Before we left home to visit Ireland, I had learned that there were no cardinals there. The fact of different birds brought home to me that we were really going to a foreign land. So one of the delights of our visit was to meet new birds–common birds in that place–but curious and unique to us. Some birds aren’t easy to photograph–we never did catch a picture of the magpies, which we usually saw along the road while driving. But here are a few that were more happy to be captured for our memories. I took the first three of these photos at Ashley Park near Nenagh. The later ones were in the Japanese Garden restaurant where Margy and I handed the camera back and forth, and we lost track of which ones were which.
I have been reading a fascinating book, Charles Eisenstein’s The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible. I am only part way through, so I don’t yet know what my final experience of the book will be, but I am loving the questions he is exploring. He asks about all the underlying assumptions and unexamined perspectives we hold in a world defined by separation. We believe we are separate selves, with humans separate from nature, earth from heaven, people from each other. What might it look like to redefine our world and our beliefs according to a profound interconnection? I have been exploring that same transition in my life and in my writing, and welcome the way his questions take me deeper into a new way of being.
For example, how much are we motivated by the feeling that unless we make something happen, nothing will happen? How is this undergirded by a belief that we are tiny separate beings in a dead, uncaring universe? What if the universe is utterly alive and we are one aspect of its aliveness? Might there be an unfolding process in this living universe that we can rely on, and attune to, and participate in? Then we can pause, we can wait until we are moved in our deepest (inter) being to act. We can lose the idea of “urgency” and “force” and “guilt.” Eisenstein suggests we might transform our whole approach to activism.
I keep reading.
Thursday, Margy and I went to the ancient sites of Knowth and Newgrange. Built by neolithic stone age peoples about 5200 years ago, they were burial mounds and ritual centers, aligned with the sun at certain points of the year. We had heard about Newgrange, where the light from the sun at dawn enters the burial chamber on the Winter Solstice. But we were even more impressed by Knowth, where tourists are not able to go into the burial chambers–too dangerous–but can walk up to the top of the mound. There are huge boulders that surround and support the mound, called curb stones, and most of them are covered in geometric images–spirals, triangles, undulating serpent like forms. We could photograph and touch this art created before the pyramids were built in Egypt. It is a UNESCO world heritage site because of this high concentration of neolithic art. What an astonishing feeling to trace a spiral that was carved so many generations ago by the ancients! Our guide said that similar stone carved art with the same kinds of geometric patterns can be found all around the world–America and Australia, for example. Until fifty years ago or so, all these stones at Knowth were buried under soil–the mounds looked like an extension of the hills. Then, archaeologists began to excavate and discovered the careful construction and design of the burial passages and chambers, were able to carbon date the remains, and restored the mounds to their neolithic era appearance. All of the stones are original, and the guides reminded us of the sacred and beloved nature of the site. After this visit I got to thinking about ancient mounds in the United States. I barely knew anything about them, except that they were built by early indigenous peoples of this land, and that many have been destroyed or are even now being threatened with destruction. Most recently, I heard about a new football stadium being planned in St. Louis that would destroy the remains, now underground, of a burial site and city. Since no federal money is involved, there are no laws demanding that they even do archeological investigation. I wonder why our country doesn’t take care of these precious artifacts from the ancients on this land? In a time when there is international outcry over destruction of ancient sites in Syria, where is the outcry over destruction of ancient sites in America? I suppose it is directly related to our society’s general insistence on forgetting that these lands once belonged to another people. As to the mounds that do still exist, I have read that there was much early resistance to thinking that Native peoples would have the expertise to build such structures. Racism then, must surely underly this disregard, and perhaps the overarching allegiance to the gods of money and profit. And the brokenness of our times, the forgetting that the land is full of sacredness in her essence and in her history.
Since we have been in Ireland, I have learned more about fairy trees than I knew before. On the first day we were here, I was taking photos on the grounds of the B & B, Ashley Park House, and took this one of some beautiful blooms I couldn’t identify. So many of the plants and birds I was seeing were unfamiliar to me. I wondered if it might be a hawthorn, because of the small thorns on the branches. But it had been a long time since I had been around a hawthorn. Years ago, when I was at the Seneca Women’s Peace Camp, my friend Estelle and I pitched our tents in a little opening of the hedgerow, under a hawthorn tree. And that was a magical place and time, though I didn’t know about fairy trees then.
When we came over to Ashford in County Wicklow the owner of our B & B had some of these blossoms on our dining table. I asked her what they were, and she said they were hawthorn. She herself is not Irish, though she has lived in Ireland for many years. The next day she told us that her Irish friend had sternly scolded her that it was bad luck to bring these flowers into the house. We later met that very friend, and she repeated her consternation. She told us that the hawthorn trees are where the “wee folk” live, and they are not to be disturbed. According to Irish lore, “If you cut one down, you will die.” You will often see a whole cleared farm field, with a solitary tree remaining–a hawthorn.
I do apologize to the wee folk on behalf of our host–I was glad that her misstep offered me an opportunity to confirm my hunch about the blossoms and gain more understanding about these beautiful trees. Because of so-called “superstitions” like this about the realm of fairy, many ancient sites have been preserved without disturbance for generations. Fairy mounds and fairy forts and burial sites. We visited a fairy fort at Ashley Park, a neolithic ring fort made of stones and earth, and covered now with beech trees, and yes, some hawthorn too. I left a gift of a coin before taking anything from that place. A strange thing happened. I was deciding where to leave the coin, and was finally drawn to the largest beech tree, somewhat near the entrance to the fort. I tossed the little coin into a deep crevice near the root of the tree.
Then, looking in more closely, I realized there was a tiny toad or frog at the very back of the crevice. I never saw any other toads in that area. How did it happen that one lived right where I was pulled to leave the offering? When Margy and I came back the next day together, it was still there, and I took this picture, somewhat blurry as it happened.
In each of these ancient holy places, I have honored the elements and the directions and the ancestors in the best way I can, and these small magics reassure me that we are welcome here.
On our way from the west to the east of Ireland, we stopped in Kildare, the town which was home to St. Brigid, one of the patron saints of Ireland and, according to the stories, an abbess who founded a monastery in 5th and 6th century. Many stories link her to the older goddess Brigid, goddess of smithcraft, poetry, and healing. We had read that there were two Brigid’s wells in Kildare–one now designated for the saint, and a pagan well still associated with the goddess. Apparently, the pagan well wasn’t advertised, but we had read that it could be found near the parking lot of the Japanese Gardens/Irish National Stud. So we set out to find it.
On the way, close by, we saw a sign for St. Brigid’s well and found that one. People come to the Brigid’s wells for the healing properties of their waters, and so we touched the water and asked its blessing. The well is shallow, about a foot deep, and is spring fed. We left a coin in the water along with our wishes. It is said that this well, too, may have ancient connections to the goddess Brigid, incorporated into Celtic Christianity as St. Brigid. There are other Brigid’s Wells all over Ireland.
Then we went on to the Japanese Garden, and searched around the parking lot, but didn’t see anything. We went inside, and had a lovely lunch at the restaurant there. Afterward, we asked a man at the ticket counter about the second Brigid’s well, and he told us to go around to the other side of the parking lot, behind a little wooden gate. So off we went, and we found it. Totally unmarked on the outside, but set into a lovely little paved area, with a half circle of stone wall opposite that could be used as seats. Nearby, people had left ribbons on the branches (we saw those at the other well too). It was intriguing to Margy and I that these ancient sacred sites are so hidden in plain sight.
I felt so delighted and awed to be in this place where healing waters have been flowing since ancient times. Margy and I drank a little water, and took pictures, and absorbed the magic all around us. Then, an unexpected encounter–I was down on the stones next to the well, with the camera, and Margy was on the stone pavement above, holding my backpack, and she leaned over a little, and suddenly my metal water bottle that was in the open pocket of the backpack fell right into the waters of the well.
Those of you who know me know that this water bottle I carry has its own sacred role in always reminding me of the holiness of all water. When I saw it there on the bottom of the well, I remembered that I wanted to take some of Brigid’s healing waters to bring home with me. Was Brigid herself reminding me, and making a personal connection to us in this way? I have celebrated her holiday in February for many many years. So, I leaned in to scoop it out of the well, and then emptied its water into the nearby plants, and filled it with water from the well.
After that, Margy and I sang some more songs, sent healing wishes to all our friends back at home, and left our own ribbon on the branches hanging over the well. If I may, I also send healing energy to you who are reading this.
When she learned we were traveling to Ireland, a colleague recommended Patricia Monaghan’s book The Red Haired Girl from the Bog. I read it over the last few months, and it was indeed a wonderful introduction to the myths and magical places of Ireland. Monaghan feels like a true kindred spirit, finding the sacred in the land, and in the stories connected to the land in each place. She speaks about how rooted Irish people are to the places in which they live–they are indigenous to their own places. Each place has stories that connect it to the near and distant past. Even in the place names themselves are clues to the lives and lore back to times before history.
I have been exploring in my own life how to connect to the land, how to connect to a place, and her stories provide many inspirations for the process, though also reminding me of how shallow the roots of Euro-descent culture in North America. Many of our North American place names also harken back to the peoples Indigenous to this place, and hold clues to the old stories of this land.
Yesterday morning, here in Ireland, I took a walk to a neolithic Ring Fort that is on this land at Ashley Park House, where we are staying. They also call it a Fairy Fort, and the young woman who serves our breakfast talked about people’s superstitions about the Fairy Forts. She said it was believed people used to bury unbaptized babies in those places, since they could not be buried in the Catholic cemeteries, and some people wouldn’t touch a Ring Fort unless it had been blessed by a priest. I didn’t worry about that, but was very mindful and respectful of whomever the Spirit beings might be in such an ancient place.
This fort is covered in vegetation and beech trees were growing within and around it. I took some photos but it was hard to capture the feel of it in a photo. Imagine a stone embankment about 5 or 6 feet tall (but covered with soil and bushes and trees) in a circle maybe 80 meters in diameter. I followed a path over the top of the embankment and down in to the middle. This photo was taken inside the ring, looking over to the embankment.
I am here in this place, where none of my own ancestors have lived, with many unfamiliar plants and animals, but I do know how to give thanks for the sun, and touch the beech trees, and call out to the spirits as I walk around the circle.
This peacock is perched in a tree visible from our window at our B & B near Nenagh in Ireland. How strange it is to walk outside here on the beautiful grounds and see so many plants and birds that I don’t recognize. There are also ducks and herons and starlings… those at least are familiar, and of course the two peacocks and two peahens that are so photogenic. We have had very spotty internet access, which has added to the feeling of disorientation–I have become so used to finding immediate answers to questions, and connecting to long distance friends.
On my first walk yesterday evening, I was delighted to find a familiar friend–the beech tree, my dear buddy from back home… except I have never seen a whole forest full of them. I have only seen huge single beauties in the US. But all along the driveway here they grow, dozens of them, huge and covered in ivy, and I also found more along the backs of the buildings and the garden pathways.
Touching the beech tree helped me to feel connected in a strange land.