Four Druids were slumbering in the dark woods when they were awakened by strains of the Oran Mór, the Great Melody. A Shining Woman arrived and transported them to Tír na nÓg, the paradisiacal Land of Eternal Youth beyond the setting sun, where they beheld the sacred Spirit Wheel of Éire.
When they returned to the human realm one Druid, having seen such amazing beauty, lost his mind and wandered senseless until the end of his days. The second Druid was cynical: “It was just a dream. Nothing really happened. I will wait for deeper meaning to be revealed to me.” She was still waiting when she died many years later. The third Druid became totally obsessed with what he had seen and spent the rest of his days talking and teaching about how the Wheel was constructed, its various components, and what it all meant. He became lost to any connection with the sacred.
The fourth Druid dedicated her life to writing poetry and song praising the rising sun, the trees of the forest, her daughter in the cradle, and all the stars in the sky. Her life became a great flowing harmony. It is her legacy we celebrate to this day.
If this seems familiar perhaps you would recognize it as The Four Rabbinim. Or The Four Who Entered Paradise which is the Talumdic version of this story in which the Four gaze upon the ancient female deity of Shekhinah. When I encountered this story in Women Who Run With The Wolves it resonated a universal cosmological truth and called for rendering in the myth and legend of ancient Ireland. Stories woven in a shared indigenous wisdom.
We sat outside on the lower deck periodically lifting our feet as the waves crashed over the side of the boat. It was a characteristically rough ride as the Doolin passenger ferry navigated the choppy waters of the Atlantic. Mia and I were headed to the closest and smallest of the Aran Islands. Not a popular tourist destination, Inis Oírr would offer a quiet walk among the many stone walled fields to a holy well and some lovely conversation with the islanders. The woman sitting next to us and clinging to the bench was headed to the farthest, biggest, and most touristed island. She was surprised at and a bit disdainful of our choice not to visit Inis Mór with it’s iconic historic sites. And massive crowds. At least 1,000 each day on just one boat from one ferry terminal.
Our new friend and her husband were spending a week in Ireland and following the popularly accepted clock-wise coastal itinerary beginning and ending in Dublin. They were doing their best to see as many sites as possible but with only a week…well, they just had to move fast. Dublin: Trinity College, Book of Kells, Guinness Brewery. Check. Wicklow Mountains. Check. Waterford Crystal factory. Check. Kiss the Blarney Stone. Check. Ring of Kerry. Check. Cliffs of Moher. Check. Dún Aonghasa on Inis Mór. Check. You get the idea. After her initial amazement that we were spending two weeks in only a small area of western Ireland she asked where we were staying. I told her just outside Galway City. “Oh,” she responded. “We had dinner there one night. So I guess we can say we’ve done Galway.” Check. My head snapped around to look at her. She was serious. Really!?!
Talking with a heritage guide at Loughcrew two weeks later, she mentioned that so many visitors to the Boyne Valley Visitor Center, when offered tours to Knowth as well as Newgrange, just slap their money on the ticket counter and say, “No, just the big one.” The Big One. Check.
The last of the passengers were boarding the shuttle bus that would take us from the visitor center to the Newgrange passage mound. They were an American family I would later discover had just arrived in Ireland that morning. The son, I guessed age eleven, settled into a seat across the aisle from us and next to a young Irish girl. I didn’t pay much attention to their introductory conversation until I, and everyone on the bus, heard him ask her in a loud voice, “So how long does it take you to get used to driving on the wrong side of the road?” In the awkward silence that followed came her quiet reply that for the Irish it’s not the wrong side of the road.
I cringed, reminded of why I avoid heavily touristed sites like Newgrange – and the tourists that visit them. Holding fast to their cultural conditioning and perspectives they so often arrive in Ireland like novice archeologists to observe this ancient island and offer their objective and objectifying commentary on the sites, people, and customs. Later on the guided tour at Newgrange an American man waited impatiently for the heritage guide to finish her site introduction and then interjected, “But don’t you think that the real reason they built these places was…” And he went on to assert his totally uninformed and spontaneously constructed theory of these 5,000 year old megaliths.
We’ve been told all our lives that the US is the best country in the world with the most advanced culture and intellect. And some have drunk the koolaid.
I arrived early at Shannon Airport to find my flight home delayed by two hours. I decided to step back outside for one final cigarette before surrendering to the fifteen hour journey of airports and airplanes. I was sitting exactly where the woman with the red suitcase is sitting in the photo below when an airport security guard sat down next to me. “Now, would you be out here having that cigarette because you don’t think you can smoke inside the airport?” I must have looked at her like she had just flown in from another dimension because she added, “Oh but sure you can smoke in this airport.”
Unbelievable but true. Up the escalator to security. Through security. Through the gift shop that serves as the entrance to the departure lounge. Turn right. Go down some stairs and back outside, albeit within a chain linked fence, and arrive at a covered smoking area. It turns out this extraordinary accommodation is made for the huge number of American troops that regularly land at Shannon on a refueling stop before heading to the Middle East. When I went down to the smoking area that first time it was packed with men and women in freshly laundered uniforms. The silence was eerie. Through a whispered inquiry I learned they were headed to Afghanistan.
This event happened a few years ago but the troop presence remains. That Shannon Airport is considered by many Irish to be a subsidiary US military base was a heated topic of conversation over dinner with friends. The question that loomed large was whether the troop planes carry anything other than troops. A woman they all know was recently arrested for scaling the perimeter fence in an effort to get a closer look. Irish government officials won’t talk about it beyond referencing a closely guarded and diplomatic agreement with the US government. The lack of any denial of munitions movements only fuel concerns.
“Ah now there’s always going to be war. It’s part of the human condition. Those planes are important to Shannon Airport and there’s a lot of jobs in that airport.” I admit I wasn’t quite prepared for this perspective from a friend near Galway. He had read about the arrested woman and went on to say that she is retired with a comfortable income so what is she doing getting involved in actions that might jeopardize the income of others. My friend was as emotional on this subject as were my dinner friends. And I’ve been aware that for many years there has been talk of closing Shannon Airport and shifting all flights to Dublin. It would indeed be an economic blow for the area – for the airport itself and the many surrounding tourist related businesses.
Beyond the movement of troops and possible munitions, Shannon Airport is clearly a cultural and economic war zone for the Irish.
In western Ireland nothing screams ‘American’ quite like a polo shirt. Well, jeans and dockers without socks come close. So when a man, wearing all three, and his companions settled into the table next to us there was no mistaking where he was from. Wisconsin, it turned out. He sat in my line of sight and I have to admit his bright orange shirt was something of a distraction.
It was my last day in Ireland and I was enjoying a delicious lunch with Aisling, Felim, and Jack at the Gallery Café in Gort where all the food is locally sourced and exquisitely prepared. We were engrossed in a conversation that included the many encounters and conversations I’d had over the past month related to my book. The book had been enthusiastically received with only one person indicating she would have preferred for my voice to be stronger in the writing. I explained that including many other, and especially Irish, voices was intentional. As an American…at this point Felim said with great exasperation, “But you’re Irish!!”…I wanted to be very careful not to impose my spiritual conclusions or arrive in Ireland with any sense that I had the be-all-end-all answers. And we talked about what it’s like to offer up a spiritual presence and intention in a land not our own. Jack is appreciative of this careful dance. Although he’s lived in Ireland for thirty years, he’s English. As is the founder and director of Brigit’s Garden with whom I had just had dinner. She and I had very much the same conversation and shared the same caution. It’s all about being respectful of what lives within the Irish people, honoring and supporting those who are fostering the ancient traditions and who hold great aspirations for deeper connection with Ireland’s spiritual ancestors. OK. You get the picture.
We were well finished with our lunch when I looked up to see the orange polo shirt arrive at our table. He apologized for interrupting but he and his companions couldn’t help but sense the spiritual energy emanating from our table. “Especially from you,” he said pointing at me. He went on to explain that he and his friends had just arrived from the US, they channelled archangels, and they are offering gatherings (for a modest fee) where it’s possible to receive teachings about how to get what you want in life, all within an energy of love and light of course. Once he found out I was from the States he was less interested in me. They were here to share their truth with the Irish. England was next.
We quickly paid our bill and escaped, barely able to contain our laughter until we got outside the café. A bizarre event made all the more so within the context of our lunch conversation. As if there had been any need for affirmation it arrived in the form of a proselytizing polo shirt from America. We drove to Coole Park and as we walked the forest paths I listened to Aisling, Felim, and Jack discuss the bold arrogance of this man from Wisconsin. It clearly rankled them. It was insulting. It was ugly American. At one point in our walk Felim turned to me and said, “We’re glad you’re Irish.”
Heeding this note-to-self in my files from last summer’s Ireland journey I packed fewer long sleeved shirts. And ended up wearing few of those. During the first week of July farmers were watching the skies and listening closely to the weather reports hoping for a dry day to harvest the last of their silage. However the last three weeks were drier, warmer, and very muggy. The perfect weather for iced tea. The only problem is the Irish don’t have a concept of iced tea.
When I would order a pot of tea and a tall glass of ice the waiters were momentarily bewildered. Only a few quickly caught on. “Oh then, is it the iced tea ye are wanting to make?” They would often add a gentle admonishment that they don’t make or drink iced tea in Ireland. Yes. I would acknowledge that fact as I gratefully accepted their delivery of pot, glass, and cup – in case I changed my mind.
Talking with a friend about this, ironically over a cup of tea, I launched into the subject of sun tea. A large jar of cold water with tea bags placed in the sun for a few hours. Stupefied my friend said, “What ye are saying is that you don’t even fookin’ boil the water?!?” Nope. The ultimate insult. A total travesty of tea.
With the singular exception of iced tea I generally try not to impose American customs on the Irish, choosing rather to honor their hospitality by being a gracious guest. I’ve had many occasions to witness the ugly American and it’s…well, ugly. My most recent encounter with this was on my last day in Ireland. And it took the concept of travesty to a whole new level…