Inchmahome is a tiny island in the Lake of Menteith, which lies about halfway between Aberfoyle and Callander at the edge of the Loch Lomond & Trossachs National Park. The island is covered with trees and has a remarkable Forest Walk, but it also houses the ruins of an old 13th-century priory that sits in the center of the island.
Inchmahome, though small and only one of the scores of monastic communities that were scattered around Scotland, had some famous visitors. Robert the Bruce visited in the 1500s as did King Robert II. The most romantic visitor tales are center around Mary Queen of Scots, her mother, Marie deGuise and the “Four Marys” who served as Princess Mary’s ladies in waiting. Marie deGuise sought refuge at the Inchmahome Priory for five-year-old Mary Queen of Scots during military conflicts between Scotland and England that put the little princess’s life in danger. Old legends say that child Princess planted the Spanish Chestnuts and that those majestic trees can conjure the spirit of Mary Queen of Scots onto the island from time to time.
There are many species of trees – perhaps the most famous are the Spanish Chestnuts, which are said to date back to the 1500s. They’re not easy to miss. They are the royalty of this forest and exude an energy that one can almost hear in the wind. If you relax your eyes and gently stare at these chestnuts, their aura is soon visible – gold, radiant.
It’s interesting how fairy tales and folklore set the scariest stories in forests. Why are forests so scary? Perhaps it isn’t the forest that is scary. Perhaps it’s that our own minds that become keenly sensitive to otherworldly things when we are completely surrounded – above, below and besides – by nature, uninterrupted by development or the outside world. Something happens to our senses when we are immersed into that fury of elemental life. In fairy tales, the trees sometimes come alive – have faces – arms – and attack the forest walker… or worse.
I’ve noticed that when I walk in some forests quietly alone, after about 20 minutes I notice the details I couldn’t see before. The shapes of the branches, the colors, the textures…. and in some forests, the trees come alive with faces and human characteristics. Such was my experience at Inchmahome.
The forest became Otherworldly. It’s places like these where we can absorb the energy, the healing, the insight that comes with walking in thin places.
This little forest is worth visiting even if it’s the only thing you see in Scotland.
Our friends own the Lake Hotel on the shores of the Lake of Menteith and the boats that go out to Inchmahome are a short walk from that Hotel. This is where we stay during this leg of our Scotland tours because guests can savor that sense of “a thin place” for a while.
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.
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.
County Clare is one the most visited areas on tours of Ireland, and the Burren is a worthy destination for any traveler to the West. The Poulnabrone Dolmen, ring forts and the moonscape look of the Burren are what most people see in photos and guidebooks on Ireland. But the mystical ruins of Corcomroe Abbey are an equally important Burren landmark. This sacred ground compels the visitor to be quiet, devoted, contemplative … almost as is if the long-gone inhabitants were still there.
Originally, Corcomroe was a Cistercian abbey, set in the valley surrounded by the Burren’s barren hills that look as if all the grass and vegetation were scraped off with jagged glass. The abbey was built sometime in the late twelfth century. Access to the valley was through a pass in the mountains known as the “monks pass, ” and it was part of a fortified region guarded by a castle (now long gone).
The fishbone pattern on the ribs that support the vaulted roof over the sanctuary, the effigy of a Chieftain king, the smiling bishop carved into a crumbling wall, carved faces and flowers resembling bluebells atop the large columns are all part of what makes Corcomroe amazing.
Corcomroe is a place to walk through slowly… to stop and notice the details.
The Abbey sits just off one of the main roads that wind through the Burren. It’s easy to explore and has a strong sense of solitude. The backdrop of the mountains and small green fields still enclosed by abbey stone walls add to the solitude of Corcomroe. It has a haunted presence.
Corcomroe projects its memories into the landscape and onto the pilgrim.
The setting is a perfect mingling of this world and the eternal world – the past and the present. Looking at the old ruins immediately draws the visitor into a rich past, but the new roof protecting a portion of the abbey is a contribution of today’s faithful – people who want to protect it and preserve it. …a community that values and cherishes it.
What’s left of Corcomroe is a historical spiritual remnant kept company by the local village’s faithful departed. Graves are everywhere. But so are little hints and reminders of today’s faithful who come to pray, reflect and tend to the memories. Their presence is seen in the repaired grave slab, a makeshift cross, a new flower bed or a small shrine like the one pictured above. This plastic virgin Mary is secured into a concrete base. She was placed on the outer wall with three lavender silk roses and a glass jar. Coins left by devotees are both in the jar and at her feet. I took this photo in September of 2009. I returned to Corcomroe in May of 2011. The shrine was gone.
Corcomroe is a thin place. It’s a lonely place.
Along the road between Kinsale and Clonakilty, near Courtmacsherry is the village of Timoleague which is dominated by the great seaside abbey ruin, a remnant of a 13th century Franciscan Friary. The abbey is built on the site of a former monastery founded by St. Molaga in the 7th century. Timoleague means – “house of Molaga.”
St. Molaga, as the story goes was a local boy who went to study the rule of St. Columba in Iona and then went on to Wales where he became good friends with St. David. He returned to Ireland and founded several monastic communities, but Timoleague was his greatest – and his last. He died here – probably of the plague. He and his followers were committed to helping those suffering from the disease when the plague hit Ireland in the late 7th century.
A story is told about how St. Molaga originally wanted to build his monastery farther up the estuary. But as he and his followers labored on the buildings by day, they all collapsed by night. St. Molaga took this as a sign that the Lord did not approve of the location. So he blessed a candle, lodged it in a rolled up sheath, set it alight and released it on the bay praying that God would help him find the perfect location for his new religious community. The candle floated until it stopped at the where the Timoleague ruin now stands. St. Molaga built his monastery on the sea and six hundred years later the Franciscans built an abbey on the foundations of St. Molaga’s monastery. The ruins of that monastery are what visitor’s see today.
I found this thin place through the recommendation of Mr. Noel O’Connor who was my host at Ashgrove Bed and Breakfast in Bandon. Over breakfast I asked him, “What is the most mystical place around here?” He was caught off-guard and hesitated. As a forma garda (police officer) I suspect he wasn’t invited to discuss “mystical” or thin places often. After pausing to give it some thought, he told me that many pilgrims go to Timoleague to pray and reflect. So I took his advise and I went to Timoleague.
What remains is a beautiful ruin now made into a comfortable public space on the scenic Courtmacsherry Harbor. When the monastery was active, boats used to sail right up to abbey, and the village grew around the activities focused there. Past the picnic tables and the stone wall are bones of the old religious house with haunting traces of how life existed there so many years ago.
Two favorite spaces for me were the dining room and the cloister walk. Pictured above is the cloister garth the part of a corner wall still standing. Monasteries typically had these square cloister walks with an open court-yard type garth in the center. The walks were the center of the the cloister and often used for doing “rounds” or walking and praying in a circular path. The walls bordering the garth had gothic-style windows to look out. I love to trace the steps of those who once walked and prayed here. On account I read said that at one corner of the walk the incorrupt body of a monk buried centuries before was discovered. He was reinterred on the grounds.
Another peaceful spot here is the refectory or dining area. It’s a large rectangular room off the back of the ruin with five tall windows (frames still in tact) looking out over the sea. Next to this area is a cavity wall, with indentations known as the fairy cupboards. It was from this room that children discovered an ancient book buried under one of the flagstones. They destroyed it and only the shred of the cover was found.
In the sacristy is the ancient holy water font, now known as the Wart Well. It is said to heal warts when those afflicted dip the warts into the water.
The monastery was sacked in the 1600s and three monks escaped by boat and took with them the Timoleague chalice for safe keeping. It was discovered in an old box in a home in the village many years ago and is now held by one of the priests residing in Timoleague.
In the distance behind the ruin a round tower (new) can be seen atop a church. This is the Catholic Church dedicated to the Nativity of the Blessed Mother. One of Henry Clark’s last stain glass masterpieces can be found here.
Timoleague is a haunting site full of mystery and charged with the energy of the past. It is one of the stops on the Thin Places Mystical Tour of Ireland in May of 2011.
Holy House of ivied gables
That wert once the country’s pride
Houseless now in weary wandering
Roam your inmates far and wide
~from Lament Over the Ruins of the Abbey of Timoleague
John Collins -1814
St. Brendan, one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland, was a holy man and a navigator. He was born and raised in the Dingle area, and ordained a priest in 512 AD. Brendan was founder of several monastic settlements in Ireland, one being at the base of of a great mountain on Dingle’s north shore – now known as “Mount Brandon.”
The mountain was named after the famous St. Brendan, perhaps because he founded a monastic community here, or more likely because it was from the base of this mountain that St. Brendan launched his fleet of curraghs, filled with his followers, to set out on a seven year spiritually guided journey to find the “promised land” – the Isle of the Blest.
Legend states that St. Brendan climbed to the peak of Mount Brandon, looked across the Atlantic and saw the Americas. Many believe that Brendan reached North America way before Christopher Columbus, and several groups have alleged that Columbus referred to a manuscript that told of Brendan’s journey across the Atlantic. Much has been written about the Voyages of Brendan. What we know to be true is that Brendan grew spiritually on the journey and returned with the ability to draw large numbers into a deeper spiritual existence
St. Brendan is the patron saint of sailors and of travelers and is still reverenced in Ireland and around the Christian world. And the holy mountain, named for him, that dominates the northern landscape in Dingle is a reminder of where the journey began for a great spiritual leader, and where the journey begins – even today – for those that try to follow in his footsteps.
Brandon Head, the alleged launch site for Brendan and his followers, can only be accessed by foot. There is a pilgrim’s path that runs along the mountain that hikers and walkers traverse. The views from this trail are remarkable. But if you can’t take the walk, the views from Kilshannig, Castle Gregory or any of the strands off the northern road offer tremendous views. Often, the peak of Mount Brandon is hidden in the clouds.
Mount Brandon is a thin place. I had one of the strongest touches from the other world on a strand facing Mount Brandon. That story may come in another post.
St. Brendan’s Prayer
Shall I abandon, O King of mysteries, the soft comforts of home? Shall I turn my back on my native land, and turn my face towards the sea?
Shall I put myself wholly at your mercy, without silver, without a horse, without fame, without honour? Shall I throw myself wholly upon You, without sword or shield, without food and drink, without a bed to lie on? Shall I say farewell to my beautiful land, placing myself under Your yoke?
Shall I pour out my heart to You, confessing my manifold sins and begging forgiveness, tears streaming down my cheeks? Shall I leave the prints of my knees on the sandy beach, a record of my final prayer in my native land?
Shall I then suffer every kind of wound that the sea can inflict? Shall I take my tiny boat across the wide sparkling ocean? O King of the Glorious Heaven,
shall I go of my own choice upon the sea?
O Christ, will You help on the wild waves?
Ardmore is a fishing village in County Waterford – just over the border from County Cork. It is the legendary home of St. Declan who is said to have settled there somewhere between 350 and 420 AD, bringing Christianity to the island even before St. Patrick. If this is true, it makes Ardmore the oldest Christian settlement in Ireland.
Ardmore from the Irish “Aird Mhor” means great height. The ruins of a 13 century church, an 8th century oratory and a well preserved 12th century round tower dominate a hillside overlooking Ardmore Bay, a fitting spot for Ireland’s first monastic community.
Driving up the hillside one sees the 90 foot round tower rear up from the landscape like some old relic. That’s when the “thinness” of the place starts to sink in. Come closer and the ruins of St. Declan’s Church with its carved religious scenes – Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the Judgment of Solomon, the Visit of the Magi – emerge from the ancient landscape. The scenes were used to help teach the local community about the Christian faith. This carved church wall is three hundred years older than the church itself, dating the carvings to the 9th century. The wall was actually brought to the site from another ruined religious site that had fallen into decay, so this spot on the hill at Ardmore is its second home.
Almost unnoticeable is the small 8th century oratory built over the spot where St. Declan is believed to be buried. It lies just below the ruined church – hemmed in by graves, both old and recent. Headstones and grave markers occupy nearly every bit of available ground space around the ruins. Some new shiny granite, some old limestone with faded inscriptions, and some merely jagged stones set atop a lump.
The wild beauty of the landscape around the monastic site is mirrored on the nearby cliffs where a pilgrim’s walkway has been carved out. The path leads to the village and St. Declan’s holy well.
Remnants of by-gone spiritual hunger and discovery still cling to the old ruins at Ardmore. The stones hold the memories of faith, of sorrow, of devastation, of joy, of celebration. It is the presence of those memories stored in the ruins that dissolves the veil separating the past, present and eternal worlds. All are knitted together and the elements – the sky, the wind, the sea, the stones – seem brighter, and somehow more vivid.
Ardmore is a thin place, and is on our Thin Places Mystical Tour of Ireland this September. Come join us.