Monday, August 30, 2010

Introibo

bromegrass shared with us the other day a photograph of the Gallarus Oratory, a remarkable corbelled dry-stone building, with about the footprint of a one-car garage, just over the hill from our house here in Ireland. The building dates from early Christian times, perhaps the 7th century. It never fails to impress visitors in an almost magical way. This is not the grandeur of the Coliseum or Pantheon; this is a place where you can hear your own breath, feel your own heartbeat. I wrote in Climbing Brandon about the night I spent alone in the Gallarus Oratory; it was as close as I have ever come to feeling the breath and heartbeat of the world.

The most remarkable thing about the Gallarus Oratory is that it exists -- intact. There are ruins of maybe half-a-dozen similar structures hereabouts; over the centuries they must have been tempting as ready piles of building stone. Why did this one survive? No one knows. Perhaps because it became identified in popular lore with some particular saint, Brendan perhaps, or acquired the protective aura of fairydom. Even today one sometimes sees a "fairy tree" standing unmolested in the middle of a large track of consolidated fields otherwise made suitable for cultivation by agricultural machinery. This landscape is so rich in archeological artifacts -- pre-Christian and Christian -- that it is not easy to shake off the superstitions of the past.

The fairies are in retreat, of course, and the saints are not far behind. The challenge now is to preserve the past with protective legislation. The first step is to catalog what remains. This was done some twenty-five years ago with an exhaustive archeological survey of the Dingle Peninsula, published as a thick oversized book that sits here on my desk -- everything from megalithic wedge tombs to holy wells, literally thousands of entries. One can hardly take a step on the peninsula without tripping over the past. Almost all of these artifacts are on private property, which raises delicate issues of access and preservation.

Why? Why preserve the detritus of former ages? Because we cannot know who we are unless we know who we have been. I've noticed that when tourists approach the Gallarus Oratory they invariably fall silent. Even when a coachload of tourists descends on the place all you hear is the click of cameras. That little stone building seems to whisper: "I am the womb wherein was gestated the silent longing of your race."