Driving from Trim to Gort I turned on the radio, something I have not done since I’ve been in Ireland as I generally choose silence to support the sacred intention of these journeys. There are few stations to choose from here so I scanned to find Ireland’s foremost station, RTÉ, and found myself in the middle of an interview with a general practice doctor who runs a stress clinic in Galway. I would learn later from friends that this woman is very well respected and her clinic is always very busy.
The interviewer was in the middle of questioning her about stress reducing pharmaceuticals, the drugs with which we are so familiar. She listened quietly to his assumption that these must be an integral part of her treatment. Then she gently responded that while these were effective in severe cases she much prefers more natural and herbal treatments, finding them every bit as and often more effective in many situations. And at the interviewer’s request she reeled off a long list including Vervain, which she named as the Druid’s herb noting it has been used since the time of the Druids. I was both delighted and surprised to hear such an easy mention of Druidic heritage on this national broadcast.
It was yet another example of how the old ways, and in this case the ancient healing traditions, are still so very present in this country. I wondered what the reaction would be were a reference to Druidic healing practices be so casually included on one of our radio stations in the States.
Yesterday I enjoyed almost five hours over lunch and coffee with another of the wise women of western Ireland. When I mentioned the RTÉ interview she responded with story after story of healing after healing with local, common, and very accessible plants. Stories of seemingly miraculous healings of both people and animals. Stories from her childhood, stories about the practices of her father, mother, and grandmothers. The stories as abundant and commonplace as the plants.
Stories that apparently have largely disappeared from the landscape, most notably when reliance on public health facilities replaced a reliance on Nature’s faculties. But clearly they are not completely gone. Clearly there are those who will still speak of and work with the Druid’s herb.
If you’ve spent any time with my book or this blog you will know that Biddy Early, known in her life and since as the wise woman of Clare, features prominently in both. I’ve known there are healers throughout this country. But only during these past few weeks have I come to realize the breadth and power of the wise woman community here.
But a note on Biddy. Some time ago my dear friends Stu and Annalu bought me a small ceramic sign that reads “Don’t Piss Off The Fairies!” When Jack, Mia, and I went to visit Biddy’s cottage two weeks ago I thought about posting a sign on it “Don’t Piss Off The Witch!” For it was clear someone had. The small scarf across the doorway provided no more than a suggestion that we stay out. We didn’t. On entering we found rolls of toilet paper, cans of baked beans, a sleeping bag, and tarps in the corner. There was evidence of a recent fire. A puddle of water collected in the seat of a lawn chair was the only indication that it had been some hours at least since this visitor had been here. I barely had time to take all this in when it hit me. A powerful energy stirred up and angry. Although I knew this wasn’t about us I quickly grabbed Mia to me and called in the Light to shield us. It was intense and in dramatic contrast to the energy of this place on prior visits. I have no idea why this individual had come to camp in the cottage or what they thought they were doing. But whatever it was Biddy was not happy.
When I mentioned this to Aisling in a delightful five hours with her yesterday over tea and scones she said she and the sisters would soon make a visit to work on clearing the energy. The sisters. It turns out there are many. Women of power. Women of healing intention for their people, the planet and the world. Aisling is a bright light among them and she is now connecting me with others. As I write this I am waiting for a return phone call from one in the Galway area so we can arrange tea in the next couple of days. It will be wonderful to meet her. It is already wonderful to know there is a vibrant sisterhood here…the new wise women of western Ireland.
It was a lovely dinner of six hours and delicious food with neighbors from what I have come to call the Gort Glen. Felim had prepared fish shepherds pie and a salad of greens and flowers fresh from their garden. Through bottles of Chardonnay and pots of tea and coffee we wandered through all manner of conversation.
It was impossible not to talk about the travesty being played out in Gaza. And that talk turned to local protests at Shannon Airport. So many US troop planes stop there for refueling as they head to Afghanistan and the Middle East folks here consider the airstrip to be something of a US subsidiary base. They also suspect the planes may be carrying weaponry which would be against all peace accords but Irish officials dance around all questioning saying they are not allowed to comment because of some diplomatic agreement. Recently a friend of those gathered around the dinner table had scaled the airport fence intending to have a closer look at those planes. But she instead had a closer look at a police facility.
The talk that night wasn’t all political but much of it was. And much of it included comment about the US, our policies and actions. How could it not? We are such a dominant force in this world. When Felim and Aisling were getting ready for bed after we all wandered home Aisling suddenly reflected on how much of the dinner conversation included criticism of America. “And here with Judith being an American!” To which Felim quickly replied, “Ah, but there’s a mistake there. Judith is really Irish.” He hadn’t thought about it before making that declaration. But when I saw them the next day he was very excited to share his conclusion with me. “You’re Irish!” he said, throwing his hands in the air. Perhaps the nicest thing anyone has said to me on this Ireland journey.
It was a time of desperate poverty in Fore. As it was throughout much of rural Ireland. It was the tightly woven fabric of generations living in the same community that kept families together and as whole as possible. These were hard times. These were times when survival was a fragile balance.
His mother died when he was only eight weeks old leaving his father to raise and support the now seven children. Determined to keep his family together the father relied on the generous support of brothers, sister, aunts and uncles – and others within this small community. Though their hearts were willing their generosity was tempered by the little they had to spare and share.
That’s when the Church stepped in. Not to offer assistance with food and clothing. Not to offer support for the beleaguered father. But to take the children from him and place them in institutions. Institutions like the Magdalene Laundries. He said no. And despite tremendous and tenacious pressure from the Church clergy he continued to refuse to relinquish his children to what are now being called institutions of slavery. Institutions from which the Church derived huge profits. The newspapers here are filled with the stories, the pain and the grief. For these are not old stories. The Magdalene Laundries only ceased their operations in the 1990s. And this story was just given to me last week by the daughter of that eight week old baby.
The church in Fore, pictured above, towers above anything in the village. Its size and opulence are in stark contrast to the scattering of modest homes and buildings. It would have been the clergy from this church that relentlessly hounded that poor father. It was this massive building that witnessed that father’s courageous rebellion.
I tucked the keys in my pocket and climbed the stairs to the remnants of the small stone church. I’m generally not inclined to wander the ruins of churches, monasteries, or castles. But this is one of the few remaining early Catholic Churches from the time when practitioners knew that God was in them and every living thing – before they were told to believe that God was only to be found in the doctrine and structures of the Church. This turning from St. John’s teachings to those of St. Peter would change the inner and outer landscape of Ireland entirely, and not for the better. I wanted to know, to feel, whether the residual energy of the church would echo this early wisdom. It did. With yellow flowers growing from the tops of the walls this stone sanctuary held a presence of peace and harmony. It was a lovely place.
Down the hill and across the road were the ruins of a massive monastery originally built at the same time as the church to house 300 monastics. War, politics, and advancing Church doctrine would destroy the original structure and intention, replacing both with a larger, more hierarchical, celibate, penitential, and generally more grim institution. It was a grim place.
Making my way still further up the hill I used the keys to enter the padlocked gate of the walled enclosure and arched double doors of the small chapel. Walking softly over the dusty floor and tile fragments I approached the altar and stopped short. Lying on the altar were several long slender bones. I couldn’t tell whether they were human or animal but I could sensed they reflected the same discordant and stirred up energy that was coming from the enormous stone slab attached to the adjacent wall. The English inscription and dates, in contrast to the Latin inscription on the altar, proclaimed this imposing plaque to be in honor of a seventeenth century English overlord. An arrogant gesture of domination. A declaration in total disharmony with the much older chapel.
Just to the left of the altar was a low ceilinged passageway and narrow stone stairs that spiraled up to the only remaining anchorite cell in Ireland. Getting to the second story cell required a stooped posture and I wondered if this wasn’t intentional as I imagined those who made this holy one way journey so many centuries ago. Those who entered would never leave again, dedicating the rest of their lives to prayer. The small windows built into the thick walls opened up a magnificent view of the surrounding landscape. However those who resided within would have taken a vow to never again go outside. Never again to step into that landscape.
I could feel the peace of this joyful willing sacrifice. I caught myself. I was seeing this as a sacrifice but it was far more likely that those who inhabited this cell considered it an honor and privilege. As I stood next to one of the windows in the nine foot square room I breathed in the peace of this space. Yet being here for the rest of my life was something completely beyond my imagination. When I sensed the female presence of one of the anchorites I was reminded that women and men were equally engaged in the early church. I smiled and offered her a prayer of deep gratitude before bending to make my way down the narrow stairs.
Whether physical bones on the altar or metaphorical bones of conquest, neither could remove the sacred energy of this place. Of this landscape. Of this land.
Anthony, our Boyne View B&B host, makes the best scrambled eggs I’ve ever eaten. How can you not put your faith in a man who has such complete alchemical mastery of the egg? So when he told us that Fore was a delightful sleepy little Irish village, we were inclined to believe him.
Sleepy. When JC and I arrived in Fore just before noon comatose was the word that came to mind. Nothing was open. Nothing was moving. After our drive from Trim my desire for espresso was overshadowed by our requirement to find a toilet. Looking around I surmised this would not be a place to find an espresso, even the push button machine version popular here and only a final desperate option as far as I’m concerned. But at this point toilets were our immediate quest and we even walked to the other end of the village – OK, so it’s only two blocks – to see if the church was open. It wasn’t.
I suggested optimistically to JC that perhaps one of the two side-by-side pubs might open at noon. So we wandered back to the picnic table outside the pub front doors. Just then a van pulled up. The driver hopped out and came over to greet us. “Where’yez from?” he said as he stuck out his hand to shake ours. For a fleeting moment we thought he might be the pub owner come to open the place. Nope. He was deliveringseveral containers of milk which he carefully balanced on an empty beer keg next to the pub front door. He was just being friendly and we spent several minutes listening to him talk about places he’s visited in the States. “Ah,” he said as he hopped back into the van and sped off to his next delivery, “they’ll open soon enough.” Not soon enough for us. We made our way back to the car park and the next village.
We were back in Fore by 1:30. Progress. The very small tourist office-public toilet-cafe-gift shop was just opening. The woman in charge was unloading her car with rhubarb, peach, and apple tarts and bags of scones she had made earlier that morning. We had come to Fore to visit ancient sites, one of which required a key. The woman told us, “Oh, now you can be getting the key from the second pub down the road. That’s the woman just there walking her dog. I expect she’ll be back at the pub in half an hour.” JC and I stepped onto the sidewalk and looked after the woman and the aged overweight canine. From the look of her wrapped ankle and speed of the dog we knew it would be more like an hour – a suspicion she confirmed when we caught up with her and shared our desire to visit the locked anchorite tower. JC and I had a leisurely wander through the nearby monastic ruins and when I went back to collect the key, now well after 3:00, the pub was still closed. Suddenly the door opened and, with her mobile phone at her ear, the woman gave me big smile, told me she had seen me through the window, handed me the key, said to enjoy and stay as long as we liked, and slammed the door closed again.
We were in no rush that day. A good thing. So for us the slow rhythm of this sleepy little village was indeed delightful.
I didn’t get that double espresso. At least not right away. As I headed to the cafe I was drawn to a small stone building with a sandwich board announcing an exhibition of Courtney Davis’ artwork. As far as Celtic artwork, his is iconic and the man is prolific. His images are everywhere. I enjoy his work (an example to the right) and was intrigued. As I stepped through the doorway I was greeted with a floor to ceiling and wall to wall display of art. I was also greeted by Courtney.
I mentioned I had a few of his pieces. Including window stickers which I have given as gifts and which are always displayed in the back window of my rental car when I’m in Ireland. “My god,” he said, “that’s a long time ago you bought those. I’ve had two wives since those were made.”
I told him his work is truly amazing. He said he had help and was of course referring to sources of inspiration. I also asked if he had help in this dimension with what must be a massive undertaking of production and distribution. “No,” he said. “I’m a very busy one man operation.” I laughed and mentioned that the last person I had heard say that was Jack Roberts. At this Courtney went off. Jack Roberts!?! He had always admired and wanted to meet Jack and hoped very much that would happen one day. Well. Turns out Jack and I are headed back this way next week for a dinner with Anthony Murphy. Arrangements are now in place to stop by the shop which Courtney said he would close during our visit.
English by birth Courtney just recently moved himself and his art business to Ireland. He just feels there is something energetically opening up here and he wants to be part of it. For himself and the healing of the people and planet. When we meet him next week it will be very interesting to hear more…and to witness the meeting and weaving of two amazing artists and spirits.
It took only a few days of traveling together for JC to understand that after navigating Ireland’s narrow and undulating back roads I required a double espresso when we arrived at our daily sacred site destination. I knew from experience that just below the Hill of Tara was an excellent coffee shop. She wandered off to explore the landscape of Ireland’s High Kings. I headed for cup of caffeine.
Unlike the sacred sites in western Ireland those here on the east coast and particularly around the Boyne Valley are infested with tour buses. And tourists. The key is to time an approach between the waves of tours. Several coaches had just disgorged their people into the Tara car park so JC wisely decided to head to a fringe area on a hillside near some trees and wait for the traffic to subside a bit. She had just settled in for a meditation when he arrived.
He was dressed in green from head to toe, in vibrant contrast to his unruly mop of red hair. Bright of spirit and light of foot he fairly bounced up the hill with his staff. He walks these hills often, keeping his course to the side slopes to avoid the crowds. He stopped short when he saw JC. Recognizing her as not your average or even close to average tourist they were soon in conversation about the magical landscape and the spirit of the land – still very palpable after hundreds of years and thousands of tour buses. After several delightful minutes of conversation he reached into the folds of his clothes and produced a copper wire triple spiral he had made. Placing it in JC’s hand he bounded over the hill and disappeared.
I admit I was skeptical about being in eastern Ireland. So many people now visit these sites that a decidedly theme park atmosphere has settled over these places like a commercial fog. Long lines and limited access times have made Newgrange a place to be avoided. If feels a bit like visiting a megalithic zoo. I was skeptical that we would get any sense of connection to these places. I was skeptical that we would hear any ancient voices. But I was wrong. Yes, it takes more focus and concentration and stepping aside to the less trodden paths. But amidst the waves of tours and tourists it is possible to connect. It is possible to be buoyed up by the gifs of the Green Man.
I met Shaun in the departure lounge at Newark airport. We hit it off right away. He was traveling discreetly in Mia’s hand luggage. He was, after all, livestock. And he had no passport. So discretion was required. But that only lasted as long as the flight. Once we landed in Shannon Airport Shaun had a field day, as sheep are inclined to have. There are photos of Shaun on the stone walls of County Clare, enjoying music and a pint in Doolin pubs, hiding in the massive towers of flowers that dot the Sligo street scape, assisting us in delivering our laundry to the dry cleaners, hiding throughout the garden in Serenity, hiding behind the stones in Brigit’s Garden…and more. All of his adventures duly recorded and sent to Mia’s daughter, Adeline. Her favorites were the find-shaun-in-this-picture photos. And so we made our way through Ireland leaving many amused, if not bemused, locals and tourists in our wake. I would highly recommend taking Shaun on your Ireland adventures. However I would not recommend you let him drive.
In traveling to Ireland over the years I have been cautious to speak much about the spiritual nature of these journeys with our B&B lodging hosts. I’ve always considered it not terribly gracious to broach the nature of my work with these lovely people raised and steeped in the Catholic tradition. Unless asked, which they never did. Yet after many return visits they generally had a sense of it and were cautiously comfortable with it. And some were delighted to share stories which are now included in my book. Brendan among them.
As I gift these folks with copies of the book I’ve been very curious about their reactions and careful about how I introduce the content. As I mention in a prior post the Catholic Church doesn’t do especially well in my writing. Sharing a bit about the book I focus on and highlight what I believe could be common ground. Of course when I handed a copy to Vera, our B&B hostess in Spiddal who had just returned from Mass, she opened the book right to the section on Catholics where I quote Tom Cowan about Christianity having caused the greatest soul loss in human history.
With all of these people there has been gracious hospitality for the idea of the book…yet guarded caution when they see the cover, read the sub-title, and scan the table of contents. I’ve already written about where this went with Vera. We did find common ground. Other friends in Spiddal promised to read the book before I see them again later this month. Perhaps they will.
Giving the book to Brendan was particularly interesting. Over our four day stay at Serenity B&B I would stop into the kitchen and see the book in various locations and sometimes catch a glimpse of Brendan studying the pages, reading glasses perched on the end of his nose. He and I had more than one circular conversation where we danced round and round. Him apologizing for not having yet read the book and promising to spend more time with it. My appreciating that he was in the middle of harvesting silage and assuring him that my giving him and Elizabeth a copy was in gratitude for the stories he shared and came with absolutely no obligation that he read it, let alone resonate with it.
When we were getting ready to leave on our last morning Brendan said again that he had only read bits and pieces but would read the whole book, although he wasn’t much interested in mythology generally. I again assured him the book came with no obligations. Turns out both he and Elizabeth had actually read quite a bit of it. In addition to his interest in the information on Biddy Early they were both very intrigued by the folk tales, especially those relating the consequences for disturbing ring forts and faery sites. For all his Catholic upbringing and affiliation, if spotty and sporadic, Brendan dove right into the subject of this lore. Referring to it as nonsense, he was still eager to share an incident from recent Sligo area history.
Apparently there had been road construction that was planned to go right through a faery fort. While there was much consternation and public debate over this, the construction continued as planned. Since the road opened this location has been the site of many tragic traffic accidents.
My time at Serenity Lodge was a meeting of cautionary tales.
The photo above is just one of the many spectacular Serenity views. This one from the dining room and back patio.