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Saturday, March 26, 2011

Catholics in Orkney

The Orkney Islands lie off the north coast of Scotland. They are to say the least rather remote. Because they are remote, there are many well preserved historic sites, some of the best in Western Europe.

In the Second World War the Isalnds were used as a place of confinement for Italian prisoners of war.

On the bare desolate rainy island, the prisoners built a chapel of great beauty - now simply known as The Italian Chapel.

The chaplain was Father Giacombazzi and one of the main artists was Domenico Chiocchetti (who died in May 1999)

The chapel has been preserved and is one of the main tourist attractions

The Italian Chapel, Exterior


The Italian Chapel, Interior


Before the chapel was built the prisoners were extremely depressed because of their situation and morale was extremely low. The construction of the chapel raised morale considerably.

The chapel also had other effects.

One of the residents in Orkney at the time was the poet and novelist George Mackay Brown (1921-1996).

He wrote in 1945:

"'Where the English captive would build a theatre or a canteen to remind him of home, the Italian, without embarrassment, with careful devout hands, erects a chapel... The Italians, who fought weakly and without hope on the battlefield, because they lacked faith in the ridiculous strutting little Duce, have wrought strongly here.' (Maggie Fergusson, George Mackay Brown: The Life, John Murray, 2006, p. 84)

That chapel and reading Newman's Apologia shifted him decisively towards Catholicism. He converted to Catholicism in 1961 He practised his faith quietly.

Some have seen him as Britain`s greatest modern poet.

Some of his works and readings can be accessed at The Poetry Archive

You may also wish to see the excellent website on George Mackay Brown which contains many extracts from his works and essays about him and his work

The poet Seamus Heaney once described Brown`s poetic vision thus:

"What George Mackay Brown saw was a drinking deer
That glittered by the water. The human soul
In mosaic. Wet celandine and ivy.
Allegory hard as a figured shield
Smithied in Orkney for Christ's sake and Crusades,
Polished until its undersurface surfaced
Like peat smoke mulling through Byzantium"

(Seamus Heaney: Electric Light, March 2001)

Here is a short extract from Brown`s "An Orkney Tapestry: Martyr" (1969):

"Into the hands of every unborn soul is put a lump of the original clay, for him to mould vessels – a bowl and a lamp – the one to sustain him, the other to lighten him through the twilight between two darknesses, birth and death. He refreshes himself, this Everyman, with mortal bread; he holds his lamp over rut and furrow and snow and stone, an uncertain flame. Now and then the honey of a hidden significance is infused into his being. By the vessels that he has moulded to his wants he calls this mystery of longing The–Immortal–Bread, The–Unquenchable–Light . . . At death he leaves behind the worn lamp and bowl, and (a peregrine spirit) seeks the table of the great Harvester, where all is radiance and laughter and feasting.

And some there are – God take pity on every soul born – that love their lamps and their bowls more than the source from which clay, corn and oil issue for ever; and, their vessels failing at last by reason of age or chance, they set out dark into the last Darkness, a drift of deathless waiting hungers . . ."