Here, in barest outline, is a daily record for our pilgrimage to Connemara in August 2009. It is very much hoped that pilgrims will add some reminiscences(complete with photographs and other material) of their own.
The 2009 pilgrimage was an exuberant, exhausting and in many ways,miraculous business. The planned programme of excursions through the wild landscape of County Galway, and across its choppy waters, was at the very limits of the physically possible. The weather was even more changeable than usual: patches of rain almost every day, but with bursts of glistening sunshine. In any case, the elements did not dampen spirits.Nearly 40 people came from different parts of the world to join all or most of the pilgrimage; there was a priest from the Russian Far East, two American sisters who look after a historic house in Pennsylvania, a polyglot Japanese-American deacon from Vienna, a Russian-Mexican art historian, a 16-year-old from Siberia who amazed everyone with her skill at Irish dancing, and a Bulgarian priest whose matushka produces wonderful icons.
Sunday A dawn liturgy in the large, new Roman Catholic church in the village ofLetterfrack where most of us are staying at a comfortable modern place which, quite accurately, promises “luxury hostel accommodation”. Our hosts at Letterfrack Lodge are Michael Laffey – in other lives, a skilled cabinet-maker and a professional Gaelic football player in California – and his wife Janet. A few miles up the road, some of our group is staying at a lovely, old-fashioned fishing lodge called Kylemore House, run by Janet’s warm-hearted and loquacious aunt Nancy. On arriving at the hotel, one of the pilgrims, Valentina, notices a postcard on the mantlepiece: it is an icon of the Mother of God from Ochrid, just a few miles from her home town.
Metropolitan Kallistos concelebrates with Father John Musther from Cumbria in northwestern England and Father Nicanor Lepeshev from Siberia, assisted by Deacon Vasily Bush from Vienna and Sub-Deacon Cowey Barbour. In a sermon, Metropolitan Kallistos compares forgiveness to a deep, turbulent river which is difficult to wade through.
Later, as we sail into Inishmore, the biggest of the Aran islands, in bucketing rain, the metaphor takes on added resonance. We are warmly received by guide Cyril Flaherty and bus-driver Bertie Faherty, who make a gallant effort to show us a site known as the “seven churches” at the western end of the island. This placeis associated with a mysterious tradition that “seven Roman scholars” were sent to Aran – already an important place of pilgrimage – in the ninth century. But thegullies of water flowing between the road and the church were ever deeper andmore turbulent. Many of the party took prudent shelter in the Dun Aengus Café wherelashings of hot soup and stronger substances helped to lift morale. We pass the houseof Liam O’Flaherty, the literary giant whose daughter Pegeen is a well-loved memberof the Orthodox community in London. And by the afternoon, as we visit the beach-side monastery of St Enda which was an ancient centre of learning, the sun is visible through scudding clouds. Cameras are clicking and the glorious, milky light of Inishmore is blazing forth.
Monday A day that began with a disappointment and ended with blessings. Stephen Gannon, an excellent local boatman, had promised to take us in four boatloadsof 12 to Cahir, an uninhabited island with extensive Christian remains and (according to those who have been) a deeply spiritual atmosphere. But with commendableprudence, Stephen advises that the weather is getting worse; he might be able to land one or two parties on the island, but getting back would be a slog. So all we had of the Cahir excursion was Stephen’s delicious stew, prepared for the occasion: eaten in Letterfrack Lodge instead of the bracing Atlantic air.
But never mind: postponing the trip to Cahir provides a chance for groups of pilgrims to make several other excursions which we had wanted to include in the programme. One is to Omey Island, a monastic site which is linked to the mainland at low tide. Its seventh century founder, St Feichin, is still revered by local people; in this part of the world, holy men and women who lived long ago are very much present in the collective memory. Others went to the heart-stopping sea-side church and graveyard at Renvyle, just a few miles from Letterfrack, named for seven sisters who were said to be daughters of a king of Leinster. Others still visited a desolate but beautiful monument to the many local people who died of famine in the 19th century.
In the evening Metropolitan Kallistos gave a talk on the monastic tradition of the Egyptian desert in all its form, solitary and communal. A good starting point for reflection on the Irish tradition of the diseart which simply means a place of retreat and prayer.
TuesdayA wonderful excursion to the island of Inishbofin, reached by half an hour’s enjoyable ferry ride from the nearby port of Cleggan. Unlike the Irish-speakingInishmore, this is an island where the English tongue, in its lovely local form, prevails. But like every small, inhabited coastal island, it is a world, a micro-cosm, all to itself. After an excellent lunch at Day’s Hotel, where the octogenarian matriarch offered a gracious welcome, we walked to the island’s most famous site, the monastery associated with St Colman who retreated to this part of the world after unsuccessfully defending the Celtic cause at the Synod of Whitby in 664. From the monastic site, we have a clear view of Croagh Patrick, the holy mountain which dominates the landscape on the nearby mainland. All the holy sites in this region are connected, but in ways not always obvious from looking at a map. As we sail back, Mother Nectaria McLees, an indefatigable American nun who is in the process of relocating from Moscow to Boston, spots an opportunity. She persuades Michael Gibbons, a respected local historian, to grant her a long interview about Connemara’s Christian past for Road to Emmaus, the excellent journal which she co-edits.
Wednesday After yesterday’s bracing sea voyage, a longish trip by road, to Kilmacduagh which must be the finest early Christian site on the mainland of the west of Ireland. Its round tower is very well preserved, and the site has a connection with the places we saw on Sunday. Its founder St Colman Mac Duagh (no, not the same Colman who settled on Inishbofin) was a pupil of the great monastic school of St Enda. In other words, the founder of Kilmacduagh was a product that huge wave of monastic struggle and learning that swept across Ireland in the sixth century -and produced giants like Saint Columba, Saint Finnian, Saint Kevin and Saint Ceannach/Kenneth.Back in Letterfrack, a catering miracle of sorts is unfolding. A large, dripping(and initially disconcerting) sack which appeared in the fridge of Letterfrack Lodgeturns out to be full of freshly caught pollock, a gift from a local well-wisher who had overheard one of us say how nice it would be to have some fish. Preparing them is beyond our culinary skills, but Michael Laffey comes to the rescue: in a few minutes, they are gutted, baked in tinfoil and served to a happy band of pilgrims.
Thursday There are two kinds of pilgrim: the dedicated and the fanatical. Today’s main excursion was only for the latter kind. FatherJohn Musther – drawing on his huge knowledge of Celtic sites, and his experience as a walker and climber – led an intrepid party of a dozen or so up the stony path that leads to the summit of Croagh Patrick. Nobody went bare-foot, but with thick cloud and driving rain, it was a testing enough experience for a group that included a wide range of nationalities, ages and physical abilities. Father Nicanor and his two young parishioners seem to float up the mountain with Siberian fearlessness; they are rewarded at the top by a burst of sunshine. Veronica Hill from Shropshire is an adept climber, with a resilience that may reflect her years of involvement with Russia. With Gallic-Slavic gallantry, Reader Delian Boyanov – who comes from Bulgaria via Paris – helps several young ladies to the top. For those who make it, the experience is exhilarating. More gentle forms of recreation are in progress elsewhere. At Westport House, a fine stately home steeped in local history, the Marchioness of Sligo graciously receives Metropolitan Kallistos and a small group of non-climbing pilgrims. In early evening, another high point of the pilgrimage. We celebrate Orthodox vespers in the chapel of Kylemore Abbey, a romantic lakeside mansion built in the 19th century and used, at least until recently, by a community of Catholic nuns who are in process of moving out to a smaller property. The head of the community, Sister Maire, is familiar with the writings of Metropolitan Kallistos, and welcomes us warmly, as do her fellow nuns. One of our pilgrims happens to descend from thebuilder of the Abbey and this is a special moment for her.
Friday In early morning, a liturgy for the (old-calendar) feast of the Dormition takes place – unexpectedly – in the sitting room of Letterfrack Lodge. By some mishap it proves impossible to use the village church, so we are forced to improvise; but this is a happy turn of events. Over the course of the week, the Lodge’s big communal area has become a place of prayer, as well as assembly and recreation. By now, it feels like a fitting location for the Eucharist.Then another wind-swept but joyful voyage, this time across a large lake, LoughCorrib. Changing our point of departure because of fickle weather, we set out froma pier near Cong Abbey (a flourishing monastery in medieval times) and make for the lovely lake isle of Inchagoill, a place that has no living inhabitants but is full of saintly presence, going back to the dawn of the Christian era in Ireland. There are traces of a church associated with Saint Patrick and his nephew Lugnad who is said to have been acting as navigator. One of the oldest Christian inscriptions in Europe commemorates Lugnad. Then there is a more recent (roughly 1,000-year-old) churchthat combines many styles, from the Romanesque to the Byzantine: a place that cries out to be prayed in. We are joined today by Canon Anthony Previte, author of an excellent guide to Connemara’s holy sites.
Our hosts are the Luskin brothers, Patrick and David, who put their fine boat at ourgroup’s disposal and devote an entire day to looking after us. They provide anexcellent al fresco lunch at the pier, and this proves a wonderful way to celebratethe Dormition.
In the evening, at Letterfrack Lodge, spirits are high. Gifts, embraces and addresses are exchanged. An attempt is made to teach the entire group some Irish dancing, but Anastasia from the Russian Pacific – the only one who really knows the steps – finds that we are not the most dexterous of pupils. Never mind: it is time to go back to Pennsylvania, or Paris, or Vienna, or East Anglia - and we will all be taking a bit of Connemara, and its holy places, home with us.