I wrote the following article in 2002, when I was exploring Celtic paganism. I found it recently while looking for something in my archives and I thought it was worth sharing. It’s a reflection on my first trip to Ireland, when I was doing research for The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Celtic Wisdom. I wrote from the perspective of a student of pagan and Goddess-centered spirituality. I hope you enjoy it. If you wonder how a Christian like me once identified as a pagan (or how someone exploring Celtic paganism might become devoted to contemplative Christianity), please read “You Wrote Books About Paganism?!?”
A Spiritual Pilgrimage to Ireland
As Christians look to the Holy Land or Muslims revere Mecca, those of us who walk a Druidic or Celtic spiritual path regard Ireland, or Eire, as the spiritual home of our tradition. When the opportunity arose for me to spend 18 days in the Emerald Isle this summer doing research for a new book, it seemed like far more than a mere business trip. This would be a pilgrimage, a journey of personal and spiritual discovery.
Over eighteen days, I did indeed discover many things. I saw breathtaking coastlines, lush emerald-green farmland, and inspiring prehistoric monuments. I spoke with ordinary people, neopagans and Christians, college professors and retired farmers, friendly pub owners and aging hippies. The trip was also beset with plenty of problems. I had difficulties with my connecting flights in London, both coming and going. When I finally arrived in Dublin, my luggage was delayed—for 36 hours. And I even had a minor health crisis: a painful hemorrhoid that required a reassuring visit to an Irish doctor (“don’t worry, young man, you’ll be fine. Just drink an extra pint of Guinness every night”). Yes, even when we pursue a precious spiritual experience, the ordinary hassles of life still happen!
The Singing Presence
Since this was my first visit to Ireland, my itinerary naturally included several must-see destinations: Dublin, with remarkable cultural treasures like the Book of Kells or the Armagh Chalice… the Hill of Tara, ancient seat of the Irish high kings from the days of myth and legend… Newgrange, the impressive stone age passage-tomb immortalized in Irish mythology… The Cliffs of Moher, majestic 700-foot walls of rock eternally buffeted by the power of the Atlantic… The Burren, an eerie limestone-covered landscape that looks like it could have been originally part of the Moon… The Giant’s Causeway, another awe-inspiring rock formation jutting out into the northern branch of the Irish channel, said to have been built by the mythic hero Finn McCool as an ancient bridge to Scotland.
Each of these sites conveyed its own sense of magic and mystery, especially thanks to a resonance I felt again and again, a lovely and indescribable sense of presence, as if the land herself were conscious, alive, and watching me. I came to regard this omnipresent, buzzing energy of the land as a “singing presence,” as if the Goddess herself expressed self-awareness through the terrain, singing a celestial melody into the minds of those willing to listen. More than one person had warned me that the energies of the land were different in Eire than in North America; but I had not been prepared for how unmistakeably and profoundly beautiful my experience of the Goddess’ presence would be.
The Blessings of Bridget
The Pagan Celts worshipped a Goddess of healing and fire called Brighid, and when Christianity came to Ireland, devotion to Brighid didn’t die out, but was transformed. Either an early Christian woman took the name of the Goddess as her own, or else the Christian community transformed the memory of the Goddess into a more acceptable “saint.” Either way, today Bridget/Brighid represents a powerful uniting of the Christian religion and the ancient Pagan wisdom of Ireland. Whether Goddess or saint, Bridget is a role model for both men and women, as a powerful figure who exhibited compassion toward the poor, love for the earth, and leadership in her community.
The home of this Goddess/Saint is Kildare, a lovely town southwest of Dublin. Up until the 16th century, Bridget’s nuns tended an eternal flame in her honor—a clear survival of ancient Pagan practices. In recent years, a Roman Catholic order of Brighidine nuns relit the sacred flame, and it burns today in the nun’s home in Kildare, standing for a sacred spirituality that transcends religious differences and calls people to a life of unity and balance. As a pilgrim, I found the cathedral, medieval tower, formal gardens, and several Holy Wells in Kildare to be powerful symbols of this important icon of the Divine Feminine.
The Lady at the Well
One of the chief delights I discovered throughout Ireland was the Holy Well tradition. Hundreds of wells, springs, and other water sources are revered in Eire as places of healing, prayer, and meditation. Often the water of these wells is said to have powerful tonic and curative properties, and practices such as leaving offerings at the wells may date back to pagan times. My pilgrimage took me to the most famous wells, (like Tobernault near Sligo or St. Bridget’s Well in Liscannor, near the Cliffs of Moher), as well as a few little-known but still special sites.
One of the most profound experiences I had was in the small village of Clonmel, at a well dedicated to Saint Patrick. At this site, I experienced a brief but dramatic vision of a lovely woman, with raven black hair, dressed in white. According to Celtic myth, every sacred well has a feminine spirit who serves as the guardian of the well. I spoke to the spirit, asking if she was the guardian; she engaged in a dynamic inner conversation with me, admonishing me not to just be a “spiritual tourist” visiting sacred sites like a boy scout collects merit badges, but to approach the powerful places of natural holiness with a due spirit of contemplation and reverence, so that I might form a true relationship with the energies of the place. So much for my pride! This encounter left me energized by a clear sense that the singing presence I had been experiencing was no mere figment of my imagination, but truly a profound doorway into the wisdom of the land.
Meetings with Remarkable Celts
I met several wonderful and amazing people, some by prior arrangement, others just by a chance encounter. I asked each person to give me their insights into what truly makes up the great tradition of Celtic wisdom.
In Kildare, I met Sr. Mary, one of the Brigidine Sisters who tend the current flame of Bridget’s fire. She described the Celtic tradition in terms of balance and unity, and mentioned that the real purpose of Bridget’s flame is to inspire the burning of a sacred fire within each soul.
In County Cork, I met a colorful pagan couple, Bev and Del, who live on thirteen acres of gorgeous land in an environmentally-friendly home; they shared insights into the Celtic tradition that stem from a long-standing involvement in the Wiccan tradition. They shared their gentle spirituality based not on joining the right group or collecting the right initiations, but simply honoring the spirits of the land and embodying the Celtic virtue of hospitality.
In County Galway, I met Tom Hannon, an 81-year-old retired farmer and gifted storyteller. As I followed doctor’s orders and sipped a Guinness, he regaled me with tales of the fairies and the old gods and goddesses. From him I learned that the fairies are neither good nor evil, but tend to treat different humans pretty much as they deserve.
On the Aran Islands, where Irish is still spoken and traditional Gaelic culture yet survives, I met Dara Molloy, a “priest of the Celtic tradition” who blends a profound earth-centered spirituality with an activist’s commitment to sustainable living, organic farming, and preservation of traditional ways. Dara taught me that the most important aspect of Celtic wisdom lies not in how much knowledge we gain, but in how we use that knowledge to truly live in harmony with the planet and our communities.
And finally, in Northern Ireland I met the folklorist Bob Curran, who built on the stories of Tom Hannon and gave me more to think about in regard to the fairies. From Bob I learned that a legend or a folktale can carry as much wisdom as a learned book or a theological treatise.
Honoring the Ancestors
Many of the sacred sites I encountered were related to death. Newgrange is an ancient tomb; so are many other famous sites, like Knowth, Dowth, and Carrowmore. The stone circles at Beaghmore in Northern Ireland are accompanied by ancient burial mounds called cairns. Of course, sacred sites associated with Christianity (like Kildare) often incorporate cemetaries. Why is death such a profound part of Irish spirituality? Probably because it is a profound part of all spirituality, although we Americans do a better job than most at ignoring our own mortality. But seeing the link between spirituality and death is important, for true spirituality includes honoring one’s ancestors, those whose DNA we now carry. From Newgrange to the famine graveyards to a modern cemetary near a holy well, my trip was filled with a silent reverence for those who had gone before.
All too soon, my time in Eire was up and I headed back to Atlanta. One of the most important parts of any spiritual adventure, whether an actual pilgrimage or an inner meditative journey, is reflecting on the lessons we learned over the course of the trip. Here are just a few of the nuggets of wisdom Ireland graciously shared with me:
1. Spirituality begins with the land. The spiritual life involves more than just books, or meditation, or rituals. It’s not about joining a group, learning myths, or completing a study program. It’s about our body and soul, which we inherited from our ancestors and from the land that feeds us, the air that nurtures us, and the water that quences our thirts. As human beings, we don’t relate to nature, we are part of nature.
2. The heart of wisdom lies in the telling of a story. Each of the remarkable people I had the honor to speak with was a born storyteller. Sure, that’s an Irish stereotype, but everyone has their own unique story to tell, their own unique experience of being alive on the earth at this time. When we tell our stories, we reveal our soul to others. What can be more spiritual–or wise– than this?
3. It doesn’t matter what label you wear. Christian or pagan, Wiccan or Druid, none-of-the above or some combination thereof… I met people of varying religious affiliations during my visit, but found repeatedly that the spirit of hospitality, reverence for the land, and devotion to the Divine crossed all boundaries and lines. Given the troubles of northern Ireland (as well as the troubles of the Middle East or of September 11, 2001), Ireland’s message is clear: we need less religious dogma and more spiritual openness, no matter what our personal identity might be.
4. Trust the process. My little visit with the Irish doctor was one of the sweetest and funniest moments of my trip. It wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t had a health problem. And thanks to a delayed piece of luggage, I bought very few knickknack souvenirs, but instead spent my money on useful, practical clothes! When we simply trust in the process, even the negative parts of our lives can lead to blessings.
5. If what you’re seeking you find not within yourself (or your own land), you won’t find it anywhere else, either. Sure, visiting Ireland was fun. But every time I encountered the singing presence of the land, she sang the same message: “Don’t just love Eire. Go home to Georgia and love the land there. She, after all, is your land. Sing to the land of Georgia, and she will sing back to you.” If you want to be a nature mystic, seek the magic of nature in your own back yard. That’s the true Celtic way.
This article originally appeared in the August 2002 issue of Aquarius. All photos by Carl McColman excerpt for the featured photo of Poulabrone Dolmen, by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash.
Carl McColman is the author of several books, including An Invitation to Celtic Wisdom and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Celtic Wisdom (the book he was writing at the time of this trip).