Pilgrimage to Northern Ireland: beauty, sorrow, violence and peace, Part 1

Every journey, the wise ones say, begins with a single step.The journey from Dublin to Northern Ireland also began on a bookshelf.

The slim book had an attractive title: Sacred Living. The subtitle beckoned me on: “Practical inspirations from Celtic spirituality for the contemporary spiritual journey.”

Opening it, my eye fell on page 47: “In setting out on pilgrimage today, we may not face the same physical hazards as the Celtic Christians in ancient times, yet there is still the opportunity for a spiritual journey offered by the ‘shift of perspective’ which pilgrimage brings. By having the courage to leave the familiar surroundings, people and routines, we provide opportunity for encountering new understandings, experiences, and insights.”

What encouraging words! I had come to Ireland with pilgrim intent, finding there conditions I could not have anticipated that made pilgrimage difficult. The churches I served in Dublin offered joy, encouragement and hope, yet a serious asthma attack and subsequent bacterial infection left me feeling weak, weary, and woebegone, just barely able to carry out my liturgical and pastoral tasks. Pilgrimage seemed out of the question, even though our time in Ireland certainly offered a “shift in perspective” from life as a priest in a small town in West Virginia. Yet something about the words by the Rev. Grace Clunie in Sacred Living gave me great hope, as well as a sense of kinship with pilgrims of ancient times, who traveled to their encounters with the Divine, often in circumstances of hardship.

I wrote to her to arrange a meeting at the Centre for Celtic Spirituality in Armagh. Clunie, a priest in the Church of Ireland, the director of the Centre, as well as a Hospice chaplain, seemed to be a kindred spirit.

In the week before our last Sunday in Ireland, my husband Bob and I traveled north to the town of Kesh in County Fermanagh, just over the border into Northern Ireland. We traveled on roads with the lovely, clear and cold glacial lakes of the region on either side, a visual and spiritual change from the urban intensity and vitality of Dublin. Despite the visible serenity and beauty, this landscape proved to be intense in a different way.

At the church at St. Mary’s, Ardess we found the mass graves of a famine pit, in use from 1840 through 1845, that held the remains of people who died during the potato famine that gripped most of the island during those years. An overwhelming sense of sorrow hung around the sunken trough where more than 200 bodies had been interred, each brought to the place on a sheet slung between two branches, from which they were slid into the pit and covered with lime and a thin layer of soil. As I prayed for the souls that had died so painfully, I looked at the memorial to them. For many years, the famine pits had been considered a kind of scandal. Now, most of them have stone memorials, and some form of bench with landscaping that allows people to stop and pray. It is a powerful, yet peaceful, way to reflect on mortality.

Grace Clunie agreed to meet us at the Navan fort, a Celtic site just outside of Armagh, mentioned in Sacred Living as part of her inspiration to deepen her knowledge and understanding of the Celtic history of her native land, and to learn more how its unique flavor had influenced the development of Christianity there. At the time she and a group of friends went there on New Year’s Eve 1988, there was still intense conflict in her beloved homeland between Catholics and Protestants.

Bob and I came to Navan in the wake of Queen Elizabeth’s very recent visit to Enniskillen, where she shook hands with former revolutionary Martin McGinnis at St. Macartain’s Cathedral.

Northern Ireland remains under English rule; Enniskillen is where the Irish Republican Army exploded a bomb on Nov. 8, 1987 that killed 11 people and injured 63, including a man who lay in a coma for 15 years before dying. The Enniskillen bombing was a turning point in the hostilities that Grace Clunie and her friends were so deeply concerned about in 1988. Violence gradually diminished until, in 2012 the Queen of England, who had lost her beloved cousin Lord Louis Mountbatten to an IRA bomb planted on his boat 60 miles from Enniskillen, shook hands with a man reputed to have planned much of the violence known as “The Troubles,” when the IRA sought to eject the British from Northern Ireland.

This history, along with the famine of the previous gives one a sense of the contrast between the serene beauty of Northern Ireland and the violence, sorrow and death the region has endured. Now we were about to meet a modern-day Irish woman who spends her life sharing Celtic spirituality and leading others on pilgrimages to experience it — at a place thought to be a site of ancient life and ritual— and seeking to bring reconciliation between people of differing traditions, beliefs and backgrounds.

– The Rev. Georgia Dubose is the priest of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Harpers Ferry.

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