Five Paradigms of Celtic Spirituality


The day before I went to see the Book of Kells,
Cork and Meath had drawn, one-all,
in the All-Ireland football final.
In the long-room of the Trinity Library
the tourists were reverent as they filed past
the convoluted concordance of word and design,
largesse of ancient monks.
It was the uniformed attendants,
Dubliners to the marrow,
who conferred garrulously
about the intricacies of the game,
of referees and rivalry and the next play,
their voices tickling the solemnity.


In Canterbury of all places
I knew the truth of being a Celt.
The great cathedral impressed,
its architecture and history looming,
a proud and invincible building for God.
Nearby in a tourist thoroughfare
an Irish busker played an Irish harp,
making his living
like a tiny audacious bird pecking the back of a horse.
In soft rain
the harper’s fingers caressed his companion
and her song leapt pure and exultant
into the grateful air.
When I think of Canterbury I think of that harp.


At Rosslare Strand is my father’s house,
as so many in this land a shell,
this one abandoned reluctantly
when the sea’s advance made the cliff unsafe,
just yards from the door.
Within the walls my father’s father built,
and near the salt-blown fields
where goats and potatoes used to be.
I stood and knew the relentless, expansive, bountiful,
Demanding presence of the sea
which gives sometimes and sometimes not
the herrings, the mackerel and the dulse,
and always her bold, inimitable beauty for view.
The sea which fed them
ate their land
and sometimes in squall and terror
swallowed them whole, the fisherfolk and sailor.


My cousin Mary Kate,
in her small kitchen by the sea,
makes each morning the soda-bread
which she signs with the cross
to protect its cooking and its eating,
and since the evening Angelus radio broadcast
usually interrupts her dishing up the household’s tea,
that great invocation of the incarnation
jostles for speech-space
with what in other houses would be the blasphemies
of a harried or frustrated cook,
but here are simply the reverse side of the one coin
which is currency with God.


Ireland is an empty place,
sky and earth and sea
in elemental meeting
largely unimpeded by human touch,
humankind here the watcher
at the trinity’s mutual perpetual greeting.
It is an emptiness inhabited,
a silence which sings,
a place where relationship pervades the landscape
and blesses every bird and beast,
is uttered by each fuchsia and gorse,
and its own tiny trifoliate green,
and we, after all, part of the family.