Some days just don’t meet your expectations.
And then there are those days that can show you how weak your expectations can be, how uncreative and shallow. Those are the wonderful days.
We decided to head to Clonmel, in Co. Tipperary (which, really, isn’t such a long, long way away!), specifically to a site known as St. Patrick’s Well.
We headed out just before noon, a short jaunt from our place onto the N24, driving west. The road winds its way through the Irish countryside, slicing through quaint towns with delightful names: Mooncoin, Carrick-on-Suir, Kilsheelan, and into Clonmel. Verdant pastures sprawl on each side of the road, rolling off into the distance to meet hills covered in a dazzling array of chromatic hues of green.
We cross through the town of Clonmel; the Well is just west of the town, and even though Google Maps indicates that it is “Temporarily Closed” (thank-you, Covid-19), we decide to attempt it anyways. We’ve been to a few places during the lockdown, and most are generally not barred in any way.
However, to our dismay, when we arrive at the site, the gates are closed and there is a chain and padlock serving as an indication, in no uncertain terms, that the place is closed. It’s not hard to get around the gate, though, just a simple hop over a small stone wall and the stairs down to the well are accessible. Standing at the entrance with my camera around my neck, camera bag on my back, and tripod in hand, we contemplate doing so, but a Garda patrol drives by (the national Irish police force). It is now a risky proposition to jump the wall and go down to the site, as it is highly likely they will drive by again.
Disappointed, we return to the car. It’s Ok – we can always come back when restrictions lift and things open up again. As I am putting my camera equipment back in the van, an elderly gentleman, customary walking stick in hand, comes walking swiftly up the road; he stops to talk to us, and tells us that indeed, the site is closed until further notice. He asks where we came from.
“Kilmacow,” I tell him. “It’s all right, it’s only a 45-minute drive, and we knew the site was closed; we just decided to take a chance. We’ll be back when things open up.”
“Yes, I wish I could let you in, but I don’t even have the keys. But hold on – I’ll get you a brochure!” And with that, he turns around and saunters down the road, to the small house across from the entrance. He returns a few moments later, picking up the pace, almost as if he’s afraid we’ll leave before he gets to us. He hands us two small paper brochures that describe the site.
We make idle chit-chat, and we tell him that we recently arrived in Ireland from Canada.
“Well, I don’t have the keys,” he says, “but I can show you another way around and down to the site. It’s just a little way down the road, here; do you have time?”
“Of course!” we exclaim.
I leave my camera bag in the car, but at least grab my camera with my favourite, most versatile lens.
“We’ll have to go over the fence,” he says. “Hope you don’t mind!”
His name is David. He is, in our estimate, in his late- to mid-seventies. There is a mischievous glint in his bright blue eyes, his wispy white hair hangs down from under his flat-cap, and his mostly-toothless grin indicates that he’s up for some adventure. When we get to the fence, a farm gate with large, widely-spaced bars, he spryly climbs over it and down the other side.
We follow him over, and we are now heading down a beautiful meadow, his red-and-white checkered shirt contrasting sharply against the green landscape.
It turns out that David is one of the caretakers of the site; he is typically there every day when it is open.
He leads us across the meadow, and explains that his area was a renowned pre-Christian meeting place; several times a year, thousands of pagans would congregate for rituals and pageants. He points to a large rock under a tree. “This was the centre of the meeting place,” he says.
We imagine what it would have looked like with thousands of people milling about, praying to their gods, chanting, and partaking of the rituals. Such a different time than what we know today.
We continue past the old tree, and hopped over a short stone wall, and into the site. It was only the three of us there, of course, and all you could hear was the sound of the water and birds – a symphony of bird sounds all around!
He takes us first to the original well, a small pool enclosed by an old – what else? – stone wall. He explained that the water bubbles up through the deep limestone from an aquifer about 400 feet below the ground. The water is crystal clear! According to the stories, as St. Patrick travelled through Ireland to convert the pagans to Christianity, he is said to have spent some time here and bathed in these waters.
The well empties into a larger pond, in whose centre there is a tiny island with a Celtic cross made of limestone; the cross dates from the 5th century – it is well over 1,500 years old!
On the other side of the pond is a 16th-century abbey, which by all accounts was in use until the 18th century. All that remains inside is the altar tomb of the White family.
We walk inside the ruins; the walls and gables are all intact and in surprisingly good conditions. We make our way towards the other side, and gather around the tomb, as he tells us about the abbey and the White family, and how the tomb was set here in 1623.
I stare down at the tomb, and I can make out an engraved word on the end of it; I crouch down and take a closer look – this can’t be!
I stand back up, startled and amazed at the inscription – I pull up my sleeve and show David my left forearm.
“Memento Mori: Remember, you will die,” I say. “It’s a phrase that was used by the ancient Roman Stoics, to remind them of how ephemeral life is, and to remind them to make the most of every day.”
He looks at my arm, and then back at me, that curious, joyful glint still in his eyes. He nods in agreement.
“Yes,” he says, “Remember, you will die.”
I am stunned to find this phrase on a 400-year old tomb in an ancient pagan site in Ireland. What are the odds?!
On the wall across the tomb, there is a small statue, well-worn by the passage of time.
We leave the site, walk back through the meadow, and back over the fence. As we walk back towards our car, David asks, “There’s a little lake just down the road; do you have time to go see it?”
“Yes, of course – we have nothing planned, today; we have all the time in world!”
So we walk down the road, and he keeps telling us about the area. I am surprised by his steady pace – there is no hint of ageing in this man’s stride! After about 10-15 minutes, we get to a small lake, and he tells us it’s an artificial lake. About 300 years ago, Stephen Moore, the landowner at the time, developed it from a swamp. Today, it serves mostly as a bird sanctuary.
He asks if we want to see the house that John Bagwell, a wealthy landowner, built in 1785. We tell him we’d love to see it, and we head in that direction.
We come to a sign by the road that welcomes us to Inis Leamhnachta, the area we are entering.
“It means ‘Island of Fresh Milk’,” he announces. “And Clonmel, the local town, means ‘Vale of honey’. You are in Babylon, the land of milk and honey!”
(I associate that phrase with Xanadu more than Babylon, but that’s probably because of my nearly lifelong enjoyment of Rush, and the song of the same title on their “Farewell to Kings” album; the song was of course inspired by Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan.)
After another 20 minutes of walking, we come to the house, which is now privately owned and used as apartments for local residents.
We turn back, and once again, David looks at us and says, “Do you want to see St. Patrick’s Chapel? It’s another ways up the road.”
“That’d be great!” we exclaim, happy to just tag along with him and listen to his stories.
“I’m not keeping you from anything, now, am I?”
“No!” we reassure him. “Absolutely not! There’s nothing that we can be delayed for, today!”
As we walk, we find out that David used to work in the beef industry, which brings us to the topic of food. We tell him how much we’ve been enjoying the food in Ireland, so far.
He stops walking, turns towards us, and in his thick Irish accent, says, “Well, I tell ya what: Irish food is some of the best in the world, and I’ll argue that with anyone! We have a fantastic dairy industry, beef, lamb, pork, and fresh vegetables, everything you can want!”
It’s hard to disagree with him. One of the most pleasant surprises we have experienced since our arrival is the amazing quality of the food – everything is so flavourful! In addition, the prices are very, very reasonable; we have estimated that our grocery bills are maybe a little bit more than half of what we used to pay in Canada!
We finally get to the old church; a tree-lined path leads down to the front of the building, adorned with a bright, red door.
All around the church is a graveyard; old headstones dating back hundreds of years dot the grounds.
In one corner of the graveyard there is a stone wall with what is purported to be the grave of a crusader who died on his way back home. These Soldiers of Christ were revered, and he would have been provided with food and lodging along his way.
I couldn’t help but wonder what adventures this man had lived through, what travels and hardships he must have endured. In the end, he takes his final rest from the weary battles of this life in a quiet corner of the Irish countryside. It’s a rather peaceful way to spend eternity.
We start heading back to the site of St. Patrick’s Well, where our car is parked. As I write these words, back at home, I check our waypoints on Google Maps and plot out our walk: we have walked 5.7 kms, from St. Patrick’s Well to the lake, to John Bagwell’s house, to St. Patrick’s Chapel, and back again to our starting point; this does not take into account our initial walk down through the meadow to the well, so I estimate we walked well over 6kms. David kept a steady pace throughout, never slowing down.
“Oh, I can walk all day!” he says proudly.
At one point during the walk, I looked back at Claire and whispered, “I wanna grow old like HIM!!”
We chat a bit more once we get to the car; I so want to shake his hand to thank him for the walk, the stories, and for sharing his time with us. But in these strange times, this is not recommended.
“Well, I hope you’ll come back and visit,” he says.
“Oh, we will, David. We will. You can bet that once everything opens up again, we’ll come back and see you!”
Thank-you, David; this day exceeded any expectations we could have cobbled together!