The Great Yeats

There are no strangers here;

Only friends you haven’t yet met.

Welcome back to another installment of our adventures on Wild West Irish Tours! Today, we venture a little bit out of the thicket of the philosophical and come back to a more solid and less-snarled foundation: poetry. Poetry, in a way, is a journey in and of itself – a pilgrim sometimes has to leave home to find home, as it were. And that’s just what a certain individual we’re going to discuss today did.

To enter the Land of Heart’s Desire, one cannot cross the threshold without first knowing the man who opened the door: William Butler Yeats.

Hailed as, arguably, one of the quintessential poets of all time, Yeats remains a figure in history known for his quiet passion and his melancholic, if idyllic poetry – the imagery of which is so rich and flourishing it feels as though the reader has been swept off to Western Ireland already. It paints a vivid landscape of emerald hues and blue; cloudy skies – groves of trees and rolling fields, hills without end. Each sentence flows to echo the visuals of Ireland, ups and downs equivalent in emotional metaphor as they are in the countryside. 150 or so years later, Yeats is still prominent in the Irish and global environment.

But how does Yeats figure specifically into the so-called “Land of Heart’s Desire”? For starters; we have him to thank for that very title & term – it’s a play on a play; one W.B. Yeats himself penned. It’s a play that, in short, covers the fundamental aspects of wanting something more: a yearning that perpetuates Yeats’ writing; with a running theme of escapism and the seeking of something “other”. It involves faerie and all within; the enchanting aspect of which is alive and well in Ireland today – you might recall the mention of the immovable “fairy forts” or the disapproval (and danger) that comes from the cutting of hawthorn boughs.

All this and more are topics Yeats breathed life into when writing down his thoughts – thoughts deeply intertwined with the forlorn and wonderful qualities of the land. A resident of County Sligo; Yeats is, to this day, one of the most significant figures of the area, if not the most significant. His ardor for language and his enthusiastic grasp of old Irish legends, folklore, and mythology helped preserve the intrigue for generations to come. Inclusions of characters such as the fey; or fairies, Oisin (the folklore poet of many an Irish tale), Leda (costarring Zeus as the infamous swan), Cú Chulainn (whom you might know from the defense against the armies of Queen Medb of Connacht; and similar stories) are prevalent in Yeats’ poetic efforts. His work is a tapestry of emotion and education – education less about facts and figures as much as it is the world he grew up in and explanations for the feelings within.

547514_560955877257796_46431228_n Perhaps one of the most enchanting aspects of his poetry is how the landscape evokes expression – Yeats’ “Lake Isle of Innisfree” takes place in Lough Gill. The island, one of many in the Lough, while uninhabited, possesses the spirit of what Yeats hoped to capture: a sense of longing as much as it is one of belonging.

While ensconced in his “modern” London habitat, Yeats found himself yearning for his home – the Land of Heart’s Desire; albeit less fey and more solid, but with no watered-down amount of mysticism surrounding it. The Lake Isle of Innisfree is his ode to that feeling of restlessness and nostalgia; wanting nothing more than to escape to the wilderness and leave modernity behind.

Yeats writes,

   “I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,

And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:

Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;

And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping

     slow,

Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket

     sings;

There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,

And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

 

I will arise and go now, for always night and day

I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;

While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,

I hear it in the deep heart’s core.”

                Sligo has many places like this; little nooks and crannies into which the magical creeps. It resonates in the writing of Yeats like the plucking of a guitar string or the first note of a fiddle. The calm exodus of the spirit into the land can be felt in every word, as Yeats’ search for peace in the frustrating throes of hustling, bustling cities brought him back home. Home and heart are the focus of Yeats’ work, two elements so deeply connected they can hardly be separated at all.

Once again, it’s about leaving the technology and the urbane behind for something more – to be found in nature; thriving, living off what the world has to offer – the refreshment of quiet water and the softer sounds of outdoors.

Yeats; forever proud of Ireland and her struggles, never pulled his poetic punches when it came to exploring the gravity of the Irish spirit. Pieces such as “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death”, “At Galway Races”, “The Fiddler of Dooney” and countless others reflect place names, passions, and a deep understanding of what it is to be Irish. And if poetry is too much for some, Yeats is also famous for the line, “being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.” The duality of the Irish spirit – to rejoice in stories, landscape/scenery, company, and love whilst acknowledging the bleaker aspects of death, distance, loss, and war – is something Yeats’ work still excels at presenting.

169562_461940157159369_819289521_oOne can stand and look out over a thunderous waterfall in the middle of nowhere in Western Ireland and feel the soft embrace of mist and cloud that so often falls along with the water – a reflective moment of possibility, as the water, so representative of life, is also a harbinger of gloom in the form of fog. Perhaps walking up the steppes of the mountains with cairns might be a better example – experiencing the harsh burn of breath in one’s lungs or a twine in the legs to remind you you’re alive – but you tread, as Yeats said, on dreams and the dead, picking your way through stony paths that bring you up to the great cairns of those who’ve passed on.

Ireland, it seems, sits straddling life and death, a calm gateway upon which the words of Yeats are etched eternally – as Sligo captures the beauty of resilience and resurrection time after time, in the way the green country flourishes and never seems to forget its past. Yeats had a hand in that, too, after all – preserving stories and sentiments of Irish storytelling in his own way, making them more about the pride of Ireland and her heritage as much as their original lessons were about other things (like personal strength or respecting the land, etc.).

Further on the concept of death, Yeats’ grave rests in Sligo; closer than one might expect. It is simple, yet eloquent – a place of respite and thoughtful pondering immersed in the Irish countryside. Statues and mentions of Yeats adorn the area as a reminder of how proud Sligo was of their own, and just how much Sligo meant to the poet himself. As a “spiritual home” to Yeats; Sligo seems to call to her many visitors as a welcoming resting place for those of creative or spiritual minds. The quiet is almost peculiar to those venturing out there from big cities – a deep, settled sort of quiet that makes the world seem still. It is from this silence that ideas are raised; and the historical aspects of Ireland remain intact – even celebrated.

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Nothing is more timeless than the written word. In its many developments and formats, it is the description of human nature; the scrawl of the human soul that calls out to people from beyond the page. It’s why many find it easier to experience things through the stories and eyes of fictional beings; how magical places are escapes people seek outside of themselves and their world. In many ways, Yeats, through his writing, brought people to Ireland ahead of their time – or, quite possibly, he was their main window through which to glimpse the green and rolling hills of Connacht and beyond. Through Yeats, one could feel both the joyful and the morose; the entanglement of emotions in the Irish soul.

I encourage you readers to sit and reflect. Find a Yeats poem to enjoy today, and read it under a great green tree. If you’d rather not read, I have a little reading done for you by Irish actor Cillian Murphy, closing in Yeats’ common motif: addressing old age and the beyond as friends, as concepts to not fear, but embrace.

Come and be spirited away by the sound of softly lilting words and all there within. If you can’t make it to Sligo today, we hope you enjoyed this small trip to the Land of Heart’s Desire.

                                                                                                                                Until next time,

                                                                                                                                                                Sam Fishkind.

 

[Do YOU have a favorite Yeats poem? Please share in the comments below! If you enjoyed this post; please feel free to share it among friends. We’d love your feedback!]

Healing, Seeking, Accepting.

Good morning, good afternoon, good evening – wherever you are and whenever you are, I hope this finds you well. I invite you to relax, put your feet up, and follow me on a conceptual journey as we tackle the difficult question of:

What is a pilgrimage?

Normally, I’d launch into a discussion about where you can find one. But to me, it’s not so much a place as it is a feeling – less a physical journey and one of emotional and spiritual exploration.

In many ways, the pilgrim sites in Ireland are more a guideline for the experience of the journey, and less the epitome of the journey itself. Standing outside of shrines and churches older than anything you’ve ever seen before in the Wild West of Ireland can invoke that feeling of awe, true – but to take an Irish pilgrimage, one must be open to the possibilities of healing, seeking, and accepting.

Let’s break that down a bit: in terms of healing, the Celts were famous for their influence on the land – not because they changed it terribly much, but because they used the land in such a resourceful way that the land shaped itself to their desires, it seemed. Besides dolmen and similar structures, they also fashioned sacred sites from bubbling springs and flowing streams, creating places believed to heal and help those who came to visit them. These places were known to cure ailments such as eye conditions (though some might infer “blindness” also refers to that of the mind – to dip one’s head in the water of a certain well was said to open their mind up to new possibilities and provide pathways for enlightenment), headaches, toothaches, ankle sprains, and more.

Sacred spaces over time transferred to places such as an ancient face carved into the stone of a churchyard wall or (going back a bit in history); “fingerprints” of saints in eroding stone, or even saunas dug into the earth where heated stones and cold water could sweat out sickness or strain.

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Michael Waugh hits the ancient sauna.

There were dozens of way the land is interwoven with action, and the Irish faith in the land is something that stems all the way back to Celtic tradition – something that survives and intertwines with modern spirituality. From balancing that cyclical quality of seasonal change to sustaining life and focusing on the aspects of the Goddess (e.g., the “emerald isle” herself), to some, pilgrimage was making the journey from place to place – and having it made meaningful by discoveries of fresh water that could flush away ailments and circles of stones that could turn one’s life (and leg) around properly. Resetting oneself seems to be a motif here – or perhaps the start of something new, shedding the old. There are a lot of different ways to heal oneself to varying degrees.

A placebo effect; perhaps, to some, but there is the possibility of an inarguable amount of “residual energy” to be found in the land – the feeling of walking over something ancient, of dipping one’s hand into water that has flowed and fallen on the land for countless ages is resounding. Standing in silence and allowing the mere concept; the possibility surround oneself is vital. There is renewal in simply being, for a moment, and taking the journey that thousands upon hundreds of thousands have taken before. And now, you’ve made it your own.

It is not as though the concept of pilgrimage isn’t universal: people can come from all over to seek out something greater; that healing concept that quite literally keeps a person going. Ireland is home to many pilgrimages; the Christian aspect bringing in thousands of people per year. However, spirituality can be more universal than that – and more individual, besides. In taking steps; in seeking something, there is also a sense of motivating oneself forward: the cliché being the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step actually being rather apt here. The truth is, what one feels on the pilgrimage is what makes it what it is. Whether or not you travel in a pack, so to speak, the concept of pilgrimage infers going it alone: in the sense that it is an individual journey among the journeys of others.

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John & Donna Farrell

The most recent group of Wild Westie “pilgrims” shared their personal journeys through various creative ventures; a keen example being Westie couple John & Donna Farrell’s reflections on their journey:

“So much more than sightseeing,” John wrote, “the history, myths, legends, and connections with native people and local teachers and guides were an immersion to Ireland that exceeded our hopes and expectations.” He explains that it was a unique, Celtic spiritual “presence”, actively engaging with the experience through photographs and prose. His wife; Donna, focused more on poetry: her haikus regarding her pilgrimage resonate as someone who found what she might’ve been seeking.

the Burren’s not barren
there are flowers everywhere
each a gift for me

pay attention, girl
look carefully and closely
shalom awaits here.

Shalom, to me, is a type of acceptance. A welcoming of peace. Acceptance in the form of being open to possibility. Whether it’s walking in solitary silence through a valley flanked by mountains and famine houses or sitting by the wild Atlantic, turning a smooth stone over and over again in your hands, you have to let the experience happen. Nothing good ever came of forcing something – the pilgrimage requires the use of all of your senses. Take a moment to feel the earth under your feet. Listen either to what is being said or how the wind and water speak to you. Taste the salty brine of the sea, drink in the sight of weather-worn crosses set above places predating the origin of such symbols. Saoirse Charis-Graves; a spiritual leader of sorts for the Wild West Irish Tours, summarizes an event the Westies experienced on one of their events at the time of Samhain:

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Photo by Wild Westie Ron Byers

Guided once again by the incomparable Pius Murray (who is well-known for his pilgrimage walks), the Wild Westies traveled to a sacred site in the Burren area, where Pius demonstrated the concept of this particular well by kneeling, scooping up water in his hands, and allowing it to fall through his fingers once he’d found what he wanted to focus on: something he needed to let go of.

“This moment in our pilgrimage was profound for me,” says Saoirse. “It’s been showing up in my dreams, and has sparked in me a desire to engage in a daily practice of allowing this gesture to assist me in ‘letting go’.”

That can always be a struggle, especially nowadays. In making the voyage to Ireland; visitors embark on a pilgrimage, whether they realize it or not – an escape elsewhere, to let go of something, be it fear or work or stress…they choose to leave something behind as they go in search of something else entirely.

Overall, the pilgrimage idea seems to concentrate on quite a bit of “availability” – letting oneself become a part of the moment and the environment. There is enlightenment to be found in the smallest of ways – it won’t always be a Siddhartha-esque experience, wherein sitting under a tree for hours on end invokes a sort of ascendance from the mundane. It could easily be the simple act of picking something to let go of – to weave yarn around a branch and hurl it into a river; allowing the water to carry your troubles away. It could be giving in to supposed superstition and putting faith in a stone face to kiss your pain away. At the very least, these experiences are a part of the journey – one travelers will take with them when they leave Ireland. In many ways, a piece of the visitor will always stay behind, as is true of any journey: in coming to Ireland, you are becoming more. More aware, and hopefully, more open to possibilities, as every experience in travel is a new one.

Circling back to the idea of the journey of a thousand miles beginning with a single step, any individual who sets out with Ireland in mind is probably looking for something. It could be a genetic link; seeking relatives and history. It could be historical, in wanting to walk among the ancient sites and explore areas of stone and sensation. It could be a spiritual event; yes, in that there is something that calls a person to Eire in endless song.

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Photo by Saoirse Charis-Graves

The point is, we are all of us pilgrims, each on individual journeys that interweave across footpaths – like Pius’s Coisceim Anama, or Footstep of the Soul, it is an undertaking of the heart – to move where the universe moves you. Saoirse had more to say when I reached out to her, and she brings everything together beautifully:

I think of ‘pilgrimage’ as a journey of spirit,” says Saoirse.

“It may be a physical journey. To another land, to another country, to another place. It may be done on foot, on water, a trek across a frozen land, a road traveled by car or bus or motorcycle. It might be done alone, or it might be with a companion, known or unknown, human or not. Or with a group of people, familiar or unfamiliar.

 

It could be a retreat from one’s everyday life into a series of new places, new people, new experiences. It might be accompanied by a guide, or several guides, or no guide at all.

 

It might be done with intentions, written or unwritten, or dreams, fully-formed or half-realized, or simply a desire to journey ‘away’ from whatever ‘here’ might be.

 

One might carry totems or icons on the journey. Some might be left behind, tucked into a niche, tossed into a well, or tied to a tree branch. Some might return home with the pilgrim, or the pilgrim might carry a new totem home … something that holds the memory of the journey for the time to come.

 

A pilgrimage might mark a time of transition, from single to married, or married to single. From parenting to empty-nesting. From coupled to widowed, from addiction to freedom, from hopeful to empty.

 

A pilgrimage can be a journey of self-discovery or of penance and forgiveness or of healing. It can be religious or spiritual or both … or neither. A journey from one way of being to another.

 

A pilgrimage can be a returning … to home, to self, to sanity, to peace.

 

saoirse

Saoirse on pilgrimage.

A pilgrimage can be an opening … to joy, to amazement, to Mystery.

 

A pilgrimage can be the journey you make from the time you rise from your bed to the time you fall into sleep at the end of the day. And each rising brings the promise … or perhaps the opportunity … for a new journey.

 

May the pilgrimage you undertake this day be filled with moments of blessing.”

So what makes your pilgrimage a pilgrimage?

                We’d love to know your thoughts – let’s discuss this together.

We’ll walk a while and see where the conversation and road alike leads.

                                                                                                                                                                Until next time, travel safely!

Sam Fishkind.

The Importance of Walking with Earnest

Welcome back to the Land of Heart’s Desire!

If you recall from last time, we approached the topics of Carrowmore; brushed shoulders with Queen Maeve, and listened to the wise old stories of Dr. Michael Roberts. Today, we follow Maeve’s path to a different place – one sadly without a gentle narrator, save for the one that’s hopefully in your hearts.

Off the beaten path and so small you might just miss it is the rustic township of Strandhill.

Strandhill, occasionally an Leathros (Larass), is a beatific piece of landscape. Buffeted by the ocean and the mountains on either side, it sits on a crescent of time-worn stone and shifting sands. Thunderous cerulean seawater continuously grapples with the shore, throwing foam as it seethes and froths. The sea here is an animal; prowling between the stones, and signs advise against swimming – though, not surprisingly, waves of this capacity attract a great deal many surfers. It’s argued that Strandhill is one of the 18486122_10155098657041885_1766112559642403169_nbest, if not the best place to go surfing in Europe. Races and a guitar festival occasionally take place there, including an infamous 15k that takes participants all the way up Knocknarea – to Maeve – during its journey. Down the way (as they say), there is a thatched cottage; still operational, 200 years old and counting that is open to the public.

In terms of less modern and commercial things, we take you back to the sea. During a Wild West Irish Tour of any kind, it’s vital to check your surroundings. Not because you’re in any imminent danger, mind, but because if you don’t, you’re likely to miss something extraordinary. Upon exiting our distinguished chariot; one might take a moment to breathe in the salty air and hear the rush and thrash of wild waves. Indulge in the spray of the sea and drink in the sight of its endless passions. The coastline is a crumbling scene of silvery stones and soft white sands with a thousand and one different types of tinier rock littering the neck of the beach like jewels. Everything is anointed in a fine amount of salt – save the people; somehow, who remain warm, pleasant, and welcoming despite their stormy neighbor; the Atlantic.

A cannon is offset to face the sea; a tribute to times long ago. A rock wall barricades the beach from the rest of the town, and, strolling to the right, there is a plaque dedicated to Queen Maeve, fearsome warrior and infamous lady of legend. A Yeats poem greets the viewer in marble, etched to reflect the silvery cover of the sky:

The wind has bundled up the clouds

                High over Knocknarea,

                And thrown the thunder on the stones

                For all that Maeve can say.

                Angers that are like noisy clouds

                Have set hearts abeat;

                But we have all bent low and low

                And kissed the quiet feet of

                Cathleen, the daughter of Houlihan.

W.B. Yeats.

Anam24This is the perfect time to start on a whole new journey.

                Beware the saw-toothed grass as you pace toward the distant horizon. The winding beach trails offer all kinds of variety; opportunities to commune with nature both reflective and interactive. In the waving fronds, one can find nests of stones laid there by the ocean or passersby. Remnants of small campfires or travelers (the regular kind, we’ll get to the other sort at a later date) lay whispering their stories to the ether. Gulls circle soundless overhead and chase the leaping sea still heaving itself against the coast.

Taking the high or low road seems not to matter – each offers unique choices of landscape. Cresting the dunes and looking back over the remnants of jetties and the occasional stone house left to seed the landscape with questions of yesteryear or walking along the more enclosed places toward the spotted tree line is open for debate. Friendly folks fleck the dune trails; so a more solitary jaunt is likely found closer to the ocean.

This is Maeve’s territory; all of it. Knocknarea is close; watchful and distinct despite descending clouds. One can think of her legends; the mountain and the madam, overlooking this beautiful place of self-reflection and focus.

Maeve’s name comes from Meabh, or Meadhbh, which is said to mean “she who enchants”. Occasionally, “enchants” is swapped for “intoxicates” – and, given the stories of this powerful figure and her surrounding territories, it’s easy to see why. Some of her stories include the possession of a mighty bull who outdid her enemy-friend’s bull in a spar. She was the daughter of the king of Connacht; she had many lovers and five husbands – all of whom became kings and were “married to the land” more than they were married to her. And who wouldn’t want to be? The region is bountiful in beauty and seemingly bottomless in hidden wonders. Whether the folklore of Maeve is true or not (she would’ve existed around 50 BCE – 50 CE), she is a prominent figure whose cairn atop Knocknarea casts a shadow – less ominous than night: more a cool and shady reminder on a hot day. Or a long, but meaningful jaunt.

Further down the way, the world begins to bend around a bay – a small inlet in which locals fish beyond the rock walls and cast themselves along the more tempered waters. During this time, the sojourner might find themselves approaching a certain silhouette of ruins – different from those of the houses left behind in the tall grasses closer to the trees.

18556407_10155098657051885_939227075920152005_nLooking back at the township of Strandhill, the platinum ocean seems stiller than before. Night is beginning to fall and the senses are stirred by the gentler scene; one uninterrupted by lights or sounds other than what nature has to offer. This is another moment, one which requires utmost attention in only that one should fully immerse oneself in it: breathe deeply and enter the ruins when you are ready.

Ben Bulben and Knocknarea flank its remnants in the distance – a graveyard both in the literal and figurative sense greets you upon entry, as the uneven ground is filled with markers, stones, and crosses, each reflecting one who’s passed on, but also, in regards to the remains of the church, which still stand, but only just.

Killaspugbrone (points to you if you can say it correctly the first time) rests in pieces on the edge of the Coolera peninsula – a very Christian offset to the surrounding pre-Christian elements that come from Queen Maeve’s legends. There is a haunted resonance that comes from standing in a place as old as the church ruins – sometime around the 12th century; supposedly yet another place St. Patrick made it to. Not all of him made it out, however – as legend says, Patrick tripped on a stone (easy to do, coincidentally) and lost a tooth on the grounds. It was encased in gold and enshrined, then given to the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin – after a great game of historical “hot potato” occurred, wherein said relic was tossed around and mistreated by various parties.

In the present, one can try to read the fading stones to uncover their stories. People old as 102 are buried there; and the peace that comes from this final resting place is unparalleled. It feels safe; to walk around the toothy turf of jutting markers and sweeping grasses. There are fresh flowers laid at some of the graves, and the last person to be buried there is from the 1960’s. All in all, the experience is spiritual and fulfilling – there is a soulful triumph in walking this far to see this “reward” at the end. A walk is a fine and good thing, but seeing Something Special at the end of it just makes the whole adventure seem that much more worthwhile.

And it’s a funny thing as you start the journey back: reluctant to leave; sure, but taking this piece of magic with you. This feeling of blessedness that comes from a solitary excursion is one that is encouraged and cherished. To be alone and to walk alone is something inherently necessary: that in solitude, one can talk to oneself or simply immerse oneself in the near-silence with an important realization:

Not everyone has to be “on” all the time. This is a walk that endeavors to teach you to appreciate the “aloneness” of existence: not in the negative, but as a positive to better understand yourself and your place in the world. To be fully present and to not be giving pieces of yourself away.

This is a walk meant to bring you back to yourself.

And, feeling whole and content, the walk back to civilization is almost one wherein you want to drag your feet:

But waiting for you at the end is another chance to reflect amidst the gifts of the sea; seaweed baths steaming with natural minerals and oils waft out of a spa center, 18485680_10155098657046885_4657123355995849767_noddly modern yet strangely archaic in the best possible way. The good people of Voya await like so many maids of the sea, permitting warmth and luxury that is good for bones chilled that have gone unnoticed on the glory of a solitary stroll. Altogether, the experience is one fully good for the body and the soul.

Whether it be the wildness of the waves or the wonders of a wander, the experience is vital to all. To be yourself; by yourself, is a truly remarkable thing – rare, in this day and age, to be entirely alone. Lay back in the hot bath and feel yourself slip into the abyss of bliss that comes from a cracked window through which the song of the sea prevails; and let the ocean embrace you in its own way – be present, and accept that everything has a purpose, even if that purpose is to simply be. It comes back to what Michael Roberts suggested regarding how people lead linear lives: the water and the walk should remind one to embrace cyclical replenishment again, to move differently and experiencing life more fully. To refresh oneself; one must recycle and renew. Here at Strandhill, standing in Maeve’s shadow; her strength in legends prevailing, it actually seems possible.

Let all troubles be soaked away in seaweed; salt, or sand. Let the wind whisk your worries away. Be free in the knowledge that you are present, and let yourself be truly wild.

It’s what Queen Maeve would’ve recommended.

Probably.

Until next time,

 – Sam Fishkind

Unearthing the Archaic

Dia duit cairde!

As we delve deeper into the people of Ireland and their splendid culture, one cannot travel beyond Carrowmore without stopping. Whether it be respect for the dead or curiosity of the living, Carrowmore in County Sligo invokes a feeling of hushed fascination, one that merits leaving the beaten path and traveling over grass that’s blanketed rocky hillsides for thousands of years – along with the thousands of years-worth of history nestled in said hillsides like ancient and undisturbed Easter eggs…

Though some might argue Easter eggs and the concept of Easter itself is predated by these impressive and stony structures.10462543_776009269085788_2963576252580794883_n

Let’s set the scene – a wind-tossed sea of grass bends low against the earth; kowtowing to the looming image in the distance that almost can’t be seen through the silvery mist. Wild Westies walk down a pebbled path toward a great open space agape beneath a platinum sky. The silence there is a tranquil veil of serenity; sweeping passersby underneath cloud cover that does not so much hover above the ground as it does embrace it as an old friend. Smatterings of rain splatter the stones; and just across to the right, the great cairn of Queen Maeve is seated in the highlands of Knocknarea, shrouded in enigma – and yes, more fog.

The guide for this place of glory and gloom is a man tall in stature and kind in face. With a resonant voice and a plucky hat pulled low over his brow, he seems to descend from the mountains to tell stories by watery daylight to any who’ll listen – and listen you will; as his words are spellbinding. Dr. Michael Roberts of Co. Sligo grew up in this area – and knows it like it’s a piece of his (very warm) soul.

With a passion for mythology and folklore that came at an early age; Dr. Roberts pursued anthropology as a means of “understanding people”. Cultural Anthropology; in fact – perhaps a direct reflection of being raised in these places of mists and legends. There was, for example, a fairy fort that Michael had to cross every day on his way to school. A fairy fort, for those who don’t know, is the skeletal remains of a structure predating the Christian era of Ireland – possibly; in some superstitions, predating human inhabitants. In terms of folklore; it’s considered bad luck to disturb these forts – in doing so, one runs the risk of losing anything he holds dear (including his life).

But Michael’s interpretation was slightly different – rather than approach the fort with wariness, he took it as an opportunity to ask important internal questions. Who built this? And why was it built? Things buried in Sligo’s history seemed likely to stay that way; as modernity forces all things ancient to remain in the past – were it not for the inquisitive mind of a young man with an old soul.

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Photo by Westie Debbie; picturing herself, Michael, and Westie Katie.

Now grown; Michael makes a point of bringing others around Carrowmore for a study not only in the stones of the archaic designs from the Iron Age and beyond, but also for a study in how the landscape and mythology shaped the world he grew up in. Worried that traditions and storytelling from the olden days was dying out, Michael began writing down his stories, rather than simply reciting them. His book, The Cailleach of Sligo: Stories and Myths from the North West of Ireland is a riveting take on Celtic and Gaelic mythology previously unexplored. The Cailleach, after all, is the Winter Hag – a creator and weather deity who, in Michael’s words, “makes the tough decisions” – a hard woman who clears out for Samhain in the Celtic Winter, a sort of “fall cleaning”, if you will. Without her, the year could not begin again, and the doubts, misgivings, and troubles of the year prior would continue on. She is the lady tossing open windows in a stuffy house to air it out. Or, as we call her at home where I’m from, “the fresh air fiend”. Passage tombs in Sligo were said to be affiliated with her; tombs in which the equinox light would illuminate carvings almost lost to time.

The full experience, however, does involve actually walking with careful tread into this great place of sacred energy; surrounding oneself with tall stones and a towering megalithic masterpiece comprised of wishes and prayers.

A cairn, after all, is a marker for burial; here – albeit they have had other purposes depending on location and historic insight, such as astronomy, ceremony, and defense. These at the Carrowmore site are specifically meant for those who have passed on; paying homage to their energy and potential – Maeve’s Cairn on the adjacent hill; for example, is considered a blessed place, one of power and focus. Carrowmore is also home to a few dolmens, more obvious in their structuring and well-recognized for their flat tops and raised rock sides. These were believed to be places of passage – not so much for the dead, but in the interim moments between life and death. The whole of Carrowmore crackles with silent, but prominent energy – the result, no doubt, of a place that has seen many a soul pass through it. It is indescribable unless you go there; because standing there amidst it all, one almost becomes a part of it, in spirals of carefully-laid stone that sing beneath the sky.

Spiral or cyclical aspects of passage are evident throughout Irish folklore. Michael Roberts points out that modernity forces people into a “linear” way of living – contrary to the old days (and old ways) wherein individuals lived on a cycle, rather than a line. A circular time is more hopeful, he suggests – knowing that one thing will end and another will begin. Linear living is much harder, as it’s difficult to see the stars from inside stone walls. People in the city should return to the country – to feel and embrace that cycle. A reboot, if you will – for your spirit.

There is much more to appreciate in a circular world than a flat one, after all – the monotony of urban life, the same monitored “weather” of an interior dwelling day after day can drain a person. It’s a different sensation entirely to feel the wind of Carrowmore on your neck than the dull wheeze of an air conditioner, you know. The ancients who inhabited the area of Carrowmore believed so much in the cycle of life that they put faith in the return of their souls to their people. Round stones were smoothed by artisans; wisewomen/wisemen, and people of great skills – then, through life’s many

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Photo by Westie Claudia Pellegrini Quieroz

events, death of the wearer, a bonfire (or “bone fire”, as it was previously called), and a washing away of ashes, the stone would be passed on to an expecting mother, whose child was said to inherit the soul that came with that stone. In such a way, the circle of life moves on, forever turning, and changing for the better. A concept of spiritual recycling – which even has the word “cycle” embedded in it.

It is also a reflection of how important it is to keep the old ways alive – Michael Roberts has done a spectacular job of doing just that. “Captured my attention the minute he started talking,” said Westie Wayne. “Especially when he would talk about the stars and how they were used.”

Things don’t have to be high-tech or fancy to invoke conversation. Communication can crop up in discussions following the recitations of his stories; stories he gathers with love and respect from the peoples of the past. He brings them into modernity via simple discussions – opening the door to those who are seeking to deviate from that linear life. He carries the past into the present and gives it a future, as more and more people come to explore the megalithic sites and learn of those who came before.

There is nothing quite like standing in the shadow of Knocknarea and Maeve; overlooking the hills of cairns and pondering the past. When one thinks of dig sites; or historical areas, one might first think of archaeologists, with their little tools and their painstaking focus; dusty-kneed and desperately, determinedly digging…

But in actuality; it may in fact be the anthropologists who are keeping history alive – as without them, we would never understand what a dolmen is, or why fairy forts exist, or how the culture before us lived; and we might not care to learn from the people who came before us –

And thus, without looking back at the past, and having those like Michael to tell us about it; to make us care again, we would most surely not have half as bright a future.

Slán go fóill,

 – Sam Fishkind.

May This Bring You Joy

Happy Bealtane to you all!

Last post, we touched on the hazel of wisdom in Irish folklore. It was believed Finn ate the salmon of wisdom who ate the hazelnuts of wisdom from said hazel tree. There’s a story similar to this in Yiddish folklore, but that’s a parallel for another day.

Folklore is an intrinsic and necessary aspect of Irish culture. A slightly superstitious and brilliantly imaginative people, the Irish seem to take a great deal of dual comfort and pride in their storytelling. There’s an explanation for just about everything, and long lessons about life.

Bealtane [or Beltane, or Bealtaine] takes place on the 1st of May. As we enter the “Bright Half” of the Celtic calendar year – and is a perfect example of how rich and long-lasting folklore and traditions can be.

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Pius Murray, phenomenal teacher & stellar guide.

According to Pius Murray of Coisceim Anama, Footstep of the Soul [an affiliate of Wild West Irish Tours], Bealtane is linked to Beli or Belanus, “the shining one”, an old god whose origins are quite enigmatic. Bealtane [or any of its other variants in spelling] refers to “the fires of Bel”, and encourages warmth and the return of outdoor gatherings and/or celebrations. You might be familiar with the dancing around Maypoles, which is a reflection of “the weaving of life”. This, however, is a widely-recognized English tradition which never took root in Ireland. Instead, according to Pius, people would celebrate by dancing around the actual “maybush”, typically the hawthorn. They would cut branches of whitethorn or hawthorn (an act typically forbidden as those trees are considered sacred), tie the branches with ribbon and sometimes drape the boughs on holly trees with eggshells – the mingling of different types of prickers being significant to the festivities in terms of spiritual protection.

Many of the celebratory aspects of Bealtane have faded out, however. Aspects such as the ragdoll and couples scampering off into the night to find a private place in which to watch the rising of the sun on Mayday have more or less disappeared from Irish traditions. The great lighting of bonfires similar to that of Samhain (the beginning of Celtic winter; a concept explored on one of the Irish Pilgrimage tours with the Westies) has changed – going from a signal fire lit at Uisneach [what Pius calls “the spiritual center of Ireland”] that summer had come to something much more canonically Christian: if anything, the more common parallel to something chronologically close to Bealtane is the Festival of Saint John on the 23rd of June: midsummer. Initially, fires were lit at Uisneach on Bealtane to signal to the rest of Ireland that the summer season could commence – resulting in a ripple effect which swept Ireland from coast to coast. Fires would sprout up for days following, igniting a focal point of flame to reflect Belanus – the shining god, whom history has now all but forgotten. But in pre-Christian times, when the goddess Ériu [from whom Éire takes its name] was the primary focus of Celtic traditions, the landscape and seasons were always on the Irish mind.

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Burren blooms.

Speaking of Christianity – it has a hand in Beltane as well, in a roundabout way. Ever heard of Saint Patrick? I imagine you might’ve. It was said that the beginning of his struggles with combatting pagan worshipers started with Beltane – the High King Laoghaire (Leary in pronunciation) of Tara was designated with lighting the first bonfire for Bealtane, but Patrick beat him to the punch…by lighting a Pascal Fire for Easter on an adjacent hill called Slane. Incensed, the King sent nine chariots out to confront whosoever dared to light a fire instead of his druids. Reports vary, but it’s safe to say Patrick moved on to continue his conversion of Celtic pagans to Christianity. It was suggested the fire Patrick lit could not be put out – a great example of symbolic storytelling in saying the spread of Christianity, likewise, would not and could not be extinguished.

On the continued subject of fire, it has been said that Bealtaine is a time of passion, of asking for growth and fertility. It was an opportunity to seek out ways to ensure farms and fields were fruitful – and families, too.  Bealtaine is majorly a celebration of the end of “the Dark Half” of the Celtic Year – albeit, the Dark Half is celebrated with equal enthusiasm during Samhain, with bonfires of its own and ritualistic cleansing of negativity – however, in Bealtane, however, some of that cleansing is literal…and physical.

“Are you familiar with a rock and a hard place?” Pius asks. “Similarly, there would be a lighting of two fires, quite close in proximity. A farmer would drive his cattle one by one between the two fires – just close enough to singe the cows’ hair. Belanus was said to heal cattle, and it was believed that by doing this, it would purify the cattle and prevent them from becoming diseased.” People, he added, were also prone to following suit. If a person was ill or injured, they could also walk through the two fires in the hopes that they, too, could be healed. Likewise, in terms of healing, the grandmother of the family would rouse the children before dawn on May 1st, bring them to the end of the home’s garden (“still in their pajamas and barefooted”, notes Pius), wherein they’d wash their faces on the dew of the leaves and flowers. It was believed that by doing this annually, you’d secure a happy life. Water and fire, after all, hold a great deal of cleansing power in the Celtic tradition.

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The Burren

The Dark Half of the Celtic year is also a time of reflection and gradual growth, a sort of “gestation” in darkness, cold, solitude, and quiet. Bealtaine is its zealous parallel; less an opposite than it is a complimentary, “louder” time in which to flourish outward. Everything comes into bloom, from the Burren to the bays.

In a quieter comparison to Samhain, it is believed in Celtic tradition that the “veil” between the worlds is thin – meaning it is allegedly a great time to communicate with spirits or even the Good Neighbors [more commonly known as Fae; or fairies]. In terms of superstition, people in places such as Corofin would hang rowan; or mountain ash on their doors, or use it to line their windowsills. It was believed the powerful branches could scare away unwanted spirits who slipped out from under the veil when it was at its thinnest. Alternatively, people could place flowers on their doors for a similar effect. As such, they would be protected for the coming months of summer.

It is a bittersweet time of year, according to Pius. Offsetting the excitement of summer is the promise of the next season to come. Bealtane is the brightening of weeks; the lengthening of sunlight and the burst of flowers from the earth. However, it also signals the approach of Lughnasa, or harvest season. Six weeks of light before the darkness starts to creep back across the land. It once again marks the duality of the Irish spirit – to enjoy and relish the present; to reflect on the past, all whilst always noting the future. The Celtic wheel continues to turn, and each day is met with new possibilities.

As much as there is to enjoy currently; Pius says his favorite thing [besides the extension of daylight hours] about Bealtane is the flowers. The Burren fills up with them – “Twenty-three types of orchids,” says Pius fondly. The Burren is home to a great deal many varieties of wildlife – a coexistence of incredible ecology, from tundra plants to deciduous and even tropical, along with a remarkable array of birds [including the infamous cuckoo]. The green Goddess of Ireland comes back to life in lavish and emerald glory, her particular blaze that of a flaring fanfare of wildflowers and floral wonder.

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Preparation for a Bonfire – Photo by Michael Waugh; Wild West Irish Tours

So, if nothing else, getting outside to celebrate the coming of Irish summer is a great way to embrace the Bealtane spirit. Admire the blossoming of flowers, burn leaf piles to make way for gardening and harvest. Take in the extra light and spend time outdoors. Wash your face in dew. Tell stories around a campfire; a bonfire –

And light the way for future generations to remember those who came before.

Until next time, keep the fire burning!

— Sam Fishkind

If you are interested in meeting Pius on one of our journeys, please visit our website for the latest dates & tour options!