I was lucky enough to get some very nice books in my Christmas stocking in 2021. One was a beautiful memoir by Hilary Wakeman of part of her time as Rector of the Kilmoe Union in the Mizen peninsula.
Kilmoe comprises a broad stretch of rural West Cork which begins just west of Ballydehob and includes Schull and Crookhaven. There are three churches in the Kilmoe Union, Holy Trinity in Schull, Teampol na mBocht in Altar, and St Brendan’s in Crookhaven.
Hilary was one of the first women ordained a priest in the Church of England in 1994. She had been working in the Church as a deaconess and then deacon for nine years prior to that. She was one of the first women to take charge of a parish while still a deacon and was a member of the General Synod, the Church of England’s governing body, from 1990 to 1995. In 1994 Hilary was made an Honorary Canon of Norwich Cathedral.
The Church of Ireland began ordaining women as priests in 1990 and Reverend Canon Hilary Wakeman was the first female priest to take over a parish in West Cork when she was appointed Rector of Kilmoe in 1996.
In the spring of 1995 Hilary and her husband John spent a week’s holiday in Ireland. That was the catalyst that led to them moving to Ireland full-time in 1996 when, in March, Hilary was appointed Rector of Kilmoe. Hilary knew that moving from Norwich to rural West Cork was going to represent great changes for her, her husband John and daughter Rosie, and so in the Spring of 1996 she began keeping a diary.
This beautiful book, A Different World: An English Vicar in West Cork, is a memoir based on those diary entries from April 1996 to June 1997. On 10 May 1996 Hilary was instituted as Rector of Kilmoe, and the great adventure began. For some of us, 1996 seems very recent indeed, but reading this memoir we realise that West Cork was a very different place just a quarter of a century ago.
This is not Hilary’s first book. She is an accomplished writer and editor. Saving Christianity: New Thinking for Old Beliefs was published in 2003 and in it Hilary argues that if ‘moderate Christianity is to survive, we need to find new ways of expressing old truths’.
Hilary also edited a number of books, including Women Priests: The First Years, published in 1996, and Circles of Stillness: Thoughts on Contemplative Prayer from the Julian Meetings, published in 2002. Hilary was also a regular contributor to the ‘Rite and Reason’ column in the Irish Times and was an occasional contributor to the Southern Star.
Hilary’s husband John Wakeman was a poet, editor, and a noted scholar. In 1999 John started a poetry magazine THE SHOp, and Hilary joined him as co-editor when she retired in 2001. THE SHOp was a very welcome and significant addition to the collection of Irish poetry publications.
THE SHOp was produced entirely from John and Hilary’s old stone cottage at Skeagh, at the foot of Mount Gabriel to which the couple had retired. Three issues of THE SHOp were published each year until the final double issue, Number 46-47, was published in the Autumn of 2014. Because of John’s deteriorating health, the couple returned to Norwich in 2017, and John died in 2018.
THE SHOp was a publication of great beauty and was widely acclaimed in poetry and literature circles in Ireland and abroad. Bernard O’Donoghue called it ‘unquestionably the most beautiful poetry magazine now in existence’, and Seamus Heaney described himself as a ‘confirmed SHOp-lifter’.
I had the pleasure of meeting Hilary and John at their cottage in Skeagh on a number of occasions. Their hospitality was generous and their company engaging and easy. Hilary’s memoir A Different World is a joyful reflection on the first year of the couple’s great adventure in West Cork. It is a beautiful, personal observation and will definitely strike a chord with many people.