Monks, cormorants and sheep……………

Something brushed up against my foot; and then there was a soft, slightly wet sensation on my left hand.

This happened in late September when I was in County Donegal for a few days.  Basing myself at Ardara I set out one morning to drive through Glengesh Pass and along the narrow bog road, descending into Glencolumcille on the Atlantic coast.  This is a gloriously spiritual place and, for many, a place of pilgrimage.

After spending a reflective hour on the deserted beach I headed round the rugged coastline, stopping from time to time for the sheep wandering aimlessly on the road in front of me.  I was, after all, an intruder in their territory.   The road – little more than a track through the bog – took me past the tiny village of Malin More and on to Malin Beg.  At this point the road comes to an end.

You need to be quite determined to go to Malin Beg.  In a nutshell, the strand below the formidably steep cliff must be the most inaccessible beach in the northern hemisphere.  But, frankly, I felt good about being there – just me, alone and letting my mind lapse into freefall.

I took a moment to look out towards the small off shore island of Rathlin O’Birne.  With binoculars I could make out what remains of a crescent shaped dry stone wall.  There are also a few stone slabs inscribed with a Latin cross, although I was unable to identify them clearly.  This is all that can now be seen of a hermitage site dating back to about 500AD and associated with Assicus, a favourite disciple of St. Patrick.  Nowadays the island is completely uninhabited – even the entirely functional lighthouse on its western edge is electrically operated from the mainland.

But in the bay a lone cormorant stands on a rocky outcrop lashed by Atlantic breakers.  I watched him for some time as he remained motionless, staring out into the deep blue void of the ocean.  There was nothing else out there; and he made me think of a plaque on the wall at Teelin harbour, a few miles round the coast, which records the words “In memory of the Teelin monks who sailed to Iceland in the fifth Century.”  I wonder if they ever made it, and what they might have found when they arrived.

I walked along towards the cliff edge above the west side of the strand.  Here, on a headland known as Doon Point – jutting out into the sea – are the remnants of a small promontory fort, now completely obscured by rough grass.  The site offers a commanding view over the bay, and appears to guard the strand and the sea approaches surrounding Rathlin O’Birne Island.  It seems that ancient Celtic Christian history in stone was all around me.

On leaving Doon Point I stopped to look again at Rathlin O’Birne Island and contemplate the lifestyle of those early hermits who came to live there.  As I did so I couldn’t help but notice that the cormorant was still perched on its rocky outcrop, still staring out into the ocean.  I wondered if, like me, it was musing on the resolve of those Teelin monks and the rigours of their voyage to Iceland.

It was at that point that something brushed up against my foot.  It was a very soft and silent woolly sheep.  It then nuzzled up to my hand  before ambling off to scratch itself against a rather lonely looking picnic table, and resume the serious business of nibbling the grass.  This was just what I needed – a gentle nudge back into reality after my fifth Century Celtic romantic reverie.

Denis Carson

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