Different Shades of Green
A Pilgrim’s View of Ireland
By Connie Fenty
I couldn’t remember the exact moment when the shift occurred. Had it happened early on as I viewed ornately crafted gold in the Irish history museum in Dublin? Had it come to pass during a profound insight I had while meditating on Brigid in the village of Kildare? Or had it been a result of the awe I felt watching a beam of light illuminate a dark passage tomb at Bru ‘na’ Boinne?
Over the course of our ten day voyage through mystical Ireland, I found my mind flipping back and forth from outward to the inward journey. In Jean Shinoda Bolen’s book about her mid-life journey she says, “Pilgrimages invite reflection. We become as receptive to our own thoughts, feelings, and memories as we are to the impressions we receive at sacred sites.”[i] By that definition, I had become a pilgrim.
During my contemplative moments, one question kept reappearing in my thoughts. When had we humans begun to take more from our good earth than we returned to it, tipping the scales from sustainable stewardship to reckless destruction? At the sites we visited, I discovered clues that indicated the answer would be found even further back in time than I had imagined.
Today was our last relaxed breakfast together as a group, and we ate heartily from the bountiful buffet served at our hotel in Limerick. Tomorrow, we would be up early rushing off to catch our flights back home. Our coach driver, Phillip, signaled that it was time to head out for our day’s adventures.
“Top ‘o’ the morning to you ladies,” he greeted us in typical Irish fashion.
Once underway, he sketched out our route, “We’ll be seeing some very old ruins today. I’m heading northwest and although we don’t have far to go, the roads are narrow and winding. It’ll take us about an hour to get into the Burren area. So, relax and enjoy the ride.”
I turned my attention to one of the maps I had picked up at the market in Galway the previous day. It depicted all of the major sites of interest and their locations within the Burren, an area famous for its unique landscape. Detailed information about the geology and history of the region was included. I learned that the name Burren comes from the Irish word bhoirean which means stony place.
One particular description caught my attention. It appealed to an aspect of my spiritual nature, a love of spending time in nature and camping in the wilderness. This passage awakened my wild inner self:
Here we have a region that shows us bare limestone mountains and sheltered valleys of pastureland; clear streams cutting down the sides of gently sloping hills and rivers that emerge from subterranean beds; rocky cliffs overhanging the Atlantic Ocean and rolling sand hills; and almost limitless horizons where the sudden display of shifting light and shadow can be literally breathtaking[ii]
The stony place we would walk upon today had been formed from the skeletons of sea creatures living and dying throughout millions of years in an ancient ocean. Over centuries, sea water retreated and the land became blanketed with frozen glaciers. When the ice receded, soil was left behind. Trees that took hold would eventually become massive and form an extensive forest. Rains carved long shallow cracks and created caves in the porous stone underneath. Climate change happened slowly over eons.
Unfortunately, the Burren today bears no resemblance to its legendary forest-covered self. Its fragile ecology had been severely challenged first when Neolithic herders arrived and began clearing land for cattle grazing and to build settlements. Later, the Celts continued the practice. The sound of trees crashing to the ground became commonplace. Vulnerable soil, once held in place by knarled tree roots, was blown away by strong winds coming over the cliffs and washed away as rain water raced over exposed ground. Deforestation had been successfully completed. Learning that environmental degradation happened even in ancient times discouraged and saddened me. I wondered, When will we ever learn?
Would our view of the Burren be similar to the wasteland featured in a prophetic ancient myth about a young maiden, Persephone, who was abducted and taken down into the underworld by Hades, a dark shadowy God. Her mother, Demeter, the Goddess of fertility, was so distraught she tried to negotiate her daughter’s return by petitioning the Gods. They didn’t want to offend Hades and refused to help. In retaliation, Demeter scorched the earth, leaving it barren until an agreement for the return of the young maiden was reached. Persephone would spend half of the year in the underworld and return to the surface for the rest of the year. The annual reunion of Demeter and Persephone was accompanied by the new growth of spring.
The age old story describes a barren earth caused by a male archetype, Hades, who took what wasn’t his to take. His actions disrespected Persephone, an innocent personification of youthful feminine divinity. The Goddess Demeter had been reviled as well. Reverence for the powers of creation and sustainability had been sorely lacking. Ironically, the themes related in the myth had been acted out in similar fashion at the Burren as well as being repeated into present time. I believe the myth is a metaphor for what happens when reverence for Mother Earth is overshadowed by the system of patriarchy with its emphasis on control rather than cooperation.
On our way to our destination, the views from our coach windows were in stark contrast to the rolling grassy fields and lush green hillsides we had been seeing as we rolled along the roads of Ireland. Instead, here were terraces of bare limestone rising dramatically above forest green treelines like giant stair steps. We were beginning to understand first-hand why this eerie acreage is referred to as a moonscape.
Our trusty driver alerted us that we would soon be arriving at the site where Poulnabrone Dolmen, a massive stone burial monument built in 2500 BC. After we parked, Phillip informed us that the dolmen, which hadn’t come into view yet, could be reached by taking a dirt path that led from the parking lot.
As we moved forward, we were stunned by the sight of an imposing presence. The ancient monument was dramatically surrounded by a stark barren rocky surface that extended well beyond the main feature. Here we sae the evidence of lost ancient forests. Yet I knew that a closer look would reveal a rich variety of plants and flowers, mysteriously growing in profusion down in between the bone-like stones. Botanists and plant lovers alike continuously flock to the Burren in search of rare floral species.[iii]
A fellow pilgrim, walking at my side, whispered to me, “We are stepping on the bones of our primordial Earth Mother.” I felt goose bumps on my arms, something that happens when I sense the spirit world is close at hand.
So that I wouldn’t sprain an ankle, my gaze was directed down. For now, I had to ignore the dramatic dolmen as I made my way closer to it. Thanking myself for having worn my trusty hiking boots, well-worn from time spent stepping on sacred ground, I was carefully making sure to stay on the limestone pavements called clints to avoid tripping over or stepping into the vertical fissures called grykes.
I became enchanted by tiny flowering plants hiding in the crevices, revealing a delicate microcosm of the sturdy trees that had once been rooted into soil that had disappeared long ago. Unfortunately, the destructive impact of humans on the environment is old news on our planet.
As soon as I could safely do so, I focused my attention on the dolmen. Dolmens remind me of a giant mathematical symbol for Pi. I was impressed by its sheer massiveness. Rising up over six feet high, it had been built with two large upright stones set deeply into the ground and then capped by a huge horizontal stone.
A descriptive sign at the entrance informed us that the capstone here weighs almost 12,000 pounds.[iv] Neolithic monuments seem to defy gravity. At one time the dolmen would have been an entrance to a large earthen mound, an ancient mausoleum. Human remains had been discovered thousands of years later during an archeological dig.
Currently, a rope strung around the stone structure prevented close contact, but even so, I could feel a sad energy emanating from the site. The monument had been aptly named. Poulnabrone is Irish for Hole of Sorrows.
I found a comfortable place to sit and admired the delicate shamrock-green ferns peeking out on either side of my warm stone seat. I recalled what I knew about burial practices that had taken place during the Neolithic era. These elaborately built monuments demonstrated respect for the dead and a belief in an afterlife. “Deceased ancestors where believed to provide guidance and assistance to the living and were also considered to be symbolic representatives of well-established and continuing family lines of descent.”[v] I had been surprised to learn that the concept of ownership and control of land had been in existence for such a long period of time.
It amazed me that these societies had ushered in the agricultural revolution, considered one of mankind’s greatest advancements. Nomadic ways and harsh conditions experienced by early hunter-gatherers had been replaced by a more reliable form of survival. The first farmers of Europe participated in an early form of subsistence farming, growing crops and raising domesticated animals. Over centuries, successful farming practices accelerated the growth of the population in the area and caused a dramatic conversion from low-impact farming to widespread land clearing.[vi]
The story of the agricultural revolution was one that I could relate to. Having grown up on what was initially a small self-sufficient farm in Missouri, I was familiar with the lifestyle. Before food labels such as locally grown, natural, or organic began to appear, my family was unknowingly consuming what we now call health food.
Reflecting back, I can still hear the bawling sound our cow, Bessie made in the wee hours of the morning as she begged to be milked. We drank the sweet unprocessed milk, skimming off the layer of heavy cream floating on top. I was the official butter maker for the family, wearing my arm out cranking the wooden paddle in a large glass container called a churn. My love of the taste of that butter smeared on my mother’s yeast rolls was motivational.
At breakfast time, fried organic eggs were served, their thick orange yolks sitting atop firm solid whites. I can remember feeling the warmth of the brown shells as I tenderly gathered eggs from the nests of corn-fed hens. Chickens were also the mainstay of our traditional Sunday dinner. I still salivate at the memory of the chicken pieces cooking in the cast iron skillet on the hefty old kitchen stove. I loved the crunchy texture of the first bite of crispy fried batter covering the juicy white meat.
On the weekends, we were treated with thick slabs of bacon courtesy of pigs raised on the farm. Our pigs led a short but good life wallowing in the mud holes they created on the hillside by our threadbare farmhouse. When my brothers and I put out their feed and cleaned the pig pens, I noticed and admired how long their eyelashes were. Sometimes we tried to catch one of those intelligent creatures. We were never successful as pigs are amazingly fast runners, but we did provide entertainment for my dad as he stood aside laughing at our antics.
We had a beautiful large and productive garden that provided fresh vegetables for the table as well as flowers for bouquets. The veggies were home-canned in Mason jars and stored in a root cellar like the one in the movie, The Wizard of Oz. I used to climb down the steps and sit for a while inside the cave-like space, enjoying the coolness and the strong scent of moist earth.
Cherry jam that my Dad loved on his favorite biscuits was also stored on the shelves of the cellar. Plump, juicy cherries grew on large old trees at my grandmother’s house nearby. When the fruit was ripe, my mother drove the big farm truck under the trees and my brothers and I got to climb into the branches to shake the cherries down into the bed of the truck.
The first ten years of my life growing up on that small family farm had been defined by the seasons of planting, growing, harvesting, and hunkering down for the fallow time of winter. My childhood had been characterized by performing our chores, and parents who sometimes bickered and were often exhausted. And yet, those times had been balanced by imaginative outdoor play and occasional magical moments.
Sadly, over time, our sustainable subsistent farm life changed. My dad had been brainwashed by the precepts of the green revolution. Unlike today, when green refers to being environmentally ethical, in the 50’s, green meant that a steady stream of agricultural innovations were ushered in as progress. Dad whole-heartedly embraced practices that promised greater yields and greener crops, and he was very astute at learning and applying the new technology.
As time went along, he acquired more and more land and promptly stripped it of trees. He considered them to be nuisances that got in the way of bigger and more powerful machines, engineered to plow deeper furrows, spread petrochemical fertilizer, and spray heavy doses of herbicide during the planting process.
Prosperity appeared in the form of a shiny new kelly-green John Deere tractor, a complicated combine, a huge hauling truck, and grain drying bins that took up space near our house. The healthy food we produced and ate during the first decade of my life began to be replaced by store-bought canned goods and packaged meat. In the space where our garden had grown, a field of golden wheat grew.
Eventually, our old farm house was torn down. My mother was ready for the moderninity of a brand new modular home. On a subtle level, my brothers and I began to detect increased parental stress. Some of the stress may have been caused by the more complicated financing involved in running a farm supported by petrochemicals and heavy machinery. And by that time, my brothers had become teenagers, further complicating their lives. At times, I wished for the simplicity that had once been present.
It wasn’t until the publication of Rachel Carson’s, Silent Spring[vii] in 1962 that the effects of chemicals used in farming practices came under scrutiny. A few years later, Frances Moore Lappe wrote Diet for a Small Planet.[viii] It was the first major book to declare that the production of meat was a wasteful way of feeding our world population and had a negative environmental impact. Reading those books as a young adult enlightened and alarmed me regarding the environmental hazards that had taken place right under my nose. Tragically, producers of consumer products back in the 50’s had not taken into account the concept of The Seventh Generation Principle, an ancient Iroquois philosophy based on making decisions that would do no harm to the future seventh generation.
Because we were all naive regarding the potential health risks of the green revolution, I never blamed Mom and Dad for having changed the course of their early farming plan. It was through their hard work, even though unknowingly harsh on the environment, that my brothers and I were well provided for. Each of us received a college education and became successful in our careers. When I think of them today, it is with love and a deep sense of gratitude.
Dad eventually sold the farm with no regrets that none of his offspring followed in his footsteps. He often said it was too much work and worry to be a farmer and didn’t wish that on his kids. He spent his retirement years fishing and investing in the commodities market at which, through his knowledge of farming, he was very successful. He was proud that at the end of his life, he was able to leave behind a legacy for his family members.
Sadly, during his last years, he suffered from Parkinson’s Disease and Dementia. I recently stumbled upon a study finding a link between exposure to pesticides and Parkinson’s Disease. I wasn’t surprised. Watching Dad in decline, I remembered him sitting on the seat of his open-air tractor driving up and down the planted rows while breathing in clouds of dust filled with chemicals.
Shaking off my sadness I returned my attention to Ireland. It was time to head back to meet the others in the car park. I wondered if any one else had strayed off into reverie as I had just done. Visiting sacred sites has that effect. Something about time traveling seems to lead us on our own inner journeys.
Once aboard the coach, Phillip took the microphone in hand and talked about the upcoming destination,”Just down the road a piece there is an excellent example of an Iron Age ringfort. Even though it’s in ruin, the circular stone enclosure still wraps almost all the way around, and there is a viewing platform where you can stand and see all the way to Galway Bay.”
We pulled out onto the road which immediately began to descend in a series of thrilling hairpin turns. Phillip informed us that the extraordinary road we were traveling on, carved out of Burren stone, had been a Famine project. During the Potato Famine of the 1880’s, over a million people died of starvation, and a massive migration began. Too late, the government came up with a cruel and ineffective scheme of creating work projects so the Irish could earn money to support their families. It was a horror story of emaciated men working as laborers and often collapsing in the effort. Hearing about another dark chapter in Irish history silenced us. Winding steeply downward, navigating switchback after switchback, it felt to me like we were metaphorically descending once again into the shadow aspect of pilgrimage. I remembered a quote from the book, The Art of Pilgrimage:
“For the pilgrim, there comes a moment of truth, when the search for the real takes you to a place that pierces your heart.”[ix]
My friend Mary saw my distress and asked, “Are you ok?”
“Remember how often things appear in threes in Ireland?” I answered with a question.
Mary nodded, and I continued quietly, not wanting to upset the rest of the group, “Well, between taking on the sadness I sensed at the dolmen, then remembering my father’s passing, and now hearing about the Great Famine, I feel as if I just experienced an Irish triple whammie.”
“I can relate,” Mary responded. “And because the coach is so quiet, I imagine that the rest of the group is feeling the same way.”
Soon, the coach pulled off the road at a small turnout. The only landmark was a large metal farmyard gate. Phillip waited until we were all off of bus to talk further about the site.
“At the end of the path,” he began, “there will be a sign with some excellent information about the ringfort you are about to view. It shows how the Celts lived during the later part of the Iron Age. T’was here, several centuries ago, that a wealthy landowner built this circular stone enclosure. His purpose was to wall his people and livestock in while walling intruders out. It was once a structure that enclosed a farming village, not a sacred ceremonial circle.”
It seemed serendipitous that after reviewing my memories of my own childhood farm life, we would be exploring a site where Iron Age Celts had lived and farmed.
Our guides led, and the twelve of us processed single file up a narrow lane bordered on either side with tall hedges. We resembled a group of early pilgrims embarking on an arduous walking pilgrimage. Several of us stopped to read the descriptive sign and learned that the stone fort had been built sometime in the early Medieval period, long after the first Celts entered Ireland around 600 BC. The circlular structure was described as a defended farmstead, the property of a wealthy Burren landowner. Archeologists have discovered the ruins of about 45,000 ringforts scattered across Ireland.[x]
As we approached the circle of stones, I walked beside Phillip to ask questions. “Phillip what can you tell me about the Celtic view of land ownership and the influence they had on the history of Ireland?”
Phillip visibly slipped into tour guide mode, straightening his posture and calling on facts that he shared with his clients. “The Celts had a flair for organization. Their society was based on hierarchy and a distinct class system, with categories ranging from royalty at the top to slaves at the bottom. Land was divided into territories populated by small tribal groups who pledged allegiance to the leader of a larger region, and they governed themselves with written laws.”
“I was pleasantly surprised to learn during my own research,” I added,”that Celtic women enjoyed liberties and rights protected under tribal laws. It seems to me, though, that the positive way women were treated was overshadowed by the fact that cultural norms back then were based on both hierarchy and patriarchy. And that was a toxic mix that prevented social justice and equality for all. The same is true even today.”
“That’s a good point, Connie.”
I changed the topic in order to talk about something else that had been on my mind. “We hear a lot of legends about the fighting talents of renowned Celtic warriors. What was that about? And what were they fighting over?”
“As I understand the history,” Phillip began to explain, “Farming practices were so successful that the population began to expand and resources became scarce. That’s when the fighting began. The chieftains who became successful in their bids for land achieved respect and status. I think they got a bit full of themselves and started to show off by accumulating wealth. This ringfort showed off the status of its wealthy landowner.”
Ownership and defense are still a classic pairing, I thought before continuing, “It sounds like those living on the inside of the enclosure became increasingly guarded against intruders and uninvited visitors. They must have lived in fear that what they owned might be taken away. And, what better way to protect themselves than to build strong stone walls and forge more iron weapons? Sometimes, I wonder which comes first, a need for more weapons or building defenses in order to justify the proliferation of weapons.”
“I hear that,” Phillip said shaking his head.
“The same quandary exists today in our country within the debate on gun control. But that’s a topic for another time. I should join the group. They seem to be fascinated with the site. Thanks for clearing things up for me, Phillip.”
“It was my pleasure,” Phillip said. “I enjoyed hearing your thoughts as well.”
Entering the circle of stone, I was surrounded by the remains of what had once been a taller boundary wall. Today, the wall was only three feet high all around and inner walls were missing. A striking view could be enjoyed without being blocked as it had once been when stones were stacked high enough to keep out intruders. I thought it ironic that by walling others out, people inside became imprisoned. The space within the circle was spacious and I didn’t feel penned in. I climbed the stairs to stand on the wooden platform and was thrilled by the view from the edge of a precipice.
The openness at this height allowed us to feel strong breezes that would assist in clearing out any residual sadness that we may have felt earlier. Expansive clear blue sky overhead, stones surrounding us, and glittering Galway Bay below connected us to the three realms of the Celtic worldview: the Underworld, believed to be the place where ancestral beings resided and spirits controlled the cycle of life; the Middleworld, realm of humans, plants and animals, and a place where nature Gods and Goddesses dwelled; and the Otherworld, where ethereal Gods and Goddesses were sources of inspiration, creativity and wisdom.[xi]
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Phillip signaling us back to the coach so we would have ample time to enjoy the majesty of the Cliffs of Moher after lunch. I took another look at the open fields below us and wondered how Dad would have felt if he were here at my side. Although he had traveled to other countries as a winner of Missouri’s corn growing contest, he never got to visit his Irish homeland. I thought of what he might have said while standing on this hilltop. At first, I romanticized that he might share words of wisdom with me. But then, I could almost hear his deep gruff voice stating what would have been a more realistic observation.
“Too many damn trees!” he barked. It was difficult to stifle the impulse to chuckle as I made my way back to the coach.
[ii] Anne Korff, Jeff O’Connell, A Rambler’s Guide Map (Kinarva, Co. Galway, Ireland, 1986).
[v] Sharon Paice MacLeod, The Divive Feminine in Europe (North Carolina and London: McFarland &Company, Inc., Publishers, 2014), 77.
[vi] Ibid., 60.
[vii] Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Boston: Houton, Miflin, Harcourt, 1962).
[viii] Frances Moore Lappe, Diet for a Small Planet (New York: Ballantine Books, 1971).
[ix] Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage (California: Conari Press, 1998), 134.
Connie Fenty, a retired teacher, has dabbled in creative writing since childhood. Her stories about her work with labyrinths and leading Sacred Journeys have been published in anthologies and magazines. She just completed her first book, I Found Myself in Ireland, a travel memoir, and she is the process of self-publishing.