Monday, July 16, 2018

Castles, Cathedrals, and Ancient Stones

My family and I go from our little mountain lodge in a place called Tullaghobegley, Irish, to Raphoe for a day’s adventure. My dad drives us down winding one lane roads with tall hedges to either side. It’s only some thirty odd miles away but it takes us over an hour to get there what with driving behind tractors pulling large trailers of hay or peat. What with having to pull over in the little tiny laybys to let the oncoming cars, buses, and tractors pulling large trailers of hay or peat pass. What with trying to follow directions down roads that look like anything other than roads. What is this, a rabbit’s trail?

It’s a pretty drive past the green and flowered bog fields and through Glenveagh National Park.

It’s a beautiful day with the textured clouds above us.

Once we’ve successfully arrived to Raphoe, we park in the village’s free parking lot and then go across the street to have lunch at a little diner. After finding out that we’re only in town for the day, our friendly waiter tells us that just behind the church (which we can see across the street) are the ruins of a castle. She gives us a brief history and tells us which wee road to walk down to reach it. We talk a bit about the unbelievable and unusual for Ireland weather—it’s blazing hot and the sun is threatening to shine out from between some clouds—and then we say our thanks and farewells.

“Enjoy your holiday,” she says.  

After stepping through the intricately carved doors (carved in 1907 by Mrs. McQuaide) to see the Cathedral Church of St. Eunan we head back out, walk around the corner, go down the wee lane, along a little footpath through a forest, and come up to the castle.

Having lingered behind to take a picture or two, I’m last in line to step over a fallen tree and clamber over the ledge of a window and then, like my mom, dad, and sister, I’m within the old walls. There is the open sky above me.

Not a traditional castle built for kings or queens, Bishops Palace Raphoe was built in 1633 when Bishop Leslie came over from Scotland as the new Bishop of Raphoe. Apparently, his appointment was not looked upon with much favor by the locals and, assessing the danger with his vast military experience, Leslie decided he’d better protect himself from the “native Irish.” What better way to protect yourself from those you’re supposed to serve (or was it rule?) than by building a fortress? So, a fortress was built.

Over the years, the Castle—as if the building did the work—resisted attacks from various factions including an Irish Rebellion and Cromwell’s troops. Eventually, going the way of all things, Leslie died at the ripe old age of 100, having held his bishopric office for fifty years. Yet still, around Raphoe there were wars and rumors of wars.

In 1689, the castle, not even as old as the bishop had been, was burned to the ground by King James II and then rebuilt by a new bishop in 1695. But times were hard and people were warring. Still warring. Always warring. The castle in the 1700s was not exempt from attacks. The 1800s brought their own dangers. Somewhere in the years, (I lose the sense of the history), at some point, the Bishopric of Raphoe grew to include part of Derry, the bishop moved, and the castle was sold.

Now it sits on top of a hill on some farmer’s land, ivy grows up various walls, and the cows have left evidence of their existence all over the grass.

I wander through the crumbled stones and beneath the open roofs and think that power is grasping and fleeting. It doesn’t last forever. Maybe that’s a true comfort.

There’s more beauty in the ruins than in Bishop Leslie’s fear and grasping for control. There’s more peace in an empty, roofless building. There’s a tree growing out of the stone crumbles of a top story window.

Stepping around cow patties, I get a picture of the whole castle. In the peace of this day, it’s hard to imagine all the fighting that took place here.

Does the land still feel the past pain? Does it remember the blood it absorbed? Do the stones recall the ringing shouts, the clashing swords, the thunder of running feet?

A bird flies overhead.

We walk back to the car and drive down another wee one lane road to our original destination, the Beltany Stone Circle.

I’d wanted my family, in their three-week whirlwind adventure, to experience a cathedral, a castle, and a stone circle, and here we are today getting a three for one.

What fortune. What luck. What serendipity.

We park in the little grassy car park and walk up the somewhat steep road to the top of the hill. One couple and their dog pass us going back down and then we have the world to ourselves. With only minor huffing and puffing, we make it up.

Off to the right is a planted, tall, evergreen forest with its straight-lined rows like an invitation to visit the shade (apparently called a forestry plantation).

There, to the left, is the stone circle.

Here at the top of the world, I feel like I can breathe again, breathe again deeply.

I like stones.

I like the aliveness of stones. I like the solidness and strength of stones. I like the calm peace of stones. Stones, even old stones, ancient and wise as these are, feel like friends to me.

Dating from around 1400-800 BC, this stone circle is thought to have been used for centuries and might have been used for Celtic festivals that maybe tied into fertility rites or maybe didn’t. No one really knows what those Neolithic people were up to. No one really knows for sure.  
I walk the outside of the 64 stones which are still here (there might have been 80 at one time) and then walk the inside.

Here, thoughts of original use aside, things are.

They simply are.

Taking in a breath to ease out the busyness of the past days, I sit on the grass in the center of the circle and, for a moment, close my eyes.

Photo credit to Elaine White
I could stay here forever with the stones around me, the unraining sky above, the moving clouds casting shadows and light across the distant hills and the grass. I could stay forever in this stillness. I could stay forever here, breathing with the rocks.

Soon enough though, it’s time to go.

After a brief walk through the forest, we head back down the hill, buckle ourselves in the car, and drive on and away from the stone circle, from the castle ruins, the cathedral, and from the village of Raphoe.

We go back to our mountain lodge in Tullaghobegley. Later, we stop in at the local pub for the Tuesday night traditional music session. My dad and I have a pint of Guinness. My mom has some Bailey’s. My sister taps her foot along to the music.  

It’s just another day in Ireland.


Monday, July 9, 2018

Of Puffins and Giants

My wish comes true; my mom sees the puffins.

And then, just like that, it’s time to leave the Isle of Skye—where, miraculously, we had blazing sunshine, were not eaten alive by midges (in fact, I never even met a single one), and had little interaction with the tourists (which, of course, we were too) who had flooded the island in the peak summer visiting season like swarms of locusts.

I’d imagined our time on Skye would be nice but hadn’t anticipated it being perfect. As the saying goes: A good time was had by all. What luck. What fortune. At one point, my dad said, “I didn’t know another place could feel like home so quickly.” And I realize that I’ve been living in homes all over the world for quite a while now. So much so that I’ve almost forgotten to be surprised by the feeling. What luck. What fortune. There’s no place like home.

Gazing back one last time to see our little house on the edge of the world, I say, “Goodbye, house,” and settle into the back seat of the car with maps and directions in my lap. We have a GPS, Mom as the navigator, me as Mission Control, and two hundred and twenty miles of road to go. Thus equipped, we drive on south toward Glasgow.

Scotland, between the Isle of Skye and Glasgow, is almost too beautiful. How much beauty can I absorb in one day? How much beauty can I appreciate?

Although I’ve miscalculated the time it’ll take for us to arrive in time to see the steam train pass over the viaduct and we miss it by an hour, nevertheless, we arrive to the Glenfinnan Viaduct. If any of us are disappointed to not see the train, we let the feeling dissipate like steam over the valley.

Famous for being the viaduct used in the Harry Potter films to get the train-riding student magicians to the magic school Hogwarts, naturally enough, the place hives with people there to cross a Harry Potter location off their list, to take their selfies with the viaduct behind them, and to buy some trinket from the shop. Although I had wanted to visit Glenfinnan for the viaduct itself and for the mountains, at the end of the day, I’m not so very different from the other people here rushing through. I also take a selfie shot. Am I not also checking a location off a list of places to see? Still, I love a viaduct. I love the mountains. The Harry Potter connection is just an added point of interest.

Having been in the car for a few hours, it’s nice to get out and stretch our legs, but we have many more miles to put behind us. So, we load back up, stay on the left side of the road, and drive on, drive on.

Months ago, when I had climbed up to the top of the Scott Monument in Edinburgh, one of the museum staff had told me if there was only one place in Scotland I could visit it should be Glencoe. Scrolling through his phone, he’d showed me an impressive picture of layered mountains whose extended foothills reached for each other to make a beguiling valley. I’d added it to the list of options for future locations and hoped I could pull a visit off.

And here I am. On this day, my dad stops at a small parking area and we clamber out of our little red rental car. Across the road are rising mountains. On our side of the road is a stone wall and behind it a field of grass and flowers with more mountains as an unbelievable backdrop. A footpath winds through the field, I want to start walking and never stop.

Instead, I get my pictures, breath in some mountain air, wave away some bugs, and it’s time to roll on again.

We arrive to Glasgow at rush hour (a mad mass of cars and highway) and with the help of the GPS, the Navigator, and Mission Control we manage to get to our Airbnb location for the night. With another two hundred and twenty miles successfully behind us, we drop our things off and then my dad and I find our way (with various navigational devices) to the car return place at the airport. We drop off the car and take a taxi back to our temporary home. We have a dinner out in Glasgow, sleep the sleep of the travel-weary, and wake up early to catch the Uber, bus, and ferry that will get us to Northern Ireland.

From the ferry deck, I watch Scotland fade to a distant line of green, of blue. Thank you for the hospitality. Thank you for a lovely time. “Haste ye back,” the road signs had said. I hope to, I say in reply.

My goodbyes made, I turn my face toward Belfast.

Our glimpse of Belfast is brief and pleasant. The taxi driver who takes us from the port to the airport where we pick up a new rental car, gives us a nice guided tour as he drives us along. There is the place where the Titanic was built. There is the sports stadium. There is the theater. He’s friendly, full of facts, tells us how to drive to The Hedge where parts of Game of Thrones were filmed, and shakes all our hands after he’s dropped us off.

“Enjoy your stay,” he says. I feel as if we’re parting ways with a friend.

Although his directions were spot on, we don’t end up stopping to see The Hedge. Instead, we press on toward The Giant’s Causeway which I’d read about a lifetime ago when planning my trip and which had intrigued me. I’m eager to see it. What’s not to love about giant rocks and giant legends?

Passing through an infinite number of roundabouts which are called Rotaries by our temperamental GPS, we arrive to Finn McCool’s Hostel. We have a room all to ourselves with four bunk beds. We get settled in and head out to find something to eat.

After dinner, we walk down the road toward the Causeway. In the eternal light of a far north summer, among a diminishing number of tourists, I see the Giant’s Causeway.

The Causeway is a formation of basalt columns thrust up out of the earth by volcanic eruption and frozen into crystalized pattern and place when lava and heat met the freezing touch of some nearby icebergs (more or less, as I understand it). The step-like formation of the rocks, like uneven cobblestones, proceed into the ocean like a road.

Legend has it that the Scottish giant Benandonner challenged the Irish giant Finn McCool to a fight. Up for it, McCool built the Causeway so they could get their fighting on. One version says that Finn defeated Benandonner. Another version says that when Finn realized Benandonner was much bigger than he was he decided he didn’t want to meet him face to face after all. Helping him out, Finn’s wife disguised him as a baby and when Benandonner trudged over and saw the baby giant he turned tail and ran because he figured if the baby was that large than the father would have to be someone even larger and thus too big even for a giant like Benandonner to defeat. With his fear to fuel him, Benandonner ran back across the causeway, tearing it up behind him as he went so that Finn wouldn’t ever be able to get at him for a future fight.

Another legend says that Finn McCool built the road across the ocean so that he could get to the island where his true love lived.

Love and war—apparently all’s fair in legends.

The individual formation of stones, with their geometric shapes, their patterns, their rising and falling heights, are smaller than I’d imagined they would be. At first, I’m a bit disappointed. This is giant? This is the causeway? Then I turn up my hands and release the expectations I’d had out over the water and sit on a stone and begin to love this place.

How can I not love these (mostly) hexagonal stones, these rounded tops, these bowl-like basins? Look at these shapes. Look at the surrounding cliffs. Look at the enticing mountain behind me. Look at the cascading rocks like steps. Look at the grandness of it all. It is giant. It is magnificent.  

I love rocks.

Near the end of the causeway, I find a column with a hollowed basin like a seat and another stone behind it like a chairback and sit. I sit and watch the sun turn the sky different soft colors. I sit and listen to the waves splash up against the side walls of the rocks. I sit and watch the water swirl with the incoming tide. For a while, I have this section of the causeway to myself.  

For a while, I can sit and think and absorb. I can be a part of stone, sea, and sky. I can forget about the road ahead of me. I can forget about the beauty behind me. Here with legends and geologic history as a foundation, I can sit and be.