Grave Marker at Ardmore Winning Entry in Ireland Photos by You Contest

Ardmore - First Christian Settlement in Ireland

Photo by Martha McCartney - Grave Marker, Ardmore Cemetery

The photograph above placed first in popular vote in the Ireland Photos by You! contest.  59 photographs were entered and over 300 people voted by LIKING their favorite photos on Thin Places Mystical Tour of Ireland Facebook page.

This winning photograph depicts a grave marker in the Ardmore Church Cemetery in County Waterford.  It was taken by Martha McCartney.  I asked Martha to share some personal thoughts about the photograph and what her experience was when she took it.

Going to Ireland had been a dream of my father’s that was not realized. Our family has roots deep in Celtic history and my ancestors traveled from Scotland to Ireland before making the trek across the Atlantic in time for the Revolutionary War.

When I explained to my father that I wanted to make the trip and especially wanted to search for grave sites, he was excited but had only one request, this was for a “wee drop of the Irish Whiskey “ which was provided to him upon my return to the West Virginia hills that he called home.

The first place that I searched for ancestral graves was the cemetery at Ardmore. Perched high on a hill overlooking a sweeping view of the Atlantic, it is instilled with a sense of maritime tragedy being filled with the graves of sea captains and mourning widows. This site seeped into my heart and although I visited many other spots in Ireland where I felt a connection, none were as intensely peaceful and calming as Ardmore.

To be able to look from grave to the sea is remarkable, the round tower standing guard over the ancient temple ruins and the amazing statuary seem to make the senses more intact, the colors and scents more vivid, the boundary between antiquity and present seem to melt away making it a truly thin place and the feeling of spirituality is palpable.
Martha lives in the Pacific Northwest and is a photographer, poet and artist.  You can view more of her work at Lillie Savage.

A little more about Ardmore ....

Ardmore is believed to be the first Christian settlement in Ireland, founded by St. Declan - a Welshman who emigrated from Wales to this spot in County Waterford sometime between 350 AD and 420 AD.  This means Declan's settlement would have predated St. Patrick's return to Ireland as a Priest and Bishop.

Ardmore has four unique thin places wrapped into one beautiful setting on the Atlantic Ocean.

The BEACH  The beach or strand is stunning and one of the finest beaches in all of Ireland.  On the shoreline is St. Declan's rock (seen in slideshow below) which is believed to have carried his vestments and bell across the ocean.  Many believe this boulder still carries healing powers.  It has sat in the same spot for centuries, according to the locals.

St. Declan's Holy Well - The south road out of Ardmore town ascends up to St. Declan's Holy Well.  The remains of a hermitage still stand - Temple Dysert - and within the remains is a holy well where the pilgrim can extract or drink water believed to have healing powers.

Slide show of Cobh and Ardmore - Thin Places Tour 2011                            

The Cliff Walk - As the visitor continues up the hill past the Holy Well, the road opens up into a wide mesa-like space with spectacular views of the sea.  The Ardmore Cliff Walk is not to be missed. The sweeping views of the Atlantic, the cliffs, the waterfowl and Ardmore town are breathtaking.

The Monastic Settlement - As the settlement and cemetery come into view, St. Declan's Church with its 9th century carvings and roundtower, overtake the senses.  What must it have been like to come upon this spot when the settlement was thriving?  Today's parallel experience might be a popular city skyline like San Francisco or New York.  The familiar landmarks would remind ship captains that sailed up the Atlantic - "There's Ardmore."  It still has that same stunning sense of place that almost cries out from the landscape.

The monastic area has many graves - in fact, almost every square inch of ground space is marked for a person that sleeps below.  Some grave markers are elaborate like the one in Martha's photograph above.  Many are mere rocks or pieces of slate set as a meager reminder of what the departed's family could afford.  But elaborate or meager, the dotted hallowed ground claims its place in the Ardmore memory. .. and gives the visitor a sense of not walking alone.

Thin Places - Eric Weiner Opens a New Understanding

Iona Abbey - Scotland
I love that Eric Weiner, author of The Geography of Bliss wrote an article on Thin Places.  The niche is so narrow and Eric's high profile and the New York Time's wide distribution has opened up the subject of thin places to a wider audience.  To date most people who write about thin places are academics or clergy.  Eric revealed the concept to the traveling world - to ordinary people.

So what are thin places?  

My one sentence definition has always been "places where the veil between this world and the Otherworld is thin."

I wrote my answer to that question in an article published back in 2001. Over the past eleven years ago since I wrote that article,  Walking Through Thin Places has been translated into many languages and republished in hundreds of journals, magazines, e-zine, documents, sermons and websites.  This one paragraph from the article shows up in my Google alerts at least three times a week, meaning that it appears on some new web page Google has indexed.  Does that mean I'm an authority? No. It means not a lot of people were writing about thin places.  I'm happy that Eric has jumped into the game and elevated the visibility.

Thin Places are ports in the storm of life, where the pilgrims can move closer to the God they seek, where one leaves that which is familiar and journeys into the Divine Presence. They are stopping places where men and women are given pause to wonder about what lies beyond the mundane rituals, the grief, trials and boredom of our day-to-day life. They probe to the core of the human heart and open the pathway that leads to satisfying the familiar hungers and yearnings common to all people on earth, the hunger to be connected, to be a part of something greater, to be loved, to find peace.
Labbacallee Wedge Tomb - aka The Hags Bed, Co. Cork

Eric Weiner weighs the concept of two co-existing worlds - a physical world and an eternal world, in his article Where Heaven and Earth Come Closer.  He describes thin places.  He states "They are locales where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine, or the transcendent or, as I like to think of it, the Infinite Whatever."

I love the article because Eric is speaking for the common person.  The one who goes into a place and somehow is transformed for having gone there.  The non-scholars and non-academics who sense something special about a particular place are represented in Eric's article, and he has opened up a whole new concept to the average traveler.  Hooray for Eric Weiner!

Understanding of Thin Places Goes Deeper

Eric is a travel writer known for traveling the world.  His great gift is his ability to write about travel in the context of a story.  It makes the reader feel as if he or she is right along with him.  He so casual, so conversational, so real.

But I disagree with Eric on airports and bars being thin places -  and bookstores too, "especially Powells of Portland, Ore." (nothing against Powell's). I think what he was trying to say is that these  places bring out a sense of transformation in us... that's what makes them thin.  Thin places are where we feel good.  He states that Jerusalem is not a thin place because it's now "thick with animosity and weighed under with historical grievances."

Kildavnet Cemetery, Achill Island
It almost seems as if the implication in the article is that we can create these thin places or destroy them at will by our actions.  We can build an atmosphere around the site with a cathedral or church or bar or airport or tear it down with an attitude.   But the main thrust of the article eludes to there being some ephemerality (is that word?) that meets you in certain places and Poof! You're in a thin place.

I didn't invent the concept of thin places.  People in the Celtic traditions have been talking of thin places for centuries.  The Irish language has words to describe and define thin places that we Anglos have translation for.  What I have learned from these humble people and loving teachers of Celtic spirituality is that the place itself is different. 

Thin places do not dictate the behavior of God.  God is everywhere and we don't need to be in a thin place to connect with the Divine presence.   We can feel God's presence anytime, anywhere - at church, at a bar, the airport, Powell's Books, on the beach.  We may sense God at special times of the day - twilight and dawn.  But that simply means we are spiritual people and by the grace of God we can connect at will.

Thin Places Are Inherently"thin"

The concept of a place being thin in and of itself gives religious people angst.  It doesn't fit in their doctrine. I've lost several friends who fear I've been claimed by the dark forces, and become a witch, a new age freak.  One recently said to me, "We fear we've lost you to the other side."  I've been held up to criticism on the Internet on blogs of pastors and religious leaders who negate my beliefs because they're not Bible based - therefore can't be true.

The older I get the less I care about people these people.  I miss those friends who have walked away from me until I'm "healed" or "brought back."  But I'm not walking away from what I know is the truth.

The truth is that some places are special.  I've felt it.  I've seen it. And I've been changed by it.

Kevin's Kitchen - Glendalough - Co. Wicklow

These places were special long before anyone could write about them or read about them.  Call it energy, call it thin, call it mystical.  Some places are so cloaked in the presence of the Divine that the human spirit, if allowed can sense their energy.  People are drawn to these sites,  and then drawn back to them.  They are transformed when they visit them.

 The ancients knew this.  They had a way to understand the concept of thin places.  It was an understanding uncluttered by scholarly knowledge or religious doctrine. The charism of those places was felt long ago and the sites were marked.  This is the reason there are churches, cathedrals, high crosses, stone circles, pyramids, temples and an endless stream of seekers coming to those places.

Shrine at the Well of the Wethers - Co. Kerry
 And I also disagree about thickness of Jerusalem, not because I've been there, but because sadness, grievances, and bad blood do not negate thinness.  I remember visiting Northern Ireland during the Troubles and seeing the razor wire, the militant graffiti, the soldiers stalking the streets and crouching in the alleys in Armagh and Portadown.  I was stopped coming out of Tyrone by a soldier whose machine gun was inches away from my face as he leaned through my car window.  Yet the high crosses and stone circles in the Tyrone landscape was no less sacred.  The Armagh Cathedrals did not lose their draw nor did the area surrounding the Navan fort.  These are thin places with or without the mark of hatred and grief.

Thin places are not places where God arbitrarily chooses to reveal his / her Divine presence in a more powerful way.  God does not change. Ever.

The best quote I ever heard on thin places was by Mark Patrick Hederman, Abbot of Glenstal Abbey in Limerick.  ....
On the summit of Mount Sinai, on the road to Santiago, God does not stand any closer or speak any louder.  But we listen better.

The thin place changes us.  We are transformed. That's why we keep going back and seeking out new places.

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