Walking in an ancient wish

Sometime several hundred years ago somebody walked along a path I walked on Tuesday. This is not as remarkable as my brain somehow spun it up in the moment, we walk through the eddies of other peoples’ lives all the time, but something about stone reminds me forcefully of this truth once in a while. I adore those places where stone was painstakingly chosen, placed and carefully maintained over centuries. Intentions and messages are left in their construction, or in worn inscriptions or patterns, and while sometimes they are lost in time, the effort of placing that canvas remains, even if as an underlay for some later work. The act of construction by itself is a conversation with someone or something, with other people, a community, a divine purpose or history. Reconstruction changes flow and purpose, conceptual core or intended messages veer in a strange new tangents, but hints of the original signal on.

On Tuesday I wandered around an early monastic site at Lemanaghan in Offaly, a side journey from a trip to a garden centre now that my travel zone has expanded to the whole county instead of 5km from home. As I did so I wondered about the changes in our perception of nature in our experiences of religion and divinity, mused about the practicalities and the symbolism of building new things with old materials, on the continuance of a site through new buildings and practices, the ways the handling of stone and water and faith changed over the centuries in this one small place.

When you first arrive the most obvious place is the ruins of the church and the graveyard, all an example of the modern preoccupation with neat and tidy mixed with the older, gnarlier evidence of life and belief over time. It was very overcast while I was there, for brighter pictures and some more history try http://www.megalithicireland.com/Lemanaghan%20Church.html. To summarise the site has a small, approx 10th century church, built on land given by Diarmuid, High King of Ireland in mid 7th century to Ciaran of Clonmacnoise, who in turn tasked Manchán (also known as Monaghan) with setting up the monastery. The church was added to over time and has features spanning the 10th to the 12th century, with a 15th century extension. It is that curious, tiny compression of gravestones, cross slabs, carvings and bullaun stones from different snatches of well over a thousand years that fascinates me, sprinkled liberally with lichens and medals from Medjugorje and coins in odd corners. I was completely fascinated with the piling of stones on what I believe was the site of the 15th/16th century priest’s house, again, I assume, from that need for things to be tidy. The foundation has been filled and almost rounded off with stones and broken headstones (third picture).

The well on the site is locally famous, and close by the church. My decision to go visit the site generally was prompted by recent research into the hazel tree (will eventually be condensed into a post) and coming across the story of how this well is supposed to have sprung into being. These saints and their ability to strike rocks with hazel staves and have water bubble up, eh? I have an enormous heap of research on water sources and their importance in Ireland from pagan through early Christian times to modern Ireland to still wade through but it was fun to watch out for what I’ve gathered so far. For now I can imagine that this well has probably been used in a similar kind of way since there were people nearby to visit it. The current version is a curious keyhole shape, possibly only since the 1930s when work was done to renovate it. An ash stands close to receive offerings of all manner of things, particularly rosary beads but also cloth, toys, painted stones and baubles, and coins glint and gleam at the bottom of the green grey water of the well itself.

And this grey green water is my other reason for visiting. There is an an old Irish poem attributed to Manchán, Abbot of Liath Manchan (He died of the Yellow plague in 664 or 665, so there was some musing about plagues and viruses for good measure on the day) I had been reading through some old Irish stuff to help out on another project (medieval Irish cooking related, using the  Aislinge Meic Con Glinne as source material – detailed here. I greatly recommend the newsletter too 🙂 ) and came across Comad Mancháin Léith in so, translated as Manchan’s Wish, a poem about his wish for a particular place and life style to live and pray in. When I figured out it was that St. Manchan from not that many miles down the road I wanted to see how the monastery site and the poem worked with each other.

For years until I started being more serious about research I assumed that when a book said “translated by” that the English words provided for an old Irish poem were actual verbatim (or as close as possible) translations. I knew that that automatically removed some nuance from the language – I find it difficult, for example, to imagine the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins preserving a lot of what makes it evocative without those specific words used – and I’ve come to really regret that so much of the beauty of my own language is at least currently lost to me. I also surmised that the translator would use words fashionable in their era and in keeping with their particular academic atmosphere, so a lot of old irish poetry was translated in the early 20th century might feel more stilted and formal to a modern ear or than I would imagine the original might have done. What I have come to understand more though is just how strong the personal interpretation of the translator can influence the work as well. In an effort to convey what they feel the original poet was trying to say they will chose a “translation” to convey what they think closely approximates the underlying meaning. So it is that I have read a few translations of this poem and have a few different senses of what it means. Straight away I can think of Elanor Hull’s translation in The Poem Book of the Gael (1913), which leans far more heavily on the side of religious material and ritualistic imagery and is constructed to rhyme in English, and Kenneth Jackson via Kuno Meyer in Studies in Early Celtic Nature Poetry which has much more natural imagery and emphasis, including the line that stirred all this enquiry “A very blue shallow well to be beside it.” I won’t go into the whole poem, but this is a decent example so bear with me a while longer. So here is a transcription of the relevant bit in the Irish as listed on https://celt.ucc.ie/published/G400012/index.html and Jackson’s translation

2. Uisce treglas tanaide
do buith ina taíb,
linn glan do nigi pectha
tria rath Spirta Naíb,
A very blue shallow well
to be beside it,
a clear pool for washing away sins
through the grace of the Holy Ghost
(English translation Kenneth Jackson, Studies in Early Celtic Nature Poetry (1935)

Water in Ireland is rarely blue. It has to be a startlingly hot clear day for water in Ireland to reflect a lapis lazuli sky as might appear in religious iconography. Children colour water as blue. Classical scholars think of blue Mediterranean seas. An Irish person writing about an ideal retreat, a secret hut in Nature to be with God, does not write about blue wells. A holy well in Ireland, in keeping with every important water source in Irish mythology has stones and trees around it. It reflects grey and green if it’s a pool and is gold-copper-brown if flowing. So “Uisce treglas tanaide” – glas is green is modern Irish. When I took myself along to search on eDIL (the Electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language) and searched for treglas it provided me with both treglas (dil.ie/41730) and Tanaide (dil.ie/40013) on the same results page – to summarise, treglas is translated as very grey by itself and as shallow green when combined with tanaide. In addition Tanaide is translated as meaning (a) subtle, abstract, of the spiritual as opposed to the corporeal as well as (b) thin, slender, possibly shallow “huisín treglas tanuide a limpid (shallow ?) green pool. Which I adore, because that dual meaning cannot come across in english the same way.

I’ll stop nerding. I won’t even start on Holy Spirit and Holy Ghost. But there is a well at St. Manchan’s monastery site and it is grey-green and shallow and not blue and apparently people still wash away sins and ills in the water there. I appreciate that “holy” water can be ideally blue, but to me, here, in my very nature focused way, it really isn’t.

As to the secret hut on a “choice plot with abundant bounties which would be good for every plant ” (I’ll get to translate this bit later) and the many voiced birds? This is the good bit of this visit.

This is part of the togher or tochar (stone lined causeway) in Lemanaghan. It connects the bits I’ve already talked about with St Mella’s Cell, a rectangular medieval building (also ruins). St Mella was the mother of St Manchan, he is supposed to have built it for her and to have met her at a point on the path every day where they sat together but he remained silent, having vowed to never speak to a woman again on taking orders. This was by far and away the best part of the entire complex, this path and on through fields and to the cell. All along I breathed in sweet, herb green laden air that felt good and real in a way I don’t often get to experience anymore. It occurs to me all that time with cars off the road has probably vastly increased what we can now sense in the air. It was gorgeous just ambling gently through that air, listening to the birds, watching wrens and blackbirds flit in and out of the side hedgings and a thrush cracking a snail. My alas poorly focused and lit pictures on this occasion do not do any justice to how peaceful it all was or to how much older the ghosts treading the stones there felt.

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