As the crisp air blows down the rocky hills and shadows creep on across Western walls of leaning stones, the great Celtic Pilgrimage finds itself in the home stretch.
The Westies of the Wild Irish West Tours came to Ireland visitors -- some returning, some new -- with a specific focus in mind: to tap into Irish traditions during the Thin Time of the year. The hour of Samhain approaches, whipped on by the lashing wind heralded by cascading golden leaves. The crossing of roads and the lay lines of ancient forces guides the pilgrim into the territory of spirits and ancients, of Good Neighbors and impish fiends.
Ever present in the landscape today is the feeling of the world being thoroughly and appreciatively lived in. The buildup of great mounds in cemeteries; the usage of acreage on monastic lands, right down to the ever-present intertwining of building and burrow of earth points to balance (and effort to maintain said balance) the human and the wild.
Cistercian remnants of Corcomroe as narrated by Pius Murray on day two of our Ennis stop teem with leftover life. From stone effigy to the domed roof of a church erected in 1142 (and neglected not long after due to the fiscal demands of land and repair), the walls of Corcomroe ring with presence. From the top of the great hill behind the abbey, one can see the entirety of the land the monks used to tend and the great mapping of green beyond. The monks, in keeping with nature as well as religion, tilled the fields through a Benedictine rule of prayer and hard work [something the modern day & age could take to heart, but that's another story].
Circling overhead during our stroll, black crows fly across silver skies like brush strokes on fading parchment. Kohl strokes of memory emphasising that never more shall humankind outdo nature's resilience. The grounds are much more wild in Corcomroe now, and the church & grounds last most effectively used by none other than John O'Donahue, who took pilgrims hence on Easter for bonfires and mass--one-half of which was outside, and the other within the church's crumbling walls. A fascinating blend of respect for nature and tradition coupled with spiritual worship, and another example of classic Irish duality.
What is also interesting about the living history that is the old Corcomroe Abbey is that families through generations have continued putting headstones and memorials within the abbey walls. Dates such as 1947 to 2009 can be found amid markers so old lichen and time have claimed their recognition. To be a part of the land and history is to keep it alive for generations to come. It's taken most literally around here and likewise through most of the West of Ireland.
Like the white thorn on the hills which bends to the wind, so have the Irish adapted to maintain themselves in an untamed landscape. Sure, domestication exists in the form of farming and fishing and towns, but there is also an unspoken realisation of coastal rip currents, bogs, and the ever present focuses of weather & time.
On the limestone steps of the Flaggy Shore, the Goddess invites any to join her hall of greenery and jasper, of sea and weed and water salty or sweet. John O'Donahue himself has encouraged nature to reclaim him, in a sense--his grave, which we had the pleasure of visiting today, faces East [as all Irish graves do] and is a garden unto itself, with shrubs and prayers intermingling in abundance. To give oneself back to the elements is to embrace and accept the rhythm of a lifecycle--to allow the body to return to the clay, the breath to the air, the blood to the rivers, the spirit to the great fiery energy whence it came.
In the clearing of brush and bonfires or candles to welcome back the dead this time of year, there is a sense of communal peace, not the traditional Westernized fear of the unknown; the horror. There is a purge of prior problems; material or otherwise. This is a homecoming in the hearths we make and are taken to. Michael Waugh brings us in conclusion to his own hearth and home: the place of his grandmother, Margaret, who a hundred years ago this October ago set out from rural Ireland for New York City. She left home with aspirations to achieve for herself and her family what was considered a better life. You may find it delightful to know that, no doubt in at least part to Margaret's determined efforts, the land has not changed hands or left the Waugh family--Michael's cousins Brendan, Winnie, and others help with the upkeep of the property--and that it is thriving with life and living history.
With the true spirit of Irish hospitality; as Michael has shown throughout his guidance on this very personal tour of faith and healing, Michael and co. [ever-lovely Trish and ever-lovely Geraldine] welcomed us into a home that was a place that burned with the bright light of love. This evening as I reflect on all the poems, prayers, sights, sounds, smells, and feelings of the season, I throw open the gate of possibility and welcome back the memories and phantoms of years past.
I think fondly of my grandmother in her cable-knit sweaters; making her food or tending her garden, sometimes listening to her Irish music or playing her harmonica. I think of my great-grandmother Locke; of the O'Shaugnessy clan and the countless family I may never know, or have yet to meet. I think of the most recent passings; of my own cousin Margaret who left us mere days before this trip was to begin.
It's a poignant lifting of a veil, to look not only into the other side, but also to look within. To see just what's been buried under limitless distraction and casual dismissal--when walking in silence, engulfed by motherly nature, one feels nurtured and whole enough at times to take part in self-reflection. It is at this time of year we ask for help from Mother Earth, to get us through the darkness and the cold--but we thank likewise the Cailleach for her own version of hospitality within ourselves: an invitation to ruminate and ponder in the long dark hours of rest to come.
Pius said something that is very true of not only this whole pilgrimage, but in life: a question he saves majorly for his students about the concept of what it means to be alive.
Are we humans on a spiritual journey, or spirits on a human journey?
Something to think about in the time of shadows and cold, with a fire to scare off your fears and a willingness to live a fulfilling life to the utmost potential.
I leave you with a few less prosaic thoughts on this Eve of All Saints:
To Be an Erratic Stone.
Conspiratory skies in symphony above
Fill themselves with angels winging swift
Thin is the time between the veil
And earthly curtain soon to shift.
Great leafy animals converse top fertile stones,
Laughing, she-rivers swim backwards toward the sea
Goddess-rocks hum and sing as they perform
The wildness of domesticity.
Hearth of Samhain burns with force
A caldera of starry thorns entwined
Sparkling cornet skywards goes,
With death and life having thus dined.
Hazel wand raised toward glacial North,
The sun settles soft where dove is down,
Mountains sing with breeze and tree
As turns Pooka with horned crown
All in softness sweeps twilight shore
So glimmers silver offering
The hunting horn, the harvest leaves--
Voices raised in triumph sing
Victorious reels of welcoming,
The Crone humanity so bereaves,
the Cailleach of ponderous eves.