By Diane P. Barrett, Becketwood Member
Probably the only real hope of people today is our certainty that we are rooted in the Earth and at the same time in the Cosmos. This awareness endows us with the capacity for self- transcendence. –Vaclav Havel
For years now I have been going back and forth to Ireland, secretly searching for something, something elusive, underneath the surface of busy, often agitated everyday life, even in Galway and most certainly in Dublin. I come closest to this mysterious something, which hovers about with its faint whisperings, when I’m in Connemara in the West of Ireland. Connemara is stunning, with its many peninsulas on the Atlantic side and its rivers, lakes, mountains, meadowlands and rugged hills a bit inland. As captivating as this natural beauty is, however, it is the stark desolateness of that beauty that affects me the most. Terribly beautiful and terribly sad. I feel a loneliness in the hush of the mists that often hang like a light, diaphanous shroud over the mountains and the boglands. There are secrets here, intimations of human suffering. And yet, there is something else infused in these mists, ever so quiet and subtle, of redemption and transcendence.
I felt this most keenly on one occasion when I went hillwalking with my friends Liam and Stephen. We climbed a track leading to a chapel at Maam Ean, one of the sites associated with St. Patrick. While Liam and Stephen went in search of the holy well, I paused, leaning against a stone protrusion. It had been raining on the trek up, but now the more penetrating rain had softened to a light mist. I raised my face and invited the holy water of the rain to wash my skin clean and to seep deeply into the bones of my earthly self. This is what I came for.
It is from these mists that six-year-old Cecelia Griffin and her family emerged in February of 1847, seeking deliverance in Galway from the Great Famine. There’s a stone monument at Grattan Beach in Galway Bay honoring her and all the children who died of starvation during those horrific famine years. It is only a short walk from Liam and Stella’s little B & B, my home base when I’m in Galway, to this place of remembrance. I visit it often, pausing and bowing my head respectfully, as I walk the promenade. The “Prom” as it’s called in local parlance, extends the length of Galway Bay. Looking out to the Atlantic, remarkable vistas can be seen from here of the contours of the Burren in County Clare, the site of the famed Cliffs of Moher, and of the Irish-speaking Aran Islands, the place where I had longed to go to write as an undergraduate studying Irish playwrights. This glorious backdrop, in such stark contrast to the somberness of the Memorial, adds a painful poignancy for me during my visits –hopeful beauty and dark despair. Life.
I have learned that Cecilia’s was a typical story. She and her five siblings, with their parents, walked thirty miles from Connemara to Galway City, hoping desperately to avoid the downward trajectory of starvation. The family was somehow separated, and Cecilia and her two sisters ended up at the Presentation Convent, where she died of starvation shortly after her arrival. The physician who attended her is said to have commented that she was quite literally skin and bones, with not a particle of food left in her stomach.
If Cecilia had lived, had been able to receive nourishment at the soup kitchens set up by Quakers and others before having crossed over the line of no return, she may have been able to traverse the short distance to Galway Bay, board one of the infamous “coffin ships” leaving for North America and, if she survived the crossing, may have landed on Deer Island near Boston Harbor. She would have been detained there and, if declared physically fit, would have been allowed entry into America. I can see Deer Island when I walk the beach by my cousin’s house in Winthrop. I sometimes imagine all of this, just as I do when I am 3,000 miles away on the other side of the Atlantic at Grattan Beach and the Cecilia Griffin Memorial Park. But Cecilia did not make it to America, not even to Galway Bay.
In the end, six-year-old Cecelia did not find deliverance, the stark reminder of which is etched into the stone of the monument. Perhaps, though, her unnaturally light skeletal body drifted back to the mists of Connemara and was sweetly absorbed and blessed there. I would like to think so.
Living in the world today, we are witnessing the unfolding of another time in history when the inevitable suffering of being embodied confronts us in the tragic scope of this pandemic. How do we hold the tension between acknowledging this suffering, yet at the same time recognizing that we are surrounded by incredible beauty? The all of it, as the Irish say. Just as important, how do we foster the courage and boldness to move out from this to be an actor in the world for good, even in a modest, small way?
These are questions that humankind has been grappling with always. I take some solace from this quote by the poet David Whyte, reminding us that “Human beings have an intuitive capacity and knowledge (what the romantic poets called ‘sensibility’) that somewhere at the center of life is something ineffably and unalterably right and good, and that this ‘rightness’ can be discovered through artistic and spiritual explorations, that have been honored by all the great perennial religious traditions.”
Terry Tempest Williams, too, offers wisdom: “To slow down is to be taken into the soul of things.” During this time when most of us have been forced to press the pause button, perhaps we can look upon this as an opportunity to sit, look out our window at the beautiful Becketwood surroundings, soon to be transformed into a vibrant springscape, being aware of our breathing, noticing the in-breath as we breathe in and the out-breath as we exhale—no place else to go but right here, no other time but right now—and in this timeless space, we just might be blessed with whisperings from the perennial Wisdom about all of this, human suffering playing out against the backdrop of eternity. The all of it.