A Wander in Wicklow

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Peter Flinn
Posts: 64
Joined: Mon Feb 22, 2016 6:26 am

A Wander in Wicklow

Post by Peter Flinn » Sun Aug 13, 2017 8:34 am

During a recent overseas trip, I spent a few days in the Emerald Isle. There were several reasons for this. One was to catch up with a friend and retired work colleague in Dublin. Another was to investigate some family history, which seemed a good idea for someone with an Irish surname. The third reason was a desire to explore a beautiful part of Ireland that I had never seen – the Wicklow Hills, not far south of Dublin.

My first stop in the Wicklow Hills was the delightful village of Glendalough and its surroundings. As the name suggests, there is indeed a large lake there, surrounded by mountains and forest. It is a wonderful place for walking, especially during the long summer evenings, when, as advised by my B&B host, “the tourist buses have left for the day”. By then, the whole area was gloriously peaceful.

I admit to being previously unaware of the other attraction of Glendalough – the so-called “Monastic City”, an early Christian monastic settlement founded by St Kevin in the 6th century, which became a major Irish ecclesiastical centre until the Normans destroyed it in the early 13th century. The remaining stone buildings are most impressive, including the former cathedral and round tower, the latter being 100 feet high. The nearby cemetery appears to be in use to this day. Standing quietly in this magnificent and atmospheric setting, I can easily understand why Catholics, in particular, are keen to make pilgrimages to Glendalough.

Now I have a confession to make. Another reason for my visit to this area was to satisfy my curiosity about another religious pioneer who roamed the Wicklow Hills, on horseback and on foot, twelve hundred years after St Kevin arrived. I wanted to see for myself the early stamping ground of the Brethren founder who is regarded by some scholars as one of the four most influential Protestant leaders since the Reformation, after Martin Luther, John Calvin and John Wesley.

Now of course any decent Catholic could well be offended by my mention of St Kevin and John Nelson Darby in the same sentence, but perhaps they shared a few characteristics. Both were clearly devout in their beliefs. Both lived rather austere lives (although Darby’s background was anything but austere). St Kevin was a hermit who lived in a cave, and legend has it that a blackbird once nestled in his hand and laid an egg there. JND apparently lived an ascetic life for a time in a peasant’s hut on a Wicklow bog, and his appearance was so neglected that he was once taken for a beggar. However I very much doubt any blackbird would have been comfortable nestling in his hand. I reckon he would have glared at it!

The Wicklow Hills were Darby’s territory as a curate in the Church of Ireland during the 1820s, and it is not difficult to visualize him tramping in this magnificent area, in his quest for souls. However, I was visiting during an unusually hot summer, and I could easily imagine how stark and bleak some of wilder and remote parts could become during winter.

Many of us who were born into the Brethren knew little about Darby the man. We knew he was an ex-Minister of the Established Church, who, on his road to “Damascus” became convinced that “the notion of a clergyman was a sin against the Holy Ghost”. We knew he was pivotal in starting the Brethren movement with a small group of earnest and simple Christians in Dublin, later consolidating in Plymouth and which eventually spread around the world. We knew he wrote many great hymns, supposedly produced his own translation of the Bible (although it was not quite as simple as that), and we also knew that, as youngsters, we were supposed to read his Collected Writings – or at least have them on our bookshelves. I’m not sure anyone would be brave enough to assert that he or she has actually read this large volume of books from cover to cover. It would certainly be hard going.

Most of us have also seen the one or two existing photos of Darby. After all, a copy was mandatory for every Brethren mantelpiece, together with the other “Great Men of the Recovery”. Speaking personally, he looked a bit terrifying to me when I was a child.

But that is about it.

Since leaving the Brethren, however, I – and many others – have taken time to delve into history, trying to discover and understand more about this man who has had so much influence over all our lives – even though he died in 1882. In some ways he remains an enigma. The quote from 2 Corinthians 6 v 21 on his gravestone in Bournemouth Cemetery virtually confirms that: “As unknown and well known” (Darby translation). Yet there is plenty of material about him, if you take the trouble to look for it, and others more erudite than me have written about him, his background and associates, what drove him and why.

My desire was simply to have a look around his old “haunts” and try to imagine where he went, who he met and what he did. Was this a pilgrimage? Perhaps, in one sense. But it is complex. Even 135 years after his death, this man continues to incite a wide variety of feelings toward him: admiration, respect, awe, anger, frustration, confusion, bewilderment. I believe the jury is still out.

As to the Darby haunts, there is no better starting place than the lovely village of Enniskerry, where the first prominent building I noted was the Powerscourt Arms Country House. It was quite a pub. Just on the edge of town is the Powerscourt House and Estate, described as one of Ireland’s leading tourist attractions and featuring one of the world’s greatest gardens, overlooking the breath-taking Sugarloaf Mountain. The very name of the place exudes grandeur and power. King George IV of England was a guest here in 1821.

This was the home of Lady Powerscourt (1800-1836), born Theodosia Anne Howard, who married Richard Wingfield, 5th Viscount Powerscourt in 1822. She was Richard’s second wife, her cousin Frances Bligh being his first wife who died very young. Sadly, Richard died in 1823, so Lady Powerscourt was a widow at 23, after only a year of marriage. She also lost her only child, a daughter, in infancy.

Perhaps it was these trials, together with her earlier conversion by an evangelical Anglican Minister, which made her a devout Christian and student of the Bible. It is no exaggeration to suggest that Lady Powerscourt, to use a modern word, facilitated the establishment of the Brethren movement. It was her initiative to sponsor what became known as the Powerscourt Conferences, in the early 1830s, at Powerscourt House. She was particularly interested in studying bible prophecy, and invited a variety of clergy and lay people from all over Britain. Some of the names of those who attended will ring bells with many: J.G. Bellett, Henry Craik, Sir Edward Denny, Anthony Norris Groves, Captain Percy Hall, J.L. Harris, George Muller, B.W. Newton, W.G. Rhind, Henry Soltau, Dr. Tregelles, G.V. Wigram and – of course, the man who soon moved to the front of the pack – John Nelson Darby.

It would have been fascinating to be a fly on the wall at these heady conferences: strong characters, highly intelligent and scholarly men (and, I understand, some women), most of them Anglo-Irish aristocrats – and all hosted and organized by a woman! This is ironic, given the later history of the Exclusive Brethren.

However, it seems that even the grandeur and space of Powerscourt House could not contain all the huge egos. At the end of the 1832 conference there was a major split between the Anglicans and those who had already moved to form the first Brethren grouping. There were serious arguments over interpretation of bible prophecy, and the push by Darby and others to separate from the Established Church. Does this sound familiar? Apparently Lady Powerscourt spent a night in tears over whether or not she should leave Anglicanism. She did, and started breaking bread with Darby and others in Dublin soon afterwards.

There was also one fascinating rumour – that, around 1831, J.N. Darby and Lady Powerscourt contemplated marriage. It is said they became engaged, but later broke it off by mutual agreement. It seems Darby was persuaded by his colleagues that a wife would “limit his ministry”. One can only speculate: what if they had become a happy couple, lived in luxury at Powerscourt for ever after, and raised a family? History may have been very different!

I spent half a day at this famous estate, in company with many hundreds of tourists who would have had no idea why I was there. I enjoyed walking through the spell-binding gardens, and noted that the house itself had been burnt down in 1974 but restored, and converted into what is now a huge retail complex. It is all owned by the Slazenger sporting goods empire. I can only wonder what Lady Powerscourt and JND would make of it all today.

One diversion in my little adventure was to stop beside a pub with a sign “The Meetings”! However this was no Brethren connection: it was located beside the confluence of two rivers – the Avonmore and the Avonbeg – a delightful spot where Ireland’s bard Thomas Moore wrote a famous poem called “The Meeting of the Waters”. This was just near the village of Avoca, known to many around the world through the popular BBC TV series as “Ballykissangel”.

After some puzzlement over Ireland’s infamous road signage, I found my way to Avondale House and Forest Park, another famous estate (but far more humble than Powerscourt). This was the birthplace of Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-1891), considered one of the greatest leaders in Irish political history, in that he led the campaign for Home Rule for Ireland, despite his background as an Anglo-Irish aristocrat. This complexity of character was in his genes; his feisty American mother, Delia Tudor Stewart, had family links with both the American War of Independence and the British Royal Family.

I was more interested in his father’s family. Charles’s grandfather, William Parnell, married Frances Howard, a sister of the above-mentioned Lady Powerscourt. Charles’s father, John Henry Parnell, was first cousin to the 2nd Baron Congleton, John Vesey Parnell (1805-1883), an ardent member of the Brethren who first met JND in 1829 and married Nancy Cronin (his first of three wives), sister of another prominent early member of the Brethren, Edward Cronin. I noted that Baron Congleton ended his days in Teignmouth, Devon, ironically where my great-great-grandparents lived for a time, and (I am told) the area where the Brethren connection began for my father’s family.

Furthermore, John Henry’s sister, Catherine (Charles Stewart Parnells’s aunt) married none other than George Vicesimus Wigram (GVW), yet another major Brethren figure and well-known hymn-writer, the 20th child (hence his second name) of Sir Robert Wigram. Catherine was GVW’s second wife; his first was Fanny Bligh, related to the Powerscourts.

Oh what a tangled web of aristocrats! And how did my family, who were ordinary working people, ever become entangled with the Brethren? That is another story.

Just off the M11 motorway, I paused for a while in the small village of Delgany at the local parish church. I had been led to believe that it was the parish of Delgany where the young curate, Rev J.N. Darby was first appointed by the Church of Ireland in 1826. However from earlier reading I could find only his older brother, Rev Christopher Darby, listed in the church records, from 1819 to 1822. Unfortunately the church, unlike many in England, was locked and I was running out of time to investigate further.

Later that day, I drove back south through the hills to my B&B. Then suddenly, I saw a small sign, pointing down a rough, narrow unsealed track to “Calary Church”. The name “Calary” prompted my memory. I had seen that name before somewhere. I turned back and headed down the lane. This really was the back of beyond – it reminded me of home in rural Australia!

A small church loomed in the distance, behind a forest of trees. It was indeed Calary Church. But what caught my eye was a small hand-painted sign, on a piece of slate, on the opposite side of the track and almost hidden by vegetation. It read:

“Stile to Calary School. Used for services by both Rev C. and J.N. Darby until the Church was built in 1834. This school closed in 1836. The new school was on the new (?) road (R755)”.

Yes, the stile was still there, right beside the gate leading to the church. It was a strange feeling, standing there in that quiet and remote spot, interrupted only by some inquisitive cows in the adjacent paddock, and knowing that the man who is still revered worldwide by the Brethren as the successor to Paul, once climbed this stile as a Church of Ireland curate.

Later I discovered on the internet that, in the 1820s, Delgany parish included the district of Calary, which was under the supervision of JND. More information can be found in the following link:


Apparently his former pulpit is still inside the church! Again, unhappily the church was locked and I had really run of time by now. In any case, if I had seen the actual pulpit and let my imagination run wild, I may well have even more nightmares than I do now!

When I first left the EB in 1970, I, like many others, thought that it was only during the awful JTJr years in the 1960s when everything went pear-shaped. With the benefit of time and reflection, however, I am convinced that the rot set in close to the start. The Brethren have always been attracted to strong, charismatic and dictatorial leaders. JTJr was one. John and W. Bruce Hales were from the same mould. And frankly, the more I read, the more I am convinced that JND was the first of many in Brethren history. The difference was that he was a brilliant scholar as well, which cannot be said of more recent leaders. People were mesmerized by him. It was his way or the highway. He may have lived like a peasant in an Irish bog, but he ruled like the powerful aristocrat he was and he set a pattern for the future. Was Darby a religious fanatic? I think in many respects he was.

But was it all bad? Was the whole Brethren movement condemned to failure from the start? I don’t think so. It is not that simple. There have been many good sincere Christian people in it over the years, and there probably still are. They are not the problem. It is the control freaks who are the problem. And that problem is not confined to the Brethren.

Speaking only for myself, I rejected Brethrenism in all its forms when I left the EB in 1970. Frankly I am glad I did. But I have not rejected or forgotten a lot of what I consider to be the basic truths of Christianity, although I admit to sometimes being a pretty poor example of a Christian. For me, it is a matter of sifting out the chaff from the wheat. But for those of us who were brought up with stark choices of good and bad, black and white, hot and cold, in and out, sometimes it is a struggle to tell the difference. On some issues, the Exclusive Brethren and I would be on the same page. On others, we would be poles apart. It is up to each individual to decide what to believe and what not to believe. Freedom of religion and freedom of expression are wonderful things, but of course these freedoms can also be abused. Gone are the days when anyone can force beliefs and practices down my throat, or vice versa. However we are free to debate and have different views, provided we show respect to each other.

JND would have none of that. Voices from the past keep shouting at me: “That’s Laodicean!” “Compromise is evil!” “You are either with us or against us!”

I enjoyed my brief pilgrimage to the Wicklow Hills. John Nelson Darby was a brilliant man; a great hymn-writer, a major biblical scholar and a giant in the history of religion. But his legacy is a mixed bag, and he, like all of us, was severely flawed.
Stile at Calary Church.JPG
Sign - Calary stile.JPG
Powerscourt Gardens.JPG
Powerscourt House.JPG

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Balaam's Ass
Posts: 616
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Location: Omnipresent

Re: A Wander in Wicklow

Post by Balaam's Ass » Mon Aug 14, 2017 12:22 am

Good research and a great read, Peter. Enjoyed it immensely!

Gal 5.1
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Re: A Wander in Wicklow

Post by Gal 5.1 » Mon Aug 14, 2017 12:20 pm

I have greatly enjoyed your account of your trip to County Wicklow, Peter, not least because my wife and I returned last week from an enjoyable trip to Southern Ireland touring in our caravan. We stopped for a few days in Kilmacanogue in County Wicklow just a 5 minute drive from Powerscourt. Having visited the church J. N. Darby was minister in on a previous visit to the area we did not return there on this occasion.
However the owner of the small caravan site we stopped in attended the local Methodist church and we had several interesting conversations. Having established my background he told me that he and his wife were friendly with a lady who was a widow in her mid- eighties who used to belong to the Exclusives but now worshipped in a small Open Brethren assembly about 10 miles away. We decided to contact this lady and she insisted that we call to see her.
We spent a hour or so reminiscing over pre - 1970 experiences with this lady who was bright, positive with a sharp mind and although obviously lonely having lost her husband some years ago was still enjoying life and fellowship in her local church.
After some time she asked me what I thought about Darby and his impact on the Brethren movement. After turning the question on her as a person who lived in Darby's parish, as it were, she said with a smile "well he started off as a curate and I think he was a bit like the curate's egg - good in parts! " However after saying she still enjoyed reading Darby's hymns but couldn't understand a lot of his writings she asked me "Do you not think after starting out with good intentions Darby led the exclusives down a wrong road from which they never turned back and gradually they became totally lost!" How true!

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Re: A Wander in Wicklow

Post by fisherman » Mon Aug 14, 2017 2:09 pm

A most excellent account,and possibly it takes nearly 50 years of being free from EB influence to be able to dispassionately look at brethren strengths and weaknesses.The strengths being simple piety and practical christianity in hospitality and caring for one another .I feel the main weakness if brethren was not so much the individual who failed but the system that did not have any checks and balances to provide accountability nor even follow Pauls list of qualifications for leadership.Without plurality of leadership ,no elders to be accountable to the door is wide open for 'one man' to seize control with no means of stopping the juggernaught.

As far as EB being a 'church' such as JND envisioned, that hasn't been the case for over 50 years other than in name only.The term 'making shipwreck as to faith' (1Timothy 2:19) seems to be the best description of what the EB have become

Joy Nason
Posts: 38
Joined: Thu Feb 28, 2013 10:05 am

Re: A Wander in Wicklow

Post by Joy Nason » Tue Aug 15, 2017 12:01 pm

I loved your terrific story too Peter. It put a human spin on the EB founder, who I only remember from the framed black and white photo we all had to have on our mantelpieces. JND's bushy brows were very scary to a young child growing up in the EB - probably one of the reasons why I had such a dread of the former Australian PM John Howard - the only eyebrows I've come across since that came close to matching JND's. I sincerely believed JND translated the whole Bible, so there couldn't be any mistakes in it and weren't we lucky to have our very own Bible. Like Fisherman says, its great to have 50 years distance between then and now so you can read a story about JND and know you wont get nightmares.


Re: A Wander in Wicklow

Post by PeterF » Tue Aug 15, 2017 12:22 pm

Joy Nason wrote:I loved your terrific story too Peter. It put a human spin on the EB founder, who I only remember from the framed black and white photo we all had to have on our mantelpieces. JND's bushy brows were very scary to a young child growing up in the EB - probably one of the reasons why I had such a dread of the former Australian PM John Howard - the only eyebrows I've come across since that came close to matching JND's. I sincerely believed JND translated the whole Bible, so there couldn't be any mistakes in it and weren't we lucky to have our very own Bible. Like Fisherman says, its great to have 50 years distance between then and now so you can read a story about JND and know you wont get nightmares.
There is another side to JND ...

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