In Irish mythology, a "thin place" was a divider between the physical, tangible world and the "otherworld" of dreams, the afterlife, and other unseen but very real dimensions hiding behind the veil of reality. Thin places could be actual places or they could be seasons of change. The night of Samhain (sow-in), the Celtic precursor to our Halloween, was believed to be a night where the boundaries between our world and the unseen world could touch, as the wall between them shakes and dissolves. (Do you watch Dr. Who? Thinking of this in terms of the Whovian parallel universes helps me visualize this as more than just a quaint, pagan concept.) Thin places were revered and afforded respect, but also feared because they were the places of the unknown.
Physical thin places on the Irish landscape include prehistoric monuments and markers. The peoples who built the cairns and dolmens we can still see today were most likely not the Celts, who arrived in Ireland later. They were an earlier people, living in Ireland as early as 5,000 years ago (and more! I'm going off memory here).
When the Celts arrived, they interpreted the dolmens and passage tombs as structures built by the gods and goddesses who inhabited the land -- the Tuatha de Danaan, or the Tribe of Danu. These gateways were portals to the Tuatha's domain and venturing too close could yield disastrous results for humans.
These beliefs gave birth to the stories and the eventual evolution of the "fairy people" who could steal humans away to their lands below and beyond the horizon. In many stories in Irish folklore and ancient mythology, contact between humans and fairies occur near a physical thin place (a fairy fort or a fairy ring) or a spatial thin place (Samhain or a night of a full moon). In the legend of Knockfierna, for example, Carroll O'Daly foolishly follows a man up Knockfierna, where at the summit he discovers "an opening in the mountain" that was the entrance to the fairy castle within the mountain.
My favorite thin place of Irish folklore and mythology is one where earth meets water. Water is my element, and so I always feel most strongly about being in that boundary between the two elements. Riverbanks, lakeshores, bogs, and ocean strands are all considered thin places in Irish myth.
Watery thin places feature in many Irish myths and legends, such as The Capture of Bridget Purcell, recorded by T. Crofton Croker in 1825. The story goes that while picking rushes in a bog, Bridget was attacked by the fairy folk and was taken, a changeling put in her place that died after five days. In an old myth about Finn MacCool, a fairy woman at a lake tricks him, asking him to fetch her ring from the lake bottom. Finn dives for it three times and after surfacing the third time, he feels "the chill of death." He surfaces to find that he has been turned into an old, decrepit man. The folklore also includes stories about creatures who dwelt within the thin places, on both water and land, such as the selkie, who is part seal and part human, able to transform and bewitch humans with their beauty.
Another watery thin place is the well.
Holy wells are common throughout Ireland and have deep religious and spiritual connections. Most are associated with saints and are said to have miraculous healing properties. From a historical point of view, holy wells were actually pagan in origin, predating the Church, and later became connected to saints and Church practices after Christianity took hold in Ireland starting in the 5th century. Wells were first revered by the early Celts because they, too, were considered thin places; water bubbling up from the ground, creating a spot where land and water was one and the same. Just as they later became associated with specific saints, wells were first connected to Celtic deities. The sacred roots of these places run deep, and it's palpable when you visit one. Many holy wells are still the center of some Catholic rituals and pilgrimages.
Whenever I find myself in such a place (whether in Ireland or not), I tend to pay more attention to my surroundings and appreciate the present moment in ways I forget to do ordinarily. So the concept and recognition of thin places has become beneficial to me as a sort of spiritual practice, which seems fitting.
I'm fascinated by the thin places of Irish folklore and have often thought that, if I ever go back to school to study Irish history, I would love to focus more on the prevalence and nuances of thin places in Irish culture. I believe they reveal much about early Celtic religious practices, the centuries-long conversion to Catholicism, and how legends and stories morph over time for new audiences. I'm always eager to learn more, so tell me: Do you know of a thin place that you would recommend visiting?
*This post first appeared on my travel/culture blog, Wild for Ireland.*
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I enjoyed this informative piece, and see that much work went into it. I took a minute to consider where I've seen ( or felt) thin places, and quickly arrived at the thought that all of Ireland is a thin place! It just seemed to me, in the year I spent living there, as well as during subsequent visits that uncanny things happened to me, as if the whole of the island operates within an inexplicable synchronistic flow!
You're absolutely right, Claire! Thanks for the comment!
Heritage Partner Comment by That's Just How It Was on November 19, 2015 at 5:58am
Lovely article Jill-- when I visit my homeland every year, I feel a sense of peace, I always visit the graveyards where my people are buried, I walk to the shops, and just doing everyday things, fills my heart with a joy that I do not experience in my life in England .
Oh to win the Lottery !!
Thank you Jean!
That's Just how It Was, I am also drawn to graveyards...the history and connection to the past has an almost mystical quality to me. I love hearing your stories about visiting home. Here's hoping you find that winning lottery ticket!
Jill - As a boy I visited Ireland several times, hitch-hiking all over. I met the people and I spent a great deal of time walking. Seeing Ireland like that is different from driving a car. I came across several "thin places" but today I can still produce goose bumps on the backs of my arms just by thinking about the woods behind Blarney Castle.
I haven't been there in many years, but I recall trees that were hundreds of years old. Moss growing on every rock. Strange lines of light shining through the trees and the feeling that I was being watched. The air was filled with heavy moisture. At the same time, I felt no reason to fear that I was in danger. I felt that I belonged there and I look forward to being there again one day.
Great article. The veil is indeed 'thin' in Ireland just like your article states. Many of the ancient structures were built by Partholon and his followers. They were a race of people who came, it is believed, from Greece and inhabited Ireland after the time of the Fomorians. When you consider that all rocks and stones, which they used in building the structures, contain large amounts of quartz crystal, which is a conductor of energy, both for transmitting and receiving (think the old crystal radios) then it's easy to understand that those monuments do indeed "talk" to us. We absorb the energy from them. Again thanks for the wonderful article.