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Keys to a secret garden

I was given privileged access to the Ards Friary Walled Garden in Ards, County Donegal during a one-week stay with the Capuchin contemplative community. Brother Ade brought another man and me through the five-acre land one day and it was a sheer delight in discovering its secrets. After the initial visit, Ade gave me a loan of the keys letting me wander around on my own. I felt like I was given permission to a secret paradise.

Upon entering the garden on a blustery morning, I noticed how the rain penetrated the wooden panels of the entrance door to highlight the different colours and features. I paused to see it filled with shades of grey and green, along with the natural light brown colour of the smaller wooden pieces. There was also sufficient light to illuminate the door in all its glory. It was amazing to see the different locks, bolts and patchwork that transported me back to the garden’s earlier history.

I returned to the garden when the sun was shining brightly, and I was delighted to notice the one-hundred-year-old apple trees that were carpeted with moss. The narrow trunk on which the moss rests appears to have fallen, but it continues to grow with the buds clearly visible on its branches. The moss, illuminated in its variety of green and brown colours, seemed to act as a transitional space. Its soft and furry texture was reminiscent of the comfort of an indoor sofa.

I noticed the lichen surrounding the branches of the apple trees. I was informed that the light green lichen – which is soft and stringy to touch – grows in abundance due to the clean, fresh air of Ards. It absorbs nitrogen, oxygen and carbon. The whitish lichen, crusty and flaky, stirred me to be gentle with the tree and not to touch it so much. Its old, loyal and worthy parts reminded me of a loving grandparent with a homely vibe. As a Dubliner, I respected the plant-like cover as a rare find.

The former head gardener’s house is situated in the second of three interior gardens. I was a little repulsed at first sight as the ivy wrapped around the upstairs’ windows. Some window panes remain, while others are missing or broken. Downstairs, the empty door and windows express a vacant stare. Then in the sunlight, I saw the beauty behind the plaster façade – consisting of greyish and reddish stone blended together in a beautiful tapestry – and I appreciated the transitional space once again.

Last but not least were my new woolly friends who reminded me that I was far from alone during my privileged visits. One of the friary’s staff has been given permission to let the sheep graze in the garden. I tried to respect their need to munch away and they became more curious of me after another visit. The weathered wall behind them extends from the house showing bricks, holes and ivy. I imagined the hard labour to build it as well as the construction of the whole garden.

With a grateful heart, I thank Ade and all the friars for letting me visit the walled wonder. I found it to be a glimpse of heaven on earth. It leaves me to ponder an authentic saying of Jesus: “The kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you”.

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