Legend tells us that St Brigid was born near Kildare to a slave mother who was a Christian and very sickly. As a child, Brigid persuaded the Druid master to free her mother which in turn freed Brigid to enter religious life.
Kildare is one of the stops on the Thin Places Mystical Tour of Ireland – Castles, Saints & Druids in September 2014.
Since there were no convents in Ireland, Brigid began one in Kildare. The sisters of St. Brigid prayed simply and deeply and served the poor. We know that Brigid was a contemporary of St. Patrick and a strong legend states that she was ordained a bishop because of her superior knowledge and closeness to God.
Another legend is associated with the goddess or holy woman, called Brigid dating back to pre-Christian times in this region. Stories of the two women have been woven and spun into legends and tales that all point to a holy woman, who drew followers to this site and performed rituals that were associated with healing, protection, comfort and help for the poor. The town of Kildare grew up around the community that this woman – Brigid – founded.
Kildare translated means “cell” or church of the oak. Oaks were known to be sacred trees in pre-Christian Ireland which gives weight to the pagan or goddess tradition of Brigid. But it is believed that a Christian woman named Brigid founded a community here around 480 AD, that she was a contemporary of St. Patrick and was recognized for great spiritual wisdom. There are legends that she was ordained a bishop in the church due to her wisdom.
Brigid is now one of Ireland’s patron saints, and is often linked in patronage to farmers and poor pastoral workers – the common citizen, the oppressed Irish tenant farmer of past centuries. It is possible – some say likely – that St. Brigid located her religious community on the spot where the Kildare Cathedral is now situated. 13th century buildings now occupy the spot along with the second tallest round tower in Ireland and an oratory and fire pit which likely date back to pagan times. Legend states that St. Brigid kept an flame burning in the fire pit continually as a devotion to the Holy Spirit. The perpetual flame is still cared for today by the Brigidine sisters who live nearby. For centuries this cathedral site has been a draw for pilgrims – a holy place, a place of spiritual strength.
Nearby is St. Brigid’s Holy Well, and the thinness of this place is palpable. This is actually a secondary well, springing from a known ancient holy well a short distance away. Volunteers and benefactors have created a beautiful setting around St. Brigid’s Holy Well also known as Tobar Bride. A bronze statue of St. Brigid lifting the eternal flame has been added in recent years. Stone prayer stations lead from the well to a running spring.
Wells were considered holy by the pre-Christian Irish being that they sprung from the “underworld” or the womb of the earth. That tradition of holiness exists today. Water from holy wells is believed to have special power for healing and spiritual protection.
“A holy well is very special. To watch water springing from the earth is to witness creation in the act of pure, unconditional generosity. At a holy well, my own interior holy well has an opportunity to make itself known to me.” – Gay Barbizon, Brigid’s Kildare; The Fire, the Well and the Oak.
Upon entering Tobar Bride, the pilgrim can see a small devotional shrine where donations are publicly accepted and welcomed. The old pagan tradition encourages the pilgrim to leave an offering when taking water from the well.
Pilgrims are encouraged to say prayers at each of the seven stations at Tobar Bride. Just past the small devotional shrine is the spring marked by a stone arch. This is the first station. Water flows through two oval shaped stones. Some say these stones symbolize the breasts of the earth – our mother. The bronze statue of St. Brigid is near to the arch.
Past the arch are five standing stones or “stations” that represent a part of Brigid’s nature. Pilgrims pause and recognize these qualities and perhaps pray for the same graces to develop in their own lives.
First stone – Brigid the woman of Ireland, the patroness, the protector of a beloved country.
Second stone – Brigid the peacemaker, healing division, bringing forward unity.
Third stone – Brigid the friend of the poor, advocate of the marginalized, speaker for they that have no voice.
Fourth stone – Brigid the hearthwoman, keeping the home flame burning, welcoming all, woman of hospitality.
Fifth stone – Brigid the woman of contemplation, which leads to wisdom and closeness with the Creator.
The holy well behind the five standing stones marks the 7th station. It is here that one can pause and reflect, pray for a loved one, and draw water – perhaps to take to a loved one who is ill or to bless a home.
It is traditional belief that a person taking something from (holy water) from a devotional site should leave something behind. Notice the tree behind the well. Dangling from its branches are stips of cloth and other tokens – also known as “clooties” – that have been left behind by pilgrims. The cloth may have been touched to the person for whom the pilgrim is praying. Sometimes pilgrims leave photos or personal belongings behind – things that have touched the person they are praying for. This tree had a baby’s shoe dangling from a branch.
The pastoral setting of this park-like devotional space is near the Curragh – or places where the thoroughbred race horses – famous in Kildare – run and are kept. It is almost impossible not to be moved when entering this space.
This is a very Thin Place.
Of all the Famine Memorials I’ve seen in Ireland, the one in Custom House Quay in Dublin’s Docklands is the most moving. Life-size sculptures of gaunt, listless peasants stand almost as if in slow motion … wandering down the quay.
If ever there was a depiction of “walking in two worlds” it here.
One world reflects the current pulse of Dublin. Business people, tourists, and cyclists move along this path on the north side of the River Liffey at a quick pace. Their intent is focused. Even those sitting on benches are texting, or chatting on the phone, or reading. Few take notice the bronze faces and bodies – frozen in place.
The Other world is the world of the famine walkers. The world of 1845 when Great Hunger began. The walkers move quietly through the chaos of busy Dublin, slowly and deliberately. They plead for help, for food, for shelter from those who have plenty, but are are turned away or ignored…. treat like bothersome pests.
They begged the world to notice them then. They beg the world to notice them now.
When the world looked away, they lost their homes, their children died, their families crumbled. They starved.
Now they are a memory that moves through the veil of time onto Custom House Quay so that we who have much, might be moved.
One of the first Famine voyages carrying the starving Irish to new lives in America left from the this place. The ship was named Perseverance. It sailed on St. Patrick’s Day in 1846 and landed in New York two months later.
The bronze figures were designed and crafted by Dublin sculptor Rowan Gillespie, and they were presented to to the City of Dublin in 1997.
Our guests on Thin Places tours in 2014 will visit this Memorial and a few others in Dublin.
A medieval road that has so many stories to tell, stories of laughter, love, terror, murder & life. In a county with such a rich history roads like these have so much to tell, but we have to be their voice.
Tipperary has a built heritage that would put most counties in Ireland to shame. If you threw a stone in any part of this wonderful county you would be hard pressed not to hit a historical site, it maybe stone age, iron age, bronze age or early medieval, middle or late medieval.
As I walk this road I wonder if Lord Inchaquinn used this road on his way to Athassel Priory, a visit that resulted in plunder and the end of this great priory. After his visit no more would the bell call the monks to worship, no more would the workers be seen in the fields planting or saving crops or tending livestock.
A peace fell on Athassel priory as Inchaquinn headed back to his home in Bunratty, his English master pleased with his violent conquest of those peaceful men of god.
This road has also seen famine, the poor people of this rich green fertile valley “The Golden vale” they could not have seen their precious potato fail. A population to big for their island home, to poor to grow anything but the praitie and kept in ignorance by Lord & Master.
This road has seen more resent action during our war of independence and civil war. The barracks at the top of the road was attacked. But this road has also seen and heard laughter. It was home for many years to the school house. Children from the village of Golden would walk each weekday to school. There is a two story building which is now in ruins but as I pass I can still hear the children at play.
I often wonder about young couples heading to the village for the fair or for the dancing at the cross roads, young love in early bloom. The farm workers heading to and from work over the centuries, planning their days & their lives. How many dreamed of traveling to other countries, of the chance to make a new life, to make their fortune and to be able to help their families back home.
We can now say that “Far away hills are greener” but to people who worked long hours at back breaking work those hills are the only thing that offered hope. So many people would have kept some little bit of sanity in the hope that they could save enough money for a passage to England, Australia or North America.
Athassel Priory now lay in ruins but we need to remember that at one stage it was one of the most important priory’s in Ireland and England With the prior having a seat at parliament. A one mile walk to this wonderful site and yet I cannot but think how much history has this road seen.
John Cash is a photographer, historian and tour guide who specializes in County Tipperary. You can visit his Luv Tipperary Facebook page for more great content like this post.
I remember visiting Northern Ireland in the days when the military occupied the border equipped with machine guns and combat gear. I loved the north just as much then as I do now that the army, barbed wire and weapons are gone and a quiet peace has settled over the land. It’s a rugged, raw and ancient landscape that isn’t changed by external forces. Battles come and battle go, but the land and its sacred places remain unmoved and unchanged.
The North is my favorite region probably because the bones of the old landscape still peek through the sod without having to fight massive motorways and residential developments for attention. The ancients knew the energy was powerful here, and they marked many of their sacred places. While some markings have fallen away, the energy still lives. It continues to nourish the human spirit today just as it has for thousands of years.
Sadly, most tourists in the north pass by these special places not realizing that just off the road they’re driving on are stopping places where the traveler can walk in two worlds at once. Here are seven of my favorites in the North. You can’t approach this thin places and not be moved.
I’m an earth energy novice. Like most common people, I can tell when a place has a sacred feel, but I can’t feel the energy move through the stones and emanate from earth the way some of my friends can. But Beaghmore radiates energy that even I can feel. It’s palpable.
Beaghmore is a series of seven stone circles set in a clearing at the edge of the Sperrin Mountains in County Tyrone. Six of of the circles are paired and one stands alone. The circles date back to 2000 BC. Artifacts excavated from the site suggest ritual activity 1000 years before that.
Two interesting things about Beaghmore – The circle that stands alone has 800 jagged stones set in the center (known as Dragon’s Teeth) and one circle has a portal to the Otherworld. In the center of the circle with the portal is a recent burn mark in the center of scorched grass and earth. It is currently being used as a ritual site.
Read more about the mystical nature of Beaghmore on Maura Brooks’ blog.
Belfast gets a ton of visitors. But how many know that just outside the city is henge monument that predates the pyramids of Egypt? A henge monument is a circular enclosure with a ditch carved out inside the ring. A henge fort is the same circular enclosure on the ditch is on the outside making it easier to defend the fort.
The Giant’s ring is a henge monument with the ring and ditch easily identified. The earth ring is about 600 feet in diameter and in the center is a slight hill crowned by a five large stones that support a large capstone. It’s believed that these stones on the hill are what remains of a neolithic passage tomb. The area is now preserved and used as a park. The visitor can do a ritual walk around the ring and then examine the stones in the center. There is actually a 3 mile defined walk of the ring and surrounds that includes a bridge that dates back to the Stone Age and a historic woodland.
There is a lovely energy here.
I knew about Navan Fort being the legendary stronghold for the Knights of the Red Branch and the place where the goddess Macha died giving birth to her twins. Also known as “Eamhain Mhacha” or the “twins of Macha,” Navan Fort was associated with pagan ritual for years.
But what I didn’t know was that the famous mound (130 feet in diameter and about 20 feet high) had a fire ritual history. About 94 BC a wood temple supported by large oak pillars was built where the mound is and burned on the site in ritual fashion. The ruins of the temple were covered up with stone and earth creating the mound we see today. Excavation showed that soil used in the covering of the temple came from other places – some quite distant. Today people return to soak in the energy of the mound which apparently is still quite active. There is also a tradition of rolling down the mound to in order to soak in the energy of the mound whilst giving one’s own energy back to the mound.
At the base of the mound is a fairy tree, an old oak that looks much like a dragon rearing up against an enemy.
The story of Navan Fort is well told during the guided tour. For the full experience, pay the money at the Visitor’s Center and take the tour. The guides are fabulous and there is much to learn from them.
Everyone knows about the great tourist sites on the Antrim Coast – the Giant’s Causeway, Dunluce Castle, Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge and the Bushmills Distillery. Travelers visiting these places pass right by Whitepark Bay not realizing what a mystical site they’re overlooking.
Right between the Causeway and Rope Bridge, just off the A2 is Whitepark Bay. It has a car park and solid stairway that descends to the magical beach where the sand sings.
The sand on the beach is mixed with chalk from the cliff face which gives it such a fine consistency that when the wind blows a certain way (which it inevitably will) one can hear the sand “hum” with vibration. The cliffs are gorgeous and tucked into their vegetation overgrowth are the remains of passage tombs. This space in the landscape was considered sacred to the ancients. This beach is a thin place. It’s a portal, a threshold to the Otherworld. A place for thinking, for connection with your higher self. One only has to walk it to know this truth.
I collect heart shaped rocks when I travel as souvenirs from my twin granddaughters. This usually takes an hour or more to find the perfect rock shaped like a heart. At Whitepark I set out looking for two heart shaped rocks and asked my friend Maura to help thinking we could save time. Suddenly they were everywhere. Within 10 minutes we found 8.
8 … a mystical number for sure. The number that symbolizes infinity, connection to the Creator, the Cosmic Christ, the totality of the Universe. Maura kept one for herself. I brought 7 home. On sits on my desk. A daily reminder of Whitepark Bay.
Driving the circle around the Inishowen Peninsula is at least a half-day, if not whole day commitment. But why not commit? It is some of the most spectacular driving in all of Ireland. And unlike many of the other spectacular drives (Ring of Kerry, Sally Gap, Connemara Hills, Molls Gap) it isn’t so crowded with visitors and coaches. Even in the cold and the pouring rain, the Inishowen is gorgeous. At its base on the south eastern side is Grianán of Aileach, also known as the Sun Palace.
Grianán of Aileach was the ancient royal site for northern Ui Néil from the 5th to the 12th century. The now restored cashel dates to the 3rd century and caps three concentric earth rings. The panoramic views from the cashel of the peninsula, Loughs Foil and Swilly and the city of Derry are dizzying – especially if you’re balancing yourself on the top ridge of the cashel.
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.
This is place every mystic should visit before he or she dies. Walking into Caldragh is like passing into another world. It’s an ancient cemetery on Boa Island set on the north shore of Lough Erne. It is surrounded by hazel woods with a fairy tree at the entrance. The ground is lumpy due to all the old graves, marked with jagged stones now covered by grass. There are also new graves but no church indicating this particular spot is still a place of sacred reverence for the local community.
Caldragh Cemetery is most famous for its Janus figure, a stone figure likely dating to the 4th or 5th century that has a face carved on both sides (thus the name Janus who was the Roman god of two faces). The Janus stands about 4 feet high and many archaeologists and mystics have guessed at what the two-faced figure represents, but it’s all speculation. There is a great energy in the stone. A dangling a pendulum above this stone spins quickly, even for the beginner. And the quiet soul will find a peaceful rest and easy connection to the Otherworld here.
Poet and Northern Ireland native, Seamus Heaney memorialized the Janus figure in a poem.
Then I found a two faced stone
On burial ground,
God-eyed, sex-mouthed, it’s brain
A watery wound.
In the wet gap of the year,
Daubed with fresh lake mud,
I faltered near his power —-
Who broke the water, the hymen
With his great antlers —-
There reigned upon each ghost tine
The mothering earth, the stones
Taken by each wave,
The fleshy aftergrass, the bones
Subsoil in each grave.
For me Caldragh is much like the Rock of Cashel. No matter how many times I visit, I always want to return.
Altadaven Wood or Favour Royal Forest is an old wooded area bisected by an ancient road known as the Sliabh Beagh Way which snaked through Counties Tyrone, Fermanagh and Monaghan. On that road is the Demon Cliff where there is a large stone throne-like chair straddling a narrow space on the road. The chair, and the well below it are now known as St. Patrick’s Chair. Legends tell of this being an ancient druidic site that St. Patrick came upon while walking the Sliabh Beagh Way. When he saw the pagan ritual being performed he raised his crozier and cast the demons (druids) off the cliff and claimed the sacred site for Christ.
The forest is one of those great “edges” in the world where one crosses over into something upon entry. It’s thick and the mystical walk to the chair is deeply shaded by fir trees and lined with ivy, holly and fern. And suddenly you’re at the chair. Tokens left behind are reminders of other pilgrims who walk to the chair with intentions in their hearts. Some say that if you sit in the chair and make a wish, your wish will come true within one year unless you tell someone. It’s worth the walk.
All of the sites mentioned above are featured on our DISCOVER THE NORTH mystical tour of Ireland’s thin places.
Every year we travel to Ireland with a few guests and we share with them some of our favorite thin places, mystical places where the veil between the two worlds is thin. I’ve been traveling to Ireland for the last 20 years and when I add up the expense of this travel it would have paid for a trip around the world … but I keep going back to the same country. Why?
One of our guests on the 2013 Discover the North tour was a personal friend. He asked me if I was going to do tours to other thin places – Scotland maybe …. perhaps Wales or France or Russia. Certainly these countries had thin places.
I didn’t have an answer. I wondered for months about what he said. Maybe Ireland was just too easy. Maybe I was too comfortable with the familiar.
My husband agreed. He was open to expanding the thin places field of travel. With these thoughts in mind I traveled to the North last September secretly expected it would be my last trip to Ireland for awhile. It was time to move on to other thin places.
Our Discover the North group’s first two days were exciting and a little stressful with getting everyone settled in. By the third day we all knew each other and the schedule was a bit more relaxed. On day 3 half our group went fishing while the other half took a leisurely drive through Glencolmcille, a gorgeous, rural village in hills of County Donegal where St. Columba founded a monastery and pilgrims have been coming for years.
There’s a church in the valley – right in the middle of the glen. St. Columba’s Church. And just outside the church yard is a standing stone, a way marker that serves as one of the turas on the Glencolmcille pilgrimage. The group got off the bus at this church and scattered across the church yard and neighboring fields.
I took a moment to walk behind the church and take in the landscape. In one single moment a feeling I can’t describe swept over me. I knew why I kept coming to Ireland. There’s a connection to the land for me. Though I’m not native to Ireland and I’ll never leave my home in Maryland permanently, there’s something about Ireland – especially in the North – that connects. It means something.
I grow and change with every visit. I learn something new. I see something new. I discover some new truth with every visit.
So we’ll be returning to the North the year in May with another group. I got so enthusiastic after last years tour that I scheduled two tours to Ireland this year.
France, Scotland, Wales and Russia will have to wait.
Lir was the Lord of the Sea, in the days of the Tuatha de Danann. He had four children – a daughter, Fionnualla and three sons – Aodh and twins Conn and Fiachra. His wife died when the children were still young and Lir married Aoife a woman with magical powers.
Aoife became jealous of the love Lir had for his children and they for him. She also resented how much the children missed their mother. She tried in vain to get a servant to kill the children, thenclost her nerve when she herself set out to kill the children. So she cast a spell on them. She turned the children into the most beautiful swans ever seen, and told them they would be forced to spend nine hundred years as swans – three hundred on Lough Derravaragh, three hundred on the Straits of Moyle and three hundred on the Isle of Inish Glora. They would, however be allowed to keep their voices and as swans they made the most mystical, magical music in all of Ireland.
To end the spell the children would have to hear the bell of the new God, and a holy man would have to ring it.
For three hundred years they lived on Lake Derravaragh and then they flew to the Straits of Moyle and spent another three hundred years. By this time, St. Patrick was converting all of Ireland, and Ireland had accepted this one true God above all gods.
When the last three hundred years of exile on the Isle of Inish Glora were up, they met a man named Mochua. They asked him if he was a holy man and he said he was. He asked them if they were the children of Lir. He had heard about these beautiful swans who sang magically being the cursed children of Lir. They responded that they, in fact were the children of Lir. Mochua set about to make a bell to ring to set the children free.
Just when the bell was finished, the King of Connaught came to the Isle of Inish Glora demanding to take the swans to his castle because his wife was captivated by their beautiful singing and wanted to own them so she could hear that singing whenever she liked. The King was prepared to take them by force if necessary. Just as he began to round up the swans, Mochua rang the bell with fierce enthusiasm. A mist formed around the swans and a great white light seemed to illuminate them suspending them in the air.
The swans began to rise and then fade, and below them the limp forms of four children appeared on the ground. The human bodies of Fionnualla, Aodh, Fiachra and Conn aged 900 years in a few minutes… and they died, ending the race of the Tuatha de Danann.
The spirits of the children of Lir were united with their beloved parents and their presence is felt today by those who choose to remember them.
The Garden of Remembrance in Dublin was built in memory of all those who gave their lives fighting in the cause for Irish freedom. The memorial is built on the site where leaders of the 1916 Easter Uprising were held overnight before they were taken to the Kilmainham Gaol to be executed. The dominant feature in the garden is a sculpture representing the Children of Lir who had to live in exile for 900 years, similar to the 900 years of oppression the Irish suffered under British occupation.
A reflecting pool has images of swords, spears, shields an implements of warfare painted on the bottom. In the Celtic tradition clans who did battle cast their weapons into the sea or a lake after the battle is over to symbolize the end of hostilities.
The Garden of Remembrance is a thin place.
The book is approximately focuses on places where the veil between this world and the eternal world is thin. These could be places with a powerful spiritual energy – places that were marked sacred by people who lived centuries ago – places where people still go to feed the spirit and the mind.
The book includes commentary about 33 sites in Ireland – some familiar such as Glendalough, the Hill of Tara, Newgrange, Croagh Patrick, Glencolumkille, the Aran Islands and Carrowkeel, and some more obscure like Ardboe, St. Berrihert’s Kyle, Cashelkeelty Stone Circle, Ardmore and Doolough. Additionally, the book will highlight beliefs and practices regarding thin places such as earth energies, rituals and the connection between sites, geography and the Celtic year.
Mindie Burgoyne has been traveling to Ireland and researching thin places for 20 years. This book is an accumulation of the most mystical places she’s been. It allows the reader to go on a vicarious journey – walking in two worlds.
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Glencolumkille is a rural parish in southwest County Donegal. It is most known for its pilgrimage that honors the patron saint and protector of Donegal, St. Columba. There are many variations of his name (Columbkille, Colmcille). The Pilgrimage of St. Colmcille, also known as the Turas Cholmcille honor the saint while personally drawing his blessing and strength by walking in his footsteps across a land that was once his home. There are 15 stations scattered throughout an enchanted glen – each marked by a pillar stone or cairn or some type of stone marking.
My favorite definition for “pilgrim” was written by Paul Elie, found in his book The Life You Save May Be Your Own, a book about great writers and the power they have over us. Paul says, “A pilgrim travels within the context of a story, in order to be changed by the story.” The definition certainly fits the pilgrims who do the Turas in Glencolumkille.
To remember the story of St. Columbkille is to remember a man who was a descendent of the ruling tribe – royalty in his day. A man who was educated and tutored by the best scholars. Columbkille was a leader who could shape meaning from circumstances. He founded more monasteries and monastic communities than any other single Irish saint. But pride got the best of him when he was at his most powerful, and he picked an fight with another saint – St. Finian who had an illustrated psalter. St. Columbkille secretly copied St. Finian’s book so that he would have a copy for himself.
St. Finian was offended and demanded Columbkille’s copy. Columbkille refused saying knowledge gained from books should be shared not coveted, especially when pertaining to God. Finian took the matter to the High King for arbitration and the High King ruled in favor of St. Finian with a famous statement – “To every cow its calf and to every book it’s copy” meaning every calf belongs to its mother and every copy of a book belongs to the original book’s owner. Columbkille was outraged in losing the battle and this disagreement eventually led to Columbkille’s tribe attacking a tribe to the south which led to the slaughter of over 3000 people.
Columbkille was so ashamed to have been the root of so much death and destruction in his native land, that he sent himself into voluntary exile. He sailed from his beloved Derry to Scotland landing with a few followers on the island of Iona where he established a community which flourished into a great seat of learning and spiritual growth. Iona still has a community there and it continues today to draw pilgrims.
So as the pilgrims travel through the station in Glencolumbkille, they reflect on the saint’s life, his strength, his weaknesses and his devotion, and they ask his blessing for own lives. Every station has a ritual, a prayer to be said, a devotion to be made. So that when the turas are all done, the pilgrim has drawn strength from both the story and energy of the land.
The land has been considered sacred for thousands of years. Devotion and ritual in the glen dates back thousands of years. Portal tombs dating from 2000 BC can be found in the glen as well as court tombs the date to 4000 BC. The land in Glencolumbkille has an energy that early civilizations felt … that has lasted until the present day.
Though Ireland has suffered in recent years with abuses committed by Catholic clergy which has rocked the faith of many, there are still hundreds that come to the glen each year to do the rounds. This kind of joining of devotion, spirit, land and healing never betrays trust.
I visited Glencolumbkille shortly after I married my husband. Our favorite spot was the Stone of Gathering (Turas 9). This tall carved pillar has a hole in the top. The stone was tied to a tradition where engaged couples would intertwine their fingers in the hole while professing their love and commitment to each other before a gathering of community members. There is also a tradition that if you peer through the hole (as Dan is doing in the image above) you will get a glimpse of heaven. The view from where Dan is standing is breathtaking. There is a special energy around this pillar… a kind of loving, warm, peaceful energy.
At the southwestern tip of Glencolumbkille is Slieve League (Sliabh Liag) which is the highest cliff face in Western Europe. The monastic serenity that blankets the entire glen and its scenic surroundings moves from peaceful to powerful – back and forth – and the prayers of the pilgrim mirror that energy.
“…echoes of the centuries’ feet
That moved along the penitential stones
In all thy winds are sweet.
Here came my fathers in their life’s high day
In barefoot sorrow, but God knows the whole:
Not for themselves they fasted, but to lay
Up riches for my soul.”
Glencolumkille and Slieve League are stops on the 2013 Thin Places Mystical Tour of Ireland. Check out the itinerary.
If a thin place is one where the veil between this world and the eternal world is “thin,” then Beltany Stone Circle in County Donegal ranks as one of the thinnest or most mystical sites in all of Ireland.
The circle dates back to 1400 – 800 BC, and is larger than most found in Ireland having 64 stones averaging 6 ft. in height. The circle measures about 145 feet in diameter. The site was excavated in the early twentieth century and significantly disrupted. Most believe that there were at least 80 stones in the original circle. These stones are orthostats – stones set against a rise or wall. They stand close together hemming in a raised earthen area resembling a kind of kerbing as seen in passage tombs. Some suspect that the circle and its center mounds could have comprised some kind of burial site that may have once been covered with earth. Others think the center “lumpiness” is a result of the disheveled condition the excavators left the site in back in the early 1900s.
The name Beltany is an Anglicization of the Irish word Bealtaine which is the feast of fire or rekindling the sun. Bealtaine festivals are celebrated on May 1st which is also the beginning of summer in the Celtic year. May 1st is the halfway point between the Spring equinox (the day when light and darkness are equal in hours) and the Summer Solstice (the longest day of daylight). The rituals on this day were linked to fire, particularly on hill tops across the landscape. Some believe this was a kind of refueling or re-firing the sun, or a form of worship that called down a blessing on the land and crops from the god of the sun.
The Beltany stone circle is located on Tops Hill. A wooded path (often muddy) leads from a car park to the summit. At the end of the shaded path, the landscape opens wide and in the distance, in a lone field one can see the jagged points of stones in a large stone circle. The transition from path to field feels much like a portal. There is a defined energy in this fields that grows stronger as one approaches the circle.
But there are two interesting stones in the circle that suggest it was used for measuring the seasons using astrological alignments, and possibly used for rituals related to the sun or sun god. These would be the tallest stone in the circle and the widest – the triangular stone with cup markings.
Most of the stones are tall and cylindrical in shape listing to one side or the other of the circle line. They resemble jagged old teeth. But the wide triangular stone, stands out. It’s special and immediately draws the eye. Additionally, it has cup markings on the inner face carved into it long ago. It faces ENE and stands directly across the circle from the tallest stone (about six feet high) which points WSW. When the two stones align they point to the summit of a hill about five miles away in Tullyrap – a summit where the sun rises directly over on May 1st – the feast of Bealtaine.
There are also noticeable outliers which may also have had a significance. According to Cary Meehan in her book A Travelers Guide to Sacred Ireland, “a line from the tallest stone in the south western part of the circle taken through the outlier, goes 28 miles south east to Bessy Bell Hill in Tyrone. Another line could run through the circle to Croaghan Hill, 4 miles ESE. ”
So Beltany Stone Circle could have been a passage tomb(s) or a tool for charting the agricultural seasons. It may have been aligned with other sacred sites. We know it was used for celebrations specifically linked to Bealtaine. Three carved stone heads dating to the Iron Age were found at Beltany during the excavation. They indicate that the circle was used for many centuries.
Today, though it’s been disrupted and disheveled, it still sits in place – marking the spot so many believed to be sacred. There site is still charged with energy. Even in the pouring rain, it offers a sense of thinness, of being in two worlds at one time.
Beltany Stone Circle is on the Images in the Landscape Tour in 2018.
Before traveling to Ireland it’s good to have some background on the country, its landscape, its heritage and its people. For our tours which focus on “thin places” or mystical sites, its also good to have an understanding of the legends, the lore and the rituals that compelled people to build cairns, stone circles, and mark sacred places.
Here are some books that helped me learn about mystical Ireland.
Red Branch by Morgan Llywellyn – this is the best book I’ve read that describes the Irish trilogy. It’s the story of Cuchulain, the Hound of Ulster and the Knights of the Red Branch that were based in Emain Macha – now Armagh, specifically the Navan Fort both of which are sites on our tour. It’s an entertaining saga and one that taught me a lot about Irish history and lore.
“Powerful . . . A lusty, poetic and legendary world based on Ireland’s mythical warrior-hero Cuchulain.” according to the New York Times Book Review. In a land ruled by war and love and strange enchantments, Cuchulain — torn between gentleness and violence, haunted by the croakings of a sinister raven — fights for his honor and his homeland and discovers too late the trap that the gods have set for him in the fatal beauty of Deirdre and the brutal jealousy of King Conor.
Finn Mac Cool by Morgan Llywellyn – another fictional account about the escapes of an Irish giant. He’s associated with many of the sites we’ll visit including the Giant’s causeway. Another great account of Ulster lore and legend.
Somewhere in the shadowy borderland between myth and history lies the territory of Finn Mac Cool. Mightiest of the Irish heroes, leader of the invincible army of Fianna, he was a man of many faces: warrior, poet, lover, creator, and destroyer. Finn Mac Cool is a man taken from one of the lowest classes of Irish society, driven by ambition and strength to rise above his birth and bring new respect and status to his people. He had it all and lost it all, but in the end he gained immortality. Finn Mac Cool is a novel of sweeping historical grandeur and awesome adventure.
Princes of Ireland by Edward Rutherford – gives a great account of Irish history starting with Cuchulain all the way to the Cromwellian invasion, Great Hunger and Eastern Uprising. It’s a long book, but it’s gives the reader a great background.
From the internationally bestselling author of London and Sarum — a magnificent epic about love and war, family life and political intrigue in Ireland over the course of seventeen centuries. Like the novels of James Michener, The Princes of Ireland brilliantly interweaves engrossing fiction and well-researched fact to capture the essence of a place.
A Traveler’s Guide to Sacred Ireland by Cary Meehan – my all-time favorite book on thin places in Ireland. This is a guide book to mystical sites, sacred places and their associations with the Irish legends, folklore and people. It’s divided by provinces and counties. Hundreds of sites are listed.
This amazing book is the result of years of research of historical and archeological detail, legend and folklore, and current information on earth energies for each sacred site. Before the author’s rediscoveries, most of the vast number of ancient sites were unknown or almost forgotten except by locals. Features: *Simple wells and stones *Local pilgrimage spots *Holy mountains, lakes and rivers *Sites created by the Auld Giants *Pre-Celtic Temples *Ancient churches and round towers
Legendary Ireland by Eithne Massey – an entertaining account of Ireland’s myths and legends. This is a book you’ll reach for time and time again. It addresses both the places and the myths behind them. Many of the sites we’ll be visiting are featured in this book.
This title visits 28 richly atmospheric sites and tells the mythological stories associated with them. Woven into these landscapes are tales of love and betrayal, greed and courage, passion and revenge, featuring the famous characters of Celtic lore, such as Cu Chulainn, the children of Lir and Queen Maeve. The historical and archaeological facts, and the folk traditions of each ancient site are explored. Some are famous such as Tara and Newgrange; others are less well known but equally captivating such as the Beara Peninsula in Cork. In a world where many have lost touch with the land and their past, the legendary Irish landscape still survives and the stories are never quite over as long as there are people to tell them.
Wisdom of the Celtic Saints by Edward Sellner – A quick study of some of Ireland’s greatest saints, their insights, their contributions and the benefit of being a pilgrim or traveler moving within the context of a story.
Faithfully presenting the lives and legacies of twenty Celtic saints of the sixth to ninth centuries, Edward Sellner reveals their wisdom in a way that can be understood and appreciated by contemporary readers. The stories recounted range from the well-known — Patrick, Brendan, Brigit — to those less likely to be familiar — Monesan, Samthann and Aidan. Vivid portrait illustrations by Susan McLean-Keeney add to the prayerful beauty of the book.
Goddess Alive! by Kris Waldherr – gives great insight into the Celtic and Norse goddesses and the sites they are associated with. This book also offers insight into what thin places are and ways to travel between the two worlds.
The changing of the seasons, phases of the moon, even our personal experiences-all are reflections of the Divine Feminine. Create a stronger connection to the sacred world and your own divinity by welcoming these thirteen powerful Celtic and Nordic goddesses into your life.
As you make your way through a transformative year, know that each goddess has a different energy and a unique lesson to teach you. Starting with the Winter Solstice, the eight seasonal Sabbats and five faces of the moon provide the guideposts along your path. Through ritual, invocation, guided meditations, and magical activities, you’ll explore each goddess’s unique mythology and discover her message for your life.