The eminent scholar of religions, Brian Bocking, once wrote that many Irish people were “keenly interested in and knew far more about Asia in 1900 than in 2000”. Up and down the country Irish people had family members (often soldiers) in Asia and Irish universities prepared students across many disciplines from languages to medicine for careers in the Indian civil and military services. That interest stretched to religions and a number of those serving in the British Empire became acquainted with or even serious protagonists for a variety of different faiths.
At home too there was an eagerness to know about religions and philosophies from the “east”. This found form in various expressions of spiritual journeying.
Interest in Buddhist and Hindu thought was popular as was Theosophy, a western constructed philosophy based on Buddhist and Hindu teachings, but other religions were also in focus. One such was the religion of ‘Abdu’l Bahá, who became a well-known figure in the early 1900s as head of the Bahá’í Faith (he was the son of its founder) in Europe and the United States.
In December 1912 The Freeman’s Journal carried news of ‘Abdul-Bahá’s impending arrival in England, including a picture under the caption “A Prophet of Peace”. The report conveyed that “the founder [sic] of the Bahai faith has left America for England and is due to arrive in a few days.” He had, the report continued, “spent forty years of his life in a Turkish prison. The keynote of his faith is Peace.”
Many readers were already aware of his journeys through Europe and America which had received widespread press coverage. He had spoken to large gatherings in halls and churches, in smaller venues, fashionable salons and socially deprived settings. Amongst his admirers on both sides of the Irish Sea were three remarkable Irish women. While in London, ‘Abdu’l Bahá was the house guest of Lady Blomfield a prominent Bahá’í in Britain.
She helped with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s itinerary and was responsible for the publication of some of his talks. Lady Blomfield was born Sara Louisa Ryan into fairly humble circumstances in 1859 in Borrisoleigh, Co Tipperary and married into the English aristocracy. According to one friend she never lost her Irish wit or accent. Sara became a life-long admirer of ‘Abdu’l Bahá and an accomplished writer and humanitarian. She was a supporter of Home Rule and during the first World War served in field hospitals in France. She was later instrumental in founding the Save the Children Fund and campaigned for the adoption of the Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child by the League of Nations.
Margaret Cousins, from Boyle in Co Roscommon and a founding member of the Women’s Franchise League, also took an interest in ‘Abdu’l Bahá. She had the distinction of being imprisoned in Ireland, England and India for her suffragist activities.
In mid-life Margaret and her husband, the writer and poet James Cousins moved to India to work with the head of the Theosophical Society, Annie Besant. Margaret founded the influential All India Woman’s Conference in 1927 to promote education for women and children. She confided to her diary that she been “one of the earliest readers in Ireland” of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s life and sayings. When she travelled to the Holy Land in 1932 she visited the house and prison of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá who had died some years before. Another leader of the suffragist movement in Ireland (and also in Britain) was Charlotte Despard. Though English born with Irish heritage, Charlotte considered herself Irish and was connected to ‘Abdul-Bahá during his stay in London in early 1913.
Her writings from this period show a deep interest in Abdu’l Bahá’s teachings about the oneness of humanity and religions. Charlotte moved to live permanently in Ireland in 1921.
There were few more colourful characters in Dublin than Charlotte at that time – agitating for women’s suffrage, Irish independence, and a host of other causes. During the War of Independence she helped establish the Women’s Prisoners’ Defence League to support republican prisoners and struck up an enduring friendship with Maud Gonne.
They were sometimes (sarcastically) referred to around Dublin as “Mad and Madam Desperate”. This month marks the centenary of the death of ‘Abdu’l Bahá and people the world over are remembering his life and work and the fascinating people who came to know him.