I was way-finding to Jack’s cottage for the first time, meandering and backtracking through the Irish landscape where road signs are scarce and directions are often based on landmarks familiar only to locals. Turn left just beyond Clancy’s new barn. Finally on what I determined was the right road, I passed McCarthy’s pub. A bit unusual given its substantial size and rural location, but more unusual given the early afternoon hour and the car park filled with trucks and livestock trailers. Curious. When I mentioned this to Jack he said, “Oh, it must be Wednesday. Your man there is a healer and Wednesday afternoons he does cows and horses and sheep.” I was intrigued but further exploration would have to wait for my next visit.
This past summer when I shared my intention to stop by the pub and meet the owner Jack looked at me like I was daft until I explained my reasons and then he chuckled. “McCarthy’s not the healer he just owns the place, convenient for local farmers and a car park big enough for all lorries and trailers. No, the man who does the healing owns a shop in the village just there on the main street. He’s a butcher.”
It turns out your man O’Donoghue does healings for people on Wednesday mornings in his kitchen. Then after a lunch break he goes out to McCarthy’s for the livestock. After dinner he goes to the local dog track and heals dogs. And, like Biddy Early, he takes no money for any of it. Now more intrigued than ever, I had to meet this man.
The next morning I stopped by his shop before heading north to Sligo. But he wasn’t there. Turns out the Galway team had, for the first time in many years, won the match the day before and O’Donoghue was taking the day to recover from a night of celebration. The butcher who was there was very friendly, gave me permission to photograph the shop and told me O’Donoghue was a great talker if I could come back another day. It didn’t seem right to walk away empty handed but here I was a vegetarian in a butcher shop. I hadn’t a clue. So on recommendation I purchased a generous supply of garlic sausage which I promptly drove to Sligo and handed over to a very surprised Elizabeth and Brendan.
My schedule didn’t allow a return visit. Perhaps this summer….
When Brendan first shared the cow healing story with me I was delighted by his telling of it and honored by his confidence. I also considered his account extraordinary in the true sense of the word. By then I was well aware of the magic that lived in Ireland’s sacred sites but rather oblivious to the extent magic lived in the people. It was my friend Jack who set me straight. There are loads of healers in Ireland he told me, naming several from his village.
Those with healing powers exist in many cultures, especially cultures with deep roots in their indigenous wisdom traditions. However you generally don’t find these folks in the phone book, their notoriety influenced by how much the prevailing culture acknowledges and accepts the reality of who they are and what they offer. I suppose it’s a bad pun to say that in many places Earth healers have become an underground phenomenon. Whether they work with Earth energies, angelic energies, plant spirits, animal guides, ancestor spirits – and more – they are working with and through relationships and alliances in other realms and that is simply scary business for many people.Scary indeed. And counter to modern church theology. Which is why what I now find extraordinary is not the existence of healers in Ireland but just how common place they are. While they may be hidden to the casual or occasional visitor they are hidden in plain sight.
Some of you will know this story as it is one I wrote some years back. Just one of Brendan’s encounters with Ireland’s healer tradition…indeed, a shamanic tradition.
The cows had been de-horned that morning, but it wasn’t a good job. They were bleeding out. By late evening there was no improvement and Brendan was deeply concerned. He called a neighbor farmer for advice. “Well, now,” the neighbor said, “you could always call the vet. Though it is rather late.” There was a long pause before he continued. “Or I can give you the number of a woman in County Antrim.” Brendan took down the number and rang the old woman five counties away as the raven flies. “Now tell me, “ she said, “exactly what is wrong with your cows.” Brendan told her. “You’re sure now,” she pressed, “you’re sure that’s the problem?” Brendan assured her. “And now exactly how many cattle have you?” she asked. Brendan told her twelve. “Now you’re certain that’s the exact number?” she pressed again. Brendan was sure. There was a pause. The woman spoke some words Brendan did not understand. Then another pause. Finally the woman said, “Now I think if you go out to your cows, you will find they are all well and good.” Brendan thanked her and went directly to the barn to find the bleeding stopped, the wounds healed.
When I took his photo for this story, I mentioned my assumption that this event occurred when he, as the oldest boy of thirteen children, took over the family farm when his father died. Long before he became a teacher. Long before he retired as a school principal. “Oh, no,” he told me, “that was only four or five years ago. I still own land of the family farm. And still have cows.” he said, pointing over the stone wall to the animals in the adjacent field.
During my stay at Serenity Lodge last summer I called a local shaman recommended to me by friends in the Gort area. Small world. It turns out one of this man’s children has Elizabeth and Brendan’s son, Kyle, as a teacher at a nearby primary school. They recognized the name immediately. And again I found myself dancing a bit as I wasn’t sure how publicly known were this man’s shamanic practices. Brendan and Elizabeth know him as a former priest, now a practicing psychologist. Kyle knows him as a student’s father, nice guy, someone who looks at the sky a lot. So they were most curious and intrigued. Why was I wanting to call this man?
Attempting to dance quickly through this conversation I made casual reference to understanding that, obviously in addition to all they know about him, he’s also a shaman. Blank expressions all round. “Now what exactly is that you are talking about, shaman?” Oh, great. I had the distinct impression I was at some level outing this poor man I hadn’t even spoken with yet. Choosing my words carefully I shifted to a healer archetype, one I hoped would be more resonant with the wise woman tradition of Ireland. A tradition Brendan is most familiar with as I will share in the story of Earth Magic.
I think it worked, at least I hope it did. After a lovely conversation the shaman and I agreed to stay in touch and hopefully meet each other this coming summer when I am again in the Sligo area, staying at Serenity Lodge. I’m packing my dancing shoes.
As an adolescent I thirsted for a meaningful vision of human life – so I became a scientist. This is like becoming an archbishop to meet girls. Matt Cartmill, Anthropologist
Scientists, with few notable exceptions such as Albert Einstein, tell us that if we can’t see, touch, or measure something it’s not real – harshly ridiculing and dismissing the notion of parallel worlds and spiritual realms. They’ve been telling us this for so long that culturally we’ve come to believe them, the only significant contradiction to this being invisible and unmeasurable God and many science minded people don’t believe in Him/Her either.
Fortunately, in the history of human kind, science is a relatively new voice that has not yet succeeded in talking us out of a deep and rich heritage of relationship with other world realms and alliances. A heritage very much reflected in the stories of St. Brigit and Biddy Early, especially the stories of their mystical healing powers. A heritage of seeing and believing very much present in Ireland today as it has been through history.
While I won’t presume to adequately articulate all the energies healers work with and the realms they work in, they are numerous and widely varied. Some work with Earth energies, some with angelic energies, others with plant spirits just to name a few. All parallel worlds and realms to ours. And those shamans, mystics and healers who work in these realms will tell you that this is work of the senses, that they can absolutely feel and in many cases see spiritual energies and entities. Spiritual guides and presences are often felt and distinguished by their unique vibrational patterns and fields. This is true for mine.
What science would say is not real can be seen and touched. But can it be measured? Well, in fact it can and many years ago I had the opportunity to witness such measuring. For the participating scientists, seeing was believing even if the best they could muster was a reluctant, qualified acknowledgment of that belief.
…even in a technological age such as ours much survives of belief in a different way of looking at life. It is a view that sees events as having a logic that is not scientific or mathematical, that sees a world undetected by the strongest microscope; a world, in short, that is parallel to ours, but no whit less real for being invisible to us, a world that crosses ours only in certain times and places and through the intermediacy of certain people – such as Biddy Early.
Although Eddie Lenihan made specific reference to Biddy in this insight from his book, In Search of Biddy Early, he could have as easily cited St. Brigit. For these two remarkable women join a long list of spiritual intermediaries from Ireland’s past…and present. In this land of mystics and ancient monuments, poets and prophets, gods and goddesses the veils have always been thin, the relationship between parallel worlds has always been intimate and powerful.
Miraculous events infuse almost every story of St. Brigit. One iconic story tells of Brigit seeking land to establish her monastic community, however her many petitions were disdainfully rejected until at last the land owner, exasperated and wanting to be rid of this annoying woman, said she could have all the land her cloak could cover. Brigit was delighted. The following morning she arrived at a large field near Kildare with several of her nuns instructing them to take hold of a corner of her cloak and walk. They did and the cloak expanded to cover several acres, much to the chagrin of the land owner.
Yet the miracles did not end with Brigit’s death, as was noted five hundred years later in the writings of cleric Giraldus Cambrensis.
At Kildare in Leinster, celebrated for the glorious Brigit, many miracles have been wrought worthy of memory. Among these, the first that occurs is the fire of St. Brigit, which is reported never to go out. Not that it cannot be extinguished, but the nuns and holy women tend and feed it, adding fuel with such watchful and diligent care, that from the the time of the Virgin, it has continued burning through a long course of years; and although such heaps of wood have been consumed during this long period, there has been no accumulation of ash.
Each of them has the care of the fire for a single night, the last nun, having heaped wood upon the fire says: ‘Brigit take charge of your own fire; for this night belongs to you.’ She then leaves the fire, and in the morning it is found that the fire has not gone out, and that the usual quantity of fuel has been used.
Although the original fire of St. Brigit was eventually extinguished in 1220 by the archbishop of Dublin, it was relit in 1993 by the nuns of Kildare who have been tending it since. Literally and figuratively the fire of this mystical nun, shaman and wise woman was destined to burn through the ages.
From the intense glow they thought the house was on fire. But when they entered they found only young St. Brigit in her crib, ethereal flames shooting from the top of her head. This wasn’t the first indication that this child was extraordinary, but it was among the more dramatic – and prophetic. For the rest of her life Brigit would be a woman on fire.
St. Brigit lived a life fueled by passion for sacred wisdom and social justice. Patron saint of healing, poetry and the forge of transformation, she had tremendous compassion for those who suffered and expected no less from others, as demonstrated in this story from Seán Ó Duinn’s book The Rites of Brigid: Goddess and Saint.
The Queen of Leinster came to Brigid and gave her a silver chain as an offering. Brigid gave the chain to her nuns and they hid it away without telling her, as she was always giving things away to the poor. A leper came along and Brigid gave him the silver chain. The nuns were furious when they heard that the chain was gone. ‘Your mercy is of little use to us,’ they complained, ‘while we ourselves are in need of food and clothes.’ ‘You are a bad lot,’ said Brigid, ‘go to the church, to the place where I pray, and you will find your chain.’ They did and found the chain even though it had been given to the leper.
This story is evidence of both the strength of her convictions and her shamanic powers for Brigit, saint or goddess, was a woman of magic.
February 1st is Brigit’s Day, a celebration known in Ireland as Imbolc, one of the four great festivals that are gateways into the seasons of the turning year. Among the many rituals and traditions is leaving a brat bríde (Brigit’s cloak) outside to receive Brigit’s blessing as she passes by in the night, the day having begun at sundown for the Irish and Celtic peoples. This piece of cloth is then torn into strips and used for healing – perhaps tied around a sore throat or sprained ankle.
A principle Irish goddess Brigit is also believed to be one of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the indigenous spiritual ancestors of Ireland. The Church, not able to eradicate her powerful personae, effected a transition to St. Brigit and replaced the celebration of Imbolc on February 1st with a celebration of Candlemas on February 2nd. However these transitions were likely not as successful as the Church hoped for. Yes, the Irish embrace St. Brigit as a patron saint, but they also continue to visit the goddess’s holy wells with ceremony and ritual. For all its efforts the Church really gave the Irish people two mystical women to celebrate. And St. Brigit was indeed a shamanic wise woman.
It’s tempting to transcribe the entirety of Meda Ryan’s book on Biddy Early, as it offers such wonderful insight to the mystical and shamanic wise woman tradition that thrived in Ireland in spite of, and in many cases within, the Catholic Church. As Imbolc is upon us it will be good to honor Brigit, goddess and saint, for her contributions. Yet the echoes of this ancient and deep Earth based knowing were heard well beyond Ireland.
In Germany, some 700 years before Biddy’s time, a remarkable woman was on a similar path. Hildegard Von Bingen, nun and abbess, was deeply rooted in the tradition of creation spirituality. From this world view she honored the sacred in all things and named a deep connection with the Earth as the source of her wisdom and power. And indeed she was powerful. As a poet, healer, visionary, artist, writer and teacher her tenacious and prolific expressions of spiritual and sacred wisdom were a source of great consternation for the Church hierarchy.
Spiritual teacher and author Matthew Fox has spent much of his life exploring the teachings and writings of Hildegard. In his latest book he writes: She calls for an awakening of the kind of creativity she refers to as “greening power”, leading to an honoring of Mother Earth and the return of the Green Man….an archetype that underscores the deep relationship between human and the plant world, the human and natural world. Hildegard was fully cognizant of the Green Man movement of her time…she even calls Christ “a green man” who caused “all the greening power of the virtues.”
For their wisdom these women were ridiculed and persecuted. Biddy was tried as a witch, Hildegard was condemned and eventually, along with her entire monastic community, ex-communicated for a year. But the power of their wisdom, the truth of this ancient Earth based knowing is too strong to be silenced. Too strong and too vital for our lives today. It is both astounding and encouraging that last October the Catholic Church canonized Hildegard of Bingen.