On August 14, 2017, my family and I boarded an airplane and flew across the Atlantic Ocean to the western side of Northern Ireland, the land where my mother-in-law and her family was born and raised. Our trip was for many reasons, primarily returning my mother-in-law’s ashes to the land of her birth to be put to rest with her father, as per her request.
It was also an opportunity to catch up with our Irish cousins, for me to take a side trip and pilgrimage to one of my saint’s holy wells, and for our family to have a much needed break and time away together. This would really be one of the only vacations we’ve taken for this length of time.
Between leaving at night, the eight or so hour flight, and the time difference, we arrived on Tuesday, August 15th at approximately ten in the morning.
That was two days and one year ago, and for the next two weeks or so (perhaps a bit longer since I began this project later in the week than I had planned), I’d like to include you on my look back, my reminiscence, my retrospective, my journey, contemplations at no extra charge. In fact, not a day has gone by that I haven’t thought about aspects of this trip (as well as my previous trips to Wales) and I know it holds a tender place in my heart as well as my family’s.
My two youngest children and my brother-in-law had never been on an airplane before. I am a nervous flier. Everything couldn’t have been smoother, although the plane was quite loud and bumpy. It wasn’t terrible; I think it was normal, but it still rattled the young ones. We held hands for parts of it, and my son couldn’t really eat his dinner. He was much better on the return flight, I think because the first one was over.
We arrived at Belfast International Airport, got our luggage, got our rental car, loaded up the sat nav as they call the GPS there and headed to our cousins’ in a nearby town, about fifteen minutes east.
More to come in the days ahead.
Recently, an acquaintance of mine left for a trip to Ireland on a group tour. Her travels were taking her to Ireland as well as Belfast in the North and as far north as the Giants Causeway. She had been asking for advice, and I thought it would be helpful to share some of those tidbits here.
1. You will not receive a bag with your purchases.
Not even at the grocery store. You will need to bring your own reusable bag or pay 5p to receive one. I did notice that there weren’t plastic bags swirling around the streets in the breeze.
2. Bring an umbrella and a lightweight jacket.
We visited in August, and we wore our jackets every day. It was colder than I expected. As for rain, it will rain every day. Sometimes it’s no more than a mist that you would feel at a waterfall, but we had at least two downpours, and without an umbrella, we would have been soaked to our skin.
As I joked with my brother-in-law: Ask yourself if you’re still in Ireland. If the answer is yes, then you need to bring your umbrella.
3. Across the street from City Hall in Belfast is a large information center with great pamphlets, maps, and a gift shop. If you can’t get to that one, try and find an information center before you start wandering around. They are very helpful. Visit Belfast Welcome Center.
4. Around the corner and down the road a tiny bit is Carroll’s, an Irish gift shop with clothes, magnets, mugs, candy, everything and anything at a price range that makes something affordable for everyone.
5. The candy selection is amazing.
Even if you find something similar to what we have in the States, the use of local water and milk in the candymaking makes it spectacular.
6. Toffee. Eat all the toffee.
We can’t get good British toffee in the States. It is my go-to when I can get it.
Also, eat all the cheddar.
7. Visit Titanic Belfast. It is an incredible museum dedicated to the building of the Titanic. I think they did a really wonderful job balancing their pride for building the great ship and the respect for the lives lost in the disaster. They also have plenty of on-site parking at a reasonable price, a cafe, and a gift shop.
9. Botanic Gardens. One word of warning, there is very little parking in this area.
10. Wear comfortable shoes. There will be a lot of walking regardless of your prime mode of transportation.
11. Download maps to your smartphone or prints them out. If you can’t do that, get them right away, especially street maps, if only to get your bearings. We tend to drive in circles the first couple of days.
12. Carry cash. The general consensus is £200 to start and then use an ATM as needed.
Visa and MasterCard are taken at most places.
Notify your bank that you will be traveling and for how long, so they don’t freeze your cards when you need them. (This includes your Debit/ATM card as well.)
From personal experience, I would not recommend Discover. In the two weeks we were there, we found two places that took them. Not even the petrol stations did.
13. £ Stores. Poundland, Pound World, All for a £. The same as our dollar stores, but everything’s £1.
14. Petrol is in litres; road signs are in miles. I have no idea why. If you find out, please let me know.
15. Leave space in your case to bring things back without having to pay baggage fees.
I really believe that we see G-d everywhere if we choose to look. He is in our work, our hobbies, our cooking, our families. However, where he really and truly shows His Presence is in the natural world. I don’t mean holistic, organic, no preservatives, but in the things of the world that man hasn’t created.
This photo is a dichotomy of that. In the foreground is what once was a building with doorways and window spaces, but it’s built into the surrounding rocks and grassy mound. Beyond the wall is a larger, sturdier, massive wall of rock, a hilly walkway that brings you to the beach and at the top corner of the photo is the sea.
Look at the photo. Really look, and find G-d.
A pilgrimage is one of those things that is encouraged throughout most religions. Each Friday I’ve been trying to offer you a virtual tour of places to take time to visit and meditate and pray on.
One of the wonderful things about visiting a place steeped in saints is finding a new one; an unheard of one, at least unheard of by me. When I mentioned to our cousins about traveling to Wales to pilgrimage at my confirmation saint’s holy well, he immediately scoffed. “Ach, why ya goin’ there? We’ave one just up the road; that way, then left.”
When we returned from Wales, we indeed went right up the road and discovered a place of quiet beauty, spirituality pressing down from the clouds and whispering through the grass of the graveyard. Set between a field of sheep and a tremendous lake – Lough Neagh – and just below the ruins of an old church was the holy well of St. Olcan.
St. Olcan was a contemporary of St. Patrick. It is said that Patrick found Olcan as a baby with his deceased mother. He became a disciple of Patrick’s and founded the Armoy Monastery in Antrim, very near where his well stands today. After travels to Rome and Gaul, he was ordained by Patrick and became the first bishop in Ireland. Another story is that his mother was Patrick’sw sister, but of course, there’s no real way to verify that. Patrick did have a warm spot for Olcan, having taken him under his wing, becoming his mentor and in addition, gave to him some of the relics of Sts. Peter and Paul that had been in Armagh.
St. Olcan’s feast day is June 29, which corresponds with the pilgrimage to his shrine between May Eve and June 29 and the day that the water has risen so far that the amber pebbles overflow onto the land, making them easier to access. Pilgrims would come during that time for three consecutive days, walking the stations, bathing in the well, and praying for healing.
Olcan blessed the well with healing properties.
The rising water brings the stones, and swallowing a pebble protects one from drowning, women in childbirth, and having them in homes protects them from fire and burglary.
I was told to bring a rag or some sort of cloth, dip it in the well, and wash the area on my body that needed healing. Then I was to tie the rag onto the tree (where there were dozens of other rags), and when it deteriorated, my affliction would be healed. While some holy wells are meant to drink, I’m not sure that this is one of those wells. Certainly, the directions do not include drinking or ingesting, and when I collected some for my ailment, it was brownish and had sediment floating in it. By contrast, the two other wells I visited were much cleaner and were meant to be drank.
He is also said to be buried at the church on the hill above the well. What’s left of the Cranfield Church is the ruins of a 13th century church, but that church was built and stands on the site of an earlier church.
One of the things that amazed me about this church, and really many of the medieval buildings that I’ve visited is the sturdiness. Most are without roofs, and Cranfield was no exception, but the walls stood tall; sturdy. I am a toucher, and I ran my fingers along the cold stones, and leaned through window spaces and on walls to get just the right pictures at just the right angles, and I never felt unsafe.
Today, I was reminded of St. Olcan and his Holy Well when I attended my parish’s semi-annual Anointing Mass. It was well attended. There is Scripture, music, a blessing and the anointing of the oil of the infirm and receving the Eucharist. There is also a community lunch. Today was turkey and mashed potatoes. I could eat turkey and mashed potatoes every day. I find the camaraderie and the fellowship of the meal as well as the coming together of our community just as healing as the prayers and the anointing.
Tomorrow, I will post pictures of St. Olcan’s well and the Cranfield Church. For now, take a few moments, and just be with your thoughts or no thoughts. Take a few breaths, and recharge. Don’t forget to exhale.