Ireland Pilgrimage 2018 – The Eighth Day

Today’s journeying started at a leisurely pace containing one expected thing (i.e. it was on our itinerary), one not so expected thing (i.e. it wasn’t on our itinerary), and one event that fell into both categories. When combined together this was a day that truly wonderful and inspirational – and enjoyable to boot!

Leaving our hotel in Cork, we boarded our coach for a visit to the Cathedral of St Mary and St Anne in Cork, which is known locally as the North Cathedral. We were meant only to pay a quick visit because there was a Mass scheduled, and we didn’t wish to intrude. But as things go, we changed arrangements at the last moment and so stayed for the celebration of Mass. We weren’t the only group of pilgrims either; there was a group from Sydney also present, and also composed mostly of teachers.

The celebration of Mass was an interesting experience. Quick. No nonsense. Containing a number of things that set my liturgist’s radar off. But it was Mass, and it was wonderful to join with the local community – and school children from nearby schools – to celebrate this highpoint of our faith. To do so in a building that beautifully constructed and adorned was a bonus. The light in that place, both artificial and natural, the latter strained through stained glass, gave the place a sense of warmth and Godliness that can so often be missing in religious buildings.

Leaving the Cathedral, we wandered through some back streets until we could rejoin our coach, and in the process learnt a little more of the history of that particular part of Cork…and discovered a small sweets manufacturing operation owned by father and son. Needless to say, they may have been able to have closed up for the day after we had made our purchases!

Rejoining our coach, we commenced our journey to our next scheduled stop: Blarney Castle. This is, of course, one of those places most tourists will visit when they come to Ireland, and we were both no exception and not alone in that place. We had the better part of a couple of hours in Blarney – both Castle and village – and were free to wander and explore both. The opportunity to ‘kiss the Stone’ – the Stone for which the Castle is famous – was embraced by some members of the group but not all. Others were more than content to wander the grounds of the Castle and enjoy the stunningly beautiful gardens and features.

It was the latter option that I availed myself of, and readers will eventually be rewarded with the photos, the many many photos, that I took in and around the gardens of Blarney Castle. They were breathtakingly beautiful, and I could have spent days in there exploring and photographing…and I may just have to come back and do exactly that.

After doing some shopping (well, watching while Mum did some shopping) and grabbing some lunch, we were back on the bus, heading to our overnight destination in Tralee. We are actually here for three nights, so it’s an opportunity for some washing, for taking stock, and for rearranging one’s luggage to make it more efficient.

After an early dinner, however, we boarded our coach once again for the quick journey across to Killarney. Why were we out on a Friday night? Because we had decided to avail ourselves of some cultural education in the form of Celtic Steps: The Show, a performance of traditional Irish music and dancing. And it was certainly worth the effort in doing so; the performance was fantastic, and the appreciation of Irish cultural heritage contained therein and communicated to the audience was something that the performers lived and breathed. They were enjoying themselves, they were immersed in their history, and the audience was privileged to be admitted to that for a short time. Even though this event wasn’t on our original itinerary, I’m glad it was included.

The show concluded, we boarded our coach one more time to return to Tralee, and to bed in preparation for tomorrow’s day trip.

Ireland Pilgrimage 2018 – The Seventh Day

Today ventured out of the city area of Cork towards the Rock of Cashel, a place I had been looking forward to visiting as part of the pilgrimage. The weather was…well, it was interesting as you will discover, but we started out with a light drizzle. Someone mentioned it was the archetypal Irish weather, but I wouldn’t know about that.

Our drive towards Cashel took us through some more beautiful Irish countryside, made all the more glorious because of the light rain. At least that’s my impression, and I’m sticking to it. The trip by coach was only a little over the hour and so we arrived in good time for our tour of the Rock.

I have to confess to feeling a little cold and wind-blown up there on the Rock, but we were guided around the buildings on the top of the Rock by the delightful Aisling who went above and beyond the call of duty given the climate. But the weather did not detract from the view from ‘up there’, nor the beauty of the building ruins that sit atop the Rock. In one sense, the weather contributed to a fuller appreciation of the significance of the Rock, the buildings that sit atop the Rock, and the history that is associated with this particular site.

The Rock and the buildings – and the view – provided some wonderful opportunities for photography, and there will be a posting on that, along with other photos taken during the pilgrimage in the fullness of time, once I’ve had the opportunity to get back to Australia, and to prepare them for posting. You will have to be patient.

I mentioned the weather was interesting before, and the true interest would be discovered after lunch when the light rain that had persisted to that point dissipated and blue skies reigned overhead. Only in Ireland! (Although I’ve heard rumours that Melbourne occasionally has similar experiences!)

Departing Cashel, we headed back in the general direction of Cork, though we deviated from the direct route to visit the township of Ballygriffin, and specifically the birthplace of Nano Nagle, the foundress of the Presentation Sisters. The site is significant as we follow the footsteps of Catherine McAuley because it was with the Presentation Sisters – at their convent at Georges Hill, Dublin – that Catherine undertook her novitiate along with her two companions at the beginning of the Sisters of Mercy.

Visiting the birthplace of Nano Nagle allowed a connection to be closed in one sense. The story of Catherine McAuley is intimately entwined with that of Nano Nagle, and to not visit Nano’s birthplace would be as wrong as not visiting the former convent at Georges Hill; it would simply not make sense. Hearing the story of Nano Nagle and her vision for what would become her Presentation Sisters, is as much a part of the story of Mercy as Catherine’s own story is, and it was important for us to hear it.

The site and its resident community are now dedicated to what might be described as seeking environmental justice and integrity, being located on an organic farm (operated under lease), and being a place where connecting with the environment is profoundly easy. While our visit was necessarily a short one, there was a clear and powerful connection to creation palpably present there.

Returning to Cork we were left to our own devices for dinner, so Mum and I ventured down the hill to dine. The walk down the hill was most enjoyable, as was the walk back up (it being a gentle slope most of the way) until the last 100 metres where the inclined increased dramatically. Despite all that, it was early to bed in preparation for our departure tomorrow to places north.

Ireland Pilgrimage 2018 – The Sixth Day

Today was another longish day, not for the same reasons as yesterday, but largely because of the distance covered in order to reach our next hotel base. Today we travelled from Bray to Cork, via Waterford and Ardmore.

Much of the morning was spent on the bus, travelling through Irish countryside that was both as beautiful as that we have already witnessed, but was also fundamentally different in its beauty. In travelling towards Waterford we were moving into the prime farming land of the island of Ireland, and the landscapes we passed bore the evidence of that.

We arrived in the city of Waterford just about lunchtime, and there was an opportunity for the group to ramble through the city, exploring its Viking origins and the general ambience of the city. It was a beautiful experience aided by beautiful weather.

The city of Waterford is, of course, well-known for one its premier products, Waterford Crystal. We had the opportunity to tour the exhibition factory watching the various master craftsmen go about their work creating some of the range of products that Waterford create. It was fascinating to watch these people who, after a five-year apprenticeship, spend three years mastering their particular craft, before being awarded the appellation of ‘master craftsmen’.

One of the things we all commented on was the way in which these master craftsmen would not be able to carry out their task in Australia because of the dictates of work health and safety regulations. Oh well…

After leaving Waterford, we continued our journey toward the city of Cork, with a planned stop at Ardmore. Why I hear you ask? Because St Declan founded a monastery there in the mid-fourth century, the ruins of which now sit high on a headland overlooking the village of Ardmore and the water of the south coast of Ireland.

Not much is left of the monastic settlement of St Declan, but the original cathedral church along with his reputed place of burial still stand on the headland, along with a round tower. It was a moving experience to once again stand in a place where Christianity has flourished for in excess of 1500 years, and where the pursuit of understanding and Godly wisdom was considered a holy undertaking. Down to this day, we are the beneficiaries of places like Ardmore, from where Europe was ‘re-Christianised’ after the Dark Ages.

After a short stop at Ardmore, we continued on to Cork, arriving in time for dinner and retiring to bed in preparation for tomorrow’s journey.

Ireland Pilgrimage 2018 – The Fifth Day

Today’s day of pilgrimage was a long and exhausting day, not just physically – though it was – but more specifically from a spiritual perspective. There was much to engage with and ponder – and it would not be ignored.

We left our Dublin hotel early today and headed out of that fine city in the direction of Kildare to the west. We were heading there for a specific reason, because the town of Kildare is associated with St Brigid, one of the patron saints of Ireland.

Driving through the countryside it was hard to miss just how ‘green’ the country is. And it wasn’t just a uniform green; Ireland really does have many shades of greens, all of which are readily visible across the patchwork of the Irish countryside. It was, to be honest, like nothing I have ever seen. And it was also beautiful to behold. The slight drizzle may have contributed to the beauty of the countryside we drove through, but it could only ever be an enhancement to something that was already there.

The township of Kildare is a small town just 5o km west of Dublin. Its name, which is also the name of the county in which it is located, comes from the Irish Cill Dara, which translates to ‘the church of the oaks’. The area was originally home to a great grove of oaks, a tree that had a special significance for the pagan Celts. The name takes its significance, however, from the belief that Brigid founded a mixed monastery on the site, under or within the oak trees that grew there.

And this was the reason we visited the site. St Brigid, having founded a religious community there, became well-known and well-regarded in the area. A church has stood on the site since the 5th century, and the present church that bears the name of St Brigid is a cathedral church of the local diocese of the Church of Ireland.

The church itself is beautiful and very distinctive. Though relatively small, it remains a place of great spiritual significance, a place that oozes spirituality, a place where prayer has soaked into the stone walls of the building itself.

From Kildare, we made our way to Glendalough, the valley of the two lakes, to walk in the footsteps of St Kevin, who founded the earliest monastic settlement there around the 6th century. And as soon as you set foot into the place the reason it was chosen becomes immediately obvious.

Though it has changed over the centuries, Glendalough is still one of those thin places, a place where this world and the next, where time and eternity, rub up against each other. The isolation, the physical beauty of the creation stirs the soul, today as much as it may have done for St Kevin all those years ago.

It is hard to walk around the physical environs of Glendalough without having a sense of the Divine. One only has to raise one’s eyes to the mountain tops, or watch the water move on the lake, or listen to the birds, or … Well, you get the idea. I found myself becoming lost not only the physical beauty of the place but in the very tangible presence of God that permeates that place. I could spend days there, not just communing with the Divine, but photographing the landscape around me. There’s little wonder, at least in my estimation, as to why this particular place was chosen by St Kevin as a place of retreat, and why others eventually came to join him to establish one of the premier sites of Celtic monasticism in the whole of Ireland.

We had the great privilege of being guided around the site of the monastic city, and the broader area, by Fr Michael Rodgers, a man with a great love of the place, a priest with a great sense of the Spirit moving in that place, a poet who connects to the beauty of that place. We celebrated Eucharist around the site, starting in the monastic settlement, and moving around the upper lake, stopping from time to time as Michael led us in the first part of the Mass, connecting what we were celebrating with the physical beauty and the history of the place. For a group of pilgrims – or at least for this pilgrim – it was an experience of powerful worship in the immediate presence of God made tangible in the location in which we found ourselves.

To have the privilege of presiding over the second part of our celebration of Eucharist was moving beyond words. It was powerful to celebrate at the end of a physical pilgrimage around that site, with the group of people who are sharing the journey with me, and having been prepared for what we were doing by the wisdom and insight of Michael.

It is an experience that I will never forget. It has marked my soul forever. I can never celebrate Eucharist in quite the same way, whether as priest or member of the liturgical assembly.

While today was a long day, physically tiring, it was something entirely worthwhile to experience.

Tonight we stayed in a hotel in Bray overnight, ready for our continuing journey tomorrow.

Though for me, I doubt the spiritual dimension of our journey can now be topped.

Ireland Pilgrimage 2018 – The Fourth Day

Today was a day where we were ‘at leisure’ in and around Dublin, effectively able to explore (or not), to go out (or not), to do whatever (or not).

So after a leisurely breakfast, Mum and I decided to head into the city centre of Dublin to visit Dublin Castle, the historic centre of administration both of Dublin and Ireland. The chance to join a guided tour – expertly given by Claire – brought to life the history of the site on which the Castle sits, from the original Viking settlement until the present day. The complex is still a working government building, but the historical setting is profound and poignant.

Standing at the heart of the original city of Dublin – at least metaphorically – the Castle is a place where the English occupation of Ireland was centred upon the Viceroy and the Viceregal Court. The grandeur of the current Castle, modelled on the Georgian palace as opposed to the original castle built during the Anglo-Norman settlement (the late 1100s) made it clear to anyone who entered that place where the true power on the island of Ireland lay.

And so the handing over of the Castle upon Irish independence was a significant event, notwithstanding the probably mythical account of what Michael Collins said to the last Viceroy of Ireland at the time.

The visit to the Castle was well worth the effort, particularly given its connection to the history of Irish independence that’s attracted my attention.

In the afternoon I had arranged to attend the Guinness Storehouse, if only because it was the home of that iconic drink that I like so much. I was underwhelmed by the whole experience, to the point where there will be no further comment here.

And so our last night in Dublin featured dinner in the hotel restaurant and then retiring to the room in order to pack and prepare for the next stage of our journey that begins very very early tomorrow.

Ireland Pilgrimage 2018 – The Third Day

After spending some time yesterday orienting ourselves to Dublin – by which I mean we played tourist more than pilgrim – today we returned to the pilgrimage in the footsteps of Catherine McAuley.

After a free morning, we boarded our coach for a visit to the Mercy International Centre in Baggot Street, Dublin, the original House of Mercy established by Catherine, and from which the charism of the Sisters of Mercy has spread through the whole world. It was exceptionally poignant to walk into this place, to stand in the room where Catherine died, and to celebrate Sunday Mass in the Chapel that is so connected with Catherine and Mercy.

The Staff of the International Centre were both hospitable and informative, clearly caught up in their love and respect for their foundress and the impact that the Sisters of Mercy have had around the world. It was palpable, almost seeping from the walls, as the significance of the House and what began there was explained to us. It was also palpable in the ‘good cup of tea’ that was prepared and served to us as part of our visit.

The opportunity to celebrate Mass together in the Chapel was a moving moment. It was the first time that we had done so while on pilgrimage, and there was a spirit of true worship to be found in that chapel today. The presence of music, of prayer, of pilgrims, gathered around the altar in the Chapel of the place from which Mercy erupted into the world is something I will treasure. As it sometimes happens, the readings for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, were the perfect pieces of Scriptures to be proclaimed and heard to this particular group of pilgrims journeying in the footsteps of Catherine McAuley and in Mercy.

The backyard of the International Centre contains the tomb of Catherine McAuley, along with a number of other Sisters (though they are in unmarked graves). The little ‘house’ in which the mortal remains of Catherine are laid, is a thing of beauty set among lovingly maintained grass and gardens. To stand there, to witness that place, was exceptionally moving.

The Mercy International Centre has been restored and renovated since the time that Catherine McAuley purchased the site and built her house, but it retains something particularly poignant despite all of those. This is the place that Catherine McAuley both lived and worked in. This is the place where the charism of Mercy, so radical in its day, took root and flourished. This is the place from which Mercy has flowed around the world – and we are the better for it, whether we know it or not.

After leaving the Centre, we made our way to the Carmelite Church of St Therese in Clarendon Street, Dublin, the church in which the first thirteen Sisters who died are entombed – immediately below the altar as I discovered. There in that place, a place of quiet prayer, we prayed in memory of those thirteen Sisters, and those who have lived lives in a similar manner. It was a fitting conclusion to the day dedicated to the Dublin experience of Catherine McAuley.

There was an opportunity after we concluded at St Therese’s for a coffee (I highly recommend Bewley’s on Grafton Street), and a wander around to look here and there at the shops, while listening to the music of the buskers set up along the length of Grafton Street (including the young girl I previously spoke about).

Back aboard the coach, we returned to the hotel for a little quiet time before dinner. Another fine dinner – there can be no complaints about the food we’ve had served to us so far during the trip – and then off to bed, to reflect, to read, and to sleep.

Ireland Pilgrimage 2018 – The Second Day

And having retired to bed at the end of the first day (or days) I slept deeply and peacefully, not even remembering when I awoke having gone to bed or laying my head on the pillow. It was, I suspect, a sign of just how exhausted I was.

Having breakfasted well in the hotel restaurant, we boarded our coach for a day in and around Dublin itself. Our first stop was to the Papal Cross that stands in Pheonix Park, a huge open space in Dublin that includes a zoo, the presidential residence, a column to someone called Wellington, and sporting fields galore. The Papal Cross, however, marks the spot where the then Pope, John Paul II, celebrated Mass with over a million people on 29 September 1979.

It was fortuitous, or simply the ‘luck of the Irish’, that we happened to be there on 29 September 2018.

Standing there under the Papal Cross, we pilgrims placed ourselves under the protection of the Cross as we continued our pilgrimage in the footsteps of Catherine McAuley.

Our next stop was to St Patrick’s Cathedral, the national cathedral of the Church of Ireland (the Anglican church in Ireland). The building, or at least the current building, dates back to the early 1200s, and a church on the site goes all the way back to St Patrick’s arrival in the country and his conversion of the locals. The current building is a wonderful example of the architecture of the day and provides a wonderful setting for worship down to this very day.

There are a number of images of the great and mighty, as well as memorials to various military events and units, scattered through the Cathedral, and wandering around provides the visitor with a wonderful sense of the history – both civil and ecclesiastical. It is, to my mind at least, a prayerful place, despite also being a place where tourists (such as ourselves) also visit. It would have been interesting to experience a liturgical service there – but that probably has more to do with my academic interest than anything else. A wonderful place to visit, and a wonderful place to gain a sense of the history of Christianity in Ireland.

From St Patrick’s Cathedral, we travelled through the City of Dublin towards Trinity College, a campus of the University of Dublin. It was interesting to see some of the interesting sites and buildings pointed out to us, and I made a note of a few that I would like to visit once the pilgrimage is completed and I remain here for some holidays with Mum (sorry Trish, but you could be up for some sightseeing and walking).

The purpose of our visit to Trinity College, however, was in order to view the Book of Kells and the Long Library that are there. This was, in some part, a highlight of the pilgrimage that I was particularly looking forward to – particularly the Long Library that I have seen so many photos of and been looking forward to visiting for so long. The campus of Trinity College is everything a university campus should be, a place where students and visitors wander, a place where learning happens in a space that is free from the hustle and bustle of the world just outside the boundaries.

There was, again for me, a sense that this place, a place of learning that was founded by Queen Elizabeth (the first one not the current one) that continues to value the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of pursuing knowledge. Don’t get me started on how often I feel saddened that universities in Australia (in particular) are now about training people for societal roles rather than being a place where knowledge, and the pursuit of knowledge, is the very raison d’etre for the university’s existence.

So we entered the building to view the Book of Kells, which was a powerful experience not only because of the presence of the Book itself but also because of the presence of one particular young man. He was in the care of his grandparents being obviously impacted by illness and disease that had taken a physical toll on his body and his psyche. To witness his grandfather physically carry this young man from a wheelchair in the corner over to the display case containing the Book of Kells, and to hear him exclaim that what he saw was great and how much he loved his grandmother… That room, at that moment, was one of those ‘thin places’ where this reality and that of the Divine are clearly in contact with each other. I doubt anything I have been privileged to witness in my life to this point was as poignant and as moving as witnessing that young man’s encounter with the Book of Kells.

From the Book of Kells, we moved upstairs to the Long Libary, and it was everything I had hoped it would be. To see this place where books dating back centuries are kept was again a powerful reminder to me of the true significance of a university and its purpose in the pursuit of knowledge. The cataloguing system was particularly interesting to observe because it wasn’t the Dewey system that is so prevalent in many libraries, but was a unique system that catalogues books by their location on the shelves and bays rather than by topical category. Interesting and unique, and something that I wish I was fortunate enough to have to come to terms with.

After the visit to Trinity College, the Book of Kells, and the Long Library, we were free to wander in the adjacent shopping area for a couple of hours for lunch and whatever else might take our fancy. Mum and I wandered into Grafton Street, a pedestrian mall that features shops, cafes, and buskers. The buskers were wonderful to listen to as we wandered past, but the young girl who was busking outside our lunch venue was simply jaw-droppingly powerful. This young teenager was singing a repertoire that was well and truly that of someone much older but was doing so in a manner that belayed her young years. Her voice, her style, her presentation was stunning, and before I was aware of just how young she was, I was imagining someone of more mature years. It was stunning.

After lunch – and yes, a little retail therapy – the group reboarded our coach and made our way to Dublin’s General Post Office, a location that has a particular significance in the cause of Irish independence. We visited the museum that highlights the significance of the GPO in the Easter Rising of 1916 and witnessed and heard the story of the leaders of the Rising. It was powerful and it was moving.

For me, this was something I was particularly hoping to explore during my time in Ireland but wasn’t expecting to do so prior to the holidays that came at the end of the pilgrimage. Now that I have heard these stories and visited this place that was so significant in the life of Ireland, I hope that I might be able to visit some of the other places connected with the Easter Rising of 1916 during my time in Dublin later in October.

From the GPO, we walked the short distance to St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, the home of the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin. The building is radically different to St Patrick’s, being a much more modern construction (only dating to the early 1800s), and provided an entirely different experience. It was, again to my mind, a more prayerful place – even taking into consideration the impromptu organ recital from the retiring Cathedral organist. And there was a sense of familiarity, of being ‘at home’, in that place. It was almost as if, having walked into that building, I was once again connected with something that is timeless and not dependent on location. As a Catholic believer, walking into a Catholic church, I was once again connected with all those who have been part of the Reign of God from generation to generation. The timelessness of the Archdiocese of Dublin – which dates back to the mid-1100s – that was encapsulated in that building brought home to me just how small a part I play in something much bigger and so far beyond anything I am and do.

One of the highlights of St Mary’s was the Celtic cross that features Matthew Talbot casting off the chains of alcoholism that had bound him under the inspiration of God. Knowing the history of Talbot, and knowing his origins in Dublin, his commitment to caring for those who were similarly bound was powerful and inspiring. And the artistic representation of his struggle and graced journey portrayed in the Celtic cross found in St Mary’s made it all clear – as any good religious artwork always does.

The visit to St Mary’s marked the end of the official activities for the day, and some of the group made their way back to the hotel by coach while others opted to walk the short distance. Another fine meal in the hotel restaurant brought the day to an end, and then it was time to retire to my room and, eventually, to bed.