I was at a network meeting the other night and was chatting with the manager of the Marble Arch Caves, Richard Watson. Given that I originate from the USA we were talking about the North American tourist market. He told me an anecdote which I would have thought was past its sell by date.
Two American tourists arrive at the Marble Arch Caves gift shop. Marble Arch Caves is right on the Fermanagh Cavan boundary. Cuilcagh Mountain at its back is the the border. When they are told that they are in the sterling zone the American tourists went rigid with panic that they are in Northern Ireland. A mild bickering match erupted between them with one accusing the other, “You told me we wouldn’t be going into Northern Ireland!” They immediately turned tail and fled to the carpark, presumably back into the Republic of Ireland.
Hearing this made me feel both mad and sad. Having lived here for twelve years and travelled to Northern Ireland since 1980 I know that there is no reason not to come and discover the wonder of Northern Ireland. All those images you have of Northern Ireland from your television screens are things of the past.
The thing is if those fleeing tourists headed east it would be inevitable that they would be weaving in and out of both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. There is no visible border since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. The only way you can tell whether your in one or the other is that the speed limits are in kilometres in the Republic and in miles in Northern Ireland. The same would be true of some of the westerly routes. Shops along the border use both sterling and euro and always know the daily exchange rate.
Although the actual anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement in 10th April, here in the northern part Ireland we cannot help but thinking of how radically lives have changed since the peace process began and the historic agreement struck. There are no army foot patrols. The fortified police stations in border towns have been decommissioned. There are no Customs & Excise or passport controls. Co-operation exists to an extent that the Marble Arch Caves became the very first cross border, international global geopark, an official UNESCO designation acknowledging the unique importance of this region to the world. The geology that formed this land did not distinguish borders and the wealth of built and natural heritage in the Geopark is outstanding.
Because there was a light footfall in this region for thirty years or more we have incredible biodiversity and many rare species, sites of scientific interest. We have rare bugs, moths, protected mammal. We have blanket bogland. The Geopark has the largest ribbed moraine on earth shaping the landscape of the Cavan-Fermanagh border land.
People of good will have been working away at repairing the border rift since the Good Friday Agreement and to get more cross community interaction after the segregation imposed by the threat of violence. I belong to the Together One Voice Choir which meets in Derry, Omagh in Tyrone, Enniskillen in Fermanagh and Manorhamilton in Leitrim, which is in the Republic of Ireland. Last night we participated in the opening of an art exhibition featuring artwork from all over Ireland at the William Jefferson Clinton Centre in Enniskillen. That centre was named for Bill Clinton as a measure of the gratitude toward the American president for brokering the deal that has improved lives immeasurably since 1998.
I’ve been travelling in Northern Ireland since 1980, even in the dark and troubled times. I felt less threatened and vulnerable here than as a woman walking alone in most American cities. And even having visited during the worst of modern times I still developed an abiding love for the land and people of Northern Ireland – their extravagant hospitality, the warmth of their welcome, their legendary Ulster fried breakfasts, the amazingly vitality in the land herself.
Northern Ireland is a safe travel destination. Sure aren’t all the G8 countries’ leaders meeting in Fermanagh this June? If it is safe enough for Obama you can bet it is safe enough for you. But what Obama probably won’t have the opportunity is to travel about and see all that amazing natural habitat, the peat bogs and wildflowers, the early Christian sites, the stone circles and dolmens, the castles and cairns. He’ll be too busy. Which is a shame. But you can avail of this authentic slice of Ireland anytime. Come and visit us. This is a truly inspirational part of Ireland.
Over the mountain from me lives a filmmaker, Johnnie Lawson, who loves this landscape in Northwest Ireland – Leitrim, Sligo, North Roscommon, Fermanagh and West Cavan – as much as I do. Part of his mission is to share the relaxation of nature in this special powerful place in Ireland. We have an abundance of woodland, water and rock – all part of Mother Earth’s bloodlines and bones. This wildish natural landscape makes it the perfect habitat for nature spirits – or fairies as they are better known.
Water we have in abundance in Northwest Ireland. And I’m not talking about rain! Yes, we do have rainy weather, as do other parts of Ireland, but what we also have is Atlantic coastline in Sligo and North Leitrim,and hundreds of lakes in Fermanagh, Leitrim and Cavan. The limestone landscape of this region also means that we have many sacred springs and holy wells. Cavan even has the distinction of having turloughs – disappearing and reappearing lakes! Does that sound like magic?
The mountains that range the boundaries of Fermanagh, Cavan and Leitrim provide us with many spectacular waterfalls, many of which have a connection with ancient Irish legends. Fermanagh’s Sillees River flows in two directions. St. Brigit’s Waterfall near Glencar, in Sligo doesn’t fall down. She ‘falls’ up!
If you are in need of some wilderness – or even some wildishness get out in Nature and commune with the spirits. Fairies have this reputation of being ‘fluffy.’ That they are not. They can be mischievous, especially when they want to get your attention or sway you from being what I call a Fairy Agnostic. There are plenty of people who sit on the fence about fairies. They don’t want to say that they disbelieve because they don’t want to risk perhaps offending what they are not completely certain exists!
But fairies do exist – in nature – and they are shapeshifters. Often they appear as moths, butterflies and dragonflies which we have in abundance. They unleash themselves when we delight in wild orchids, cowslips and meadows that have never known a lashing with a herbicide.
But to contact the fairies you need to get close to them and what they certain like is the wildish terrain of Northwest Ireland.
Irish Blessings Tours can guide you to special fairy habitats in many places around Northwest Ireland. If you are visiting Ireland and would like to do some fairy hunting, do contact us. Our guiding rates are 30 euros and hour with special rates for half days and full days itineraries for groups up to eight people.
But if you aren’t able to get over to Northwest Ireland for the The Gathering 2013 then I think you deserve to treat yourself to one of Johnnie Lawson’s wonderfully relaxing videos filmed here in Northwest Ireland. Clear here for a taster Johnnie Lawson Relaxation.
We roved around the hills of Fermanagh recently to capture some of the the ordinary joys of living in our part of rural Ireland. What we take for granted as ‘just ordinary’ are often extraordinary to our visitors. When I imagine our visitors coming over to Ireland for The Gathering this year I hope that each and everyone will pause and take in some of the quite joys of our extraordinary, ordinary authentic day-to day landscape.
First of February might be mud season or even the depths of winter elsewhere but here in Ireland we are celebrating the beginning of spring. The Irish word for this month is Imbolc and it is thought to refer to the first flow of ewe’s milk with the birth of the first spring lambs.
Now the snowdrops begin to appear all over Ireland even though there may be some flurries, some frost and snowfall on the mountains. But spring is in the air for sure and this celebration of Ireland’s matron saint, and the Celtic Goddess who pre-dates her, reminds us of the earth’s ‘quickening’ as the daylight increases. We celebrate Brigit in various ways. Although the saint is associated with Kildare and Faughart in Co. Louth there are Brigit Holy Wells everywhere in Ireland. She is celebrated in every corner with localities having their own ways of expressing honour and devotion.
It’s also quite a domestic event. On the evening of 31st January you can open your door and say good bye to winter. Then you hang a cloth – anything from a hankie to a sheet – out to collect the first dew on the morning of St. Brigit’s Feast Day, 1st February. The dew is said to offer her blessing for healing and in particular useful for fevers, headaches, eye problems and whatever ails your cattle or fowl.
St. Brigit is one of a triumvirate of saints that are honoured in Ireland. St. Brigit’s Feast Day is the first on the calendar that will interest spiritual travellers. St. Patrick’s Day, although a spiritual feast and a Roman Catholic Holy Day of Obligation in Ireland, is also a national holiday and a day where many a Lenten intention is relaxed on the day. In June there is the less well known St. Columcille of Derry, this year’s European City of Culture, who founded a monastery on Iona in Scotland.
The St. Brigit’s Cross is one of the best known symbols of Ireland. The harp is another famous symbol so I will share with you harpist Aíne Minnogue’s harp piece entitled “Brigit’s Feast.”
In 2014 Irish Blessings Tours will be leading a Tour Celebrating Brigit, both as saint and Celtic goddess. If you are interested in a guided and escorted, week-long tour email email@example.com
There are so many Christmas Craft Fairs in Ireland this year. Irish creativity is bountiful and all the handmade art and artefacts are evidence of how inspirational Ireland is, even when the economy has still a few corners to turn. In our own corner of Ireland opportunities to support local craftspeople and artists abound.
A while ago an young American visitor commented to me how artistic activity – whether in music, dance, literature or the visual arts – really seem important to Irish culture. It felt to him that they were part and parcel of a vital culture and that unlike the USA, arts were not viewed as an elite activity. Creativity and the arts that flourish in its wake are for everyone. While there are some exceptions I would have to broadly agree with my young friend. Historically, there is the precedent of the Celtic Renaissance that rose in the push for Irish independence. This artistic flowering in the late 19th century gave the world the poetry of W.B.Yeats, the Abbey Theatre, Synge’s plays, Joyce’s novels and the art of AE as well as Jack Yeats.
The arts in Ireland really do play a vital part in life even if it begins and ends with learning to play the tin whistle. Many children are given the opportunity to learn Irish traditional music on the tin whistle or penny whistle. And while they may no longer cost a penny, this fine instrument was popular and is affordable to the mass population. Once you begin to get to grips with music then many of the other traditional arts such as dancing and singing follow on during a child’s early years education.
Crafts businesses were encouraged as ways of employment creation in past times, lacemaking being but one example. This looking towards crafts as a way of earning has created a visual arts climate that is practical and where ‘fine art’ and fine craft are closely allied.
Though it is no longer popular to have children learn poetry off by heart, literature has always played a large role in Irish life from the times of the Bards. It was the satire of the bards that was often considered the most lethal political weapon. Poetry still plays a large part in the publishing scene in in an island with less than ten million souls if you consider the number of book publishers noted on Poetry Ireland’s website.
Click on the link below to listen to the poetry, music and song that was offered up at Ballinamore, Leitrim’s Cultural Quarters last September for this rural community’s contribution to the global 100 Thousand Poets for Change event on 29th September 2012. This annual event, started in 2011 in California, rapidly took hold of the imagination of poets, musicians, artists, photographers in over 120 countries. In 2012 this small town in south Leitrim was one of over 800 events where poets and other artists from every genre gathered together to celebrate their aspiration for peaceful and sustainable change for the highest good of the whole globe.
Thanks to Tracy, Mouse, Emmett and Olivia who kept the kettle going and firing around cups of tea and plates of cake. They also donated the Cultural Quarters space for the event. We were also fortunate to have storyteller Susie Minto kick off the evening with a story from Kazakhstan which really embodies the spirit of peaceful and sustainable change theme of the evening. Angela McCabe, Eamon O’Reilly, Hilary Tully, Nararyan Toolan, Tina Rock and host Bee Smith contributed poetry to the evening. Paul Druse, Tony Cuckson, and Cristophe Lombardi gave us tunes. Del Richard and Joanne Lawrie sang their own protest song regarding Fracking (hydraulic fracturing of shale gas) which is happening worldwide and has raised environmental concerns in many countries.
Presiding over the proceedings was a wood carved sculpture of laurel and bog oak by Johnny Smyth of Síonnan, the goddess who gives her name to the River Shannon. Ballinamore being not that far from the source of the River Shannon, the Shannon Pot, this seemed very appropriate.
The evening showed how creativity and the arts plays a vital role in people living in Ireland who are not necessarily professional artists. This is activity that is good for the heart, inspirational for the soul and enlivening of the spirit. It’s not for an elite. It’s for everyone. Creative activity enriches a culture and can be foundational for peaceful and sustainable change.
Two years ago when I led a group of Midwestern American women on a Brigid pilgrimage, we travelled into Northern Ireland to visit Armagh. After all, you have to visit the City of Saints and Scholars if you are doing a tour of Ireland’s Matron Saint!
It took a bit of persuading though to get the group to agree to head north and that now Northern Ireland was completely safe as a tourist destination. There was plenty of surprise with the undramatic border crossing. Our bus driver simply announced that we had crossed the border. It really turned on the head all those previous images of Northern Ireland these women had of this part of Ireland. No border crossing. No passport checks. No customs posts. No huge army watch towers glowering from the mountain. All the images from news broadcasts from 1968- 1998 weren’t there at all!
What you do notice as you cross the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland is that the speed signs change from kilometres to miles.
A great deal of hard work has gone into the peace process since the Good Friday Agreement was signed. Some of that has involved capital investment to improve infrastructure in the border counties and to improve the economies of border towns affected by the Troubles. But there are other ways that the peace process has gone on since 1997.
On Saturday night 20th October, my partner and I, along with about 48 other singers came together in Manorhamilton’s The Glens Centre for a Together One Voice choir concert. This arts centre was previously a Methodist church and the ‘mother church’ for Senator Gordon Wilson whose daughter died in the Enniskillen Bombing on Remembrance Sunday in 1987. His example of forgiveness and emotional restraint in the face of violent loss was an inspiration for many. Now this former church, with EU Peace and Reconciliation funding, is a thriving arts and music centre.
Valerie Whitworth leads four Together One Voice community choirs in the border counties – Manorhamilton in Leitrim in the Republic and Derry, Omagh and Enniskillen in Northern Ireland. These are ‘cross-community’ choirs in a land where most choral singing is attached to a religious tag. But in these choirs we sing together regardless of where we had been born, religious background or the traumas experienced during the troubled times. On this night we were fifty people together, many meeting for the first time, aged between from a youthful twenty to over eighty years of age – all singing our heats out and often falling about laughing during rehearsal.
This is a practical place and way for healing. Communal singing is now recognised as being an antidote to depression. The breath you use in singing also has benefits for physical well being.
Members from each of the Northern Ireland choirs turned out to support the Leitrim choir’s fundraising event at The Glens Centre, with comedian Kevin McAleer, storyteller Tony Cuckson and an impromptu ukulele orchestra entertaining between the choir’s sets.
So if you have felt shy of visiting Northern Ireland based on what was in the new headlines for forty years ago perhaps listening to this recording of the rehearsal will persuade you that there is change and hope and practical peace building happening one note at a time to create a splendid new kind of harmony. It’s worth making a special visit.
Here’s an MP3 recording of the rehearsal when we all sang together for the first time.
I camp. In Ireland. With about 500 other hippie-ish Irish people. It rains. It can be cold. It can be hot enough to give you sun stroke but I have only missed once in five years and that was only because my ankle was just out of plaster. I’ve had acquaintances look baleful at the prospect of camping in Ireland but it can really work well.
Yes, somewhere in Ireland there are 500 people gathering to camp out, cook meals together, make music and have a lot of fun over a week come rain or shine.
What I find really inspirational about Ireland is how so many people – with not a lot of financial resources – are endlessly creative. And they have fun while they are doing it.
Part of the appeal of Earthsong Camps is the programme of workshops- there’s plenty to do under canvas during the day and the evening. Drumming is a big feature on the programme but then so is four part singing, sound bath workships, drama, and other arts activities like willow sculpture. This is why this camp in Ireland is our favourite. It has a strong arts programme along with being environmentally sustainable. It’s this combination that makes camping in Ireland’s uncertain summer weather a pleasure. So not only can you be inspired to live more sustainably after a week of new concepts, you also get to try out lots of different art forms. You might be inspired to belly dance or to whirl like a Dervish. You might try your hand at writing your spiritual autobiography. You might be inspired to stand up and sing a song in public by taking to the cabaret’s stage.
I’m looking forward to having time out – away from the internet (bless it), cell phones, and anything electronic that goes buzz and womp. I’ll enjoy listening to music that is all acoustic, all ‘home made’ and in the moment. This switching off and powering down is an intriguing recipe for getting your internal battery recharged for the rest of the year.
The whole ethos of Earthsong Camps to live lightly on the land – part of an organic farm during the rest of year. We have composting toilets. The showers are heated by log burning stove. We camp in small circles of about twenty people so we can share the cooking and washing up (using eco-friendly washing products, of course!) Part of that is for camaraderie sake. But the practical spin is that you generally only have to cook dinner once during the week. And that is part of what makes a vacation!
Meitheal (pronounced meh-hall) is a concept rooted in Ireland’s rural harvest traditions. Since we will be camping at Lunasa (when July segues into August) this is particularly apt. Meitheal was the practice of each neighbour in turn helping one another to bring the hay in each year at this time. You have to work in dry weather so it is all hands to the scythes, one farm after the other, so that everyone has enough fodder for their cattle in winter. This communal helpfulness is more than just voluntarism. It’s the reality of everyone being part of the community, playing a vital part in the smooth operating of camp.
So the youngsters go on fetching water detail. The adults will take a turn helping out in some area of the camp. It might be sharing your life story with the teens. It could be that you wake early to stoke the log burner so the early risers have warm water for their morning shower. It might be helping out in the evening’s cabaret. The details need attention but there is always someone to put things in the Lost and Found tent or clear up a yurt after a workshop. That’s meitheal.
We have made wonderful friends over the years and we always look forward to meeting up again, embarrassing the children by commenting on how much they have grown. It’s a great way of connecting with people who share similar interests and who want to be kind to the planet. It’s ecotourism as well as a staycation”
So I am packing up my thermals in my old kit bag. It’s been an unseasonably cold summer. But you never know, it could get warm yet! The great constant of Ireland.
“You know, the arts in Ireland really seem to matter,” said a young American visitor recently. It was a revelation that arts activity – whether in music, dance, theatre, writing, poetry, storytelling, paintings, prints and video – could actually have a huge and positive cultural impact. And it is true that it is not only happening in cities. Rural Ireland has a lively arts scene with many small theatres in each region that double up as venues for poetry readings, picture galleries, recording studios and music gigs.
I attended an arts event with an environmental theme this past weekend. The Upset has been created by the artists, most of whom are based in northwest Ireland, to explore the environment and the devastating effect of bringing in an industry like hydraulic fracturing (fracking) on a way of life in rural Ireland.
There were photos of red squirrels, pine martens and other rare species. There were paintings in acrylic, oils and watercolour. There were handmade felt wall hangings decorating bare block walls. There were many sculptures using lots of different media – stone, ceramic, bog oak and ‘found’ drift wood from Lough Allen, the lake in the centre of Leitrim.
On the opening day at a warehouse in Drumshambo, Leitrim people gathered to look and to participate in performances – poems, stories, music composed. The most traditional of Irish art forms – Irish dancing – was given a modern twist by adapting the modern story of a rural community under an environmental threat.
It was astonishing to see how much artistic talent there is per square inch in Ireland. It’s not talent languishing just because there is not a lot of money being lavished on it either. That is something truly inspirational about Ireland.
Here a You Tube of the dance drama created by children from age 3 right up to the teens. It gave me goose bumps. People cheered. People grinned. People cried. It was about taking art seriously and young people embracing that art is relevant and powerful. “It matters” in other words.
This is Inspirational Ireland.
The following day I attended a Family Fun Day event in Sligo at a Carmelite monastery. Here too art was the warp and weft of the day from the Gospel Choir from Ballina, Co. Mayo who sang for the Mass celebrated by the bishop, to the pottery workshop for children, face painting, community drumming and storytelling.
You see, by definition, Art is Fun! And it involves families of all ages, from the toddler dancing to the drumbeat to the disabled teen grinning when she felt the drum’s rhythm and the granny singing in harmony during group singing. It’s all art. And everyone making it is an inspiring artist.
Creativity matters. Making art uplifts. The community drumming facilitator, Debbie Beirne of Rúach Rhythms told us that earlier that week she had been working on creating a street performance using percussion; the performers were those ‘hoodie boys’ that often have a hard reputation. But these youths who have been given an ‘at risk’ label, loved making the music and blossomed in the making of it.
They played on the pavement outside Penny’s on Sligo Town’s busiest street at lunchtime and they literally stopped the traffic. It wasn’t all bash and bang boom drumming either. The finale involved using chimes in a series of single notes. After they stopped there was a full twenty seconds where this normally bustling county town went into a deep and gathered silence before they burst into applause.
People can get bogged down by the ‘bad news’ that is the usual meat and drink of the media. But there is plenty to be proud and happy about in rural Ireland that shows just how inspirational is Ireland. Times are tough economically but that’s an old story and one survived many a time before. All of these young people (and also the adults who facilitate them or are active artists themselves) are part of the good news about how inspirational is rural Ireland.
So if you want a bit of uplift and inspiration, if you want to experience unspoiled, beautiful Irish countryside, then come to us in the northwest of Ireland. We can inspire you.
Bee Smith created Irish Blessings Tours to serve travelers to Ireland who want the unique and inspirational packaged for their group’s desires and needs. Bee seeks the source to manifest your dream Irish vacation according to your budget and time scale. She has a special interest in Fairy folklore, Celtic Spirituality and the Natural Heritage of northwestern Ireland and Northern Ireland. In 2011 Bee became one of the first trained tour guides that act at ambassadors for the UNESCO designated Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark. Send her your dreams for your Ireland vacation package to firstname.lastname@example.org.