St. Kevin's Tower near a cemetery in Ireland
St. Kevin's Tower near a cemetery in Ireland
Image credit: Eileen Markey

St. Patrick’s Day long ago morphed from a saint’s day to a celebration of heritage. I recently went back to Ireland to think about what it is we inherit.

St. Kevin came to this place in the hills of County Wicklow not long after St. Patrick had won peace between the competing kings of Tara and maybe driven the snakes out. Kevin wanted to be by himself. To be still enough to hear his own thoughts, and maybe God’s. I went in January to that same place. For those same reasons.

Image credit: Eileen Markey

For a thousand and a half years, believers have come to Glendalough to do the same. Many of them took a wet, cold, and footsore journey over the Wicklow Gap and slept in the fields. I drove an hour from Dublin airport and stayed in a cottage rented by the local parish to encourage modern pilgrimage.

Image credit: Eileen Markey

I’d been here once as a teenager and felt something, a breeze billowing the veil between the worlds. The presence of a whole crowd before me. Peace. Maybe that’s what drew Kevin. He founded a monastery here. Pilgrims came seeking cures. Having defeated a monster in the nearby lake, he had a healing touch. They said.

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My mother came here on her honeymoon. On that trip, she met all her relatives whom she’d known only as names in letters her mother read at the kitchen table. That table is in my kitchen now, and my mother is dead since September. I thought I might catch her here.

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In the first years of Christianity in Ireland, the faith merged with the earlier beliefs: the sun, the seasons, the holiness of nature. Celtic Christianity retains these elements in an orientation toward the mystic. At age fifty or so my mom said, “I’d have been a mystic by now if I hadn’t had you kids.” She said it without bitterness. A simple observation.

Image credit: Eileen Markey

They had gathered in these places, monks greeting sunrise through the curved windows. Singing in their language. And for hundreds of years after we come through, quiet in the wind. And listen.

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The guidebook the nun at the hermitage gave me said the seven stones in the doorway of this church were architecturally significant. I thought of my mom’s seven children. In the 1200s, the Augustinians came from Europe to shore up the monastic community at Glendalough. Rome feared it had grown lax. The buildings at the site are from that time. The monasteries were suppressed by the English crown in the sixteenth century. But of course, the people still prayed.

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Every visit to the village of my mother’s people up in County Donegal begins here. The graveyard. It is filled with relatives: in the upper field and the lower field, on the hillside and the flat part. A crowd of cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, like an endless wake. My grandparents are buried in Queens. My mother in Massachusetts. God knows where I’ll be.

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I went this time at dawn, which in January Ireland is 8:00 a.m., and sat with my mother’s grandparents. My mother was named for this farm woman, whom she met once in 1963. A sturdy old woman feeding the hens. What had she thought when her footloose daughter Bridget left for America in 1929? Letters. Later phone calls. Wedding announcements. My mom treasured the connection, proud to know her aunts, the many daughters of this Sarah, and her cousins. I left my mom’s rosaries.

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Each time I come I visit the dead first and then the living. My mother’s cousin Bridget hosted me when I was seventeen and again at twenty-five with a husband, and at thirty-five with a little boy and a baby, and at forty-five with two growing boys. This time I saw her in the graveyard, no stone yet. And visited her son in the cottage and her daughter across the road. And then up the hill and down the hill to these cousins and those. My mother kept us connected to these people. I wanted to carry her home.

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My mother’s parents crossed this ocean nearly one hundred years ago. Why does Ireland still feel like home? It was this graveyard I dreamed of during Covid. A deep longing to lie down in it. My grandparents met in Brooklyn. But they grew up a mile of two from each other. Both prayed in this church. Carried it with them to a strange country.

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Around the same time Kevin was establishing his piece of heaven in Wicklow, Colm set up in the far west of Donegal. It is a harsh and rugged place. Why we seek God more in difficulty than in ease, I don’t know. The edge of the world. For a millenia and more believers have trekked here, putting their hands to these ancient monuments, or turas. One circles each three times, moving with the slanting sun in prayer.

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Some were holy before they were Christian. People walked through the vertiginous Glengesh pass to reach them. They still do on June 9, St. Colm’s day. The walk begins at midnight and greets the dawn by the last tura. A line of pilgrims stretching across a thousand years and more.

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I walked ostensibly by myself. Deep in silence. At Colm’s bed, surely not his bed, I said the requisite prayers and moved the requisite stones across my eyes. Silly. Satisfying. My mom was the regular kind of going to church Catholic. But she carried a crazy confidence, a knowing. God was immanent and communion unbroken by time or death. The veil thin.

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Malainn Bhig is on one of those many fingers on the western edge of the map of Ireland. In the town of Glencolmcille they joke, the next parish is America. The sun was sinking by 4:00 p.m. in January Ireland, and dark scurrying up the hills. I thought of those monks who huddled here on the edge of the Atlantic and that line of faithful who crossed the sea. They bestowed us this appreciation. These ways to listen.

Eileen Markey is an assistant professor of Journalism at Lehman College of the City University of New York and a writer in residence at the Center on Religion and Culture. She is working on a history of the Bronx people's movement during the 1970s and 1980s.