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Hildy Tails 11: Is fada an bóthar nach mbíonn casadh ann – by John Valters Paintner

Hello, gentle readers! This series of 12 essays were composed during John & Christine’s Jubilee Year (which began pre-pandemic, but some of which was written during varying degrees of lockdown). They were dictated to John by the Abbey’s mascot, Hildy the Monk-ey. Hildy is a bit of a free spirit who likes to entertain and doesn’t normally feel constrained by conventional story structure . . . or grammar, in general. She lives by the motto that “all stories are true; some actually happened.” We wanted to share them with you, our wider Abbey community, to give you a small monkey-sized window into life on the wild edges of Ireland. They will take the place of our Monk in the World guest posts until May when those will return.

This mosaic of JFK can be found in Galway Cathedral. Many in Ireland consider him to be one of the Irish saints!

Is fada an bóthar nach mbíonn casadh ann.

Hello, one and all! It’s Hildy, your online abbey mascot, again. I hope you and your family are safe, sane, and well sanitized.

We’re all doing well here. But then again, we’re a bunch of introverted hermits who work from home. But we have been implementing extra precautions to keep the virus at bay. We’ve also had to postpone some of our upcoming pilgrimages, but everyone has been very understanding about the need to reschedule and that is much appreciated. It’s just very ironic that one of the reasons that John and Christine took a sabbatical year was to re-evaluate the ratio of online to in-person programmes and then . . . “life happens while you’re busy making other plans.”

But that’s as good of a transition into the Irish phrase as any. It translates, roughly, to “It’s a long road that has no turning.” It basically has to do with life never going completely smoothly . . . or completely badly, for that matter. It’s doubly appropriate because what I had planned to write about this month was a mini-road trip to some of the local sacred sites that we take our Ireland pilgrims to visit. (It was going to double as a refresher/reconnoitring of places we hadn’t been back to in a while before the next pilgrimage.) Unfortunately, even though travel restrictions have been slightly relaxed, all of these sites are outside the five kilometre radius from our gaff (that’s apartment for you non-Irish) and it’s not an essential trip. So, sit back and relax as I do my best to walk you down my memory lane to some of my favourite local sacred sites.

I think I’ll start with one of my personal favourite sites, Kilmacduagh monastery, just outside Gort (also known as ‘Little Brazil’ . . . but that’s a whole other story). It’s a favourite of mine for a couple of reasons. It’s not too far from where I grew up and we’d visit there when I was a wee monkey. We visited a lot of places when I was younger, but this was the only one with an intact round tower. (Cromwell’s army destroyed most of them, either using them for cannon practice and/or reusing the stones for other building projects.) Visitors aren’t allowed inside, for health and safety reasons. The tower has a definite lean at this point, but is stable enough for a young monkey and her siblings to climb up. (Dad even joined us the first time, but Mom wouldn’t let him go up after that. She wasn’t real happy with us climbing the tower either, but . . . we were always on the rebellious side.) From the top of the tower you have a beautiful view of the entire country side. (Some believe the towers were meant as a stronghold to keep valuable relics from marauding Vikings. But if they could figure out how to build long boats and sail the oceans, getting into a locked round tower was totally in their wheel house.) The towers were bell towers for the monks, who would’ve been out working in the fields most of the day and needed to be able to hear the calls to pray from far away. They also worked as a sign for traveling pilgrims that sanctuary was close at hand. Kilmacduagh monastery is sprawling in comparison to many other Irish monasteries of the time. There are several churches (but more on that later). Today, there’s a car park and visitors can wander around fairly freely. But the fields do often have cattle in them. And even when they’re empty, the “signs” of recent cattle activity means you really have to watch your step. There is a building that you can get into, but you have to cross the boreen and knock on the neighbour’s door to borrow a large, ancient skeleton key. The woman who answers the door is a dote and has information pamphlets that she hands out. I love that there’s still people, not just government officials, looking after these sites!

One of John and Christine’s favourites is Temple Cronan. It’s situated in County Clare, in the Burren. When John and Christine were first thinking of doing pilgrimages, they arranged to meet a local guide there to learn more about the site, so they could lead people to there themselves. But when the guide started reciting poetry he was made part of the regular pilgrimage. To get to the site, one has to walk over both the barren limestone that the Burren is famous for and marshy wetlands that provides water for the local inhabitants. There’s not much left of the large circular wall that would have marked the transition between the ordinary world outside the monastery and the sacred land within, as local farmers have now divided up much of what had once been a larger holy site. The small stone church at the centre is beautiful (whether that’s despite of or because of the lack of roof is a matter of personal opinion). The stone structure was built over and in the same design of the original wooden structure the founding monks would have built. This church has some ornate decorative heads around the outside. Some of the more ornate bits and bobs, like the carving around the east-facing window, is a later addition. Those were put in at the same time that the original west-facing door was blocked up with stone and a new north-facing door was put in. It was something Rome insisted on, when the pope’s influence finally reached Ireland at the end of the Dark Ages . . . as if to say “you have to go through our way now to get into the Church.” But then again . . . it may have just been ceremonial, having to do with processions from the living quarters of the monks that are north of the church at Temple Cronan. (Most ‘newer’ doors are south-facing, maybe to let more light into the churches . . .) As our guide likes to say, “scholastic discussion on this subject has been limited” (AKA – even the experts don’t know and can’t agree on what they don’t know). But what’s really special about the site are the tomb shrines. There are two of them (again among the last in Ireland, “thanks” to Cromwell’s army . . . but I’ll stop bangin’ on about that). One of them is easily visible, just south of the church and the other is north-east of the church, but kind of hidden behind a modern (by monastic site time) wall. They likely contained the remains and holy relics of Cronan and other local saints, and would have been a major draw for pilgrims to come and pray or seek healing from. There’s also a holy well that was probably there BEFORE the Celtic monks moved in . . . and was possibly the reason they chose the site to begin with. (But I’ll let Christine or John explain all that history later.)

Now since I’m sharing favourites, I should  mention Sourney’s favourite site. It’s obviously St. Sourney’s well in Drumacoo, along the southern edge of Galway County . . . and just up the road from Kinvara, where John and Christine first lived when they moved to Ireland. The large mausoleum kinda dominates the site when you first drive up. It shares . . . or rather borrows . . . one wall of the church, which itself was expanded at least once. It’s a larger, more ornate version of the wee chapel mentioned above. If you stand inside it’s now a roofless structure, you can see the lines in the wall where the first stone building ended. There’s not only a graveyard around the church, but locals just got permission to expand the cemetery to a neighbouring field. You can find people here most days, visiting dead relatives and tending graves. The graves date back centuries and, like I said, new ones are still being added. There are several “Celtic Cross” headstones, as they became very popular (and standardized) in the mid- to late-1800s with the birth of Irish nationalism and the push for independence (but again . . . I digress). St. Sourney founded a monastery here (as well as out on Inis Mor) and there is a beautifully restored holy well. John says the first time he and Christine visited, you practically needed a machete to get to the well. But now, it’s been lovingly restored and there’s even a plaque with instruction on how to do the devotional associated with this holy well and cures for aliments of the head. (Sourney likes to visit with John and Christine. And I like to tease her that the signs are in English and Irish and the Irish version of her name is spelled two different ways . . . but maybe they’ve fixed that since our last visit.)

I should probably mention another one of John and Christine’s other favourite sacred sites. (Is it weird to have favourite sites? It’s a little weird, right? Just me? I didn’t think so, but it is what it is. Weird’s not always a bad thing, certainly not in this household.) There are several sites on the Aran Islands, situated at the mouth of Galway Bay. The three islands are limestone, like the Burren to the south in County Clare, but belong to County Galway. Some of the smaller islands around Ireland are no longer inhabited because the populations dropped below sustainability, but the Aran Islands have had thriving communities on them for centuries. It was inhabited long before the Christianization of Ireland, but Inis Mor (the largest of the three islands) became THE spot to go for those early Celtic monks. It was a place of learning and prayer. Monks would make the journey there just to receive a blessing from St. Enda or other saints before starting their own pilgrimage or new monastery. Today, one of the spots most tourists go to is “Seven Churches.” Sure there are seven (plus) ruined buildings there, but only two of them are definitely churches. The name’s more honorary, really. You see, the Irish monks liked to keep their monasteries simple: one abbot and twelve monks, after the example of Jesus and the Apostles. Only, successful places rarely stay small. So, if a community got too big, one monk would be chosen as a new abbot and they’d take some monks to go set up a new monastery. Sometimes this new monastery would be far away, in a new land across the sea. Other times, it’d be just over the hill in the next valley . . . or even just over the wall in the next field. That’s why there’s more than one “Seven Churches” all around Ireland. Some of them may have actually been seven small Irish monasteries with a church (and other buildings) each. Sometimes, the number of churches was . . . perhaps . . . a bit exaggerated as it happens. But what I really want to tell you about is St. Ciaran’s site. It’s on the south end of the island and is on the side of a little hill that overlooks Galway Bay and Connemara in Western Galway. It’s also where John and Christine renewed their wedding vows for their twentieth anniversary. They began with Christine walking the round of the holy well that’s shaped like a salmon and to this day is still visited by most of the islanders on the St. Ciaran’s feast day. Next, then John received a blessing at one of the small standing stones carved with a Celtic cross. The actual vows were recited inside the roofless church ruin, before going back ‘outside’ to bind their marriage at the contract stone. The contract stone is an old sundial the monks would have used to mark the times of prayer. The stick used to make the shadow is long gone and the hole repurposed. Two people would stand on either side and put one finger in the holes so they touched, thus making the contract (marriage or cattle sale) binding before God.

I could keep going with more sites (St. Enda’s hermitage and the beehive hut on Inismor, St. Enda’s holy well and St. Gobnaits church on Inisheer, St. Colman’s well and hermitage, Corcomroe Abbey, Maumeen Pass, the Ross Errilly Friary, and even Brigid’s Garden . . . to name a few). But I think this is a good spot to end a post that may have rambled longer than others. And I think ending it with a site that is so special to John and Christine, because it is a place they have performed sacred rituals, both with their groups and with their friends, is appropriate. These ancient buildings may have lost their roofs and the walls might be less than vertical now, but they never stopped being special to local people. And there’s renewed interest in restoring or at least maintaining them.

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