Don’t quit if you can.
For the weight that’s on your shoulder
Will make you a better man.”
Already some of the memories are fading from our wonderful pilgrimage to Ireland – at my age that seems to have become a theme. In these pages I hope to capture some of the sights, sounds, and sentiments that characterized our time on the Emerald Isle. For example, the lyrics at the head of this article formed the refrain of the first song we heard in Ireland. Our charismatic bus driver Tom regaled us with stories and songs for all 8 days we were with him, and the first and the last song he sang contained these sublime lyrics. Frankly, the first time we heard them we were succumbing to jet lag and had a hard time conjuring up the enthusiasm Tom wanted as he invited us to join in on the refrain. The last time we heard the song, if memory serves me, was on the way home from our departure dinner – once again we were laboring under powerful influences, this time by the name of Guinness and Jameson. And while our last version was much louder and more spirited than our first, I don’t think Tom was as impressed with our singing as we were! Of all the memories from Ireland, I suspect the music might have the longest staying power.
Now for those who prefer a sequential play by play telling of our time together, it began for most of us by getting on a bus in Marshfield. The trip to O’Hare was gentle and uneventful, especially when compared with many of the bus rides we experienced in Ireland. Our flight on Aer Lingus was, at least for most of us, quite pleasant. Poor Juan’s luggage stayed in Chicago, but other than that it was a pretty easy flight. We arrived at 4:30 a.m. and little did we know how long that first day would be . . . . at most, we probably got 2-3 hours of sleep on the plane. After breakfast in the Dublin airport, we boarded our coach bus and headed west. Tom tried to keep us awake with details of life in Ireland as well as information about the land we were seeing. Between the 20-30 naps I took that day I tried in vain to see a rainbow so that I could claim the pot of gold and retire early. We did see a lot of cows, but they apparently don’t speak our dialect – I reached out to them many times, but they simply weren’t interested in building international friendships. Our first day we saw the sun rise, but I don’t think we saw it again for about 30 hours. Intermittent rain, some of which was quite heavy, welcomed us to Ireland. I’ve been telling folks that if you like sheep and rain, then you’ll be very happy in Ireland! We arrived at Clonmacnoise sometime in the late morning and watched a video about its significance. It is situated in a very strategic spot on the Shannon River and was founded by St. Ciaran in about 544 A.D. We learned about the St. Patrick cross, how St. Patrick persuaded the Druids to abandon sun-worship by joining the sun to the cross of Christ. Clonmacnoise flourished during the 8th-12th centuries, but has languished ever since. Our tour guide was hoping to give us the full experience, but time constraints would not allow it. Back on the bus until we arrived at Knock, home of the Marian apparition of 1879. We had no sooner arrived then we were whisked into the apparition chapel for Mass with a good crowd of other pilgrims. Given the heavy fatigue we were experiencing, I only hope that the Mass was valid! It was an honor to be there and we were able to tour the grounds while praying the Rosary. After the first of many remarkable dinners, many of us collapsed into the sleep of the dead. I’d have to say that it was the most difficult first day I can remember of any trip to Europe – I think God repaid us by making the re-entry to the U.S. at the end of the pilgrimage the easiest transition I can ever remember.
Day two had us together for a nice Irish breakfast – and this experience would crescendo until we just couldn’t believe how much food we were offered and how good it was. The only thing I declared when coming through customs on the way home was the 10 pounds I put on by eating 3 lambs during my time there! We drove to Sligo in the morning and visited a Famine Cemetery. We heard a lot about the famous potato famine of 1845-1852, and it never ceased to make Tom emotional. God knows they suffered grievously in those days and even now the memory is a painful one for the Irish. We moved on to Tobernalt and celebrated Mass outside on a Mass rock – this was one of many places where Catholics met to pray clandestinely during times of persecution. St. Patrick is said to have offered Mass here and the imprint of his hand is embedded in the rock. It was a beautiful day (especially in contrast to our first day) and the sun came out during the Consecration. After Mass we drove back to Knock where we had a free afternoon to use as we wanted. Not a lot to see and do in Knock, but many took time to pray, go to confession, shop, and eat. We gathered for another wonderful dinner – I wrote down in my journal that I ate mushrooms, cod, vegetables, and a fruit dessert. Our group was already gelling by this point, always a sign of the Holy Spirit at work. Oh, I almost forgot . . . we celebrated two birthdays that day, Becky and my cousin Maureen!
Day three (Friday) began with the usual routine of strapping on the feed bags and wallowing up to the breakfast buffet. We left Knock for good and headed first to Westport – this was the point of departure for many of the million Irish who would emigrate during the years of the aforementioned potato famine. We stopped at Croagh Patrick, where St. Patrick prayed for 40 days so as to win the Druids for Christ. We walked up part way while praying the Rosary, and by the time we left the skies had cleared enough to see the top. It was a beautiful experience and the fresh air and views are still deeply embedded in our mind’s eye. We began heading south and drove down a famine road so as to retrace the route taken by so many starving people. We prayed at a road side shrine – the terrain was ruggedly beautiful and we began to see sheep everywhere. Later on we would learn how they are sorted by dogs and kept safe from predators (of which there are really none in Ireland). At the end of the most picturesque drive so far we arrived at Kylemore Abbey, which dates to the 19th century. Staffed now by Benedictines, it is a wonder to behold, even in the gale-like winds and sheets of rain that buffeted us during our brief visit. We had Mass in the Benedictine’s chapel and then time enough for a quick tour of the castle and Gothic cathedral. A kind friend bought me a very nice Irish cap that day and people tell me that when I put it on I become a sight for sore eyes! Minimally, my Mom will be happy to know that I finally have a nice cap to wear for winter trips to the cemetery. We got back on the bus and concluded our day at the Connemara Coast hotel – a beautiful view, our first on this trip, of the Atlantic Ocean. Another wonderful dinner followed by group sharing with Juan. It was a tumultuous night of weather with serious winds and ample rain. Some slept well, others not so much . . . such is life on the road.
Day four had us up and on the bus for a day of local touring. First we visited the Connemara marble factory. After a nice presentation about the marble and how their mines are waning, we had time to shop and support this very nice family business. Along with the pounds I was adding to my mid-section, I bought or was gifted with about 20 pounds of marble, which moved my suitcase into the category of “to be avoided” when loading the bus. We then stopped in Cong for Mass at their parish church (St. Mary of the Rosary). Cong is famous for having been the site of where the John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara movie “The Quiet Man” was filmed. I thought it had something to do with King Kong, but Juan just rolled his eyes and moved on when I asked about this. After Mass we were free to tour the town – this took about 3 minutes, as it was pretty small. Some of us went for a walk on the Abbey grounds, visiting caves or other ruins. The weather was nice, but periodic showers reminded us that we were not in Kansas (thank God). On the drive to Galway we saw Lough Corrib, which is the 2nd largest lake in Ireland – it has something like 50 different islands. After seeing the bridge that was featured in the aforesaid movie “The Quiet Man,” we drove to our hotel in Galway (population c. 75,000). A night on the town was on tap and we headed out to see what we could of this very vivacious city. I ate an Irish mix of lamb, corned beef, cheese, and who knows what else – it was very good. Some visited pubs in search of authentic Irish music and some good craic (pronounced “crack,” it just means fun or entertainment; I remember the first time I was asked by an Irishman if there was any good craic where I was from . . . . I tried to cover my shock by assuring him that we were pretty much just into drinking beer; we generally left the crack alone! No wonder people sometimes say that we’re 2 countries separated by a common language). They had some music in the hotel restaurant and I understand that it was enjoyable – I turned in early so as to enjoy the book I had been reading: The Whistling Irishman: Danny Murtaugh Remembered).
Day five (Sunday) began with the biggest spread of breakfast yet! By this point I was trying to skip a meal or two as it was becoming more and more difficult to put my vestments on at Mass. Speaking of Mass, we had the honor of having Mass at Galway’s Cathedral (Our Lady of the Assumption and St. Nicholas). We saw lots of the Connemara marble we were introduced to the day before and the priest gave a very fine homily (Juan said it was the best homily so far – I admit that I did cry later, but not for more than 5 minutes! By the way, the homily left us with 2 great images: 1) the trial of St. Joan of Arc and the question of whether she thought she was in the state of grace. She answered, “If I am, then please God keep me there. If I am not, then please God put me there,” and 2) the image of the camel having to be unloaded and stripped down before being able to enter through the city gate of Jerusalem). We boarded the bus and took a very scenic route to the Cliffs of Moher. Although the morning seemed pleasant enough weather-wise, it quickly became apparent that we were not going to have the views we were wanting. Tom kept things sunny on board by singing and telling us stories – some of them may have been true! As suspected, the Cliffs were shrouded in fog and even though the potent winds (in excess of 60 mph) only carried a fine mist, the view was disappointing and we had to content ourselves with pictures purchased in the gift shop. For the record, I am certain those were the strongest winds I’ve ever experienced – they were exhilarating. Back on the bus and a race to catch the Shannon ferry – Tom drove with reckless abandon, much to the delight of all of us. This was a long day and a hard one, but our admirable pilgrims did their best to grin and bear it. The Shannon was hauntingly beautiful and the rest of the trip relatively uneventful (there was a brief stay on an active railroad track, but as they say, “all’s well that ends well”). We stayed in Killarney at the Muckross Park Hotel – 5 stars and every bit the best place we stayed! It was probably the best meal of the trip, served by very gracious staff. I ate my 2nd lamb that night. As if the day could get any better, our beloved and beleaguered Brewers pulled one out in the 9th inning – their first win since we arrived in Ireland!
Day six, which means we’re entering the home stretch now (reading this will take only slightly less time than the actual pilgrimage). We began the day with Mass in their Cathedral (St. Mary’s – it was their patronal feast day, the Queenship of Mary). The weather was perfect and the timing was right, as we were setting out on the world-famous Ring of Kerry. First we were enthralled by an Irish shepherd, his sheep, and his uber-talented Border Collies. Undoubtedly one of the highlights of our time in Ireland, we learned so much in this one hour about sheep and shepherding that some of our pilgrims tried to stay behind so as to win an apprenticeship there. The one thing I remember is that dogs live outside and are not to be mollycoddled – now I don’t want you saying anything about shepherds being held to the same standard! It was a glorious day with remarkable views of Irish shoreline, as well as some of their islands (including Skellig Michael – one pilgrim was bitterly disappointed that she could not see any puffins; the thought was that they’re still in Hollywood, awaiting transport home after their cameo in “The Force Awakens”). A shopping stop in Sneem probably led to many homes being mortgaged, but the wool was authentic and the price was right. Another free evening, this time in Killarney (population c. 15,000), which was a place many of us hoped to see again someday. After dinner we were treated to something called Celtic Steps – a world-class performance of Irish song and dance. It was a magical evening and all of us came away inspired and duly impressed. The Irish are working hard to preserve their unique culture and hoping that more of their youth will resist the temptation to emigrate in search of greener fields (is that even possible?!).
Our seventh day was a travel day that greeted us with overcast skies and light rain. We stopped in Cashel and visited the ancient castle. Our tour guide (Sondra) gave us a brilliant tour and we learned that it was on this spot in 450 A.D. that St. Patrick baptized the Irish king (he accidentally nailed the king’s foot to the ground with his crozier, though the king never uttered a word of complaint. When asked afterwards why he didn’t speak up, the king admitted that he thought it was part of the ceremony!). We were reminded of the pernicious influence of Oliver Cromwell (King Henry VIII’s successor) and how his persecution of all things Catholic led to the demise of this once stately property. We had lunch, then celebrated Mass at St. John the Baptist parish (built in 1795). We had a short time for Eucharistic Adoration before heading to Dublin. As we travelled east the landscape became much flatter and more conducive to agriculture (we saw corn for the first time). Dublin is by far the biggest city in Ireland (population c. 1 million) and we stayed right in the heart of the city. A nice dinner followed by a brief walking tour and then it was lights out!
Our last full day in Ireland began with the usual big breakfast. Then we drove north to Drogheda, where we prayed at the tomb of St. Oliver Plunkett in the church of St. Peter’s. St. Oliver was martyred at Tyburn in London in the 17th century. Relics of his skull and many bones made this a very impressive shrine – he was canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1975. Afterwards we drove to Monasterboice where we saw some of the most impressive high crosses in the style made famous by St. Patrick. In a moment of misunderstanding, some of the pilgrims were very happy to point out that a Martin was buried there . . . I’m still not sure why this was such a source of joy?! We then made one more stop at a place called Slane, where St. Patrick lit the first Paschal fire. Seeing the fire softened the local king’s heart so that Christianity was allowed to flourish there. St. Patrick also taught the Druids about the Holy Trinity on this spot and wouldn’t you know, the field was full of 3-leafed clovers (and I’m not kidding)! Our last stop of the day was at Trinity College in Dublin. Allow me to digress just briefly here: As was the case centuries ago, the Irish continue to see their role in passing on culture that truly matters. During the time of St. Patrick and following, the Irish monks were indispensable in saving civilization from complete and utter destruction at the hands of the ubiquitous barbarians. Had it not been for these unsung heroes, so many manuscripts from luminaries such as Virgil, Plutarch, Ovid, Seneca, Cicero, and others would have been lost forever. Ultimately these monks produced the immensely ornate Book of Kells on the island of Iona at the monastery of St. Columbkille. It is now housed at Trinity College in Dublin and we were blessed to be able to see it with our own eyes. The library there is also incredibly impressive and we were reminded that a world without books and good ideas is a world that becomes dominated by a “survival of the fittest” and a “might makes right” mentality. Yes, there are a lot of bad ideas in many books that we’d be better off without. Just the same, I’ll take my chances with learning, in the hopes that the minds, hearts, and souls of our students will find that there is a truth in the world and that learning it and living it sets our hearts free. Okay, digression over! Our day ended with Mass at the White Friars’ church (they’re Carmelites with a beautiful shrine to St. Valentine, equipped with a 1st class relic!). After Mass we drove outside the city for our farewell dinner. I ate my 3rd and final lamb that night and we were entertained by an Irish band and Irish dancing. Honestly, it was a night unlike any I’ve had since my modest upbringing in Crawford County and the unique experience of spending time at Carol and Clem’s (and that’s all I have to say about that!).
Our last day began early with Mass at Blessed Sacrament parish and a quick breakfast. We passed customs in the Dublin airport and then waited until it was time to board our plane. A safe trip with good food and good entertainment (I got the high score on the trivia game and enjoyed watching “Elvis & Nixon”) got us to O’Hare on time. After a quiet bus ride, we arrived safely in Marshfield around 7:30 p.m. that evening. There were some tear-filled goodbyes, which is generally a sign of the wonderful time we had together. It was a memorable trip in countless ways, and we’ll long be thanking God for making it possible. Let’s continue to pray for each other, that this time together will help each of us as we continue our earthly pilgrimage, always with our hearts set on a place one day with God in Heaven. And may God bless whoever made it to the end of this long article!
Your friend in Christ,
Father Samuel Martin