Pilgrimage is a way of life, meaning the peregrine must be attentive to every possible subtle paradox of the walk. However, sometimes the juxtapositions are so obvious even the cosmically blind could “see” them.
Attending Choral Eucharist at Christ Church Cathedral in downtown Dublin seemed the best way to bring a fitting conclusion to our forty-one days in Ireland. We were not disappointed. The beautifully restored Gothic cathedral of the Church of Ireland is a tribute to the majestic beauty of medieval worship space architecture. The worship was sublime. Angelic voices lifted sixteenth-century classical music in praise to God. The liturgy was straight from The Church of Ireland’s Book of Common Prayer (2004), a blend of traditional and contemporary prayers. Listening and participating in worship sitting in the Anglican gem of Ireland was a blissful worship experience. Receiving Eucharist in this holy preserve was a spiritually moving confirmation of God’s holiness found in Anglican sensitivities.
After worship, well, we needed a late lunch—so we went to The Church for a pint and a meal. Built in 1700, the former Anglican St. Mary’s is now a postmodern restaurant. John Wesley preached his first Irish sermon there in 1741. Arthur Guinness was married at St. Mary’s 1761. (Yes, his beer is proudly drawn on tap at The Church.) And Handel regularly played the still intact organ at the Dublin parish no more than six blocks from Christ Church. The building, to this day, contains the entered remains of several famous parishioners.
An exquisite bar right down “the center aisle” has replaced the ground floor church furniture. Comfortable pub furnishings seat customers were once pews boxes ushered the rich to the front.
All I could think of during our excellent lunch was how cool it would be to invite young adults to meet me at The Church for Theology on Tap. My good friend Thad has been encouraging me to add a beer and conversation dialogue that does not include worship to our regular schedule. Our tag line is conversation not conversion. Maybe we could call our newest endeavor, “Philosophy on Tap” and make t-shirts with the slogan “Jesus drank Guinness,” on the front.
Christ Church Cathedral had fewer people in worship than were having Sunday lunch at The Church. Sure, I wish all the houses of worship were packed on Sunday mornings, but that possibility died with the computer punch card. We don’t need to think outside the box, we need to be outside the box.
Two years ago our daughter’s wedding was at Trinity Cathedral. Immediately after the wedding we had dinner in the church courtyard followed by the dance and party in the parish hall. More than a few of her young adult friends told me if church was like this they might consider attending.
I’m not suggesting we turn Church Christ Cathedral, Trinity Cathedral, or any church into a pub. But we might start thinking of ways to make people feel as comfortable, at home, and welcomed as we did when we walked into The Church. I know we can do it—we’re a hospitable people and we like Guinness.
“If you tink about it, tousands of years ago, humans must have tought about the afterlife and here at Newgrange, we see the evidence of generations of tat tought,” said our brilliant young female Irish tour guide at the most well known burial site in the world.
Newgrange is older than Stonehenge by at least five hundred years and protected by the United Nations for its worldwide historical significance. Two kilometers to the south stands Knowth, older still. The two temples were set aside for the cremains of clan leaders and holy men and women. Between the two sites are found thirty-three percent of the world’s Neolithic art. The artistic symbols were pecked into multi-ton stones that encircle the great burial mounds.
Newgrange took over sixty years to construct. 5,000 years ago people floated ten-ton-stones down the Boyne River and then rolled them a mile and a half up hill. The people brought quartz, “The stone of the gods,” from the Wicklow Mountains fifty miles away to cover the eastern facing façade, reflecting the sunlight. They gathered perfectly rounded granite found twenty miles from the site. These people did not burrow into an already existing hill. Instead, they hauled the turf and rock from surrounding regions to construct their holy temple. Initially, from the ground up, they constructed the fifteen-foot high and twelve-foot interior cruciform shaped crypt. The burial room has not leaked one drop of water from its completion, an architectural feat rare in rare drenched Ireland. The crypt would eventually rest at the end of a thirty-foot low narrow, rock-lined path found under the 270,000-ton mound of layers of turf and rock.
Newgrange’s light box sets the holy site apart as one of a kind. The opening of the tomb faces east. The light box was created to allow the rising sunlight of the winter solstice to cascade down the path and fill the western recess of the tomb with seventeen minutes of glory. This astrological moment only happens surrounding the six days of the shortest solstice.
At our visit we were treated to a simulation. Entering the tomb in small groups the artificial light was turned off and we stood in absolute darkness for several minutes. Slowly, the “light of the rising sun” moved down the floor and up the recess to the crypt’s ceiling. For sure, a holy moment for the wise people of ancient’s past. For a postmodern people, this was a rare glimpse into an experience practiced 5,000 years ago, the ancient and the postmodern woven together as if millennia past were just yesterday. Who did the ancients worship? What was the meaning of their art? Why did they build these holy temples? Even experts only speculate.
As I have walked across Ireland it has been a privilege to witness many glorious monuments of nature and man. Unfortunately, some of man’s testimonies to time and reverence are in penultimate decay. Ancient churches torched by Cromwell are overgrown with trees and shrubs. The Anglican Church of Ireland has more historic churches closed than open. The dying institution is not replacing the church communities and crumbling buildings. The only apparent reason the Church of Ireland can remain in practice is its vast land holdings. Though there is an obvious end to that resource because the Church continues to sell its property. Even the dominant Roman Catholic Church is in rapid decline in Ireland. Worldwide, Christian churches are, at varying rates, losing a grip on the hearts and minds of the people. We are living in the post-Christian era.
Will tourist 5,000 years in the future visit Christian sites wondering what people of the past thought and why they practiced such a religion? Who can say? And what will it matter to us? If I dare purport to be a Christian, what is my responsibility to such a far away future? I do not know the answers to those mind numbing questions. I do know this, my experience is my experience and it is my reality. My experience of the divine and the ethereal continue to expand and build capacity. My soul is anamorphic. My heart is open to the cara in others. This I share as my experience of the God of the ancients and the God of the Present. This is all I can know and dare to share. It is enough, because this is all I have.
Our time in Ireland is drawing to a close. I asked my spiritual director if there was some place he thought we would be interested in visiting on our trip from Clare in western Ireland to Dublin on the eastern coast. He suggested we visit the Hill of Tara, north of Dublin near the Newgrange burial mound. As we entered the holy grounds I was not prepared for what I would see and feel on this particular day. Mystical experiences arise to the attentive often unawares and without expectation.
The Hill of Tara is one of the most important pre-Christian ceremonial sites known to man, older than Stonehenge. The 5,000 year-old ritual grounds are dominated by two raised ceremonial rings and a nearby burial mound. Pilgrims would travel days using the several spoke like roads leading to the hub of the revered site. Kings, clan leaders, holy men, and women gathered here at the hill offering an amazing 360-degree panoramic view spanning over fifty miles.
Evidently, due to the historic eminence of the Hill of Tara in Neolithic worship, early Christians must have found the need to co-opt the site. A very large statue of St. Patrick stands outside the church grounds marking his legendary visit in the fifth century while the site was still in use by pre-Christians.
The Anglican Church of Ireland conducts an annual worship service on March 17 in the now vacant parish. The three-century-old Christian cemetery is still in use today. I could not help but be reminded of my mother’s burial this past saint’s day.
While Cathy was gathering some literature regarding the historical significance of the site, I was standing outside the church door breathing in the misty air. Shockingly, the name of a nearby headstone grabbed at my heart. My mother’s mother’s name was Allie Pauline Kellett. There on a nearby headstone was the family name. I have been to Ireland four times and visited hundreds of churches and graves and have yet to see the family name. There was the grave marker, including reference to the Irish form of the name, Gillett. I searched the site and found one other such marker. I have no idea if we are related, but it was simply stunning to see the name.
Then we climbed the hill behind the church and walked the ancient ceremonial site. We could feel the waves and hear the voice of ancient rituals blowing over us. Standing atop the center of the grassy ritual platform, it was easy to imagine hundreds of people sprawling along the three rings carved like an amphitheater around the prominent mound elevation.
Returning to the church I saw a standing stone, bearing an etching of the Sheila-na-gig, fifteen feet from the Kellett grave. Earlier, I was so caught up in the family headstone I had not noticed the four-foot standing stone. Gazing at the grave marker, I put my hand on the standing stone. Immediately, dozens of ravens swarmed the air. The centuries old majestic tree looming over the Kellett marker and the standing stone is a rookery. The deafening arrival of so many ravens at just that moment filled my very being with a spiritual emotion I had not felt before this day.
The feeling was like being rooted, grounded, and deeply woven into the fabric of time. The confluence the most ancient standing stone of the Hill of Tara, St. Patrick’s Day and its significance in my life, the Anglican Church, my mother’s family name, and the raven, powerfully and positively overwhelmed my soul. Mystical moments do not happen because we will them into existence. They appear on the horizon of our lives because we are open to the possibility of the divine in a fresh and creative explosion of neo-reality into our soul lives—the anamorphic soul being shaped shifted into true cara.
The ancient is commonplace across the Irish landscape. Children play in castles decaying in the backyard. Churches long ago torched by Cromwell stand on the village hill still receiving the dead. Tiny dwellings of rock piled together 500 years past, thatched roofs long ago fell to rot, now resting vacant by the road near the farm house of the Celtic Tiger. The ancient and the postmodern intertwined as if 5,000 years ago were yesterday.
Our visit to Lough Gur was like a tourist in the jaunty car, observing today’s vision while riding the mode of yesterday. Standing among the Stone Circle at Grange erected over 4,000 years ago by souls seeking to connect to the gods of harvest and impending winter, affords a feeling of being in the midst of a unifying ache existing timeless in the human psyche. The longing to know the presence of God calls us all to our rituals. To ignore the Presence is to deny the existence of the circle of 113 stones standing eight feet above the floor and as well to ignore the houses we worship in our time. Indeed, man has built the cathedrals of time, yet still it is the inner instinct calling us to seek the face beyond the veil of the seen that beckons us to construct our palaces of worship.
To touch the stones of the ancients is to be in tune with the vibration of the people who called upon Crom Dubh of the harvest (mid-summer solstice of August 1) and Samhain god of the winter night and all souls (November 1). What rituals these ancient Celtic people practiced are left to speculation and imagination. The standing stones, circle stones, wedge tombs, and burial mounds each visited are testimony to the worship of the Creator God, the force of the Sun dominating all washed in its life giving rays.
In Ireland, the sun is still worshipped in some sorts. Cloudy, rainy, windy days fill the calendar, but let the sun’s summer warmth appear and observe the people parade out of their homes and shops to the beach and the park, wearing vestments of shorts, tank tops and swimming costumes. A modest people abandon their propriety to bathe in the rare life giving warmth of Father Sky. Consciously or otherwise, we worship what sustains us. The ancients looked to the sky and we join them still searching for the beyond. Even the atheist gives ascent to his own presumed existential omniscience, a kind of self-being “above the misguided.” Admittedly, although I am more comfortable on a miserable day of Samhain’s dark, cold, and rain, a little dawn sunlight among the clouds heartens my morning practice. Even if begrudgingly, in my case, we give some nod in acknowledgement of the god of light, or God of Light if you prefer.
So, what is the attraction to these holy pre-Christian sites? What is the draw to these living stones, historical, archeological, curiosity, or odd marvel? Places have presence. Stones, while holding silence, are a keeper of memory. Holy stones are monuments to the thoughts and ideals of the humans who gathered them. These simple porous rocks retain the sweat of those who carefully with great planning moved them into the exact place they remain. The stones begin to take on divinity in the incarnation with the oil of human hands. In formation, the standing carrick is an altar of the spattering of blood, eat my body and drink my blood. Divination moves across the eons of human cries for recognition from the one of Oneness. The spiritually longing soul desires a union no different today than yesteryear.
Recognizing now, my pilgrimage began at birth. The raven seen and the inner Raven of another world of imaginative contemplation have often guided this recent walk of Way markers. The Raven has been present each day of the walk, in flight nearby, casting shadow overhead, acknowledging a correct choice of path, leaving feathers as tokens, I have not walked alone. Even the specter of the majestic Ram was accompanied by a conversation with the old wise Raven of the woods. Here now, in the Circle of Stones, I am offered one more gift, the most beautiful perfectly curved onyx wisp of natures artistry from Raven’s quill. Do I know such as its meaning for this moment in life? I am not so presumptuous a postmodern seeker. The time of the ancient God may tease out the revelation, or not. I can only wait, like a stone in testimony to what I have experienced and observed.
Pilgrimage of tearful softened heart lures us three to this lonely seaside graveyard. Bog’s oak standing guard over the Bard’s tomb, his soul’s currack floating on bowl bent clouds hovering the blue still sea of Fanore Burren. Ravens in the rookery give announcement. Cows in abandonment moan in mourner’s wailing. Indeed this grave here rests Ireland’s too young lost voice— of spirituality he mystically found birthed in the Connemara primordial landscape eons steeped into the life of the rustic Gaelic being. Ancient church torched of Cromwell’s hell still in defiance sings spectral Mass from choirs of plots marked only by heaven’s rough stones, lying near the artist of the soul weaver of words, who offers his blessing to the sweet liturgy. Harp need pulled to hear not this day, for wispy breeze through sun shocked fields of glistening limestone give angelic muse to the Bard’s lusciousness. He who is nestled in the bosom of Mother Earth’s deepened green bed, he of the virgin soul of gods knew first favored love, did know of visions verse we can only ached to glimpse. Our grief is burdened from his silent voice—we too stare death’s fetching….reminding us all we are mere dust; save for the song filled day our heart leapt in hope filled rhythm fluttered by the Bard’s dream, for that day we too would feel the veil thin in which we sojourn.
Kildysart’s pre-dawn light is layered with soft pinks, a multi-colored layered blanket of blues and purples, and a yellow dash of light wanting to reveal the reluctant sun, which doubtfully will be seen today. The morning hours of this small Irish village will be quiet for hours to come. The only activity in the street is a foolish cat stalking a raven pecking at some child’s lost snack in the street.
My return to Kildysart yesterday was greeted by dozens of ravens flying overhead. The arrival felt like a homecoming, relaxing to the soul. This place is familiar, comfortable, and soothing. We’ve stayed in twenty-three different places over the past month and its nice to settle in one location for a week with people we know and a place we feel comfortable. The hospitality has been so genuinely welcoming everywhere we’ve been. But, still it’s nice to be in a community where we can kind of fit into the fabric of everyday life, or at least we are allowed to, sort of, in a playful way.
Kildysart is the home of my spiritual director and good friend, Father Michael O’Grady. We loved seeing him jaunt down the street with his spry smile bringing the key to our residence for the next week. Our host John Cahill is out of town at a wedding so he gave the key to Mike. We’ve stayed at John’s self-catering B&B twice before and we know how to make ourselves at home.
Mike invited us to his home for dinner on this evening. He lives just up the street in the village center. Mike bought this lovely little street view apartment for his mother forty years ago. After his father died, his mother would live with another son, but longed to “have her own key.” Through the years Mike slowly remodeled the place against his mother’s fear that he wouldn’t “be changing the little home.”
The evening was made special by our gracious host. How often does the monsignor cook dinner for his vegetarian friends? He borrowed a wok and made stir-fry because, “I love to try something new.” At seventy-six he seems ageless. The evening’s conversation was populated with memories of his mother sitting at the fireplace with some local friends, drinking sherry and remembering with “fondness and humor” the poverty of their early life.
Father Mike would be a co-celebrant at the Friday evening Mass, a year’s remembrance for a dear lady of the parish whose funeral he presided over. We left let him to get ready for the service. Our apartment is next to the church and we watched as half the village streamed by our window for the eight o’clock mass that “had to be over by half past eight because one of Ireland’s finest was featured in an Olympic bought at eight-forty-five.” Duly on time the people chattily hustled back to their televisions in thirty minutes.
While the institutional church is losing its grip on the Irish people, their spirituality is ever present. The Irish are grounded in their relationship with the past, the family, the land, and a God who permeates the ethos of communal life.
In a nation where ninety-five percent of the people are Catholic, though attendance is on the nose-dive and the Anglican Church of Ireland is rapidly disappearing, God-talk can be heard casually interspersed on the radio, peppered throughout the newspaper, and on the lips of pub conversation. Ireland’s most recent hero boxer Katie Taylor, the only Irish gold medal winner of the 2012 London games, thanked God for her win and the people for all their prayers. In an unusual display for an Irish athlete, but familiar to Americans, Katie would point to the sky after her victory. In the post victory issue of the Irish Star Newspaper there appeared an article about Taylor’s Pentecostal church and pastor. The country is so unacquainted with Pentecostalism; a sidebar story appeared explaining the Holy Spirit brand of Christianity.
The local pundits are predicting Ireland’s gyms will now fill with young children wanting to follow Katie into the ring. I wonder if the same could be said for young adults looking for something fresh about God following the young role model into her church. A phenomenon of the “attractional church model” of Evangelicalism we are all too familiar with in America.
Anecdotally, we encountered several adults and young adult alike who voiced his or her personal longing for a meaningful spiritual experience found lacking in the church. There was a general curiosity and genuine appreciation for my walking pilgrimage experience and my “different” style of Christianity they had not before encountered.
Historically, Ireland may know itself best in the face centuries of perseverance against English oppression and economic poverty. Forced migration is a common story for the Irish household. For a thousand years Ireland has been a battleground over land, politics, and religion. Once the population hovered over eight million, however since the potatoe famine of the 1820’s the population has been on a constant decline to its current 4.2 million. Generations of young people were expected to leave home and go to Britain, Australia, America, and Canada looking for work. In a reversal, during the boom of Celtic Tiger more people immigrated into Ireland than left. Young people from Poland and the Euro’s poured into Ireland. Unfortunately, the recent recession has reversed that brief trend. We were told countless stories of parents our age whose children had moved to Australia and Canada looking for work they could not find at home. Generational family farms and businesses may be lost if the next generation finds itself unwilling or incapable of taking over a four generation family lifestyle. Common references in Ireland and around the world can be heard in that, “I’m Irish Catholic, but that doesn’t mean much to me anymore.” The Irish are in as much a search for an authentic spirituality as people in America.
There is a current fascination in America with Celtic spirituality. John O’Donohue, Philip Newell, and Ester de Waal have written some excellent books on the topic. While these books are popular in America, they are fairly unknown here in Ireland. The idea of any such notion of a particular brand of seeing and knowing God, in other words Celtic spirituality, is most often met with a wry dismissal as if no such thing exists.
Much of Celtic spirituality is centered upon what little is known about the prehistoric people of Ireland. Four thousand year old burial mounds, ancient 2,000 year-old monoliths and stone circles provide only enough information for spiritual speculation. The only remnants of pre-Christian Celtic cultic practices and myths exist because Christian missionaries like Saint Patrick absorbed a few of these practices into the Christian cult. Icons like the Celtic cross remain a testimony to the worship of the sun being included into the worship of the Christian Jesus as the Son of God. There are few hidden reminders of a pre-existent religion where women were priests and equal with their male counterparts. The Sheila-na-gig is a not so subtle image of the power of fertility and strength of women. Once prominent on church building buttresses, these icons of wide vulvas have been removed over the centuries by a patriarchal religion. Forgotten in a few tiny places, like on the underside of an unused altar at St. Brigid’s Cathedral, Church of Ireland, in Kildare, these are ancient markers of a spirituality far removed from Irish Catholicism but lies under the surface of consciousness ready for renewal.
My experience has reaffirmed my notion that there is a general hunger in America and Ireland, and I assume other places, for a personal spiritual connection to the God we cannot see but sense is present. Why are we attracted to this inner feeling of the need for a spiritual connection? How do we scratch the itch of a spirituality left wanting by institutional churches? I think I have begun to have a sense, at least a tiny notion, that pilgrimage is a way to begin the exploration. More to come o
On a rare day in Ireland, the sun is shining brightly and the Irish won a gold medal. Lightweight boxing female rock star Katie Taylor won the gold in a close decision over the Russian fighter Soyfa Ochigava. Sitting in a local pub in Killarney, tears polled in my eyes, swept into the emotion of a pub full of Irish pride as the experienced Taylor won Ireland’s first gold and rare medal. Some here are calling Taylor Ireland’s most historic female athlete. She hails from Bray, a village close to Glendalough. As a tourist, I can say, “I’ve had a pint in one of the few pubs in Bray.”
Over the years, I’ve lost interest in the Olympics. Honestly, I can’t say my waning watching time had anything to do with the athletes or even the differing sports. The loss of “I could care,” is related to the American broadcast presentation.
Ireland’s government financed RTE covers the events with little interruption. They offer some analysis before and after major events. Any event involving Irish competitors is covered in entirety without the flurry of commercials or brevity of coverage. Taylor’s nation rocking gold was covered from the opening introduction to the final awarding of gold without any breakaway. Every second of the historical moment for Ireland and for women's sports was presented in its fullest glory.
I can hear all the American response to my idealistic pander to Irish Olympic joy—but given the capitalistic swollen US version of Olympic coverage I doubt I’ll care to watch the 2016 games, of course, I am happily in Ireland at the time.
Black Valley to Glenbeigh
Black Valley rests under the watchful eye of the Macgillycuddy’s Reeks, a twelve-mile long mountain range of the highest peaks in Ireland. The valley is so remote that its residents were the last in Ireland to receive electricity in 1978. Automobiles must share the narrowest of patchy roads with horse drawn jaunting carts and riders on horseback. The walk out of Black Valley is like moving through the history of Irish civilization. Long abandoned rock structures, once small rustic homes to eighteen-century farmers, stand along more modern houses of these fourth generation sheepherders. The people and the land are infused.
The mountain range is named for an eighteenth century chieftain. The reeks are a “black stack” of glacial rock. Fortunately, I did not have to climb Macgillycuddy’s Reeks highest point to get out of the Black Valley, but instead, a smaller ridge of the reeks at the end of Macgillycuddy known as the Cahir, about 400 meters high. The ascent began at an active farmhouse where a standing stone from an ancient people stood in the front of their house, seemingly as commonplace as the barn. The fifteen-foot stone stood as reminder of the Irish interweaving of the ancient and the postmodern. Though, I doubt the people living in this valley may be aware they are living in a postmodern, post-Christian world. If told, I’m sure they would simply raise an eyebrow.
Having climbed above the farmhouse quite some ways across the hill of black rock, I sat down for a drink of water. As I raised the water bottle my eyes fell on three standing stones not twenty-five yards from where I was resting against a large stone. There wasn’t a historical marker or any notation of some significance to mark this ancient holy ground. There in the flow of human time, I was alone to marvel in respect of another’s belief, culture, and ritual. I offered a prayer of thanksgiving for the mystical cycle of life.
Across the day’s twenty-two mile walk I would climb three steep hills and descend to their valley below. I wanted to revel in the completion of my 354-mile pilgrimage, but as soon as I did I would be reminded of the task at hand as I slipped to by bum on the wet loose boggy grass. Today required my focused attention. Any thoughts of celebration would have to wait for ten hours.
There was some odd justice in the final day of my walk being the longest. Currently, though, I have no earthly idea what that justice is—I’ll have to wait for such a poignant thought to occur, if it ever does. For now, I am simply exhausted and feeling very blissful at the end of the journey. Tomorrow and the rest of my life there will be good enough days to reflect on the meaning of this walk. The pilgrimage, however, continues. Pilgrimage is more than a walk—I have found it is a way of life.
Cathy and I refer to each other as ‘anam cara,’ soul friends. During this journey she has said we are anamorphic cara. Indeed, to be pilgrims as a way of life is to embrace with every morsel of being our personal renaissance of the inner beautiful, the haunting, the frightening, the hated, the adored, the soft, the cruel, the humorous, the damaged, the hilarious, the pitiful, every sliver of our conscious and our unconscious, and claim it as our own, who we are, who we are becoming transformed into for the sake of the other—anamorphic cara.
Muckross to Black Valley
A primeval portrait of Ireland can surely be experienced by walking the first leg of the Kerry Way. The Killarney National Park has preserved the pristine lands where humans lived 4,000 years ago.
Ice age glacial lakes formed 10,000 years past shimmer reflections of the earth’s grandeur. Long narrow lakes of black glass are pocked with mini-islands overgrown with lush trees home only to the birds. I wondered if man had ever walked on that virgin ground.
Here, Irelands highest mountains stand like gods reigning over their kingdom. Clouds of black, purple, silver, and holy white adore the majestic hills like crowns. Stone formations that were thrust out of the mountains into prominence by ancient ice sheers, now are monuments brought alive by a blanket of countless hues of green. Colors fan across the landscape from a royal black green to a translucent glisten. The divine oaks stretch out as cathedrals in God’s creation. Cypress spin and shine like belly dancers before the king. Ferns twirl like flirting eyes luring the heart into a peaceful rest. Spots of reds, browns, rusts, and florals of yellows, purples, and the odd blues dot the canvass as if the artist Spirit flicked her brush for accent across the masterpiece of multiple millennia. Could the Vatican’s St. Peter’s be so decorated with such a holy glory.
The journey was like centering prayer, contemplative and timeless. The walk was over before I could have imagined. Today was walking in the God’s holy Church of creation.
A few scenes would have inspired fantastical filmmakers. Hundred ton stones fifteen foot high are mounted by fifty-year oaks who have wrapped their roots around the monolith seeking the black earth for nourishment, both encased in a carpet of velvety moss. These trees could offer ancient tales of those who have rested under their umbrella of life. Little has been disturbed since early man hunted the red deer and fished for trout in order to survive against the elements of southern Ireland. The Atlantic is close enough you can almost smell the salty air.
I am in awe of the Creator’s holy sanctuary. This must surely be the thin place, the veil between this world and the realm of the unseen. Voices of the communion of saints whisper sweet words of loving bliss for those who will breathe in Earth’s natural silence. To live, and move, and have one’s being in this place is to be in a perpetual state of the Holy One’s Presence. I am humbled and feel a deep sense of privilege and gratitude to have walked this way at least once in my lifetime. This day has been a gift from the Eternal Earth Maker.
Glenflesk to Muckross
This morning there was some sorting out to do—from where would I start my walk. Being Anglican I decided to use the three-legged stool approach, scripture (Paddy Dillon’s Coast to Coast), tradition (local wisdom), and reason. For those of you who know me, you might suggest I rarely use much reason (yes, I did feel my way across Ireland).
Dillon’s book had left me wanting the last three days. Even by his own admission, the last few days of the Blackwater Way were not well marked and his guide was sketchy. Once again, another confirmation that scripture cannot be taken literally. The local folks with experience were extremely helpful. Indeed, they said, the end of the Blackwater was difficult even for the most experienced of those who grew up in the land. I should not feel too bad getting turned around. Reason? Okay, given my lack of reason, I still needed to make a decision that was best for me. Tomorrow I start the Kerry Way and there are some subsequent dates to which we are committed.
My pilgrimage has taken me more than 310 miles across Ireland. If I counted my backtracks, wanderings, and just plain being lost, well I may have walked enough in the miss-stepped mental fog to re-walk the first three days of the Wicklow Way. So, I asked myself, what is the best walk for me, today, this day, August 4, 2012, a day in time I will never experience again? Cathy drove me around to several sites. To say the least I was a bit flummoxed. Nothing seemed or felt right. The words a women, whom I flagged down a few days ago seeking some guidance, were still ringing in my ears, “You can only take so much forestry.” And I might add, “So much mosey bog.” Finally, we were near Glenflesk, not far from Shrone, I was standing outside the car looking at my map and a man pulled up and asked me if I was okay. I told him my story and he said, “Just walk to Muckross up this road by the lake, it’s a good walk.” Sometimes I need someone older and wiser to say—just go this way.
I took his sage advice and indeed, it was a good walk, a walk for my soul. I turned my face towards the mountains of Kerry. My trekking through the Wicklow Way, the South Leinster Way, the Munster Way and the Blackwater Way had revealed and unfolded a beauty I could not have imagined. However, the walk by Lough Guitane was majestic. From what everyone from Dublin through today has told me, “Go west to Kerry and see the diamond of Ireland.” Today was the perfect day to ready my soul for what lies ahead in the next few days as I conclude my walk from coast to coast and more importantly, my soul’s pilgrimage for the next chapter of my life.
Millstreet to Shrone
When I climbed to the top of the hill and didn’t find any Way marker to greet me, but instead an ominous sign say, “Grieves Wind Farm, Highly Dangerous, Threat of Death from falling, drowning, and electrocution,” I knew I was in the wrong place.
I guess I should start this story from the beginning. That would be rain. Not the constant gentle rain of Ireland, no today it rained and at times it poured, then pounded and then simply rained some more.
I left Millstreet this morning feeling as if I was going in the wrong direction. After asking two people, I got myself back on the right path. As I was walking over the bridge leaving Millstreet, a woman stopped her car and asked me if I was knew where I was going. I should have taken this as yet another warning sign. I said I could always use some advice and told her my intention of walking to Shrone. She got out of her car and rummaged through the boot looking for some maps, but she couldn’t find what she was looking for. She obviously was a local hiker and wanted to let me know the hills were filled with multiple loop options for walking. I thanked her not knowing her comment would be my undoing.
The forest trek up the Claragh Mountain was through a dark forest path that was identical to the Claragh loop. At the shoulder of the mountain the Claragh loop and the Blackwater Way I was walking separated, sort of. The route I was on swung around the northern shoulder of the brush covered mountain. Every step of the trail was shared with sheep and cattle. The mud was overflowing with this mornings rain. At times the brush was pulling at my rain poncho and pants. I was walking in mud and water over the top of my boots and I was so thoroughly drenched I could feel the water running down my legs into my boots. Today would be the first day my feet got wet.
At one point I was walking up a sheep trail, which I knew was a sheep trail because I was following the sheep, at some point the rain got so heavy my woolen friends sought cover under some low brush. As I passed my more intelligent friends I could sense their amusement as I slogged down the hill. Eventually, I found some refuge under a low hanging tree propped up against a stone wall. I waited there until I saw that the sheep thought it was safe to come out. The rest of the path down the hill took me through three fields where I had to climb under a “hot wire” used to keep the sheep and cattle in their respective pastures. I don’t know if the wire was live—I was too drenched to chance being shocked.
The near three-hour rain pounded muck trail finally dumped me out on a road on the south side of Claragh Mountain. There were at least four different Way markers, all pointed east. My map seemed to indicate this was possible so I followed what I thought was the right marker, thinking it would eventually turn west and take me to Shrone.
Three hours later I was standing a top Grieves Wind Farm staring at twenty-one wind turbines and the warning sign. I backtracked to the last Way marker I had seen two miles ago. The marker was by a road juncture near a farm. I thought maybe I had misread the arrow. While walking back I looked for a possible missed marker, none was seen. When I returned to the last marker, I indeed had followed it correctly. Across from where I was standing was a barn with two farmers inside working on some machinery.
The men were talking to each other in Gaelic. When I approached they spoke kindly to me in a heavy Irish brogue. I told them my story and explained about the Way marker just outside their barn. Are there any other markers up the hill? I asked them. They chatted in Gaelic. One answered, “No, I’m sorry there aren’t.” That’s odd, I said. “We know,” they smiled. I asked them if there was a way to Shrone from where we were standing. “No,” they said. “It’s a six hour walk from here back the way you came.” I asked where the nearest village I could walk to, I knew it was late and I was going to have to call Cathy to pick me and start over tomorrow. “Well, the closest village is where you started. I’ll give you a ride,” one man offered. I wanted to cry but I knew they would consider my already curious plot just plain weird if they saw any tears. When he dropped me off near Millstreet I asked if I could pay him, he refused and wished me best of luck. I told him how much I appreciated his generosity and blessed him. He smiled. I am continually astounded and thankful for the Irish hospitality, which is simply their way of living, moving, and having their being in this world.
Tomorrow I will regroup and see if I can make my way to Muckross. I’ve walked nearly 315 miles. The time for giving up has long been passed. I can now see the lure of the beautiful Kerry Mountains that will take me to the western coast. A few extra hours don’t mean much at this point in my pilgrimage. I can see that ram still looking at me.
Nadd to Millstreet
When I stepped over the raven’s foot lying on the path I knew it was an omen. The eight-hour day would be an adventurous ride across the Boggerragh Mountain range. My physical stamina would be tested. The soul that carries my spirit would feel energy from the earth and the ancients.
Yesterday’s trail through the dark forest and across Mossey Bog would include a similar experience, slogging through waist deep grass in water over my ankles. If my boots were ever to fail me, today could be the day. Between the trees running down the side of the overgrown and unseen path were deep gorges where years of rain had cut hidden gullies. Once I left the forest the route over hard clumps of sharp grasses between mosey swells of water and black bog mud was slow going. As I climbed through the rolling hill of bog the wind started to howl and the rain blew sideways. My footing was unsure. As I walked along the edge of the ridge I could see deep pits carved by centuries of torrential rain. For the first time in my journey across Ireland I questioned the safety of this route. The ridge dropped sideways into an old bog road where workman from years past had left slices of bog stacked in small pyramids.
The bog road turned into a forest road that led to a workman’s road leading up to giant energy generating wind turbines. The swooshing sound was a little creepy. The trail began to slowly take me down the hill into another long patch of forest. I stopped for a drink of water. I felt good about making it by what I thought would be the only test of the day.
The road meandered down through the close forest when I came to a clearing where the road dropped below a small ridge of ten feet. I thought my eyes were deceiving me because it appeared about hundred yards down the road there was a giant sheep standing above the trail. As I approached, I was met with the sight of wild ram. He was about four feet tall. He long coat was a mottled grey. Mounted on his head was a trinity swirl of thick horns. I knew if I angered him and he charged me I was helpless against his power. He stood motionless and watched me come down the road. Carefully I took out my camera and stopped for the seconds necessary to take a picture. He was ruler over his kingdom I was simply a tiny curiosity. I was parallel to him and took one more picture. He only turned his head to keep an eye on me. As I looked back walking down the road, he continued to stand guard over the world he owned. Somehow I felt he had given me something, but I wasn’t sure.
The next five miles were down the valley and then a climb up the other side of another ridge across the Boggeraugh Mountains, the Mushera. The long sweeping ridge across the bald mountain was exposed to the whipping wind of the rain filled cloud that began to settle over the peak. The perilous trail was along the northern edge of the ridge. I had a mile and half of mud, rough tall grasses, slippery rocks, and running rain filled gutter tracks. I started to feel the power of the ram. This trail required all the experience I have gained over the past three weeks trekking across Ireland.
Still, I would walk this day over and over again to experience what lie ahead. Two miles after slogging off the Mushera ridge the road opened onto a scraggly forest peppered with wide sweeping grassy hills with roaming sheep. The road carried me down the edge of the hills to a small field off the road where the Knocknakilla Stone Circle stood. The prehistoric worship site was probably erected two thousand years before Christ. With trepidation and great reverence I stood in the middle of the circle where I could sense the haunting of ancient voices. As I touched the tallest stone still standing against the winds of times I felt the prayers of a millennia of peoples—I dared to add my own humble prayers, thanksgiving for the raven, awe of the ram, and the blessed safe care of God and Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Indeed, the ancient and the postmodern are woven together as if 4,000 years ago were yesterday.
The omen had been given, the road walked, and another day had been experienced.
Ballynamona to Nadd
What is left at Ballynamona is the negative evidence of progress. A few years ago a major highway cut through the middle of the once tiny village. Now all that remains are a few houses and a long ago closed decaying church building. There was a sign just outside the gate of the church cemetery warning potential gravediggers to be aware of the dangers of such activity. The fresh mound of dirt over Granny’s grave made me wonder if her family had permission to dig the grave that rested among other three-hundred year old inhabitants. Only recently has grave digging been regulated in Ireland. From the beginning of memory, it has been the custom for friends of the family to dig the grave the day before the funeral during the wake. Once the grave was completed a member of the family would bring a bottle of Jameson to the diggers and there they share the bottle and remember the cherished community member.
A mile past the church were the collapsing ruins of a castle standing tall on top of a hill now occupied by grazing cattle. Ireland is a country where the ancient and the postmodern are intertwined as if centuries past were simply yesterday.
Not long past the castle a red Mini Cooper pulled up beside me as I walked down a small country lane. A neighboring husband and wife headed out to take a walk along the river. She asked all the now expected questions, “Where was I headed, where did I start from, was I enjoying Ireland, how did I find the countryside?” They were members of the local hiking club and she was especially curious about my experience of the Blackwater Way. A few weeks prior, she told me, they hosted three hikers from Germany who had found the local countryside to be lacking in excitement. The driver of the red Mini was very pleased that I found the pastoral farmlands to be soothing and healing to my soul. “A good story my club will want to hear,” she said.
Six miles southwest took me through the village of Bweeng, the official end of the Avondu Way and the beginning of the Duhallow Way, the two trails that form the Blackwater Way. The slow climb out of the village took me through the Boggeragh Mountains. These mountains are an interesting mixture of strips of untouched dark forest, forest thinning, complete forest harvesting, and re-forest planting. I imagine what I saw was the result of a hundred years of somewhat planned forestry efforts. How easy it would be of me to be critical of the mile square raw harvested land. Yet, the very next mile square was lush with trees that must have been planted years ago. While the next several miles has been left untouched.
Just before leaving the forest I met a very large and probably old Raven. He flew overhead and then landed in the tree I approached. He had much to say with his booming voice. His word to me was, “observe.” I thanked him and as I was walked away he laughed the laugh of wisdom watching a pilgrim about to face a test.
Indeed, the forest road ended into the dark forest itself, where I would have to muck my way under low hanging branches through moss covered rocks and down a tiny path flowing with rain water. Somewhere during the half-mile slow going slog I took my first spill of my eighteen-day walk. I had to step off one level of forest floor down onto another four foot below. The trail was obscured by grass. I took my first step carefully as my next step slipped landing me squarely on my backpack. No harm, no foul, clean tackle, I bounced up, well for an exhausted fifty-eight year old man, I bounced. The Raven’s laughter was ringing in my ears.
The forest trail opened out onto a sweeping hillside known as the Mossey Bog. Cut across the bald hillside was a road six below the surface of the bogged landscape. As I walked down the water filled trail, I wondered why anyone would build a road through this massive mound of prehistoric pile. After a mile of walking down the road cut through the bog it dumped me out onto the country road leading to Nadd. There I was met with a road placard memorializing the hundreds of Irish soldiers who had cut 270,000 tons of bog that was used for fuel during World War II. The ancient and postmodern, woven together as if centuries past were simply yesterday. Ah, my wise friend the Raven, I hear you.
Killavullen to Ballynamona
Last week was a tad bit of the Irish summer. That was last week. Rain and wind has set in and looks like it could be here to stay awhile. Fortunately, it hasn’t been the downpours of June the Irish experienced, but more of the steady, constant, soft rain. The ground is saturated, so any path not covered with tarmac is mud. The route to Ballynamona was mostly up through rain running tiny forest paths and down muddy field tracks and boreens. The Blackwater Way started in Clogheen, County Tipperary and moved across County Cork and will connect in two days with the famed Kerry Way in County Kerry. Irish identity is as subtle and varied as the forty shades of green. People here understand themselves as part of the Irish landscape, nuanced by county and village. Family clans, planted in the same countryside for untold generations, are the deep roots that no amount of wind and rain can topple. Ireland oozes community. By moving slowly across this island country I have been able to feel the gentle differences in landscape, culture, and traditions, the weather has remained constant.
Traveling west, I’ve moved out of the more mountainous regions where sheep populate the hillsides into more rolling farmlands where small herds of black and white Celtic cattle are in every field. It must be the time to separate the yearling calves because most farms have the cows and the bull in one field and the heifers in another. A common sound is to hear the calves balling to their mother’s across the lane and the mother’s answer with an occasional sound of relief. Some of the funniest scenes I’ve encountered have been the random cow who has managed to “escape” but now can’t find her way back into the field. All the other cows bunch up near the fence as if to ask is the grass better out there, while the escapee stands looking puzzled, asking for help on how to get back home.
In my many journeys through the woods I haven’t encountered much wildlife. Birds abound, lots of ravens and the many cousin derivations. I’ve seen a few owls and a predator bird or two, though not too sure what kind they were. I’ve only seen one doe, a fox, a few rabbits, and on today’s trail, I saw my first Irish Hare. The hare was larger than the Arizona jackrabbit, taller and heavier. His coat was brown almost a rust color. When he saw me, he stood up and I could see his short pointed ears. He didn’t stick around long enough for me to take his picture.
Forestry is a major industry in Ireland. Large swaths of forests are harvested and then replanted. But even with the amount of lumbering there are miles and miles and miles of untouched forest. The woods that have not been thinned are so dark I doubt the ground has seen daylight for hundreds of years. Sometimes the forest floors are so dark, even the moss and lichens are absent. These places feel foreboding and a sense of haunting wafts from their midst. When the day is filled with mist and the wind howls, ah, the veil between this world and the other is awfully thin. I wonder what tomorrow will bring?