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.
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.