Following Celtic Ways

Ramblings and reviews by John Willmott as he travels the Celtic Ways and Waterways visiting hidden ancient Celtic temples, sacred wells, and provoking legends .... plus music and theatre along the way

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Glencolmbkille - The Pilgrimages & Craics

by John Willmott of Celtic Ways

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Gleann Cholm Cille, Glencolmcille, Glencolmbkille, like many places in Ireland has several names all meaning the same. This place is a remarkable Co. Donegal community within an incredibly beautiful peninsula of mountains, cliffs, blue sea, beautiful beaches and valleys that were also some of Slarty Bartfast's (Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy) best work. It can be hostile as it is kind, though.

There is a legend that St. Patrick tried to enter the Glencolmbkille valley but could not fight past the demons in the mist. Columcille arrived to face the same demons in the mist, but drove them to the sea.

This day I drove to Glencolumbkille was one of the hottest known in Irish history. Today Ireland is one of the hottest places in Europe, even hotter than most of the Mediterranean countries ..... but as I arrived towards the Glencolumbkille valley I drove into a thick mist!!!

I did not experience the feel of demons. On arrival the mist rose to reveal mainly cloud with a spotlight of sunshine focused on the St. Columba church where I was to start my "pilgrimage" here.

Glencolumbkille is a valley of many mysteries through history. The main mystery is why it hosts the largest celebration of Columcille, St. Columba, on June 9th as there is no firm evidence of him being here, let alone head a monastery here, yet the valley is named after him.

On June 9th, and throughout the year, 1000s of pilgrims visit Glencolumbkille to attempt to visit and pray at the 15 stations of the Turas, 15 ancient sites dotted around the Columbkille valley. Each station has a prayer for a saint that is dedicated, but I have not found copies of these prayers and to which station they apply to yet. My own approach was my own prayer and blessing as I reached each station.

These "stáisiúns" are mainly ancient cairns with carved cross stone slabs inserted in their roofs. One seems like a dried well and some are purely cross slab standing stones. One station is a set of cairns surrounding what is said to be the site of Columcille's original church. The site that moved me the most was Columcille's Well.

Surprisingly, considering the Turas trail is Glencolmbkille's biggest draw there's very little local information. Signage is modest and generally pointing the wrong way. A young girl in the tourist information office did not seem to know what I was talking about, though it maybe because she was on the phone to a friend discussing when their next drinking binge was going to be. There was no printed information on the Turas, not there or in any local shops.

In the end I tried to work it out using "senses" I think I have developed to find hidden ancient places over the years. I actually found 14 out of 15 of the stations and visited 13 of them.

Station 8 I could not find. It should have been behind a farm. I asked the farmer for access and directions but he did not seem to know what I was talking about and pointed out stations I had already visited. Later on I could see public access to Station 8 in the distance. Its sort of on a mountainside so on my next visit I will try to find the easiest access.

Station 14 was a problem as it was overgrown with thick bracken, much taller than me. I was not in the mood for hacking it down as if I was in a jungle.

Station 10 disturbed me. It looks like someone has just moved moved into a renovated house. Station 10 was on "their" land so the Station sign had been removed and the cross slab had been broken off, probably during renovation. The cairn looked tampered with too. However, you can freely approach it .

Station 11 has had its public access blocked. Again this is a cairn with a cross slab, but looks disturbed. I asked a local farmer about access and he allowed me to enter through a gate further along the road, without hesitation. he said he closed the public access because it was "unsafe".

Station 9 is fascinating. Its a standing stone with a hole in the middle of the cross carving. The locals know this as the "Meeting Stone". The pilgrimage version is that pilgrims walk around the stone, with their back to it, three times and denounce Satan. If the pilgrim achieves a "state of grace" he or she should be able to look through the hole and see "paradise". Well, on a sunny day in Glencolumbkille I think everyone can see paradise through that hole :-) . The "pagan" version is that this was where young single people would meet and attempt to mate. Should a couple want to "commit" to each other they would join each other's fingers through the hole and be witnessed by all present.

Station 3 is a small mass rock beside a cairn, fascinating!

Station 7, Columcille's Well is the "gem" of the Turas. I must admit that I was not moved by the stations of the Turas in the same way I am moved by ancient sites, but as I approached this well, and not knowing I was approaching it, was overcome with a feeling I was approaching something very special.

At first, you see a pile of rocks. Then you see the rocks cover a huge area and it looks as if you are approaching a court cairn, and that's what it looks like. You enter a "court" within the piles of stones. Normally, in a court cairn the end of the court leads into one or two chambers. In this case the court led to the well. Beside this well is an interesting ancient stone image of Columcille. I've never seen a site like this !!!

Station 7 is not easy to find. There is no definite path to it. The signpost is corrupted. I tried to give directions to two parties I met on my way back, but both parties took the path to a higher signal station, not part of the Turas. They probably avoided my instructions because they could not find an obvious path. There just isn't one.

Tradition of the Turas is a bit like golf. It starts at St. Columba's church, which is locally known as the "Spanish church" for reasons not explained to me, and then ends at an unlisted Station 16, the pub !!! ....... which seems to have round the clock local music sessions.
As I supped a pint I shared my "pilgrimage" with other "pilgrims" and found that most of them did not find more than 6 stations, so it seems my day was very successful. None of them had found the "magical" Station 7, the well.

After walking the "Turas" I was left with the impression that the "demons in the mist" story was a medieval church "fear and damnation" story. The valley was obviously very potent with pre-Christian spirituality. From Glencolumbkille I could clearly see over to the shores of Co. Mayo and the Co. Galway Connemara mountains behind. This gave me the impression that established farming communities of, now, Co. Mayo could see the land of Glencolumbkille from their shores, arrived, settled and established their farming ways along with their deep spirituality connected to the land. Because of their abundance at the time I would think that they thought their God was doing a great job so why change to a Christian faith?

Somehow, St. Patrick's approach did not work. It may be that Columcille's druidistic understanding, offer of education, skills of trade and bardic communication was welcome in the valley. Somehow the later church interpreted this as a Christian saint overcoming paganism.

I can relate this to something similar in the village I live in today. I could not whip up enough signatures required to get a broadband internet service. Many people still do not bother with internet, because they feel comfortable with the communications we have and cannot see a need for internet in their lives.. Now we have just been offered a good satellite tv service and many people are subscribing ...... and this tv service will also automatically include broadband internet within three months !!!!!

Here's another element of Glencolmbkille that both increases its mystery as well as answers some of it.

Glencolmbkille was, and still partially is, one of the most important pilgrimages and destinations of the "travellers". As you may know, historically the traveller men were very skilled metal workers. This may well go back to the iron age. By ancestry they may have been the creators of metal working. There is one legend that tells of them becoming "travellers" as a punishment for being the creators of the nails of Christ's cross.

The main traveller families that visited Glencolmbkille, for 100s of years, were the McConnells, Rourkes and Dohertys. As well as being crafted tin-smiths these people were, and some still are, incredible musicians. They not only made tin whistles but also tin fiddles. They were very active in teaching the young people to carry on the music tradition. Tin was chosen instead of wood for whistles and fiddles because it was easier to repair.

Traveller families, though seemingly devious, are incredible devoted to their spirituality and faith. In fact, the doctrine of praying at stations may have been a Catholic inclusion of a pre-Christian traveller faith. I suspect that the Turas and link to Columcille was developed as a traveller tradition and always ended at a "craic" at the end.

During the 19th century the "church" tried to stop the "Turas" supposedly due to its "pagan" influence but more likely due to the frivolities of the craics after the Turas ....... a bit like the early Glastonbury music festivals in England :-). As at Glastonbury today the church accepted the Turas as an important part of Irish tradition in the ealry 20th century.

Unfortunately, the arrival of plastics in the 50s and 60s put the tinker travellers out of business but the musical tradition is still strong. Glencolumbkille has its own strong fiddle playing style with its short punchy bow pulling style, like the Sligo fiddle style, which eventually turned to bluegrass in the USA. Today, even Laoise Kelly has moved into the area, the harp player famous for her interpretation of fiddle tunes onto the harp.

If you go to Glencolumbkille, Co. Donegal you'll never be short of things to do. Allow 3 hours for your Turas pilgrimage, and maybe 4 hours for your craic afterwards:-). Yes, I did eventually find a guide book too. Father McDyer's Folk Village, just as you are leaving the village, is a "must" visit. Beyond that, less than a mile, is Father McDyer's Gaelic College. There you can get a guide book, mainly in Gaelic, but with some adequate English, with a small map. That small map will get you around if you combine it with OS Map number 10, which is actually available in all of the local shops.

I will visit Glencolmbkille again soon, hopefully with others, and will attempt Stations 8 and 14 again. I will probably create a clearer map and guide that you could order from me on the net before you go. I would like to think more people can reach far more than the 6 stations most visitors find at present.

Getting to Glencolumbkille is also easy, without a car.
There are buses to the lovely Donegal city from most large towns in Ireland and then there's 4 buses a day from Donegal to Glencolumbkille. As soon as possible I will also run specials from Co. Sligo, including a stay at Markree Castle.

I took loads of photos.
I'm well behind with posting galleries online but will do so asap.

Next year, 2006, my guide work with focus on sites and stories of Columcille. These will be visits to places such as Glencolumbkille and Gartan in Co. Donegal, Derry, Drumcliffe and sites around the lakes of Co. Sligo, Kells, Durrow, and Clonard. There will even be specials to Iona in Scotland. These will include pilgrimages to pre-Christian and early Christian sites, include bardic sessions and take you through some of Ireland's stunning country that most Irish tours miss yet its what people come to Ireland for.

Keep checking out my blog, newsletters and Columcille Tours for updated info.

Meanwhile do keep in touch with stories of your Columcille pilgrimages.

2 Comments:

Anonymous said...

Blessings in Christ this day. Your perceptions of Glencolumbkille and this saint are.. maybe interesting and academic, but way off track. Your understanding of Jesus Christ, His Power and His Glory, is minimal which explains this. Had you talked with the ordinary folk there, with respect and caring, you would know this, rather than diving back all those centuries. Jesus is alive, and Glencolumbkille is a deeply faith-filled and Christian place, thanks to Fr McDyer who lived his faith in Jesus. This also explains why the Turas are so low key there, thankfully. Jesus loves and lives today, for His people now and here. Bless your journey; you are prayed fr in His love.

7:46 AM  
John of Celtic Ways said...

My perceptions and understanding of Glencolumcille are bound to increase with every visit, just as they do with all places we visit.

I was a stone mason on Iona for many years, hence my passion for Columcille, so I trust my understanding of him is not "way off track"

I try to restrain my blogs to observations, comments from interviews with people living near sites and sharing the different legends and stories without bias to a singular faith or religion.

Though I carry a strong faith in God and prayer I would like to believe that none of these sites are exclusive to a specific religion but welcoming to all people who choose to visit and respect them.

When visiting Glencolumcille do find out about the work of Fr McDyer, a truly remarkable man of deep faith.

When talking with the "ordinary folk" I found there was not much chat about the Turas as their thoughts are realistically on the weather, fishing, local trade and a lot of chat about the local music. They also lovingly talk about Fr McDyer if you ask them.

We visit Glencolumcille on Wednesdays of good weather with my "Following Columcille" day tours. To find out more you can start with links on my home page Celtic Ways

12:09 PM  

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