Travel plans are moving out of the mists. We will soon be departing for England and Ireland to visit family and also to attend the Dublin Theatre Festival and a writer retreat on the Beara Peninsula in southwest Ireland. The internet offers many ways to lay down tracks through various modes of transportation and places to stay. But in Ireland, we are purposely leaving pockets of time to just go as we will, expecially in the western regions. To leave room for serendipity and intuition and following whims and interactions with people and places. My early years of travel were less planned and more from the gut, which led to some remarkable adventures. Now it is reversed. Although I still feel the prickling of excitement of being open to the unknown. And Ireland is known as the place where the veils thin. During my long trip in Scotland two years ago, the colour blue appeared in a variety of ways and is a thread to pick up the Celtic trail once again.
This story is from 2002. I will be traveling again in Ireland in the autumn and hope that the magic I found then is still there…
I wonder if W.B. Yeats back in 1893 had a premonition for those born several generations later in the Americas when he wrote in the forward of “The Celtic Twilight”:
“The things a man has heard and seen are threads of life, and if he pull them carefully from the confused distaff of memory, any who will can weave them into whatever garments of belief please them best.”
Perhaps it is the common Celtic ancestry that makes fairy tales so popular for both the Irish and the Germans. And the third strand in this braid of a tale is found in the New World from where I flew across the sea to join a troupe of German actors in Ireland. We met to perform adaptations of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. One in particular, ‘Hansel and Gretel’, unexpectedly revealed the effect on my American family of the Irish famine migrations.
Our destination was the northeast coast of Co. Sligo. This is Yeats country. The 30 minute drive from the train station in Sligo town to Mullaghmore became an unofficial tour of some of the sites mentioned in Yeats’ folk tale collections. Around each bend of the winding roads enchanted landscapes appeared. The wind-swept mound ofBinnChulbain (Benbulbin) preoccupied us with searching for the secret fairy door and looking for Maeve’s tomb. Enticing forests beckoned us to tarry a while and softly slip into a dream. And who could not wonder at the delights that were hiding behind the flowered garden gates of the thatch roofed cottages? It was easy to forget we were in a modern taxi when wewere swamped by gangs of sheep swelling down the narrow lanes flanked by low stone walls as the shepherds and their dogs herded them to the market.Mullaghmore is a simple fishing village and tourist stop popular with the Irish. Very soon the local residents knew a troupe of actors was staying at the Piers Head Hotel. Because of the high regard for theater in the Irish culture, we were easily accepted into day-to-day life.
We spent the days rehearsing. Breaks in the afternoon included brisk walks along the high cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean or lazing on the popular beaches. The weather was changeable even in July. Harsh winds from the sea during the winter season were best left to the locals, whose fortified stone cottages blended right into the barren landscape.
Ideally located near the fishing docks on Donegal Bay and the open green at the village center, stands the Piers Head Hotel. Its fine reputation crosses many counties. Not only are the rooms cozy with grand ocean views, but the traditional Irish cuisine alone is worth the visit. Its pub has a variety of live entertainment. It quickly became an evening ritual to wind down with a creamy pint of Guinness. People from miles around thought of this as their local pub and were happy to invite us for a pint and a chat.
One evening I met a married couple who regularly drive 1 ½ hours from Northern Ireland to enjoy this pub’s atmosphere. Upon hearing my last name was Gillespie, Mary noted the abundance of Gillespies in nearby Co. Donegal.
Like many Americans, my family emigrated probably under duress and the family history is lost. I mentioned that my great, great-grandfather supposedly had arrived by ship in Pennsylvania from Ireland, but I didn’t have any proof. And the Irish or Scottish connection with the name is also a bit sketchy.
She said, “In those days things were very rough and people were dying everywhere. Families put their pennies together to throw the healthiest son to the New World. They were not sure if they would ever see them again.”
She knew the exact dock where the ships had left for Pennsylvania. It was a heart breaking time, but the families trusted that somehow their lineage would continue if a son could reach safe shores. I was overwhelmed by the information. A giant hole in my family story suddenly was filled with a faint possibility of connection with the old world.
Ireland quickly felt like home. I recognized myself in the body types, skin, eyes and hair of the people I met. Evidence of my heritage appeared that may seem stereotypical, but had continued through my parents who had never visited Ireland. Qualities such as humor, teasing with twinkling eyes and a love of music, dance and story telling were easy to spot.
My father wore tweed jackets and my mother was a fine horse woman – reminiscent of lifestyles I saw in country homes. She always kept a small chair by the fireplace. “There must always be a place by the hearth for a little person,” she said.
I could personally relate to the famous Irish temperament – as fickle and powerful as the weather. At the heart of it all is a deep love for the land, for family, for real and magical animals and most of all for the remarkable legacy of the Celtic story telling tradition.
There is a curious mix of religion and belief in the old ways such as fairy mounds and wild banshees howling in the moonlight contrasted with saint days that fill nearly every day of the calendar. Loyalty among friends and hospitality are sacred trusts. Memories are long.
The Irish tradition is to go out-of-the-way to help travelers. My Mother was fierce about the importance of hospitality. I learned to understand the root of that when I became a traveler in need.
I had arrived in Dublin by train on a Saturday evening in July never doubting that I would easily find a bed and breakfast. After wandering the streets for three hours it seemed there was not a room left in Dublin. Discouraged, I tried one last place before heading to spend the night in an airport chair to await the early morning flight.
A lovely white-haired lady at the desk said apologetically that she had just let the last room in the hotel. “Surely a fine woman like yourself should not be walking the streets like a common whore! Listen, I finish work in ten minutes. Wait in the back room and have a cup of tea and you can come home with me”.
So, I did. We sat up until 3 in the morning drinking gin and orange and gabbing about everything under the sun. The next morning she called a cabbie friend who delivered me to the airport. This story marks a new chapter in my family history.
My trip to Ireland is best rounded up in the Seanachai way of storytelling. So, I circle back to the fairy tale we performed in Mullaghmore.
Not only did it touch the Irish audience deeply, but it changed my world view forever. There was a more profound reason for my trip to Ireland than to act – it was to let the actor weave into the threads of a larger story.
What kind of woman would abandon her children? I discovered an insight to this troubling question while acting in ‘Hansel and Gretel’ and now view it as a soul tale of Ireland.
The mother (Ireland) was poor and tired and could no longer feed her children. She had the father “throw” the children into the forest (the new world) and meet their fate. Their fate wove into mine as the story took on flesh that revealed the plight of my relations.
The comparison can be embellished with many twists, subplots and details. But, that becomes another tale for another time in another place
Winter Solstice 2015. Today I remember Maeshowe in the Orkneys and think of how this winter festival still stirs my imagination…..
You darkness, that I come from, I love you more than all the fires that fence in the world, for the fire makes a circle of light for everyone, and then no one outside learns of you. But the darkness pulls in everything: shapes and fires, animals and myself, how easily it gathers them! – powers and people – and it is possible a great energy is moving near me. I have faith in nights.
Rainer Maria Rilke
My story was accepted as part of the of the If Women Rose Rooted Like Trees project 2014 by Sharon Blackie in Donegal. Originally posted online, it was part of initial considerations as a woman with Celtic roots, but from North America.
“Like many with Celtic ancestry my people moved to the New World -whether by choice, or under duress. Primarily from Scotland, but with earlier Irish roots, my Father’s branch of the Gillespie family included survivors who arrived on the Atlantic shores of the United States and ultimately opened up the west all the way to the Pacific Coast.
I inherited that compulsion of western movement and adventure, chasing the setting sun from Oklahoma, to Colorado to Wyoming to Washington to coastal British Columbia. I have always been inspired by the mythic notion of west as a place of mystery, passage and transformation.
There are few records of my family story past four generations, yet my Mother left home-centered clues without really knowing their origins that moulded my Celtic sensibilities: singing and storytelling, a passion for words, a small chair by the fireplace, candles and rituals around holidays, outrageous sense of humor, love of horse back riding and dog companions, friendship as a sacred trust, love of cooking and feasting, expressing opinions and owning your truth, love of nature and wild places. And the more difficult ones sparked by warrior energies – the challenging of authority, consequences of drinking and legacy of family disputes.
Bottom line: The home is the centre of culture and creativity. Hospitality is a code of honor and trust. Words have power.
Singing and playing guitar in the early 60’s during the folk revolution was my first conscious connection with my Celticity. I was a natural and began performing and even writing my own songs in my early teens as well as singing traditional Celtic and Appalachian folk songs and protest songs.
This opened many doors and also the desire to visit the Old World and play music. I lived in London for three years during the time of the Irish troubles and sang and acted in plays in an Irish Pub. My voice carries a lot of emotion, and I sang many sad folk songs about unrequited love and others about war. This often brought tears to people’s eyes. The world was on the brink of disaster and I believed so strongly in the power of words and the power of music that I decided to stop singing for a while so as not to bring any more sorrow into the world. And why set myself up for a broken heart by singing sad love songs anyway?
I learned how powerful we are in creating our world through our art.
I decided that I wanted to sing my world into creation in a new way like I heard the aborigines did in their legends.
Fast forward four decades. I am now living in Crescent Beach, British Columbia, Canada on the west coast very near the US border.
I am a published poet, arts advocate, municipal public art advisor and playwright. My husband inspires people as a community elder, trail blazer, wordsmith, recycler and environmentalist. A modern take on the Green Man.
We built our home named Bardsroost on a property with giant cedar and Douglas fir trees, native bushes and lots of birds. We designed our home with green principles and technologies, yet decorate it with traditional furnishings we inherited and lots of art. We host salons, acoustic jams, feasts and celebrations of the seasons.
The main one for me being Imbolc. Brigid found me 20 years ago and what little I learned about her prompted me to celebrate this feast every year in my own way. Most people in my world have never heard of it or her. She just seems to have adopted me and I trust that. She quietly guides me and enjoys living at Bardsroost. Poetry, metal, hearth – it all fits with our lifestyle. We also welcome international guests from many cultures and our dining room table is the centre of learning about culture.
A Celtic story I like is the Salmon of Knowledge. We have many salmon rivers near us and we have even carried baby salmon from the hatcheries in buckets through the forest and released them in salmon streams. Life-death-life cycles are their messages. And leadership. I like animal totem stories.
We value hospitality, creativity, cultural heritage and artistic innovation. When we married last summer we were inspired by Celtic shapes and symbols and created a ceremony that fused humans and nature as well as honouring our ancestors and revealing our love of creative expression, family and friendship. We used the symbol of the three interconnecting spirals in the shape of the ceremony – 1/3 of it in a field, 1/3 of it in a labyrinth with eagles nestled in the trees above and 1/3 of it in a hall with music and a feast – salmon of course.
The weather and landscape here are much like Dalriada (as I imagine it) that old country of Northern Ireland and Southwestern Scotland and the waterways and islands between. Green landscape, rocky shorelines with water passages and islands with mists. When I moved here from the semi-arid High Plains and mountains of Wyoming of Colorado I found the mists and rocky shores a bit frightening, so unlike the big skies and open landscapes of my youth.
I also love stones and during the summer of 2013 I met quite a few in Scotland, the Hebrides, the Orkneys and Ireland. But it was in Argyll that I had the profound experience of connecting through them, with the Bronze Age culture. This gave me the deep roots I was sorely longing for without even knowing it. I was able to reclaim my indigeneity in the land, and in the cultural artifacts. I found peace and contentment. It changed my life. The memory permeates my body, my home, my artistic and community commitments and relationships with a renewed sense of power, compassion, artistry and endurance. And, it reconciled something significant. Since I was a child I have been invited into native Indian settings and ceremonies but knew they were not mine. I wanted to discover my own indigenous pre-Christian roots. And I did.
My singing voice has returned with a vigour and rich quality that is ripe for exploration in this new territory of home and creativity I intend to traverse.”