Anne Notations

Thursday, March 17, 2005

In Ireland

I arise today
Through the strength of heaven;
Light of the sun,
Splendor of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of the wind,
Depth of the sea,
Stability of the earth,
Firmness of the rock.
- from Prayer of St. Patrick

On a gray July day twenty years ago I stood inside the tumbled walls of an ancient rural chapel in Glinsk, County Roscommon, Ireland. Facing me was the lichen-encrusted stone likeness of a medieval warrior in chain mail. While my genealogically inclined husband searched the churchyard's eroded gravestones for traces of ancestors, I approached the altar wall of the roofless chapel. The implacable soldier in his pointed hat stood guard over slippery, moss-covered tablets; lavender wildflowers poked between the stones. Not even a cow mumbled nearby to break the sepulchral silence. "Bare ruined choirs," I mused. Then I reached to cover the warrior's cold stone hands with my own.

At that moment I heard history's true whisper, and I considered what a fragile membrane - time - separated me from the people who first beheld the chiseled Irishman. A window had opened onto the past, and I hastened to climb through it.

A few days later I visited the Galway public library and found, in the 1838 land surveys, a minutely detailed report by one John O'Donovan. He noted that in the 1800s there was a church at the Glinsk cemetery site, built on the ruins of an older church to which had been added "a small chapel." Excited, I read on: "There is a beautiful figure of a warrior clad in mail, with a conical helmet and slender sword, with this inscription under it - 'Here stands the effegis of William Burke, the first of McDavid family, who died 1116 and ericted by Harry Burke, 1722.'

"Tradition says," continued O'Donovan, "that this effigy was cut in France, where William Burke was killed in battle, by order of a French lady who fell in love with him, and that it was sent over to Glinsk to Harry Burke, the lineal descendant, who erected it in this chapel....It is of limestone and believed to be a striking likeness of the warrior."

My imagination feasted on this story long after we'd flown home to Rhode Island.

Happy St. Patrick's Day to all.


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