Walking John O’Donohue’s Burren

Sunrise above the Burren near Fanore, October 5, 2018

The narrow lane to the left

David Whyte, in his memorial tribute to John O’Donohue, wrote:

A drive into the setting sun of a summer evening, west of Ballyvaughan, would take you along the limestone coast of North Clare, with the salt ocean on the right and a rising, almost overbearing, mountain of white stone on your left.

The road grips the cliff edge for a good while and then opens into dunes. From there you would see a long curve of beach and a far, inviting prospect of the Aran Islands silhouetted in the low sunlight. As you drive, your gaze is so naturally pulled forward into this horizon of fire and shadow that you would most likely, and thankfully, miss the narrow lane to the left that disappears very quickly into the recesses of the mountain.

You would have passed the entrance to the valley without knowing, much to the relief of the people who live beyond its entrance and who have enjoyed its solitude for centuries.

Out of that private, beautiful enclosed valley there came into the world a very private but very unenclosed man, one who knew the need in every human heart for that sense of sanctuary, and for that silence but equally for the high and necessary walk which brings the horizon and the future alive again and again in the home-bound human imagination.

John O’Donohue grew up in that valley and eventually entered our world through that narrow pass down to the sea.

Thursday, October 4, we travelled that very road along the limestone coast of North Clare.

The setting sun was obscured by clouds that had been spitting since our bus rumbled out of Galway station close to six. By the time we reached Ballyvaughan, just enough daylight remained to allow me to note it as a place I will come back to one day.

The bus careened on through drizzle on a road so pencil thin that when a northbound bus drew alongside us in the dark, I was sure the two coaches would scrape each other’s paint off as they passed. Their drivers stopped to chat for five minutes and then crept past each other in a careful dance they had clearly manoeuvred before, while we passengers, inches apart through wet glass, locked astonished eyes.

Our B&B host had instructed us to get off the bus at a particular spot. I didn’t know it at the time, but we disembarked at the exact “narrow lane to the left” David Whyte talked about – the same “narrow pass down to the sea” by which poet and philosopher John O’Donohue entered the world.

The invisible embrace of a voice

John O’Donohue entered my world about fourteen years ago when Mary Hynes interviewed him on Tapestry on CBC Radio shortly after the release of Beauty: The Invisible Embrace.

I can still conjure up how I felt in the dark of our Victoria living room, brightened equally by the blaze of a fire and by a lyrical Irish voice that captured me and has not yet let me go. When Mary Hynes talked about it later, she said his answers to her questions were “as though he was writing poetry on the spot.”

I listened to the interview again, four years later. CBC replayed it a few days after John O’Donohue died – suddenly, in his sleep, at age 52. My father had only just told me he’d been diagnosed with cancer, and he died of it six months later.

The interview was available in CBC’s archives then, and I listened to it over and over. John O’Donohue’s gentle insistence that only a gossamer veil separates us from our beloved dead was a bridge that transported me through grief into peace.

His words have brought solace other times. They have buoyed me, startled me, entranced me, opened me.

David Whyte describes him as “a rare form of human possibility, a razor sharp intellect married to a far-traveling, Irish articulation and a bird-of-paradise vocabulary that made the listener realize that until then they had never listened at all.”

The high and necessary walk

I chose the B&B for its proximity to John O’Donohue’s burial place. I wanted to experience his Burren and visit his grave. When our host greeted us that night, she rattled off a list of places and activities she thought we might enjoy during our stay. These included a hike up the Burren that looped around to the south and would land us close to the local pub and a shop where we could buy groceries. The cemetery, she replied, was just beyond the shop.

Next morning, we packed a lunch and walked up the road to the place where the bus had dropped us off the night before. There we began “the high and necessary walk” that had brought me halfway across the world.

Here’s the narrow lane David Whyte was referring to.

It takes no time at all to realize you’re in a landscape like no other.

You pass a few cottages, a church, farm fields, scattered farmhouses, and a stone “moon window” that looks onto a hidden gem of a garden. The path forks. You make a choice. Then you climb.

You stop and look around in wonder.

And you climb.

John O’Donohue described the landscape he was born into as “waiting like a huge wild invitation to extend your imagination.” That’s what we experienced that day.

“It’s a bare limestone landscape.” John O’Donohue

“And I often think that the forms of the limestone are so abstract and aesthetic, it is as if they were all laid down by some wild surrealistic kind of deity.” John O’Donohue

“And it’s right on the edge of the ocean as well, and so there’s an ancient conversation between the ocean and the stone going on.” John O’Donohue

Once you’ve climbed to the top of the ridge, the land sweeps out toward Galway Bay, the Aran Islands, and the distant Connemara hills.

“Being a child and coming out into that, it was waiting like a huge wild invitation to extend your imagination.” John O’Donohue

In the view (below) from our picnic spot, the cluster of houses in the middle is the village of Fanore. About a quarter of the way across the photo from the left are the ruins of Killonaghan church, and next to it, Craggach cemetery.

During our walk I slipped a stone from an ancient wall into the pocket of my vest. It was small enough to cradle in my hand as we rambled across the ridge I know John O’Donohue walked innumerable times. The stone in my hand felt alive, just as he felt alive to me in that extraordinary place. When still on this side of the gossamer veil, he said:

I think it makes a huge difference when you wake in the morning and come out of your house whether you believe you are walking into a dead geographical location, which is used to get to a destination, or whether you are emerging out into a landscape that is just as much, if not more, alive as you, but in a totally different form. And if you go towards it with an open heart and a real watchful reverence, you will be absolutely amazed at what it will reveal to you. And I think that was one of the recognitions of the Celtic imagination: that landscape wasn’t just matter … it was actually alive. What amazes me about landscape, landscape recalls you into a mindful mode of stillness, solitude, and silence where you can truly receive time.

John O’Donohue lies buried with his parents, grandparents, and uncle in a plot of Burren earth overlooking Galway Bay. Among the hundreds of stones placed on it by others whose lives they have touched, I placed my own small limestone offering.

Tucked under some of the stones were folded papers, their ink smudged by rain. I crouched and unfolded one, and then stood and read the words on it aloud. (To hear it in his voice, click the link below.)

Beannacht (“Blessing”) by John O’Donohue

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,

may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.

And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

David Whyte said about his friend:

John was a love-letter to humanity from some address in the firmament we have yet to find and locate, though we may wander many a year looking or listening for it. He has gone home to that original address and cannot be spoken with except in the quiet cradle of the imagination that he dared to visit so often himself.

I feel such deep gratitude for what John O’Donohue has brought – and continues to bring – to my life, and for the rare opportunity to walk with him, in the quiet cradle of my imagination, in his landscape.

Looking Out From Clare (excerpt) by David Whyte

You look across
to the mountains in Connemara
framing, only for now,
your horizon.
You look and look, and look,
beyond all looking.

8 Responses to “Walking John O’Donohue’s Burren”

  1. Avatar Joan Conway

    I’ve been waiting to read this particular post knowing the sacredness of this experience, and so today, a quiet hour, I sit with your words. They bring tears to my eyes, thank you so very much for taking us on this journey. I, as well as so many, loved John’s way of being in the world, his eloquence and beauty. How exquisite that you gave yourself the gift of visiting that landscape. Thank you for these words and images.

    • commatologist commatologist

      Thank you, Joan. It was an incredibly moving and meaningful day for me.

  2. Avatar Marion Shukin

    This was such a wonderful read. Thank you for taking me there. I listened to Beannacht in his voice and that was a gift given.


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