Clonmacnoise is a spectacular old monastery in Ireland (it’s right off the N6 – the road that takes you from Dublin to Galway – If you’re ever in Ireland, I have got to tell you: Go to Clonmacnoise!)
There’s a graveyard, with tilting high crosses up and down the green. There’s a crumbling tower, a crumbling structure placed out beyond on a small mound, and off to the left is a river, and marshes. The water is rather wide there, as I recall, and there are amazing sky reflections. Or at least there can be, and there were when Jean and I went.
The place is magic.
(Oh, and there’s also a “fertility statue” within the monastery which has my name – one of the famous Sile na gigs – the statues who sit there in rather improper legs-spread poses, and they are believed to have fertile powers, and women and men used to come to the monastery, to rub the Sile na gig, in the hopes that they would get pregnant.)
It’s a rich place.
The water, the sky, the crumbling stones, the high crosses on the green, the reflections …
Now, there is an old legend about the place: Long long ago, when Christianity was in a much younger phase, a ship appeared in the air. All of the monks looked up and saw it.
(When you go to Clonmacnoise, you can see at least one of the reasons why this legend makes sense. The water reflects the sky in such a way that they blend together like a watercolor, it is difficult to distinguish between the two.
And something happened with that ship in the air (which I’ll get to). There’s something so spectacular about the legend. There’s something essentially mysterious and un-knowable about it. I love it because if you go to Clonmacnoise (especially during twilight, or early morning, when no one else is there) you will almost be able to see that ship in the air. (Or, at least, it is not difficult to believe that someone WOULD see a ship in the air. It makes perfect sense.)
Seamus Heaney wrote a poem about this legend. It is included in a larger group of poems called ‘Lightenings’, and the poem itself has no name.
Of all that he has written (all of which I love), this poem might be my favorite. I first heard it when my father read it out loud to me, so I will always hear it in my father’s voice.
The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.
The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,
A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
‘This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,’
The abbot said, ‘unless we help him.’ So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.