Fr. Abbot Brendan Coffee OSB
John Patrick Murphy, Paddy to his family, was born in England on 28 September 1935 to Irish parents, the eldest of five children. Always conscious of his Irishness, which was an important part of his identity, Brian developed a lifelong interest in things historical. On leaving school he entered Douai Abbey where he was professed in October 1955, taking the name Brian after a seventh-century bishop. Throughout a long life, firstly at Douai, then at Trinity College and St Gerard’s School in Bray, and finally here in Glenstal, where he returned to monastic life, he continued his historical research and writing.
As a historian, Brian was not afraid to take an unconventional view. His books, letters and talks, where he expounded the fruits of his own research, often challenged the accepted position. Brian was not shy about expressing his views, as anyone who knew him can well attest. Always the historian, Brian adopted the historical narrative even in his letters. I always recall receiving a letter from him when I was a student in Padova, apologising for having moved into my room. I had to read to the end before I discovered a pipe had burst over his room and the ceiling collapsed on top of him during the night. Most people would have written that first!
We’re told that Herodotus, the father of history, spent his entire life working on just one project. There was a similar unity and focus in Brian’s historical work. It too was the labour of a lifetime. The final chapter of which was written last Monday, when Brian became seriously ill. We thank the staff of University Hospital Limerick for their care for Brian in his final hours. His leaving us was very sudden, but he was at peace.
As we journey through life, many of us develop a hobby or special interest, something we love to do simply for the joy of doing it. Music, reading, exercise or sport. Brian was hugely blessed that his two great interests in life, history and gardening, found a happy intersection here in Glenstal. If God has a hobby, then I think we would have to admit that it is gardening. One of the first things God does in the Book of Genesis is plant a garden.
Every afternoon, without fail, Brian went to the garden here in Glenstal, tending the plants, nurturing seeds and caring for the fabric. In this task, some men of the roads, with whom he built a relationship, assisted him over the years. One of them offered him some advice, of which he became particularly fond – Dum spiro spero, ‘while I breathe, I hope’. In more recent times Brian was ably assisted in the garden by Seamus Hayes.
Most people who met Brian did so in and around the garden. He loved to talk to people and would happily tell you in great detail about its 17th century walls, the Mulryan castle, Capercullen House and of course the story of the Barrington family, estate and castle.
Today, we have not gathered here to speak about gardening, neither have we come for a history lesson, we have come to ask the mercy of God on our departed brother Brian who, like all of us, is a sinner in need of God’s mercy. Our Lord Jesus laid down his life on the tree of the cross for Brian, for you, and for me. This is what we celebrate in this Easter Season.
Rooted, planted, and grafted onto the Risen One in baptism, the promise to Brian and to us all, is that we will be clothed in greater raiment than all the lilies of the fields. On the day of his Baptism, God planted Brian in the soil of Christ’s death and resurrection.
This is our faith and hope, as it was Brian’s, Dum spiro spero. For he knew what all good gardeners know, no plant can live without being fed and nourished with water, good soil, and sunlight. That apart from Christ, our true Vine, we wither and die. But Brian also knew that God is no ordinary gardener. For unlike most gardeners, who dig up the flowerbed and start over when it is full of weeds, God does something truly amazing. Jesus, the Son of God became sin for us. He became the weed and died on a tree to make his cross our tree of life.
He was planted in our tomb. But this divine Gardener could not and would not stay dead. He rose from the dead in a garden, of all places. And so, we have come full circle, from the Garden of Eden, through the Garden at Glenstal, to the Garden of the Resurrection.
On the 16 May, Brian saw what John saw in the Book of Revelation. The river of life flowing from the throne of the Lamb. The tree of life whose leaves are given for the healing of the nations. And the Lord of life, the Lamb of God, the divine gardener, waiting to welcome him home.
May he rest in peace.