The book, amongst a myriad of other themes, looks into the backgrounds of St. Patrick and St. Brendan, and also intriguingly St. Brigid, who has largely played second fiddle in the pantheon of Irish Saints, possibly precisely because of her close links with earlier Celtic Nature worship:” In the Celtic myths and stories, women played very dramatic roles, and St. Brigid had a precursor who was subsumed into the early Irish Christian pantheon, but much of what we know of that time was written down much later, in the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries, and by that time, I think, the continental Church’s misogyny was beginning to influence the Irish Church. I would suspect that we hear so little about women in the early Irish church, not because they were unimportant, but because of what was actually recorded later or written down”.
That misogyny played a part, of course, in a more recent type of Irish Christianity, that which Raymo grew up with in Catholic schools in Tennessee. It’s a Christianity that he has no particular affinity for: “What gave rise to the type of Irish Catholicism that influenced my own youth, that’s another big question. I’ve just finished a biography of John Charles McQuaid, Archbishop of Dublin, who imposed on Ireland an extreme form of Catholicism. In fact, I’ve written about it in my blog column recently (DREAD AND ALLURING MYSTERY) An interesting article that had me chuckling to myself, as he refers to the “Ayatollah of Drumcondra’”. Is he worried about the reaction that he’ll get to the article? “(laughing)I don’t think that I’m going to get in any trouble, it’s nothing that the Irish haven’t said themselves.
The changes I’ve seen have been entirely positive. I came just at the end of the McQuaid era, just as a whole period of political and cultural life was coming to an end. To me the change in the culture has seemed a wonderful blossoming of free spirit, of music, of art. It’s like all this was held up behind a dam, and once that dam burst there was a wonderful rush of creativity that I experienced and watched in this country”.
Raymo is now retired from teaching, and from his regular column in The Boston Globe, but, as you’d imagine from his writing, his curiosity and engagement with the world is undiminished, and in retirement he has taken his first steps with this new medium, the blog(sciencemusings). “I just found I needed to keep putting words on paper. The Website is fun to do, my son’s helping out. We’ll see where it goes, we’ve no real plans with it other than to keep in touch with the readers that I collected over 20 years at The Globe. It’s a sort of contribution from retirement to science education which remains important to me”.
And, as if that wasn’t enough, there’s a welcome return to fiction, with the scheduled publication of Valentine early next year. “I came across a brief apocryphal myth about St. Valentine – we don’t know whether he really existed – but one of the stories about him concerned meeting and converting the blind daughter of his jailor, while he was a prisoner in Rome, and it just seemed a wonderful story. It’s a period of time that interests me, and again, it concerns some of the very things we’ve been talking about: a clash of scientific thinking with religious fundamentalism, the clash of locality with globalisation, these same things were all working at that time in the Roman Empire, so I’ve invented a Valentine to explore those things”.
While talking about science education, I mention the criticism that many of the more ‘religious’ amongst us attach to the world of science – that it strips the mystery and wonder from the world around us. It’s not an argument that Raymo has much time for, and his response sums up perfectly what is so interesting and attractive about his writing: ”In another one of my books, Honey From Stone, I use the metaphor of knowledge as an island in a sea of infinite mystery. The growth of the island hardly depletes the sea. It does, however, lengthen the shoreline where we encounter mystery. I hope that a reader of Climbing Brandon will come away from the book with an enhanced sense of awe and reverence for the natural world. It is, I think, a prayerful sort of book”.
Climbing Brandon is available now in the UK and Ireland, published by Brandon Books.
It is published in the United States by the Walker Company.