I found my soul’s home in Glendalough

I left a part of my soul in Ireland right where I found it.

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As a high school graduation gift, my parents told me that they would take me to any place in the world that I wanted to go. I answered without hesitation, “Ireland.” Both sides of my father’s family hail from Ireland, and I’d always been amazed by the history, the accent, and of course the famed landscape of The Emerald Isle. However, I honestly had no idea how much that trip would shape my future and my love for traveling in general.

The trip was wonderful for so many reasons that I am sure I will write about at some future date, but the biggest reason that Ireland has such a pull on my heart and my passport is because of a single place — Glendalough.

Located in County Wicklow, just about an hour south of Dublin, situated in the beautiful Wicklow Mountains is a little town called Glendalough. One of its claims to fame is the churchyard situated beautifully with its iconic round tower, the  burial site of Saint Kevin, and celtic crosses galore.

My parents and I had spent a few days in Dublin upon our arrive and visited Powerscourt Gardens and waterfall before driving further south to Glendalough at the suggestion of travel expert Rick Steves. Though I was of course excited to be in Ireland, there was no particular reason for me to be excited about Glendalough.

However, as my parents looked through the graveyard for the family surname on a tombstone, I wandered off to journal — something I do often– and I found a rock perfectly situated next to the lake (or loch), and I began to look at the beauty that surrounded me.

I can only describe Glendalough as being the place where I finally felt like I’d found home. I even wondered if I had been there in another life or my ancestors had been there before. It was the only thing I could think of that could explain the visceral connection I felt while sitting on that rock looking over the loch. I was so disheartened when we had to leave to move on to the next place, but somehow I knew I would be back.

It took me 19 years to get back, but I did make it. On my “take-back trip” to Ireland, I made my way back to Glendalough on a bus trip from Dublin.  I visited on Thanksgiving Day. In Ireland they just call it Thursday, but it was still a day of celebration for me. Not celebrating with turkey, dressing, and family – but instead I celebrated with solitude and a return to a place that I had missed since the moment I left it.

It was just as beautiful and as powerful as I remembered it being. From the ruins of a church built by Catholics and burned by Anglicans where they now perform joint services on Easter Sunday (pictured below), to the moss that seems to cover everything in a cushion of incredible green (pictured at the bottom of this post) – Glendalough is a glorious place. IMG_5831

While everyone else on the bus had lunch at the local pub, I decided to wander off alone and found an adorable little grocery/coffee shop/deli. The woman apologized for not having turkey for my sandwich (how is it that obvious that I’m American? Couldn’t I be Canadian or something?), but I enjoyed my ham and cheese sandwich outside while I wrote in my journal and stared at the beautiful Wicklow Mountains.

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Shortly after I’d finished my sandwich an older man came outside and introduced himself. Apparently the proprietor told him there was a fellow American, so he came out to wish me a happy Thanksgiving. We sat and talked for a bit while he waited on the rest of his family to finish eating. They were from Texas and exploring their ancestry and traveling around the country. It was a lovely encounter, and added to the experience of the day.

The grounds of Glendalough are vast. There are several trails through the mountains, a beautiful round tower, Saint Kevin’s cross, a frigid stream, and an incredibly picturesque lake surrounded by the mountains. In my mind there are few places that are more beautiful.

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Perhaps it is because of that overwhelming beauty that I find it difficult to fully express my connection to this place. Honestly, I cannot think of another place on Earth that I’d rather be than Glendalough, Ireland. There are many other places in the world that I love, that I want to see, and that are probably more breathtaking than Glendalough. However, this loch, these mountains… they hold on to me. Even as I write this, I find myself becoming “homesick” for it.

As I left Glendalough in 1997 I knew I would be back, and when I left again in 2016 I knew that eventually I would find my way back there. Though I did not make it on my most recent trip to Ireland (I did not set the itinerary, obviously), I am sure that my feet will find their way back to a rock on the shore of the loch, to the trails in the mountains, and the paths through the graveyard because I left a part of my soul in Ireland right where I found it.

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Dublin, my City

IMG_1382I’ve never been much of a city girl when it comes to travel. I loath tourist traps and the teaming hordes that seem to congregate around the same ol’ places.  I am much more at home in the mountains, on a trail, or cuddled up with a book on the deck overlooking the water.  There are have been two (so far) exceptions to this general enmity to crowded streets and abundant air pollution. And only one of those two that truly holds a firm place in my heart as one of my favorite places in the world.

Dublin.

I suppose I remember Dublin the first time I went there in 1997, but it was our first three days in the country, and honestly the only thing I remembered was Trinity College (for good reason), but it was more our second stop in Glendalough that burned itself into my memory as the place my soul resides (blog post here about that).

However, my second trip to Ireland, in 2016, was a solo trip and only four days (the length of time I had over my school’s Thanksgiving break). Consequently, I stayed in Dublin and did day trips out a couple of days. But two full days – one of which I stayed up for the entire 24 hours – were spent just in Dublin, and truly that was no where close to enough time for that city.

Before I went, I studied the map of the city in great detail. I memorized which streets ran north/south and east/west, the location and routes to my desired locations, and multiple major landmarks (like the River Liffey) so that I would not need to break open a map on the city street and look like a tourist. For the most part I did well (until I tried to walk to the Guinness factory… totally got lost). By the end of my four days there, I felt a part of the city. I walked with confidence to the places I wanted to go (mainly Saint Stephen’s Green and Trinity College – pictured below). For once, the city seemed to be the place for me.

 

I stayed directly across from Trinity College in a hostel (another blog post I intend to do) called The Times, and it was the perfect hub for me because everything I wanted to see was within easy walking distance. Trinity College (one of my favorite places in the world) was actually across the street!

My first day in Dublin I walked around the walls of Trinity College (mainly because I went the wrong direction from the hostel to get to the main gate, but it worked) and saw the surrounding city and the famous colorful doors of Dublin. And once I got inside the university walls, I sat and watched their football (soccer) team play a match. I don’t really care about sportsball, but I was in Ireland, people!

It as fall, so the leaves were bright and the air was crisp. It was nearly perfection, really!

From there I walked up Grafton Street (a shopping area with a massive pedestrian walkway) and listened to street performers and watched as a man painted in gold scared a bunch of teenagers who thought he was a statue. The world was much louder on Grafton Street — people talking, music coming out of stores as people opened the doors to come and go, flower ladies calling out for people to buy roses for their sweethearts, people decorating for Christmas, and the bustle of cars on the side streets.

As I made my way up Grafton Street, I got closer to my actual goal – Saint Stephen’s Green. Those familiar with Dublin know Saint Stephen’s Green. It is one of the Central Park-esque oases in Dublin (and there are many). There are little “secret” paths through trees and shrubs, there is a fountain, a scattering of benches, and flowers all year round that are so bright and glorious that they barely seem real (they are – I checked). Even in the cold (it was close to 40 degrees Fahrenheit) people were milling around everywhere.

Children who just got out of school, still in their uniforms.

Families pushing strollers.

Business folk out for a stroll.

Tourists taking pictures.

It seems like all of Dublin goes through Saint Stephen’s at some point during the day. But what gets me is how peaceful and green it is — even on the edge of winter. Yes, there is noise of course, but it’s peaceful noise if that makes sense. Serene. I remember going there in 1997– we went in the summer time — and people were out laying on blankets and listening to music. It was glorious then, but it was no less glorious in the cold temperatures of November.

There is so much beauty in Dublin. Yes – it is a city and the traffic is horrendous- and it’s Dublin, so the street signs are impossible to find and the roads curve off in incredibly strange ways- but that’s why you don’t drive. Traveling by public transit or walking is the best way to retain your chill travel vibe, in my (not so) humble opinion. When you walk around you find so many amazing places you probably wouldn’t have seen if you were driving by it.

Take this pub.

IMG_5688 A glorious hole in the wall on a side street just off Grafton. It had positively the best beef stew I’ve ever had or possibly will ever have. I was the only person in the pub that the barman didn’t know their order as soon as they walked in the door. They were all old friends on their way home who stopped by for a pint (always Guinness) and some gab. However, they were welcoming of me despite the fact that I was an unknown face and of course American. Donald Trump had just been elected a few weeks prior, so there were lots of questions as to whether or not American had lost its collective mind. And of course Brexit was a large topic of discussion and what the “English bastards” were going to do next. And there was much laughter.

I would not have found this place in a rental car or an Uber or a taxi. Walking is the best way to find the best places in Dublin. You might even find the Irish flag reflected in the River Liffey if you’re lucky enough.

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The Healing Balm of Ireland

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Recently I’ve been doing some travels with my students. Though it is a very different way to travel than the solitary trip to Ireland back in 2017, this trip to Ireland with students was a beautiful reminder of how seeing an old place through new eyes can be a supreme joy in and of itself.

The trip was glorious – I saw things I hadn’t seen in ages (The Cliffs of Moher, Blarney Castle, and Cork) and places that I had never been before (like the picture above in Spiddal as well as the beautiful town of Bray).

Despite the multitude of people around me, it was still a time of amazing self-reflection.  For some reason travel does that. Is it the beautiful surroundings? Is it the feeling of infinite smallness in the face of giant oceans, imposing mountains, or stunning valleys? Is it the lack of things familiar? Whatever it is, I find it amazingly refreshing.

The trip was not free from heartache, however.

On a gloriously sunny morning in Killarney, I readied myself for the trip to Cork – a likely departure site for my ancestors who came to America for unknown reasons in the 1700s – when the lead chaperone pulled me aside and asked me to have a seat.

No good conversations start with the person asking you to sit down.

She gave it to me straight, without any sugar-coating.  A former student of ours who was in the military had committed suicide in his barracks.

The world stopped, and for a moment I forgot how to breathe.

This young man had been in my creative writing class. We talked about the death of his brother and how that changed him as a young teenager.  He wrote funny poetry, and smiled a grin that would make you doubt that he was the same person who could bench press a small car.

He came back to visit the school during a volleyball game after he got out of boot camp, and seeing that I wasn’t there he asked a teacher to take a picture of him and send it to me so I would know what I had missed by not going to the game that night.

That is the last picture I have of him.

I remained stoic as she told me that we needed to tell the remainder of the chaperones and then the children. Game face. Do what needs to be done. But as she told the chaperones on the sidewalk outside of our hotel, I could not stop the tears. I could not stop hating the birds for singing or the trees for daring to be beautiful in that horrible moment. I could not stop hating myself for being out of the country. What if he’d tried to call me? My phone could not accept calls overseas. What if he’d needed me, and I wasn’t there?

What if…

What if…

What if..

The beauty of Cork meant nothing to me that day. The countryside outside the bus window was lost on eyes that saw only a watery reflection of reality. I truly don’t remember the drive there or much of the museum we went to that day.

I do remember the smell of the ocean as I stood outside the museum, unable to stay inside a moment longer. I remember the sound of the shipyard and the smell of brine and fish. I remember the overwhelming desire to get away… from people, from sounds, from my own mind. And I remember repeating over and over again to myself that this could not possibly be real.

Eventually my mind slowed down that day – my journal helped. I wrote volumes. Emotional vomit that purged the sadness and fear and self-loathing.

And then Blarney.

The kids went with the other chaperones to the castle to kiss the stone and I went off alone and hiked the trails around the grounds. And nature restored my soul in those few hours of solitary reflection. The ivy, the moss covered rocks, the clover, the waterfalls, and the trickling stream calmed my troubled mind until I could breathe again without a searing pain in my heart. My photos of that day chronicle the gradual healing that took place in Blarney – a journey through shadowy darkness to the bright green that gave Ireland its nickname.

Since my first visit to Ireland in 1997, I have often said that though my body lives in the United States, my soul will forever be in Ireland. There was never a time that was as true as it was that day in the solitude I found in the shadows surrounding Blarney Castle. My soul, broken and crushed, found solace in Ireland’s beauty, and for that I am ever grateful.

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