Sunday, May 12, 2013

Kenmare stone circle, County Kerry

Courtesy William Burdette

Courtesy William Burdette

Our guide, William, took a few of us writers on a walk this morning in Kenmare — which I had embarrasingly been mispronouncing ‘Connemara’ — to see some standing stones.

The site was just a few hundred yards away from the main shopping streets, and only a few fields and hedgerows from a horrible new house, built by the people who have bought the land on which the standing stones stand. If I had purchased property on which there were 3,500-year-old standing stones, I might not have built a tacky, yucky wood-façade rectangle to live in, but maybe they think their new house is just perfect in that setting. I don’t know. I do know that there are many similarly rephrehensible new dwellings around Cork and Clare, especially around Doolin, so that as I’m trying to compose a decent photo of a 14th-C. castle or an Iron Age ring fort or a lovely ruined abbey, I get bits of pale yellow painted stucco and metal siding in the shot, and it’s annoying.

But most of Kenmare is largely free of such objectionable objects, and after we passed the ugly new house, we walked up a path lined with cowslips and more of those blue flowers, and I got William within sight of one of the stems of blue blossoms and asked that he say definitively what they were: he looked at them for quite a while, started to speak, stopped, and then said, in a cautious way, “Yes, those are bluebells.” Whew. It was good to know  for sure.

At the end of the short uphill path, at the top of the hill in fact, stood a ring of standing stones. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t such an impressive sight. The stones were about as tall as I am, though wider (and older!). Inside the ring, maybe 50 feet in diameter, stood or lay a large central stone, looking like a place designed for human sacrifice. It reminded me of the last scene in the film Tess of the D’Urbervilles, when Tess lies down to await death, at Stonehenge. Being only the second set of standing stones I’ve seen in this lifetime, I guess the comparison was inevitable, but this was smaller than Stonehenge and had no other visitors, and we could walk up to the stones and touch them, so I did, respectfully.

Will told us that “they” (meaning I think “archeologists” or “Irish people in general”) don’t exactly know what the standing stones were for, though they may have been used as a calendar, to mark the seasons of the crops. There is some apparent alignment of the tallest stone with the setting sun, in certain seasons. But Will added  that his archeologist brother-in-law admits that a) often the archeologists in Ireland don’t want to mess with such edifices and arrangements, for superstitious reasons, and b) even when they do study them they often have no idea what they’re looking at.

When I noted that there was no graffiti or damage to the stones, William said that such desecration would never happen, because Irish people believe that it’d bring bad luck on the person who committed it. In the manner of quite a few Irish tale-tellers (i.e. everyone I met on this trip), he told us a harrowing fable – supposedly verifiable and which has been in the newspapers and so on – of a few years ago when a family up north moved some standing stones to build a house, and then within two years, two of their children had died in freak accidents, the implication being that the former choice led to the latter tragedy. He also, later, showed us a house that had been cursed by a priest during the famine, because the rich landlords therein refused to help the poor people in the town. The priest supposedly said that one day, ravens would fly through the ruins of the house, which was then a grand manor. We saw the house today, and it’s certainly ruined and available to ravens, so the Christian curse seems to have taken effect.

As William talked about the superstitions, or pagan holdovers, of the Irish people, I asked him to say more about the “fairy trees” that he spoke of before. Earlier, he’d pointed out a tree in a field as we were passing and explained that was a “fairy tree.” These are old trees in fields or sometimes even in the middle of villages, roads, and major highways, which are respected and protected in perpetuity because they have been used for centuries as the burial sites of unchristened infants. Traditionally, babies who died at birth or at any time before they could be christened could not be buried in the consecrated graveyards, by order of the church. It was thought by the people that the fairy folk took such babies – especially boys – to fight underground in the fairy wars. To prevent this unwanted inscription, the people would bury the bodies of the unchristened babies under a special tree, usually a white or black hawthorne marked by a boulder at its base. These became known as “fairy trees,” and the knowledge about them has been passed down through hundreds of years.Interestingly, there are no signs or formal markers on the trees, but archeologists have at times dug up the earth around certain such trees, only to return the bones to beneath the tree rapidly.

The stories about the people – usually unmarried girls or women, I imagined – having to bury their children in unconsecrated ground, probably stealthily and in the rain, made me think for a second time in one morning about a Hardy novel, particularly the heartbreaking scene in one of them – is it Jude the Obscure? – in which the young mother takes her sick newborn to the priest’s house, begging him to baptize it before it dies, and he heartlessly refuses. As I remember, the girl then tries to baptize the baby herself, because despite the priest’s cruelty she still wants the church’s blessing for her child.

A few minutes later, as we were leaving the stone circle, Will said casually, “This is a fairy tree here.”

I thought it was an awfully handy coincidence that he’d see a tree directly after I’d asked about them, and I asked, “How do you know?”

He said, “It’s white hawthorne. In a few months this will be covered with white blossoms, like snow.”

I still wasn’t convinced – just because it was a white hawthorne, how did he or anyone know it was a fairy tree? But then he moved closer, peered into the branches, and added “See, there are things hung on it.”

Yes, when I looked carefully, I could see that the branches were indeed draped with bits of cloth. Tapes and ribbons dangled among the green leaves, and higher up branches were strung with beads and necklaces and hung with earrings. Then, too late, I remembered then that someone had told me to take a bit of ribbon with me to the standing stones, but I had no scrap of fabric on my person other than my clothing. In my pockets I had only my big metal room key  and I considered leaving it on the tree but thought the Park Hotel keepers might object, especially as the room number was painted onto the key and it could easily be used by a wicked fairy to gain illegal access to someone’s sleeping chamber.

Kimberley, bless her, started going through her bag, and she found a cute little metal key ring in the shape and colors of a butterfly, which, as I recall, her daughter had given her. She took her keys off it, to give it to the tree.

I said, “Let’s leave it here for all the women who had to leave their babies here, because they were banned from the graveyards.”

Kimberley agreed, and she hung it on a branch just above eye level, where it looked festive and commemorative. “It’s Mothers’ Day today,” she said.

Image

Photo courtesy KimberleyLovato.com

I was surprised to learn that — I’d lost track of the days. I thought of my own mother, so far away, and wished I could be with her, but was glad I’d see her when I went home. It was a lovely, sad, Irish moment, and I was grateful to Kimberley for sharing her trinket – a gift from her daughter — and reminding us of the day’s significance.