For those of you whose vocation does not include long periods away from a specific location you call home, you may not have had the opportunity to experience the rather remarkable ability you have to create ‘home’ in unfamiliar surroundings. In fact, to create it so effectively that after a few days in a formerly strange place, you even find yourself confidently giving directions to the nearest Underground Station, the local butcher, the best tea shop, the cheapest place to park…whatever. Your temporary nest has become ‘home’ and, following a long day doing whatever you have been doing, you think, “Time to go home” meaning the place you are staying, not the place you are currently paying a mortgage.
Alongside this ability to create ‘home’ almost anywhere, comes a second phenomenon which we can call ‘tourist fatigue’ for want of a better term. This is the desperation to get to some place you want to see, feel, experience, before the tourists arrive.
Two days ago, that place for me was Glendalough – the beautiful monastic community established by St. Kevin in the 6th century (long before he was a saint). It flourished for over 600 years and (having survived numerous Viking raids) only went into decline in the late 1300s when the English razed part of it. It was then abandoned completely when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in the mid-1500s. We visited once before (in 1997) and it is one of two sites that I wanted to see again so much that I was even prepared to do it in the pouring rain.
Glendalough is situated over 2 hours from our base in Tramore, so we were up bright and early in order to get there a few minutes before the gates opened. We both agreed that it was essential to be there before the tourists arrived. And we succeeded, pulling into the virtually empty parking lot about 15 minutes before opening time. And then we were blessed with a small miracle. As it turned out, it is possible to cross the stream on the path toward the upper lake (Glendalough means ‘valley of the two lakes’) without ever going through the official entrance. Partway down the path, you can turn off, cross the stream again, and enter the remains of the monastic center with its famous Round Tower. Since we had purchased Irish Heritage Passes and the entry fee to Glendalough was covered by that purchase, we felt free to accept this unexpected gift from the universe and skip the get-your-actual-official-paper-tickets process. This gave us the glorious opportunity to wander for almost forty minutes with only two or three other people before the tourists arrived.
The quiet was deep and gentle. The early morning sun (please note: sun) slanted through the trees and the window embrasures of the ruined buildings. The deep grass muffled most sounds. We were bathed in peace.
Close to an hour after we parked the car, we wandered out of the monastic center and continued on toward the upper lake where our guidebook – published in 1995 and purchased for our first trip to Ireland – informed us we would be “better able to enjoy the tranquility of Glendalough and to escape the crowds that inevitably descend on the site.” Turns out that since 1995, OPW (which administers the Irish Heritage Sites) has built a parking lot, a tearoom, and an information center at the upper lake for all the tourists who weren’t able to walk the 1.5 km from the monastic center.
Please understand that May is not yet high tourist season; we still have five or six weeks to go until the real crowds “descend on the site.” But the parking lot was full of tour buses and the toilets and tearoom were full of tourists from Japan, Italy, France, and Germany as well as a scattering of folks from other locales (including Ireland). In horror, we fled the banks of the upper lake and climbed to Kevin’s Cell (which is up a steep cliff.) There are stairs cut into the cliff, but they are high and uneven. Once there we were again in silence and a spacious solitude.
I left some of my mother’s ashes – she travels with us all over the world, being scattered in places she loved and places she has never been, but would have loved – near a beautiful relief of St. Kevin and the blackbird. Mom never visited Ireland and the day we went to Glendalough in 1997, I left the bag with her ashes at the house we were using in Dublin…and the roads being what they were two decades ago, there was no way we were going back. Even for Mom.
When we had drunk our fill of green and peace and power and mystery, we climbed back down the steep stairs and walked back along the path to the monastic center parking lot. By then, the parking lot was full, the tour bus lot was full, and tourists were everywhere with their cameras, cluttering up the views getting pictures.
The sun had vanished and the sharp wind and overcast sky had returned, so we sat in the car and ate lunch, dropping crumbs in our lap…and mused aloud, “We are tourists. Who take pictures. With cameras.” As I pondered some more, feeling both judgmental and self-judgmental, I realized that there are places where I happily acknowledge that I am a tourist (the Eiffel Tower, the Tower of London, Tivoli), but there are other places where I am a pilgrim (Glendalough, Knowth, Clonmacnoise). When I am a pilgrim, I walk tenderly, quietly, respectfully, with awe and humility.
And the respectful humility part is the part that really brought me up short.
Because what has been smarting for the last 48 hours is how quickly I assumed that everyone on all those tour buses at Glendalough was a tourist rather than a pilgrim. In retrospect, my guess is that a sizable number of those folks came for the same reason my husband and I did: longing to feel the quiet peace of that valley, yearning for the chance to close our eyes and hear silence that just might be akin to monastic silence (although (St.) Kevin had his cell on the upper lake as a place to get away from the noise and needs of the monastery, so ‘monastic silence’ is its own illusion, perhaps.) I didn’t notice the pilgrims because I had already dismissed them as tourists. Mea culpa. Really.
This paying attention thing is teaching me more about myself than I am able to fully absorb, but I am wondering if my take-away from the quiet of Glendalough is the awakening suspicion that I should never again be a tourist…because every place I travel deserves a pilgrim heart and pilgrim mind, and every person I meet deserves the generosity of spirit that assumes they are pilgrims, too.
Text © 2015, Andrea La Sonde Anastos
Photos © 2015 Immram Chara, LLC
NOTE: All three photos were taken on Tuesday at Glendalough — a beautiful day of soft sunlight and soft mist. The first is of the Round Tower, the second is a window in the ruins of Reefert Church, the third is scattering some of my mother’s ashes near Kevin’s Cell.