Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Out Of The Bog

When I arrived in Ireland on May 2, I assumed I’d be safe. But I was immediately ambushed at the airport by an overpowering chill that kept me in bondage for days. I literally could not get warm. I slept in leggings and two shirts UNDER my pajamas…AND did I mention two pairs of socks and the wooly scarf…AND a blanket over my duvet? It would have been embarrassing if anyone had known. Now it just seems funny. I have acclimated well and am running around naked like the natives. 
Slices are cut from the bog bank
Ireland has never been famous for its sunshine and Pina coladas. And for centuries her people have depended on the bog to keep them warm. 

The stacked peat takes weeks to dry
Online sources say the bog covers about 16% of the island and is thousands of years old. When the ice (from the ice age) began melting, the combination of poor drainage and dead plant debris created conditions that resulted in the formation of peat. It goes to depths of about 2-12 meters in most places. Last year I visited the céide fields in County Mayo where extensive ancient walls have been discovered deep underfoot….a village swallowed up by the bog over time. 

We still have a ways to go
This copious peat has been like manna from heaven to the Irish…. a life-sustaining provision that many still depend upon. Most homes I visit on cold days are burning peat briquets in a wood stove and I will forever associate that distinct, earthy aroma with Ireland.

Sooooo….you can imagine how thrilled I was when Margaret asked me if I’d like to go with her to “foot the turf” one day. It’s a practice that has been passed down through the generations and, though changed a little thanks to big machinery, still in some ways remains the same. 

Bog cotton is common

First, the turf has to be removed from the bog. The older generation here can tell you stories of using sleáns (two-sided blades) to slice and dice it up by hand then toss the chunks to a helper with a waiting wagon. Today a tractor-like thing does that, thank goodness. The load is then dumped on dry ground, cut into strips and, after it dries a few days, it’s footed or stacked into small piles so it can dry out completely. You can see what I mean in the photos. Then it’s delivered to homes and kept like firewood.

It was worth the work. Thanks, John.
Everyone here either still foots turf every year or they have fond memories of it from childhood. Linda told me her granny always said, “The tea never tastes so good as it does in the bog”. I expect that’s because the tea was a welcome interruption to the backbreaking work of bending and stacking. Linda still has the aluminum milk can her granny carried with her. Paddy Doherty (age 90) says the first order of business was to place the can in a hole in the bog so the milk would stay cool and fresh all day for the tea. And his wife quickly added, “Oh, the tea is so good in the bog. Just lovely!”

And would you believe? When Margaret and I had been footing for a couple of hours, John (who owns this piece of bog land) calls us into his bog kitchen (yep, it’s just a kitchen right there by the bog) and serves us tea (and pie!). And I can attest, it never tasted so good as it did in the bog. 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Back To Church

The countryside around Thurles is stunning
A few days ago I accomplished something on my Irish bucket list. I attended the Sunday morning service at the Thurles Baptist Church. Yep, Thurles has a baptist church. Who knew? Actually, I did. I found it online last year and even accidentally drove past it (it’s “out in the country”) when I was exploring one day. But I was preoccupied with standing stones and wedge tombs, and figured relics of the baptist movement would have to wait until I ran up the timeline a few thousand years. 

So in early April, I sent an email to the pastor and introduced myself, explaining I’d be in Thurles all summer and hoped to attend church. I got a really hospitable, informative reply from his wife, offering me a lift if I should need one. So Sunday was the day. She collected me personally and was just as warm and friendly as I had expected (and hoped).

There are over 6 million cows in Ireland. Thank you, Siri.
She explained that the reason the church is somewhat out of town and in the middle of the fields had nothing to do with “pastoral” care (my bad, not her’s). It’s said that, when the church was founded about 30 years ago, the Catholic Church did not rejoice but rather, the priest warned his parishioners not to sell land to the evangelicals.

Who’s going to disobey the priest? He might be the one who later hears your confession, right? I wonder if the priests were legally and ethically bound to report the sin of “colluding with evangelicals” to the local authorities. But maybe the church WAS the local authority back then. I don’t know these things. Nevertheless, I was told the only plot of land they could muster was the spot where they are, so that’s where they are. It’s a little in the middle of nowhere.
I never grow weary of stone bridges

I was so hoping it wasn’t going to be a fire and brimstone experience. Vesuvius is farther east, right? You never know with baptists. They’re as multi flavored as Haagen-Dazs. But I can say honestly, it was the most sincere, unpretentious, reverent evangelical service I’ve been to in a while. And I felt most welcome. I’m going back next week.

I’ve gotten away from “religion” in the last few years, which includes commitment to a church. I prefer to have my worship served with caroling birds and persevering streams as opposed to chatty well-wishers who spoon feed each other platitudes then wash them down with “America First”. Oops! Am I getting political??? Somebody slap me.
The larch tree is used for boat making 

Thursday night I went walking with the Mid Tipp Hillwalkers (who by God’s grace did NOT go up any hills on Thursday). I felt the same hospitality from this secular group as I felt at church. We left at 7 which is early considering it’s still light outside at 10. We hiked along a river (a tributary of either the Shannon, the Suir or the Nore because they’re the Big 3 in Tipperary), past blazing fields of barley, through forests replete with exotic (to me) flora which one of our party continuously pointed out and identified. The Devil’s Bit was always on the horizon and the sky was apuff with mesmerizing pinks, blues and grays.

The O'Fogarty clan church in Inch closed its doors around 1700. 
This event was especially intriguing to me because the group not only walks together but they converse in Irish as they walk. I picked up a few words and they were kind enough to do some translating. I wonder how you say, “Who invited the klutzy American?” in Irish. Hmmm

Of course no outdoor excursion in Ireland is complete without a detour through a lichen splattered cemetery  and the reading of stones and the lamenting of crumbly, forgotten church walls. The Inch Old Graveyard was our memorial de jour and provided a peaceful rest stop although I don’t think any of us really needed one.

We completed our loop by nine or so and had tea and biscuits (cookies) at a pub/restaurant called The Ragg, which was our starting point. And because no indoor excursion in Ireland is complete without music, we had no sooner started sipping when out of nowhere appeared a penny whistle and a fiddle and two reenergized hikers who knew how to wield them. All I could think of was How Great Thou Art (which doesn’t work as a jig or a reel but nevertheless…).

I’m finding so many venues and ways to worship these days. But I have to admit, I miss church. Just the traditional stand and sing, bow in prayer, listen to the sermon, shake a hand kind of togetherness. Doctrine has zigged and zagged its way through the ages and unfortunately left grooves of self-righteous pride, division and animosity. And the controversies never end.
Music in The Ragg
Nature doesn’t demand a creed. Music doesn’t require all the answers. Just faith. But I’m still going back to church next week because I want to.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Some Thoughts on Goodness and Mercy

I was sitting on my bed with the guitar, trying to make “You Can Close Your Eyes” sound like James Taylor plays it on youtube. I was failing miserably. Such a simple little song with some quirky, aggravating licks. I glanced at the time on my phone and dropped everything immediately (except the borrowed guitar, of course, which I most carefully laid back in its borrowed case). I was due at the Garda (police) station in 15 minutes. No, I am not in trouble already. I had an appointment to get my passport stamped so I can stay in Ireland all summer.  I was so hoping there would be no red tape, no immigration controversy, no expelling me at once on the grounds I might be a closet banjo player on the verge of coming out.

I am happy to report that all went as smoothly as butter on a scone. I was walking home elated, a combination of relief, anticipation, and gratitude. I hadn’t actually taken the walk by the River Suir yet, so I decided this would be a good time to explore. It was a gorgeous, sunny warm day and I didn’t want to waste a minute more indoors, even if James Taylor was waiting impatiently back in my room.

It’s a gentle, peaceful path that snuggles up to the water just edging town. Only a few other people are there in the middle of the day. Progressing away from town, the traffic noises fade like that last chord James lands before the applause. So sweet!

“Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life.” My theme for the summer and one of the most confusing, misunderstood, provocative concepts in scripture (to me anyway).  I wonder what God means when he talks about goodness and mercy. I would like to sing you his intentions with the flair and confidence of James on the computer screen, but I’m sensing dissonance and distortions from what I see and hear around me. I can say with certainty that God has been good and merciful to ME, but I see others hanging by a thread. Just turn on the news…..or have a long conversation with your neighbor.

Today I went with two friends to Kilkenny for the afternoon. We wanted to visit Black Abbey, a 13th century Dominican church with the most elaborate and colorful stained glass windows anywhere. It just so happened (but it seems to happen all the time with me in Ireland) that we arrived in the middle of something. It was The Novena To Our Lady Of Fatima, a devotional commemoration of the Virgin Mary’s appearance in Portugal 100 years ago.

As we walked in we found ourselves in a line of people in the aisle. I assumed they were looking for seats and we followed them forward. Before I knew it, I was face to face with a priest anointing my forehead and palms with oil for healing. I tried to look as Catholic as possible and wondered if he knew the ugly truth... or if it mattered.

The touch of his fingers immediately transformed me from casual tourist to humbled worshipper. We made our way to a nearby pew and knelt in prayer as the strains of a Celtic chamber orchestra and choir swirled like faerie dust around and through the rituals. I felt blessed, not only by the hand of the priest, but by the faces and voices of all those gathered to worship the Lord.

There are many elements of Catholic theology and practice that trouble me.   But I was surprised how easy it was to put the differences aside as we all rose to our feet to sing How Great Thou Art at the end of the service. I felt peace, comfort and encouragement… the signs of healing.

Yes, I have a definite sense of the goodness and mercy of God in my life, as he continues to guide me and teach me about himself.  There are many questions that still throb in my head, but today I can say that at least my heart got it. Maybe I need to pay more attention to James Taylor, by now snoozing on youtube, awaiting my return.  “So close your eyes……you can close your eyes, it’s alright.”

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The First Week

I had said I wouldn’t blog this summer in Ireland, just journal my days away in private and save the publishing for another time when I could put it all together and develop more purpose or theme. But alas, I’ve been here less than a week and I have so much to share with you, my friends and family. You, who walk alongside me, catching me when I clumsily trip over my own thoughts and emotions and nudging me forward when I get too lazy to have any. If you missed last summer’s musings, you can find them at dearestireland.blogspot.com. I think there were thirteen postings, written as letters to Ireland, that expressed my impressions and feelings of what I experienced as I took a risky, but exciting side road on my spiritual journey and discovered that sometimes the scenic route is the best.

A river runs through it
So, if you’re an interested party, you can follow me here at Suirly Goodness about once a week. The title isn’t a typo, but a reference to the River Suir (pronounced “sure”) which runs through town and which I intend to walk along for daily exercise of both heart and “heart”. If you haven’t been to church lately, you may have forgotten the 23rd Psalm which concludes with, “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life…” King David believed that and so do I.

The night before I left home I had a crisis of faith. Not faith in God, but faith in myself to be an independent traveler, in a foreign country where there are so many unknowns. If you read my other blogs in the past, you know this sounds familiar. But things like health coverage, transportation (I’m still an adamant “NO” to driving here), housing, etc. all gave me a touch of traveler’s remorse, even before I left home. I wondered if I changed my mind at the last minute at the United Airlines gate, would they drag me on board anyway, kicking and screaming, because I’d bought a ticket and reserved my seat. 

Blanket of bluebells
I’m happy to report that the affirmation I felt when I first made my plans was not misleading. All is better than good….amazing really (Okay, I’ve used the worn out word “amazing”, so it’s taboo for the rest of the blog). I’d not met Linda and her young daughter, my hosts for the summer. My mother, of course, had to remind me that I really didn’t know anything about Linda and she could be a drug addict or a thug or something worse. And what in the world would I do without a car, just sit around all day? Gotta love a protective Momma.

A wild orchid asserts itself
Variety of wildflowers

Linda and Sarah are amazing! (Oh No! I didn’t just do that!) We seem extremely compatible to be perfect strangers. I did know Linda’s mother, Margaret, though, so it’s not surprising Linda is a non-thug. And what’s with Irish children all (and I literally mean ALL that I have met) being as adorable as kittens and refreshingly unbrat-like. Having taught school for 34 years, I think we could learn something here.

Ireland’s summer magic has already begun to take hold and cast its disarming spell on me once again. On Friday, I went hiking through, as my friend Joe described it from the photos, “a beautiful, diaphanous sylvan glade” (I should get Joe to write my blog). If I’d had any doubts about why I came back to Ireland, they faded like the sunlight as we made our way down the banks of sparkling bluebells to the calming streams and misty waterfalls below. Unfortunately, I’ve taken too few opportunities to stay in cardio shape this year. Walking back UP, I stopped every few steps to comment on the beautiful, diaphanous aura of the place and feign meditation. I was really trying to catch my breath without appearing old and out of shape (It’s the truth, Margaret). We’d like to go back, but they say the bluebells, like the tender maidens in the best Irish ballads, only bloom for a short season. Maybe next year.

Coziest spot in the pub
You KNOW I’ve been fiddling. The pub was just as I remembered. My favorite spot to sit was waiting for me and I relished every minute. Not just playing, but seeing my old friends and meeting some new. There are two trad sessions each week in separate pubs, both a short walk from where I’m staying. And a third just a few miles away. Someone is loaning me a guitar for the summer so I should be all set. It’s in God’s hands. It always was. Wish me well and come along for the ride. Even though Ireland is a small country, there's plenty of room for us all.