It is ten years ago since I first encountered a spirituality of rural Ireland frowned upon by the church.
I visited Old Leighlin in Co Carlow. The religious site there includes a holy well beside which there was a heavy iron box fixed to the ground. Perhaps it had once been for offerings people might make; then it was covered with an odd assortment of items – memorial cards, funeral notices, prayer cards, a picture of Padre Pio, hand written requests, a child’s doll, the plastic cover from a Ventolin inhaler. It was like some religious version of Kim’s Game. Everything was soggy and the print had run on some of the cards.
To a hard-nosed old Protestant, there had seemed a deep sadness about the eccentric collection. Those leaving items could not have failed to notice the esoteric quality of the thing, was this some last throw of the dice? Had it been a case that everything else had failed, so what was there to lose in going to the well?
A tree stood nearby, skeletal, gaunt in deep midwinter, its branches were tied with strips of cloth of varying ages and colours. Why would anyone want to tie coloured rags to a tree? What god or saint or spirit responded to such gestures?
Perhaps it was case that there were moments when people felt a need to transcend themselves; to commune with the spirit of a person or a place, and the clutter at the holy well had been sign of the depth of their desire.
The old ways seem very discordant with the cosmopolitan, hyper-modernity of Twenty-First Century Ireland, but perhaps they will persist despite the disappearance of the church.
Anyone who has visited the cemeteries of Montparnasse and Pere Lachaise in Paris will have encountered customs not so far removed with those associated with the holy wells. The graves of the great and the good are frequently covered with “offerings:” Metro tickets, photographs, postcards, messages, requests. The difference is that those who leave such items would probably disavow all religious belief.
The grave of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir may be completely covered in things left behind by visitors. Sartre was explicit in his atheism; so what purpose is being fulfilled in his 21st Century admirers accumulating litter at his burial place? Who is being addressed in the messages left?
When Ireland becomes post-Christian, will the old ways that pre-dated the arrival of Christianity find new expressions?