I have never quite understood or appreciated Ireland’s holy wells. I had seen many watering holes in all shapes and counties along my 25 years of Irish travel. But it wasn’t until I heard these two podcast episodes: A Celtic Spring and The Holy Wells of Ireland that the idea of holy wells, St. Brigid’s Day, and Imbolc truly sank in.
I’ve listened to these particular episodes a few times and I know I will always go back to it because I love them so much. For reasons that I can’t really articulate here, knowing more about these three aspects of Irish culture and history, make me understand myself more and why I am so drawn to Ireland. More than drawn to it really. More like, of it. After all, I am 33% Celtic according to my DNA genealogy tests. Not as much as I feel, but more than I expected I actually was. I’ll take it.
It was during my last trip to Ireland with my mom, that the phrase, “Ireland is my holy well”, bubbled up out of me like a spring. We were walking around a church yard and I was fixated on how my feet were sinking into not just the grass but the spongy earth below. Like my feet were being warmly welcomed. I could feel the warmth flow up through my feet to my legs and the rest of my body. I knew the words now that describe why I needed to set my feet on Irish earth time and again and how it restored my spirit back to my true self.
The following are slices of each trip I’ve made up until this point and how I came to know this, that Ireland is my holy well.
July & August 1998
Volunteering at Avoca Family Camp, Avoca and CSSM, Greystones, Co. Wicklow
I woke up from a long nap trying to rid my jet-lag. Foggy headed and wobbly, I find my way outside and as I slide through the back entrance to the outdoors, I’m met with a heady floral and earthy aroma. One I’ve never smelled before but that I know well. A light breeze greets my cheeks. The sound of the trees over head in a secret whisper, ”She’s here….and after all this time….” The moss under my feet hum and buzz softly taking me in with gentle hugs like they’ve waited to welcome me back home. My heart swells with this profound happy sadness. Light a great relief is found. Part of me is aware that my body is holding such strong and conflicting emotions. But it is grounding. I carry all of it with me through to the path ahead. The thick rolling carpets of moss, the rippling ferns, the golden green that covers everything. Foxgloves appear around every corner and stones in every shape are budding through the carpeted moss. I’m humming a tune I’ve never heard before but I know the notes. Though I don’t know what the tune is. I didn’t expect to be welcomed by the very earth I walked on. That the ground would buzz and hum and say to me in it’s own language “welcome home”.
Volunteering at Avoca Family Camp, Avoca & CSSM, Greystones, Co. Wicklow. Burren College of Art, Ballyvaughan, Co. Clare
Picking up where I left off from one year ago felt as natural as could be. I heard the song again in my head when I’d walk the same mossy paths out behind the manor.
At the end of August, I quickly sank into my new life at the Burren College of Art. The contrast of the Wicklow mountains and the Burren Mountains is noticeable. I loved Wicklow so much but I was not prepared for how The Burren would change my life.
I’d go for walks, sit out on the step in the mornings eating my breakfast of my homemade apple sauce, bread and tea. Every aspect of the environment in the Burren has its own personality. And no matter what each piece was up to, it was always a marvelous dance seeing it all mixed together and change every minute of the day. It was always out on these walks on my own that the song would return.
The Céilí on Thursday nights was such a high light. Driving in the red school van up the corkscrew hill all the way to Kilfenora was a wild precarious journey. But it didn’t compare to how I was expertly tossed about on the dance floor by the farmers. I still remember my first dance with John. A tall farmer with thinning hair, slender but strong as anything. Patient with the most effective movements and timing with instructing me on exactly what to do and when, and when he needed to- he’d just lift me off the floor with one arm and spin me to the next spot in our wee circle. This year was one for the books. But having that dancing experience was a highlight of that whole Irish art school experience.
Post breakup solo journey
I’m sitting in the doctor’s office. I had a severe sinus infection. My flight to Ireland was leaving in 24 hours. The doctor urged me not to go for concern over how much pain I might experience in flight. Not go to Ireland? You’re hilarious. I’ll be fine.
In 2007 flights weren’t quite as tight as they are now. I was able to sack out across three seats in the back of the plane the whole night. I woke up as the plane was landing in Shannon. With one road map and my memories, I headed out. I made my way somehow to Ballyvaughan in my tiny rental car during the wee hours of the morning having a very, very sick head. I shouldn’t have been driving. But I knew I just needed to head west. I had no phone, no GPS. I found a B&B in Ballyvaughan and some how convinced the owner to let me check in immediately. Next thing I know, I woke up a day later. After a thorough Irish breakfast, I headed out through the Burren.
At some point I got out of the car and started climbing the rocky hillside. I pause to sneeze the biggest sneeze of my life and it looked and felt like the entirety of my sinus infection has left me. I take a seat for a moment to regain my balance let my ears sort themselves back out. Then I straighten out and continue on with my day and my trip. It was like the last 8 years had left my body and I felt fantastic.
As I explore the various tiny plants and pools resting in the limestone, the song floats through me.
I’ve been hanging out in this bog nearly every day, examining the liverworts and lichens. I had become near obsessed with investigating all the tiny plants in this ecosystem.
Along our travels I had acquired a texel fleece that I even helped shear. I was a little nervous about bringing it home as I wasn’t too clear on how customs would feel about it. I decide things might go better for me if it was washed. So I wash it. But first I skirt it. Skirting fleeces can often feel like a very crucial decision. You want to get the very best out of the fleece for hand spinning and skirting is the first step after shearing. Removing the edges of the fleece that need to go is important but I still cling to the wool a bit. After all, it took the same energy for it to grow but now I have to throw it away? Instead, I took it out to the bog. I found a spot that looked suitable for a lifetime of decomposition and laid it down. Tucking it into the earth for its nap. I felt like I was leaving a piece of my self there. As I preformed this act of trying to give back to the earth what it had made it grow, the song glides on through. Fading and coming back like the wind.
Cabin fever get away
I was going crazy and thought I was loosing my mind. I had undiagnosed postpartum, prenatal depression and winter blues. My husband, out of desperation, decided we would go to Ireland for 1 month. Our son was 18 months old and I was in my 1st trimester with our second child. It lifted my spirits considerably.
When we arrived to our cottage in Ballyvaughan for the month of May, our son just entered into a new development stage. The full on – full blown toddlerness. The wet noodle when getting dressed. The great independent explorer on every walk. The heavy weight champion at every Spar visit for groceries. Then turning into a wet noodle/ boneless cat any time I needed to redirect him away from danger. And he was as cute as a button. Cuter even. A dumpling with red, shinning, ever smiling cheeks. Sparkles jumping out of his blue eyes. The laugh of always having his own secret. The white golden curls that would light up all the older folks and even made one man reach out one day and pat his curly halo and ask if he could have some of his curls too in a sweet sing songy thick Clare accent. My sparkling spark plug of a son had to also touch everything as we walked down the road. But especially if it were stone. He’d run his hands over it like he was communing with ancient ancestors. With every flower he passed by, he couldn’t until he became a bee and stuck his nose right in making pleasing noises and then pointing with delight as he stood up. He was a constant moving ball of energy that also happened to match in equal measure my declining energy as his baby sister grew in my belly.
The song returned in the most unexpected way. I was out on my own one afternoon walking around Ennis. I had just secured a fresh eclair from a bakery and I knew baby girl on the inside would be kicking up a storm in delight. I turn a corner on the narrow sidewalk and it just comes swimming back. It was like it was waiting for the air and light to be just so. But there it was. Clear as day in my mind.
An Unplugged painting holiday
I closed up every form of technical communication except with my husband and kids for 10 days. Grabbed my watercolors and headed for the Burren.
I spent one morning and afternoon sitting in the fields high above Fanore trying to lure two Galway sheep over to me and sketching the valleys and Atlantic below in watercolor. I experienced a few different type of rain in that sitting as well.
As I walked up the hill further carefully tracking the sheep, the song returned. Always the same bit. Some words but not enough for me to piece it. I was relieved it was back.
Foraging in the Burren holiday
Discovering that bluebells and fuchsia can make fine lovely prints of wool and silk felt like a gift and a fluke. When I went to try these flowers, it was purely with zero expectations. I thought maybe I’d get some kind print as a smudge. I was hopeful color would remain but I also was not hopeful it would last. But I was so wrong. Both flowers made wonderful clear prints and It opened up so much more for me to experiment with. Because of the nature of how I structured my holiday, I was well prepared for diving into dye experiments. Every day I prepared something new and I had something new to check on. In between these times, I drove up and down the road between Ballyvaughan and Carron. Just bopping along listening to Lyric FM and letting my mind follow my creative muses and my stomach. Visiting my favorite spots, the Burren Perfumery for a lotion and soap reload and a tea and soup. The Jam shop of Doolin for all the marmalades. O’Connor’s in Doolin for the warm St. Tola’s goat cheese tart. Hazel Mountain for hot chocolate. October in Ireland was bliss.
One early evening I was hunting wild madder on the coast of Fanore. I sat on the stones for a wee rest and looked out to the Atlantic just in time to see a dolphin jump and dive. I felt like I was in a fairy tale. As I made my way back down the hill to my car, the song is near.
Mother and Daughter trip
My mother and I are into our last day in Fanore. We’re driving around looking for Fanore beach. I get turned around and instead drive into a sea of rabbits. And twice as many bunnies. I had never seen such a sight. We stop and just take it all in. “Oh look! It’s the O’Hare’s and McBunnies!” My mom says brightly. I laugh so hard I nearly pee my pants. That was the majority of our trip together. The things we’d say to make each other laugh was good medicine. Thankfully I never did pee my pants.
45th Birthday trip
March in the west of Ireland, is much like home on Peaks Island. Wild and blustery. So wild in fact, that I never made it out to Inis Óirr to meet Úna in person as the seas were too rough for the ferry to run. But! I did have and make my own fun and met so many people along the way. Nearly every single day was filled to the brim of meeting up with new fiber friends and very dear long time friends. As I had been planning for this trip months before, the connections I was making on line were just snowballing and I soon found myself meeting a Mexican natural dyer in Malú Colorín of Wicklow for a natural dye class. A teenage sheep farmer producing his own yarn line in Ciarán Mc Loughlin of Meath for a nice squishy pile of yarn for my upcoming aran knitting workshop. A co-pioneer in reviving the Galway flock, one of Ireland’s near extinct sheep breeds in Blátnaid Gallagher of Galway for a lovely kitchen chat and Galway fleece. An Irish slow fashion and art magazine creator, editor, & publisher in Aoife Long of Tipperary for a cafe chat and walk around Dublin. And a keeper of Irish heritage craft in Sandra Coote of Cavan for a lovely chat of antique spinning wheels, getting a tour of her teaching space for our tour, and some lovely Roscommon fleece, another near extinct Irish native sheep breed.
I was so completely full to the brim with passion and inspiration by the time I returned home. Not to mention meeting up with old friends and making new ones with my air B&B hosts in Clare, Paul and Joan of Tulla who also run an antique shop. Oh the great talks we had nearly every day about Irish culture & history.
And I’ve got 3 more trips on the books!
Next up; this November for a wee solo time of exploring Wicklow, the very first place I fell in love with in Ireland 25 years ago. I’ll be taking a jewelry class at WindRush Farm with my bestie and generally exploring the local parks, hills, trails to study the stone walls and do some wild wool gathering. I look forward to sharing with it all with you.
After 25 years, the song has at last revealed itself in its entirety. I realize with a laugh that I probably heard it in the airport and the flight with every trip.