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Published: July 18th 2009
Tuesday’s field trip took us to two sites important to Medieval Christianity.
The first was Clonfert Cathedral. This church was founded in the 6th century by St. Brendan, often called “St. Brendan the Navigator.” According to legend he is buried here, although no one knows for sure, and the Irish don’t tend to be big on doing the sort of archaeological dig that would be needed to determine the accuracy of this legend. St. Brendan was a monk who traveled extensively. A book he wrote about his travels has been found translated into many languages. He writes about visiting places that seem likely to be Greenland and Iceland and, many believe, Labrador in North America. This was before the Vikings even had explored the coast of North American.
Now some have said that it would have been impossible for a man to travel such a distance, from Ireland to North America, in the type of boat that would have been available at that time, so in the 1970’s a British man named Tim Severin successfully made such a journey, just to prove that it could be done.
Clonfert cathedral is most well-known as an outstanding example of Romanesque
architecture, and the front doorway is of particular interest, with its six layers of arches and elaborate decoration. Things are repeated in patterns of 3 and 7, both numbers with religious significance. Inside, it’s interesting to see motifs not usually associated with Christianity but with seafaring journeys, such as mermaids and sea monsters. In his journals, Brendan claims to have encountered both.
I visited Clonfert in 2006, and on that visit our group inadvertently stumbled upon a special site, in a wooded clearing about 50 yards down the road from the Cathedral. Some English women encouraged us to walk down the road and follow a path into the woods, and there we encountered a very large tree, perhaps 150 years old which was apparently being used as some kind of special shrine or site of supplication. This year we visited the tree again. Dozens and dozens of objects have been placed at the base of the tree: inhalers, prescription bottles, infant objects, photos, rosaries, mass cards, articles of personal clothing. Coins and articles of jewelry have been wedged inside the tree, which in many cases has begun to grow over them. This year, we found a fading piece of
paper, with a long list of prescription drugs, as well as the small paper circles that are placed on your chest during an EKG.
I led the students to this tree, and after they had looked it over for a time in wonder and uncertainty, I asked them, “So, what do you think is going on here?” They were quite curious and interested, and were certainly able to discern the spirit of the place, if they were not quite sure - it is hard to know -- how such a place first begins to be used in this manner. It is clear that this tree is believed to have some kind of spiritual power.
In the class we’ve learned about both the pre-Christian spiritual beliefs of the Irish as well as how Christianity was brought to the island. The early Irish had a strong belief in animism, the idea that all things - even those we would consider “inanimate” - have a spirit. St. Patrick is believed to be the first Christian to have come to Ireland in 432 A.D., and there are many stories and legends about the methods he used to convert the Irish to Christianity.
Wish Tree in Washington, D.C.
This wish tree was created by Yoko Ono, and was in the sculpture garden at the Hirshhorn Museum of Modern Art in Washington, D.C. when my family visited there in 2007.
They tell about how, instead of trying to stamp out non-Christian beliefs and practices, he incorporated them into his explanations of Christianity, as if to show the Irish that their beliefs were not wrong, just incomplete. The classic example is his use of the shamrock, which resembles the three-part spiral design common in Celtic design, to explain the concept of the Holy Trinity. The tree at Clonfert seems an excellent example of how the modern-day Irish continue to draw on and incorporate pre-Christian spiritual beliefs even as they practice Catholicism.
Mike suggested this tree would be called a fairy tree, and online I read that it is sometimes called a wish tree. This reminded me of an art installation we saw in the summer of 2007, when my family was on vacation in Washington, D.C. We were in the sculpture garden at the Hirshhorn Museum of Modern Art, part of the Smithsonian, and we came upon a tree with hundreds of little paper tags hanging from it. There was a little desk, with more blank tags, and visitors were encouraged to write a wish and hang it from the tree. It was called a “Wish Tree” and had been
created by Yoko Ono. At the time we were intrigued, and added our wishes, but now my understanding of the concept behind this has been deepened.
Our afternoon was spent at Clonmacnoise, one of Ireland’s most important medieval monasteries. It was established by St. Ciaran in 548 A.D. at the crossroads of Ireland in County Offaly. The river Shannon is the largest river in Ireland, running roughly north to south down the center of the country. At Clonmacnoise this is crossed east to west by the Eskar Riada, a natural raised mound of earth and gravel created by glacier movement thousands of years ago. In a wet and boggy land, this natural roadway was a major route of transportation, as was the Shannon. Between the 7th and 12th centuries monks from all over Europe came to study and work here, with as many as 300 living in this community at its peak. It has some of the best examples of Irish high crosses that still exist. These were built of sandstone and were used to mark the boundaries of the holy ground, as well as for storytelling and education purposes. They are covered with detailed carvings depicting stories
from the Bible as well as beautiful Celtic patterning. At Conmacnoise the high crosses are such valuable artifacts, and the sandstone deteriorates so easily, that they have actually moved the original crosses indoors to a museum, and have replaced them with reproductions outdoors.
Just outside Clonmacnoise we saw the remains of an Anglo-Norman fort that had been quite effectively destroyed by Oliver Cromwell’s forces in the mid 17th century.
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