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.

Ireland Pilgrimage 2018 – The First Day

Or should that be the first days?

International travel can play such havoc with one’s conception of time, not to mention one’s body clock.

Having boarded our Dubai-bound aircraft in Sydney on the evening of Thursday 27 September, we eventually reached Dublin, having transited through Dubai, about midday on Friday 28 September. Which seems not unreasonable…until you remember that our total flight time had been in the vicinity of twenty-three hours. I love the way that works.

Arriving in Dublin, we were met by our guide and joined by those members of the travelling group who had left before us and had already spent some holiday time in various other parts of the British Isles. Exhausted though we were – understandably given the travel time – we made our first stop connected with the life of Catherine McAuley in whose footsteps we are making a pilgrimage.

The first stop was to Coolock House, the now convent that was home to Catherine when she lived with the Callaghan family. I was intrigued to learn there of the way in which being the household manager to the Callaghans and their large household and estate was in some sense a wonderful preparation for the great work to which Catherine would be called. The administrative and managerial skills that Catherine learned there – and clearly learned well – were to be of great assistance in the eventual establishment of the House of Mercy and the Sisters of Mercy.

Of particular interest to me in Coolock House – and largely because of my liturgical pursuits – was the way in which the present occupants of Coolock House have turned an ordinary room into a beautiful and prayerful chapel. The altar, ambo, tabernacles, paschal candle stand, and other features have been beautifully crafted from timber. When placed in an otherwise undecorated room, the space becomes a place where God is encountered.

Our second and last stop was to the former chapel of the Presentation Sisters, the chapel in which Catherine and her two companions professed their religious vows as Sisters of Mercy at the completion of their novitiate. This place, now used as a conference room, still has some of what would have been its former glory, but the true significance for those following in the footsteps of Catherine McAuley was the occasion of the religious profession – an event marked by a plaque on the wall installed by builders who had been working on the building. I hasten to add there were no plaques that acknowledge the space’s former existence as a chapel for the Presentation Sisters, but there you go.

After leaving the chapel, we made our way via coach to the Ashling Hotel which will be our home for four nights. It is an elegant and comfortable hotel which provided a wonderful opportunity for a shower (much needed!) and enjoyable food which I didn’t enjoy as much as I could have given the impact of travel catching up with me.

An ‘early’ night laying horizontal was beckoning, and the bed was very enticing. And so I retired to bed…the first day (or days) of the pilgrimage complete.