Ireland, Part III: Memory and Retreat

glendalough tree

We took hundreds of pictures during our trip to Ireland, but I didn’t notice that the camera settings were wrong for the first few days, and the pictures I took in Glendalough disappoint me deeply in their low quality.  This is perhaps the most first-world problem I’ve ever admitted to having in this space— my photos from a vacation some people dream about taking all their lives are too low-res— but there you have it.  

Maybe it’s to be expected.  The lush green that sweeps up the Wicklow Mountains, carpeting ancient ridges and tangling over itself, and the earthen tones of the rock and the trunks of the trees— how can any camera adequately capture the darkness of the embrace the woods offer, the softness of the greenery, the mystery of the tangle?  Is it only words, in the end, that offer the depth of vision I want?

I was so tired when we got there— I hadn’t slept well the night before, and I was still shaking off the terror that I’d been less than sparkling over brunch with our Dublin-based friends and their family, because what could be worse than not being charming?  The fear of being cut off from polite society followed me into the ruins of the monastery of St. Kevin, refuge of those cut off— retreating into the embrace of brothers and the heart of God, or fleeing from Vikings— over a thousand years ago. And gathered around the ruins now is a small cemetery, still receiving the dead: the ultimate place of retreat and flight, of being both cut off and joined together— from humanity as it is currently constituted and to humanity as it will be, from the world as we must see it to the world where God can see so much more. So in Glendalough, the concerns about not having been witty enough as one passed the cheese plate faded into irrelevance.  One is faced with the gravestones, some in shimmering black granite laid in recent years and others faded, covered in lichens and moss; the stones of the monastery, which must have looked eternal to the men, as young as sixteen, retreating and praying within their walls; and with the Wicklow Mountains themselves, the stone configurations thereof older by millions of years than what man could lay in the graveyard or the abbey.  

Still I remember, too, being afraid, of all of it.  Afraid to say much, that my words couldn’t be equal to the beauty of the place, the rich green spread over the dark rock and just nestled between the mountains; afraid I wouldn’t be able to remember it or ever come back.  We walked the path to the Upper Lake without too many exchanges; I took photos of the last of the bluebells, the first of the foxgloves, trees with root systems older than my home country.  

Now, weeks later, the gift of perspective arrives.  For the foreseeable future, Glendalough remains; has remained long after the death of the last monk and the last outlaw, indifferent to all the dark history that settled into the mountains around it and beyond it.  It remains while I write these words thousands of miles away, with the pictures that, low-resolution though they may be, bring back the memories that feel fragile despite the obvious power they hold over me: bright entrances to a forest that would turn dark within a few minutes of entering; my own body standing with the Wicklow Gap at my back, the strong wind cold even in June.  No more than the monks who reluctantly gave shelter to the pursued can I be cut off from the world, or from myself. I stood in that place. I was there.

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