It’s Irish History month.
My Grandmother, an Irish immigrant, used to tell me, “Sure, ’tis not the land that makes the Irish, ’tis the Irish that makes the land.” It was her way of saying, you can take the girl out of Ireland, but you can’t take Ireland out of the girl–and by girl she meant herself and all of her descendants. I’ve heard, time and again, that Irish Americans embody the Irishness of Cú Chulainn–that never say die attitude–more than their native kin. That, somehow, life in diaspora intensifies that genetic memory. I know some Irish history, Brian Boru, Hugh O’Neill, Michael Collins, Bobby Sands, Bono… For them, surrender wasn’t–isn’t an option–and in only one case was there compromise. I have friends and family in Ireland, and I see that same passion within them. So, I remain unconvinced of this logic.
The Irish are often accused of, well biting sarcasm aside, “waxing poetically.” My first visit to Ireland had such an affect on me. Usually, I write–live–with that biting edge. But, what follows what written several years ago and continues to color my view of that moment when I touched heaven, that sense of home and oneness, that genetic memory…
I watch two falcons from my high perch at Loughcrew until they disappear from view. The five-thousand-year-old hilltop shrine where I sit consists of a grass mound that houses the completely intact passage tomb. It is the main tomb at this site. Its interior walls are covered with intricately carved Celtic knots and, much to my surprise, no graffiti. I wonder if there was a language there in the knots, some inner meaning lost to time, or are these knots just simply decoration. Four smaller cairns—mound tombs covered by huge piles of rocks—surround it. Thousands of years of wind and weather have left them marked, but in remarkable condition.
I stand on the grassy mound and in every direction I look I see a stone circle. Each is nestled far below me at the foot of what the Irish affectionately call a mountain, but most of the rest of the world would call a hill—not even a very large hill. The two-hour hike up the meandering spiral path to the ancient memorial is well worth my efforts. Turning slowly, I try to commit the entire landscape to memory. The stone circles, druid circles as my grandmother would have called them, are in what appears to be almost pristine condition. They’re not tourist attractions; they’re memories of a primeval, haunting time that commands my respect.
My grandmother told me stories about the Irish monuments, the magic they evoked, the magic we could touch if we would only allow ourselves to be a part of the wholeness of the world around us; if we only allowed ourselves to believe. I share my grandmother’s wisdoms with my son, Ian, as the farmers below meticulously trim around the stones leaving them as they found them, untouched, sacred and whole—belonging to a world known only in legend and imagination. Both pasture and property line make way for them. The white-washed cottages with their thatched roofs all stand at a respectful distance. Hedges and walls divide the land into neat plots veering from their paths only to go around the prehistoric sites.
I watch a herd of what appear to be thoroughbred horses as they come into view in the western field below. They arrive thundering over the field. A stallion rears, at this distance he seems—feels—black. The black stallion. He carries himself that way.
His nickering and neigh carry on the breeze; he’s calling his herd home. The horses gallop across the open field. Their raw power must shake the ground and yet, as if respectful, the herd parts and moves around the ancient site in the middle of their meadow, like water moving around stones on the shore, before rejoining on the other side without missing a step. A young colt falls behind and wanders into the stone enclosure.
The stallion screams.
He rears and seems to turn mid-run before he abruptly stops.
All of the horses halt.
They wait as the blue-roan mare walks back to collect her errant son. She stops at the circle’s edge. She throws her black head back, calls to him, and then paws anxiously at the ground.
The colt’s feet falter as he makes his way out of the ring. He realizes he is standing in a place that his mother fears to go. He has dared the sacred ground and is walking away unscathed.
The stallion makes his way back and nudges the foal as he exits the ring. They both rear and neigh loudly before breaking proudly into a canter. The pair glides confidently across the field ahead of the others who appear to be watching some ancient ritual played out before them. As suddenly as they arrive, they all disappear over the hill and Ian and I are alone in this timeless expanse once again.
The cairn on the other side of the hilltop sanctuary comes into my line of vision and I watch two peregrine falcons come to land, only ten yards or so away, on one of the large piles of rocks that form a memorial to some distant king. The larger bird, the female, has a meadow pipit in her talons. The pair settles down in their eyrie to enjoy their catch. There is a soft, yet urgent, peeping sound rising from the rocks as the raptors feed their young. I sink silently to my knees, try to be invisible and not disturb them. I fear that neither my lens nor my pen is capable of capturing the moment. The smell of the heather, the sounds on the breeze, the prehistoric presence—power—magic of the ancient monuments; I am left spellbound by the scene. I’m standing in a place that today can’t reach and I pray tomorrow will never find. . .