March 15, 2013

My 5 Favorite Spiritual Sites in Ireland: a St. Patrick’s Day Tribute.

What Ireland lacks in scale, it makes up for in sense of place.

In a country strewn with ancient standing stones, holy wells and burial mounds, it’s not an easy task to pick a ‘top five’ and I have to admit to being guilty of having selected five which are already on the list for most visitors to Ireland, but with good reason.

If I’m honest, though, my favorite spiritual place in Ireland is sitting under a particular old oak tree which has been my friend since childhood. In fact, all of these power spots are places I played in, climbed on and explored as a child, becoming familiar with their energy in a way which no guided tour as an adult would have allowed me to. And the best way to experience them still is in a child-like, open manner—through the senses rather than through the head alone. The five sites didn’t all necessarily serve an overtly spiritual purpose, although many of them did, but all of them are located in places where the natural energy of the land is particularly strong and where there is a sense of stepping into a more mystical, magical world. They are best experienced alone or with others who are able to keep their peace.

So, with a drum roll (bodhrán, perhaps?), here they are—in no particular order, I should add.

Poulnabrone Dolmen:  Poll na mBrón in Irish (hole of sorrow).

Although I could have picked from any number of dolmens scattered around the country, there is something particularly haunting about this one. Dolmens are burial sites, and certainly have that sense of being portals to another world. Poulnabrone is located in County Clare near the Atlantic coast, on the Karst limestone landscape of the Burren. It is an area of Ireland where the soil has been eroded away and the bare limestone is exposed, leaving a strangely skeleton-like surface. When I take the time to sit here, the bare stone around me and the ancient burial site at my side, it’s hard not to be drawn into a world beyond the physical. (Local speculation has it that the landscape was also part of the inspiration for some of the locations in Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings as he spent time living in the area).

Glendalough: Gleann Dá Loch in Irish (valley of the two lakes).

This early Christian monastic site in County Wicklow, not far from Dublin, must surely have been chosen by the monks because of its innate tranquility and the blending together of earth, sky and water. As you sit by the lower lake, steep hills on either side reflecting darkly in the water, it’s not hard to imagine the simplicity of early monastic life here—growing food, painstakingly hand-writing manuscripts and communing with the divine. It is one of the most peaceful sites in Ireland.

The Hill of Tara: Teamhair na Rí in Irish.

Tara been important in Irish history stretching back to prehistoric times. It was once the seat of the High Kings of Ireland and where St. Patrick apparently came to preach Christianity to the Irish royalty. But walking the land here, through ditches grown with twisted hawthorn trees and nettles, past the still-decorated fairy tree, it’s easy to get that sense of the earth goddess which predates any royal center or religious significance. There are also many stories about kingship at Tara which suggest that the king had to be accepted by the local nature goddess as her human mate. For me, this is the energy that is most apparent at Tara now. When I lie back on the springy grass (trying to avoid the sheep droppings!), it feels as if I’m lying back in the arms of the earth herself. I could lie there for hours, just soaking up that feeling of being securely held.

Newgrange: Brú na Bóinne in Irish.

I wasn’t sure about including this prehistoric site, which is older than the Egyptian pyramids, because the experience at Newgrange now is a far cry from the place I visited as a child. When I was first brought here, the place was an overgrown, grassy hill with a locked rusty gate barring a narrow entrance into the hillside. We had to collect the key from a neighbor and bring a flash-light to illuminate the dark, dank passage-way inside. I still remember the thrill of stepping into the hill—that ancient burial mound – with just my family. The walls and stone floor were damp and I could trace my finger through the spiral patterns that had been carved thousands of years earlier by a people who had a connection with the land and with the after-life that is dramatically different from ours. At the top of the chamber, in the middle of the hill, it opens out, with three ante-chambers off the main area. In the decades since that first visit, Newgrange has been given reconstructive treatment and now looks much more dramatic from the outside—resulting in much larger volumes of visitors. You can now only visit the site as part of an organised group. But the same experience can still be found at other burial mounds nearby in County Meath—Dowth, for example, or Loughcrew.

Dún Aengus (Aongus’ Fort)

This holds such a special place in my heart that not only have I kept it to last, but I’ve also had to include it as a location in the third volume of A Heart to Share (due out in April). This semi-circular stone structure is right on the edge of a sheer cliff on the Atlantic coast, on the largest of the Aran Islands. When I stand on the cliff edge, with the fresh wind in my face and the pounding waves below, I’m always awed by the majesty and power of nature. The slight mystery surrounding the site itself – why would anyone build a fort with three layers of solid stone walls on a small island surrounded by sea and cliffs—simply adds to the impression of being a speck of dust in a much larger cosmos. What I love most is to spend a few hours here, and then wander down some of the ‘green roads’ on the island to visit other smaller sites nearby. I have been visiting these islands since before electricity came to them (which was as late as the early 1970s) and the dry stone walls, lack of traffic and startling landscape (more of that bare limestone mentioned above) always bring me into a deep, still place in myself.

If I were to quickly squeeze in another few that are perhaps less on the beaten track, they would be Skellig Michael (that incredible early monastic settlement on a tiny rugged island off the south-west coast), Drombeg Stone Circle (in County Cork) and the alien-like two-faced stone figure sitting in a small graveyard on Boa Island, County Fermanagh.

It’s not all about where to go, though. It’s also about when to go. Peak tourism time in Ireland is summer time, and these spots are best visited during the week and out of peak season in order to really have them to yourself. Once you avoid main tourism times, it’s not difficult to have them almost to yourself. I love to go on a Monday or Tuesday in the autumn, when only a few like-minded souls are around, and I bring a flask and a blanket so I can spend the day just sitting and soaking it up.


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Ed: Kate Bartolotta

Photos: John Sullivan/Wiki Commons

                         Steve Ford Elliott/Wiki Commons

               Sean MacEntee/Flickr 

              Nemoi/Wiki Commons

               National Library of Ireland on the Commons/Wiki Commons


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