Traveler- Are You a Tourist or Pilgrm?

It's much more rewarding to travel as a pilgrim rather than a tourist.  A tourist goes to see the sites, eat the food and experience the culture .... all worthy initiatives.  A pilgrim does the same thing, but travels within the context of a story.

A tourist might visit Dingle and see Mount Brandon (above) on the tip of the peninsula and be stunned by the beauty, take many photos and readily share descriptions of the landscape with friends at home.  But a pilgrim would travel to Mount Brandon knowing the story of the mountain ... that St. Brendan the Navigator launched his small fleet of curraghs toting his loyal followers from the foot of Mount Brandon in search of the promised land.  And the pilgrim would come with his or her own story.  Upon seeing the Holy Mountain, the pilgrim would knowingly become an image in the same landscape where St. Brendan, his followers and all the subsequent pilgrims appear - with Mount Brandon as the anchoring force holding all the memories of pilgrims past.  The pilgrim might bring questions on the journey, or bear certain worries, or be looking to achieve a specific personal goal, and traveling to the place within the context of the story makes the pilgrim a living character.  Thus, the purpose of the trip has a deeper meaning.

I traveled as a pilgrim to Mount Brandon.  I knew the story of Brendan, that he was seeking greater gifts away from his homeland, that he was a leader and one that started many communities of learning and prayer.  I knew he was a mystic and that Mount Brandon had been believed to be a sacred site in his time - and before his time.  It is still known as a site of great spiritual power today.  I knew all these things.

When I walked out onto the strand (beach) just below Mount Brandon, the weather was dismal, but nothing could overcome the stunning glory of that mountain rising out of the Atlantic.  As I started to reflect, I thought of how desperately I wanted to write about thin places.  But, as often happens when I dream of the book I will eventually write, I was overcome by the fear that I wasn't a good enough writer... that I'd never be able to write words worth reading. I imagined all the great writers whose shadow I'm not worthy to walk in. Angst  crept into my prayer there at the foot of Mount Brandon and the desire to write began to wane.  I stood for awhile on the strand hoping to have the fear quelled, to be encouraged ... but nothing happened.  It began to rain.  I hung my head and slunk back to my car to get out of the rain.... but ... in my path I noticed an image in the sand.  It looked like a man, handing me something with his right hand.

You may not be able to see the image well in this photo, but I'll never forget it.  My worries washed away just as the waves washed him away.  I was encouraged, and as a pilgrim, I could feel part of that ancient landscape.

As I drove up the road that leads to the Mount, the clouds broke and rainbow appeared.  It was there for 15 full minutes.  I snapped several pictures.  One of them appears below.


Stones Hold the Memories - the Stones in my Window

The great Celtic mystic, John O'Donohue writes in Anam Cara that stones and mountains carry memories of the place where they stand.  That concept grips me.  I love surveying the landscape and imagining what the stones and hills have seen, especially in an ancient place that has changed little in thousands of years.

In Western Europe and in my own country, I have visited many thin places...places I want to remember ... places from which I'd like a memento to carry home.  Instead of finding a local gift shop and purchasing a trinket to keep the place alive in my mind and spirit, I find the perfect stone to be the best memento.  Then I have a "piece of the place" to hold at home - a piece, that according to O'Donohue holds the memories of the place.  Stones from thin places are all around my house clustered on end tables, mantles, sideboards, our wrap around porch - even in the garden.  I give each stone a marking so I can identify its origin and elaborate on where I found it when someone asks.  My four year old granddaughter Grace recently found a cluster on the table and asked me about each one.  She was so fascinated.  She wanted to remember the location for each stone in that cluster.  It was cute watching her try to pronounce names like Castleruddery Stone Circle and Thoor Ballylee.

My desk (where I write and spend long stretches of time) sits in front of two windows that allow me to look out over my yard. My office is on the second story of our house and there are many large trees - maples, magnolia, crepe myrtles, lombardy poplars, and pines - outside these two windows.  I feel like I'm in the trees looking out from the tree tops.  The view always inspires me... and it's never quite the same from day to day.  On the window sill I have some of my favorite stones from memorable thin places I have visited.  They appear in the photo above.

To the far left of my window sill of stones are two heart-shaped red sandstones from a beach on Prince Edward Island.  The island earth has been rendered red by the abundance of this soft stone.  When hunting for "memento stones" Dan and I decided to specifically look for stones that were heart shaped to bring back to our friends from Dorchester County as gifts from our trip (cheap!). Dorchester County is a heart-shaped land mass known as the "Heart of Chesapeake Country."  So it seemed fitting to find a gift - in this case a stone in the shape of a heart - that linked the thin place of our travels to the homeland of our friends. Looking for stones that have a particular shape or theme is always fun.  These two heart-shaped PEI stones on my window sill were two I kept for myself.

The pointed stone to the right of my pink hearts is one I got from the shores of Lake Pend Oreille in Idaho.  We camped there for a few days and the campsite - the whole lake was magical. This stone reminds me of a nativity figure of the Virgin Mary kneeling at the side of the manger.

Next to the Pend Oreille stone is a round red stone from the beaches of Lindisfarne, also known as Holy Island located in Northumberland - England. I spent a few days there a about twelve years ago and picked up this stone when walking with a special friend, Geoff Porter who was giving me a tour of the island.  While walking on the rocky shore near the Lindisfarne Castle, Geoff and I discussed communing with the saints (particularly St Cuthbert) and receiving messages and signs. During that conversation I slipped and nearly fell.  As I gained my balance I picked up this stone.  It had a perfect cross etched across the surface. Geoff and I marveled at that for a few minutes. It was one of those moments when words weren't necessary and time seemed to freeze.  I've always had the Lindisfarne stone near my work desk since.

The stone to the farthest right is from a lake on the Hill of Uisneach in Ireland.  The geographic center of Ireland is said to be on this hill.  It is a very thin place.  A long oral tradition tells that the Hill of Uisneach is sacred. It has special energy, and is a place where many lines of energy meet. I'd heard there was enchanted lake on the hill, and when I traveled there three years ago, I spent hours ... just taking in the landscape, which was magnificent.  I found several lakes (more like ponds really), and at the largest lake I scooped up this stone from the mucky lake shore. I imagined how long it had been there hiding in mud at the shore of a  possibly enchanted lake on the Hill of Uisneach.  I wondered what memories it held.  This stone looks remarkably like a bunny... but upon closer examination, it looks like it was once used as some kind of working implement - hammer or grinding stone. A human thumb fits perfectly in the cleft (between the bunny ears and bunny back).

Every day when I look out my windows past my sacred stones, I can't help but feel their energy and memories.  Sometimes I pick up a stone and imagine I'm transported back to the thin place where I collected it.  These contemplative moments do transcend time and space.  I gather strength in holding the stones and remembering.  Sometimes I wonder if there isn't some kind of mystical connection between the stone and its prior home in that thin place. 

I also have a fifty pound stone I heisted from the Rock of Cashel.  It sits near the pond in our front garden.  How did I transport it home?  That's another story .... another post.

Below are photos of the thin places where I gathered the stones in my window.

Prince Edward Island - North Rustico.

Lake Pend Oreille in Idaho.  This photo was taken from our campsite at sunset. The stone was found just at the shore in front of where we were camping. 

Lindisfarne Castle

The lake on the Hill of Uisneach.

Six Perfect Days in Ireland - an trip of celebration

My husband and I were married on September 18th in 1999. Shortly after our wedding, we took a three week trip touring Scotland, Wales, and England with the final 10 days in Ireland. For our ten year anniversary we decided to take a short trip to the country we love so much - Ireland - and to find the perfect place, the perfect thin place, to renew our vows.

Ireland holds a specific charm for us, but we seldom find ourselves where most of the tourists go. Many visitors enthusiastically pace themselves for visits to pubs, breweries, the Waterford factory, the occasional museum, a furious jaunt around the Ring of Kerry, kissing the Blarney Stone, and endless shopping. But we prefer the thin places, those places where the eternal world and the present world seem to mix, often hidden behind the tourists' landscape. Usually marked by some kind of stone or ruin, thin places have been thin forever, and for centuries have drawn the human spirit to rest in their benediction and unfold in their comfortable, nonjudgmental presence.

Of the sites we chose to visit this trip ... some were old familiar friends like the Burren, and others were new to us, with enchanting surprises, always welcoming. But the visit isn't the draw for us. While the sites are interesting and in many cases relaxing due to the unparalleled beauty of the Irish landscape, it's how we are changed by the visit that continues to draw us. Thin places do that. They facilitate a change within, sometimes subtle, sometimes not.

It is the travel and the visit to the thin place that evokes the change, especially when one travels as a pilgrim, that is - travels within the context of a story. A pilgrim learns the story of the destination and also carries his or her own story. The pilgrim travels humbly with full consciousness of personal vulnerabilities, whatever weighs heavy on the heart. For in thin places, one gains comfort, and sometimes answers. Creativity flows, friendships deepen, faith is strengthened. Thin places are the perfect garden where the gifts of the spirit thrive and are cultivated.

Dingle, Glendalough, Clonmacnoise, Clonfert, Castleruddery Stone Circle, Luggala, Thoor Ballylee, Coole Park and Kildare were all stops on this trip, as were visits with new friends and remembrances of old friends. On day five we experienced the warm welcome of Maya Hanley, someone I'd met via Twitter and Facebook. Prior to meeting her I felt I had known her for years from her social media entries... a great writer, Maya. She introduced us to Guinness heir, Garech Browne and Chieftain's musician, Paddy Moloney. On day two we spent the day in literary thin places. Day four was to be a non-thin place day. Dan had never seen Dublin City with Trinity College and the National Museum. But when it came to carving out the time for it he said, "Let's just do what we always do." And we did. We went instead to Glendalough, the ancient monastic city. And each day thereafter we were led to and discovered new places - new thin places. We became images in the most sacred landscape, and found each other again and again.

When we left for Ireland, I had no official plans for our renewal of vows. I figured it would all work itself out ... and it did - perfectly, on day three. To prepare I printed out three copies of our 1999 wedding service, packed a bag with some clothes, maps and several guide books and headed off to Philadelphia Airport for a 9:30pm flight across the Atlantic. We arrived at Shannon Airport early Wednesday morning... and began day one of our six perfect days in Ireland.

Skibbereen - Remembering the Great Hunger

Famine graves ~ Skibbereen, West Cork

The town of Skibbereen in West Cork was at the center of the horrors of the Great Famine that ravaged Ireland between 1845 and 1850. Over one million Irish natives died of starvation or starvation related diseases. Sadly ... many believe the deaths were unnecessary because the ruling Aglo-Irish were shipping grain and food out of the country for profit while the lower class Irish starved. Some benevolent land owners tried to help their starving Irish tenants, but not enough to stave off the blanket of death that covered the hungry land when the potato crop failed.

Today, May 17, 2009, victims of the Great Famine were remembered at a ceremony in Skibbereen marking the first National Famine Memorial Day. Children from seven local schools lit candles in memory of the victims of the Famine and planted a Rowan tree.

Skibbereen was one of the worst affected areas of Ireland during the Famine, with 28,000 dead and a further 8,000 lost to emigration. It was on the grounds of a Franciscan Priory (referred to as "the abbey") in Skibbereen that between 8000 and 10,000 coffinless bodies were piled into mass graves. The sick were dying too fast to get coffins made, and sparse numbers of healthy people made proper burials impossible. The dying were burying the dead.

The Skibbereen town website tells of some Irish that succumbed to consequences of the needless famine.

On 24th October, 1846 Denis McKennedy dropped dead while working on the Caheragh road. At the Inquest, held at the Abbey graveyard, it was proved that, for the week in question, Mrs McKennedy, for her family of 5, had only 21lbs of potatoes (given by a neighbour), 2 pints of flour and one cabbage. Deceased's wages were 8d. per day, and same were in arrear for two weeks, owing to an official error. The Jury found that deceased died of starvation, owing to the gross negligence of the Board of Works, and, unfortunately, this was not the only case of its kind in the Skibbereen district...

... People crawled into Skibbereen from the country, in the hope of finding some food, and died there. The Workhouse became overcrowded, and though built to hold only 800 people, eventually it had 1449 inmates, and then had to be closed against any more. The mortality there was frightful, 140 having died in December 1846 and, early in 1847 (which was worse year for deaths), there were as many as 65 deaths in one week.

Today, the mass graves and surrounding cemetery and abbey grounds have been transformed into a living memorial for the victims of the Great Famine.

The visitor entering the gateway going into to the Skibbereen Famine cemetery first enters a kind of covered vestibule with the following word carved into the walls:

Ireland’s worse single disaster – the Great Famine 1845-1850
Resulted in the deaths of over a million of its people
With more than another million consigned to the immigrant ships.
Skibbereen at the the centerof the horror suffered more than other places and here
In the famine burial pits of this cemetery were placed the coffinless remains of 9000 victims… a chilling reminder of man’s inhumanity to man. Happier were the victims of the sword than the victims of hunger who pined away , stricken by want of the fruits of the field.

The visitor leaves that area and walks into the open cemetery where he or she is met by four standing stones engraved with the following words:

Stone 1
A million a decade of human wrecks
Corpses lying in fever sheds
Corpses huddled on foundering decks
And shroudless dead on their rocky beds
Nerve and muscle and heart and brain
Lost to Ireland. Lost in vain.

Stone 2
Pause and you can almost hear the sound echo down the ages.
The creak of the burial cart
The rattle of the hinged coffin door
The sigh of spade on earth
Now and again
All day long

Stone 3
Here in humiliation and sorrow not unmixed with indignation
One is driven to exclaim, “O God, that bread should be so dear and human flesh so cheap."

Stone 4
1845 – 1850 To the nameless dead victims of famine and fever who lie here in the abbey and in other cemeteries in wayside graves.

Just behind these stones is an expansive, lumpy grass-covered knoll ~ the mass graves of the famine victims. A small white stone rests at the edge carved with the following:

THE FAMINE 1845-48

It's overwhelming to walk the cemetery grounds and try to grasp the magnitude of 10,000 individuals ... all dead ... all discarded here, abandoned by the government that should have cared for them ... with no names, no ritual, no loving tributes. The place is heavy with sorrow, yet is a testimony to the Irish capacity to weave tender art into miserable recollections. Here tihe artistic interpretation is to remember, lest we repeat the horrible action.

The ruins of the old abbey are in the center of the cemetery, which is on an incline. They are moss and ivy covered and barely discernible. At first, the famine dead were buried in unmarked graves beside the abbey. Lumpy, grass covered areas flank the ruins, some marked by a rock or makeshift nameless marker. The juxtaposition of these unmarked graves with those that have ornate headstones and carved crosses reveal the disparity in means of those who mourned. But there is a strange sense of equality among the dead.

Across the street from the cemetery is the Skibbereen Heritage Center housed in a restored old gasworks building. There are state-of-the-art interpretive displays and multi-media presentations that give a close view of the Great Famine and how it effected Skibbereen particularly. There is also a Famine Trail that begins at the town square and passes by many of the same buildings that were in use at the time of the Famine.

When I visited Skibbereen in February 2007, I spent about an hour in the Heritage Center and then another hour in the cemetery with constant reflection on the human tragedies and unnecessary sufferings and deaths of these Irish people. This was my fifth day in Ireland, and I had already covered over 900 miles in my rental car.

My next stop was to be Drombeg Stone Circle. My mind was still racing with thoughts of death and the Famine when I exited the car park. I unthinkingly pulled my car into the "right" lane (as we do in America), and began driving down the motorway in a lane meant for on-coming traffic. I had never had this type of "directional memory lapse" in all my years (and thousands of miles) driving in Ireland and the UK.

A car came around the bend and met me head-on. It stopped quickly as I did. We did not collide, but I will never forget his face and the look of shock on it.

The driver just waited there holding back the traffic behind him. He waited for me to get my composure and right myself. After a moment I pulled into the proper lane, gave a nod of anguished thanks that driver, and proceeded out of town.

Strange happening, that.

Apart from the austerity of the Great Famine memories, Skibbereen (Irish for "little boat harbor") is large, bustling town with a small town feel. It has many attractions that include beaches, woodlands, lakes, sports recreation, shopping and dining. The Skibbereen town Website has more information.

Thoor Ballylee - Yeats' Thin Place

There was no part of Ireland I did not travel, from the rivers to the tops of the mountains. I saw no beauty what was behind hers ~ W.B. Yeats
My ImageThoor Ballylee
Castle Restored by William Butler Yeats

In County Galway near the town of Gort, lies a 16th century Norman castle with a small cottage attached. The Irish Literary Revival began near this castle - in Coole Park, an estate owned by Lady Gregory where she hosted the likes of George Bernard Shaw, W. B. Yeats and J. M. Synge. It was a haven - a place of retreat for William Butler Yeats.

Yeats was aging - nearly 50 - when he opined to his dear friend Lady Gregory that he wanted to settle down; to have a home - a family. For years his heart belonged to Maude Gonne, but his love was unrequited. He was alone. Lady Gregory discovered an old castle with attached cottage for sale near Coole Park. In 1917 Yeats purchased it for 35 pounds, and left for France to propose to Maude Gonne one last time. She refused. Shortly after, he traveled to England where he met and married Georgina Hyde-Lees. No longer single, Yeats labored to restore the old Castle for his new bride "George."

In naming the property Yeats dropped the term "castle" and replaced it with "Thoor" - the Irish word for tower, and the place became known as Thoor Ballylee. Yeats and his wife and their children enjoyed this country retreat, and used it as their summer home for 12 years. He is quoted in a letter to friend regarding Thoor Ballylee "everything is so beautiful that to go elsewhere is to leave beauty behind."

And what a fair setting, on the banks of the River Cloon snaking through a landscape shaded with large trees and flowering shrubs. The traveler entering the property from the main road turns onto a winding lane that connects to an old stone bridge just before the tower. The lane continues past the cottage, through the trees, and becomes a river walk that eventually leads to an old mill. The seclusion, even today, wraps the estate in a presence that shuns the outside world, carving out a protected niche where good things - love, peace and creativity - can flourish. It's no wonder a poet was compelled to create here. It was at Thoor Ballylee that Yeats wrote "The Tower" poem collection.

An Ancient Bridge, and a more ancient tower,
A farm-house that is sheltered by its wall,
An acre of stony ground,
Where the symbolic rose can break in flower,
Old ragged elms, old thorns innumerable,
The sound of the rain or sound
Of every wind that blows,
The stilted water-hen
That plunged in stream again
Scarred by the splashing of a hundred cows.

From the battlements atop the tower one gets a panoramic view of the grounds, the river, the trees and the cleared area where the bones of an old garden lay in wait to be resurrected. Further out in the distance lay the soft hills and plains of the Galway landscape.

On the first floor of the tower a steep spiral staircase hewn from stone, winds to the upper floors.

I declare this tower is my symbol; I declare
This winding, gyring, spiring treadmill of a stair is my ancestral stair;

Time spirals like the winding stair at Thoor Ballylee. The turning of years is noted by symbols marking each era.... Like the old castle - once home to Irish warriors, sleeping in ruins behind weeds and underbrush, crumbling and forgotten. Centuries later a poet resurrects the castle. He makes it his home, his fortress, his writing place. He makes the castle live again, like the symbolic rose that broke in flower despite the stony ground. As the poet thrives in his restored castle, he senses the turning of time - both past and future.

The poet looks to his ancestors, to those that laid stone upon stone erecting the tower and cottage on this particular tract of land. And he writes of his reflections.

He looks forward and in his mind forecasts his graceful tower falling into ruin after he and his family are long gone. He yearns to be remembered... to be known as the poet, as the restorer of Thoor Ballylee, as someone with a significant spot in the legacy of this place.

As part of the restoration, Yeats had a slate slab carved with a short verse. The slate was embedded into the tower wall under his direction. All who pass can read the words and trace the letters with their fingers ...

I, the poet William Yeats,
With old mill boards and sea-green slates,
And smithy work from the Gort forge,
Restored this tower for my wife George;
And may these characters remain
When all is ruin once again.

I traced those letters one February as I stood in the rain by the deserted tower. Empty as it was, the old place still breathed and the surrounding landscape echoed the life force that was Thoor Ballylee. I recalled a passage Mark Twain wrote about the Victorian mansion he built for his family in Connecticut ... "Our house was not insentient matter -- it had a heart, and a soul, and eyes to see us with ... it was of us, and we were in the peace of its benediction. We never came home from an absence that its face did not light up and speak out its eloquent welcome -- and we could not enter it unmoved. "

The sketch above is a work by Lady Gregory, Yeats' dear friend. It is her interpretation of Thoor Ballylee. The shadowy phantom dolmen in the sky hints at the mystical charism of the place.

I concur. It's a thin place.

There in the February damp I assumed my place in the time spiral - looking back at Yeats, at those who came before him. I feel the presence of Lady Gregory, the writers, the poets and masses who passed here over the centuries. Now I'm a part of that collection - ascending ancestral winding stair.

And what of the future? Perhaps Thoor Ballylee will crumble into ruins again. And perhaps some artist, poet, or warrior of the time will collect the fallen remnants and craft them into a grand home and protective shelter that nurtures creativity and repels the white noise of outside world. He or she will assume a position on the winding stair and continue the legacy of Thoor Ballylee. And time will keep circling. And we, who have been here will be with them.

Benighted travellers
From markets and from fairs
Have seen his midnight candle glimmering.
The river rises and sinks again;
One hears the rumble of far below
Under its rocky hole.
What Median, Persian, Babylonian
In reverie, or in vision, saw
Symbols of the soul

verses from The Tower by W. B. Yeats.

10 Tips for Travel to Ireland

Ten Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Ireland Vacation

1. RENT A CAR IF POSSIBLE: Many first-time American visitors will use a tour bus for the land portion of their trip because they are fearful of driving in a foreign country, on the wrong side of the road on the wrong side of the car. If you are a good driver, you will be able to handle driving in Ireland. If you're a little nervous, rent a car with an automatic transmission. It costs more, but shifting is one less thing to think about while driving.

That said, a group tour traveling by tour bus can be a wonderful experience. But if you choose to go with a group choose one that will offer some level of flexibility and will visit some of the "hidden Ireland."

The flexibility of having your own car is twice or three times the value of being dependent on a second party. Also, it's often cheaper to make your car rental reservations on line when you book your airfare. I use Orbitz and Travel Zoo. You can specify the size of the car, insurance choices and standard vs. automatic, and it will be ready for you when you arrive at the airport.

2. GET A GOOD ROAD MAP OR TWO: - I always use two different maps - one that has more details in ROADS, and one that has more details with SITE MARKINGS. Roads in Ireland, especially off the beaten path can be confusing. A detailed road map (I use Michelin - can be purchased at Barnes and Noble)will be beneficial for keeping you on your course and excellent if you happen to get lost (you will get lost). Choose a second one that marks many sites of interest, such as "Ballintober Abbey" in Mayo or "the Hill of Slane" in Meath. Then you can see where your destination lies in relation to crossroads and you can see what you are traveling past that you may not want to miss. (Actually, the map published by the Irish Tourist Board, usually given free at the Airport is very good for site markings.)

3. HAVE THREE GOOD GUIDEBOOKS: Guidebooks are written from different perspectives and not all are equal. Most focus on accommodations, attractions and dining. Some will have more details than others. Many are out of date because things change so quickly in Ireland, and it's too expensive to publish a guidebook every year. I have recommended 3 guidebooks that I use to get a comprehensive and up-to-date view of Ireland, but search around and pick three that you like. Look for up-to-date information, comprehensive coverage of sites, and a specialty guidebook suited for your interests (nature, history, golf, literary, pubs, etc).

You can read about these 3 books in greater detail in my Top 3 Ireland Guidebooks post.
  • Ireland 2009, by Rick Steves has the most up-to-date information. Rick Steves is the number 1 selling guidebook author in America and he updates his guidebooks every year - so admission prices, accommodation costs, and local information is the most accurate you can get. Rick was a history major and it shows in his writings. He adds interesting historical tidbits. His section on Ireland Past and Present gives a concise view of Ireland's evolving history - a perfect primer for the traveler.
  • The Ireland Country Guide, by Lonely Planet has the most comprehensive list of sites, attractions and accommodations, as well as tons of photographs and historic background. I love the "voice" of this guide - very casual, very personal. This is the best comprehensive guide I've found for planning and I carry it my car when traveling in Ireland.
  • The Traveler's Guide to Sacred Ireland, by Cary Meehan is my favorite guidebook because my particular interest in Ireland is the country's heritage, culture and links to Celtic Spirituality. Meehan lists hundreds of sites across Ireland that are sacred or mystical or tied to legend offering historical information, location, directions. In her own unobtrusive, humble way she reveals some of the mystical aura of each site. Every guidebook will have Newgrange, Hill of Tara, Drombeg Stone Circle, and the beehive huts in Dingle. But Meehan's book contains ancient sacred sites never listed in the major guidebooks, and it's laid out geographically so you can pick it up at any time during your travels and see what's near. NOTE: This is my guidebook pick for my particular interest. If your interest is pubs, genealogy, castles, horses, golf, whatever - get a guidebook specifically suited to your interest
GUIDEBOOK COST: A guide book costs about $20. Consider this an investment in your trip. If you're spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on a vacation, money you spend on guidebooks will deliver 10 times that amount in travel experience.

4. PLAN, PLAN, PLAN: Planning before you leave home will make the difference between your being a tourist with limited experiences, or a savvy traveler - or better yet, being a pilgrim. (Pilgrim definition - A "pilgrim" is someone who travels within the context of a story - kind of a "theme traveler" - more on this in another post). Use your maps and guidebooks and make a list of sites that interest you well in advance. Then map out your course (read steps 5 and 6 before mapping out). Reserve your accommodations in advance (most will reserve via the Internet). Check with a travel agent to assist you with possible special deals concerning airfare, hotel, b&b and admission to attractions.

5. STICK TO ONE REGION (OR TWO): Because Ireland is small country (about the size of West Virginia) visitors often cram too much into one visit trying to navigate the entire country. If your trip is one - two weeks long, try to see more sites in less miles of travel. Your experience will be richer as you will be less tired and will have more time to hook into the Irish culture. Don't rush. The typical Ireland tour has 40-50 visitors on a large tour bus traveling for 10 days seeing Dublin (Trinity College), Blarney Castle, Ring of Kerry, Cliffs of Moher, Newgrange, Bunratty Castle, Waterford Factory, Guinness Brewery, W.B. Yeats' grave, and maybe (if you're lucky) Glendaolough or the Giant's Causeway - with various pubs along the way.

All of these are very worthy sites to visit - but if these sites are crammed into one ten-day tour, you'll pass by much of Ireland. You'll also experience less of the local culture.
  • Dublin and the East: If you love history, architecture and culture, then visit Dublin with Trinity College, the Irish History Museum, the restaurants, theater and shopping. Also in this region is the Hill of Tara, Newgrange passage tombs, and the Boine valley. The Wicklow mountains are near with the ancient monastic city of Glendalough. Kildare is a close ride and is famous for the thoroughbred horses, the curragh, the Japanese Gardens, and the holy wells and monastic sites of St. Brigid.
  • The West: If you love a wild landscape relatively untouched by development with archaeological wonders - visit the West. The Burren with the ancient Poulnabrone dolmen, the hills and bogs of Connemara - some of the rarest "light" in Ireland, Galway, Westport, the Literary paths of W. B. Yeats and Lady Gregory, the Aran Islands, the sheer cliffs of Achill Island, the Shrine of Our Lady of Knock, and pubs full of traditional Irish music.
  • The South has beautiful coastlines, castles, formal gardens, and the second largest city- Cork, as well as Cobh famous for its port, Wexford the medieval city, and Kinsale which is becoming known for gourmet restaurants. The south is famous for its beautiful, scenic fingers - The Beara Peninsula, The Dingle Peninsula and the Iveragh Peninsula (Ring of Kerry) landscapes that rival any in Western Europe for beauty.
  • The North has the hills of Donegal (one could spend a week here and never run out of things to see) and the wonderful counties of Northern Ireland - Fermanagh with its scenic lakes and megalithic monuments, Belfast - a historic, vibrant city, Derry - the only completely walled city in Western Europe, the Glens of Antrim, the Giant's Causeway, the oldest continually operational distillery in the world - Bushmills, and the home of St. Patrick - Armagh.

6. STAY AT LEAST TWO NIGHTS IN A LOCATION: There's nothing that tires a traveler more than schlepping their gear in and out of the car and hotel room, checking in and checking out. When you plan your trip, pick "hubs" where you will stay for a few days, then make day trips from there spanning out like the spokes of a wheel. You can travel 40 to 50 miles in an hour which covers a lot of territory in Ireland. Staying in one place also helps you get to know the people of that locale, especially if you're staying in a B&B thus getting maximum exposure to Irish hospitality - one of the country's greatest tourist assets.

  • Choose your "hubs" or central locations, then decide if you want to stay at a B&B or Hotel. B&Bs are pretty modern these days, offering private bathrooms (en suite) and televisions. Some even have phones for guests, dinners upon request, family rooms, and high speed Internet access. The benefit to a B&B is expense (they run cheaper than hotels) and the friendship guests gain with the host family. You experience hospitality up-close and personal. Hotels and Country houses are another option.
  • Once you've identified your "hubs" choose accommodations and make reservations before you leave. The Irish Tourist Board has good listings for B&Bs, hotels, country houses, hostels, camping sites and self catering on its website. They will also send you free booklets that have comprehensive lists of these types of accommodations.

7. PUB FOOD VS. RESTAURANT: Most pubs serve food, so consider them for lunch and dinner. If you're entering a restaurant, take notice whether or not there is a pub attached to it. In many cases the pub offers the same food at a cheaper price. At a pub you can usually pick a table and sit away from the bar (if you want privacy and don't want conversation). I always go right up to the bar and sit down. I ask if they serve food (the answer is almost always yes), then I order and eat at the bar. Invariably someone will speak to me / us. The visit is much more pleasant, and I spend less money for the meal.

8. RENT A CELL PHONE IN IRELAND: On my last trip to Ireland I used my personal cell phone, stayed 10 days and my cell phone bill was $358. I did speak to my husband each day for a few minutes, but we paid overseas long distance charges at both ends. Additionally I made many calls in Ireland - phoning the B&Bs, calling ahead to attractions to check hours, calling to local tourism offices to find out where the nearest Wi-Fi cafes were. I discovered later that you can rent a phone and pay by minutes of use and it's much cheaper. In most cases you can find a vendor near the airport.

9. USE THE ATM (CASH POINT) TO GET EUROS: Exchange rates vary and if you're wanting to get your Euros before you leave home - don't. It costs you to use those exchange stations. Once you're at the airport ask where the nearest "cash point" machine is. You insert your VISA or VISA Debit Card and withdraw however much you want. Only take as much as you need for a few days, as these machines are in every City. The exchange rate is lowest this way and you don't have to worry about carrying lots of cash to get you through the vacation. Check with local bank before you leave to see if they impose an additional fee for these withdrawals.

10. VISIT THE ROCK OF CASHEL: Every person should visit the Rock of Cashel at least once in his or her life. To me, this is the most amazing site in Ireland with the most rich history - both legendary and mystical. The rock itself is geographic wonder. The fact that civilizations living in the Golden Vale of County Tipperary have held it sacred for centuries and marked it with various monuments is also a wonder. This was where the Kings of Munster ruled - including Brian Boru, the High King of Ireland. Ruins of Cathedral are atop the Rock today. I visit Cashel every time I go to Ireland. It is a thin place.

Check out our Thin Places Mystical Tour of Ireland this September.

For more information on Ireland and sites to visit, please scan the other posts on this blog. Additionally, you may want to visit these links:

Thin Places - Photographs of thin places in Ireland and UK
Discover Ireland - Irish Tourist Board site
Browse Ireland
Fishing in Ireland
Irish Literature, Mythology, Folklore and Drama
Irish Weather
Bernd Biege's - Travel Ireland

When God is Silent

When God is silent, move to a thin place.

When prayer is stale and seems rote and weak, uncharged with that cosmic-mystical quality that is beyond our power to bring forth ... what's a soul to do?

Not too long ago, I found myself stuck with the "silence." It was frightening. But I found a way to hear the voice again.

This way does not mirror the typical ways taught in catechism training or Sunday school. I couldn't break the silence by going to Mass, reading scripture, taking long nature walks, sitting silent by the ocean, praying with other people, or practicing devotions (novenas). None of these brought back that communion with the Divine Presence I had known all my life; that same communion that was always accessible and allowed me to hear the voice, the message, the "touch" from the Other side; that communion that I could not create or summon - but had always been there.

Coming from a large Catholic family, with icons in every room and statues on bureaus, shelves and window sills complimented by 12 years of Catholic school - God was ever present in my life ... God was a way of life. The concept of a silent God was foreign to me.

Actually, for most of my life - God was loud!

God was in every place, in every human, in music, in poetry, in art, in pain, in joy, in the past, in the present. God waited to be spoken to, prayed to, worshiped. And we his (or her) faithful followers did what we were told - according to what was written in the Gospels. God's voice told us what to do. "Love your God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself."

Then, unexpectedly, God went silent.

The Gospels never said what to do when you stopped feeling the presence .. or hearing the voice. When art, people, nature and music no longer moved you deeper into the Divine Presence, how do you find him again?

Move to a thin place.

A thin place is a place on earth where the veil between this physical world we experience with our five senses and the eternal world is "thin." The eternal world is more near.These thin places are not made thin by you or me - or anyone else. They are inherently thin, which is a mystery. There is a cosmic, mystical quality to the place itself that transcends the senses. The physical world and the Otherworld (the world of Divine Presence) are knitted together.

Ireland is full of these thin places. They have been marked for centuries by inhabitants of many faiths and religious practices. Their "thinness" is unexplainable, but if you are lucky enough to visit one of these many sites or find one close to home - and on your journey to the thin place you carry your hunger, yearnings and questions to God in hopes of an encounter- you will be changed.

I can always hear His voice in a thin place.

Though I cannot visit Ireland easily as I live 3000 away, I can always visit in my mind. I visualize the spot, and imagine the feel of the ground, the sound of the wind, the reflection of the sunlight - or moonlight, the ripples on the water, or the smell of the bog. I try in my imagination to use all five senses - then I wait in stillness. The human spirit can transcend the boundaries of the body. Imagination is the vehicle.

God's silence is broken. He always speaks to me in thin places.

Music is Transportation into the Divine

St. Cecilia by John Melhuish Strudwick (1849-1935)
Music is transportation into the Divine Presence.

Trying to move into a state of deep prayer can be daunting for an obsessive compulsive adult like me with Attention Deficit Disorder. I try to pray, but as I begin my prayer I'm often distracted by what I have to do in 30 minutes.

I pray for my son, then think... "Doesn't he have a doctor's appointment next week? I better call him." or I pray for my sick relative and then remember that his daughter's birthday is coming up and I should send a card.

Staying focused in prayer long enough to feel it change me is difficult. Not getting focused results in vapid prayer that seems rote and stale.

What's the cure for getting and staying focused? How does one move from distraction to devotion?

Music is the vehicle.... use it to transport you to a level that goes deeper than the distractions. It will deliver you through the doorway that opens into the Otherworld.

Not all music is created equal. I find clear melodies played with smooth instruments - piano, flute, harp, classical guitar are the best. Just listening in silence moves me directly into the Divine Presence.

My favorites are listed below.  If you click on the link you will be taken to a web page where you can sample the melody online.

Gabriel's Oboe by Ennio Morricone
The Water is Wide by Phil Coulter
Land of Forever by 2002
Song from a Secret Garden by Secret Garden
Celtic Mediation Music by Aine Minogue

"Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and life to everything."

"God is the Supreme Musician. It is He who is playing with us, on us and in us. We cannot separate God from His music. The universal Consciousness is constantly being played by the Supreme Himself, and is constantly growing into the Supreme Music."
~Sri Chimnoy

"The finest emotion of which we are capable is the mystic emotion. Herein lies the germ of all art and all true science. Anyone to whom this feeling is alien, who is no longer capable of wonderment and lives in a state of fear is a dead man"
~Albert Einstein

Kildare and St. Brigid of Ireland

Legend tells us that St Brigid was born near Kildare to a slave mother who was a Christian and very sickly. As a child, Brigid persuaded the Druid master to free her mother which in turn freed Brigid to enter religious life.

Since there were no convents in Ireland, Brigid began one in Kildare. The sisters of St. Brigid prayed simply and deeply and served the poor. We know that Brigid was a contemporary of St. Patrick and a strong legend states that she was ordained a bishop because of her superior knowledge and closeness to God.

Brigid is now one of Ireland's patron saints, and is often linked in patronage to farmers and poor pastoral workers. On the place where she founded her first convent in Kildare stands the Kildare Cathedral - now Church of Ireland. Nearby is St. Brigid's Holy Well.

"A holy well is very special. To watch water springing from the earth is to witness creation in the act of pure, unconditional generosity. At a holy well, my own interior holy well has an opportunity to make itself known to me." - Gay Barbizon, Brigid's Kildare; The Fire, the Well and the Oak.

Pictured here is St. Brigid's Holy Well in Kildare. It is a public space with marked stations. At each station the pilgrim recites particular devotional prayers to St. Brigid.

This is a very Thin Place.