Pilgrimage Project: Ireland
I began these pilgrimage trips last year, with a visit to Japan. Sometime last summer I got the nudge to begin visiting places in the world where the history of animism (the belief that all facets of the earth are conscious and alive) was still thriving. It began with Japan, place of Kami and Shinto shrines, and then this fall I got to visit Ireland, a land where roads are still routed around faerie mounds and people make pilgrimages to leave gifts to ancient stones. This trip was particularly special for me because Ireland is the place of my ancestors. As a Finnegan on my mother’s side, being able to visit the places where my indigenous ancestors lived, celebrated, and worshiped was life changing in a way I could never have fully grasped… until I arrived to those green shores.
Keep reading to walk the pilgrim way with me and visit some of the most ancient sites of Ireland.
Where the Ancestors Live
The sweep of the Irish countryside lifts my heart clear into the sky.
For those of us who are the great-grand children of settlers, we often have very little of the our physical ancestors with us. If we are lucky, we might have a ring, a knife or a letter. But usually it’s just stories, the color of our hair, what we feel in our bones.
One of the things that felt important to me while visiting Ireland was to spend time at the old burial mounds. Built before the pyramids, some of these mounds have been standing over 4,000 years. They are sanctuaries of knowledge, displaying an almost mind-mending understanding of stone, hillscape and the rhythm of the sun. Old enough to pre-date the arrival of the Celts, they arose during one of the first rich times of agriculture in Ireland. They arose, and then they stood. For millennia.
Though guides and area experts can speak much about their construction and their different alignments with the sun very little is known about how they were used, and why they were built. We do know that, once began, their construction likely wouldn’t have been finished in a single lifetime. That they were epicenters for cultural activity, ringed by ceremonial stone circles and wooden henges. And we know, in the great basins held within, that there were cremated ancestors and fragments of bone. Many of the mounds were actively used for thousands of years. But by the time of written history, they had simply become faery hills and forts. This, and only this, we know. Everything else must be felt.
Over the days that I dedicated to visiting these mounds, the feeling I got was the same every time. I climbed into the heart of the passage. I sat in the dark, I reached out to the carved lintels and I touched, not stone, but warm bone. Following in the footsteps of thousands of years of pilgrims, I was being given the chance to touch the ancestors. And it warmed a center of me that I hadn’t felt before.
In the small sliver of light that bends around the entrance stone to reach the inner chamber you can see them, the generous ones, as if they are smiling at you by emberlight. And if you linger long enough they will give you a spark. An heirloom to take home with you that can never be lost.
One day I’ll look back and remember this as the time I got to sit inside a burial mound with nothing but the wind and the shadows and the wet stone. The gate was locked, the two spare keys lent and gone. But when I got to the top of the hill there was an old crone with a key to the paddock, simply sitting in the misty rain. She grew up in these hills and she knew what it meant to come here, how the voices sound clearest when one was alone. So she left me there, to climb into the innermost chamber with my drum. She said “play your bodhrán, and they will hear it.”
So I sat on my knees in the comforting dark, and stared into the shadow, the place were the basin of ashes would have been. The guardian stone there was upright and carved in spirals like the sun. I let the markings be my gateway and (there is no other word for it) I went in.
I drummed myself into the stones and felt, not grandeur, but closeness. Not the epic past, but the tender present. A circle of ancestors around me, as if I were the fire by which they were warmed. And, in return, their hopes for me were like a warm blanket in the dark — “you do not need to be afraid of dark places. use the gifts you’ve been given. live life to its fullest embodiment and know that you are encircled by a millennia of love.” In my mind’s eye an old, old woman put her hands on my shoulders and I was safer than I’ve ever been.
For a long time, longer than memory, this particular hill has been associated with The Cailleach— the old one, the goddess of the dark months, the divine crone. She is one of the oldest figures in the myths of Ireland, a bringer of both sovereignty and storms.
To be here, was to be with her. That grandmother who made us, and loves us all still. To be here, was to feel the crone-like beginnings that is at the heart of it everything. To be here, was to come home.
When I left the chamber, the older woman who had held the key was gone. In her place, just the mists and stone.
There are some places that seem
to expect us:
to take us in like pilgrims
from the way ahead
to tell us suddenly
and without fanfare
of a new beginning
made out of nothing
but the way we got here
From “Etruscan tomb” by David Whyte
The Plant Ancestors
One of the deepest delights of being here in Ireland has been getting to meet the plants who have thrived here for millennia. The hedges that are made up of hawthorn and elder, blackberries in royal purple and the richest emerald nettles you’ve ever seen. Alongside the road are rose hips as big as crab apples and thickets of wild meadowsweet that I gather and drink as my evening tea. Everyday I nibble on the rose hips and eat enough blackberries to stain my fingertips. I taste to take the wildness of a place within me. The first day here, I made a strong pint of elderberry tea, as a bit of insurance for what might have arrived with me from the plane. I made a quart and poured it into an old wine bottle to sip as made my pilgrimages across the hills. At the coast I experimented with IDing the tangled mane of seaweed and in the woods I pointed out the trees that would have fed my earliest ancestors, the oaks with their acorns and the hazels with their arms of mast and moss.
To meet the plants in their home, in your place of origin, is to meet your ancestors. The ones who built your DNA, made your very life possible. It is a sweetness as tender as visiting a much beloved elder and finding that they remember you, and love you still, even though they haven’t seen you since you were a wee babe.
The Coast of Galway
No pilgrimage trip to Ireland would be complete without a visit to the first ancestor— The Ocean. She who gave birth to humpback whales and bladderwrack, salmon and plankton and barnacle. And me, with my two tender feet. Even though the surf was cold I had to walk barefoot for a time to let the salt water brine me soles.
Connemara is the land of ocean rain and black-faced sheep, wet charcoal bogs and winds. I always love learning about how people have made their lives within a given landscape. Especially when the living there is neither easy, nor obvious. With few trees in sight people cut the bog for fuel and let it dry in heaps on the moor wind. They, like so many in Ireland, burn the peat in the hearth to heat and cook. Peat fires smell like roasted earth, drifting out into the blue evening air with a tang like dark brewed dandelion. Peat fires may not burn bright but they give off few sparks, and they are warm. To find wood for tools and cross beams, they stuck long needles into the bog, searching for the ancient bodies of trees. Pulling them up like we now pull up the bodies of old kings.
The only sheep that will live here has long wool, tacky with lanolin, and black feet and faces. Back in the day, a jumper knit from this wool was the only shield a fisherman had from the rain. And the patterns of the knit were not just patterns, but stories. Blessings. Signs of belonging. Every family and community would have their own unique patterns. Both as a way to wrap their loved one in warmth, and as a form of identification. If a fisherman drowned or was shipwrecked, they could be pulled from the sea-littered shore, known by their jumper, and brought back home.
With very little viable farmland, in hard times people survived off the debris of the shoreline. During the famine, it’s said you either left, died, or lived off the seaweed. The amazing cold water abundance here has kept people alive for centuries. I made myself a thick brew of carrageen one night after a long tired day and stirred it up with honey. It’s felt like marrow going on. Between it and the peat fire and the wool socks on my feet I understood how one could make a life here. It may not be wealthy, nor easy, but it is undefinably rich.
The Cliffs of Moher
A dangerously beautiful and windswept place where seagulls plummet towards the lace of far away waves. A geological oddity that makes for a stomach-dropping precipice of green. To visit is to remember how truly small you are in the great braids of things.
At the edge of the cliffs of Moher, the temper of ocean breaking upon stone looks almost as gentle as bathwater swaying in the tub. It’s a lovely panorama. Painted, distant, and quite removed from your own being. At least that’s what your eyes see. The animal of your body, however, tells you something completely different.
No matter how many times the loveliness of this place entered me, the danger was never far behind. Like the bitter aftertaste of chamomile steeped too long. The gentleness of the coastline dropped before you like a stomach, leaving you in shock at the sheer edge of it all.
Places like this make my bones quake in a way that reminds me just how human I am. How fragile. How dependent I am on the things I cannot see, like which way the wind blows. In a second the direction of the winds here can change and what once held you back from the edge might just push you towards it.
For me, the real exhilaration of this place is not how high I am or how close to death. But the feeling of how wonderfully and utterly dependent I find myself to be. The realization that we humans are, in truth, shallow rooted beings. Ones who need absolutely everything given to us in order to live on this earth. We need the hand of gravity to hold us, the waters to run unsalted, the wind to lean in our favor. And the wonder of it all is that they do. We live. We make our lives at the edge. We are held. And even at the precipice of the dangers we ourselves have created, still, we are cared for.
There is much to learn in these high and wild places.
The Hags head
Out at the Cliffs of Moher, past the ledges where most people lean to get the best pictures, beyond the gate and down the slope sculptured by grass and wind is the Hags Head. The crown of the Cailleach, the crone of the land. Stones of odd formations have long been associated with this Goddess, the one who is as old as streaks of silver at the core of the earth. To reach the other side you must walk through her slit, a portal crack in the stones through which the wind howls, only for a second, testing your intent. On the other side all is quiet. It’s just the sea, her gaze, and the gentle slope of the land looking west, place of the Otherworld and the way beyond death.
The Paps of Anu
Two hills in the heart of Ireland that were named for the mother goddess Anu, Danu, or simply the one who brings milk. For millennia the bosom of these hills have been a pilgrimage site. Some historians believe these hills were the scene of the last stand of ancient paganism in Ireland, the final place the keepers of the old ways fled to when the tide of patriarchal Christianity flooded the land. At the top of both hills are cairns, nipples made of stone. This land is a place of respite, of laying ones head and being held despite everything that has been stripped away. It’s a place to be rocked back to strength and to remember the great stream of honey and milk that flows through the center of the world. The wonder that is our life, taken care of by the land.
Visiting the paps was a deeply powerful experience for me. We came in the evening, hiking into the fields of heather to sit among her soft belly of sheep wool and moss. We watched as the mists moved in around her. Like down blankets tucked in under the chin, the two of us felt a bit like children, invited in to share their mothers bed, despite being full grown. On our knees, in the sheep pasture that was her soft abdomen, we sang all the songs we could remember, in tunes she chose. We drummed and danced and then crouched low, speaking words only she could hear. Weeping, weeping with our mouths close to the ground.
It is a moving experience, to remember her. The Mother. That great generative force that loves you, that cares for you. That can compost any trauma. The one your ancestors fed with offerings of honey, who even now, even when she’s been forgotten, still pours forth her milk. It is a powerful experience to remember that you are cradled and cared for, despite all you’ve done, despite everything that has happened to you. And that you can return to her, with bent hearts and full grown bones and say thank you thank you thank you mother. We see you, finally. We see you.
Two travelers and an Ogham Stone
I met up for a time with my friend Sylvia Linsteadt, who also happens to be one of my favorite shamanistic ecology writers on the planet. We had a few days together so we wrote, gathered by the peat fire, and adventured. Beginning with this sentinel…
Over a fence and across a pasture. Through tired heather and gorse that stung us through our clothes, was this Ogham. A stone inscribed with the lines of an ancient Irish script. We do not know what was written on it, or why. But it felt to us a healthful prayer for a heaven that has gone wrong. And so we asked for a picture so we could remember that this is why we have been erected as well. To stand and remember, and hold what we call the masculine in the same tenderness as we seek the feminine. And to cherish this ancient balance in equal esteem to the essential well-being that goes far beyond any duality at all.
Uragh stone Circle
At the top of the soft rise of the land, looking over the loch and the glittering threads of the quartz-laced mountains is Uragh. Ancient and yet alive. Forgotten and yet well tended. Uragh was one of the most unexpectedly inter dimensional places I visited in Ireland.
Only a small circle, it held you the moment you laid eyes upon it. In the center of the ancient circle was a grassy depression poppied with gifts— small stones and fading flowers, a Brigid’s cross made of tall thick grasses, the smell of freshly poured libations. We leaned our backs against each stone of the circle, to see what we could read with our bodies, before we laid down in its heart.
Every stone circle I visited in Ireland had its own distinct energy. You could, if you leaned in far enough, catch the whispers of why each circle was created. Messages from a people who knew how to inlay meaning itself into stone.
Here, we felt the stones reach towards the stars. And the stars reach back. We saw ourselves become as far away and eternally loving as another sun. We traveled out into the net of the sky while we laid in the grassy bassinet. It was a portal and an observatory both and it was a bone-warming reminder that our first ancestors were the stars themselves. And that maybe that’s why this place was created, so we could talk to them even though we are so young and so very far away.
Inside the Caves
There’s a tradition, throughout much of the ancient world, of climbing into caves to connect with the divine. Whether you believed you were communing with a land spirit, a Goddess, God, or your own Buddha state, caves, and their dark interiority, hold the innate ability to help us open up to inner worlds.
I got to visit, and descend into several such sacred caves here in Ireland. Ones shaped like vulvas that opened onto the Otherworld. Others that held springs and were just the size of my hips. Caves where saints meditated for seven years or where the young, who are now our ancestors, would venture to initiate themselves. Each cave had its own textured feel, layered by history, story, stalactite and moss. But inside the dark, when I turned my torchlight off, it was all the same. A comfort and a closeness, an intimacy with oneself and the insides of things. The peace of resting in that familiar unknowing. Of being happy for the mystery and the way you find yourself there, finally, just on the other side of fear.
Touching the vulva that blesses you
All over Ireland, sitting astride Church doors and gateposts are the mysterious Shee la na gigs. The etymology of the word is murky, though one source posits that the name might have originated from Síle-na-gigh “old woman of the vagina” which feels pretty apt to me, as there is only one thing that truly defines a sheela—- her vulva. Sheela’s were carved in many different styles throughout the 12th to 15th centuries, but every single one is making the same gesture, the spreading of her vulva wide open to the hillside. We don’t know why sheelas were created but the folk wisdom that has survived through the ages tells us that these beings were thought to be agents of blessing and protection. A hold over from the time of the Goddess that never died. Pilgrims still come to visit these sheelas and rub their vulvas, the best way to ensure good luck. The sheelas originate from a time we have trouble even conceptualizing now. A time when a vulva was seen as a portal of blessing, a shield of protection, an entirely magical entity that, when displayed, can change the course of fate.
We visited this sheela on the side of Saint Gobnait’s abbey. The bottom half of the sheela was rubbed to a marbled shine and at her feet the pilgrims before us had left quartz crystals and offerings of flowers. Despite so many years of denial and defacement, for so many of these sheelas, this sheela remains.
We sat under her vulva, her portal, that space between life and death, and felt distinctly blessed. Not only in body and presence, but in the ability to imagine what this was like, this long era of seeing the sacred in the vaginal. Seeing the sacred in our bodies, all bodies.
And the secret the sheela whispered as she lowered her blessings down upon us was… “this time, this time is not dead. This time, this time is coming again.”
Ireland or Appalachia?
Climbing into Killarney national park, one of the last remaining of the ancient forests of Ireland, felt almost as familiar as hill walking in the mountains outside my home. The waterfalls and rain soaked forests, the rhododendrons and steep sides of oak. Once upon a time, Ireland was covered in forests from coast-to-coast. It wasn’t until the industrial revolution that the last of the great forests were leveled. To spend time in these last remaining forests of hazel and oak is like sitting in the presence of an old growth elders. Those who remember why the ancient ogham was made from the bodies or trees, and why the first cathedrals were the groves themselves.
It makes me wonder if there might have been a deeper thread of ancestry, then, that led me to Appalachia. A part of my ancient DNA that saw the rainsoaked thickness of the woods that are now my home and said: here. We remember this, we want to learn how to speak the old alphabet again and here, once more, we can find the language.
Woolgathering in the Heather
Maybe it’s the fact that I was on vacation. Or perhaps it was the long stretches of time without any WiFi, but I think it might just be Ireland, with its hawthorn hedgerows and impossible green fields and sheep with black feet who nod at you as you go. There is something about this land that just calls you to woolgather.
Woolgathering has long been one of my favorite terms. It’s synonymous for the act of daydreaming, the gathering of thoughts as one might collect tufts of wool lost here in there within the heather. When I first started this blog over seven years ago. I named it Woolgathering and Wildcrafting, because it seemed apt for the textures my mind most loves to explore.
Going to Ireland was a return for the woolgatherer in me. As a child I was often off in my own world, unfocused and libale to stare off into the dreamtime. When I entered adulthood I learned, slowly, how to hone my attention, focus my will and accomplish. And it’s been wonderfully fruitful. But a large part of my spirit always seems to ache for this, the whimsy, and the invisible harvest, of woolgathering in the inner landscapes of my mind.
The beautiful thing about Ireland is that you can literally woolgather as you daydream. Over the green hills and fields you can find bits of wool, left by peaceful sheep in their pasturing. During my time in Ireland I gathered small handfuls of wool from the places that felt most powerful to me. I found tufts on the bodies of hawthorn in full fruit, tucked into the heather at the base of the Paps of Anu, scattered outside a stone circle built to point to the stars. In the day I gathered and at night, around the fire, I picked out the bits of moss and bramble, and I twined. Creating cordage from the very places that fed me, and set me free in heart and mind.
At the end I had one long, thin white rope with which to wrap myself when I got back home. So I could remember, even as I fell back into my daily rhythms, to still give myself space and time to pasture. To put down the to-dos, sometimes, and just putter around in the creek. To go for a walk and drink a whole pot of tea and be content picking tufts of dreams from the hedgerow of my mind. Sometimes collecting them to twine. And sometimes just letting them go, floating onwards like a wish already fulfilled.
“I must go in, the fog is rising.”
Apparently these were the last words that Emily Dickinson spoke as she was dying. I found them in the introduction to Colm Leanne’s book “Going Home” a collection of Irish stories about heaven, near death experiences and interactions with those who have passed. The book was left in a little seaside cottage I was staying at on the windswept western coast of Galway and while the storm raged, I read it cover to cover.
There is something about this quote that captures so succinctly my feelings about having come to Ireland and, now, about going back home. Being in this green land of the ancestors has brought me closer than I ever dared possible to that mist-laden lands where my ancestors live. The clouds have rolled in, the boundaries between things dissolving in the sea-suspended air, and still the feeling is not one of dislocation but of coming home. And now, as I take a plane up over the clouds and the mists rise up between me and this land who has given me so much over these past few weeks, it feels less like an ending and more like the beginning of a new adventure. The next phase in this life, death, rebirth spiral. And the next step on my own ancestral pilgrimage.
I still have a whole cache of writing from my time in Ireland. Writing that I’m crafting into a book to come into the world sometime in the future. It’s still very tender and very new, so thank you all for receiving my quiet news. It’ll probably be a few years yet for this one… but it has begun.
And for those of you who’ve been walking into the burial mounds with me or let down your hood to allow the Irish rains here touch your crown… thank you for journeying with me. The mists are coming in, and I must go home, but there is so much more to share.