I once traveled to a remote island off the west coast of Ireland. Though it was not difficult
to reach, accommodations and amenities were limited. It is sparsely populated, although at one time it supported
a sizable population of subsistence farmers and fisherfolk. Indeed, one of the most poignant scenes on the island
is a village of ruined stone houses, all in a row, each one fronted by a raised garden bed -- for the praties, you know
-- still visible. The islanders built this village all at once then abandoned it abruptly because they realized it was much
easier to work the land elsewhere on the island. It must have been an extraordinary decision on their part, to abandon
new-built, solid stone, painstakingly thatched homes. The problem was that to enrich the soil of their garden plots and
pastures, they had to carry up huge quantities of seaweed gathered down on the shore. It was all uphill and steep. It was
just too much work for too little return.
A major curiosity of the island is a Protestant church that looks like a miniature cathedral. Nearby is a complex of buildings that was once a decidedly unlikely enterprise in the West of Ireland -- a Protestant mission. It was established by a minister who wanted to help the islanders learn to read and write and to adopt more modern agricultural practices -- no small thing in a part of the earth where wresting subsistence from the boggy, infertile land was a back-breaking and chancy business. Centuries ago, the island had been a rainswept landscape covered with low-growing oak trees. Today, a tree is scarcely to be found, the ground squishes under your feet and spiky sedge pokes up everywhere.
Elderly descendants of that 19th Century missionary were still around. They cared for the church, at which services were held only on infrequent visits by the clergy. The time I was there, the Bishop was expected the next day and all of the old women had scoured the waysides and fields for wildflowers which were then festooned all over the interior of the church. I had arrived on a rather rare occasion. The missionary's descendants had stayed on and in time came to operate the mission complex as a bed and breakfast. This church had long been on its last legs. They were the last of its congregation. It was about to close as an active house of worship.
I was there in September, past the tourist season. The guests were mostly pensioners taking advantage of the off-season rates. One gentleman, a retired British Army officer from Belfast assured me, unsolicited, that everything I have heard about Northern Ireland being an unsafe place to visit was nonsense. I don't remember the name of the lady who was our hostess, the daughter of the founding minister, but she was charming and ensured that the place was continually a-bustle. Most notable were mid-evening teas which all guests were expected to attend and those who had something to contribute in the way of entertainment were expected to provide. One lady sang, another recited a poem, a retired schoolteacher from Dublin played the piano and everyone sang along. I had my bagpipe with me and was urged to play a tune. I did, to the annoyance of a young German couple who had exhausted themselves hiking the hills all day and were sleeping directly above the parlor. There was a lady from Sligo. I played "Biddie from Sligo."
The next day, after a hearty Irish breakfast, I set out to climb Sliabh Mor, the tallest hill on the island. I encountered sheep at every turn in the trail. The boggy ground had been worn into a network of pathways by the ceaseless foraging of the scrawny, shaggy little beasts. The ground was covered with scraggly heather and other very low-growing vegetation. I climbed into a fog and could see almost nothing. Suddenly, I found myself on the edge of a sheer drop. I thought I heard waves crashing far below. That was enough. I was alone and couldn't see much of anything, so I started to circle toward the far side of the hill. I came upon my first surprise of the morning -- two rings of stones that I had read could be found and were of very great age. I was awed to find these rings in so remote a place. It was hard to imagine someone perhaps a thousand years ago coming here and doing this -- someone who could well have looked a good deal like me. Being American, one expects that the most ancient things in the landscape were put there by another race, perhaps even from another planet.
I walked on and got my second surprise. I startled a red fox. She looked at me with cold, feral gaze and exploded out of sight. From where I was standing, I could see all the way down the hillside to where the mission and the church stood. There wasn't a tree or a bush between me and those buildings -- a distance of well over a mile. But that fox went whizzing in a blur of speed over the heathery ground straight for the mission until I lost sight of her. I've always wondered why she bolted toward human habitation instead of away. Perhaps she knew that by the time she got there the place would already be an empty ruin as remote in time as the Neolithic rings I'd just been contemplating.
I brought that memory home with me that Fall and it came back to me the following Spring.
I was hiking in the hills again -- this time in the dense second-growth woods of the Taconic Hills. I came over a ridge and surprised ten little fox kits. They were red foxes, but had the big fluffy gray coats of juveniles. They were all frolicking around the mouth of a very obvious den. A couple of them were tussling over the remains of a small raccoon. I stood motionless and watched them a while. They saw me, but didn't seem to react. So I walked slowly away to go down to the lake to tell others about the den. When I returned with a friend about fifteen minutes later, the kits had vanished. Even the raccoon carcass was gone without a trace. Evidently, the vixen had been watching and had seen me happen upon her brood. Now she had hidden them in an entirely new location. And after all the trouble of digging that den. The thought of vanishing foxes and abandoned homes brought me back to that barren island hillside that last Fall.
It was the dying church I remembered most. Perhaps by now the descendants of the founding minister are dead and gone. Eventually, the little stone church will crumble into a Neo-Neolithic ring of stones.
I was about thirteen years old when the religion I had been brought up in died in me. It disappeared as abruptly and totally as the fox had that day on the island. It has never meant anything to me since, except that I respect that fact that it is alive to many other people. Having an Irish name leads people to assume all kinds of things about what I must believe and all that. Well, I usually just don't say anything in response to these questions. But it's human nature for many people to press one on such a thing. How can you not believe? I just don't. Where do you think we go after death? I don't know; it doesn't worry me. Where did the foxes go? How about the islanders who abandoned their new village?
Not long ago, I traveled all across the state of New York to say goodbye to a friend who had died. I talked to his wife. She told me he took delight in the funny letters I used to write to him. His son who had the same name, stood the same height, had the same face introduced himself to me. I looked down at my friend's beautiful face in the casket. I listened to all the people saying that he was at rest now in a better place. The priest said that he's now "robed in glory." And I thought: "This is one of the people I loved. To me, he was always robed in glory."
I imagine back in Ireland the little church is closed now, unless they've made of it a monument or a tourist attraction. But when, as will surely happen, nothing is left of it but a ring of stones that refuse to sink into the bog, on summer days it will be as full of wildflowers as it was the day those last few old women of the congregation glorified it for the Bishop's visit.
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