The Holy Ground
Reprinted from February, 2013, in the now-defunct Open Salon.
Yesterday I returned from my lifelong awaited first visit to the place that is, to my family, a kind of Mecca, the trip a sort of Hajj. It was also a chance to spend time with my youngest daughter and her husband on an epic road trip and to take a small part in what is known as The Gathering, as members of the Irish diaspora descend this year in unprecedented numbers upon what has long been referred to, especially by Irish Americans, as The Holy Ground.
Blarney Castle. You want castles? We got ‘em.
My primary purpose in going on this trip (instead of to California, where I would have been infinitely more comfortable in many ways) was to spend time with my daughter and her husband (the latter our chauffeur on the “spirited”road trips between Cork, Galway, Dublin, and back to Cork). It was to see, to touch, to feel that Holy Ground and find some sort of answer to the mystical pull it exerts on me and my family. My father had made this trip 30 years ago, and covered much of the same ground we covered.
And yes, I climbed to the top of Blarney Castle, up and up and up that insane, tiny stone spiral staircase. And I laid myself down and I leaned back through the breach and kissed the stone. And I did not suffer vertigo.
So what is so special about this little bright green island to the west of Great Britain? Why is it so persistently unique and its people so genuinely engaging? Just what the hell is up with this? I guess that was the burning question I sought to answer.
Each city on our trip was larger than the one before (Cork is a rather small college town, but charming), Galway is a city of some 50,000 and fairly well known, with a lovely Salt District full of classic pubs and restaurants. Here is where we began “Jaywalking With the Irish,” the title of a book by David Monagan, who relocated back to the Island and which title refers to a habit the Irish have of just stepping off the curb and assuming the best of their motoring fellows. In the Salt District of Galway, on Quay Street, the practice was rampant. It seemed perfectly natural.
It was cold all the time I was there and of course it rained a lot. The ground stays fairly soft. This will come into play later.
While it was clear in both Cork and Galway there was something different about my people, the reason for it still wasn’t clear. On the road trips from city to city, through tiny towns like Kileen and, in the geographical center of the country, the ancient “monastic city” of Glendalough, there were feelings of the presence, of not ghosts exactly, but of spirits of those who founded this and similar settlements dating back to the 5th century and the earliest exposure to Christianity. There is also, of course, that odd history of the indigenous Celts, a group about whose origin little is known, but was attacked by and then bred with first Viking invaders, then later the Moors (thus the “brown,” “red” and “black” Irish, most all of which have either blue or green eyes. This effect is especially striking in the black Irish, people who have very dark hair, blue eyes and porcelain skin. The Vikings are responsible for most of the thick, orange-red hair, and the Celts having crossed with the Moors, it is believed, the brown irish, a particularly robust looking bunch who seem to have been to the beach recently, even in winter. And all of them lacking any trace of hostility in my experience, most of them being extremely gregarious.
Nice folk they have there.
The religious significance of the place is impossible to ignore but difficult to understand. Though the most common affiliation in the Republic is Catholic, it is the Church of Ireland, and Irish Catholic means a much more ecumenical and so more open sort of Catholocism generally. This openness is probably what led to a ready acceptance of Rosicrucianism, and the cross-religious embrace of the Order of the Rosy Cross, a dependent Masonic order that permeates the culture if one but scratches the surface.
Many of the ancient cemataries, which dot the rural landscape between our three cities and often surround the tiny towns in between, contain countless crosses, most of them that famous Celtic cross, but a number of those clearly predate Christianity and are remnants of the Moorish influence, as they are inscribed with Arabic characters. Those also frequently include the rose at the center. Often, in the later versions, this is replaced with the Sacred Heart of Jesus, an eerily anatomically correct heart girdled with a band of thorns. It is this from which the term “bleeding heart” is derived.
And none of this satisfied my question, which as we moved first north, then to the east, was “What, exactly, is the heart of this place, of this people? What actually makes this ground holy?” And the question became more of a pull, like a magnetic force, as we arrived in Dublin, the largest city in Ireland. Dublin has at least twice the population of Washington, DC, where I was born and raised. It is a cosmopolitan city but it has places in it that are also ancient.
The Temple Bar, both an actual bar/pub and a pub district named for the Temple Bar established in 1840, was another potential answer. It’s founder, Sir William Temple, a Mason suspected of Templar associations (which should go without saying, but no one ever says) and who was involved in a scandalous attempt to overthrow Elizabeth I in league with James Hamilton, a notorious Templar himself. Chaos ensued, there was no overthrow, charges were brought, but powerful Masonic influence got Temple off in the end. This is as close as Ireland has probably come to ever invading another country, and of course at that time England did not consider itself “another country” anyway. At any rate, history if rife with incidents where Ireland did not bother to sally forth and kill or conquer anyone.
Then there was the Guiness Brewery. Could that be it? We went, we saw, we were conquered by the sheer enormity of the place, which is a lot like, say, a part of the Smithsonion Museum inside, devoted entirely to telling the history of the product, Guinness Stout, and selling said product. It is a totally commercial attraction, a lot of fun, exhausting, but clearly no explanation for the mystique saturating the tiny green island.
Finally we were, at my request, and for reasons I cannot fully explain, to tour Trinity College, which tour would end at the library.
Upon entering the archway through which one reaches the first quad, we were treated to the sound of the renowned Trinity orchestra and chorus in practice, which sounded for all the world like some glorious soundtrack for the end of the world, staggering, stunning, leaving me with a vision of the Second Coming or some equally notable event, and sounding very familiar. Finally I realized I was listening to the music of Queen played in an arrangement Freddy Mercury could only have dreamed of. I felt I had entered another world, and that perhaps, if Heaven looked and sounded like this, it might not be too bad a way to spend eternity.
Our tour guide was a charming history student who gave a most excellent and often very humorous description of the campus, the various buildings, their architectural styles, the many times failed dining hall (which fell repeatedly because of the soft earth before finally acquiring an innovative foundation of tree trunks to keep it steady); the identical chapel and examination building opposite each other, so that, she said, students would often stop while passing between the two and comment that “Here we are, directly between Heaven and Hell.” You had to be there, I guess.
We were also told the story of the statued gentleman, one Provost George Salmon, a not very well liked man who attracted the harrassment of some students who gathered outside the windows of his quarters to aggravate him one night in 1904. Salmon, never one to suffer his sleep being disrupted, came to the window with a pistol and fired on the students. None were struck, but they all took offense, and so returned to their dorms to get their own guns and return to engage the provost in a firefight. Salmon was shot and killed. There was an investigation and ultimately a trial, where charges were dismissed when the court concluded the incident qualified as a student prank gone awry. “It probably would have a different outcome today,” our very cute guide added, then led us toward the library, on the way pointing out the two enormous Oregon oaks, which she told us were important to keeping the adjacent buildings on firm footing by drawing enormous amounts of water out of the ground. She said they were gifts from an American around the turn of the last century and were very rare — as they were from Oregon and so were the only ones in all of Ireland. This struck me as hilarious.
We were then led past a particularly ugly modern building which our guide told us was an example of brutalist architecture. When I reacted with a knowing nod, she said “You’re familiar with the style?” I responded with a nod, saying I thought they should all be blown up. “That makes two of us then,” she said, laughing, and led us to the entrance of the Old Library, one of the most renowned libraries in the world, in no small part because it contains The Book of Kells, a laboriously hand produced text of the four Gospels, written in Latin vulgate, which is to say, the common tongue, and so virtually unreadable to a proper student of Latin. It was intended, then, to be read and understood by the common people, written somewhat beneath the radar of scholars of the time. It is decorated with fabulous illuminated first letters, and on pages where the words would not all fit, often they were just left out. The book dates to ca: 800 AD, written in a monastery on Iona, an island off the west coast of Scotland. In 806 the monastery was attacked by Vikings and the surviving monks took refuge at Kells, where the book may have been completed. It was gifted to Trinity by Scotland in the mid-18th century, and was rebound into four volumes in the mid-2oth century. It is the centerpiece of the library at Trinity, and one must pass through the display of the Book of Kells to reach the stairs that lead up to the Long Room where the vast library actually resides.
Arriving at the top of the stairs of the Long Room, I suddenly realized I had found It. The secret, sacred heart of Irish culture: Books. This library. It was like entering a vast cathedral. I stood in stunned and reverent silence and scanned the walls, the tiers, the endless shelves of books, documents, the busts of famous teachers, philosophers, writers; the oldest Irish harp; an original copy, under glass, of the declaration of the Easter Rising of the Irish Republic, 1916, under glass; and more books, and filtered sunlight, and air, and space, and books, words, words formed into sentences and stories and history and lives, books, works, an eternity’s worth of research resources, towering, spreading out and up, endless, vast, and yes, this was it, this was the destination and the answer. This is why Thomas Cahill could defend his assertion that the Irish saved civilization, by writing and preserving writings, so that should man bring the world to an end, it would be able to begin again, and indeed it had, it had survived the Dark Ages because even when the Great Library at Alexandria was burned, this collection had survived Viking and Moor and British, French, and god knows who else, and was and is still there, the Holy Grail, knowledge, words, and the words of William S. Burroughs came back to me, that “In the beginning was the word, and it was written.”
So let it be written. So mote it be.