtiums are trying to out-compete everything. Round the back, the healthiest looking plants are the raspberry canes, covered in green fruit, with more flowers still to come, visions of the soft fruit harvest are always pleasant to contemplate. Strawberries are doing well too and yet the currants are not so good.

Today, David Jardine is holding a day of prayer for this land. He has done so many times before and we can be sure that plenty will attend during the course of the day. There is a full week ahead too, including Welcome Fest on Thursday night, a concert at which it is hoped the more than thirty nations with refugees in Northern Ireland can be represented. My attempts with an African drum yesterday were pathetic. It is more difficult than it looks.

Then we move to the commemoration of the Battle of the Somme. The Orange Order remembers those former members of its order that fell at the battle on Sunday 26thJune at 3.30 p.m., before the wider service of remembrance and commemoration on 3rdJuly, also at 3.30 p.m. These services are likely to be be well attended. I have learnt a great deal from some research into the battle, primarily reading the accounts of soldiers as they wrote home, as well as touching on some of the poetry of the First World War. There is also the important matter of checking our own archive and artefacts at the cathedral. I am building a picture of what it must have been like to have been there. I think that over the years, because my grandfather was in Palestine and all photographs of him from the Great War are in the heat and sun, I paid less attention to the detail of France. While my grandfather shaved in cold tea as the only liquid that could be spared, too often life in the trenches was made particularly appalling by the rain and mud.

But in the end it is down to human beings reaching the point of killing one another. There will be much prayer today for all who suffer as a result of divided communities and divided nations. We continue to express the desire for peace and justice, for healing and reconciliation. The death of the MP Jo Cox is a particular and poignant tragedy, from whatever perspective: family especially, of course – how one grieves for them – but parliament too, and her community. What an amazing servant of our common humanity she was, and what a loss.


14th June 2016

It has long been my view that our bungalow in Portrush was built (some thirty years ago) on ‘unimproved’ grassland. In other words, the lawn – such as it is – will revert to meadow if it is not mown. Two sections of it I have spent the last few years cultivating as such, cutting it only in September, one earlier than the other. Patience has gradually paid off and finally, having seen an orchid or two over the years, we arrived on Sunday night last to see a display of the flower-spikes of twenty-five early purple orchids and two heath spotted orchids. We have had the place for sixteen years and now they have come, so the seed was in the ground way back before the house was built and immature plants have finally had a chance to flower.

Orchids are very slow growing. Dr V.S. Summerhays in his classic book, Wild Orchids of Britain (he was orchid specialist at Kew Gardens for 40 years from 1924 to 1964, what a job!), speaks of the early purple orchid taking four years from the germination of the seed to the first shoot appearing above ground, then more years until it flowers. After flowering and casting seed the plant usually dies, so next year, I can’t expect to see that particular orchid again – but maybe there will be others – though the heath spotted orchid should flower again once or twice more. Neither the early purple or the heath spotted are uncommon in Ireland, in fact Ramore Head is covered in them, but in one’s lawn they are pretty special.

The cathedral is busy as always, and the unexpected is frequently the surprise waiting for the patient. There are visiting choirs to come in the next week or so and the special refugee concert next week, whilst David Jardine is holding a day of prayer on Saturday, and, of course, we are preparing for the commemoration of the opening of the Battle of the Somme and the end of the academic year a couple of weeks from now, that will close our full choral services until September.

Whilst I was away yesterday, I was grateful to the other clergy preparing prayers and a place of devotion for those remembering the victims of the Orlando shooting. The quiet space of the Chapel of the Holy Spirit is constantly used for personal prayer, and we use it regularly as a place of focus on the occasions of particular need.


11th June 2016

The attacks of millions of caterpillars that have stripped whole trees and bushes of their leaves have been highlighted on the news in the past few days: the ash sawfly in Belvoir Park and the orchard ermine moth in the hedgerows of Kilkeel. These spectacular examples of mass-defoliation are not that uncommon. Hawthorn is at risk of more than one moth caterpillar that can eat every single leaf off a plant in a matter of days, just by sheer weight of numbers. It does make one think of the Biblical plagues of Egypt and generally of the negative image of the locust and other creatures that attack in numbers too.

Anyone who grows gooseberry bushes is familiar with the gooseberry sawfly, which can defoliate a bush in no time at all. The fruit is not affected, but does look a bit miserable sitting on bare twigs, not to mention the fact that the bushes are weakened for the following year. All sorts of tricks have been tried, such as feeding the birds in and around the bushes with the hope that they will pick off the caterpillars too – nature does provide this largess for all the fledgelings that hungrily demand of their parents. Blue tits and great tits alone require thousands of caterpillars to feed their young. My experience is that they never seem to take our gooseberry sawflies! Other tricks of the old gardeners are to plant the bushes in the open where the wind can blow strongly through them, or sow garlic amongst them which is supposed to put them off. Otherwise it is live with them or laboriously pick them off – unless you want to spray, of course.

Nothing really is entirely in isolation though, as I think of the parallel problems of keeping a building going, for example. There is the routine of checking the odd loose screw and blown bulb and bit of tidying and cleaning, then there are the major things that every few years almost inevitably strike. The Cathedral Board has to consider these things with regard to the huge building that it holds in Trust. Daily wear and tear can be left, and money saved for a while, until the day of reckoning – that is a calculated timing issue – the next level is the planned renewal and improvements; and then there is the ‘expect the un-expected’ kind of trouble. Murmurs of cracks in walls, foundations in sleech, moving this and deteriorating that are always of the language of the fabric sub-group, as with insurance, grant applications and the like. Balancing finite resources against an almost infinite potential problem is never easy, but the Board does a great job, and whilst there is always a certain amount of ‘touch-wood ’ its okay at the moment, it’s with the wry smile of those who don’t for one moment believe in such superstition.

St Anne’s does look good though and it is often remarked upon. There is, and always will be, more to do to keep it secure and fulfil our trust for our generation and those to come. But, and though I hesitate to say this, we are fortunate not to have a major problem with the fabric to solve this decade. “But, Mr Dean” I hear them say, “We have the west doors to sort out; the entrance to develop, the on-going problem of damp in the downstairs toilets, the organ that will need major work in a few years, the office re-organisation, the decoration of the hall, the gradual replacement of the massive down pipes carrying water from the roof, the this, the that…..” Not a good time to mention that the stained glass windows all need to be cleaned by a specialist firm (what would that cost?). No that can wait. Let me thank Joe and Barkley and the whole Board for the magnificent work that they do to manage a building that could be affected by almost anything except sawfly caterpillars!


7th June 2016

A Dale Farm mint rapture seemed just the thing to hit the spot in the heat of yesterday, but it’s really not wise to tackle it sitting in the car. Inevitably, thick flakes of chocolate crack off the sides and fall between the legs and melt. It was good all the same!

Runkerry dunes to the Causeway, as regular readers know, is a favourite walk of ours and yesterday it was heavenly: calm sea, peerless blue sky, sun-kissed sand, chattering sand martins and swallows, glorious skylarks and the first migrant butterflies. There was that moment when a rapid movement, caught out of the corner of my eye, caused the “that wasn’t there, before” and “what was it?” response. A few minutes later and it happened again, this time I was ready.

The painted lady butterflies have arrived from north Africa, probably Morocco. We saw about a dozen, so maybe it will be a good year for them. They do vary dramatically. Later we saw – at a garden centre – our first red admiral of the year, also from the Mediterranean. Neither survive our winter and for a long time it was believed they bred here in the Summer, then perished, until it was proven that they return south, high in the sky where they are not seen. Anyway they are here now, and yesterday joined the residents of the dunes that have already emerged: small heath, common blue, small copper, whites, and a very worn small tortoiseshell (that one has lived since last summer), plus some bright, fresh cinnabar moths; the grayling and dark-green fritillary are yet to appear.

Another special sight was of the early damselflies, that grace the watercourses and lakes of Ireland, often in large numbers. The banded jewelwing damselfly, Calopteryx splendens, flitted lazily near the boardwalk by the Bush. They appear almost black in flight, with their part-tinted wings, and yet are actually blue/green and iridescently beautiful. These can be seen all summer, but only appear for the first time at the earliest in late May, and are found where the water is sluggish and thick with reeds.

We dragged ourselves back to cut grass and weed, but even in our garden meadow there are orchids coming now, plantains with their halos of stamens and feathery grasses. The rambling rector rose, will be a mass of white blossom next week, and the thousands of buttercups and daisies, falling under the lawnmower today, will soon be replaced, as nature’s abundance continues to defy humanity’s destruction.


4th June 2016

This sunny spell will be remembered even if it rains all summer. We are very good at recalling a dry warm week, especially when it is better weather than what they are getting on that other island across the Irish Sea. Still, pity the continent and the horrendous floods there. We have seen these too, and the destruction and fear that they cause. Further afield the effects of our changing climate – and I know that people will say, quite rightly, that there has always been freak weather – raise the questions as to what more we should be doing, and our concerns for the food shortages in large swathes of Africa.

After Evensong last night some visitors from Chicago, after saying that they had travelled from Dublin yesterday in order to arrive in time for our service, amongst many other things, pointed to our heaters and remarked that they didn’t suppose we needed them on often! A wry smile or too demonstrated that they knew quite well that Ireland’s weather isn’t always like this.

However, with a wedding in the cathedral today, and no doubt plenty elsewhere, there will be a few happy brides about. Not for the photographers, of course, who like a nice dull day. Meanwhile watering has to be done and hoeing, two favourite jobs that can involve a great deal of standing and staring. The bird bath needs topping up twice a day. I feel a bit sorry for the goldfinches. They drink from it whilst the others mostly bathe, as I dutifully empty out the old water and fill it afresh.


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