12 May 2012

A Time of Fire and Water - part I

Bluebells, the traditional indicator of Spring. Yes, apparently it was Spring these last few weeks.
Now it's Summer. You can tell because there's slightly less hail.
Roscommon, Monday April 30th
It has been, to say the least, something of a strange fortnight. If I were feeling more verbose than normal (which would be difficult), I would say that it has been a Time of Fire and Water, though that would not strictly be true for technically it has been a time marked by plenty of fire, but almost the complete absence of potable water.

Slightly under two weeks ago we travelled north as part of our Zombie attack preparedness training to see our farm-dwelling friends in Roscommon. Sadly I was not brave enough to travel by bike, viewing this more as a reconnoiter than a dry run, but I do feel now more than ever that I know where my apocalyptic bolt hole will be, and how to get there (and with recent events in Greece, explosive-underwear wearing double-agents and Jedward recording a Euro 2012 footie song can anyone doubt that the stars are indeed aligning and somewhere in deep R'lyeh our doom is slowly awakening?).

The obligatory band photo, or the cover of a "Coping with ..." leaflet.
Strandhill, Sligo, Tuesday May 1st
Our visit coincided with Beltaine, the traditional start of summer in the celtic calendar (less a wall-mounted planner with stock photos of pretty places and more a collection of oral traditions, wavy lines scratched on rocks and a vague sense of how much better things were in the old days before Christianity, Cromwell and the Trokia all conspired to ruin everything for us) usually marked with the lighting of massive bonfires, not something you can normally do in an overdeveloped urban area (not that that stops the local kids from trying at halloween, though luckily for our garden they seem not to realise that trees are related to shipping pallets and burn just as well - hooray for the inadequacies of the Irish education system!).

In celebration of this most ancient of festivals we decided to mark the transition from one rain-soaked grey and windy "season" to a completely different grey and wind-soaked "season" by first pretending that it was Spring on April 30th and walking through an puzzle-box forest of bluebells (which was nice), then on May 1st pretending that it was Summer by walking along one of Europe's premier surfing beaches at Strandhill in Sligo. Later that night a bonfire was built and despite the lack of appropriate sacrificial offerings (like Jedward), a good time was had by all.

Devotional objects tied to a tree, calling for an intercession. I left my Austerity Treaty information booklet.
Tobernalt Holy Well, Sligo, Tuesday May 1st
Although our celebration of Beltaine was mostly definitely more profane than scared, and really just an excuse for setting things on fire, the Celtic past has been so intertwined with and appropriated by Irish Catholicism (some might say brutally stolen by) that at times it is impossible to say where one ends and the other begins. Nowhere is this more evident than at those most curious of Irish phenomena, the Holy Wells. On the way back from Strand Hill we dropped by Tobernalt Holy Well, described by our friend as "The Disneyland of Holy Wells". Predating Christianity by a few centuries, Tobar na nAlt was at the centre of celebrations for Lughanasa, the Celtic harvest festival, which was absorbed by the early Christian church into its liturgical calendar as Garland Sunday, and Tobar na nAlt became the Holy Well of Tobernalt, whose waters were said to ease pain. A site of large outdoor masses during Penal times, the area now is used mostly for reflections and meditative walks past a series of grottos, the lighting of votive candles, and the hanging of offerings on a tree. Yup, at the centre of a 21st century Christian site stands a large tree to which pilgrims make sacrificial offerings. Oh, and the water from the holy well is unfit for human consumption, as clearly indicated by a number of signs prohibiting its consumption.

Tobernalt stands in a parellel universe to the daily torrent of reports of clerical abuse and their cover-up. For me it is impossible to understand how 84% of the country in the privacy of their own home ticked the "Catholic" box on the last census form, but after visiting Tobernalt it becomes more clear that for large swathes of the populace perhaps their definition of Catholic has less to do with the Papacy and its corrupt hierarchy and more to do with the simple folk faith of wells and repurposed nature spirits masquerading as Peasant Saints, their rituals of worship more akin to their ancestors of two millennia past than to the world of red-robed Cardinals who claim their coldly calculated moral abandonment of children most vulnerable was "just the way things were done" in a different time.

Faced with the reality of a morally bankrupt hierarchy that still believes in the primacy of canon law over national law, who placed the needs of sexual predators above the congregations whom they tended to and whose "mental reservations" allowed them to lie with impunity to the secular authorities and still pass judgement over the actions of others with clear consciouses, a tree by a muddy spring starts to seem a much more worthy recipient of faith and devotion indeed.

The fires of Beltaine burn low. Fires were lit by our Celtic ancestors to mark the start of Summer, telling us that it has always been bloody freezing in Ireland
Zombie Apocalypse Safe House, Roscommon, Tuesday May 1st
We returned to Dublin refreshed, rejuvenated and energised for all that lay ahead, which was good because within twenty-four hours the water system for our entire building had self-destructed (no doubt in divine retribution for some unknown transgression at the Holy Well) and I was up to my oxters in system-diagnostics, engineers and plumbers trying to get some sort of service up and running before the long weekend. While I could (just about) live without showers and sinks, when the rain-water fed toilet system failed things really started to get grim. Although temporary repairs were made by the close of business on Friday (the technical start to the weekend), it was hard not to take this as an omen for the summer ahead.

To be continued...

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6 Comments:

At 12:51 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

More than most, you knew that the hole was being ridden off young fellas. You were a Theological student and you should have known.

At this late stage you start to point the finger at those who should have known better?

You are in the frame.

You knew of the abuse and you said nothing.

 
At 12:59 pm, Blogger Unkie Dave said...

Eloquently put "Anonymous" (if indeed that is your real name), however you have made a cardinal error (if you will excuse the pun) of conflating the study of theology with being in a seminary.

I studied theology as a regular discipline, like philosophy or history, in a regular university. The courses were all strictly academic and non-denominational. there were no priests, the students were 50/50 male and female and there were very, very few religious folks involved - in fact faith or belief would have been a very serious impediment to your study.

And as it happens I did speak out at the time about the failings of not just the Catholic Church (on contraception, the right to choose, female priests, women's rights, priestly celibacy, hierarchy, patriarchy and the environment of institutionalised abuse such institutions enable), but also of most other organised religions as well. My pointing finger has been well used since a very early age.

The problem is that my blog only started in 2006 so whatever rants and diatribes I went on back in the nineties are sadly lost forever to posterity.

Partial credit for paying attention though.

 
At 11:44 am, Blogger 2BiT said...

Was there not a module on 'riding the hole off young fellas'?

Or were you out that day....yummy troll food yum!

 
At 11:52 am, Blogger Unkie Dave said...

@2BiT - No - it was a Non-Denominational course. We learned Advanced Tea and Scone making, Elementary Finger Wagging (with an option to take Introductory "No!" Shouting), and Theoretical Reminiscing About the Glory Days of Empire (Harumph! Harumph), but no, let me be absolutely clear about this, no hole-riding.

You need to go to Maynooth for that.

 
At 9:30 am, Blogger Snag Breac said...

I think that booklet was titled "Coping with State Marriage..."

Incidentally, as we were talking to the lovely aul' fella who is one of the people who maintains Tobernanalt, he was telling us just how well used it is - no pun intended there. It is apparently thronged in July and then most tuesdays (being the day of the novena) there are hundreds of people there too. Alive and kicking I'd say.

Interesting that you are now getting accused of knowledge of clerical abuse!

 
At 9:40 am, Blogger Unkie Dave said...

@Snag Breac - Yup, although if someone was to accuse me of abusing clerics, I'd be the first to 'fess up.

 

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