by Ruth Knafo Setton
I hear the call in the deep heart’s core. – William Butler Yeats
I heard it across the seas in the rustling forest near my home in Pennsylvania, and I heard it in the sound of the waves, and I heard it the instant we docked in the port of gritty and raw Dublin, one of my favorite cities in the world. I’ve only been here once before, for a wonderful Thanksgiving week with my son Avi, but even that short visit was enough to make me want to return. What I remember: the words of James Joyce across the window of the Guinness Storehouse as you survey Dublin over a foaming pint, the musty welcoming smell of old books in the Long Library at Trinity College, the forty shades of green in the parks, the rich, dark coffee, and the sweet sharpness of the language. Whether the Irish speak Gaelic or English, whether they’re joking or telling tales, there’s music to the words, a cadence and rhythm that invokes and evokes the soul’s mysteries the way poetry does. It’s a code to decipher and puzzle over. Letters take on new identities, others are present but silent, while others are heard but not seen. Niamh = Neve. Sidhe = She. The words curve like fingers and beckon into the woods, whisper the divine call of the Sidhe, those mischievous faeries: Away, come away (said Yeats, who heard them, too).
And then they leave us in the woods, our hearts tied in a Celtic knot, our eyes staring wistfully.
I hear the call as I leave the dock with my friend and Semester at Sea colleague, photographer Todd Forsgren. We head in search of the sacred feminine, and the first thing we see is a small statue of Mary guarding the sailors and those who have sinned.
I hear it stronger inside the crypt of Newgrange, the Neolithic passage tomb, with its prophetically accurate Roof Box, a carved opening that lets in the sun during the Winter Solstice—perhaps the world’s first solarium. I lift my head to the vaulted carbelled roof, layer upon layer of scalloped, fitted rock that reportedly hasn’t leaked a drop of water (in rainy Ireland) in 5,000 years, and gaze at the mystical symbols—tri-spirals, diamonds and zigzags—carved into the recesses. The guard—an irreverent man with a metallic-gray Elvis pompadour and a side-creeping smile—turns off the light and says, “Imagine the Sun God penetrating the Earth Goddess to make the earth fertile.” A dazzling ray of light filters through the Roof Box and lights the crypt. I know I’m not the only one who shivers. It’s very sexual, very Demeter, and very powerful. I’m especially moved when I learn that the 92 massive rocks that circle the round tomb of Newgrange are carved with the same mysterious symbols as Howth (the neighboring passage tomb), but unlike Howth, where the rock carvings face outwards as if to protect those inside from invaders—at Newgrange, the carved symbols face inward, like magic amulets pressed to your heart.
I hear it deeper inside my heart as we enter Kildare, a medieval town dominated by St. Brigid’s Cathedral on one side of the town square. Cill = Church. Dara = Oak. Apparently Brigid, who was a real person before she became a legend—saint, goddess, and witch—was beautiful and headstrong and wandered the country in search of a place to set up her church. She found it here, in an oak ridge and set out her magically expanding cloak to mark the dimensions of the land. She built the first monastery in Ireland, and curiously one where monks and nuns cohabited (separately, but under the same roof). She was the Abbess, but so powerful she was known as a Bishop.
Inside the cathedral, which is as musty as the Long Library, we hear a persistent humming. Is that the call? Todd and I walk from one altar to another, surrounded by dark, damp stone, searching for the source of the humming. Is someone confessing in a hidden alcove? Is the cathedral haunted? The mystery is cleared up when we walk outside and wander the grounds. A weed whacker! An absurd prosaic detail that reminds me of exiting the sacred mysterious crypt of Newgrange to see a pasture of dozing cows a few feet away. The sacred and the profane rub shoulders in Ireland.
Behind the cathedral is a Fire Pit where Brigid started a fire that burned without ashes for centuries. It was tended by 19 nuns. Every night the nuns chanted, “Brigid, take care of your own fire for this night belongs to you,” and in the morning, the fire would still burn bright.
Brigid died in the year 525, but the fire burned on until a priest magically put out the flames. And that was the end of the fire.
I visit the Fire Pit—rectangular and hard-edged, with a few scattered offerings, including a small photo of a young woman, her eyes closed. Every year, on Brigid’s Feast Day, the first of February, the fire is lit again. But as Todd and I wander the grounds of the cathedral, the call seems fainter. There is a Round Tower, tall and phallic, which the tiny female caretaker, her purse strapped to her chest in a tight diagonal as if afraid we’ll try to steal it, tells us we’re too late to climb. I don’t mind. I feel no magic emanating from this stone tower, and none from the Fire Pit.
The call nearly disappeared outside the cathedral, but it resumes as we follow the obscure directions to Brigid’s Well, get lost, retrace our steps, and try again. We pass signs for the National Stud (a horse farm), the Black Abbey, and an outlet mall. And then a small sign to Brigid’s Well, with an arrow pointing vaguely in the distance. “How can there be signs to Brigid’s Well and an outlet mall on the same post?” I muse aloud. Is that a sign that there is no distinction between the sacred and the profane, that it is all one?
Evening is falling when we finally find the well, a green sanctuary on the side of the road. A fence separates this enclosed area from a field. I should have been prepared for the juxtaposition of the mystical and the kitsch—a small shrine at the entrance contains tiny dolls and statuettes, burnt candles, and a large snow globe of Mary and disciple (without the snow). We walk deeper into the sanctuary to the well, guarded by a life-size stone figure of Brigid holding up her hand in welcome. Under one arm, she grips a cane and flowers. The well is a small stream, murky and lily-dotted. A series of stones marks a path to another stone circle, a place to sit and meditate. At the end of the clearing is a tree, its branches strung with colorful Tibetan flags, ribbons, keychains, and pieces of yarn. It reminds me of a tree in Safed, a town of mystics in Israel, where I visited the shrine of a saintly Kabbalist rabbi. His tree was weighed down with hundreds of ribbons and scarves, all bearing prayers and yearnings.
A sudden green breeze carries me back to that windy day on top of a hill in Safed (pronounced Tzfat—Hebrew, another coded language with letters that function as doorways into the unknown). I’d been given crazy-chaotic directions to his sacred tree by a mystic. It took 90 minutes of winding through wooded dead-ends and wildly careening roads to find the tree. Later, I learned it was an easy 15-minute ride from the center of town, but when I asked my friend why I’d been given such a maze to follow, she said, “It shouldn’t be too easy to find the sacred. That ride through the dark and the unknown was your preparation.”
Todd and I are silent, but it is clear we both hear the call. Something magical is happening. We have entered a sacred space and we try to remember this moment—each in our own way. He takes pictures and I sit at the edge of the well and write. We linger and lose track of time.
A man and boy come and hop on the grass for a few minutes, then leave. After a while a woman climbs through the slats of the fence and enters the sanctuary with a small white-muzzled Rottweiler. We talk dogs with her for a while, as she sits on a bench, smokes, and lets Daisy, the Rottweiler, wander. Dark-haired, pale, long-limbed, she won’t let Todd take her picture. She seems to fit perfectly in this space, and when she finishes her cigarette, she goes to check on the shrine. When she returns, it’s as if she’s made up her mind to confide in us. “You know this isn’t the original well?”
Todd and I exchange glances. What?
She explains that there was no parking at the original well, and so her father donated part of his land—their property is just beyond the fence—to build a new well in 1955. The old well is minutes away.
We find it quickly, in the shadows of the ominously named Black Abbey, a grim abandoned stone tower with tall grasses blowing across Celtic cross-topped tombstones. I can’t stop laughing. I’m a little giddy—we did feel the sense of the sacred, I know in my bones that we did, but does the fact that we were in the wrong place invalidate that? What defines a sacred space anyway? Is it sacred before we arrive? Does our presence make it sacred?
The original well is smaller and simpler, lonely, guarded by a weeping willow and a tree branch strung with about a dozen ribbons and wishes. We’d never have found it without the woman. After the sacred experience at the other well, I still feel magic dripping from me, and sheer joy: we are here, in Kildare, at the original well, and all of this has come about because months ago I scribbled a few words about Goddess sites, including this: “Brigid’s Well, Kildare.” I didn’t know if I’d ever make it here, didn’t know where or when or how, but the intention was there, and the words themselves an incantation.
There is power here—in the other well, and in this one, too—and I wonder if it was always there, or if we, the seekers, are the ones who bring it. I think of cows grazing in the shadows of Neolithic tombs, a weed whacker humming outside a Cathedral, a man and boy silently hopping, and a woman with a muzzled Rottweiler climbing through a fence, and it strikes me that there is no line separating sacred from profane—there is only sacred. Every space is sacred if you see it in its totality. The moment itself is sacred—the merging of who we are, where we are, and why we are here—a crossroads of what is past or passing or to come, wrote Yeats, who understood the power of language to both evoke and invoke the divine. It’s all here, right now, in this magic circle of rippling tri-spirals in Brigid’s Well. We haven’t yet found a Rosetta Stone to crack the code of the Neolithic symbols, but I sense they are passageways into the unknown, magic doorways into perception, and as Yeats wrote, “defenses against the chaos of the world.” When all is gone, and we are stripped of everything else, if we can still utter a word, write it, and listen to it, we can see, we can understand, and begin to know.
Water softly gurgles and the leaves scattered over the green, green grass remind me that it’s autumn. I climb over rocks to the center of the well and sit, cloaked in golden light. For a moment, I feel like a Goddess myself.
Before we leave, I send a prayer—words, my magic—into the water and green-blue air. I hope she accepts my offering.
Ruth Knafo Setton is the author of the novel, The Road to Fez, and numerous essays, stories and poems. Born in Morocco and raised in the United States, she teaches creative writing and literature at Lehigh University, and on Semester at Sea. She is working on a new novel that incorporates her love of travel, myths and magic. Visit her at www.ruthknafosetton.com/