Driving back home late one afternoon from Glengarriff (Gleann Garbh in Irish, meaning “Rough glen”) we happened upon another Marian Shrine tucked into the hillside.When I stepped out of the car I could hear the familiar sound of running water. Most Marian Shrines are built beside streams or wells that are believed to contain water rich with magical and healing properties.
I paused to think about how heavenly it would have been for road worn travelers to come upon an ancient sacred well, or a grotto, knowing they could rest, quench their thirst and heal their weary bodies. Did this spring heal eyesight? Did it give comfort to arthritic limbs? Was it used for blessing children? What is its story?
A part of me also marveled at how this seemingly innocent place could hide a dark and horrible tale remembered by only a few people. Stories take on a life of their own, evolving, exaggerating, encompassing and then, in time, fading away. I find that happens a great deal here in Ireland. The landscape is a story;every rock and tree and tomb has a tale to tell, a myth that imbues it with spirit, a legacy that is a touchstone for those who know and remember. I wish I could find a way to learn all the stories of the land, but bit by bit the voices are falling silent and a stone becomes just a stone, a lonely tree is just a tree….unless somebody remembers.
The road beside the Marian shrine curves around the corner and opens into a straightaway with a view of Sugarloaf Mountain. (Gabhal Mhór in Irish, which translates into Big Fork).On theside of the roadsits an innocent looking tree, long dead, its bark wind worn and exposing its white skeleton. This tree is not just a tree, it is a tale, slowly losing its ability to hang onto its story.
When I first moved to Castletownbere an elderly gentleman told me the story of how a priest was trapped on the lonely stretch of road between Castletownbere and Glengarriff by a group of Cromwell‘s men.The young priest fought valiantly for his life but was tortured and dismembered, his body hung from the branches for all to see on the long and winding road. Nobody dared touch the corpse, and so it hung until Nature reclaimed it as her own and the lonely tree was cursed.
It seemed innocent enough to me until I started photographing it and felt the distinct sensation of the hairs standing up on my arms and a chill move through me. I couldn’t help but shiver, despite the sunshine. I knew that the old man’s story mightn’t be true, and that it was a tale told for the benefit of the eager audience. (aka: me) But still, there was something about the tale that continued to gnaw at my bones and I was too afraid to discount it.
When is a tree no longer just a tree? When it is a story trying to hang on to its memory…..