Setting Foot on Celtic Sod
Story and photos by Becky Garrison

When a traveler's pilgrimage to an expected quiet set of ruins leads her to a crowded Irish tourist trap, she stakes out a different trail and dances to her own inner Celtic drum.

Ireland miners

In my quest to transform my business trips into pilgrimages, I stumbled upon Phil Cousineau's book The Art of Pilgrimage. He defines pilgrimage as "the art of movement, the poetry of motion, the music of personal experience of the sacred in those places where it has been known to shine forth. If we are not astounded by these possibilities, we can never plumb the depths of our souls or the soul of the world."

In particular, I longed to explore this mystical "thin space" described by the mystics as an imaginary veil that separates this world from the next. So at the suggestion of the Rev. Kurt Nielson, author of Urban Iona and my spiritual guide, when I was in Dublin for a spell, I set out for a two-day trip to tour the ruins of Glendalough. In the sixth century, the reclusive monk St. Kevin discovered gleann dá locha ("glen of the two lakes"), a glacial valley formed during the Ice Age that looks picture perfect.

However, while waiting at Dawson Street in Dublin for the more modern St. Kevin's Bus to transport me to Glendalough, I wondered if perhaps I might have erred in choosing this particular trek. Unbeknownst to me, Glendalough remains one of Ireland's most frequented tourist destinations. (Note to self: Next time I set out exploring, do a bit of research instead of relying solely on a recommendation no matter how trustworthy the source.)

So, instead of immersing myself in Celtic country, I stood in a line of tourists the majority of whom seemed to be decked out in last year's budget travel gear as they chatting mindlessly while skimming through the latest go-to travel brochures. As I seemed to be the only one wearing hiking shoes, I wondered if I could find any solace in a group that appeared more fixated on adding Glendalough to their lists of 1,000 places to visit before they die than actually exploring this soil.

Monastic City

After the bus dumped us off at the Glendalough Visitor Centre, we set out as a group lemming-like toward Monastic City. Every time I tried to photograph the 12th century stone ruins or capture a shot of the 30-meter Round Tower, some tourist's visage wrecked my shot. I couldn't even walk around the Lower Lake without being accosted by touristy clutter.

So I turned around and went back to the Visitor Centre muttering some very un-Celtic thoughts under my breath. Perhaps now I could pick up the material I should have pursued pre-trip that would enable me to find solace in what felt like a tourist trap.

I left with a map of walking trails and set off for a late-afternoon hike along Miners' Road Walk. When I passed by Upper Lake, I could see St. Kevin's bed, a seven-by-three-foot rock cave that, according to legend, was shown to Kevin by an angel. How Kevin managed to enter and exit this hole in the wall so he could gather the herbs and fish that sustained him remains a miracle to me.

Ireland rain

As I was approaching the ruins of the abandoned mines, the sky opened up and gave me a good Irish dunking. Every time I took a step toward the mines, I felt myself going deeper and deeper into the mossy soil. Mist rose from the remains of this mining village as though the rain beckoned me to come in and play. So I joined in and skipped myself silly. Then the sky really let it rip. Even if I had remembered to bring my rain jacket, no amount of outerwear could keep me dry from this drenching.

Out of nowhere, the sky cleared and a rainbow graced the sky. Smiling and soaked, I squish-squished and skipped all the way back to my room at Glendalough International Hostel.

Ireland travel

The next day, I picked out a few hikes recommended for solo hikers and set out to greet the Wicklow Mountains. first I hit up the Poulanass Waterfall and St. Kevin's Cell routes that I picked up after walking by a series of stone crosses situated by the Upper Lake. While encircling Poulanass Waterfall, I sensed the spirit of St. Kevin winking at me as though he dared me once again to dance. Once again, I accepted his challenge and pranced around without a soul in sight.

Then I headed down the winding path that stopped by a circle of stones marking the location where St. Kevin's Cell once stood. I continued my journey along the Green Road Walk that hugged Lower Lake. The few tourists I encountered shared my desire to continue on in silence.

After a full day of hiking and a short trek to a nearby pub, I tried to sleep but was kept awake all night due to my bunkmates, who clearly didn't seem to comprehend the value of quiet space. Unable to sleep, I finally got out of bed at 5:00am and set out in search of breakfast while I waited for the morning bus to take me back to Dublin.

Ireland gravestone

For once, I had Monastic City all to myself. I grabbed a spot on a stone wall and sat down to watch the sunrise over the ruins. Within the span of fifteen minutes, the sky morphed from blackened blue to a dark royal purple. The gray Celtic crosses and graves strutted out dressed in their silver finest to give me a Glendalough send-off. I waved to these old souls and once again, danced myself silly.

While I have yet to master the art of pilgrimage outlined in Cousineau's book, by walking these hills, I began this transformation "from mindless to mindful, soulless to soulful travel." Slowly, I started learning how to create tiny pockets of sacred joy even when surrounded by touristy trappings and lack of proper planning.

Becky Garrison is the author of Jesus Died for This? and a panelist for The Washington Post's On Faith column. Other writing credits include work for The Guardian, Killing the Buddha, Religion Dispatches, and US Catholic. When she takes a break from her laptop, Becky can often be found kayaking, fly-fishing, biking or hiking.

Related stories:

Modern Day Druids at the Hill of Tara in Ireland by Ian Middleton
Finding Old Ireland Alive in Place, Words, and Song by Michael Shapiro
Trapped beneath the Volcanic Ash Cloud by Rachel Dickinson
The Mysterious Stone Chambers of New England by Brad Olsen

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