Pilgrimage : Two Tickets to Dublin

Anna Liffey by the sculptor Éamonn O’Doherty

I bought my first ticket to Dublin almost 23 years ago.  I had made the decision to go to Ireland during a time in my life when I had been living out of a backpack and wandering around the continent.  I had been traveling for about 5 years at that point, navigating the streams and currents of modern nomadic cultures.  I sought out and fought the fights that I, as an angry young man, needed to, and I explored and met the places and the people who I, as a restless young man, needed to.  I was ready to study and to learn, to connect with my ancestors in a more profound and visceral way.  I was ready to take my trip to Ireland.  So I headed  back towards  the home of my childhood and bought an airline ticket to Dublin.

During my journey home I was met by a moment of choice and convergence of fates.  A message found its way to me through unlikely sources, accompanied by auspicious and fateful signs.  It was a message from a woman who I had a brief but passionate relationship with while living in a red desert cathedral.  The message was that she was pregnant and that I was the father.

She wasn’t telling me to pressure me, she wasn’t asking for anything that I didn’t want to freely give.  But she was going to have a child and I was the father of that child and she knew that I would want to know.  And I sat and faced that choice that is not a choice the only way I could and still be able to live with myself. I became a father, and Ireland became a distant island once more.

These moments where your life path shifts direction, these moments of decision, moments of trust in your fate, or your Wyrd, or the Gods, are the challenges and feats that define who we are and our place in the world.  The part of myself that made my shift from the identity of seeker to the identity of father so inevitable is the part of me that stands firmly on the path of honor.  There was no choice for me, and yet it was the best choice I’ve ever made.

So my life changed, and I went west and raised two brilliant and determined daughters, and I studied archaeology in California.  My love and connection in Ireland never changed.  As my studies went deeper my spirituality became more complex and tied to that place.  I learned its history, music, and culture and filled myself with the lore and literature of this land that dominated my inner landscape.

Death of Cu Chulainn statue by Oliver Sheppard in the General Post Office, Dublin

My life continued to change and evolve.  My marriage ended, my kids grew up, my relationship with The Morrigan grew and deepened, and 23 years after I had bought my first ticket to Dublin, I found myself standing in the Dublin Airport alongside a woman who was as brilliant, beautiful, and bold as a queen in the tales from this land.

Now I wasn’t just going to Ireland  for personal growth and exploration, we were there as the vanguard of a Celtic polytheist priesthood, called by and dedicated to the Morrigan.  We were there to pay respects to the sacred sites, lead a group of 17 people on a tour of sacred sites connected to our Queen, and to ground our tradition in the stones and turf of this holy land.

We had come 4 days earlier than the rest of the tour.  We needed to spend some time with the land, to make our own introductions and connections, to adjust to the change of place and change of time before we were responsible for other people’s experiences here.

We were giddy and bleary eyed as we approached the customs officer in the airport.

“What is the purpose of your visit?”

“We are taking a tour of sacred sites here”  we say, groggily, stumbling to get our brains working after 21 hours of cramped travel.

He looks at us and with a practiced air of indifference asks “What’s the name of this tour?”

Once again we stumble a bit with our answer, not expecting to need further details.  “It’s called the Coru: Body of the Morrigan Tour”

He stared at us and questioned “The Morrigan?”

We were a little confused, we helpfully added “The Irish Goddess of prophecy, sovereignty, and battle”

He stared a little longer making us wonder if we had somehow made a mistake, said the wrong thing to him, given him an answer that made him suspicious of us.

“Never heard of Her” he wryly declared as he stamped our passports.  “Have a good journey”

It was very clear to us that the first act that we need to do to make offerings to that land that we were finally standing on, so we quickly started looking for something that would make a suitable one.  We settled on a cup of cream from the cafe in the airport, went outside to find a piece of ground that wasn’t covered by pavement, and there, with the sound of jets, coaches and cabs surrounding us, we thanked Eriú and the land, and the spirits of that place for welcoming us and we thanked the guardians that protected us on our journey for helping us arrive safely and we poured the offering out on the earth.

detail of the The O’Connell Monument John Henry Foley (1818-74) Notice the bullet hole in her breast, a relic of the Easter Rising

Dublin is a city that has had a place in my internal landscape since I was a child.  As I grew I learned of the Rising, I studied the histories, I struggled through Joyce.  The music and poetry, the antiquities and the ancient art, the beauty and the seediness, all took their places in my imagination.

The city was exactly what I hoped for.  Grey and chilly, dark water and warm pubs, busy narrow streets and friendly faces.  We got off the bus and awkwardly dragged our bags across cobblestone streets, through streams of cars and coaches, toward our hotel in the heart of the city.  We could have stayed at a hotel near the airport but that seemed like a waste to me.  I wanted to immediately immerse myself in sights and sounds of the city.

As we crossed a bridge over the Liffey, we stopped to greet the river.  Like a sluggish, sleepy beast, She slipped under us, mutely dominating the city.  We poured offerings, we thanked her, we made formal introductions, and we listened, as we stood between a the flow of water and streams of traffic. She accepted our offerings and answered us.

on Stephan’s Green

The loudest voices in Dublin are the voices of the dead, and the revolutionary dead dominate them.  We had time to kill, hours to force ourselves to remain awake in order to start shifting our bodies to a new time zone, so after we dropped off our bags, and struggled to eat a meal, we wandered through the city alongside the ghosts.  We wandered  through grey streets, past cathedrals and castles, through legendary universities and places from the books of my youth.  We slipped in and out of welcoming and warm pubs and bookstores.  We played the tourist, wide-eyed and excited as children, grabbing each other as each new sight or recognized place revealed itself.  All the time we were being led to the place where the dead spoke the loudest, St Stephan’s Green.

As we entered the park the revolutionary dead crowded around us, curious and quiet.  We stood with them and spoke of their struggles, we thanked them and we poured whiskey offerings to them, we listened and drank with them.

One of the lessons that I learned that day way that when giving offering to the dead in this land,  they always want you to drink with them, to share a sip or raise a glass, speak their names fondly and tell tales of their deeds.  And so we did.

Joyce bust on Stephan’s Green

Dublin

Grey brick upon brick,

Declamatory bronze

On sombre pedestals –

O’Connell, Grattan, Moore –

And the brewery tugs and the swans

On the balustraded stream

And the bare bones of a fanlight

Over a hungry door

And the air soft on the cheek

And porter running from the taps

With a head of yellow cream

And Nelson on his pillar

Watching his world collapse.

This never was my town,

I was not born or bred

Nor schooled here and she will not

Have me alive or dead

But yet she holds my mind

With her seedy elegance,

With her gentle veils of rain

And all her ghosts that walk

And all that hide behind

Her Georgian facades –

The catcalls and the pain,

The glamour of her squalor,

The bravado of her talk.

The lights jig in the river

With a concertina movement

And the sun comes up in the morning

Like barley-sugar on the water

And the mist on the Wicklow hills

Is close, as close

As the peasantry were to the landlord,

As the Irish to the Anglo-Irish,

As the killer is close one moment

To the man he kills,

Or as the moment itself

Is close to the next moment.

She is not an Irish town

And she is not English,

Historic with guns and vermin

And the cold renown

Of a fragment of Church latin,

Of an oratorical phrase.

But oh the days are soft,

Soft enough to forget

The lesson better learnt,

The bullet on the wet

Streets, the crooked deal,

The steel behind the laugh,

The Four Courts burnt.

Fort of the Dane,

Garrison of the Saxon,

Augustan capital

Of a Gaelic nation,

Appropriating all

The alien brought,

You give me time for thought

And by a juggler’s trick

You poise the toppling hour –

O greyness run to flower,

Grey stone, grey water,

And brick upon grey brick.

— Louis MacNeice

Cozy Pubs!

Pilgrimage :  Introductions and a Tale

Detail from Desmond Kinney’s 1974 mosaic mural of the Táin Bó Cúailnge in Dublin

It’s taken me days to make the transition from being in Ireland to being in California.  Jet lag was a factor, but it is much more than jet lag that has thrown my system into disarray.  What has shifted in me is deeper than a physiological response to travel, or the simple shock of moving between contrasting cultures.  In a very profound way, my spiritual landscape has been altered, reworked, grounded in place in a way that I was unaware that it was even lacking, but now can’t imagine being without.

I wasn’t sure that I should even attempt to write about my experiences on this journey.  Some of them seem too involved and detailed, with tangents twisting off of tangents.  Too much backstory would needed to relate the significance of some of these events to readers, and the format of a blog is ill suited for this type of storytelling, usually requiring strong drink and smokey firelight, quite possibly the smell of wet wool.  Many of the stories are painfully personal and would force me to tell my own histories and stories, an art that I am not skilled at nor comfortable doing in most cases.  But my habits of seclusion and remaining guarded have been put on the chopping block by the Queen that I serve, and stories have a habit of wanting to be told.  So here we are.

Instead of trying to relate the journey to you all at once, or simply relating a chronological telling of the tale,  I’ve decided that I will be publishing my account in a series of stories.   Some will be about certain portions of the trip and some will be explorations of themes and concepts that came up during the experience.  The time we were there was so densely packed with places, spirits, experiences, and revelations that I’m not exactly sure how these stories will form and want to be told.  This process I am going through is more for me than anyone else.  It is not unlike the process of unpacking your bags after a long trip.  You slowly take each item that you have acquired during your expedition out of your bag and hold it in your hands, remembering where you found it, its significance to you, how it fits into the life that you have returned to.

So I welcome you to join me while I unpack my experiences and tell some tales of my odyssey if that type of thing will be of interest to you.  I humbly hope that my words can do justice to the wealth and richness of the land we walked in and brilliance and kindness of the people that we encountered, but stories must start somewhere and in the case of this account, it should probably start with a tale.

Boyhood Deeds

The boy had his first training among the women of his mother’s clan, and this is fitting for it’s a pups mother that trains it to fight, for women know that fighting is more than glory and tales, but often a matter of survival.

He lived in a village in the shadow of a great city with his Grandmother, Corcairghorm and her sisters, powerful Druidess’ of a fierce clan, who knew the arts of healing, craft, and persuasion.  The boy lived a happy but lonely life with his mothers people, and it was likely that the women loved him greatly, for there were few children in the clan, and the boy was kind, and good natured, and tried to be helpful even when his size and skills made him very unhelpful in some tasks.

The boy, then called Tómas, spent the dark half of his year with the clan of his mother in boyish pursuits, exploring deep forests, pushing the boundaries of his existence, and asking too many questions, and he spent the light half of the year with his fathers people, a wild and untamed clan that lived deep in the mountains. From his fathers people he learned the art of the hunt, and how to move like a staking beast through the forest. He learned to plow rocky fields and when the right time to cut hay for the animals.

There was another thing about the boy that set him apart from his people, a fact that he kept to himself as much as he was able to, but something that made him feel alone and distant from the other people in his life, the boy was often approached by and spoken to by spirits of the dead and creatures of the Otherworld. At first there seemed nothing out of the ordinary to have exchange with these spirits, but Tómas quickly realized that he was the only one that saw them, and that by talking about the beings that he encountered with the other members of his clan, made the people that loved him look at him out of the sides of their eyes suspiciously, and regard him with fear and concern when they thought he wasn’t looking.

Once, the boy awoke in the middle of the night, eyes open but unable to move his body. It was then that he saw the woman, tall and beautiful, who had the bearing of a mighty queen from the stories that his grandmother told him. He feared and loved this stormy, stately Queen and struggled to make his mouth and throat make sounds to speak to Her but could only make a strangled moan that broke the spell that held his body still, when the spell was broken the Queen was gone, all that remained was the sound of calling crows and the image of a fair green land.

Years later the boy awoke during a violent storm. Storms didn’t frighten him at this point, the terrors and fears of the night had become his friends and companions. He had learned to run through the forests at night alongside wolves and to sit silently in the trees as an owl mapping the sounds and movements of the creatures of the wood. He spoke with his ancestors and with spirits and shades of the dead and they became his confidants and protectors. He did not fear storms but ran into them at night, reveling in the power and beauty of the whipping rain and bright flashes of lightening, and ground shaking thunder, but this storm was different. It was not a storm to challenge. As the boy sat quietly in the dark listening to the raindrops crash against his window, he saw the face of a crone peering in at him. Once again the boy felt that combination of fear and attraction that he felt with the Might Queen that visited him years before and he knew that although Her appearance was different, this was the same Queen. He rapidly sat up in bed and the crone was now in the corner of his room, peering out of one eye with a piercing stare, cloak and feather wrapped, growing and filling the space, and with a voice that sounded equal parts music and screams, the crone who was a Queen who was a black bird, called him a name that he had never heard before and yet knew it was his and said to him
“You Child, are one of my creatures, and I will have need of you in the future, and as I have visited you in your home, someday you will come and visit me in mine”
And with those words She was gone and he was left with dreams of a green and magical island that he knew was his home as well as that Queen’s”

  

Next:  Two Tickets to Dublin