I recently had the good fortune to visit Ireland with a group of musicians. Inspired by earlier pilgrimages to Iceland, Scotland, Myanmar and other world locations steeped in spiritual history, Oneness-Dream – our a cappella troupe of singers – recently toured and performed in the southern counties of Ireland.
Like neighboring Scotland, Ireland too saw the arrival of Christianity in the 5th century, and strong links between monasteries in these two countries paved the way for missionaries to spread Christianity throughout north and west Europe. From the early seventh century, Iona in Scotland, Clonmacnoise and Glendalough in Ireland became centres of excellence for students from all over Europe. Both countries are dotted with the ruins of these ancient places of spiritual learning.
Almost 20 years ago the Dublin Sri Chinmoy Centre was founded by several visiting New Zealanders, and has since offered free, community-based events such as public concerts, sporting fixtures, meditation and self-awareness classes to thousands of people. Appropriately, our first concert was offered here. Then onwards we drove into the heartland. Our eighteen performances revisited many of Ireland’s notable sites, the great cathedrals and tumbling ruins and holy places that have endured and inspired over the millennia. In our humble way, we were re-living a small part of the history of the great spiritual quests of those ancient times, singing the timeless songs of the soul.
One of our most memorable visits was to Jerpoint Abbey, Thomastown, a 12th century ruin in Kilkenny county. A national monument since 1880, it was built in 1180 as a Cistercian Abbey by the King of Osraige on the site of an even earlier Benedictine monastery. It is notable for its imposing central tower and it’s sculpted cloister arcades. The stone carvings, many of which are oddly humorous, depict knights, ladies, bishops, dragons and even a man with a stomach ache! Jerpoint became a ‘favorite place’ of sepulchre (where people chose to be buried) and all the great families from the surrounding counties were vying to end up in this place! The abbey flourished until King Henry VIII began the ‘Dissolution of the Monasteries’ between 1536 – 51.
We had a ‘St Francis of Assisi’ experience here when one of our singers was to record a solo performance. When he began to sing, remarkably, scores of ravens suddenly converged upon the castle as though in response to his songs, lining the battlements and turrets and high stone walls, their heads cocked and listening. Then then they began their own accompanying performance, much chortling and cawing and whistling, a wonderful avian chorus all but drowning out the robust voice of our Scottish baritone. We were all smiles at this collaboration of voices, as though mother nature herself was participating in this symphony of joy. We were amazed by the response of the ravens, their attentive listening and then their own carolling songs, joining with us in collaboration – were they applauding us, celebrating with us, singing their own songs of praise? They seemed like the souls of the ancient ones drawn back to their ancestral home, bird spirits returning to the human realm in remembrance.
You can hear some of this on the audio track here: Click on the Jerpoint Abbey sound track!