Posts Tagged ‘pilgrimage’

The rain continued to follow us as we drove further south to Cashel in County Tipperary where we headed immediately for the famous, dominating feature on the landscape:

Cashel Rock

Cashel Rock

Jeff was eager to get a close look at St Patrick’s cross which was reported to have a labyrinth-like carving on the base. Could it be? Fortunately, the cross is now indoors, but it is extremely weathered after centuries of exposure to the elements. Nevertheless, as we circled it in the protection of its new home, the circuits could be clearly seen, though the paths were indistinct and difficult to trace, or even to count. There was something very moving about being able to gently touch the ancient carving as we manipulated the lighting and shadows to get a closer look so that we could gather the clues to the details of this rendition of the labyrinth symbol. Now that we are home, Jeff is working with the photos so that he can make a conclusive report in due time.

We then began our search for the other carving that was of particular interest to me: a Sheela-na-Gig set into the outer wall of one of the buildings on the rock.

Cashel Rock Sheela-na-gig

Cashel Rock Sheela-na-Gig

Sheela-na-gigs are curious stone carvings of naked females who are usually squatting or standing in such a way as to accentuate the vulva. Found on medieval churches, castles and other structures throughout Britain, but especially in Ireland, these enigmatic figures compel interest and stir the imagination. We happily go out of our way to seek them out; the Cashel Sheela was the first of three we found on this trip. For some reason, I was quite startled to see the strange sideways orientation of this one.

We spent the night at Hill House, looking out across the valley toward the Rock of Cashel, but left early the next morning to drive down to  the walled town of Fethard, where there are two Sheela-na-Gigs. One is set into the city wall:

Fethard Wall Sheela-na-Gig

Sheela-na-Gig on the Fethard City Wall

And the other is on the wall of the ancient Augustinian friary, very close to the  modern priest’s house:

Fethard Abby Sheela-na-Gig

Sheela-na-Gig on the Fethard Abbey

Driving back towards Belfast, we had one last labyrinth to explore, a small carving mounted on the wall of a ruined chapel… and it was here that I had my most memorable moment of the trip. It was cold, very cold, and we could see the chapel out in a field quite some distance from the road where we had parked our warm and comfy car. Contemplating the barbed wire fence we would have to scale and the muddy field we needed to cross, my heart sank. I agreed to the excursion only because I knew Jeff would do the same for me… Bundled in two jackets and several layers of hats each, we climbed into our boots and set out into the rain. Halfway across the field, I realized that it was that moment for which I have been working so very hard for so many months. My slimmer, stronger body absolutely rejoiced as we slogged forward, in total comfort and confidence! Rathmore Chapel was a joy… I read the tombstones outside, then explored the nooks and crannies within, feeling the poignancy of the structure that had served the spiritual needs of so many for so long. I felt connected to myself, to these long-gone faceless strangers, and to the divine thread that weaves between us all.


Jeff photographing the Rathmore Chapel Labyrinth


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The River Boyne

The River Boyne

We can tell you why Ireland is so green…. it rains. But somehow the dull skies and bitter winds contributed to the mystery and magic of the landscape. We had come in search of neolithic monuments and medieval carvings, and we were willing to leave the relative comfort of the beaten track to seek them out.

Our first stop was Newgrange, a popular pilgrimage destination that is all but deserted at this time of year. An architectural cousin to some of the sites we visit in Scotland, Newgrange was  built some 5000 years ago as a burial mound with a very precise solar alignment. Should you be fortunate enough to be standing in the chamber at sunrise on Winter Solstice, you would witness a shaft of light entering through a small window and lighting the chamber. Adding to its appeal, an elaborately carved stone stands guard at the entrance to the passage, and more spirals decorate the inner walls. Absolutely amazing… such an elegant reminder that despite our 21st century advantages, there are still mysteries left to explore and experience.


Newgrange Entrance Stone

From Newgrange, we drove south to the small community of Laragh where we were booked into a lovely B&B, the Tudor Lodge. Too tired to bother with going out to get dinner, we fell into bed so that we could get an early start in the morning. Despite the ongoing rain, we were the first arrivals of the day at the Glendalough Visitor’s Centre where a boulder with a Medieval carving of a labyrinth is now on display. The so-named Hollywood Stone may be the earliest example of the labyrinth symbol known in Ireland. It was discovered in a nearby field in 1908  by a group of men chasing a stoat… when they turned over the boulder, under which their quarry had hidden, they saw the labyrinth carving on the underside. Originally a marker stone for the start of the long winding pilgrims path through the rugged Wicklow Gap, it stood beside a branch of St. Kevin’s Road, an ancient pilgrim’s trackway that leads through the Wicklow Mountains from Hollywood to the famous monastery at Glendalough, founded by St. Kevin in the mid-6th century.

Hollywood Stone, Glendalough

Hollywood Stone, Glendalough

Noting the vast but empty parking lots, we realized how fortunate we were to have the place to ourselves… while Jeff photographed, I let myself daydream my way back into history, imagining the people and the circumstances that might have drawn them to pilgrimage. Unfortunately, however, the steady rain discouraged us from exploring the entire Glendalough site with its magnificent Celtic crosses, carvings, churches, and famous round tower. Even the modern labyrinth in the field next to the visitor’s centre was too soggy to enter, though the standing water did make it quite picturesque!

Modern Labyrinth at Glendalough

Modern Labyrinth at Glendalough

From Glendalough we travelled up along the pilgrim route, stopping to see the field where the stone once stood… it is fairly unremarkable now, but it gave us pause to appreciate the many pilgrims who have passed by over the centuries, using this spot as a milestone on their spiritual journeys.


Passed by Pilgrims

to be continued….

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