Pilgrimage to St Gobnait at Ballyvourney, Co. Cork

Happy https://ga.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gobnait to one and all – here is a post on Gobnait from Louise Nugent’s wonderful Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland blog!

Pilgrimage In Medieval Ireland

Saint Gobnait: first impressions

I first came across St Gobnait when I wandered in to the Honan Chapel  around 14 years ago.  The Honan chapel is  very  beautiful  church located on the campus of University College Cork. It has many splendid stained glass windows by Harry Clarke, who in my opinion was Ireland’s finest stain glass artist.

As I wandered around the chapel I looked up at one of the many windows which depicted various Irish saints and there was Gobnait. Her window is one of the most beautiful depictions of a saint I had ever seen. The window shows  Gobnait of Baile Bhúirne/Ballyvourney adorned in blue robes and surrounded by bees, at her feet  are two men with   fearful expressions.  My curiosity immediately demanded that I find out who this saint was, where she came from and most importantly what was the connection with the bees?

http://www.flickr.com/photos/feargal/6388195535/ Stain glass image of St Gobnait in the  Honan Chapel . Taken…

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“The pilgrimage is not all plain sailing, not all peak experience” – Peter Reason on the messy human reality of pilgrimage

“The pilgrimage is not all plain sailing, not all peak experience” – Peter Reason on the messy human reality of pilgrimage

One of the charms of Peter Reason’s In Search of Grace“ is his human honesty at the gap between the lofty ambition of pilgrimage and actual experience. At the very outset of his voyage, he writes of “the repetitive anxiousness that so often comes in the small hours … I lost all sense of why I was on this journey; all sense of pilgrimage disappeared.” He expands on this theme:

It is not uncommon for travellers to feel resistant at the point of setting out. For years the French writer and traveller Sylvian Tesson had wanted to spend the winter in a small cabin in Siberia. In Consolations of the Forest he writes about the challenge of rousing himself from bed on the morning he is to set out and wonders if he will undermine his own desire. In The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen describes the calamitous weather and uncertainty about porters at the beginning of a trip in the Himalayas. The forthcoming journey is losing all sense of reality and he asks “where did I imagine I was going, where and why?”

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I suspect that in order to gather the energy for a significant journey we have to idealise it in our minds beforehand. There has to be a grand purpose to make it all worthwhile. So I have described my voyage as a pilgrimage (rather than a sailing cruise) I had thought of it as a “deep ecology homage” But once I set off, these worthy ambitions ran up against the unrelenting and sometimes frightening reality of the wild world. The high-minded purposes become meaningless and difficult to hold on to. The pilgrimage is not all plain sailing, not all peak experience. We can only engage with the world on its own terms, terms that include inclement weather, the contingency of plans, and the unreliability of equipment. And they meet with my fragility as a human being; my mistakes, my indulgences in emotions, my fear, the gap between my high expectations and the reality.

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There is something of the ridiculous in this. I boldly wrote that on pilgrimage we leave the comforts and habits of home in order to meet the more-than-human world more directly. But I was discombobulated when I had to live through what this actually means in practice. The grand purposes with which the pilgrim sets out will only survive and deepen as they are tested against experience.

Peter Reason on pilgrimage, ecology and in-between space.

Peter Reason on pilgrimage, ecology and in-between space.

From “In Search of Grace”:

“In modern times, the idea of pilgrimage falls within so many cultural and spiritual traditions that it holds no single meaning. However, it usually entails a long journey in search of qualities of moral or spiritual significance, a journey across both outer physical and inner spiritual landscapes. A pilgrim separates herself from home and familiars, may join with a group of like-minded seekers, sometimes wearing special clothes or other marks that indicate their pilgrim status. In an important sense the pilgrim leaves the everyday and familiar, and journeys through an in-between space towards some transcendent purpose….Places where two ecosystems meet, such as the brackish water of lagoons, are rich with lifeforms and ecological adaptation. As the Catholic writer Douglas Christie puts it, ‘The liminal space of the pilgrimage journey offers a fluid and imaginative space between the human and the more-than-human worlds, between matter and spirit, body and soul, heaven and earth, humanity and divinity.

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“I studied many accounts of religious pilgrimages, learning how the faithful travel to sacred sites in order to encounter a holy realm for worship and the affirmation of faith, in search of illumination and for healing. I began to draw parallels with my idea of ecological pilgrimage as seeking a primal, heartfelt connection with the Earth itself and the community of life that has evolved on Earth. It is also an ongoing celebration of that connection and an act of homange, honouring the Earth as the more-than-human world of which we are a part, existing for itself rather than for human use. By taking the pilgrim away from the habits of civilization and by disrupting the pattern of everyday life, pilgrimage offers and opening to a different view of the Earth of which we are a part.”

“it is very difficult not to anthropomorphise puffins” – Peter Reason on Puffins

I have been posting some thoughts inspired by Peter Reason’s book In Search of Grace. I am trying not to let this blog turn into nothing but a series of extracts from the book! However I do feel that this nice little passage on puffins near the Shiant Islands Shiant Isles (owned by the family of another author I have featured here, Adam Nicolson) worth quoting – and a near illustration of the near impossibility of avoiding anthropomorphism:

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Soon Coral was surrounded by puffins, with the distinctive markings around their eyes and their wonderful colored beaks. The air was full of puffins too, so full it reminded me more of a cloud of mosquitos than a flock of birds. Those afloat seemed to be juveniles, pufflets (puffins live up to forty years but do not mate for the first five years), while those airborne were clearly adults, tirelessly flying out to the fishing grounds and returning with sand eels hanging from their beaks to feed their chicks. These adults were so intent on their business that they often seemed not to see Coral, passing within fet of the mast and only diverting at the last moment.

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It is very difficult not to anthropomorphise puffins. They do remind one of neatly turned out, rather insecure, self-important people. As I took Coral slowly across the pool towards the anchorage, steering through the floating flocks, the pufflets swam energetically ahead, looking anxiously from side to side as if to say. “I am not really bothered by this great white creature.” But when Coral drew too close for comfort, their heads bobbed this way then that even more urgently, while they made up their minds whether to dive or take off. Diving is the more elegant choice: a neat flip takes them the beneath the surface, leaving concentric rings of ripples. In contrast, taking off is usually a bit of a mess: their wings don’t seem to get much initial lift, so they splash frantically along the surface, wings and feet flapping away, often to crash inelegantly back into the water.

Here is the yacht Coral moored on the Shiants:

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Peter Reason on being a pilgrim and being a tourist

I recently re-blogged a section from Peter Reason’s new book, In Search of Grace. I’ve been reading it over the weekend and am sorely tempted to simply copy out sections. I hope to write a fuller, more considered review in due course but also hope to blog responses to particular themes. Reason’s “ecological pilgrimage” touches on a huge range of topics related to nature connection, silence, conservation, pilgrimage, and time and whole range of topics close to my heart.

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It is an engaging read which is helpfully upfront about the messy human reality of pilgrimage – very far from a continuous series of flow experiences, epiphanies of so on. His pilgrimage is ecological rather than explicitly religious and draws on a wide range of traditions, including secular/scientific ones – but with a great deal of respect for the religious underpinnings of pilgrimage.

He is also unsentimental – observing for instance that as the “Sixth Great Extinction” began pretty much once homo sapiens showed up, blaming the depradations humans have wrought on the planet on “Western” or “modern” man is a mistake.

Anyway, there is a huge amount to get to grips with and I hope to feature some highlights and thoughts here over the next while. For the moment, one theme which is relatively minor but highly significant is the distinction between the pilgrim and the tourist. I have blogged on this before – or rather on the distinction often made between being a “tourist” and a “traveller” – my own preference being for honest tourist rather than pretentious traveller.

For Reason, these reflections are most acute on Inishmore, largest of the Aran Islands. Aware of the tension inherent in bringing economic benefit to an isolated community (although as he writes, given the preponderence of day trippers the main beneficiaries are the ferry companies), he also notes his own preference for solitude in sites like Dun Aengus. Yet, is he so different from the mass of tourists? As he reflects afterwards:

I sailed north with a heavy heart, disappointed with my visit. Inishmore is a remarkable place. First for its lessons in geology: it is one thing to read about how erosion creates limestone pavements, quite another to actually walk over them. Second, for its lessons in history: while this is not my part of the world, I know is has been deeply influenced and impoverished both by its own conflicts and those imported from England. For me, however, these qualities were overwhelmed by the visitor culture, not so much by the curiosity of the people who visit, but by the infrastructure that is required to cater from them and to profit from them. The tourist business requires that large numbers of visitors move through the sites fairly quickly and are returned to the tourist hub where they can spend their money.

It is all too easy to make a crude distinction between tourist and pilgrim. We are all both. The line is a subtle one that I found myself continually crossing and recrossing, never entirely sure which side I was on. Indeed, nature writer Paul Evans refers to people like me who go in search of wild places as ‘wilderness tourist.’ Religious pilgrims who go to sacred places in search of a holy realm will often take time out for sightseeing; and tourists visiting the same place may find themselves affected more profoundly than they had bargained for. The tourist may see a haughty arrogance in the pilgrim’s claim to a higher purpose, and the pilgrims may look down on the superficiality they see in the tourists.

Reason goes on to write as to why he finds the distinction still worth making; I don’t want this to turn into simply posting extracts from his writing so I would urge those who wish to know more to seek out the book For me, sites like the Louvre and the British Museum do acquire the status of pilgrim sites, and when somewhere is described as “touristy” it is usually because there is something worthwhile there. Of course, the experience of visiting it may be wrapped up in a lot of tiresome tat and overcrowding, but it was ever thus …

“In Search of Grace” , Peter Reason

“In Search of Grace” , Peter Reason

From James Common’s blog, an extract from a fascinating sounding book whose themes seem to chime with my own interests. I particularly found this passage resonant:

‘Silence’ is a fascinating word. At a very simple level it can be taken to mean the absence of sound, or at least the absence of noise that is intrusive or irritating. But this is misleading. Silence is not an absence of sound but as Sara Maitland puts it in her Book of Silence, it is a ‘positive presence… Perhaps it is a real, actual thing’. It is rather more difficult to say just what it is that is present.

Certainly, as I sat on the grass above Craigaig Bay, I was reaching outward with my listening as if seeking to touch something elusive and fragile: the call of the birds, the whisper of the wind; maybe even the trace of the now-absent sounds of those people who once lived here. Maybe I was reaching into the gaps between the sounds, to hear that which was occluded. Sometimes I felt I was also trying to reach behind those present and past sounds to a sense of an underlying cosmic silence, maybe to what the ancient ones called the music of the spheres.

But the silence was also about me. It was about a certain quality of mind and attention. Sara Maitland describes ‘an interior dimension to silence, a sort of stillness of heart and mind which is not a void but a rich space’. This ‘rich space’ certainly is one that is stilled, relatively emptied of internal chatter and self-absorption. But it is nevertheless awake, alert, full of imaginative response to my surroundings.

“Why do you go sailing on your own?” people often ask me. I usually reply that the presence of other humans seems to demand conversation, and however attractive that is, it fills the rich space of internal quiet and overwhelms the possibility of opening to the underlying silence of the world.

So while silence is a positive space, it is a space that opens only when ‘I’ am no longer filling it. By ‘I’, I mean in particular my self-importance and self-concern, my attachment to my own purposes, all of which create a deafening internal ‘noise’. Silence, in the extended, positive sense of the word, seems to arise when external ‘quiet’—the absence of intrusive noise—meets an internal quietude. This meeting is a delicate place: the external quiet may be unexpectedly disrupted, as my encounter with the helicopters suggests; my quietude is continually threatened by egoic concerns. This is the kind of silence prized, according to Barry Lopez, by the Tukano Indians of Brazil when they speak in praise of ‘The Quiet’: a ‘realm of life that could not be sensed until one overcame the damage done to perception by long exposure to inescapable noise.

James Common

If, like me, you are an avid consumer of natural history based literature, you will surely love the below extract from Peter Reason’s new book, In Search of Grace – An ecological pilgrimage. The book is the story of an ecological pilgrimage undertaken by the author in his small yacht, Coral, from the south of England and round the west coast of Ireland, to the far north of Scotland. It explores themes of pilgrimage: the overall pattern of separation from the everyday, venturing forth, and returning home. It tells of meeting wildlife, visiting sacred places, confronting danger, expanding and deepening the experience of time, of silence and of fragility.


Out of the church and through the creaking gate I chose the pathway that led high over the centre of the island and, I hoped, toward my original destination. After climbing through muddy woodland to the open hilltops I looked down…

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Heritage Week 2017 Walking Tour of Medieval Sculpture and Folk Art in Fethard — Pilgrimage In Medieval Ireland

This is reblogged from the wonderful Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland site. I have blogged about Fethard heritage here and here – this is a far more informed guide!

On Thursday last I led a walking tour of the medieval walled town of Fethard in Co Tipperary for the Fethard Historical Society as part of Heritage Week. There are so many interesting sites and features within this walled town it would take you a day or more to explore them all properly. The aim […]

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