Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Sacred Stones

Everywhere you look on Inis Mor there are stones...ancient monastic ruins of stones, dry stone walls, standing stones, stone crosses. St. Enda and the other earliest Christian monks probably first arrived on Inis Mor in the 5th century. Crude huts of stone and small oratories were the first buildings constructed; the church ruins shown here date from the 10th and 11th centuries and were built on the sites of the original buildings.

Dara Molloy
Explaining the history of Celtic Christain monasticism on the island was our guide for the day, Dara Molloy, a former Catholic priest who came to live on Inis Mor in 1985. Dara spent his first 10 years on Inis Mor living as a hermit and Celtic monk, later marrying and raising a family here while pursuing his passion for the island, its spirituality, and its stories. He made these old stones come alive as he related the island's history and explained its pull on those early monks who came here to live on the wild edge of the then-known world and dedicate their lives to God.

Monk's bed at St Benan's oratory.
Dara told us that this structure was a hermit monk's bed right outside St. Benan's oratory where the photos on yesterday's blog post were taken. The tiny church was barely big enough to hold our small group of 12 and would have been where just the hermit worshiped. His bed outside (which would have had some type of roof) was only big enough for him to lie down in...some of our group actually tested it out by lying in it. A very austere life, but with great views...
Standing between St. Benan's oratory and the hermit monk's bed
This little church and its hermit were part of a large monastic village community called Cill Einne. Monks lived below in houses, some with wives and families, while the complex itself boasted at least 6 churches and numerous high standing crosses that we associate with Celtic Christianity. It also had the only round tower on the island....
Round Tower
marking it as a very important place. The Tower was initially 35 meters tall, but was struck by lightening in the early 19th century partially destroying it and leaving only 4 meters remaining. It's thought these round towers served multiple functions as look-out towers, bell towers, places to store relics, places of refuge in times of danger and as the centering point for the community.

Unfortunately, only remnants remain of the island's high Celtic crosses where monks would gather to pray. All of them on the island were destroyed by Oliver Cromwell's troops during the Irish Confederate Wars of 1641-1653 when Ireland was occupied by English troops and Catholicism was outlawed.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Inis Mor

Looking seaward from Teampall Bheanain
(St. Benan's Church)
They say that Ireland is a land full of 'thin places,' those special places where heaven and earth touch shoulders and the veil between them is thin. In those places, wisdom sits and the Spirit is strong. Man can be touched and changed there. Sometimes these places are sacred sites; sometimes a thin place is a mountaintop or a pile of rocks. Thin places are personal; not everyone feels them the same. For me, Inis Mor, one of the Aran Islands, is a thin place. It's the largest of the group of islands sitting in the mouth of Galway Bay. With a total area of about 12 square miles, it holds 27 nationally-protected historic sites, most of them spiritual. There are the remains of 10 monasteries and the landscape is dotted with numerous holy wells, standing stones, burial sites of saints, hermit cells, oratories, Celtic crosses, a round tower and a ancient sundial. No wonder the Spirit feels close here!
Inis Mor
The island itself is an extension of the Burren and is made up of rugged limestone, littered with rocks. Good for building, but not so good for crops or even livestock. Life was, and remains, hard here.  It's almost tree-free and is battered year 'round by the winds and waves of the rough Atlantic Ocean. Inis Mor is not for the faint-hearted.
View from the Round Tower
Yet, it's a landscape that calls to me. Of all the beautiful places I visited during my 17 days in Ireland, this is the place I'd like to return to. Inis Mor called to the ancient Celtic monks as well. I'll be sharing some of their churches and monasteries in my next post.

Monday, September 22, 2014


Newgrange was one of my last stops during my visit to Ireland....and it was definitely the most ancient. This huge passage burial tomb was built in the late Neolithic period around 3200 BC, making it older than both the pyramids of Giza and Stonehenge! And even more remarkably, it's only one of several other burial sites in the area. Two other passage tombs, Knowth and Douth share its location, as well as other smaller burial mounds, standing stone sites, and ritual spots. Visits to Newgrange are limited to guided tours only and then only in small groups of 25 people. I booked my tour through Newgrangetours.com. Mary Gibbons was an excellent tour guide, and her coach tours have a guaranteed tour time which means no standing in line. I highly recommend her tour if you visit Newgrange.
The Newgrange mound
After a short walk from the Visitor's Center to the waiting shuttle buses, you are driven to the mound where your guide walks you up to its entrance....
Entrance to the tomb
Originally excavated and restored in the 1970's, the entrance is a bit more 'polished' than current archaeological sites would be. Ducking under a large stone slab, you enter the darkness of a narrow passage. In some places, it's necessary to slither between stones sideways as you walk the 19 meters to the burial chamber. The chamber itself is ringed with 3 alcoves, each big enough to hold 2 or 3 people. Our group of 25 was just able to squeeze into the main chamber...it's not very big compared to the huge mound over and around it. It's thought that the small alcoves were the burial areas for the cremated remains of ancient kings or warriors.

Light window above entrance
The rectangular window above the mound's entrance is a light window. On the days around the winter solstice, Dec. 19th -23rd, the light of the rising sun shines through this window, illuminating the passage and the alcoves. The mounds at Knowth and Douth have similar celestial alignments. Our guide pointed out the high corbelled stone roof of the burial chamber. It has stood intact for over 5,000 years with no evidence at all of leaking. A pretty amazing building feat, I'd say.

Neolithic art on the entrance stone
Neolithic art on kerbstone
The mound is ringed with a base of 97 huge stone slabs called kerbstones. Seventy of these have been excavated, and 39 of those are decorated with these Neolithic symbols. No one knows what they mean; you're free to make up your own interpretation of them.

There is definitely a feeling of being in the presence of antiquity at Newgrange. Its peaceful and idyllic setting seems a perfect resting place for the ancient souls buried here. Even the cows share their fields with the ancients. Everywhere you look there are signs the dead
as well as the living!
A nice Japanese man took my photo at the mound.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The 'New' Church on Inchagoill

Pilgrim at the threshold
The 'new' church on Inchagoill Island is this one, the Church of the Saints, built in the late 12th century nearly 600 years after St. Patrick's exile to the island. It's believed that this church was built by the Augustinian monks at Cong Abbey as a retreat center. At the time of its construction, nearly 3000 monks and scholars were living at the monastery in Cong; this church became their quiet refuge where individual monks or small groups could come to rest and pray in peace. It probably had a thatched roof.
Arched doorway & the 10 saints of Lough Corrib
Its beautiful arched doorway is Romanesque and decorated with carved heads of the 10 saints of Lough Corrib. The head on the far right is St. Brigit.
Byzantine crosses
These carvings on the wall inside the entry are thought to be Byzantine left by monks from the near East studying at the famous Cong Abbey. These Byzantine crosses may have inspired the Celtic cross that we know today.
Holy water font
On the other side of the doorway, this hollowed out stone served as the church's holy water font.
Across the eastern wall of the small church is the altar with stone creations which served as the lavabo for washing hands and the tabernacle which held the consecrated elements for the Eucharist.
Stone lavabo
Our group had some time to wander the island and soak up its beauty before we re-assembled for a picnic lunch by the lake shore. Some of us sat inside the ancient stone churches for some meditative time; others walked the perimeter of the island. I chose to spend my time in the woods exploring and sitting with the beautiful trees....
I was rewarded by this fellow's sweet song....

Friday, September 19, 2014

Inchagoill Island

River Corrib
Galway, Ireland
The River Corrib which runs through Galway has its origin in Lough Corrib. The lake at an area of 68 square miles is the largest lake in Ireland. The River Corrib with a length of only 6 kilometers is one of Europe's shortest rivers. But by flow, it's the second largest river in Ireland being surpassed only by the River Shannon. Interesting and fun facts...but facts are not our destination today..

On Lough Corrib
Our destination is Inchagouill Island, the 4th  largest of the over 365 islands in Lough Corrib. It was inhabited in the past, but is now off-limits to development and is protected by the Republic of Ireland's Department of Resources. It's the site of some important monastic ruins dating back to at least the 5th century.
St. Patrick's church
It is believed that St. Patrick and his nephew, Lugna, were banished here in the middle of the 5th century by the pagan Druid priests in Cong. Patrick was in Ireland to convert the pagans which obviously didn't please everyone! The island's name, Inchagouill, means Island of the Foreigner which lends credence to this story. Lugna, the son of Patrick's sister, Limanin, was also his navigator. He died during their banishment, and is buried next to the church....
Lugna's tombstone
His rudder-shaped tombstone has been studied by archaeologists who believe its inscription may be the oldest Christian inscription in Europe outside of the Catacombs in Rome.

The inscription reads 'The standing stone of Lugna, son of Limanin'. 

Next time we'll visit the more modern church on Inchagouill Island. It's positively new compared to this ancient ruin!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Galway Building Art

Wandering around Galway, I was frequently surprised by some of the art I saw painted on buildings. Here are some examples...

Monday, September 15, 2014

Cnoc Suain

Thatched cottage at Cnoc Suain
Everywhere I went during my stay in Ireland I met lively, vibrant people proud of their culture and anxious to share it with me. Our group spent a morning here at Cnoc Suain for a brief immersion into traditional Irish culture. Cnoc Suain is a hill-top village in Connemara that dates from the 17th century. The 200-acre site was purchased by our hosts, Dearbhaill Standun and her husband, Charlie Troy with a vision to make it a residential/day center to introduce visitors to traditional Irish life.
Our visit began in this thatched cottage with Dearbhaill who explained what life was like for Irish families. Cottages like this one might be home to a family with up to 20 children! Hard to believe, huh?
 She showed us how the mother would cook on the small hearth, we tasted a seaweed 'snack,' and after singing a beautiful Irish song in Gaelic, she whipped up a beautiful loaf of Irish soda bread literally in the blink of an eye...
Irish soda bread
I was very touched by the stories she told us of young girls...15 or 16 years old....whose parents would tell them it was time for them to emigrate. With such large families, there were just not the resources to keep them at home. So, off they'd sail to places like Boston or New York or Philadelphia to become maids or laundresses. Eventually they formed an Irish diaspora, but they still longed for home and Connemara. They would send money and boxes of cast-off clothes home for their little brothers and sisters, but rarely were they able to come home themselves. Dearbhaill said she remembered even when she was in school that when boxes from America would arrive, her classmates would show up to school in their new American finery usually worn on top of their old Irish clothes.

After spending time with Charlie learning about how peat is formed, cut and dried for fuel and what Bog Bodies are all about, we gathered in the music room where we heard traditional Irish music, learned how to do Irish 'lilting' and also learned a country dance much like an American square dance.
Life was harsh and lonely on the west coast of Ireland, but there was joy to be found in music, dancing and singing!

Saturday, September 13, 2014

An American Connection in Cong

The village of Cong is as charming as its Abbey is beautiful. It's full of quaint cottages and interesting shops. The village name in Gaelic is Cunga Fheichin which means 'St. Feicin's narrows.' The village is built on a narrow limestone strip of land between Lough Corrib and Lough Mask. The village's other claim to fame (besides its lovely Abbey)is that it was the home of Sir William and Lady Wilde, parents of Oscar Wilde. Although Oscar was born in Dublin, he returned frequently to his parental home just outside Cong saying 'it is every way magnificent.'

Maureen O'Hara and John Wayne
Cong, Ireland
But what about Cong's American connection? You'll find it right here on the corner of main street. Cong was the site of John Ford's 1952 film, 'The Quiet Man.' starring John Wayne, Maureen O'Hara, Ward Bond, and Barry Fitzgerald. As you can see, Cong is very proud of that! Not only is there this life-size bronze statue, but you can also visit The Quiet Man museum which is located 'round the corner in the very cottage that was used as Mary-Kate and Sean Thornton's home in the movie. Of course, I had to buy the DVD when I found it in a Galway bookstore. It's your typical boy-meets-girl movie. True love is thwarted by Mary-Kate's nasty brother and a old Irish tradition regarding her dowry. But in the end, Sean beats up the brother, secures the dowry, and they all live happily ever after. You won't be watching this film for its plot! But do watch it for the stunning scenery (filmed on location in and around Cong) and its thrilling horse race.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Cong Abbey

Cong Abbey
Co. Mayo, Ireland
Cong Abbey, a 12th century Augustinian abbey, was built on the site of a 6th century church founded by St. Feichin. The last High King of Ireland, Rory O'Connor, is believed to have died here. At one time, this Abbey housed 3,000 monks who lived and studied within its walls. During the reign of Henry VIII, it was dissolved and eventually fell into ruin. The Abbey was partially restored in the 1850s by Sir Benjamin Guinness, owner of nearby Ashford Castle. Today it's surrounded by lovely grounds and a walking trail along the River Cong.
Cloister detail
Monks Fishing House
This charming structure which sits over the River Cong is the Monks Fishing House. On cold, wintery days, the monks could fish here through a hole in the floor while keeping warm by the building's small hearth.

There's more to see at Cong Abbey....but that's for next time.