Monday, February 26, 2018

Keeping It Real

My last post was at summer’s end. And a magical summer it was... four months on the River Suir, making new friends, learning new skills and indulging my obsession with traditional Irish music. Of course, the best part of emerging from the restrictive cocoon of youth and fluttering about in the breezes of middle age is you learn to reflect... and you actually have quite a lot to reflect on. This past summer, the River Suir was my magic mirror. 
When I left Ireland in August, I was pondering the significance of dreams... dreams that get crushed or slowly fade out of mind... and dreams that pop out of nowhere when we least expect them and march before us like champions with an Olympic torch, beckoning us to follow if we dare. 
Dreams can be like piñates, you know. We often swing at them blindfolded, thinking if we get real lucky, joy and fulfillment will come bursting out on top of us. But more often than not, they creep up from behind and knock US with the piñata bat, making our heads spin and sending us places we never thought we’d go.
I came back to Ireland for Christmas… and to spend time with a certain someone who seemed to have gotten himself all tangled up in my world of dreams. I thought it might be one of those piñata-bat-from-behind situations… one of those ”when you least expect it” crossroads in life that you dare not wish away. And I was not disappointed. (That’s all I’m going to say!)
I’d been here only a few days when I got a call from home that my mother, age 91, had fallen (for a second time), resulting in a compression fracture of her spine. It felt like waking from a beautiful, peaceful sleep with someone splashing ice water on me and slapping me silly. I think I’ve written before that life has a way of jumping out of the bushes and shouting BOO! It startles us for a moment then we recognize it and just snarl.
I am so grateful I got to spend Christmas Day with him and his family, enjoying Irish cuisine and hospitality… then the long flight home and six weeks of care-sharing in Georgia with my brother and his wife. My mother is recovering comfortably and I got back to Ireland on Valentine’s Day. It will be back and forth for the near future I’m afraid. I really want to be both places.
In the mean time I am driving on the left side using a manual transmission, trying new recipes, fiddling new tunes, keeping a turf fire burning. But more than that, I am learning (I should say “continuing to learn”) the benefits of patience, of living in the present, of appreciating the gift of being loved and needed (in TWO countries!) and not taking a single moment for granted. 
The weather lady says the “Beast from the East” is heading our way. That’s what they’re calling a winter blizzard that will be howling through later this week from somewhere like Siberia and lashing Ireland with extraordinary beauty and unavoidable calamity. That's life! I’m ready!

Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Final Post

We all have dreams, right? Often they don’t even assert themselves as dreams. They lurk somewhere deep in our souls as peculiar longings that almost have their own sentience, think their own thoughts, come and go at will. 

In that secret place where they reside, they sometimes prick us when they move about, a stabbing pain that reminds us that we are not yet all that we were meant to be. Other times, they shape themselves into a vessel that fills itself with anticipation and the most unexpected surprises. 

When one dream dies, we mourn. Sometimes we dig the grave too deep and all our other dreams topple in and are covered over forever. But for some of us, when one dream drifts into sleep, another awakes, spreads its wings and shouts out, “Let’s go!” And you’d better follow no matter how crazy it seems.

Earlier this week as I walked to my golf lesson, the sun shone and it was warm for a change. On the way home by the River Suir I saw an old fisherman down a bank and I called to him, mainly to see if he was okay. He turned and smiled and gave me a trout. I took it straight to the fish market where they cleaned it at no charge. Then I came home and had a delicious supper.

The music sessions this week have been the best of the season. I’ve managed to squeeze a few more incredible memories into the fiddle case before finally snapping it shut. The jigs and reels and sweet love ballads I’ve inhaled so deeply are now flowing through my bloodstream and will nourish and sustain me for the few months I have to be away. 

At this moment I feel, as the old gospel song says, Peace Like a River… like the River Suir, my faithful summer companion. So grateful for each of you, on both sides of the sea, for the ways you encourage me, comfort me, try to understand me and affirm the person I aspire to be. I am blessed with two homes, both unique in their own ways, both good beyond what I could “ask or imagine”, to quote the apostle Paul.

My summer journey is drawing to a close. Thank you for coming along and I do hope we can travel together again soon.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Further Adventures

Having said our goodbyes to Jack Bergin and his wife, Bernie, Andy and I left Perry’s Well and set off for Graystown Castle, to be found in the Clashawley River valley. As we drove along, I read aloud from our brochure that the castle is in a hazardous state, poses a risk to anyone entering the premises and should only be viewed from the public road. Andy and I looked at each other and practically in unison spouted, “Feck that!” We're both much too curious and mischievous for our own good. 

The castle was easy to spot on a large outcrop of limestone rock. It was a stunning example of 16th century architecture gone bad, as it was completely in ruins. And we immediately saw why the warnings were issued. There were deep cracks in the walls and we spied a few stones that were about to go and bring down the entire castle with them. The once spiral stone staircase had deteriorated into a pile of rubble.

Not to be deterred, we (very carefully, I promise) explored the castle and surrounding area. There is a major wall left of a mansion house there and signs of other structures long since crumbled away. They say there were at least eight houses and three enclosures on the property in medieval times. The development as a whole dates back to the 12th century and may have been partly monastic.

What's left of the spiral staircase
Castle views are always stunning
From the castle, we had another major treasure hunt. We wanted to find the Hill of Bones. We knew it to be a bronze age burial ground (2500-500 BC) and supposedly some Norman soldiers were also buried here after a local skirmish. Nearby erosion has resulted in the exposure of …… yes, BONES! And sickness and bad luck is said to follow anyone who interferes with the hill.

Our brochure placed the hill in the Clashawley River valley 2 km south of the castle. But the entire valley was dotted with little hills and mounds among the clumps of trees and shrubs set into the fields of cattle. How could we possibly know which was our woeful hill? We knocked on a door in the area and asked and were told it was just down the road. That did us no good.

Photo from the brochure
Then it dawned on me. Our brochure, while being pretty worthless in its description of a location, contained one photo. It was the picture of a small tree, leafless, with a couple of somethings (we couldn’t tell what) just to the right of the trunk. The hill was behind it. I told Andy if we could find that tree, we’d have our hill.

He looked at me skeptically, but had to agree. We turned the car around and headed back north to find a higher road over the valley where we could get a wider view. We knew this was a long shot and the things next to the tree were probably just fallen limbs that would be long since gone. Still, this was our only chance.
Found it!

And by now you’re probably guessing the rest of the story. There it was in the distance. Only it was in full leaf, but the somethings were there on the ground to the right and the trunk was very distinctive.

We drove back around to the lower road, down a boreen and parked. We had to cross two electric fences, but we made it. The tree stood alone, a noble guardian of the hill, greeting (and perhaps warning) curious visitors that this was a sacred place. There were small, flat boulders underneath that looked like seats for rest and meditation. The burial mound was directly behind it, just like in the photo.

No, we didn’t disturb anything. I might chance to climb through crumbling castle ruins, but I’m no fool. I would NOT risk disturbing any part of the Hill of Bones. (Although I did eat some wild blackberries. Do you think that counts?)


Sunday, August 20, 2017

Finding Perry's Well

I have less than two weeks left on my beloved emerald island. So when my friend, Andy, suggested a few days ago that we pick up where we left off on the Derrynaflan Trail, I was ready. 

As you may recall from an earlier post (click on July under Archive in the right margin and scroll down to Sunday), the trail covers several local points of historical interest... many in ruins, all intriguing. The brochure we’re using gives brief descriptions and general locations, but NOTHING specific… certainly no addresses. You’re on your own and good luck! 

We were mostly successful on our last venture but could not find a place called Perry’s Well which was supposedly in a farmer’s field. Legend has it that it was once located on Church Hill, where we explored earlier, but someone washed their sheep in it and the next day it was moved. (?) But moved to where? This was a mystery. 

The well has been a site of pilgrimage for over a hundred years and is reputed to have curative properties. So today, that was our first goal… to locate the well and cure what ails us. 

Andy had asked around about it and was told to contact a man named Jack Bergin who lives in the area where we had searched before. Pretty vague information. So we drove to the area and saw a farmer and his wife painting a fence. We pulled in and asked if he knew one Jack Bergin. This Is Ireland… so of course this farmer WAS Jack Bergin. It just always works out this way (Call it the luck of the American in Ireland).
Out through the field we went

As it happens, he bought this land from the Perrys about 40 years ago and the well is in his field. He seemed delighted that we were inquiring and immediately left the painting to the missus and told us to put on our Wellies. Unfortunately, I had not anticipated more mud and slosh so I was Wellyless. But This Is Ireland… so of course Andy had Wellies in the boot that would be just right (okay, a little big but who’s complaining?)

Off we went, following Jack through a gate and into a giant expanse of soggy green field and cow manure. At the edge of the field, the landscape became a mass of tall weeds choked by thick strands of briars and overgrown brush. Jack explained that no one had been to the well in at least two years and he had been remiss in keeping it clear. He seemed embarrassed and a little apologetic. I, on the other hand, was suppressing an enormous “WOOHOO!” that had been ‘well’ing up in my throat. I was feeling seriously triumphant.

The well is in here somewhere!
He hacked a path for us a few yards in, and then it emerged. A little stone structure with still, clear water as its floor. He explained the water level neither rose nor sank with the rain nor the seasons. No one knows how long it has existed, but an ancient pilgrim path goes past here, so who knows? There were stone (or cement?) benches on either side where pilgrims could sit and rest their feet in the soothing water. 

As I always do, I imagined my ancestors (and yours) passing this way on their journey to find answers or meaning or relief or … I really don’t know what. But I walk alongside them as a fellow seeker on a quest to affirm my place here, and maybe slough off a thin layer of burden that seems to relentlessly press us down. 

There was a stepping stone at the entrance which seemed to serve as a welcome mat. As we were stooping in, Jack told us stories of supposed healings associated with the well… even a cow that was at death’s door was resurrected. We took a few minutes to admire the vaulted ceiling and the one tiny window that mimicked soft candle light on the far wall. As we left, I dipped my hand in the water and anointed myself on the head. Couldn’t hurt, right? 

We were ready to leave but This Is Ireland. The farmer’s wife was expecting us for tea so of course we obliged. She gave us a copy of a news article on the well from a few years ago. Apparently the stone at the entrance, which was caked with mud and algae and seemed completely nondescript, has a carving of a pieta on it and was at one time a source of national interest. GEEEEE! I wish I had known that BEFORE we left the well. 

Tea time at the Bergin's
Around the table I was treated to stories of the neighborhood and because This Is Ireland, it wasn’t long before Andy and Jack had established they had mutual friends and maybe even relatives. Heck, they may be long lost brothers!

We left headed for Graystown Castle and to seek out the elusive Hill of Bones. You won’t believe how we found it. Stay tuned.


Thursday, August 3, 2017

Croagh Patrick

The weekend forecast for County Mayo was rain, rain and more rain. On my laptop, an icon showed gray clouds with droplets covering each day Friday through Tuesday, but Sunday had an added lightening bolt. Ugh!

This did not bode well for my long awaited adventure. Three weeks ago I was invited by Margaret and her sister, Ursy, to join the family on their annual trek to Croagh Patrick (pronounced Croke), the sacred mountain of St. Patrick, near the west coast of Ireland.  Legend has it that when our patron saint arrived here in the 5th century, he climbed this mountain and fasted at the summit for 40 days. It was from here he banished all snakes (thought to symbolize paganism) from Ireland. 

We know that Croagh Patrick has had religious significance since the stone age, around 3000 B.C. It was a gathering place of pagans celebrating harvest before it was a place of worship for early Christians. Fascinating details have emerged from the studies of archaeology, astronomy and myth. Look it up.

On the last Sunday of July each year (called “Reek Sunday” after the mountain’s nickname), thousands of pilgrims from all over the world descend on Co. Mayo to make the grueling ascent upwards to the 2507 foot summit where a special mass is held each hour, and hearts and minds are focused on God (well, they’re supposed to be). I have wanted to be among this throng since I first heard about this sacred tradition. 

So three weeks ago, right after my invitation, I started training. Can you go from riverside stroller to mountain climber in such a short time? I was going to find out. Having no real access here in Thurles to a life size mountain, I figured the stairs would have to do. So up and down I went every day, between 500-600 steps. Whew! It was tiring. And it made my legs burn and my heart race. It felt like.....EXERCISE! Not my favorite thing.

But I was determined and on Saturday when we piled into the car to head out, I felt pretty sure I could maybe make it halfway up the Reek. That would be respectable. Though the mountain is only half a mile high, the traditional route is a little over four miles. I was told there might be a mass at the halfway point for those who could not (or chose not to) be the best pilgrims. I would be totally satisfied with that accomplishment.

Nicholas suggested we leave the next morning at 5:30 so we could be climbing by 6. Really? Margaret and Ursy expressed their regrets and opted for some quality sister time in downtown Westport. That left Nicholas, me and the two strapping millennials, Emma and Eugene, to seize the day. They had all done this before and were not at all intimidated. I was, as they say, cautiously optimistic.

The morning was partly cloudy and looked promising. That was the first miracle. Hundreds of pilgrims were already on the move when I told my three companions that I would be climbing alone. I did not want to feel pressure to keep up nor make them slow down for me. They reluctantly agreed to this and we made a plan to meet later at the little coffee shop at base camp. I told them if they saw a med evac copter fly over they should text me just in case. And so it began.

I cannot begin to express how truly awesome (and I mean that in the truest sense of the word) this experience was. The first while was straight uphill side stepping boulders, trudging through running water, mud and rubble. As I rose higher and higher, a stunning portrait of Clew Bay was painting itself in my rear view mirror.

I stopped often to catch my breath, only to turn around and have the developing images and colors brazenly snatch it away again. A waterfall to my right could not drown out the whispers of prayers and quiet conversations I overheard as I moved on and up. I was feeling a part of something surreal and beautiful, stepping to the rhythms of ancient ancestors in this, their native land. I began to whisper my own prayers and meditate on the strength and health and many other blessings I’ve received. I wanted to sing.

After a while, the ground leveled a bit but this concession didn’t last long. I was soon climbing again and there were more stones to climb over and more treacherous footing. I was leaning heavily on my walking stick and heaving myself from step to step. But I wasn’t feeling tired or at all bothered by the chilling wind and rain which now pelted us at this higher altitude. That was the second miracle.

The journey actually began on the mountain next door and when I reached the Reek, about two hours in, I was seriously getting vertical. The path was now a solid mass of stones, some better described as boulders. Each step was calculated, with my stick doing the hard work, and I stumbled and fell numerous times. 

I was amazed at the figures I saw climbing alongside me and descending from the top. Many were old and wizened, frail and unsteady. Some were barefoot on a mission of penance. But everyone seemed in good spirits. At one point, I came face to face with a tiny little woman whose age I would guess to be mid-70’s. Our eyes met and she flashed a big smile exclaiming, “Tis hard on me hips”. That’s the closest I came to hearing a complaint. 

I don’t know where I was when I realized I had probably long passed the halfway mark which was my initial goal. I knew I would finish the course. It was euphoric reaching the summit and taking more photos and having a snack from my backpack. There’s a modern chapel there where mass was being held and a stand with….what else…..cups o’ tea. But it was freezing up there and I was too soaked to feel like lingering, even for a warming drink. 

I’d been told coming down was as hard as going up, and that was true. It was harder to stay on my feet. I heard later that 13 people had serious injuries including head injuries, a dislocated shoulder and a broken wrist. I had seen the medics carrying stretcher after stretcher down the mountain. 

I made it to base camp in one piece around noon, and texted the three mountaineers who had been waiting patiently for me (probably for hours). One mocha later and I was telling my story. It’s been four days now and I’ve hardly been stiff or sore at all. That’s the third miracle. Maybe next year I’ll be back.

An evening celebration was in order. A trad session of course

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Sunday, Part 2

As you recall from my last post, Andy and I finally set out exploring the Derrynaflan Trail. Our first stop was Derrynaflan Island and the ruins of the small church there. We lingered there quite a while, admiring the views of the bog in all directions and taking photos. Clouds were starting to gather as we shuffled through the dry bog dust back to the car. 
Beware the beast of Ballinure!

Our next stop was the Ballinure Graveyard. As we pulled up we were immediately halted by an enormous green serpent who surveyed us with suspicion and demanded to know our business. When we explained what we were after, to just have a look around and contemplate the quintessential purposes of the Almighty, he reluctantly granted us safe passage to browse among the stones. But I felt his devilish, beguiling eye on us the whole time, and it gave me chills.

Here lie the Taylors...Burp!
Not finding the medieval church that was supposed to be the centerpiece of the cemetery, we soon realized with horror that our monster had slowly over the years devoured it. Not planning to leave unsatisfied, we found a passage into the belly of the beast and there admired the exquisite barrel vaulted chamber and the burial vaults of some unfortunate Taylors. I wonder if they tasted good!!!

As we were backing away from the serpent, apparently his minions had taken note of us and were marching to his rescue with fire in their eyes. They looked meaner than any bad Leroy Brown I’ve ever seen, and we were grateful they could not jump the wall that separated us. There were many of them and they just kept coming.

I wonder if they're as mean as they look.

By now it was raining… because it rains almost every single day in Ireland, even when the sun shines early on. I had a rain jacket and water proof boots but the natives hardly ever bother with these things, so Andy was getting a little wet as we got back in the car.

We thought about calling it a day but then decided to find one more site. This medieval ruin hopping is addictive, I tell you. Don’t attempt it unless you have lots of time and are prepared to get the sniffles and sore muscles at some point. Do you know if there’s a support group for this?

The Yellow Church 
Our final stop was to be Perry’s Well. But, “well”, we couldn’t find it. It was at one time located on “Church Hill” (wherever that was), but legend has it that someone washed sheepskins in it and the next morning it was moved. What? We walked through one field that looked promising but no well in sight.

After driving another quarter mile or so, we spied something very curious in the distance. This is my favorite kind of ruin adventure, where you aren’t expecting anything and then do a double take.

“What was THAT on that hill?!" We had to go a little farther to find a place to park, then we got out (it was still sprinkling but we hardly noticed) and started trudging. We ran into a limestone quarry and, skirting it to avoid a fence, spied what was left of “The Yellow Church” at the top of the hill. It is referred to as such because of some connections to the neighboring town which aren’t clear. There isn’t much known about it. 

We noticed that the land all around it showed signs of settlement, and we later read there were at least three houses once there and two walled enclosures. We also later discovered that “The Yellow Church” is on “Church Hill”, the former sight of Perry’s Well (before the regretable sheepskin incident). The views were stunning, even in the mist.

“My name is Kim and I’m a ‘ruin’ junkie.” “Hello, Kim”. Til next time…

Tuesday, July 11, 2017


It was 11 o'clock on Sunday morning and my ride to the Baptist church had not shown up. The service would be starting about now and my mind was going this way and that, wondering what went wrong. I hoped Seamus, who always collects me, was okay.

The morning was beautiful... warm, sweet and crisp, like microwave kettle corn (which I miss tremendously). The sun was bright and I was, as they say, all dressed up with no place to go. I changed into my comfy jeans and opened Safari to see if there was any interesting place I could walk within reason, just to spend the day outdoors.

I was on the verge of despair when the phone rang. I could hardly believe the timing. It was my friend, Andy, who has been conspiring with me for weeks to hit the Derrynaflan driving trail, a series of medieval ecclesiastical sites in the area. Andy has long work hours and lots of other commitments, so I wasn’t sure our plans would ever reach fruition.

“Would you have some free time today to check off a couple of sites?” 
Island in the Bog
“Oh, I might be able to spare a few minutes for it”. I was jumping for joy! I have been in serious "ruin" withdrawal and was just realizing how good a fix was going to feel. 

Our first stop was Derrynaflan Island, also known as Goban Saor’s Island (Goban being a famous church architect of the day), which is a big, unexpected, inexplicable explosion of green in the middle of Littleton bog.  The name, Derrynaflan, means the Oak Wood of the Two Flanns, referring to a couple of clerics who were associated with the place in the 800’s. Yep, it’s old.

Derrynaflan was just another tick off the trail map until 1980 when a couple of guys went exploring with metal detectors. Their wildest dreams came true when they hit 
The Derrynaflan Chalice
the mother lode. As you probably know, because of Vikings and other ill-tempered guests, the monks often buried their treasures when the doorbell rang. We know the Irish ground is saturated with it. Finding it is the challenge. The “Derrynaflan Hoard” is now housed in the National Museum in Dublin and I saw it last summer.

It wasn’t easy getting to the island. There are no road signs and certainly no address. Andy had been there before but still had to rethink a couple of turns. Then there it was in the distance, a polished emerald laid out on a sheet of dark velvet. 

We're almost there!
We parked the car and set out walking. It hadn’t rained in a few days so the bog was dusty and cracked. Like all good adventure walks in Ireland, we had to negotiate a waterway and cross a fence. My eyes were glued to the ground the whole way, just in case a bit of the “hoard” had been left behind. Ya never know!
Five windows have survived the years

These old ruined churches are like fiddle tunes in that, to the untrained ear or eye, they all seem the same. But once you’re on to them, the subtle differences assert themselves with enthusiasm and you never mistake one for the other (well, on fiddle tunes, sometimes you do). 
Brian McLaren, in Finding God, reminds us that God isn’t only found in cathedrals and religious sacraments and rituals (although many of us do find Him there). Nature, art, solitude, community, serving others (McLaren’s list is long) are also vessels through which communion with the Divine may flow. I’ve been thinking about what makes me, personally, feel close to God... how the “fruit of the Spirit” (love, joy, peace, patience, etc.) that St. Paul says we, as followers of Christ, will some day come to yield, is being nurtured in me.

Thank you, Andy.
There was a time when I thought these virtues would rise up in us volcano-style upon profession of faith, spewing forth from nothingness just because, as in creation, God ordered it so. Then I started realizing that maybe the six creative days weren’t literal days and maybe good things take time. And maybe all the circumstances of my life have been a part of God’s continuing creation, the making of me.

Among a variety of other ways, I feel spiritual, connected to God, when I'm stumbling over the rubble left behind by my spiritual ancestors. I’m not so naive as to think they were all "holy, holy, holy" and loved God with all their hearts. But I’ll bet a few of them did. And the “faith of our fathers” inspires me, maybe because history is a gossip, and has the benefit of knowing then announcing all the ways they screwed up... but God remained faithful. 

There’s an eloquent sermon in that for me. And I would have missed hearing it on Sunday if I’d gone to church.

Next post: More along the trail... The Yellow Church (which we were relieved to discover was NOT the Hill of Bones which is an unlucky place) and the Ballinure Graveyard.