Saturday, September 26, 2009

Pilgrimage - Day 8, Sept. 17, 2009

Late evening of day 7 of our pilgrimage we booked into our hotel at Kilronan, Inis Mor and, after a bit of “musical chairs” with room assignments, settled into a landscape that is vastly different from Glendalough, in fact from most other places. It is one of rock almost everywhere you look. In earlier times settlers carried seaweed and sand from the shore to create soil in which to grow some grass for their herds and a few vegetables.

On the morning of our first full day on Inis Mor, we met Dara Molloy (See note at end) who would be our guide and teacher for the day as we began to explore this island that is a mere nine miles long and a mile or two wide. One of the first realizations we had was that no matter where we were, we looked out over the sea. And from the sea, everything on Inis Mor seemed up. We would grow used to climbing!

That morning we visited first the site of St. Enda’s church and burial, now surrounded by the island’s main cemetery. Enda was a prince who was converted and came to Inis Mor with a group of monks to establish ten monasteries across the island in the late fifth century. He perhaps chose this landscape because of its desolation, to emulate the tradition of the early Christian desert fathers, who isolated themselves to concentrate on their inner spiritual lives. This island of monastic settlements, like Clonmacnoise in the center of Ireland, would be a place where monks came to learn and then to go out to other parts of Europe. Enda’s church has now sunken down into the sand below most of the gravesites(as seen in the photo to the right). Some of these graves date back as far as 1500 years while others are from the present. The graveyard speaks to the enduring legacy of the island.

From St. Enda’s grave we walked along the road and then upward to three wells near a site of an Augustinian monastery of a later period. Wells in the Celtic culture were more than a necessary source of fresh water. From ancient times they have been associated with the sacred. The number three also is a sacred number both in Celtic times and in Christianity (as in the Trinity.)
(Right - one of the three wells)

Near the wells were the remains of a high cross and a round tower. Above us on the top of the ridge was a small church, St Bena’s, probably built in the eleventh century in honor of a servant of St. Patrick. Rock being so plentiful, it has been the building material through the ages on Inis Mor. The workmanship exhibited in the buildings is such that many have stood in tact for centuries with little damage except for the loss of their roofs, which would have been from less durable materials. We stood in awe of what the people living in such a harsh landscape had created through the centuries.

After lunch of delicious soups and sandwiches in one of the pubs of the village of Kilronan, we visited the Cill Ronan, the remains of a church of yet another saint and then a monastic site at the other end of the island called Seven Churches. Again we were surrounded by graves dating to the earliest Christian times on the island but also to the present. In fact, there was an open grave for a burial to take place the next day. The grave had been dug by neighbors of the family of the deceased, as is custom, and had shovels arranged across it in a traditional fashion. This was to be the final resting place, or in Celtic tradition the place of resurrection, of the man whose body we had traveled with on the ferry to Inis Mor the day before. We paused for a moment of prayer for his family.

From there we traveled along the “low road” – there being two main highways for a portion of the island’s length – to visit the site of St. Ciaran’s settlement in the sixth century. This site today contains a church probably built in the eighth century and perhaps added to later on, as well as a sacred well. It was a practice for people to come to this sacred well on St. Ciaran’s feast day, September 9, and walk around it seven times in clockwise fashion reciting prayers. Though we were eight days late, we observed the practice.

Outside St. Ciaran’s church we observed standing stones that had been inscribed with crosses. Standing stones were pre-Christian in their origin, but the early Celtic church used them to mark the boundaries of churches, inscribing them with crosses. This may have been the early origin of what later became the custom of building the high Celtic crosses with inscriptions of both Celtic artwork and biblical themes.

Also, outside this church there was a somewhat smaller standing stone with a hole through it near the top. This might have been a sundial at one time. However, it took on a later use as a wishing stone. One might draw a silk scarf through it three times while making a wish.

It was at this point that Dara left us to find our way back to Kilronan and the hotel on our own. His home was just up the hillside above this site, and he had another engagement that evening. And we were left with a bit of free time to try to take in and mull over all that we had experienced in the hours we had been with him. Some of us spent time that evening reading Dara’s Legends in the Landscape: Pocket Guide to Arainn, a small book that is at once a travel guide of Inis Mor and story book about the saints and heroes associated with this landscape. And before we let Dara escape, we’d also bought his new book, The Globalisation of God.

Our pilgrimage this day had introduced us to a most hospitable people on in a rather harsh landscape, a people who were not long accustomed to many of the comforts we enjoy at home, but who have carved out a way of life on this island off the beaten path.

Dara Molloy was a Roman Catholic priest who first came to Inis Mor to live in solitude and work with the rural inhabitants of the island to improve their quality of life. In his personal life pilgrimage, he came to leave the Catholic Church and to marry and have a family, as well as to continue to work for the best interest of the residents of the island. For more on Dara, his work, and books, go to

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