St. Buadan's Boat

By Mary R. Finnegan - Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA - 25 November 2015




I went to Ireland last October to restore myself. I was tired, worn down by the noise and congestion, the snark and cynicism of contemporary life. I wanted to be in a place where doubt’s jaded eyebrow was not always raised, where faith was more than dogma and knowledge more than facts, a place where reason was not the only guide. I wasn’t just getting away from it all, the noise and stress of modern life; I was seeking something pure and undistracted, the real real.


I hiked up the Cliffs of Moher and across the Burren. I walked St. Stephen’s Green and danced by a lake in Kerry. I lingered over hot, milky tea at kitchen tables, and longer still in wood walled pubs over pints of Guinness, while fiddles and brogues and stories from another time washed my ears clean. I breathed pungent, peaty air as my heart slowed to its first rhythm. I went north to Donegal where winds swept the beeps and rings and endless clanging of the city from my head.


Anyone can love Clare or Kerry, but to love Donegal takes a fierce heart, for it’s a primal, fundamental place, as if the creator stood eons ago on its rough ground and took a notion to conjure the world. The Irish call Donegal the back of beyond. But to me, Ireland’s grave, rakish beauty is distilled to its essence in Donegal, bleak and isolated in places, but warm too, and lush and light-filled. There seems always to be a low and lonely fog in the mornings, a mist that moves across the land, rising to expose rocky fields or dense, overgrown forests. A turn at sunset can lead to the red rocks of Bloody Foreland or the eerie base of Muckish Mountain. Even Donegal’s stark places teem with living things, midges and mushrooms, rooks and wrens, marigolds and orchids and forget-me-nots. You may spend a whole day soaked to the skin, but then the clouds will lift to reveal a sky so extraordinary that you feel wonder and awe again. You will feel grateful to be alive, wet and cold, but grateful too.


One day, my uncle and I journeyed to Inishowen. If Donegal is the back of beyond then Inishowen is the back of the back of beyond. Uncle Dom knows the land so we took roads marked on no map to see crumbling castles and fairy forts, magical places where worlds meet. At Malin Head, that most northern point of Donegal and of Ireland, we got out of the car and were almost swept sideways. The wind foiled any attempts to speak, tearing the words from our mouths. I walked toward the cliff’s edge, terrified and exhilarated. There’s something to be said for feeling you might, not metaphorically, but really and truly, be blown away.


It was there, in those northern places, that the monks of long ago slipped curraghs into the rattling waves to bring God to the clouded isles of the Scots and beyond. It must have taken a bit of madness for them to put their boats upon the water and go forth into the wilderness of the sea. Did they trust their proud curraghs in the savage, arctic waves? Or was it only God they trusted in a world thick and feral and extravagant with mystery? Did their neighbors laugh at their preposterous hope? Mock their attention to an unseen world? Did those monks hear gods and demons on undistracted winds, and in the silence of their hearts? Or is it all just legend?


A short drive from Malin Head, in a river along the Bunagee Road, there’s a slab of stone that looks strangely like a curragh. Legend has it that when St. Buadan was ousted from Iona, he launched that stone into the sea and sailed from Scotland’s shores. It’s easy for our modern minds to ignore the shape of the stone and the holes that look like imprints of tightly gripped fingers. Our fact filled brains, scaffolded with doubt and cynicism, deconstruct these stories as nothing but legend. But what if the legends are not legends at all, but truth?


What if Buadan trusted God so completely that he sailed that stone boat to Ireland? And made it? What if that ancient rock rests in the Bunagee River to remind us of what is indistinguishable between faith and folly? To help us believe, that in all places and times, there exists the real real?


I am home now, across another ocean, in a world jaded and encased in reason and knowledge and the clanging of manmade things. I woke one recent morning to birds singing. Among the tunes was a familiar one. A few minutes later when my iPhone went off, I realized the bird was imitating my alarm. Have we not done something wrong when even the birds are compelled by these encroachments? And yet.


And yet, there are still wild, enchanted corners where the only sounds are the wind and the caw of jackdaws and the strafing of near and distant waves, extraordinary places that call to the strange and holy within us, abiding places where gods wander, unbidden, forgotten, patient, waiting for the curraghs to arrive.