Sukie and I are approaching the fourth anniversary of an impromptu trip to Ireland in May of 2005. By "impromptu," I mean that three or four weeks before we departed, this journey had not been contemplated. At least not by me. As it turned out, Sukie had been working diligently behind the scene.
One afternoon, while the girls were still at school, she presented me with a document entitled "A Modest Proposal." She read it aloud, requesting that I not comment until she had finished. She had carefully outlined a five day getaway to the west coast of Ireland, specifically to the Burren in County Clare. We had visited the area with the girls in 2003, while on sabbatical from St. Bart's.
On the surface, Sukie's proposal was proposterous. Without prior planning, we were to drop our parish work for a week. She had asked a neighbor, only hours home from college, to stay with the girls. Fortunately for us, she was both available and willing. And then there was the little detail of how it was all going to be paid for. But in my heart, I knew her proposal was sound in a way that transcended practical considerations.
The past year had been challenging. We were both struggling vocationally and our passion for parish ministry was fast waning. One of my parishioners advised me to read William Styron's book Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, thinking that I was clinically depressed. Another parishioner was unhappy (to say the least) that I had not enthusiastically endorsed her desire to be ordained. She felt no reluctance about letting me know, and everyone else, of her disgruntlement. My relationship with my beloved organist and choir director was under strain, as there had been considerable miscommunication over politically sensitive parish issues. Sukie's and my marriage was suffocating under the weight of a job that we had shared for over fourteen years.
We landed at Shannon airport on Thursday, May 19th. Our destination was the Burren Oaks Farm Accommodation. Burren means "stony place" and refers to the roughly 150 square miles of bare carboniferous limestone mountains and sheltered valleys of pasture land along Galway Bay.
Just a short walk to the west from our B+B was the 12th century Cistercian foundation Sancta Maria de Petra Fertilis--St. Mary of the Fertile Rock-- familiarly known as Corcomroe Abbey. And down a long farm lane to the southeast, in the midst of a verdant valley nestled between Oughtmama and Turlough Hills, the ancient ruins of the three Oughtmama Churches (1000 CE)--once a monastic enclosure with evidence of a village nearby-- stood among hazel shrubs. From the slopes of the surrounding hills, one could see out, past the ruins of the Abbey, to the blue ocean of Ballyvaughan Bay
We awoke early the next morning and went in search of the churches, which we at last discovered, having traversed several walled muddy fields adorned with cow patties. One of the fields I crossed was inhabited by a surly bull that, to my imminent peril, I discovered only at the last minute. Other more docile cattle grazed just outside the extensive ruins, these well preserved buildings far flung from any human habitation. A locked gate barred the way from entering the sanctuary of the largest church.
In asking our hosts about the Oughtmama Churches, we discovered that Mike owned and farmed the land on which the churches stood. He had a key to the sanctuary gate and offered it to us. We returned to the churches several times over the next few days and, as far afield as we went in our explorations of the Burren, that quiet green valley was the heart of what became much more than a casual trip to Ireland. In a deeper sense, it was a sacred journey, a pilgrimage.
On our last day, we scheduled a walk with John Connolly of Burren Wild Walking Tours. John's farmhouse was just down the road from our accommodation and we walked out his backdoor to the foot of Oughtmama Hill. John was a young man, physically tough but also bright and well spoken, with values other than "worshipping the Almighty Euro." Having grown up Roman Catholic, he had not practiced in many years. And yet, he had an innate sense of spirituality and was intrigued that Sukie and I were both clergy.
As we climbed the hill, he pointed out evidence of the "lazy beds"--potato beds planted during the mid-19th century famine in hopes of escaping the potato blight down in the valleys. He noted many cairns erected by the British as aids to surveying the area and the many stonewalls built by the poor during the famine. (The walls themselves served no purpose other than to keep the destitute employed, as the mountain grazing of cattle was communal.) He showed us traces of a horseshoe shaped trough of burnt stones. It was a bronze age cooking site--fulacht fian in Gaelic.
As we walked, we shared our stories with John. He listened attentively. Picking up on my unease about work, he asked: "Are you happy with the choice you made for your life?" I was astounded that he had seen into my soul so quickly.
Finally, John brought us to a holy well on the western slope of Oughtmama Hill--Tobar Colman--named after St. Colman Mac Duagh (550-632CE), a monastic who, having lived in a cave as a hermit for many years, settled Kilmacduagh, a monastery with a now famous leaning round tower. John said that the well had healing properties, especially for poor eyesight. A gnarled ash tree--daily buffeted by the winds off the bay-- stood by the open well marked by a stone enclosure amongst dense hawthorne shrubs.
Sukie stepped down into the well and paused for a moment, cupping the fresh clear water in her hands and dousing her face. I held back, reluctant to do the same, my rational self wanting no truck with the "miraculous." Leaning on his walking stick, John quietly gazed my way and said: "You've got to have faith."
I stepped down into the cool moss covered enclosure of the well and washed my face.
My eyesight has actually grown much worse over the intervening years from our trip to Ireland down to the present. But the grace of the vision with which I was blessed at the holy well on the slopes overlooking that verdant valley has stayed with me. We left St. Bart's six months later, not knowing what might befall us.
We leapt into the unknown, relying on faith alone.
(DSH Photo: Oughtmama Church, Bell Harbour, Co. Clare, Ireland; May, 2005)