Roamer: Astronomical accolades for Irish writers

Wilhelmina Geddes crater amongst other famous names on Mercury
Wilhelmina Geddes crater amongst other famous names on Mercury

Next Wednesday’s Roamer page, the last before Christmas, will be adorned with a colourful reproduction of the Madonna and Child depicted in stained glass.

Next Wednesday’s Roamer page, the last before Christmas, will be adorned with a colourful reproduction of the Madonna and Child depicted in stained glass.

The very beautiful nativity scene from a church window in Lee, near Lewisham, London, was designed by the rarely recounted Belfast artist Wilhelmina Geddes, described after her death in 1955 as “the greatest stained glass artist of our time”.

Her radiantly pigmented windows are all over Ireland north and south, in the UK, and around the world.

When she died, Wilhelmina Geddes’s unequalled mastery of stained glass brought her a remarkable tribute.

In 2010 the International Astronomical Union named one of planet Mercury’s craters after her!

Her 80 kilometre crater lies 27.3 degrees north and 29.7 degrees west on the planet, where many of the vast circular indentations caused by the impact of meteors are named after planet Earth’s greatest artists and writers.

Charles Dickens, Lord Byron, Picasso and Rembrandt share Wilhelmina’s unusual astronomical accolade.

So does the Irish harpist and composer Turlough O’Carolan, with a 24 kilometre crater named after him on Mercury, located 83.9 degrees north and 328.2 degrees west.

William Butler Yeats has a 100 kilometre crater at 9.2 degrees north and 34.6 degrees west.

Along with Geddes’s Madonna and Child, many of our most acclaimed artists and writers (with or without craters on Mercury!) turned to Christmas for inspiration. Or in some instances they bemoaned the seasonal festivities!

Belfast’s iconic author and academic C.S. Lewis (unmentioned on Mercury!) wrote contrasting accounts of the 25th December in 1922 and 1931 – two days that vividly illustrated his search for, and his ultimate discovery of, the true meaning of Christmas.

“It was a dark morning with a gale blowing and some very cold rain,” Lewis wrote in his diary in 1922 after he’d accompanied his brother and father to the Christmas Day service in a cold St Mark’s Church.

The service meant little or nothing to Lewis, who returned home with his father and brother for “Christmas dinner, a rather deplorable ceremony, at quarter to four,” Lewis’s diary continued.

Nine years later, on a foggy Christmas Day in 1931, C.S. Lewis received Communion in an Oxford Parish Church, having previously told the University’s Dean of Divinity, Adam Fox, that he wanted to become a practising Christian.

From 1931 until the end of his life, C.S. Lewis looked at Christmas from a very different point of view, well summarised in one of his BBC radio broadcasts during WWII - “the Son of God became a man to enable men to become the sons of God.”

Without his Christmas Day in 1931 Lewis’s vast output of Christian books wouldn’t have been written; or Narnia would have remained forever under the spell of the wicked white witch who made it always winter and never Christmas; or there’d have been no Aslan to bring the thaw that spelled the witch’s doom!

Though C.S. Lewis wasn’t particularly enamoured with the way that Christmas was celebrated, particularly its commercialisation.

“Can it really be my duty to buy and receive masses of junk every winter?” he plaintively demanded in 1957, hopefully not referring to seasonal essentials like the holly and the ivy!

With a crater named after him on the planet Mercury, Irish harpist and composer Turlough O’Carolan is well-known for his beautiful Christmas carol Buy My Nice Fresh Ivy.

The tune to which this is sung is known as O’Carolan’s Lament, one version being:

“Come, buy my nice fresh ivy, and my holly sprigs so green.

I have the finest branches that ever yet were seen.

Come buy from me, good Christians, and let me home, I pray,

That God will bless your Christmas and a happy New Year’s Day.”

Mercury’s 100 kilometre crater named after W.B Yeats is four times the size of O’Carolan’s, and W.B’s religious imagery in his Christmas poem The Magi is equivalently deeper than Turlough’s!

On their way to see the Child depicted on crater-neighbour Wilhelmina Geddes’s stained glass window, W.B’s short poem introduces the Three Wise Men as spiritual and other-worldly as they ‘appear and disappear in the blue depth of the sky’ and are always in the poet’s thoughts.

“Now as at all times I can see in the mind’s eye,

In their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones

Appear and disappear in the blue depth of the sky

With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones,

And all their helms of silver hovering side by side,

And all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more,

Being by Calvary’s turbulence unsatisfied,

The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.”

The Star in the East that led the Magi to Christ’s manger has been much debated, and no one knows which star it was, or whether the heavenly signpost was a single star, or a comet, or a collection of stars or planets.

The moon and Jupiter were there, with Saturn ‘close’ to the constellation’s boundary.

Relatively ‘close-by’ were Mars, Mercury and Venus.

Whichever, wherever or whatever, look up at Christmas to the Child that’ll be on Wilhelmina Geddes’s stained glass window here next Wednesday, and at the centre of everything next Friday.

The illustration and artist’s biographical material is from Wilhelmina Geddes: Life and Work by Dr Nicola Gordon Bowe. Full details on www.fourcourtspress.ie