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Why Ireland ?

Reflections on an Annual Pilgrimage

When people discover I make a trip annually to Ireland,
usually in the early Spring, for periods of between four
and six weeks, the follow-on question is always 'why ?'

As with many simple, repetitive acts which we do in our
lives, the reasons behind them can be quite complex.
And to answer this particular question, which is a fair
one, I need to draw on three separate strands of explanation
--(1) the family connection and the Celtic tradition ;
(2) the development and enlargement of the self, and
(3) satisfying the demands of individual creativity.

The family connection can be explained briefly.
My ancestors on both sides were Irish, although my father's
father, an Ulsterman, resettled in West Lothian in Scotland
as a young man to escape the prejudice and job
discrimination endured by Catholics in a staunchly
Protestant area of a divided Ireland.

My mother's mother came from a well-to-do family, the
O'Millheadha's (pronounced Millay) who lived in Co Cork.
Padraig O'Millheadha, the Gaelic scholar and poet was
her brother. My grandfather was a farmer from Co Waterford.
When they married they bought a working farm in Sceheien,
on the lower slopes of the Comeragh Mountains in Co Waterford.

At the age of two, when World War II broke out,  I was
taken there to stay with my grandparents and a couple of
unmarried aunts and an uncle. My new refuge from  
incendiary bombs and the burning buildings was, I quickly
discovered, a place of enchantment and endless mystery.
It had mountains rising in the background, slatestone
fences, fields planted with corn, meandering streams,
horses, sheep, goats and geese, several cats and dogs,
and cows to prod with sticks and herd into muddy fields.

Harvest-time was magical. I loved the chaff flying around
and the smell of wheat-dust. And watching the jovial,
sunburnt farm-workers wielding their scythes like swords
in a medieval battle.  September and blackberry-picking was
great fun, too. I think we children ate as many blackberries
as we brought back, arriving home with purple lips to
a solemn telling-off.

"The sounds of Sceheien which thrilled my young ears have
gone forever ; the bleat of the goats and sheep, the barking
sheepdogs, the drone of machinery, the seductive crackle
and spit of a turf fire, the hum of late-night stories told
over its glowing embers, the scrape of fiddle and the lively
peep of a tin whistle in unexpectedly nimble fingers."
                                                  (The Sounds of Sceheien)

I grew up steeped in the Celtic tradition and listening
to Gaelic. The Celts were adventurous travellers and mystics
who, from the tenth century onwards, took their unique
brand of spirituality, language, art and music across many
frontiers, especially to France and Germany, where it became
and remains today a major influence on religious and
creative expression.

"Nothing in all creation is so like God as stillness'. These
are the words of the 13th century theologian and teacher
Meister Eckhart. His great contemporary, Mechtild of Magdeburg,
whose writings influenced Dante, advised us to 'Love the
nothing and flee the self'.   Written nearly eight hundred
years ago, they are equally relevant today.  

The trivia entering people's lives now is enormous--noise
pollution, flashing lights, junk mail, unwanted phone calls
and text messages, and if we want them, pay-to-view TV
channels which seem loaded with the same glittering but
ultimately vacuous programmes we get on ordinary television.

All of us need an escape from this. We need periods of
silence in our lives. Only through silence  and occasional
self-detachment can true joy be distinguished from the
manufactured kind. The question, therefore, is not 'should
we seek it ?' but 'how do we achieve it ?'  For me,
the answer is 'the shores of West Ireland.' Cut off from
everyday interruptions for weeks on end in a place of
breathtaking natural beauty,  the inner self reawakens,
it rejoices, it expands upwards and outwards, it is restored,
it becomes what it was always meant to be.

"Everything here luxuriates in sun and rain and abundance.
Ireland drives the demons from my mind, it erases
bad memories, it rescues me from the suffer zone.
In Ireland I re-encounter the reasons for being....

Here, I possess a million senses, all throbbing wildly
I become the trees and the haunted castles, and the
storm-tossed harbours and the old monasteries.
I feel immortal, for in Ireland nothing dies, each day is
born to live forever."

For some, disciplining and developing the self comes easy.
They slip naturally into it the rhythym of it. For others,
not so. I am in that latter category. Temptations and demons
line the route. When doubts creep in, I repeat a little old
saying of my grandfather's : 'To arrive together, the ant
must set off earlier than the leopard .'  It was his way of
saying that nobody gets anywhere without courage and
determination. We should enjoy the journey as much as any
reward at the end of it.

The third and final part of this reflection has to do with
creativity. If allowed to, the temptations and distractions
mentioned earlier can dissipate the creative urge. Anger,
for example, can be a force for good, but words written in
anger almost always dissatisfy later.  We are at our creative
worst in the throes of emotional or spiritual turmoil. Anger
encourages obsessiveness, frustration cuts short the flow
of ideas.  

To produce my best writing, therefore, at least once a year
I need to experience the peace and tranquility of my spiritual
home, the land where my forefathers lived and worked. What
flows from these visits may not be great poetry but it will
be as close to that as I can get.

"Every clump of coarse Brega heather mirrors my
passionate isolation Sometimes when the clouds link
arms I cannot hear my thoughts above the fanfare
of these scenes of natural splendour,
mystical to the mind and magical to the eye, I return
to my pure and simple faith. The open air is His
cathedral and this is me at prayer. What needs have
I beyond this to make my heaven whole ?"          
                              (The Dusty Road To Tourneena)

Note :                    
Extracts from "The Sounds of Sceheien", "Colleena" and
"The Dusty Road To Tourneena" are taken from
"A Cage To Hold Your Dreams", a selection of poetry
by Terence Pettigrew.

You can visit this selection on

Posted: February 14, 2005 ,   Modified: February 14, 2005


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