An Tairseach, A Dominican Ecology Project in Wicklow Town, Ireland..
At our General Chapter in 1992 the Dominican Sisters chose “Care of the Earth” as one of the priorities for our lives and mission. We said then:
- We are aware of the ever increasing crisis on planet Earth whereby all life, including human life, is being destroyed rapidly.
- We call one another to the urgent task of helping to save the life of the planet. This call is based on a growing awareness and knowledge that form the basis for a devloping theology of creation.
- We will as individuals and as community, commit ourselves, through contemplation, study and experience to grow in appreciation of the mystery, the wonder and the beauty of the planet.
- We will use our resources and our skills as educators to deepen our understanding of the earth and of the urgency of the task before us.
In that same year, 1992, the U.N. held its first Environmental Conference in Rio de Janeiro. The nations of the world gathered there to examine the major challenges facing humankind in dealing with issues such as climate change, environmental pollution, population, food security and much more. We are in the midst of what is known as the Sixth Extinction of Species. The last one happened 65 million years ago when an asteroid hit the Earth in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. It caused a deep crater and spewed so much dirt and dust into that the atmosphere that most of the species of animals and plants were destroyed all over the planet including the dinosaurs. It took the Earth millions of years to recover. The extinction which we are experiencing at the moment is not caused by an asteroid but by human activity. Among the outcomes of that conference was the establishment of an Earth Charter Committee to initiate a world wide reflection leading to an Earth Charter that would be widely owned and accepted. Some of us are old enough to remember the UN Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. For the first time in human history there was agreement about what constituded a basic human right. That was a very significant development. To this day not all humans enjoy those rights but at least we have a benchmark against which governments can be judged and encouraged to improve where necessary. The Earth Charter would spell out the rights of all life including human life- a major step forward for our species which up to then only recognised its own rights on this planet which is shared by all. Groups all over the world reflected on the first drafts of the Charter. It is estimated that 100 000 people were involved. The Charter was approved in 2000- a magnificent document of only four pages. It is a pity that so few people know this document. Perhaps as a congregation we could undertake to study it in preparation for our next chapter in 2016. This year the UN held another environmental conference, Rio +20. Nothing of significance happened. Our leaders are so preoccupied with the economic crisis that they had not the time or the will to deal with the much bigger environmental crisis which is looming. This morning on Morning Ireland we heard that a chunk of iceberg the size of Manhattan Island broke off the Greenland Cap and fell into the sea. These occurences are becoming more and more frequent. Imagine what that will do to the sea levels and to our coastal cities. And as usual it will be the poor countries who will suffer most because they cannot afford to take precautions or to build flood defences.
It is against that background that An Tairseach was born. Following the 1992 Chapter the General Council with the Regional Council set up a committee headed by Sr Helen Mary Harmey to decide how to proceed. She was joined by Srs Julie Newman, Vivienne O’Beirne and Caitriona Geraghty. It did not take long to decide that Wicklow would be the location because we had a farm there. The committee was expanded to include Sr Teresita McMahon from Wicklow as well as lay people from the local community. It would take too long to tell of developments over the next several years as the committee tried to find the best way forward. Eventually in 1997 Julie Newman resigned from her post as Principal of Dominican College, Wicklow and went to Genesis Farm in the US to prepare to take responsibility for the project. Following some months there she returned to Wicklow accompanied by another Dominican, Sr Miriam Therese MacGillis. Together they worked on a five-year plan which was approved by our own leadership. In brief we would :
- Convert the 70 acre farm to organic production of vegetables.
- Establish a ten-acre wild life sanctuary.
- Estblish an Education Centre.
Julie set to work immediately repairing the farmyard including the manager’s house in preparation for the appointment of a farm manager. This happened in September 1998 when Peter Bateman and his wife Jackie came from England and took up residence. Their first task was to plant thousands of trees (eventually 10 000 ), repair fences and get the land back into fertility as it had been neglected in previous years and begin converting the land to organic production. That would take two years before certification would be given.
In 1999 I joined the community and my task was to develop the Education Centre. We considered building on the land but eventually, after many twists and turns, decided instead to refurbish an existing building on the campus. While that was happening we began offering programmes on a small scale to the local community. We had a group called the Friends of An Tairseach who accompanied us as we developed the project also helping in practical ways for example with tree planting. We also offered educational visits to schools and welcomed adult groups that were interested in what was happening and in the whole question of ecology and sustainability. When the Centre opened in 2005 we were in a position to offer a wide range of programmes including Art, Sacred Dance, Organic Gardening, Cookery, Yoga, Tai Chi, Scripture and Meditation. We also began to offer a ten-week residential sabbatical programme twice a year exploring spirituality in the light of an evolving universe, an endangered Earth and the Christian tradition. Consideration of these three elements leads to the story of our own evolution from the initial Flaring Forth 14.5 billion years through to the evolution of Planet Earth and of all life including our own. Having discovered that we are recent arrivals on this planet we look at the impact of human activity on the health of the planet and its future sustainability. This naturally leads to the question about who is God and how is God involved in our world. In his message on World Day of Peace in 1990
Pope John Paul 11 said that care of the planet is an essential part of our faith and is a moral issue. The Irish Bishops published a Pastoral Reflection on climate change in 2008 called The Cry of the Earth. It is encumbent of all of us to make the connection between caring for the planet and living our faith.
Sr Marian O’Sullivan, Avila, Dublin. 20 July 2012.