Friday 26 April 2019

Memories of a life less ordinary

HOW ON heavenly earth did a young Catholic Wexford boy grow up to become the founder and director of the Centre for Hindu Studies at Oxford University in England?

The easy answer is that Tim Kiernan joined the Hare Krishnas at the age of 18 but the real story, from the benefit of hindsight, is that he was destined to do so.

He listened to his heart and followed the signposts on the road – and here he is now running a degree course attached to one of the most prestigious universities in the world.

It's a source of relief to his mother Mairin nee Roche, a retired schoolteacher, who was worried and perplexed when her third eldest child arrived home in 1979, wearing a cap.

'Take that hat off in the house,' she instructed. He duly obliged, to reveal a hallmark shaved head with a weird little ponytail sticking out the back.

'I've joined the Hare Krishnas,' he informed her. 'Is that a punk rock band?,' Mairin naively asked.

In un-exotic late 1970s Ireland, joining the Krishnas was an extraordinary step, even amongst the more broad-minded peers of Kiernan who would have regarded themselves as cool hippies at the time.

It wasn't a whimsical, attention-seeking move on his part, but a thought-out, soulsearched decision and 30 years later, he is still an ordained priest in the Vaishnava tradition. He lives in the tiny village of Charlton-on-Otmoor outside Oxford with his wife Keshava whom he married in a colourful Hare Krishna temple ceremony on Inish Rath island near Lough Erne 22 years ago.

His day job is Director of the Centre for Hindu Studies; he is an executive member of the Northern Ireland Inter-Faith Forum; an executive member of ISKCON's Ministry of Educational Development and a trustee of Bhaktivedanta College in Belgium which he founded. He has written articles on religion for The Guardian and The Independent and has presented a series of 'Prayer for the Day' on BBC Radio 4.

In his office in Oxford, there are photographs of various people who have influenced him, including his spiritual teachers. Pride of place is given to a photo of his father Lorcan, a native of Enniscorthy (one of his teachers was Colm Toibin's father ' Boss Tobin') who was 'a huge influence on my life'.

Lorcan was a staff officer for housing in Wexford County Council and a fine amateur actor who was involved in Wexford Drama Group along with people like Billy Ringwood and Jean Gould.

He married Mairin whose family hails from Kilmuckridge and they had five children - Lorcan (Wexford); Peter (London); Tim; Giliosa (Kildare) and Colm (Sweden).

Lorcan was a thoughtful, considerate and broad-minded man. Tim remembers him practising his lines in the sitting room of the family home at Wygram Place, Newtown Road, where they moved when he was five, after a time living in Bernadette Place.

'He was learning the lines of King Creon in Antigone and we were all quaking in our boots because we had never heard him shouting before.' On an earlier occasion, the son was able to boast out on the street that his father was a Guard – Lorcan was playing a Garda Sergeant in the Tops of the Town and the uniform was hanging in a wardrobe upstairs to prove it.

Lorcan said something to his son which he never forgot and he repeated it to him again on his deathbed – he died from pancreatic cancer at the age of 48, the same age Tim is now. Tim was almost 15 at the time. 'He knew I was interested in spirituality. Since the age of seven, I wanted to be a priest. I always felt I had a vocation. He knew I was exploring that.'

'He said find principles that inspire you and that you know to be good and stick to them for the rest of your life. Then you can respect yourself and others can respect you.'

Lorcan had questioned the Catholic church himself in the 1950s but came back to it with a stronger faith and joined the Legion of Mary.

Those words were to to echo many times in Tim's life, especially in the early years following his own spiritual choice.

'I have chosen to do things that are a little extraordinary. People looked askance or laughed at me but I was following my heart,' he said.

He pursued what he believed in and deep down he knew that he wherever he went, he had his father's approval. It was to prove very empowering.

One Sunday, Lorcan brought Tim, then aged nine and an older brother to Mass but instead of going to Rowe Street Church as usual, he took them down to the gallery in the protestant church, St. Iberius on the Main Street.

After sitting through the whole service, he asked his sons - 'Now, was that very different from the other Mass'. They said 'no' and Lorcan replied 'that's right'.

That lesson was to stand to Tim later in life when he became involved in inter-faith initiatives, especially in Northern Ireland.

Books borrowed from Wexford County Library also played a part in his spiritual and philosophical development - he came across the philosophy section by accident after spotting a book called 'The Republic'.

He was aware of his father's republican heritage - Tim's grandfather's first cousin was Kitty Kiernan who was enaged to be married to Michael Collins - and decided to learn more.

The book written by Plato had nothing to do with Irish republicanism, however.

He started reading the bible when he was about 13. He also read the Koran, the Tao Te Ching and the Buddhist Sutras.

In sixth year in St. Peter's College, he found a copy of Bhagavad Gita, one of the most popular texts among Hindus, in someone's desk, and was fascinated by it. 'I was finding truth in everything I was reading,' he recalls.

'I read it three times and came back one day and it was gone.'

Peter's College was a 'good experience' with some excellent teachers who inspired an interest in English literature, music and history.

'I did find Catholic education very good. I find it to be very wholesome, no matter how heavyhanded some people could be about it'.

When he left, he wasn't sure how to pursue his vocation. He kicked up his heels for a while. Coming out of Trinity College with his brother one day when he encountered a group of Hare Krishnas.

They invited him to a talk on self-realisation with a vegetarian meal thrown in. From the minute he walked into the Krishna temple in Mountjoy Square, he felt 'relaxed and at home'.

'They were speaking Christianity but not calling it that. I knew I had met the people I was to practice with. My desire was to be a Christian. I had to struggle with the fact that I found it being practised to the highest standard by nonChristians'. Joining didn't feel like a courageous act. 'I was just following this desire to serve God and to do whatever God wanted me to do rather than doing what I wanted to do for God'. He became Shaunaka Rishi Das, the religious name by which he has been known ever since.

His mother's protective instincts were on full-alert at the time. 'She was trying to deal with teenage children. This was difficult for her to digest and I don't think I helped through my lack of awareness,' he said.

Nowadays, he counsels young people to 'go back to your parents and realise what they have done for you, you can never repay them in your whole life, and reassure them you are making a personal decision'.

He spent 13 years living in Ashrams (spiritual communities) and became temple president in Dublin and Belfast.

He was introduced to the inter-religious dialogue movement by the Chief Rabbi of Ireland, David Rosen and was elected chairman of the Northern Ireland InterFaith Forum for four years.

He remembers getting off the train in Belfast that first time and asking a man how to get to the city centre. 'Are you a Taig?,' he demanded to know. 'Pardon?,' Tim replied. 'Are you a Fenian, a Free Stater?,' asked the man.

'I was standing in front of him with a shaved head and orange robes and he was asking me was I an Irish Catholic from the South. I then began to understand what Northern Ireland was about,' he said.

Tim's life with the Hare Krishnas has taken him all over the world but he still has a wish to spend more time on pilgrimage in India and to devote more hours to prayer and chanting.

He and Keshava 'try our best to lead a devout life,' he said.

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