Last Ireland Days

I prepare to leave Ireland with the usual mix of sadness that it’s over and eagerness to be home. We’ve spent two luxurious nights with the ghosts at Markree castle, we’ve climbed Knocknarea to visit Queen Maeve and celebrated with hot whiskeys at “our” local pub in Strandhill. We’ve been entertained with stories and chants by Noirin Ni Riain, one of Ireland’s best-known musicians. It has been a feast of the senses.

We have been here over Samhain in Ireland, like the Dias de los Muertos in Spanish speaking countries, and All Saints/All Souls days in the Christian tradition. It is said that the veil between the realms is thin at these times and it has certainly felt that way, the ancestors very close, reaching out, wanting to be remembered and for us to re-member them, take them into our bodies and hearts.

The ancient grey rocks, the bright green pastures, the mossy ivy-covered bent and tortured trees, all speak to us of the spirit in everything, close by whether we recognize it or not, never more than a breath away.

I am at home here in a way I don’t understand. It is in my body, my soul, that I feel it like nowhere else. It has happened each of the three times I’ve been here. I am captured by some magic in the place, especially on this rugged wild west coast. I leave a different person, more grounded, centred, connected than before. I am full.


I leave my prints on the Irish trees
As they leave their prints on me.
I leave my soul on the Wild West Way
Where the faery hammocks lay,
Their beautiful mandalas in the ferns,
Their gossamer magic on display.

What a land this is, this ancient soil
To summon forth our deepest wells
From times long gone and with us still
Calling, calling from the verdant hills,
Calling to we whose turn it is
To laugh and weep and dance and rhyme
Awake, awake, while there is time.

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The Waiting Time is Over

One of our days at the retreat centre was spent on Holotropic Breathwork, a way of inducing altered states by working with the breath. I wanted to focus on my body. My intention was to explore how to live in and love my body to the end of my days, how to cherish it and take care of it as the gift it is. My question was what fresh energy might be arising, creating something new for me to be or do.

My first experience was supreme joy in being in my body. I moved, danced, sang, felt a young girl again, exuberant at being alive, without thought or care. My body expressed my joy effortlessly. Then, the emotion left me. I felt dead, without affect, still and silent, not moving, hardly breathing. I thought perhaps this was the psychic polarity revealing itself, fullness and emptiness.

But there was more. Suddenly, out of this stupor a tremendous rage arose in me. I couldn’t contain it. I beat the floor, I screeched and screamed, I growled and snarled, I pounded my chest. The noises I heard coming through me couldn’t be me… and yet they were. What had come over me?

I wrote later, “I have descended into madness. I am mad as hell. My body is expressing rage, anger, torment, despair.” This, then, is the polarity my body holds, joyful exuberance and fiery madness. I am familiar with the joyful side of me but the wild anger is new and strange. Is this rage the dark feminine I have been evoking, rising in me? There is certainly a fire in my belly. A new energy, an uprising of the dark psyche, and she is furious. Is this what I need to pull me out of my complacency, my niceness? What would that mean? Or am I expressing the larger dark feminine, the earth in its fury at our neglect? Or maybe it’s the same energy, at different scales.

As I worked with the initial emotions, I realized this level of vehemence isn’t useful as it is. The fire has to be checked, red hot coals better than an uncontrolled blaze. These lines tumbled out of me …

The Fire Coming

So may it secretly begin
The banking of the fire within,
The glistening egg a hearty shell
Where the transformative fire can dwell.

Not so hot that it will burn
The tender threads as they return
But yet enough to hold the passion
In the most engaging fashion.

So the work can then begin
To show me where it wants to lead
And I, surrendered, open heart
Will follow, word and deed.

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Faery Hammocks

I am emerging slowly from a nine-day deep dive into what has been called “breathing in Ireland”. I’m with a group of seventeen women, two of them our soul guides. We have been exploring what we need for renewal that we might touch here in this ancient soulful land.  We’ve done it by breathing, writing, walking, sitting, talking, feeling old stones, drinking hot whiskey, and by taking in the silence.

I thought I might share a few of my reflections and some of my poetry. I am feeling somewhat shy because it has been mostly an internal experience. But that is what Ireland summons in us, something deep within that bubbles up to disturb our complacency and haunt our thoughts. We are nudged by the ghosts of the ages to make the most of ourselves, to dig deep into our wells of remembrance for what we may have discarded that is important to us now.

We began with Yeats, of course, as Ireland’s treasured poet. We read his work, heard stories of his life and his muses, visited his grave and places he wrote about. I have never studied Yeats so it was all new to me, and I love the way he captures the deep soul of the land, the natural world and the silence. I have had “I shall arise and go now…” in my head all week. And perhaps not surprisingly, in our group’s writing, we have turned to poetry, inspired by Yeats and his flowing verse.

Here’s one of mine about the mystery and surprise that await us if we are open to it. It is written about the short walk from the main building of Ard Nahoo where we stayed to the little cabin where six of us shared very close quarters. “Faery hammocks” is the name we gave the intricate delicate spider webs that hung from the tightly packed ferns and ivy along the path. We thought they would make the most perfect little beds for the faeries.

Faery Hammocks

Out among the faery hammocks
When the day is come and gone
I walk the narrow pathway
That takes me to my home.

 I have my little flashlight
To show the way ahead
And just by chance I shine it
On the ferns instead.

 And there, what wonder, what delight!
A host of emeralds glimmer bright,
I see the faeries, smiling lurk
Ivy leaf gems their playful work.

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Can You Feel the Difference?

I think it’s interesting that I can feel the difference between something really good and something really great. Case in point: we attended a concert on Sunday night – we had gone down to Cork for the Jazz Festival over the long holiday weekend here. It was a double bill, the first a quintet with trumpet and sax, the second a trio with piano.

The first group was loud, enthusiastic and full of good humour and friendship. The packed house loved them and there were hoots and shouts of approval when the brass did their solos. They were very talented, of course, but not being a true jazz fan, it struck me they were trying too hard, intent on strutting their stuff for the admiring crowd. All good but not my taste.

The second group was much more subdued, no brass, just a wonderful pianist with what I experienced as a much more sophisticated, more integrated base and drums. They each had their solos expressing their virtuosity but it was always in support of the music and the piano, not a competing but an interdependent sound. I loved it! Regardless of genre, this was brilliant entertainment. Their encore was “Wichita Lineman” by Glen Campbell, an old favourite of mine, which I thought was a fascinating choice for a theatre full of jazz fans. It brought a tear to my eye.

We had a conversation afterward over dinner. Femi felt it was impossible to qualify one as better than the other because they were so different in style, size, instruments and approach. I felt the first group was really good but the second was really great, a qualitative difference regardless of their distinctions. I’m reminded of Mozart and Salieri . Salieri was a really good composer. Unfortunately for him, Mozart was a great one, brilliant and inventive by comparison. Or maybe it is simply that I love the piano. It reminds me of my youth and my piano that moved along with me as we changed homes.

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A People Divided

We took the train up from Dublin to Belfast, a two-hour trip through the countryside although most of the fields of sheep and cattle were hidden by the berms on both sides of the tracks.  My first impression of Belfast was a modern, vibrant walking city with beautiful architecture and friendly helpful people.  There were lots of cranes in and around the town centre, trendy shops and restaurants, bustling pedestrian streets.  We had dinner at McHugh’s, an old Irish pub, one of several that claimed to be the oldest in the city.

The next morning we took a two-hour walking tour, dramatically called “A History of Terror”, about what are euphemistically known as The Troubles, a thirty year period of conflict (1968-1998) in Northern Ireland between nationalists (Irish, Catholic) and unionists (British, Protestant).  It was an interesting tour of some of the actual sites where bombings and killings occurred in the town centre, along with an even-sided history of how the struggle unfolded.  A couple of things stood out for me.  One was the complexity of the issues and responses, augmented by the role of the police and military.  The other was the impact on the civilians – almost two thousand died.  Those who survived had their daily lives and freedoms radically altered.

The impact on us was powerful.  We spent the following day walking the neighbourhoods outside of the main tourist areas, trying to get a firsthand picture of what we had learned.  We noticed several examples of the residue of the sectarian war.  There remain, twenty years later, most of the one hundred “peace walls” erected to segregate warring neighbours.  In some areas, gates have been opened to allow access and integration but the border structures are still there.  We toured the Falls Road peace wall, a kilometer-long concrete and wire barrier covered with one of the many murals we saw in the city dedicated to the implications of the conflict.  We also visited memorial gardens on both sides listing names of the fallen among the trees and shrubs.  I thought about how the sanctity of home had been violated for everyone involved.

I came away somewhat disturbed by the dissonance.  The modern redevelopment of the city core creates a fresh and forward-looking image.  Behind the façade, though, signs of the lingering emotional effects are everywhere.

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Guinnessburg, Ireland

You probably wouldn’t count Dublin in your top ten cities in Europe.  It has some lovely old architecture, particularly around 16th century Trinity College with its beautiful Long Room library.  But it has made an international name for itself largely due to the efforts of Arthur Guinness and his large extended family.  So on this, my third visit to Dublin, I finally visited the Guinness Storehouse in St. James Gate along with hundreds of other tourists.

The complex is huge, covering several city blocks.  It began as a fermentation plant but over the years has been converted and extended to house visitors.  There are now seven floors surrounding a glass atrium shaped in the form of a pint of Guinness.  Touring the building includes the history and production of beer, the marketing of Guinness and of course various opportunities for drinking it while overlooking the city.

Whether you’re a beer drinker or not – and I’m not – you have to be impressed with the business savvy of this family.  Guinness is not only THE beer in Ireland but known and heralded all over the world. The family interests encompass banking, real estate, and politics.  It was one of the Guinness researchers who had the idea for the now famous Guinness Book of World Records.  And for Vancouverites, it is interesting to note that the Lion’s Gate Bridge, known originally as the First Narrows bridge, was financed by the Guinness family after they purchased almost five thousand acres of land in West Vancouver.  To recoup the cost, the bridge had a toll for the twenty years before the family sold it to the province.  Not a bad investment!

It is difficult to say whether Guinness beer is responsible for the proliferation of Irish pubs or it was the pubs themselves that inspired Arthur, but either way the country is awash in charming old establishments, many with comfort foods like Irish stew and fish and chips, together with lots of friendly good cheer.  We haven’t heard any music yet but I’m looking forward to that lively aspect of Irish pub culture.


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La Orotava

It’s been more than a year since my last post, partly because of the kind of travel I’ve been doing but mostly because other writing has occupied my time.  I’ve had a number of short trips around North America and one major three-month adventure in the Canary Islands.

As I reflect on that experience, the longest uninterrupted time away from home I’ve ever had, I’m flooded with fond memories.  Femi and I rented a house outside of La Orotava on the island of Tenerife, a beautiful sixteenth century Spanish town on the slopes of Mount Teide, an active volcano and the highest peak of Spain.  The house was relatively comfortable with a few idiosyncrasies and enough room for short-term guests.  Although we spent most of our time alone, we had friends and family join us to relieve any homesickness and add to our enjoyment.

After an initial period of settling in, we returned our car and relied on walking or taking the local buses to get around.  We developed a routine.  We would walk down to the main road in the morning past the local men chatting at the bus stop and up again, very steeply, past the church into the town centre.  At first, we had to stop along the way to catch our breath but after a couple of weeks, we were making the precipitous climb without difficulty.  After some experimentation, we chose a coffee shop on the corner opposite City Hall where we had our café con leche and a croissant.  We wandered and did our daily shopping, taking in the many festivals and parades along the main drag.  We felt quite superior to the hordes of tourists who arrived every day with their guides and crowded us locals off the narrow sidewalks.

We got to know many of the old buildings around town.  We loved the wood-panelled library with its old smells and the reading room where people browsed the newspapers from abroad.  I listened enthralled several times to the resounding organ recitals in the cathedral that almost lifted you off your feet in their crescendo.  We learned about volcanoes at the local museum and then walked among the different green, black and brown lavas up at the peak, although we hesitated to climb as our host suggested to see the spectacular sunset and descend in the dark.  We also saw how the original Guanches had been wiped out after the Spanish conquest by disease and removal from the lush agricultural land.

I had great intentions of painting, learning Spanish, and taking guitar lessons but the days and weeks went by so quickly that, with our travel around the island and spending time with guests, none of it materialized and I didn’t miss it.  We slowly relaxed, taking each day as it came, deciding in the moment whether to take the bus somewhere, what restaurant we hadn’t yet tried, what street we hadn’t been down that was worth exploring.  We did a couple of junkets to the other islands to take advantage of being there and enjoyed the variety of geological and architectural structures.

The aspect of our time there that has been the biggest treasure though, is that Femi and I became really good friends.  We had no one but ourselves for fairly long stretches, requiring a different kind of intimacy than we normally needed in the city with our friends and family around.  I wasn’t aware of this growing friendship at the time – we just worked things out as they arose – but in retrospect it added a new dimension that has deepened our relationship.

One of the discoveries that fuelled this change was a small hotel on a tiny side street I noticed one day as we walked by.  It had an interesting doorway and as I peaked in, the porter came and invited us in to see it.  The Alhambra, as it was called, faithfully reproduced many of the Spanish features of the original, enhanced with huge paintings by Spanish artist Antonio Ortazzo.  We spent Femi’s birthday weekend there, sitting in the various pubic rooms, enjoying the wonderful breakfasts, and revelling in the huge mosaic tiled bathroom.  We were delighted with ourselves for having found it and experienced being away from home for a couple of days as a special treat.

It is highly unlikely we will be back in the Canary Islands but I am grateful for having the opportunity to experience life there and to carry with me such lovely memories of our adventure.

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