travels to Europe and marks the centenary of his death
Leading religious scholar Brian Bocking once wrote that many Irish people were “keenly interested in Asia and knew much more about Asia in 1900 than in 2000”. Across the country, the Irish had family members (often soldiers) in Asia, and Irish universities were preparing students in many disciplines, from languages to medicine, to careers in the Indian civil and military service. This interest spread to religions and a number of those who served in the British Empire met or even serious protagonists of various faiths.
At home, too, there was a desire to learn about the religions and philosophies of the “East”. This has found form in various expressions of the spiritual journey.
Interest in Buddhist and Hindu thought was popular, as was Theosophy, a Western philosophy built on the basis of Buddhist and Hindu teachings, but other religions were also the focus of attention. One of these was the religion of ‘Abdu’l Bahá, who became a well-known figure in the early 1900s as the leader of the Bahá’í Faith (he was the son of its founder) in Europe and the United States. United States.
In December 1912, the Freeman’s Journal published news of Abdul-Bahá’s imminent arrival in England, including a photo under the caption “A Prophet of Peace.” The report stated 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 travels across Europe and America which had received wide media coverage. He had spoken at large gatherings in halls and churches, in smaller halls, fashionable salons and socially disadvantaged backgrounds. Among her admirers on both sides of the Irish Sea were three remarkable Irish women. While in London, ‘Abdu’l Bahá was a guest of Lady Blomfield, a distinguished Bahá’í from Great Britain.
She helped with ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s itinerary and was responsible for publishing some of his speeches. Lady Blomfield was born Sara Louisa Ryan in fairly modest circumstances in 1859 in Borrisoleigh, Co. Tipperary and married the English aristocracy. According to a friend, she never lost her wit or Irish accent. Sara has become a longtime admirer of ‘Abdu’l Bahá and an accomplished writer and humanitarian. She was a supporter of Home Rule and, during World War I, served in field hospitals in France. She then played a key role 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, of Boyle in Co Roscommon and 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 suffragette activities.
In their forties, Margaret and her husband, writer and poet James Cousins, moved to India to work with the director of the Theosophical Society, Annie Besant. Margaret founded the influential All India Woman’s Conference in 1927 to promote the education of women and children. She told her diary that she had been “one of Ireland’s earliest readers” of the life and words of Abdu’l-Baha. When she came to the Holy Land in 1932, she visited the house and prison of ‘Abdu’l-Baha who had died a few years earlier. Another leader of the suffragist movement in Ireland (and also in Great Britain) was Charlotte Despard. Although an Englishwoman of Irish descent, Charlotte considered herself Irish and was related to ‘Abdul-Bahá during her stay in London in early 1913.
His writings from this period show a deep interest in Abdu’l Bahá’s teachings on the unity of humanity and religions. Charlotte moved to live permanently in Ireland in 1921.
There were few more colorful figures in Dublin than Charlotte at this time – fighting for women’s suffrage, Irish independence, and a host of other causes. During the War of Independence, she helped establish the League for the Defense of Women Prisoners to support Republican prisoners and forged a lasting 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 around the world remember his life and work and the fascinating people who knew him.