On A Silent Plain.


In 1542 King Henry VIII declared himself the King of Ireland. He was the first English Monarch to appoint himself ruler over the country. At the same time he was engaged in a ferocious campaign to divest English Catholicism entirely from the populace. Many ordinary English Catholics were forced under duress to submit to the new religion while wealthier and more influential co-religionists had the luxury to maintain their faith.


However religious faith means much more than wealth and power, for many people it has a greater significance both culturally and spiritually. Only tiny fragments of English Catholic culture endure, in classical music and in English literature. Thomas Tallis was Henry VIII`s court composer who, in spite of his patron`s religion remained a loyal follower of Catholicism. His devotional music include a set of antiphons dedicated to the Virgin Mary which were traditionally sung at the end of the Church evening service. These were composed during the religious strife of the 1540s but they remain in the repertoire.


Many centuries after the Reformation poet-priests and Catholic reverts John Henry Newman and Gerard Manley Hopkins attempted to revive the old religion. Newman`s “Dream of Gerontius” is a vivid prayer of a dying man contemplating his fate before God. It is written in the style of a confessional with the penitent accepting the path that awaits him. Newman then inspired Hopkins to return to the original faith of the country and to write about the experience. In one poem Hopkins honoured the Blessed Virgin Mary in elemental verse that began,

“Wild air, world-mothering air,

Nestling me everywhere.”

Hopkins and Newman were poets and theologians of the Victorian era, a period of overt anti-Catholicism. Religious prejudice dominated the culture, and this was combined with a distinct attitude of xenophobia directed against the Irish. English society then and to some extent now is conformist and underpinned with a rigid class system.


There were very few dissenting voices, at least publicly. Many ordinary Victorians would have privately expressed concern about the scale of religious and xenophobic bigotry and the often violent attempts to re-colonise Ireland. However there was one dissenter in the shape of the writer William Hope Hodgson. Hodgson was the son of an Anglican clergyman who was posted to Galway in 1887. The Bishop had sent him there in a vain attempt to evangelise and ultimately convert the local people to Protestantism.


(Picture-William Hope Hodgson)

His tenure lasted a mere three years. Hodgson Jr. was thirteen when the family were forced to return to England. One year later he joined the Merchant Navy as an apprentice cabin boy. He served as a mariner until 1898 but was appalled by the conditions he experienced at sea. His youthful experiences made him averse to both organised religion and authority. In 1904 he retreated to Wales to write. Four years later his horror novel “The House On The Borderland” was published.


The novel draws heavily on childhood memories of Galway and reads like a fever dream infused with suspicion and chaos. Confusion reigns throughout the novel as everyone speaks Gaelic and is hostile and belligerent to any perceived interloper. It is a book that is often cited as a horror classic. Hodgson died at the Battle of Ypres aged just 40, however his legacy lives on.

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