Una Nelly is a missionary sister of Our Lady of Apostles, Ardfoyle Convent, Cork. Formerly lecturer in English at University College, Cork. This article is the second in The Furrow (1988) series: ‘Prayer’. 

Many years ago I remember reading Chesterton’s description of a statue of our Lady, Irish made, which had excited his admiration. It seemed to him that although the colours were the traditional blue and white and red something of the soil and sea of Ireland had transformed them: ‘a wave of green sea had passed through the blue and a shadow of brown earth through the crimson’. This is how I view Irish spirituality. In essence, in its concern with man’s life in God, it cannot differ from other types of spirituality, but like the statue, it has taken on its own distinctive colouring, its characteristic dress woven of strands from our distant past, our history and our culture. One of the strongest elements in the Irish psyche as in our culture is our religious sensibility, colouring our mode of apprehending the world, our relationships, and life itself. I believe that this religious sensibility, this awareness of the fact that man is by his nature a spiritual being, had its origin in our pagan as in our Christian past. There is after all, ‘a bit of the Celt’ in most of us – as Dr O Tuathaigh remarked in a lecture on BBC Radio Ulster. The characteristic Celtic modes of thought and action, of expression and behaviour, particularly since the seventeenth century, are not to be sought, he said, in distinctive political or social structures, but ‘in the structures of the mind’. Despite reports of a fall-off in the practice of ‘religious duties’ in some quarters today it is my belief that an enduring structure of that Celtic mind is still, in the best and widest sense, religious. What we need is a recognition and re-evaluation of this fact of our heritage, together with a critical appraisal of the religious traditions which have formed us, if our practice of spirituality today is to be more than just part of our cultural baggage. Tertullian had wisely observed a long time ago that a Christian is not born but made, maybe in our case ‘remade’. For too long the ‘hand-me-downs’ have not fitted. It is a good thing if today the old complacency of the claim to be ‘Irish and Catholic’ is being questioned. We cannot escape the challenge from the world’s secularising forces nor from old and new prejudices against institutional religion. It is only in facing such challenges that we can find out who we are. 

More than ever we need today to develop an historical sense which will involve a perception ‘not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence’. While we are fortunate in having pre- served for us a splendid collection of traditional prayers, it is not the translation of these prayers we need so much as the translation of those eternal truths, human and divine, which they embodied. Eliot’s further warning in connection with the conservation of tradition is worth heeding:

Energy may be wasted in a frantic endeavour to collect the leaves as they fall and gum them on to the branches: but the sound tree will put forth new leaves and the dry tree should be put to the axe. 

We need to find and reappropriate that sound tree of our faith, getting rid of the dead branches of mindless conformity, so that it may live its own vigorous and authentic life. 

To trace and find the authentic traditions in Irish spirituality is however a little like attempting an archaeological dig: one would need to sift not only through the layers laid down through the centuries by such powerful agents for change as Trent and the Counter Reformation but also through our chequered history from the so-called Golden Age of the Celts to the coming of St Patrick and the successful establishment of Christianity; on through the various invasions and oppressions to the forcing underground of the Irish language in the seventeenth century, and with it the old Irish world of culture and religious values; on through the sad centuries of the penal laws and the famine to the setting up of our modern state. And if such a dig were possible, one would have to ask whether at bedrock level a recognisable tradition of religious belief and practice, a more or less persistent pattern of attitudes and habits of mind could be found. All I can do here is attempt to abstract certain distinctive characteristics of our spirituality which have endured and which have shaped us as a people. 


This, to my mind the most persistent element in our spirituality, has a long history. Our earliest forebears, the Celts, had a strong religious sense, venerating a whole pantheon of gods corresponding to the different domains of life whether agriculture, war, health, fertility. John Macquarrie in Pathways in Spirituality, describing the Celt as ‘a God-intoxicated man whose life was embraced on all sides by the divine Being’, rightly considers this sense of presence as the surest foundation for a contemporary spirituality. Many of the Celtic gods and ritual practices are still with us, in place names such as Lyons and London and Louth named for the god Lugh; in feasts such as Samhain and Bealtaine and Imbolc, now St Brigid’s Day; in the annual pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick on the last Sunday of July. How many now realise that our traditional practice of praying for the souls of the dead on the eve of Samhain is a legacy from the old Celtic belief in immortality? Death to the Celt was but a ‘stepstone from one life to the next’ — the next life being another living world parallel to his own. On the eve of Samhain it was believed that the doors between the two worlds were open making communication with the dead possible. The ‘other world’ the Celts dreamed about, the Tir na nOg where Oisin spent his 300 years in perpetual youth or the ‘isles of the blest’ they journeyed across the sea to find, could not however be identified with the Christian paradise. But it was a kind of pre-echo, a pagan anticipation, which maybe more than most other traits contributed to the highly developed consciousness of the supernatural which is our heritage. 

With the coming of Christianity this belief in the divine powers was endorsed in the way that St Paul had endorsed the Athenians’ worship of their Unknown God (Acts 17:23). It was a nice irony of providence that ordained that one of our own race, Patrick, a Celt from the neighbouring island, should bring us the knowledge of the true God. Patrick in his life and person could be seen as the prophetic correlative of the Irish experience of Christianity: a dispossessed person whose faith had to be tested and purified in his early sufferings on Slemish before he could hand it on to a people who, in their turn, would have to suffer dispossession, exile, poverty and oppression. I think that Hanson is right when he declares that Patrick never really recovered from the trauma of his early separation from family and country, and the harshness of his slave condition. Yet it was this desert experience which brought him to the intimate knowledge of and the personal dependence on God as Father and Protector which inspired his whole life. This sense is everywhere in The Confession:

He showed concern for my weakness, and pity for my youth and ignorance; he watched over me before | got to know him and before I was able to distinguish good from evil. In fact he protected me and comforted me as a father would his son. 


It was this sense of God as a caring father and protector which, under Patrick, took the place of the old gods of the Celts. Here we have a fruitful example of true inculturation as the new faith entered into the Celtic consciousness, making personal all the old beliefs. This sense of the constant presence of the supernatural is everywhere in the old prayers. Their directness and terseness, the way they go straight to their mark like arrows, distinguish them from the later more ornate and flaccid versions which have been a distraction rather than a help in our seeking for God. This unselfconscious directness, without pretension of language or self-indulgent sentiment, is the source of their perennial attraction. There were prayers for rising and going to bed; for the different domestic chores such as kindling the fire, making bread, lighting the lamp; for meal times, going on a journey, going fishing, lighting one’s pipe; as well as for special occasions in times of sickness or old age or death. What is remarkable about many of these prayers is their theological compactness, their sound scriptural basis. Here in translation is one which is always timely. It is taken from Ár bPaidreacha Dúchais, the splendid collection of traditional prayers made by Diarmuid O Laoghaire, S.J. 

Prayer before speaking

Jesus, you who were silent in front of Pilate, don’t let us begin to wag our tongues without considering what we have to say, and how to say it. 

Another of the ancient prayers which we still use and which illustrates the marriage between the old pagan ideal of the protective presence of the divine and the new Christian religion based on the doctrine of the Trinity, is the Breastplate (Liúreach, in Irish). There are many examples of this type of prayer, the best known being the ninth-century version attributed to St. Patrick. Beginning and ending with an invocation to the Trinity it lists – as in the pagan charms ~ the occasions and the various parts of the body for which protection is sought, as well as the spiritual and bodily dangers which threaten them. This devotion to the Trinity is everywhere in the old prayers. I will quote only this one to be said when setting out on a journey. It is the version used by O Mealláin in his fine poem Exodus to Connacht — and could well replace the imported varieties on our dashboards. 

In the name of the Father full of virtue,
in the name of the Son who suffered the pain, 

in the name of the Holy Ghost with power, 

may Mary and her Son be with us on our journey.

Clean-cut, intent upon its purpose, solidly scriptural, it is the kind of prayer which did credit to a people who made Sacred Scripture the chief subject of their monastic school curriculum and whose favourite book was the Psalter, or Na Trí Caogaid as it was familiarly known. While no one could pretend that such knowledge of scripture was widespread outside of the schools and monasteries, one should not underestimate the teaching power of those ‘sermons in stone’ from both Old and New Testaments, sculptured on the high crosses throughout the land. Patrick had trained us well, and despite the baroque and the sentimental which won popularity in recent centuries, it is heartening to find the old solid orthodoxy expressed in such purity of language in the morning prayers recited today in Gaeltacht schools: 

A Thríonóid Naofa, aon Dia amháin,
ar son Chroí Íosa a briseadh ar an gecrois, 

déan trócaire orainn.
A Mhuire Mhathair,
iarr ar Íosa a ghrásta a thabhairt dúinn. 

Moladh leis an Athair Síorraí a chruthaigh sinn; 

moladh leis an Aon-Mhac a cheannaigh sinn; 

moladh leis an Spiorad Naomh a bheannaigh sinn. 

Moladh go deo leis an dTríonóid, aon Dia amháin. 

The question we have to ask ourselves is whether, except in our sadly diminishing Gaeltachtaí, the continuation of venerable traditions is enough or is justified. The old rural order with its daily round and prayerful atmosphere is gone forever. We live now, mainly through the intrusiveness of TV, in the increasingly secular and bustling foyer of the world. And yet it is from that very milieu that more and more people are calling out today: teach us to pray. Evidence of this hunger for a deeper spiritual life is on all sides: positively, in the proliferation of books on prayer and in the wider seeking for spiritual direction; less certainly in the growth of fundamentalist groups and in the obsession with the phenomena of the moving statues. An interesting fact is the growing popularity of prayers, blessings and songs from the Celtic tradition, Scottish as well as Irish, many of them taken from the volumes of Carmina Gadelica, collected and translated by Alexander Carmichael. They are beautifully produced in such publications as New Moon of the Seasons (prayers from the Highlands and the islands, selected by M. Jones); Threshold of Light (A. M. Allchin and Esther de Waal); God under my Roof (Esther de Waal). 

More pertinent to the subject is the question: how do we make these bones live, beautiful though they be, in today’s secular environment? There are no easy answers. Priests at Mass and teachers in school are to be commended for keeping people and pupils in touch with their traditions, using Irish for the familiar prayers and salutations of the Mass, keeping alive such lovely prayers and poems as A Mhuire na nGrást, Ag Críost an Síol, and celebrating the evocative O’Riada Mass. Undoubtedly more could be done. To begin with, perhaps a more responsible attitude towards our religious roots could be encouraged in our seminaries. The study of Irish spirituality and its integration into modern life, modern concepts and needs, is called for now more than ever before, and should not be an optional extra for any candidate to the Irish priesthood. 


The Irish countryside no less than Irish homes has undergone a profound change. The processes of land reclamation and the lattice- work of highways across the country have effectively banished the old gods from their ancient sanctuaries: the oak-groves and hills, the rivers and spring wells. But despite the march of progress, and the condemnation of abuses connected with ‘patterns’ by bishops of the last century, some of the oldest pattern and pilgrimage practices are with us still. The pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick on the last Sunday of July has a long history, from the pagan feast of the god Lugh to its ‘baptism’ by St Patrick when he spent Lent upon its wild peak, down to the pilgrims of the present day. The revival of local traditions of pilgrimage and patron days, with visits to such sacred places as the Mass rocks, monastic sites, high crosses, holy wells, is proving more successful and popular every year. 

Young people in our schools are becoming interested through participating in projects connected with local history and legend. This is the kind of education we should encourage today, enabling whole families to become more aware of the richness of their local culture, giving them a real link with their past and pride in their ancestry. It was heartening to find the local priest on one such occasion sharing with his people the results of his own research as well as some of the new discoveries of our archaeologists and historians. The response of the local people was more heartening still, as, ‘their faith seeking understanding’, they bought up the books on local history which were made available. 

The sense of a divine presence in nature is old as the race and is expressed in more ways than through pagan superstition or Christian pilgrimage. Irish nature poetry has held an honourable place in our literature from the first monk-scribes and hermit-poets, and it still retains much of that after-rain-freshness and childlike delight in naming beloved possessions. Kuno Meyer, the great Celtic scholar, had words of high praise for this poetry: “To seek out and watch and love Nature, in its tiniest phenomena as in its grandest, was given to no people so early and so fully as the Celt’. So much of this poetry is an expression of sheer joy in, and gratitude for God’s creation, that it is a pity it is not more widely known, especially in these days of heightened awareness of our environment and the necessity for its conservation. The eighth-century poem in the form of a dialogue between King Guaire and the hermit, Marban, is a fine example. Having described the paradisal setting of his “‘bothy in the wood’ he names, first, the trees: the oak, the ash, the hazel; then the sparkling wells and waterfalls; the abundance of food near at hand providing a diet of eggs and watercress, apples, honey and mead. But I think what remains to haunt us from that green wilderness is its music: pigeons cooing, thrushes singing, sea-gulls chanting, grouse calling, and the geese ‘with rough dark music/before All Hallows’. The poem ends in an expression of great contentment and with thanks to Christ: 

I thank the Prince who so endows me in my bothy. 

In the ancient Litany of Creation the editor, Charles Plummer, wonders whether the invocations made not only through Christ and the saints but through ‘all the elements in heaven and earth’, did not suggest ‘a faint echo of ancient nature worship’. Why not? Seamus Heaney has a pertinent comment on one of the loveliest of our poems from the ninth century, discovered on a manuscript margin in the monastery of St Gall. Called The Scribe in the Woods, it paints in just two stanzas, the scribe’s setting, its solitariness full of the music of the birds, ending in a lyric outburst of total joy: 

God’s doom! May the Lord protect me
writing well, under the great wood. (trans. J. Carney) 

Here is what Seamus Heaney has to say:

On the one hand there is the ‘pagus’, the pagan wilderness, green, full-throated, unrestrained; on the other hand there is the lined book, the Christian ‘disciplina’, the sense of a spiritual principle and a religious calling that transcends the almost carnal lushness of Nature itself. 

This analysis is true not only for the poem but for ourselves, reflecting as it does the two forces which, always in a creative tension, form the basis of our spirituality. 

The same transparency of language and transcendence of vision are to be found in more modern nature poetry and tell of the close relationship still existing between the poet and the countryside. The personal note and vision are there in Joseph Plunkett’s much-loved poem, I see His Blood upon the Rose; in Padraic Colum’s Fuchsia Hedges in Connacht — (the old name for fuchsia was ‘deóra Chriost’): 

Your purple is the purple that enfolds
In Passion Week, the Shrine,
Your scarlet is the scarlet of the wounds. . .; 

in the fifteenth-century poem of Tadhg Óg Ó hUiginn, entitled Christ’s Bounty

It is thou who makest the sun bright, together with the ice; it is thou who createst the rivers and the salmon all along the river. 

That the nut-tree should be flowering, O Christ, it is a rare craft: through the skill too comes the kernel, Thou fair ear of our wheat;

in the late Máirtin Ó Direán’s poem: Crainn Oíche Sheaca (Trees on a Frosty Night): 

Géag-uaignech gach crann
Scartha leis an uile,
I birtchrot gach crann anocht … 

Samhail a bheirim do gach crann Paischrann an chéasta,
Fior ar gach crann a chim, 

Géagscartha clíréabtha 

Tréigthe ag an duine.

(Bare-branched each tree/ Cut off from the universe,
Each tree like a victim tonight…
I imagine each tree/ Is the passion-tree of the crucifixion,
I see a figure on each tree,
Spreadeagled and pierced in the side,/ Abandoned by man.) 

(trans. T. Mac Siomóin, Douglas Sealy) 


It is to be regretted that with the loss of our native tongue a more stilted and foreign type of prayer became widespread. The attractive directness and family intimacy in many of the old prayers and poems came naturally to a people with a living awareness of God’s presence with them, in every detail of their lives. But it had another source in the strong sense of kinship and clientship which grew out of the Celtic derbfine (the extended family group), and the tuath. I believe that it was the experience of this close-knit family structure under the protection of their own tuath-king which made the new monasteries of the sixth century so attractive to the native Irish. Cardinal Ó Fiaich has suggested that our Lrish word ‘muintir’ or ‘muintearas’ might have come from the Latin ‘monasterium’ which connoted not just the place but the people: monks, priests, lay tenants and scholars living there. On the other hand, it was this ideal of kinship which resisted the introduction of the Roman diocesan system in the early days, and in the period of the Counter Reformation, the efforts at Tridentine conformity within a strict parochial structure. No one can turn the clock back but I wonder whether we did not lose more than we gained with this shift of emphasis from the family to the parish, from the admittedly limited religious instruction of the home to the theologically sound but often arid catechism lessons of the classroom. It is true that the basic formation in the faith can take place only in the context of the home. Now more than ever that faith needs to be nourished by a sound Christian theology in the schools, and especially in the adult courses in religious studies recently set up. 

Statue of Saint Patrick, Máméan

In earlier times Christ and his mother were seen as part of the family, as real living people, especially in connection with the events of the Passion. Good Friday was a solemn silent day of mourning. The only activity permitted was the sowing of the seed-crop and that too had its poignant association with the divine seed which that night was to fall into the ground and die. The old man on Inisturk who, on an exceptionally fine Good Friday a few years ago expressed his regret to Fr Pat O’Brien that Christ wouldn’t live ‘to see the bay in moonlight’ was within this tradition. As were Michael McGreil, S.J., and the pilgrims who caoined the death of Christ at Máméan in Connemara on Good Friday of last year. Down through the years of suffering our ancestors found comfort, sometimes their only comfort, in their identification with the crucified Christ and his mother. In The Irish Catholic Experience Fr Corish recounts the eviction story of an elderly couple at Partry, Co. Mayo, in the last century. When the old woman complained to her husband about the cruel injustice of it all, his reply was in the form of an old Irish expression: ‘Peace … the passion and death of Christ were worse than this’. Ba mhó páis Chríost na é: this was not the fatalistic response of a down-trodden peasant, but the expression of a deep personal faith, a lively compassion and above all, an understanding of the mystery of our Redemption. 


Devotion to Mary has perhaps suffered most from the neglect of our traditions. To our ancestors the Incarnation was such a living fact that they boasted of their relationship to Christ ‘on his mother’s side’. Muire was the special name reserved for her at least from the thirteenth century, but she was known too as Muire Mbhathair, and her son in the Irish way as Mac Mhuire. Our Muire came straight out of the pages of the gospel, from a home and a life-style with which our forebears could so easily identify: the homely carpenter’s shop, the neighbourly kindness of Cana, the hospitality of Bethany, as well as the anguish of a mother for her condemned son. The homeliness is there in one of Blathmac’s great poems from the eighth century where we find him inviting Mary to join with him in keening and praising her son:

Come to me, loving Mary,/ That I may keen with you your very dear one;/ That with you I may beat my two hands/ for your fair son’s captivity… / More beautiful, more pleasant, bigger than other boys/ since he was in his swaddling clothes;/ it was known what would become of him,/ a being for the saving of multitudes… 

The warm, familiar tone goes right through the poem, as Christ is compared with druid and craftsman and our Lady gets the pet Name muingelnat, meaning little white-necked one. While the Memorare of St Bernard and all the other prayers in honour of our Lady from outside the native tradition are in themselves very beautiful, it is, I think, a profound loss that with the decay of the Irish language so many of the old familiar prayers passed out of currency forever. And with the loss of these prayers the image of Mary as one of the family changed, becoming for the most part remote and unreal. The sound theological basis on which this devotion was founded: the fact that through her God became incarnate and Christ entered into the human family, this orthodox doctrine became shrouded in a kind of sentimental piety far removed from Blathmac or the author of our fine medieval lament Caoineadh na dTri Muire

How good it is to find the old intimacy and reverence in this modern poem by Máirtin Ó Direáin: Invitation to the Virgin

Deonaigh glacadh/ Le cuireadh uaimse/ Go hoileán mara San 

Iarthar cianda:/ Beith coinnle geala/ 

In ngach fuinneog lasta/ Is tine mhóna / Ar theallach 


Deign to accept/ My invitation’ To a sea-bound island 

In the remote West:/ Shining candles will be/
Lit in each window/ And a fire of turf/ 

On each hearthstone kindled. (trans. T. Mac Siomoin & D. 


It is my belief that the restoration of the true strong image of Mary, the freeing of her from the tawdry robes, the unnatural poses, the cloying sentiment with which we have become too familiar, this perhaps more than anything else, could advance the work of ecumenism. 


The neighbourly sharing expressing itself in hospitality is a particularly Irish trait and had its origin in the close-knit family life of the old tuath and the obligations of kinship. In pagan times refusal of hospitality was an offence incurring a heavy fine. With the coming of Christianity the guest was always seen as Christ himself, attested in his anonymous poem of the thirteenth century: 

O King of the stars/ Whether my house be dark or bright 

Never shall it be closed against anyone
Lest Christ close his house against me.
If there be a guest in your house 

And you conceal aught from him 

’Tis not the guest that will be without it 

But Jesus, Mary’s son. 

Even in prayer one was supposed to share. Most of our traditional prayers are in the plural and a prayer for oneself was known as paidir ghann, a stingy prayer. One could say that the mainspring of Irish hospitality, as of the people’s relationship with the host of heaven, was again the old idea of muintearas: a friendly sharing with all the members of the extended family. Here we find it expressed in a poem from the middle ages called, I think, Brigid’s prayer: 

I would like to have the men of Heaven
In my own house/ With vats of good cheer/ Laid out for them.
I would like to have the three Marys/ Their fame is so great. 

I would like people/ From every corner of Heaven.
I would like them to be cheerful’ In their drinking,
I would like to have Jesus too/ Here amongst them… 

Nearer our own time Joseph Campbell in his poem declares that ‘every shuiler is Christ’. How close to this tradition Peig Sayers was when she claimed that Heaven was but ‘a foot and a half above the height of a man!’


The kind of asceticism which I would associate with traditional religious practice has for the most part gone out of fashion. Gone out of fashion in the religious sense but come into high fashion in the health farms and the vogue in slimming diets. It was St Patrick who led the way in the Christian disciplining of the body for the good of the soul. But here as elsewhere Patrick was baptising the old heroic ideal which in ancient times had motivated Fionn and his companions in their self-chosen ascetic life in the woods of Ireland. In the early Christian period there were, besides the three major periods of fast during the year, two fast days each week. Maybe a hint for a new slimming recipe is to be found in the Irish names for these days of the week: Céadaoin, the first fast; Aoine, the principal fast; and Diardaoin (dia idir dhá aoin) the day between two fasts. A related belief of the early Irish Church was that the body should share in the prayer. To pray with the arms extended in the form of a cross was known as crosfhigil from the Latin crucis vigilia. Today we go to the East to learn the necessity for harmony of body and mind in prayer and sit at the feet of the masters of yoga. All good things; especially if we recall the reverence of the early Irish Christians for the Christian spirituality of a nearer East, and the fact that the hermits, Paul and Anthony, were looked upon as models of the ascetic life. Their famous meeting and breaking of bread in the Egyptian desert is commemorated in at least ten illustrations on our high crosses – by far the largest number of examples anywhere in Western Europe. Still one must ask, quoting the Zen master’s reply to a would-be disciple, ‘why do you wander about neglecting your own precious treasure at home?’ It is time for us to stop wandering about in search of novelties, time for us to acknowledge our own rich if rather austere heritage of devotional practice, our own version maybe of ‘holistic spirituality’. 

One fine penitential tradition which has continued almost unchanged from ancient times is the pilgrimage to Lough Derg. This persistence is itself a testimony to the perennial religious sensibility — as is Kavanagh’s poem Lough Derg

Christendom’s purge. Heretical
Around the edges…
The twentieth century blows across it now
But deeply it has kept an ancient vow…
These men and boys were not led there
By priests of Maynooth or stories of Italy or Spain 

For this is the penance of the poor
Who knows what beauty hides in misery
As beggars, fools and eastern fakirs know. 

It is to this ascetic tendency of the Irish temperament that Cardinal Ó Fiaich attributes the extraordinary flowering of monasticism in the early centuries. Closely related to this was the veneration for the hero, not now Fionn or Cú Chulainn but their descendants in the Christian leaders and men like Columcille. It could be that, culturally as well as spiritually, we have suffered from an uncritical and one-sided view of the Irish hero, the heroic ideal portrayed in the statue of Cú Chulainn in the G.P.O. contributing to our ambivalence and our failure of nerve. We do not have to go back to mythology to find heroes for our own day. As we become more and more part of the European family we need to be more aware of what men like Columcille and Columbanus and Gall stood for in their day – and their numberless successors down the years — and not leave the honouring of Columbanus as ‘the saviour of civilization’ solely to the natives of Luxeuil! 

One could say that Columcille is the quintessential Irishman and hero: born at Gartan in Donegal in 521 he epitomises in himself the old Celtic ways and the new Christian values. At once, a prince of the great family of Ui Néill; a brave if impetuous warrior in battle; a poet whose wisdom won reprieve for his brother bards at Drumceatt; a dedicated monk, priest and scholar; and later, in lona, exile, leader and saint; but above all, a true patriot whose grey eye forever looked back in longing to the land he had left. His feeling for family — muintearas — and for his native place, is something we all share. Here it is poignantly expressed in lines which have been ascribed to him:

I have lost the three settled places’ I loved best: Durrow, 

Derry’s ledge of angels,/ my native parish.

I have loved the land of Ireland’ almost beyond speech; 

To sleep at Comegall’s, to visit Canice,
It would be pleasant!

Since the old monasteries were the great preservers of our traditions, pagan as well as Christian, and the schools where the arts of the Book of Kells, of the Ardagh chalice, and of the high crosses were taught, we have a right to look to their modern counterparts in our need for a more authentic expression of our spirituality. Certainly many of our monasteries today are to be commended for keeping alive our spiritual heritage by encouraging the quiet labour of research, hosting conferences, bringing back the old art of calligraphy, translating scripture and giving us once again the Trí Caogaid beloved by our ancestors. Now that we are more familiar with such marvels as Skellig and such precious finds as the Derrynaflan chalice, the old traditions do not seem remote. Maybe it is time for a new type of monastery or form of religious life where — simultaneously with the study and conservation of our traditions —priests and laypeople can come together to celebrate a distinctively Irish liturgy. 

Book of Kells Illuminations

Holding the meaning. What is it in your room that stretches beyond your intimate, personal world and leads you into the human streams of need? Perhaps a small gift given by someone you met in unusual circumstances or from another land, a picture that speaks to you, your scriptures, or a bookmark that regularly trips you up and re-evokes your commitment. It is for this same reason that we wear rings, and I wear a Tau cross. It is why we Catholics bury people with a rosary wrapped around their fingers. It is the purpose of sacred oils and Easter water and blessed ashes. It is the significance of rainbows and candles and incense… Why do we gather rocks from special places? And collect October leaves? Birthstones and grave-stones and diplomas and wedding cakes ‘hold’ the meaning for us. 

— Joan Puls, OSF, A Spirituality of Compassion (Twenty-third Publications), p. 106.