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The imprinting of crosses is a practice that is found at many holy wells. It is a simple, yet lasting action that seems to speak to the heart of these pilgrimages. The engraving of crosses at particular spots is an established part of doing ‘the rounds’ in some cases, as is found at St Gobanit’s Well in Ballyvourney or ‘the City‘ near Rathmore. These simple features are tangible forms of continuity, as successive pilgrims, over time, have worn the shape into the hard stone. However, there can also be newer crosses found indicating that personal variations are leading to development of supplementary practices.
The crosses are manifestations of faith in the places and the intercessory power of the patron saints. Each cross was forged as pilgrims performed these local pilgrimages for particular intentions: cures and hopes, dreams and problems, worship and thanks. The action of making the cross, which wears down further in the stone each time, is intimately linked the motivations of each pilgrim. The gap that is the cross – the distance from the depth of the imprints to the rock surface – is not an eroded void, but a space willed with supplications, prayers and beliefs. These intentions and beliefs remain embed in these sites as the physical geography, cultural tradition and spiritual practices combine in these simple forms.
Going on pilgrimage without a change of heart brings little reward from God. For it is by practising virtue and not by mere motion of the feet that we are brought to heaven. – Book of Lismore
This quote has been placed at the beginning of Tóchar Phádraig at Ballintubber Abbey establishing a meaning of pilgrimage which draws on the early Irish Church. I have referenced this quote in numerous public presentations and it is a sort of definition of pilgrimage that really resonates with people. It nicely combines the idea of pilgrimage as a physical journey and a spiritual/emotional (or meta-physical) journey. As I have previously discussed, pilgrimage involves a number of characteristics that distinguish it from other types of travel and this quote captures that idea well. Pilgrimage is a type of meaningful movement, a journey or undertaking of significance, one that takes shape in doing, feeling and believing.
These beautiful brass compasses on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum reminded me of the importance of direction within Islamic Prayer. These compasses would have been used to establish the direction of the Ka’bah in Mecca, or the Qiblah. The cases contain engravings of the coordinates for Mecca from different cities in the Islamic world.
This feature of Islamic prayer is a very clear example of a spiritual or religious geography. In this case, there is a very literal connection between location and faith. These compasses hint at the efforts that individual Muslims most undertake to perform their faith. The requirement of regular prayer necessitates that each person must have an awareness of directions in their daily lives. As a geographer, this rich connection between belief and location is fascinating.
Máméan is a mountain pass pilgrimage located in Galway between Connemara and Joyce Country. The traditional pilgrimage is practiced on the first Sunday in August, linking back to the Celtic harvest feast of Lughnasa. Pilgrims walked, sometimes barefoot, from either side of the Maum Turk Mountains to the site. St Patrick’s Bed, two holy wells and a number of leachtana are the focus of older customs, while more recently a revival of the pilgrimage has involved the performance of the Stations of the Cross and the saying of mass.
These photos were taken during the 2012 pilgrimage.
Rotating and kneeling, flow and pause, the intentions of the pilgrims immerse and emanate in this prayerful event: performing the Penitential Beds on Lough Derg.* The movements, gestures and bare feet call out in silence, a scene of activity, harmony and stillness.
One of the aspects I find most appealing are the patterns of movements. Rotations around and within each bed continually being performed and punctuated by pauses. This beautiful, unfolding scene is an ongoing prayer. A prayer that continues every day throughout the summer.
A certain reassurance radiates from these events, reminding me that all through the pilgrimage season (1st June-15th Aug) there are pilgrims praying on Lough Derg. Praying for personal intentions but also more universal themes of peace, well-being and hope. They are praying for me, for you, for us all. While I go about my daily life there are people praying the beds, as I eat they are fasting and every night as I go to bed, I think of those pilgrims preparing to undertake their Vigil. On a small lake island in Donegal, while we rest, they keep Vigil.
* This short video clip of pilgrims on the beds, taken from the roof of the male dorms and enhanced through a Vimeo filter, captures some of the unique character of St Patrick’s Purgatory.
Lines are traced and followed, made and extended, grooved and lived. I’m concerned with the lines of the pilgrim path. Using the ‘Pencil Sketch’ function on MS Powerpoint I altered some fieldwork photos taken while walking Tóchar Phádraig as part of different groups over the past few years as a way of exploring the role of lines. Starting with the literal lines of the images rendered as drawings, I wish to explore the others lines and meanings present.
Robert Stoddard, in his 1987 article Pilgrimages Along Sacred Paths, explored the geography of sacred space as points, lines, or areas, with the lines category referring to the routes of travel of activities associated with religious motives. This classification draws attention to the line itself, that is the pilgrim path in this cases, as having significance, rather than being a mere route to a sacred site (spot). Elsewhere, the anthropologist Tim Ingold, in his book Lines: A Brief History, explores the potential of the line as movement, through the concept of wayfaring. The line is a pathway, it is movement, it is the means through a person engages with the surrounding environment.
Through a few (geo) poetic stanzas I trace some thoughts on lines in this pilgrimage. I wonder where they will lead?
A row setting out
Near departure, pace emerging
Movements and motions linking each person to the next
Each person is the line
Leading and following, a common rhythm, an alignment
Pilgrims as line
Clam and shade on a sunny late June morning. June is the time to visit St John’s Well. Trees encase the site, as the beehive structure encases the well itself. Noises drift in from out of sight, while rays of sunlight piercing the canopy catch the broken glass spread across the ground, asserting the space’s hosting of other activities. A small flow of water gently emerges, the water which restored sight and started veneration. The edge of the well, the small rectangular entrance, is the cusp. The exact point of significance, the well water is accessed here before flowing off, the sacred diluting into the profane.
Within the well another realm awaits. An inner sanctum, the tabernacle within the church. Reaching down to collect, to drink or bless draws you into this sphere. The cooling ambiance of the water, the reflections onto the vaulted walls, sparkle and shade on rock, moss and mould. Inside the beehive structure is reminiscent of subterranean consistency. It is calm here, removed from that which is outside. Temperate, dusky and muted; perhaps it always is.
The steady dripping of the water is a further layer of consistency. It captures an essence of the place. Always present, known but unobtrusive. It invites reflection and appreciation. The water – the substance of the well – emerging from the earth, gathering and flowing. It quietly splashes and echoes about, the reverberations affirming the chamber. Water sounds defining purpose and giving space.
Within the well remains. A steady emergence: earth, water, well.
I had previously commented on the deteriorating state of Lady’s Well in Cork city. Thanks to works by Cork City Council* the site has been cleaned up and new structures have been put in place around the well. The necessity for grids over the well may be seen as unfortunate, but will not impinge on the well excessively as does not seem to be used for religious-spiritual reasons. These additions will ensure the preservation of the site and perhaps a revival of devotional activity in the future?
*I had raised the matter with one of my local representatives, Kiernan McCarthy (corkheritage.ie), who has done significant work in promoting Cork’s heritage.