I’ve had many people ask about the picture on my author page where I’m standing against a gray stone wall on a windswept day in the middle of an Irish field with what are obviously the ruins of a monastery behind me. Observant people have said to themselves, “Wait, there’s a ruined monastery behind her, why is her back turned as she looks into the camera, holding a set of keys in her hand as if it were the bigger focal point?" I’m so glad to have been asked.
We kind of knew where we were heading, my friend Tama and I, and by that I mean we had a loose plan with regard to how we were going to spend the afternoon in Gort, County Galway. We’d been freewheeling across the countryside in a rented car the size of a match box with its steering wheel on the right side while we drove on the left of the two-lane road as if trying to best a test for dyslexia.
Tama is a devout Catholic who has a thing about historic churches, which is why we couldn’t have adhered to a plan had we had one. “Stop,” Tama would shout every time we spied one of the dim, ominous structures off in the distance. We’d scratch the gravel driveway and wander inside, our solitary footsteps crossing the marble floor in a tread-ye- lightly and humble yourself echo off the cavernous vaulted ceiling. We did this so many times that after a sweep inside, I’d take to wandering the halcyon graveyards to read the Irish inscriptions, while Tama would light a red votive candle and fall to her knees.
I thought I was alone in the yard when a voice came from behind me. “Have you found your way to Kilmacduagh monastery?” I turned to find a young woman taking in my outlander attire of three quarter down jacket and rubber soled shoes. “It’s just up the road there,” she said pointing, “when you go, just knock on the door of the middle house and ask Lily for the keys.”
I was standing behind Tama when she knocked on the front door of a low slung house on a sparsely populated lane. Across the lane, placid fields of damp clover shimmered in the afternoon mist as far as the eye could see. There atop, a series of interspersed ruins jutted in damp metal-gray: some without roofs, some with wrought-iron gates, and one in particular beside an impressively tall stone spire with two windows cut in vertical slashes above a narrow door raised high from the ground. Immediately the front door opened, and a pair of blue water eyes gave us the once over with an inquisitive, “Yes?”
“Are you Lily? We’re here for the keys,” Tama said. “The keys, is it? Just a moment there,” the woman said, and after closing the door, she opened it seconds later to hand us a set of long metal keys. “Just slip them through the door slot when you’re through,” she said, closing the door with a quick nod.
I can’t say there was any indication of which key went to what among the cluster of gates and doors throughout the 7th century monastery called Kilmacduagh, but we figured it out. I was so tickled over the keys that I couldn’t get over it. “Is this weird?” I said to Tama, “We could be anybody! It’s not that there’s anything anybody could steal, but that’s not the point.” I could wax rhapsody over the hours we spent unlocking gates and pushing through doors in the eerie, hallowed grounds, but that’s not my point either. My point is that’s Ireland for you: a stranger offering directions without being asked, Lily handing over the keys like an afterthought, and Tama and I trolling the grounds of sacred space when nobody else was around. But suddenly a German couple appeared as we were on our way back up the lane. They looked at us wide eyed and queried, “What is this place?”
“It’s a 7th century monastery,” I said, “here, take the keys and slip them through that door when you’re through.”