The trees were planted by the James Stuart, a preacher’s son who was born nearby in 1743. John placed the trees along the drive to his new mansion as an impressive landscape feature. He named the mansion Gracehill House after his beloved wife Grace, a County Tyrone girl who was the daughter of a doctor in Stewartstown. James lived to be 81 years old and had nine children at Gracehill. Of his nine children – his second eldest, William was in the Royal Artillery and died in battle in Barbados. Margaret whose alias was “Cross Peggy” never married and lived until age 89. Elizabeth and Grace were the last two to be born, and they both died young. Gracehill is now a golf course with the manor house as a feature, and the drive is now a public road making the Dark Hedges accessible to photographers and visitors who want to see these amazing trees with their tangled, silvery branches.
The Dark Hedges were also featured in the mini-series Game of Thrones. During the first episode of season two “On the Kings Road” Aya Stark has dressed herself as a boy and escaped Kings Landing. She and others travel the King’s Road to join the Night Watch.
The Dark Hedges has a ghost story associated with a character referred to only as “the Gray Lady.” At twilight she said to float in and out of the hedges, moving quickly almost as fast as the cars. She’s seen as a shadow – or as a transparent figure – visible to passers-by. She vanishes once the traveler has passed the last beech tree. Some say she’s a spirit from a nearby abandoned graveyard, unrestful now that she’s fallen into the ranks of the unremembered dead. Some say on Halloween night other spirits from that same grave yard join her on her at the Dark Hedges. Me? My money is on it being “Cross Peggy” Stuart, daughter of James Stuart (the builder of the house and the one who planted the trees). Her name appears in several genealogy lists as Margaret “Cross Peggy” Stuart. No explanation. Just the nick-name. That’s reason enough for me. There’s the obvious unanswered question that today’s living want to know. Why were you called “Cross Peggy?”
A bad storm knocked down a few of the beautiful trees this past year, but the grove of beaches and their eerie canopy is still worth seeing and photographing. Regardless of the legends and the ghost story, the Dark Hedges is a worthy side trip for anyone traveling to the Antrim Coast. Perhaps it’s the energy given off by the trees, but there’s a definite thinness about the place. Because it’s close to the Antrim Highway, it’s easy to access for those who are in the area visiting the sites along the coast.
The Dark Hedges is on our Discover the North tour of Ireland.
Here is a list books I found helpful in giving a good overall background of the southwestern region or understanding the sites we’ll be traveling to on the Places of Resurrection tour. Some of them are specifically targeted at mindful travel, making the most of traveling to thin places.
A visit to a mystical site is powerful whether or not you have any understanding of the history or legends associated with that site. But the more understanding you have about a site or about the landscape, the greater the possibility for inner transformation.
Prepare by growing your understanding of earth energy, ancient local traditions and the people of the place and you will be less curious about the facts associated with the site, and more able to absorb the power each site generates. These books are simply suggestions that might help you prepare.
Every Ancient, Ever New, by Dolores Whelan – This is a short book with a little over 100 pages, but Dolores gives a solid perspective on how to use the understanding of ancient Celtic traditions to create a new way of seeing the world – of being in the world. This is one of the best books for understanding thin places and what they mean today.
NOTE: The price for this book on Amazon.com fluctuates based on their ability to get the inventory from Ireland. So try ordering directly from Dolores Whalen’s website ($23) of the Amazon price is high.
Ley Lines and Earth Energies, by David Cowan & Chris Arnold – This was the first book I read about the concept of earth energies and how the ancients may have been able to sense those pulsating movements when they built their stone circles, passage tombs and other monuments. We will be doing some dowsing on our tour, so an understanding of this concept will be very helpful.
Awakening to the Spirit World, by Sandra Ingerman & Hank Wesselman – This is one of the best and simplest books on understanding Shamanism and Shamanic practices, which are a way to “journey” to otherworlds in order to gain wisdom. It’s a great primer for understanding the “otherworld” concept and being sensitive to other realms as you move through thin places.
Walking With the Sin Eater, by Ross Heaven – This is a might lighter look at Shamanism and can be read in a few hours. It’s set as a personal memoir of journeying, but reveals some great truths about earth energies and spiritual transformation through journeying.
These books, written by local Irish and travelers to Ireland reveal the hidden landscape, culture, history, folklore and traditions of places in the southwest particularly Dingle, the Aran Island and the Beara Peninsula.
Peig, by Peig Sayers – This is out of print, but you can get used ones from Amazon for a good price. It’s an autobiographical account of a woman who grew on the Dingle peninsula in the early 20th century, but married and moved to the Great Blasket Island and lived a hard life. She only spoke Irish dictated her life’s story to her son who wrote down. It was later translated and is now considered one of the great publications in Irish literature. It also gives insight into the culture and landscape of Dingle, the Blaskets and southwest Ireland in general and the harsh life that formed much of the Irish perspective that we see today.
Twenty Years A-Growing, by Maurice O’Sullivan – First published in 1933, this book, like Pieg is a memoir of O’Sullivan’s life on the great Blasket Island. But this book has a much livelier slant. It’s rich in storytelling, folklore of the southwestern region, and impeccable at describing the landscape and our connection to it.
Climbing Brandon, by Chet Raymo – Raymo is a science writer out of Boston who spent summers on the Dingle. He writes about the holy mountain on Dingle named for St. Brendan the Navigator. His eloquent writing style alone makes the book worth the read, but he gives great insights on the Dingle Peninsula, its legends, culture and the conundrum of making sense of religion with such a strong background in science. His perspective is “in the portal between knowledge and mystery, between the commonplace and the divine.”
THE BEARA PENINSULA
At the Edge of Ireland, by David Yeadon – A travel writer’s perspective of the Beara Peninsula, which is the least traveled of all the southwestern peninsulas. Yeadon and his wife spent time on the Beara and he wrote a funny account of that travel which encompasses everything that is the Beara Peninsula – the villages, the ancient megaliths, the mountains, culture, music, bar scene and more. It’s a comprehensive view of what Leon Uris called “the Terrible Beauty.”
McCarthy’s Bar, by Pete McCarthy – a very fun book written by travel and screen writer Pete McCarthy who traveled from the west coast of Ireland from Cork to Donegal obeying one rule of travel – “Never pass a bar with your name on in.” The cover of this bestselling book shows McCarthy’s Bar in Castletownbere on the Beara. Lots of humor. An entertaining read that reveals the magic of Ireland and its people, but also a good account of the Beara Peninsula and the southwest coast.
THE ARAN ISLANDS
The Aran Islands, by John Millington Synge – Between 1898 and 1901, the great Irish literary figure, John M. Synge traveled to the Aran Islands to observe the landscape and culture of the islanders. This short, little book is a beautiful account of the old folklore, language and traditions that were once at the heart of all of Ireland. One can get a good sense of the Aran Island landscape and people – even the Aran of today by reading this book.
IRELAND IN GENERAL
Legendary Ireland, by Eithne Massey – This book focuses on the myths and legends of Ireland that are associated with places. While several of the sites listed such as the Hag of Beara and Áine of Knockainey but the book itself gives an understanding of how the Irish linked the landscape to the stories, and their perception of a mystical chord that knits that mystical world of myths and legends to our present world.
Let us know your favorite books that reveal the mystical nature of Ireland’s southwestern region including counties Cork, Kerry, Clare and Galway. Put your thoughts in the comments.
The Images in the Landscape tour of thin places in the West of Ireland starts in two days, but the complete journey includes the anticipation that comes before travel when we imagine the journey.
So according to that understanding I am already traveling because I’m full of anticipation.
In 2012, I guided a small group of guests on a 10-day thin places tour in the West of Ireland. One of our stops was Coole Park, the home of Lady Augusta Gregory. She and William Butler Yeats and several others were behind much of the Irish Literary Revival in the early twentieth century. Her manor house is gone now, but the grounds, which include formal gardens, a lake and seven woodlands still appear much as they did when she was there overseeing them.
In 1931 Lady Gregory wrote about the grounds around her home:
“These woods have been well loved, well tended by some who came before me, and my affection has been no less than theirs. The generations of trees have been my care, my comforters. Their companionship has often brought me peace.”
As my tour group entered Coole Park, I overheard a park guide addressing a group of tourists. He said, “You have all now just become an image in an ancient landscape.” I thought about the phrase as I continued to walk. Later, that same phrase became a powerful meditation mantra for me.
How many ancient landscapes do we walk through in this life? And how many times are we are reflective enough to connect with them … to become a part of them … to sense the past that swirls around us?
Since that walk in Coole Park three years ago, I’ve led four group tours to Ireland’s thin places, and today I am getting ready to do another, and we’ll be cycling back to Coole Park. The name for this tour is Images in the Landscape. So now …. a phrase dropped by a tour guide in one little slip of a moment will set the tone for the traveling experience of eighteen people.
We will be visiting Coole Park and its ancient landscape that is reminiscent of when Ireland was covered with hardwoods and deep forests, but we’ll also visit the Burren and its sweeping moonscape of rock and megaliths. We’ll journey out into Lough Corrib, a lake named for the mythical Lord of the Sea. And we’ll land on Inchagoil – Lough Corrib’s most famous island. Inchagoil takes its name from the old Irish words for “Island of the stranger” memorializing a devout man who once lived there.
We’ll wind our way through Connemara and absorb that awesome light while following one of Ireland’s most renowned archeologists, Michael Gibbons on a private tour of Connemara’s hidden landscape. Then we’ll head for Crough Patrick – the holy mountain in County Mayo, and the ruins of Murrisk Abbey at the foot of the mountain. We’ll visit Achill Island, sitting atop a bedrock of amethyst. The island radiates a healing energy while it hypnotizes visitors with its scenic coastline. We’ll walk through the Bricklieve mountains and explore a cluster of passage tombs that pre-date the pyramids of Giza. And we’ll stand on the ancient Hill of Uisneach in the mystical center of Ireland and feel the pull of the magnetic energy there.
The journey does not begin when we first arrive at the intended destination. It begins with the anticipation of what will come, of what we will see and learn and experience. Part of that is also worry and fear of the unknown. Travel can be unsettling for some. In looking forward to a journey, we wonder who we will meet, what challenges we’ll face, how we’ll feel once we get there and what the pleasant surprises will be. All of the forethought is part of the journey experience.
The first step in travel – we imagine the journey.
The key learning experiences – the crux of the travel story – the high impact part of the journey – the things that change us are all held in the difference between how we imagine the journey and what the journey actually is. Those differences teach us and change us. Our best memories will be embedded in those differences.
Today I imagine meeting sixteen new friends, and I expect I’ll be changed just a little by each one of them. I look forward to walking up the Hill of Uisneach and touching the Cat Stone and surveying six counties from the summit and feeling that sense of coming home. I’m excited about meeting Michael Gibbons and seeing Connemara through his eyes. I imagine all of things he’ll teach us as we walk that ancient landscape with him. I imagine Inchagoil – and its ruins … and the presence that those ruins still cling to. That will be a new site for me.
I also worry. Worrying about travel is also part of the anticipation. Will the guests get along? Will it rain too much? Will the some of the walking be too difficult for our guests – and how will we handle that? Will the hotels have everything in order? Will I remember everything?
Despite my worries, I know that the “Wow!” moments for the guests on this trip will be remarkable. They’ll never forget the Hill of Uisneach. They’ll be stunned by the raw beauty of Achill Island. They’ll learn so much from our three local guides, Tony Kirby, Michael Gibbons and Mike Croghan. And besides that… I believe no one can drive through Connemara and not be changed. It’s like walking through fairy dust. You’re journeying through several worlds there. So I rest a little knowing that the magical western landscape of Ireland in itself is a jewel that embeds itself in every traveler.
I pray for blessings on Terri, Bob, Linda, Gloria, Bev, Lea, Jim, Maril, John, Karen, Ed, Mary, BJ, Meredith, Bonnie and Renee and safe travel. I pray that John, my excellent coach driver and I will be good leaders and sensitive guides and that on September 20th when this tour is over, our imagined journey will be magnified and expanded by our actual journey and that we will all move forward together.
In the early 6th century when Gobnait fled her home in County Clare, she went to Inis Oírr. We don’t know why she fled, only that she believed she would find refuge in the Aran Islands.
Legend states that an angel appeared to her there and told her that her place was not on Inis Oírr, and instructed Gobnait to go on a journey – to seek her true place of resurrection. “Go until you find nine white deer grazing” the angel told her. “It is there that you will find your place of resurrection.”
So Gobnait wandered about the southern coastal counties of Ireland – Waterford, Cork and Kerry – searching.
She saw three white deer in Clondrohid and followed them to Ballymakeera where she saw six more. But it wasn’t until she came to Ballyvourney to a small rise overlooking the River Sullane that she saw the nine white deer all together – grazing … just as the angel from Inis Oírr had prophesied.
She crossed the river and settled there. She founded a religious community for women, performed memorable – some say miraculous works, and it was there she died and was buried.
Thin Places Mystical Tour
St. Gobnait’s shrine and holy well are stops on our Places of Resurrection tour .
February 11th is St. Gobnait’s feast day -the day her memorable life is celebrated. She is one of the few Irish saints that is not only remembered in her native region, but has been proclaimed by the Irish bishops to be a national saint. There are shrines and places of devotion to St. Gobnait in all the places she is believed to have stopped on her journey – including Inis Oírr. But Ballyvourney, where she carried out most of her ministry, is the place that draws the greatest number of pilgrims devoted to this saint.
Today there is an active church on the former monastic site. St. Gobnait’s grave and marked spots around the churchyard are places where pilgrims pause for devotion and reflection. It is here that they can do the “rounds” or turas, always moving in a clockwise direction – a tradition that has pagan roots.
One of the strongest mystical draws on this site is St. Gobnait’s Holy Well, with its arched entryway that takes the pilgrim into a deeply shaded path. Just next to the well is a sturdy tree, and hanging from it are hundreds of tokens or clooties that have been placed there by pilgrims hoping to leave behind a part of themselves or loved on in need of healing. There are taps and cups available for drinking from the well or for pouring into personal vessels to take holy well water home.
St. Gobnait was best known for her care of the sick. There is a legend that tells of her staving off the plague from Ballyvourney by drawing a line in sand with a stick and declaring the village “consecrated ground.” Inside the church today, there is a medieval (possibly 13th century) figure of St. Gobnait which is kept in a drawer. Every year on her feast day, the parish priest brings out the figure to celebrate a devotional tradition. He holds up the ancient figure and the faithful each step forward with a piece of ribbon. They hold the ribbon up and measure it against the length and around the circumference of the figure, then take it home as a blessed relic used for healing or further devotion.
A tall statue of St. Gobnait that was erected in the 1950s stands near the monastic site. She appears with a nun’s habit standing on a bee hive surrounded by bees. Gobnait is the patron saint of bee keepers, and there are several legends recalling Gobnait forcing invaders out of Ballyvourney by setting swarms of bees upon them. It’s probable that Gobnait had a close relationship with bees and used honey in healing efforts.
Dan and I visited St. Gobnait’s monastic site many years ago. It is indeed, a thin place. The stories of St. Gobnait specifically mention a “place of resurrection.” I heard Dara Molloy use this phrase when referring to his home on Inis Mór and have seen a few authors reference the phrase. But regarding thin places … a place of resurrection is the pinnacle – that place where one’s spirit is totally whole, at home, with no longing or yearning to be anywhere else. A place of resurrection is not only the place where one’s spirit will resurrect from its lifeless body upon death, but also the place where that spirit is most alive inside the living body. And I believe that a place of resurrection is the spiritual home where one is most completely alive and able to create, to discern, to prophesy … to be wise.
The connection between the eternal world and the physical is nearly unidentifiable in a place of resurrection – as they are knitted together in an inextricable pattern where neither can be separated from the other. The place of resurrection then is unto itself the combination of both worlds particularly suited to that specific spirit. … and Ballyvourney was St. Gobnait’s place.
What is yours?
Image of St. Gobnait courtesy of Patricia Banker; Copyright by Patricia Banker, All Rights Reserved. Used With Permission.
Harry Clarke,famous for his stunning stained glass windows scattered all over Ireland, crafted a series of windows depicting the life of Christ that now hang in an obscure chapel in Dingle. To see one Harry Clarke Window is a gift. To see twelve at once is an mystical experience.
The Dingle Peninsula in Ireland’s south west corner is a magical place. Apart from the well-known sites like Slea Head, Gallarus Oratory, the mysterious Blasket Islands, bee hive huts, and Mount Brandon, the Harry Clarke windows in the Chapel of the Sacred Heart at the old convent of the Presentation Sisters are hidden jewels often undiscovered by the traveler who walks the streets of Dingle town.
Perhaps it’s no wonder that Dingle – one of the thinnest places in Ireland – drew unto itself one of the largest collection of Harry Clarke windows installed in a single location.
The windows are housed is a small chapel situated next to St. Mary’s Church on Green Street. Visitors can stop in the An Diseart Visitor Centre and ask for a guided tour, or contact the Centre ahead of time and secure a appointment to view the windows. The young woman who conducted my personal tour explained that this was once a convent and the chapel was solely for the nuns. They were the only beneficiaries of this magnificent art except for on rare occasions.
Harry Clarke was the son of a craftsman. He started working with stained glass under his father’s direction when he was in his teens. After he completed his education, Harry Clarke began his professional career as an illustrator. His illustrations adorned books of fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen and Edgar Allen Poe. It was Clarke’s craftsmanship as an illustrator that set his stained glass windows apart from other famous stained glass artists. The detail to fine lines and his method for using lead to carefully outline his figures was unique. His use color, particularly his shades of blue, made his windows stand apart.
This little chapel next to the grand St. Mary’s Church houses twelve lancet stained glass windows by Harry Clarke. Many churches in Ireland will claim one Harry Clarke window as an element to attract visitors. (And viewing one window IS worth a visit anywhere). But to have twelve all together in one spot is enough to take one’s breath away. Each pair of double windows depicts one of six scenes from the life of Christ – Visit of the Magi, Baptism by John the Baptist, Suffer the Little Children, Sermon on the Mount, Agony in the Garden, and Christ’s Appearance to Mary Magdalene.
The faces of Harry Clarke’s characters in theses windows draw the admirer into the work of art – connecting on a deep level. The eyes of the figures follow you as you move around the chapel, and the expressions on the faces are full of emotion. They haunt you after you leave.
The series of windows transports the gazer … lifts the spirit into another realm. They stimulate the imagination.
In 1929, mystical writer George Russell (aka AE) wrote, “Harry Clarke is one of the strangest geniuses of his time … He might have incarnated from the dark side of the moon.” ~The Irish Statesman
If you’re in Dingle, ask about the Clarke windows. Anyone can direct you to St. Mary’s Catholic Church. The former convent – now theAn Diseart Visitor Centre is next door. Only escorted tours are offered and the hours of operation for the Centre vary so call ahead and inquire about a guided a tour.
The tour takes about and hour and there are beautiful walled gardens as well as a hidden tunnel that can be explored with a guide. But make the chapel the last thing you see, because everything after that will be underwhelming.
The Harry Clarke windows in Dingle are on the Places of Resurrection Tour in 2015
Ireland and its thin places have such a draw for those interested in traveling a bit deeper into the landscape. Here are 12 pictures that show some of these amazing places. All of them are on our Castles, Saints & Druids Thin Places tour this September 2014. Join us!
The King Oak is said to be between 500-800 years old. It’s part of an ancient oak forest once sacred to the Druids, then later the site of a monastic community. The forest entombs Charleville Castle, a gothic-style castle built from 1798-1812. The King Oak ranked #3 in Europe’s Tree of the Year 2013 and it’s a familiar old spot to the people around Tullamore. Many a romance started and ended beneath the branches of this tree. The spread of the lower branches spread out over 150 feet from end to end. This oak is set in an ancient grove with other trees that are hundreds of years old. When the British invaded Ireland and occupied the country, they ravaged the land, stripping it of all its forests, then exported the wood for profit. Fortunately this oak forest was part of a 1700 acre “gift” from Queen Elizabeth I to the Moore family. The gentry tended to keep the trees on land around their homes. This oak forest has been considered magical for centuries.
Charleville Castle was built by the Earl of Charleville between 1798 and 1812 in an ancient oak forest near Tullamore. The site was formerly occupied by the Lynally monastic community, and before that was used by the druids for sacred rituals and ceremonies. It is currently owned by a non-profit that uses volunteers from all over the world to help restore the castle and bring it into a self-sustaining existence. The caretaker says that the designers of the castle were Masons and positioned the round towers on crossed ley lines which creates a powerful energy field in the tower rooms. The caretaker also has experienced ghostly sitings that include druids, the Earls of Charleville and the castle designer. Many believe that a little girl named Harriet who was the daughter of the third Earl of Charleville haunts the back staircase where she fell to her death after trying to slide down the bannister. Charleville Castle and its surrounding oak forest is considered one of the scariest places in Ireland.
Castleruddery Stone Circle in County Wicklow is a Bronze Age Druidical circle once used for ritual. There are a total of about 40 stones on the site but the circle itself has about 20 standing stones places on a raised embankment. This would have been a place of great importance based on the geographic layout of the stones, embankment and ditch that is dug outside the embankment. Two large quartz stones mark the portal (entrance) of this circle. Quartz in an amplifier of energy and believed to have healing properties. Some locals from this area believe this stone circle has healing properties. There is also a fairy tree in the circle (pictured here). The roots are wound around a standing stone. Some of the stones have cup marks carved into them and notches carved across.
Set in the Wicklow Mountains, Glendalough (meaning valley between two lakes) features the ruins a Medieval monastic city founded by St. Kevin in the 6th century. In the last two centuries it’s been used as a graveyard for local families, but the old bones of the monastic city can still be seen in the hilly landscape. ruins of churches, round-towers, buildings dating from the 9th to 13th century make this site absolutely enchanting. The views of the glen and lakes and babbling stream connecting the lakes are also remarkable. Our Castles, Saints and Druids tour group will be overnighting in the Glendalough Hotel in September.
St. Kevin’s Kitchen is a 12th century church in Glendalough, and often used as a defining landmark for the ancient monastic city. The church has a stone roof with a round tower built into the roof. Round towers were used for bells, for look-out stations to see people approaching from a distance.
St. Berrihert’s Kyle is a round structure built by the local people from pieces of an old monastic ruin. It was made to mark a Cillini or burial ground for unbaptized babies and others not qualified for sanctified ground. The kyle is a complete circle set in an oak grove in the Glen of Aherlow in County Tipperary. Pilgrims travel from all over to pray here. They leave behind devotional tokens – some very rare. These tokens are offerings left in hopes that their prayers will be answered. There is also a holy well (more like a small pond) nearby that is flanked fairy trees covered in clooties, also left by pilgrims.
If the Rock of Cashel doesn’t inspire you, nothing will. This cluster of ruins atop a rocky hill in County Tipperary can be seen for miles. It always reminds me of Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz. The Rock is set in the middle of agricultural land known as the “Golden Veil” because of the bounty of food it produces, and that land is ringed by mountains. The views from the Rock are stunning, and the energy and power of the site radiates in almost fearsome abundance. This is a must-see site in Ireland.
This is the Lia Fáil or Stone of Destiny perched atop the Hill of Tara – a corronation site once used for crowning the High Kings of Ireland. An old legend states that if the true High King was crowned, the Lia Fáil would literally cry out or roar. If this stone looks phallic to you, that’s because it’s meant to look that way. The ancient pagans didn’t have the sexual hang-ups of our present world. They believed that male and female were two aspects of the Divine. In this case the stone may represent the male Divine aspect in union with the female aspect (the earth). The stone is believed to have magical properties – those properties were demonstrated the roar of the stone during coronations. The Hill of Tara has a brilliant earth energy.
Newgrange, the Boyne Valley is Ireland’s oldest building remaining fully intact. The tomb dates back 5000 years, predating the pyramids of Egypt, Stonehenge and all the other tombs and prehistoric enclosed structures in Ireland and Britain. Newgrange was a center for spiritual ritual and has remained intact since the Stone Age. The inside is large with a center chamber large enough for 20 people to stand and three side chambers. The entrance is shown in this image (center). Above the opening the tomb is a stone lintel which allows the passage of light to penetrate the pitch blackness of the tomb during the sunrise on the Winter Solstice (December 21) – the shortest day of the year. Visitors to Newgrange can walk deep into the passage tomb and a guide uses an electric light-beam to demonstrate the shift from dark to light during the Solstice sunrise.
There are people who search for Sheela-na-gig’s all over Ireland and in other Celtic countries. These figures are usually primitive carvings in stone that depict a female revealing her genitals with legs spread wide open … usually with some kind of angry face. Some say the Sheelas were fertility goddesses, others believe they a defense against evil or bad energy similar to the function of a gargoyle. They are often found over doorways or beside entryways in churches and castles. Ireland has the most known Sheelas of any country (101). This Sheela-na-gig is hidden under the altar at St. Brigid’s Cathedral in Kildare. As our Thin Places tour group wandered through this beautiful and ancient cathedral, one of the cathedral staff people pointed this out to me. It was tough getting a picture (had to practically lay on the floor), but it was well worth it.
Leap Castle is still being restored by its owner, musician Seán Ryan and his wife. The castle located in County Offaly was built by the O’Bannon clan in the 13th century, and later came under the ownership of the O’Carroll clan. It is said to have been built on a former ceremonial site used by the druids, and archaeologists estimate there has been human habitation on the site since the Iron Age (500 BC). Leap is famous for being haunted, probably because of the violence that has occurred there. The O’Carroll clan, warring over leadership resolved the conflict when one brother (a priest) was saying mass for his gathered family members in the chapel on the upper floor of the tower. Another brother burst through the door and murdered the priest with his sword in front of the family. Thereafter the upper floor of the tower was known as “the Bloody Chapel.” Leap also has an “elemental” or non-human spirit that has been seen as a shadowy figure that makes mischief.
While we all love thin places and mystical landscapes, no travel to Ireland is complete until the visitor gets to experience the Irish culture, and Kilkenny is certainly a vibrant town of culture. The name Kilkenny originates from the Irish words that mean Church of Canice and St. Canice’s Cathedral and round tower sitting atop a hill anchors one end of the city while Kilkenny Castle anchors the other. In between are shops, galleries, pubs and heritage sites. This was once a hub for monastic communities. The Grey Friars were here as were the Franciscans – St. Francis Abbey is now home Ireland’s oldest operating brewery which makes Smithwicks and Kilkenny beer. Walking the Kilkenny’s downtown is an excellent way to engage in conversation with the Irish, and the most memorable thing you’ll do on a trip to Ireland is engage with the Irish people.
All of the pictures above and the sites mentioned are part of our Castles, Saints and Druids tour for 2014. It runs from September 11 – 21st. It is a small, specialized tour focused on mystical sites ranging from the ancient druids to the monastic communities through the times of the British occupation. The cost is $2099 per person + airfare. For more details check out the Tour Itinerary.
Some believe that stones and trees hold on to the memories of a place. I believe that’s true. The stones in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin go on forever. Over 1.5 million people have been buried there since its establishment in 1832, and the markers tell the story of Irish. I went to Glasnevin for those stories. I stayed and was overcome by the art and power of the stones.
Here is a short video featuring some of these remarkable stones.
Glasnevin was established after Daniel O’Connell got legislation passed that allowed Catholics to practice their burial rites and traditions in public. Prior to this, Catholics were oppressed and the “penal laws” prohibited them from the public practice of religious ritual. At Glasnevin, Protestants and Catholics were buried in one place. There was even a place for stillborn children, or children who died before being baptized.
When I planned my trip to Glasnevin, I intended to see the graves of Michael Collins, Eamon de Valera, Brendan Behan, Maud Gonne and Constance Markievicz. My friend Kathy and I spent hours there … not looking for certain graves, but simply looking at grave after grave, stone after stone. The craftsmanship and art in preserving memories and marking places of importance is overwhelming. One loses track of time.
Glasnevin is a thin place.
If you plan a visit to Glasnevin, be prepared to walk and give yourself enough time to wander, to think, to get inside the memories that marked here in gardens of stone that go on forever.
Castleruddery Stone Circle – also known locally in Wicklow as the “Druid Stone Circle” sits in a clearing at the mouth of the Glen Imaal. Lugnaquilla, the highest peak of the Wicklow Mountain Range is visible in the distance. If I had to pick 3 favorite stone circles out of the scores I’ve visited in Ireland, they would be Uragh, Beaghmore and Castleruddery.
Castleruddery Stone Circle in on our Castles, Saints & Druids tour in September of 2014
There are about 30 stones in this disheveled circle which measures about 100 feet in diameter. Whitethorn trees have grown up in the circle – one actually clutches stones in its roots. Why is this one of my favorites? Energy. There is a an old, ancient energy about Castleruddery. A sensitive person can feel the vibrations from the circle on the approach.
The circle dates back likely to the early Bronze Age (2500 BC), and it has two qualities not typically found together in stone circles –
Stones outside the circle near the eastern opening of the embankment could be directional stones pointing to the circle – sort of acting like wayside markers.
What we can safely surmise is that Castleruddery Stone Circle was an important place of ritual and probably had a grand entrance.
This circle has the most amazing stones. The most impressive are the portal stones. They are massive white quartz recumbent stones that mark the entryway (east) into the circle. Quartz was significant in druidic circles. It reflected the light rather than absorbing it, and quartz retains energy and absorbs energy from its surrounds.
Local say that Druids still use Castleruddery stone circle for rituals, and that the circle is believed to have healing properties.
Some of the stones in the circle are bullaun stones – stone with cup markings. In the Celtic tradition, these bullauns were created to hold rainwater at a sacred site, and the water collected would have healing properties. There are also stories of locals putting milk (a sign of purity) for the people of the Sidhe in the indentations of bullauns.
But sometimes the circular markings are for other purposes like being indentations to support other circular stones that were used as cursing stones or blessing stones (depending on which way a person turns the stones). In other cases markings on stones – particularly recumbent stones (flat lying stones) – charted an astronomical event like the setting of the sun on a particular day. Carvings could also be directional meant to lead the traveler to a destination.
No one can be certain what the markings on the Castleruddery stones mean. But they are interesting if nothing else.
Ground yourself and calm yourself just before you enter Castleruddery through the quartz portal stones, and you may be able to feel the energy, the vibrations that come through the circle.
Ritual practices ignite energy and also revive it. Energy that is ancient can lie dormant and a stone circle can feel stagnant or dead. But when people come back to a place and practice rituals, they rejuvenate the old energy, calling it back, reigniting what was once there – stirring up the old and mingling it with the new. The circle feels like it once did – vibrating with energy.
This is how Castleruddery feels to me. The strong vibrational pull is similar to Cashelkeelty or Uragh in West Cork and Beaghmore in Tyrone or Caldragh in Fermanagh (even though Caldragh is not a stone circle but the home of the Boa Island Janus figures). There is a magic about the stones.
The name Castleruddery comes from the Irish Caisleán an Ridire meaning Castle of the Knight.
Castleruddery Stone Circle in on our Castles, Saints & Druids tour in September of 2014
On a thin places tour of Ireland, the traveler focuses on places where the veil between this world and the eternal world is thin. In these mystical places spiritual energy is high, and there is a strong sense of the life force that charges every living thing. Thin places have a special energy, a vibration that resonates. The landscape has a magnetic pull.
While thin places exist everywhere, Ireland has hundreds scattered over a country that is barely the size of West Virginia or Vermont. If you are intrigued by ancient standing stones, old oak trees, monastic ruins; if you’re inspired by castles, intrigued by stories of heroes, giants, goddesses and kings; if you hunger for a connection with your ancestors or long to go deeper into your own spirit and soul, then you’re ripe for a mystical tour of Ireland’s thin places.
Here are six reasons to tour Ireland’s thin places:
Perhaps you are longing to know more about what lies beyond earthly existence. Maybe you have a desire to travel inward, a desire to belong to something greater. You love nature and know that every living thing is charged with the Divine presence. You love history and stories of your ancient civilizations.
You want to connect with an ancient landscape – to touch the Other world – to draw from it, to feel the pulse of the earth’s energy, to feel the presence of those who went before and those who will come after, to walk in a magical landscape in order to discover your own inner landscape.
You already have one foot in this world and one in the Other world. You may have a great affinity for trees, for stones, for wildlife, mountains and the sea. Sometimes you journey during meditation. You believe there are no coincidences. To you coincidences and synchronicity are the language of the spirit world. Sometimes you can sense the memories of the past in a particular place. You are intrigued by old stones, by art, poetry and music. They transport you into a higher existence. Yet though you have these sensitivities, you know there is more. You’re looking to perfect your gifts and you’re hungry for a deeper understanding.
Perhaps you’re a healer, a priest, a spiritual director, and energy worker, a psychic medium, a mystic, a therapist, or someone who offers powerful prayers for others. You’re able to walk in both worlds and have an internal sense of the Divine. You successfully communicate with spirits and otherworldly beings. You may have a strong understanding of earth energies, and can feel the vibrations in a highly charged site. You may have an understanding of the spiritual power in ritual and devotion (rounds of prayers such as the rosary, ritual practices, meditation, pilgrimage, visits to holy wells).
You may be responsible for teaching others spiritual or healing practices… a practitioner who trains others, a mentor, an artist, a therapist. In a world where spiritual leaders are scarce and negative forces threaten to quench the zeal and passion of those who seek a higher existence, being in a mystical landscape refreshes and strengthens the soul. Creativity thrives. Needed spirit guides appear. Lifelong friends are made.
Whether it’s physical, emotional or spiritual healing you need, Ireland’s thin places have a strong, healing energy. The soul soaks up this energy with every step into the mystical landscape.
People on spiritual journeys often reach out for the support of friends or family. While some like a solitary experience, others want a close companion or soul mate to travel with them. Though you may not be searching spiritually, or looking to deepen your own understanding, you may be called to support someone who is. Often times people who support others on a thin places journey will find unexpected benefits in their own lives. It may be nothing more than relaxation and a calming of the spirit, but if you’re asked to go on a thin places tour, it’s most likely meant to be.
Why not consider joining us on a thin places tour of Ireland?
Grianán of Aileach or Grianán Ailligh is a cashel on the Inishowen Peninsula in County Donegal. Also known as the “Sun Palace,” it was the royal citadel of the northern Ui Néill (O’Neills) from the 5th to 12th century.
The cashel dates to the third century and archaeologists suspect it could have been built on a former Neolithic sacred site or burial mound. Experts in Irish culture and heritage believe that the mound was used for ritual purposes as far back as 1700 BC and was the center of one of Ulster’s ancient kingdoms – and later the political center of the ruling O’Neill’s and later the O’Donnells. This would have been the royal center, where kings were crowned and rituals carried out as well as a defensive structure.
Though the actual ring fort was probably built in early Christian times, the three concentric rings surrounding the cashel as well as artifacts discovered in the surrounding rings suggest this spot was used for ritual much earlier. The cashel itself is 77 feet in diameter and its walls are 13 feet thick with chambers embedded. Inside the circle are stairways built into the inside walls the lead to ringed seating areas – like an amphitheater. This seating gallery would hold hundred of people who could witness inaugurations and other ritual ceremonies.
The City of Derry’s website has a video embedded that was filmed inside the cashel and shows a reenactment of a medieval celebration
From the top of the ring one can see for miles in every direction. Counties Tyrone, Donegal and Derry are in view with mountains, cliffs, open pastures, villages and beaches. Lough Foyle and Lough Swilly, the two bodies of water that flank the Inishowen Peninsula swirl about in that landscape. The peninsula rolls out like a blanket from this vantage point, eventually vanishing in a misty gray horizon (on a sunny day, that is). It’s easy to understand how the cashel on dominated the region and became as the political center. Its remarkable disk-image capping a hill 800 feet above sea level is visible to so much of the surrounding countryside.
Folklore suggests that prior to the cashel, this hill was associated with deities linked to the sun. In Irish “Ail” refers to stone. Grianán in Irish means “sunny spot” or sun temple. So the name could refer to a stony sun temple or palace. But according to author Cary Meehan who wrote Sacred Ireland, it can also mean sunny disposition or of the sun. In Celtic mythology Grainne was the sister of Aine – goddes of the sun, and though Grainne was known as goddess of corn or grain (springs from the earth after being nurtured by the sun), both sisters are said to have been birthed by a sunbeam or “of the sun.”
There is also a tradition that the temple was built by Daghdha, the good god or god of the earth. He was known as the King of the Tuatha dé Danann, a race of supernatural beings descended from the Goddess Danu. They inhabited Ireland before the Celts. This tradition has Daghda building the fort to protect the grave of his son. A variation tells of giants building the hill and the Grianán on top a residence for the shining ones who gave birth to the children of the sídhe. All of these traditions link the hill and the fort on top with supernatural beings, to unseen energy and power and a link to the Otherworld.
Cashels were built for defensive purposes, but circles are also linked to Irish ritual and spirituality. The shape represents a deeper meaning. Stone circles, carved spirals on implements and burial stones, circular mounds covering passage tombs indicate this. There was also a later belief that circular buildings had no corners for evil entities to hide. Thus one can’t dismiss the spiritual importance of Grianán of Aileach, even though the cashel marked it as a secular site. The traditional beliefs embedded in the Irish life permeated all they did. This circular fort sitting atop three concentric circles on a circular hill was built with circles in mind. And the site has a powerful energy about it.
Originally the cashel had been the stronghold of the 4th century chieftain, Niall of the 9 Hostages. Later it became the stronghold of the O’Neill kings and the O’Donnells. The cashel was mostly destroyed in 1101 by the king of Munster, Murtagh O’Brien and his army in retaliation for the O’Neill’s destruction of his palace in Clare (Kincora). After they sacked Grianán of Aileach, Murtagh O’Brien told his army of a thousand men to each take a stone from the cashel with them so that the fort could not be rebuilt.
The cashel was later restored again in 1837 by a Dr. Bernard from Belfast. And in 2007 the Irish Office of Public Works restored it to the excellent condition it is in today. Some say it is over restored. But over-restoration has not blocked the ancient energy that still apparently seeps from the ground and surroundings.
Irish Musician, Tommy Makem in his book Tommy Makem’s Secret Ireland wrote about his experience in trying to tape a television interview with Derry songwriter, Roy Arbuckle inside the cashel . Arbuckle laughed and told Makem that they’d never be able to record inside the walls. Makem couldn’t see any reason why it shouldn’t work.
But it didn’t work. Within a minute the sound engineer notice erratic movements on the meters which he couldn’t correct. The struggle continued for an hour and a half. They finally eked out 15 minutes worth of an interview, and as soon as they were done, all the batteries went dead. Somehow, Arbuckle expected this difficulty. Makem writes, “Roy seemed to understand the workings of some hidden forces in this magical place. He was chucking all the way back to Derry.”
It is true that Grianán of Aileach has an energy about it. One feels it on the walk up the hill to reach the cashel. It’s mad windy on that hilltop but as soon as you enter the linteled doorway into the ring, all the sounds of wind cease. Everything is suddenly still, and there is a strange silence. As soon as I crossed that threshold my imagination moved immediately to those who were in this space before… the sounds, the voices, the cheering, the shouting almost as if an old movie was playing in my head.
The entrance into the cashel is a threshold the opens into a place of different energy.
Over-restored or not, that energy is still present and the views of the surrounding landscape are some of the best I’ve seen in Ireland. Standing on the top level of the cashel ridge I surveyed the breadth of three counties – their pastures, mountains and Loughs Foyle and Swilly. The oneness of Ireland then and now is knitted together in that view.
One can see the approximate location of Rathmullen, a village on the west bank of Lough Swilly. It was from there that Hugh O’Neill and Rory O’Donnell left on a French boat bound for Spain one midnight in September of 1607. With 90+ relatives they sailed out of Lough Swilly changing the Irish social and political landscape forever. It marked an end to the old Gaelic order. An order of Chieftains and clans and common beliefs and the practice of rich traditions rooted in an ancient time.
And behind the fleeing earls was Grianán of Aileach, a remnant of old Ireland. In its time it was a great royal center, second to the Hill of Tara. An ancient road links them to each other. There is a legend of a cave in the hill beneath the cashel where the horsemen of the Great Hugh O’Neill rest in a magic sleep in full armor, mounted on their horses. The sleeping spell will only be broken when the next destined leader of Ulster arrives to lead them to victory.
So it seems there’s still a little magic left at Grianán of Aileach.
Sources used for writing this post:
A Traveler‘s Guide to Sacred Ireland by Cary Meehan
Tommy Makem’s Secret Ireland by Tommy Makem
Legendary Ireland by Eithne Massey
Mythic Ireland by Michael Dames
National and Historic Monuments of Ireland by Peter Harbison
Celtic Myths and Legends by Peter Berresford Ellis
Goddess Alive!: Inviting Celtic & Norse Goddesses Into Your Life by Michelle Skye
From Inishowen Buncrana Calling, the Heritage of Eoghain website by Brian Lace