Wednesday, June 24, 2009


Yesterday my friend Maurice and I drove to remote Gougane Barra in West County Cork to walk the mountain ridge that surrounds the valley. This is a holy place in Irish lore. Saint Finbar, who founded Cork City at the mouth of the River Lee in the 6th century, had a hermitage here, on an island in the lake that lies flat and smooth on the valley floor. A tiny modern church now sits on the island, and "rounds" (a kind of mini pilgrimage) are made here on the saint's feast day. It is a stunningly romantic setting, and it's no wonder that many brides choose the venue for their wedding. It would have to be a small wedding; the wee chapel would not seat more than thirty people.

The lake is the source of the River Lee.

Our purpose in coming to Gougane Barra was not religious, but physical; we had our eyes on the peaks and ridges that cradle the lake and mossy forest. But I was not oblivious to the spiritual significance of the place. It is no coincidence that so many of the earliest Irish Christians sought out these remote places of hermitage. They were still very much in thrall to the nature worship of their druidic predecessors -- as I discuss at length in my book Climbing Brandon: Science and Faith on Ireland's Holy Mountain.

"If you wish to know the Creator, understand the creature," said Saint Columbanus, a contemporary of Finbar. The historical tension between transcendence and immanence (at work in every religious tradition) was decided in continental Christianity in favor of transcendence, and with it came the troublesome dualisms of natural/supernatural, matter/spirit, body/soul. By contrast, the early Irish texts suggest a God who is immanent in every part of creation -- in Sun, Moon, stars, wind and wave -- indeed , inseparable from the creation, even as the unutterable mystery of the universe confounds our understanding and perception. It is a kind of faith that rests more conformably with the spirit of modern science.

Continental Christianity developed as a faith of cities, of social hierarchies, of popes and emperors -- legalistic, authoritarian, rooted in sacred texts and miracles. Early Irish Christianity, like the druidic faith before it, was grounded in the natural world. There were no miracles except the inexhaustible miracle of nature itself. The spirit of the early Irish saints and scholars still haunts the enchanted valley of Gougane Barra.