Owen Barfield’s Imagination of Ireland

As a long-time reader of Owen Barfield and as an Irishman, I have naturally wondered about Barfield’s relationship to Ireland. Did he visit? When? And since the imagination was so central to his conception of life, what was his imagination of Ireland?

It has to be admitted that, at the time I write this blog, there is not yet all that much to go by in answering these questions. What there is, though, is tantalising.

An Irish friend

Famously, of course, one of Barfield’s greatest friends was Irish. Belfast-born C. S. Lewis acknowledged Barfield as his archetypal “Second Friend”, defined as:

The man who disagrees with you about everything. He is not so much the alter ego as the antiself. Of course he shares your interests; otherwise he would not be your friend at all. But he has approached them all at a different angle. […] Actually (though it never seems so at the time) you modify one another’s thought; out of this perpetual dogfight a community of mind and a deep affection emerge.

But the only point at which Lewis’s Irish origin arises as a topic in Barfield’s recollections of him is a quite trivial episode on a visit to Hillsboro, the house Lewis shared with its owner Janie Moore. Lewis apparently said late one evening, “Excuse me, I must go do Mrs Moore’s jars”. In fact, the interview in which this incident is recorded has this transcribed as the alarming “I must go do Mrs Moore’s jowls”! This was a transcriber’s mishearing or Barfield’s. But very possibly it was Barfield’s, since he had never heard the term, and wondered what could possibly be meant! He later realised that it must be either a Lewisism or a word in use in Ireland for “hot water bottle”.

C. S. Lewis (right) with Owen Barfield, his “Second Friend”

(I owe my knowledge of the fact that hot water bottles were called jars to my mother, who let memory work on her for hours, after I asked her, “Did you ever hear of hot water bottles being called jowls?” It is confirmed in an Irish Examiner feature.)

Visiting Ireland

The foregoing may be of anecdotal interest. Things become more engaging when Barfield steps on Irish soil, as he evidently did.

In a manila folder titled ‘1940-1950’ in the Barfield archive held at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, there is a poem in typescript, entitled “The Connemara Pony Show”. Connemara is a wild and frequently beautiful part of Galway. There is fine local knowledge in the poem’s references to “Ballyconneely”, a small town there, and to “Joyce’s filly”. Joyce is in fact a common Galway family name, and ‘Joyce Country’ neighbours Connemara. (It’s not just the famous James’s surname.) Those local details lend weight to the conviction that lines such as the following had their origin in personal experience:

… away to Sligo, the clouds blow freely —
The clear above and the dark below —

The air’s all soft and delicately silly
At the Connemara Pony Show.

It is apparent that there was at least one visit to Ireland, probably in the 1940s. (In the later ’forties, one wonders, given the war?)

The essay “The Harp and the Camera” published in the collection The Rediscovery of Meaning in 1977, but given first as a lecture in 1969, also gives evidence of an Irish journey. A passage runs: “In the Scottish mountains you feel the mountains are somehow being drawn up to the sky. The earth seems to have been raised up to the sky and to have mingled with it; whereas in Ireland it is the other way round. It is almost as if the mountains were actually a part of the sky that had come down and was mingling with the earth.” This perception made Barfield suspect there may be “grain of substance underlying the sentimental drivel” of an old popular song: “Just a little bit of heaven fell from out the sky one day / And dropped into the ocean not so many miles away.”

There may well have been another visit to Ireland, therefore, in the 1960s. And it may ultimately turn out that there is more regarding these trips and any others in those of Barfield’s letters deposited in the Bodleian Library.

It is hard not to be struck by the airy quality of both these images, coming from sensory experience, of Ireland. Something may be suggested by the evocation of “soft and delicately silly” air in the poem, and in the second passage, in which Barfield perceives the sky as condensing into mountain, it is reasonably plainly put: that there may be something heavenly or, better said, paradisaical about Ireland.

A picture of Ireland from Rudolf Steiner

That might get a laugh from those who live there, and some eyes might be raised to heaven in Ireland and abroad. If I am right in what I think Barfield was intimating or anyway entertaining, then he would certainly have wanted to refer to the indications of Rudolf Steiner to build on those delicate perceptions. What follows is a long quote, as is necessary to get a sense of some of what Steiner sensed of the land of Ireland.

In ancient times people who knew of Ireland gave expression to its peculiar characteristics in the form of myths and legends. One could indeed speak of an esoteric legend which indicated the nature of Ireland within the whole earth-organism. Lucifer, it was said, had once tempted mankind in Paradise, wherefore mankind was driven out and scattered over the earth, which was already in existence at that time. Thus a distinction was drawn — so the legend tells us — between Paradise, with Lucifer in it, and the rest of the earth. But with Ireland it was different. Ireland did not belong in the same sense to the rest of the earth, for Paradise, before Lucifer entered it, had created an image of itself on earth, and that image became Ireland.

Let us understand this clearly. Ireland is that piece of the earth which has no share in Lucifer, no connection with Lucifer. The part of Paradise that had to be separated, so that an earthly image of it might come into being, would have stood in the way of Lucifer’s entry into Paradise. According to this legend, therefore, Ireland was conceived as having been first of all that part of Paradise which would have kept Lucifer out. Only when Ireland had been separated off, could Lucifer get in.

This legend, of which I have given you a very incomplete account, is a very beautiful one. For many people it explained the quite individual task of Ireland through the centuries. In the first of my Mystery Plays you will find what has been often described: how Europe was Christianised by Irish monks. After Patrick had introduced Christianity into Ireland, it came about that Christianity there led to the highest spiritual devotion. In further interpretation of the legend I have just described, Ireland — Ierne for the Greeks and Ivernia for the Romans — was even called the island of the saints, because of the piety that prevailed in the Christian monasteries there.

Barfield’s imagination of Ireland

A fairytale or conte contained within Barfield’s novella Eager Spring (written in the 1980s) recounts the story of a good-hearted, romantic poet-musician (or Trovatore), Paolo, the question of whose existence is “the mysterious relation between spirit and flesh”, and who seeks “more and more eagerly for the dwelling-place on earth of the true way, the Trovatore way, of handling it”. A learned friend tells him that

Ireland, not Rome, was the source from which the Christian faith had first been carried into Europe. That was several centuries ago. But from all he had heard, the old man said, and unless the original inspiration had sadly faded, a judicious traveller would come nearer there than anywhere else to the Wellspring from which flowed a true understanding of the relation between Spirit and flesh.

Paolo therefore sets off from France for Ireland, but falls sick while travelling through England, and is nursed back to health by a family of sisters, one of them a young woman, Maria, with whom he falls in love. The family’s peaceful existence is disturbed by Godfrey, whose nearby ironworks he is determined will expand ever further, and who wants therefore to mine the iron beneath their land. This skilled, intelligent, grasping materialism, we are given to understand, is an inversion of the true “relation between Spirit and flesh”.

Godfrey will stop at nothing to take their land. Paolo and the sisters turn to the kind, learned Doctor Gropewell, who had treated Paolo in his illness. Gropewell rereads a note of a conversation he once had “with a learned monk who had been led to Ireland by his interest in early Christian missionaries, and while there had become acquainted with unwritten traditions descended from the followers of St Patrick and St Columba and perhaps from predecessors as far back as the birth of Christ and beyond it”. After rereading this note, Gropewell has a dagger forged from meteoric iron, iron coming from the heavens, in order to slay the dragon-like owner of the forge…

Eager Spring by Owen Barfield

It has been written that the troubadours (French for Trovatori) gave the world a new conception of romantic love. But it is noteworthy in Eager Spring that this question of “a true understanding of the relation between Spirit and flesh” is far from being only a matter of romance. The theme in the book, and of the conte within it, of caring for the land leads to the conclusion that “flesh”, with no undue stretching of the term, also refers to the body of this world. It is not incidental that Godfrey is depicted as brutally overworking his employees. All in all, questions of land, labour and capital arise again and again. The larger story within which the conte is embedded is of a marriage coming under strain due to the passionate engagement of Virginia in an attempt to prevent the pollution by commercial interests of an area of natural beauty.

Before concluding, I set down a passage from Rudolf Steiner that follows the long one already quoted:

We can say, more or less as I have said today, that Ireland is a quite special piece of land and this is one factor among many from which should come a fruitful working out of social-political ideas. Ireland is one such factor, and all these factors must be taken account of in conjunction with one another. In this way we must develop a science of human relationships on the earth. Until that is done, there will be no real health in the organisation of public affairs. That which can be communicated from out of the spiritual world must flow into any measures that are taken.

The Western mysteries, amongst which, as Steiner called them, the Hibernian mysteries had such a central place, are natural and economic mysteries: they relate to the world around us, land, growing things, animals, weather. Spend a day on the second floor or higher of a hotel in Dublin, watching the sky change every half-hour, and you will be able to imagine those at home in Ireland in ancient days always perceiving anew the natural world around them and learning its most subtle rhythms, in order to live but also in love of it. It is in that joyous, busy world that we currently need, more than ever, to learn about the “right relation between Spirit and flesh”, which in the Hibernian mysteries is to perceive the Spirit in the flesh. That will inevitably have social-political ramifications. It is something like this, I believe, that Barfield was thinking about when he wrote about Paolo going forth on his journey to Ireland. Though Paolo’s journey is interrupted, and a tragedy intervenes, the book does not rule out that journey as a possibility for him, beyond its pages. For us, too, Barfield knew, this task is coming towards us from the future.

Categories: Discoveries