On Fire and Steep(ed) in History

The hills of Ireland are steeped in history, from prehistorical settlements and pagan kingdoms to the Celtic saints of the early centuries after Christ and the church as it grew in Ireland. As I travelled, encountering these fascinating spaces and exploring the intricacies of Celtic Christianity, it was interesting to also see how we as a group interacted individually and collectively with the spaces as we entered into them. Associations and preconceptions, knowledge received before and during our time, even factors like the weather all influenced how we saw and felt the space.

The Hill of Slane boasts a unique place in Irish Christianity, as it is the sight on which St. Patrick lit a pillar in direct opposition to the Druid king’s own ceremonial flame. This act of rebellion against the king’s power resulted in a ‘battle’ between St. Patrick’s God and the king’s gods, with the former being victorious, and sparked a Christian revival across the country. On the hill is a small collection of ruins, an old graveyard and an abbey, both of which are open to being explored. Climbing among the ruins was a thrilling experience – there is something enchanting about being able to touch history, as it were, to climb up an extremely narrow stone staircase and sit looking out through what used to be a solid wall.

Contemplation on the Hill of Slane, among the ruins of the abbey; excerpt from sketchbook

As I sat in the cold, shaded stairwell, sketching a fellow pilgrim sitting contemplatively among the ruins (sketch, left), a man and his two young children came venturing up the stairs as well. It was a tight fit, especially treacherous with the unevenness of the stairs, but they managed to get by – only to have to turn around and come back down. They passed by, the man commenting on the view. ‘This is one of my favorite places in the world,’ he told me, going on to reminisce about when he was younger and would come here with his friends to play and picnic. The ruins are a little more ruined now than they were then, but it remains for this man one of those magical places he’s ever been.

Singing ‘Be Thou My Vision’ on the Hill of Slane; excerpt from sketchbook

I certainly felt the magic to which he eluded, especially when our group gathered amidst the ruins to sing ‘Be Thou My Vision,’ a traditional hymn supposedly composed and sung on this very hill. Already one of my personal favorites, there was something powerful about standing on the Hill of Slane and singing along with a tenor ukulele plucking the chords to this ancient hymn. Places like this are created as myth and fact, magic and history mingle in the minds of the people inhabiting them.

One of our leaders reminded us multiple times throughout the week that ‘there are true stories and good stories,’ not necessarily mutually exclusive and one not necessarily better than the other. As a Christian standing atop the Hill of Slane, I would like to believe this to be a place where defiance in the Name of God sparked revival in the hearts of an entire nation; indeed, surrounded by music and then silence, ancient ruins still very much alive through the people who use them for picnics and playtime, and people desiring to find a place of contemplation and rest, it was not difficult to believe that the legend was true – and feel no qualms about retelling it even if it wasn’t.

Other places have epic tales thrust upon them by creative genius a little more recent, such as the Cliffs of Moher. These spectacular cliffs, towering hundreds of meters high over the North Atlantic Ocean, certainly possess their own ancient histories, as seen in the old castle towers plopped along the cliff walk. However, for a couple of us in our small group, walking along the cliffs incited two reactions: pure speechless awe and the ridiculous urge to cry, ‘Inconceivable!’

Reading ‘The Princess Bride’ while sitting on the edge of the Cliffs of Insanity… I mean, Moher; excerpt from sketchbook

It is fascinating how we see certain places by how they are used in things like film, such as The Princess Bride, film that was based on a fictitious book and from which the book was written. A completely fabricated existence, into which the Cliffs of Moher were inserted as the imposing ‘Cliffs of Insanity’, completely dictating how we were experiencing the place. We constantly searched for the exact cliffs depicted in the film and quoted the antics of Vizzini, Fezzik, and Inigo as we walked. One of the girls in our group had brought the novel along with her for this exact reason: finding a comfortable spot on the edge, she settled down, opened her book, and read to us the excerpt in which they come to the Cliffs of Insanity. We were bringing to life, by being in this new and magical place and reading a fantastic work, this fictional world and making it real. It was as if we were enacting this story, unseen but inherently present in the land if you take time to experience it.

The mythification and mythologizing of certain places has a long history and is constantly a struggle for tourists, locals, historians, and academics alike. How do we sift through the facts and the tall tales, especially if sometimes the myth is so wonderfully attractive? What is lost when the place becomes defined by an association with fictional tales? What is gained? Spaces are rarely so cleanly defined in life as we like to think they are on paper.

And even for the intellectually-minded, things can be quite dizzying… Just ask Vizzini.



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