Two magnificent months at the Holy Hill Hermitage in Ireland are winding down as the young adult program comes to a close. Christy will leave on Friday after we celebrate “American Thanksgiving” with a few close Irish friends, but Julia and I will stay a bit longer.
While I am not certain where my travels will take me over the next few weeks, I think I will stop over in Dublin and Amsterdam before heading onto Germany to meet up with Lina and her family for Christmas in Hamburg and after, the New Year in Portugal.
In January, I’ll head to the sun-baked region of Spain’s southern coast, Andalucia. I’ve been wanting to brush up on my Spanish and indulge without guilt in all of the things this region is well-known for: flamenco, tapas, matadors and bullfights. (Ok, maybe not the bullfights, but you get the picture).
In the port city of Málaga, I will be volunteering as an au pair for a Spanish couple who have just recently had twins. Yikes!
Like most pieces of this pilgrimage, I did not initially plan to volunteer in this capacity. Yet, out of thousands of work-exchange opportunities, I was drawn to this one family. Besides, being a twin myself, I think it’s only fair to experience what my mother still puts up with after 28 years. (Love you, Mum!)
Okay, enough about the future. I’m getting ahead of myself.
Yesterday was another magnificent day in Ireland!
The morning began with a sad, yet grateful, farewell to Jeanette and Steve, who have been such a delight to me during my time here.
Shortly after we saw them off, we shared our usual Sunday brunch and headed out to Mass in Sligo. After Mass, we headed to Drumcliff Cemetery to visit the grave of W.B. Yeats. In tribute to Yeats, on the 150 anniversary of his birthday, which Ireland has been celebrating in various ways all year long, I smoked my first Cuban cigar with Brother Thomas at the base of Benbulbin.
(Ok, so I actually took three rather pathetic puffs before my heart started racing and I had to call it quits, but it sounds better the first way.)
Next to his headstone, I read one of my favorite Yeats poems, The Lake Isle of Innisfree, which was written during his time in London as an expression of homesickness for Co. Sligo, the place he spent his childhood holidays, the place we now refer to as “Yeats Country.”
After the cemetery, we took a cliff walk along the wild atlantic way of Mullaghmore Head and watched the sun sink into the ocean. The day was oddly warm and calm, without much wind. Still, the waves crashed into the rugged rocks like thunder. The silhouette of an old castle by the sea added to the surrealness of that salty-sea moment.
The evening came to an inconceivably incredible close. Brendan, a friend of Holy Hill, picked us up shortly before 8pm and drove us to a small town in County Mayo for some Irish Set Dancing.
I had never done anything like this before, besides dabble in a bit of traditional line dancing and Bavarian-style polka—two essentials of growing up in a German town, so I was a bit nervous going into it.
Less than a minute after we arrived, as I was still taking my coat off, Brendan led me out onto the dance floor and began to teach me a few basic steps along with their names, which are always called out by a facilitator.
Irish Set Dancing is danced in square sets of 4 couples. There were probably around 40 people present, all older and well into their 60s. After the first dance with Brendan, which I enjoyed far more than I ever thought I would, I danced every single set, each of which originates in a County of Ireland, for the next two hours until it was time to leave.
It was fun to pick up more and more steps as the night went on, to learn the strategies of subtle shifts in foot-placement and listen to the rhythmic clogging of heels on wood.
It was incredible to enter into the spirituality of Set Dancing—to make myself pliable, easily maneuverable, under the strong and confident lead of a 70-something man named Tom, to be swung into the centrifugal force of simultaneously leaning into and out of each others arms and watch little bodies blur around me like mid-summer cyclones, to follow in the folklore of traditional sets that have been the basis of much merry-making and delight for thousands of years.
By the end of the evening, the terms, “house around, swing, waltz, and spin” no longer sounded like a foreign language to me. In fact, I felt quite at home there.
I felt quite at home with myself, too, after discovering one more beautiful part of life that makes me feel a bit more alive, a bit more free, a bit more… me.
My days here are rich and bright, even though the light, as we move toward the Winter Solstice, is becoming shorter and darker. This is how I want to remember Ireland.