Friday, October 27, 1995

Leighton Buzzard

I was reminded of the power and universality of music when attending Mass in Leighton Buzzard, an English town in Bedfordshire last weekend. Rev. Thomas Kelly, a native of Ballintubbert, Athy, who died in 1855 left us a huge number of Church hymns, one of which broke pleasantly into life as the small congregation sang Kelly’s “The head that once was crowned with thorns”. The Little Church of the Sacred Heart, tucked neatly and unobtrusively behind a row of terraced houses in the small English town, echoed to words and music which no doubt were often heard in the Kellyite Meeting House in Duke Street during Kelly’s lifetime.

The beautiful narrow boats, moored on the Grand Union Canal, which cuts through Leighton Buzzard and neighbouring Linslade, were another reminder of my home town where the Grand Canal, like its English counterpart, helped to transform a once quiet country town. I have no reason to believe that Rev. Thomas Kelly ever set foot in this small town in Bedfordshire, where last Sunday, some of the locals were offering up their Sabbath tribute using the words of the man who often preached from the pulpit of St. Michael’s Anglican Church in Athy.

Later that day, I stopped off at a local country pub a few miles outside Aylesbury, another town on the Grand Union Canal, immortalised as the home of the “Aylesbury Duck”. The “Wool Pack” was the name of the Inn, which, in the best English Landlord tradition, offered a good substantial meal, as well as liquid refreshment, for the weary traveller. The name Wool Pack is of course a reference to the wool trade, which for centuries was the mainstay of English rural prosperity. The process of converting the wool from fleece into cloth varied little over the centuries. Fleece was graded and packed into wool sacks which were of a regulated size. Each wool sack was suspended from a roof beam and two wool packers were employed to stand into the huge wool sack using their feet to tread down each layer of fleece. When filled, the packers stepped out backwards, sewing up the sacks which was then marked ready to be carted away. The name Wool Pack generally referred to the barn where this activity was carried out. I am reminded that in Wolfhill there is a pub with the name “The Wolf Pack”, perhaps a corruption of the better known Wool Pack, but maybe also a reference to the placename Wolfhill, once a woodland countryside where wolves proliferated in the early middle ages.

Later that day I met an interesting man fast approaching his 82nd year whose late brother was the first Australian Ambassador to Ireland. John Roberthaun, a book publisher now retired, travelled on bicycle from what he referred to as “Londonderry” to Cork in the Summer of 1936. He passed through the Irish midlands on undulating roads with little or no motorised traffic. The colourful scenery made a lasting impression on the young man, who almost 60 years later still recalls the green swarth which cloaked the countryside and the abundant hedgerows which traversed the countryside in what Dick Warner would refer to as “corridors of wilderness”.

Approaching Athy from the Dublin direction he cycled over the railway bridge, where the steam train passed under as it travelled twice daily to and from Dublin with its multi-class passengers. This was the age of the second and third class passengers who shared nothing in common with the first class passengers but the engine which pulled their carriages. A foreign visitor on bicycle was an unusual sight in Athy of the 1930’s and no doubt he aroused the curiosity of the locals as he dismounted at McGrath’s Tea Rooms in Leinster Street, to partake of dinner consisting of bacon, cabbage and potatoes.

Whites Castle in the centre of the town “at the foot of the bridge” and the Town Hall in Emily Square, are the only local buildings John Roberthaun recalled from that short visit so many years ago. The Irish countryside made an indelible impression on the young visitor which the intervening years have not tended to dull. He regrets never having the opportunity to retrace his youthful journey.

Earlier that morning in the same Church where I heard Thomas Kelly’s hymn, the Parish Priest conducted a Mass service which was a rare treat. He communicated with his small congregation in a way which was endearing and captivating, embracing visitors and locals alike in the camaraderie and warmth of a service which was uplifting and appealing. When I spoke to him later to discover that he was an Anglican-born convert or revert to Catholicism, I could not help drawing comparisons with Thomas Kelly, the Anglican, who left the Church of England to found his own religious sect.

I wondered did he ever imagine that 140 years after his own death, his hymns would continue to find a place in Catholic as well as Anglican worship throughout the English speaking world? Last Sunday I recalled an earlier visit to Kelly’s last resting place in Ballintubbert, Co. Laois and acknowledged that no matter where we may travel there is always someone, some place or something to remind us of our own place. Such was my experience last weekend in Leighton Buzzard.

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