I remember the exact moment I knew I would go to Ireland. It was a cold Alaskan night, and I was talking with Sikvoan Weyahok. That was his birth name; in English he was called Howard Rock. Every Wednesday Howard held court at Tommy's Elbow Room, where I unfailingly joined him.
Almost forty years my senior, he was Eskimo; although that Algonkian word for "raw fish eater" is disdained by many now, it was Howard's word for himself and for his people, the Tigaramiut of Point Hope. He had been an artist in Seattle until threats of nuclear testing near his coastal village brought him home to become a crusading newspaper editor. As one of the most politically significant thinkers of the state, he was treated with respect by Native and non-Native alike.
Howard had no children, but he sentimentally called me his grand-daughter. Perhaps that was because, at our first meeting, I fell into treating him like I treated my own grandfather, offering him attention that was both undivided and untinged by flattery. Just as I had with my grandfather, I challenged Howard when he became pompous, plied him with questions when he grew withdrawn, teased him when he turned maudlin. We were close for a dozen years. When Howard died in his mid-sixties — still so young, I now think — I was on the cusp of my first trip to Ireland.
I have only to close my eyes to see it now, the way it was then: The old mill below Thoor Ballvlee, its whitewash long since dissolved away, its stones gray and rough. Nettles palisaded around its perimeter like sharp warnings. The broken millstone near the little sing-song river. The damp chill that hung about even on the brightest day.
I went to Ireland because Howard told me to. Not directly: he was far too traditional to give me explicit commands. Nevertheless, he told me to go. It happened one Wednesday night in 1970. We were sitting at his usual table halfway down the dim room at Tommy's, talking politics, as always. The Native land claims had not yet been settled, so we were probably discussing congressional strategies when Howard suddenly turned to me and asked. "You, now: Where are you from?"
There is this wonderfully oblique yet direct quality — something like what the Irish call "codding," a kind of blunt pointedness — about old-fashioned Eskimo speech. Perhaps that is why I fell into a special relationship with such a distinguished Native elder, because I recognized that kind of talk from my own grandfather, whose sidewise testing comments had been part of my childhood. Pop once commented to my roundest sister, when she complained of her weight, "Ah, but you'll be glad of it when the next Famine comes." Another time, when he was nearing ninety and his son's mother-in-law insinuated that he drank to excess, Pop inquired mildly of her tee-totaling spouse, "What was he when he died? — seventy, wasn't it?"
I was reminded of Pop one evening when I showed off my new bearskin mukluks to Howard. I had stretched and tanned a hide for the traditional footwear, razored it into careful pieces, sewn the seams tightly with dental floss that modern sinew substitute and tied on brightmulticolored yarn pom-poms. I thought my mukluks marvelous, but Howard was less impressed. Squinting down, he shook his head. "I think you forgot the claws;' he said. I followed his eyes to where, yes, my feet resembled misshapen bear paws in the floppy oversized booties.
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So I was used to listening beneath the surface of conversation. What was Howard asking? He knew I had grown up in Anchorage, that my parents still lived in Turnagain near the ruined clay cliffs of Earthquake Park. Clearly he wanted something other than the family address. Underlying our discussion of land claims was an unvoiced agreement about the importance of Howard's Eskimo heritage, so my own must be of interest. "Well," I offered, "I'm Irish."
Even when it wasn't March, I was proud of being Irish. I was proud of my ancestral home, that colonized land of splendid myth and bitter history whose yearning sentimental songs my family sang and whose poets I yearningly imitated. But I didn't know Kinvara from Kinsale, Kildare from Killaloe. The Ireland I imagined that I loved — so green, so beautiful — was vague, indistinct, unreal, not a place at all but a haunted haunting dream.
Howard waited, his face still, both hands around his glass. I tried again. "From Mayo. County Mayo," I said, retrieving what I could remember of my grandfather's stories. "From. .. a town ... " Bohola, I would answer instantly now, but then I could not name where Pop John Gordon and Grandma Margaret Dunleavy had been born. Bohola: three syllables in a language I could not speak, meaningless because they were connected with neither memories nor stories, faces nor dreams.
The road beyond Bohola on a cloudy day. A sudden looming shape, blue-gray in the mist. A perfect pyramid that retreats, advances, retreats as the road dips and swoons. Around the mountain twists a pilgrims' path. Atop its height of eagles stands an ancient circle of stone.
Howard repeated my words. "From... a town." I could hear how ignorant it sounded.
"More like a village, I think." The word village has resonance in Alaska. Native people come from villages. Villages are where people know you and your family, where you know the land and its seasons and the food it provides. I had never been to Point Hope, yet when Howard's eyes grew distant at its name, I could almost see a cluster of brown houses, the sea churning gray near it in summer, thin skeins of geese overhead in spring and fall, the sun's red ball on short winter days. I thought perhaps my grandparents were from somewhere like that, a small place far from the centers of power. easy to overlook, significant because of how deeply rather than how widely it was known.
"More like a village." Howard continued to repeat my words. I had exhausted what I knew. I stared into my drink. Finally he said again, gently, "A village. In Ireland." And I could only nod.
In his subtle Tigaramiut way, Howard had asked me a profound question. How could I ever know myself if I did not know where I was from — not just the scenes of my personal memories, but the places where my ancestors had walked, where my body understood the way time unfolded its seasons on the land, where people still spoke a language whose rhythms echoed in my own? Where history had been made by people with my family names? Where the unrecorded history of ordinary loves and losses had been lived by people with features like mine? Howard knew what Carson McCullers meant when she wrote, "To know who you are, you have to have a place to come from." Not knowing where I came from, I did not know who I was or who I might ultimately become.
At that moment, sitting silent beside Howard, I knew I would go to Ireland. Howard died before I came back with my first insights into a proper response. Where am I from? Even now, I cannot fully answer that question, but it was Howard who set my feet upon the path toward understanding.
The Sky Road across from Errislannan. The full moon sheets the calm ocean with silver light. A vanilla fragrance — gorse — drifts past on a slight summer breeze. Beneath my feet, the boreen is pebbly and uneven. Somewhere on the hill, someone whistles to a dog.
"Is this your first trip home, then?" people asked me. That odd, common question. Home? Wasn't I already at home in Alaska? Yes, but no. My uprearing was there, but my heritage was not. I had only to look around me in Ireland to realize the difference; for the first time, I belonged. For more generations than I can count, people like me have worked the Irish land and fished the Irish seas. Short square bodies and strong faces are common there. I have the Dunleavy nose ("I've never really seen it on a girl," said my great-aunt Sarah, that first time over, codding me the way Pop had always done). My forehead is the same as my cousin Bridey's. I have the Gordon build.
It was strange to me, that first time over, hearing my features — which I had grown up thinking of as unique — dissected and re-assigned. And just as my face was familiar to my Irish relations, I found Ireland strangely familiar. Having grown up deeply loving a land to which I nonetheless was a newcomer, even an invader, I found myself learning to love another land just as deeply and specifically, even knowing that I was and would probably remain an exile from it.
An exile. That is the old word for people forced, by economics or politics, to leave Ireland. America called them immigrants; Ireland calls them exiles. Coming from a family of exiles, I was welcomed back as though it were the most natural thing to be drawn to the island where my blood ran in the veins of others. The fact that I was so strongly pulled to Gort, where I had no known family connections, instead of to Bohola, the center of the clan, was a mystery to my friends for many years. "Whyever did ye come to Gort?" fretted antiquarian Tom Hannon until he learned that my grandmother was a Daley. That relieved him greatly, since the Daleys — the O Daillaighs — were historically the poets of New Quay, just a few miles away. "Ah, there, Patricia," Tom exulted. "There. Now we have it. Now we have it, Patricia."
The holy well at Liscannor on a dank winter day. The slanting path slippery, the sound of the holy spring masked by pelting rain. Saint Brigit in her protective glass box. The litter of mementoes — handwritten pleas for help, rosaries, bits of damp yarn, bedraggled feathers. Ivy clutching its way up black, wet stones.
When I picture Ireland, I never see a postcard of some generic greenness. I see the Burren, Connemara, Mayo in a wet spring, the mountains of the hag. More specific yet: I see a familiar greening field, a particular thunder-stricken yew, a granite-strewn patch of bog that looks a great deal like other granite-strewn patches of bog but with a certain ineffable difference. For I know Ireland not as a single place but as a mosaic of places, each one steeped in history and myth, song and poetry.
When I meet someone Irish, whether in Ireland or in America, the conversation invariably turns to place. "Where are you from?" it begins. You name the county first, then the town; the parish, then the farm. "Oh, where?" the listener encourages, nodding as familiar names are voiced. My mother's family is from Mayo. Near Castlebar. Bohola. Carrowcastle. When someone can follow all that, you move onto family names. Gordons. Dunleavys. McHales. Deaseys. "Oh, I have a Deasey married to my cousin who lives now down the country in Wicklow." Oh, where? And so it begins again.
"Each single, enclosed locality matters and everything that happens within it is of passionate interest to those who live there." the great novelist John McGahern tells us. Ireland is the land of the dindshenchas, the poems of place-lore that tell the mythic meaning of hills and crossroads, dolmens and holy wells. Even today, houses in the West bear names rather than numbers. I was once asked to deliver an article from America to my friend, folklorist and singer Barbara Callan, in Connemara. "We don't have her address," the sender fretted. "We just have the words Cloon, Cleggan, Galway." That is her address, I explained. Cloon is the clutch of houses, Cleggan the village, Galway the county.
The local postmistress would envision Cloon's heathery low hill just outside Cleggan town, just as mention of the Gordon farm at Carrowcastle, Bohola, Co. Mayo, conjures for those who know the area wide green pastures and a substantial stucco house. A stranger might find 23 Clifden Road or 125 Highway N5 more helpful, but Irish house names are not meant for strangers but for neighbors who know each twist of the road and every boulder that shadows it.
The coral strand near Ballyconneely, the dark mass of Errisbeg rising behind me. The tide is out, the rocks covered with lacy dark seaweed. Somewhere offshore, a seal barks. The endless wind fills me, lifts me, blows through me until I dissolve.
I am lucky, among Americans, in coming from a place. Growing up in Alaska, I learned the land with the kind of voluptuous intimacy the rural Irish know. I learned the summer cycle of edible berries — raspberries first, then blueberries, then low-bush cranberries — and how to recognize, even in other seasons, their favored terrains. I still keep secret the location of the best chanterelles in interior Alaska, in case I ever move back. I know the history of towns and the families connected with them, so that when I pass a certain turnoff near Delta, I see generations of the Kusz family in a flash. When I first came home to Ireland more than twenty years ago, I already possessed a rootedness that helped me recognize the power of place in the Irish spirit.
A shaded path through Pairc-na-lee. Sunlight glancing off the dark waters of Cook Lake. Wild swans, pair by pair, mounting the pale summer sky. The raucous unmelodic calls of hoodie crows in nearby trees.
The lore and love and specificity associated with Irish places grow directly from Ireland's residual paganism. "Scratch a hit at the thin topsoil of Irish Catholicism." the saying goes, "and you soon come to the solid bedrock of Irish paganism." Ireland is still what novelist Edna O'Brien calls a "pagan place." But that paganism does not conflict with a devout Catholicism that embraces and absorbs it, in a way that can seem mysterious, even heretical, elsewhere. In Ireland, Christianity arrived without lions and gladiators, survived without autos-da-fe and Inquisitions. The old ways were seamlessly bonded to the new, so that ancient rituals continued, ancient divinities became saints, ancient holy sites were maintained just as they had been for generations and generations.
Thus the goddess remains alive in Ireland even in the first years of the third millennium of the Christian era. But that sentence is inexact. For the goddess does not merely remain alive in Ireland — she is Ireland. "Ireland has always been a woman," says Edna O'Brien, "a womb, a cave, a cow, a Rosaleen, a sow, a bride, a harlot, and, of course, the gaunt Hag." The island still bears her ancient name: Eire, from Eriu, an ancestral goddess whom the invading Celts met and adopted (or did she adopt them?) around 400 B.C.E. Ireland is the goddess. She is every field still fertile a thousand years after its first cultivation. She is every river that still floods with salmon despite millennia of fishing. She is the dancing pattern of the seasons, the fecundity of sheep and cattle, the messages written in the migratory flight of birds. She is the sun's heat stored deep in the dark bogs. She is the refreshment of pure water and of golden ale. She is living nature, and she has never been forgotten in Ireland.
This residual Irish paganism is, perforce, polytheistic, because what monotheism leaves out is the goddess. There has never been a religion that had a goddess but no god, in the way that monotheisms have gods but no goddesses. But the difference between mono- and polytheisms does not end with number and gender of divinities. As Celticist Miranda Green argues, polytheism involves a close relationship between the sacred and the profane, especially in relation to the natural world. Where monotheism imagines god as transcending nature, as separate from this world, polytheism — paganism, if you will — sees nature as holy. Every stream has its special connection with divinity and thus is pictured as a unique and individual god or goddess. As the Greeks expressed it, every tree has its dryad, every rock its oread, every ocean wave its nereid. Paradoxically, such polytheism often sees nature as a whole — called Gaia by the scientist James Lovelock, after the Greek goddess of earth — as divine. In Ireland. that divinity is unquestionably feminine.
This paganism remains a part of Irish life today. Celtic spirituality did not just bring together the goddess of the land with the god of the cross; it brought together a deep love of nature, the heritage of paganism, with the new social ideals of Christianity. What resulted is a Church that has always been subtly different from the Roman one. Subtly? Perhaps radically. Sometimes I fancy that the Irish have not yet heard the news that Augustine bested Pelagius. Sixteen hundred years ago, the bishop of Hippo waged a war of words on the Celtic monk who preached that the world we see and hear and touch and taste was created, just as it is, by god. Therefore, Pelagius said, we must learn to love this world, just as it is. Sex is good; why else would god have created us as sexual beings? Death has a purpose; why else would god have made us mortal? The sky, whether blue or slate, is there when we lift our heads. Water is there, clear and cool, to quench our thirst. Life is good, Pelagius said. We only have to love it, as god intended.
This was the "happy heresy" that Augustine, infuriated by his inability to control his sexual urges, set out to crush. And crush it he did; we have the African Saint Augustine, but no Celtic Saint Pelagius. Yet in Ireland, love of the natural world continued to be the baseline of spiritual experience. The passionate joy of life in a mortal body in a world of changing seasons floods Irish poetry, including that written by monks and clerics. "I have news for you," goes the first Irish poem I learned, "the stag calls, snows fall, summer goes.... Cold catches birds' wings, ice covers all things, this is my news." I immediately loved — and still love — the tension between the first and final lines and the rest of the poem. News? What can be new about the commonness of life? But that anonymous poet of the ninth century reminds us of the only real news we can ever know: the glorious sensual specificity, the absolute newness, of each moment we experience in our unique and living bodies.
I have news for you: it is February in Kildare. In greening fields, lambs spring after weary ewes. On the Curragh, horses thunder past in deep morning mist. Near Athy, a lark warbles the territories of its nest. Spring has come. This is my news.
It is impossible to utterly separate goddess from nature from poetry from song in Ireland. She remains alive not only in the land but also in the words that name and define that land. No one is surprised to hear of the importance of music in Ireland, for it has been one of the island's most vital exports for years. But it is hard for my American friends to believe how important poetry is in Ireland. "Brendan Kennelly's Book of Judas was on the best-seller list in Dublin," I offer, knowing that a best-selling book of poetry is unimaginable this side of the water unless penned by someone celebrated for sports or murder or both. In Ireland, stores are named with lines from William Butler Yeats's poems. People recite, often in Irish, in pub and kitchen. There is a thriving industry in literary conferences, such that a friend jokes that he is looking for the last Irish poet without a designated week, to stake his claim and make his fortune.
Ireland's residual paganism and its poetic heritage have in common a recognition of the paradoxical connection of the specific and the universal. As poet Patrick Kavanagh said, there is a marked difference between parochial and provincial art. In the latter, the poet attempts to translate local reality into the language of the powerful; she directs her words from Gort to New York, as though no one in Gort matters. The parochial poet speaks in the local language to those who know its references — and thereby speaks to all our hearts, for each of us knows our own world in that kind of immediate and specific detail. Every universal epic, Kavanagh says, is ultimately local:
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer's ghost came whispering to my mind
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.
The goddess, too, makes her own importance, in various local identities and guises: as the hag called the Cailleach in the Burren, as a reckless maiden in rivers like the Shannon, as the healer Brigit in Kildare and the wounded mother Macha in Ulster. But she is also one, the universal goddess, just as a woman remains herself as both colleen and cailleach. This infinitely divisible goddess lives in those infinitely numerous holy places of the landscape.
I am reminded, in considering this paradox, of the concept of kami in Japanese Shinto. For kami, although often translated as "gods" and "goddesses," means nothing so simple or personalized. The best translation of the word is "outstanding." It describes those moments and places and myths and beings in which divine presence makes itself felt. The blossoming of cherry trees, a sharp outcropping of rock, the sun bursting through clouds: these are kami because they remind us of the order — the divinity — into which we are born. In Ireland, similarly, the goddess is experienced as a hierophany, a breaking through, of divine power into our human consciousness, with specific natural settings and moments as the medium of communication.
Beside the ocean in west Cork, a small fiat rock, almost hidden in the wind flattened grass. In the timeless time of myth, the children of Lir once touched that rock. I bend down: coins fill every crevice, coins and tiny flowers. I have nothing else, so I sing the first song I remember.. "Flowers bud in the rain, always and never the same; above, the wild geese skein."
In Ireland, the link between mundane time and space, and sacred space-time, is maintained through ritual and myth, song and poetry. Some rituals, like the annual ascension of Croagh Patrick in Mayo or the wild Puck Fair in Kerry, have been held for as long as a thousand uninterrupted years. The myths are reinforced with every recitation — reinforced even by the naming of the places in which they occurred, for Irish place-names are gateways to the mythic past. The tradition of the dindshenchas, the naming of significant places to evoke their myths, continues in Irish song, for there is scarcely a town that doesn't have a song mentioning its name. "Not far from Kinvara in the merry month of May..." and "While going the road to sweet Athy, a stick in me hand and a drop in me eye..." and "Bohola, whose great men are famed near and far."
Poets, too, follow the tradition, for there is power and magic in the names on the land. Raftery, the great blind bard of Galway and Mayo, once sang of his love for a woman by naming the places he looked for her: "To Lough Erne, and from Sligo to the foot of Kesh Corran, I shall take my course, I shall walk the Bog of Allen, and Cork and Bend Edar, and I shall not stand in Tuamgraney until I go to Tralee." Raftery covers the entire island with his desire, beloved woman and beloved land becoming one in his quest and his journey. This tradition holds fast among poets today. "Ballyvaughan, peat and salt, how the wind bawls across these mountains, scalds the orchids of the Burren," Eavan Boland writes, invoking and hallowing the memory of a tiny village. Even in exile, poets remember the names of Irish places. "Along a boreen of bumblebees, blackahs & fuchsia, somewhere around Dunquin." remembers Greg Delanty, "you said that Pangaea split there first & America drifted away from Kerry & anyone standing on the crack got torn in two slowly." It is not only important to Corkman Delanty in his Vermont home, that Ireland and America were once joined, but that he learned of this fact precisely there, beside the hedgerows of Dunquin.
What I know of Ireland, I know in this specific way. I know certain places in Ireland through the experiences I have lived in those places. I know these places in the context of living and lost people as well as history, of jokes as well as poetry, of parties as well as rituals, of heartbreak as well as myth. What I know of the goddess, what I know of magic, I learned in those places in Ireland, places from which I remain an exile even while I continue to inhabit them in my dreams.
Two paths cross in a new-growth forest near Annaghmakerrig. A buck stands there, a fallow doe behind him in the red willow herb. We all stare at each other awhile, and then my friend begins to dance. There has never been a dance as awkward or as graceful as what he offers the deer. The many-tined buck stands, stately and silent, until the dance is over. Then he turns and bounds away, the doe flashing her white tail as she follows.
Ireland is full of holy places, stone circles and solar wells and haunted glens. My experiences in some of these have been so shattering that I knew, even in the moment of being shattered, how my life would be transformed. Such a place is Newgrange, when the winter solstice sun shafts through the cave like a searching amber fire. Under that stone roof, weeping from the majesty of the moment, I knew that I would never be able fully to describe the way the world seemed to shift and alter in the piercing solar beam. Such a place is Kildare, when the holy well reflects the light of hundreds of candles while pilgrims sing ancient songs and dance with fiery torches, echoing other pilgrims whose bodies traced the same motions that will, in turn, be echoed by future pilgrims tracing the same motions.
Loughcrew on a fall afternoon, the sky swept with feather clouds. Only sheep accompany me as I wander amid the fallen stones. The grass is damp and long. I sit within the farthest circle and lean against ancient rocks. On the lower portion of one of them, my fingers find fading traces of spirals and bursting stars.
But some holy spaces seem nondescript, even a bit seedy, when one first encounters them. It is only afterward that their power becomes apparent. The first time I wandered onto the Old Bug Road in Connemara, I saw only emptiness. It was when I descended the slight hill into town that I realized how transporting that emptiness had been. The first time I visited the Brigit Vat at Liscannor I saw only the mess of offerings and the dreary unkemptness of it all. But later, back in America, I remembered it as filled with light and song, even in the pelting rain.
American Indian scholar Vine Deloria has argued that non-Indians can only have an aesthetic appreciation for the American landscape, because we cannot appreciate "walking along a riverbank or on a bluff and realizing that their great-great-grandfathers once walked that very spot." That sense of continuity and of community is what I have felt at Newgrange, a glorious suncatcher built six thousand years ago; I have felt it at Kildare, where I placed gorse wood on a fire in the very spot Celtic priestesses and medieval Irish nuns had performed the same action. In Ireland, I know that my body comes from the bodies of others who moved across that land. Whether nondescript or astonishing, each holy place there reinforces my connection, through the body, to the past and to its wisdom.
And then there is that other, that dreadful place. I only know one place like it, in Ireland or anywhere else. It does not, as far as I know; have a name. No one has ever spoken of it. It appears on no maps. There is only the warning, in myth and song, of fairy kidnappings in its vicinity.
I have found places sacred to the goddess by listening rather than by looking. I listen for the names, finding holy wells near towns called Tubber and vestiges of sacred groves where the name Dara appears. I listen to what my elders tell me, about the myth and history hidden in the folds of the remarkably elastic Irish landscape. I also look, but I early found that maps and signposts alone would not lead me to the hallowed places. I have to use the inner eye instead: to notice the way in which a certain stone goes out of focus, then comes back more sharply than before. The way a space of glowing silence seems to open in a field on a sunny bee-buzzing day. These moments are ineffable; they elude capture, being always both more and less than what words express. But these moments have taught me about the way spirit resides in nature and in myself.
Beyond the inexpressible, there is another kind of spiritual reality that Ireland has taught me, and that is the unspeakable. Especially in the West, stories of people disappearing near specific spots are still told, warnings against the hubris that leads us to think that we are the reason that nature exists. The goddess is larger than we are; there are places — what my friend the Ulster folklorist Bob Curran calls Ireland's "dark places" — where we encounter her in such terrifyingly inhuman shape that we never quite recover. Deloria speaks of places of revelation, where time and space as we know them cease to exist, where life takes on new dimensions. In America, their location and meaning are closely guarded secrets, and medicine people who approach them realize that they may have to pay with their lives for what they learn there. "Indians who know about these things find it extremely difficult to describe what they know," Deloria tells us. "There seems to be an abiding spirit of place that inhibits anyone from trying to explain what has been experienced there."
I open my mouth to speak. I am about to say something about that place. I am about to give it a name and a location. But time stops. The room is suddenly dark and quiet. Invisible eyes. Something listening. My eyes water. My legs shake. I grope for balance. I close my mouth. Time begins again. No one has noticed anything at all.
What I know of the goddess, what I know of the spirit, I have learned not from books but from the land. Ireland is a great teacher, for it harks back to a pre-Cartesian world where mind and body and spirit were not yet artificially divided. Similarly, nature and humanity are not separated there in the way that is so common in Western European culture. That culture defines nature as existing "out there" — in wildernesses beyond the towns. Forests are nature, farms are not. Oceans are nature, cities are not. That culture speaks of "virgin land," as though the touch of human consciousness despoils nature. But we are part of nature, not separate from it like gods. In Ireland, human consciousness and the land's consciousness have communicated for so many centuries that the land welcomes us. The road rises up to meet our feet. And it teaches us, if only we will listen.
Come with me to those places; listen to those lessons. We will travel the old way around the island, deiseal, an Irish word that means to circumambulate a sacred center, moving in the direction of the sun's passage. But the word connotes more than simple direction. To move deiseal is to live rightly, to move in the order that nature intended. And nature's order, as chaos theory reminds us, is not the rigid order of logic and theory. It is spontaneous and creative play, an intricate dance of unfolding possibilities.
Our circumambulation follows the path of the old Celtic diurnal cycle, from sunset to sunset, for the Celts counted time from darkness into light, just as they measured the year from harvest to burgeoning. We begin in stony Connacht, traverse the broad green flanks of Ulster, ride the fertile waters and cross the lush fields of Leinster, conclude on the mountain peaks of Munster. We trace as well the wheel of the year, for a calendar of ancient holidays is embedded in the landscape: Lughnasa rites on the stony Burren, fairy kidnappings at Samhain in Connemara, the winter sun's rebirth in the cave of Newgrange, Imbolc relighting of Brigit's Kildare fire, Bealtaine fires on Eriu's central hill, and Lughnasa again in the harvest festivals of Munster.
Within that sunwise circle, we ramble — an English word that the Irish have stolen to describe a kind of movement fully open to the serendipity of each instant. A man in Sligo once told me that when he was young, people went out rambling: "The route they took totally depended on which way the wind was blowing, tidbits of stories of who was visiting from outside the area, the way your feet met the path you were on. Going left or right depended on which foot your weight was on when you came to the crossroad."
But however far afield we ramble, we never lose sight of the center. Irish tradition explains that paradox easily. Four of the great ancient provinces — Leinster, Munster, Connacht, and Ulster — were associated with a direction in the outer world. The Settling of the Manor of Tara tells us that each direction had a quality: "wisdom in the west, battle in the north, prosperity in the east, music in the south." But the Irish word for province means "one fifth," for a fifth province — Mide, the center existed not in the physical realm but in the magical and symbolic one. To the ancient Irish, the five directions were north, south, east, west, and the center. All are relative to the speaker, for the center is "here" — wherever we stand, orienting ourselves to our world, centers of a compass whose center is everywhere. But the center being everywhere is not the same as the center being nowhere — far from it. The center is not outside us. It is within our innumerable, individual, unique, and irreplaceable hearts.
I have news for you: the holy well bubbles from the ground. The wind flows like water over the bog. The stone circles rivet sky to earth. The goddess breathes the moist green air. Ireland is sacred, as all land is sacred, as we are all sacred. This is my news.
This article was excerpted from:
The Red-Haired Girl From The Bog: The Landscape of Celtic Myth and Spirit
by Patricia Monaghan.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher, New World Library. ©2003. www.newworldlibrary.com
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About the Author
PATRICIA MONAGHAN is a member of the resident faculty at DePaul University's School for New Learning, where she teaches literature and environment. She is the editor of Irish Spirit and the author of Dancing with Chaos, a book of poetry published in Ireland. She is the winner of the 1992 Friends of Literature Award.