Seeking the Source
by Patricia Monaghan
“Dowra?” my Connemara friends said when I told them.
“Whyever would you want to go to Dowra?”
To look for the source of the Shannon, I said.
It’s easy enough to find in myth, that bubbling
pool where magical hazel bushes drop nuts into the mouth
of a speckled one-eyed salmon. Because the nuts contain
wisdom, the salmon is the wisest creature in the world.
Anyone who catches and eats it—like the hero Fionn mac
Cumhaill and the goddess Sionann—can absorb all that
wisdom. Even to catch a glimpse of the salmon of wisdom,
the old stories say, brings good fortune.
But myth tells more than maps. I had tried without
success for several years to find the Shannon’s
source. Most maps of Ireland fail to mark it. I have two
that do, but each puts it in a different place. Once,
several years earlier, I followed one map to Keshcorran,
where people apologetically shook their heads. The
source was not there, despite the little red star on the
map I held. Then I found mythic geographer Michael Dames’
citation of “a field near Dowra,” a little town on
the borders of Leitrim and Cavan, as the Shannon Pot’s
location. It was enough to launch another expedition.
The day before I set off, I ran into Roundstone’s
bodhran maker, Malachy Kearns. Like everyone else, his
response to my planned excursion was, “Whyever do you
want to go to Dowra?” But unlike anyone else he added,
“I just bought a farm there.” He scribbled down the
cellphone number of his estate agent. If anyone knew his
way around Dowra, it was surely Tony. Thus prepared—no
need for rod and creel, I would be content just to see
the salmon leap—I set off one spring morning in search
of the source.
I traveled the familiar road north from Connemara
into even more familiar terrain, my mother’s family
home near Bohola. East of Sligo, I turned onto roads I
had never traveled. I told myself to relax, enjoy the
scenery, this could be another wild-goose chase, there
was no guarantee I would reach Tony, much less that he
would know the way to the Shannon Pot. The towns shrank,
the stretches of wild land grew, my heart expanded. At
Drumkeoran, I found a phone at the community center. One
ring, then an answer. Perhaps luck was with me, perhaps
this time I would indeed find the mythic Pot. “Hello,”
I shouted into the bad connection, “Malachy Kearns
told me to call, he said you’d know how to find the
source of the Shannon.” Tony did not know, but he knew
who would: “Go into the town, cross the bridge to
McGrail’s, ask for Oliver.”
I thanked Tony profusely. But my hand was still on
the receiver when thought: Oh no. Should I have asked
for more details? I recalled wandering back and forth on
a road in Cork, looking for the Maxol station at which I
was to turn. Finally I stopped at the only station I
could find, an Exxon—which had a few years earlier
been the Maxol in question. Or how about that hour I
spent in Galway looking for “the green house,” the
one painted blue decades before? Or the time in a
midlands village when I was to turn at a pub called
Rooney’s? There it was, plain as day, and a road to
the right just as described, but nonetheless I stopped
to check. “Ah now,” a helpful farmer said, pointing
up the road, “this is a narrow little town that
stretches some ways, and there at the other end is
another pub, also called Rooney’s, with a road to the
right beside it. Turn there.” He winked. “Same
A decade ago, Rooneyville would have driven me
distracted. But Irish directions no longer distress me.
They are like coded spiritual messages reminding us that
the journey is more important than the destination, that
not all places are meant to be found, that not all times
are right for the finding. That sometimes what you find
will not be what you sought.
But this time there was no problem: Tony’s
directions brought me straight to a bridge, across which
I saw a drygoods store called McGrail’s. Eternal hope
sprang. But the store was closed, shuttered tight. I
peered into the windows and peeked behind the building.
A fine new house stood beside the store, not physically
attached but close enough to seem a unit. I rang, and
Oliver appeared. He regretted his brother was not
around, the teacher, he would know so much more. But
Oliver could direct me, indeed he could, I was near
enough, just follow the road towards Cuilcagh Mountain,
I would see the signs for the Shannon Pot soon enough, I
I set off again, this time confidently. I had
directions, didn’t I? But no matter how far I drove,
every sign showed seven kilometers from Dowra. Was I
going in circles? It was a perfect spring day, with
sweet sunlight and fragrant air, white maybush and
greening grass. Ah well, I said to myself, at worst I
was having a lovely drive. Then, suddenly, a directional
sign. A few turns, the road narrowing with each one,
then a cattle gate. A small hill. An empty parking lot.
No interpretive center—what Connemara mapmaker Tim
Robinson calls an “interruptive center”—just a
Would there really be a bubbling pool, or was that
just metaphor? Had I driven all day to see a sodden
marsh? Not knowing what to expect, I started down the
path. A bit of a stream ran beside me. Was that the
Shannon? I followed the streamlet downhill.
A cow lowed. Insects buzzed. The creek bubbled.
At the bottom of the hill, a little bridge. A tiny
river flowed under it, perhaps three feet wide: the
Shannon, soon joined by the stream I had been following.
Close to the source, the Shannon was already acting like
a river, pulling tributaries into itself. Across the
bridge, I turned left and took a few steps, then stopped
dead in my tracks.
Before me was the most archetypal landscape I had
ever seen. A round mountain belly rose above me. Two
long flanks of hills reached out to the sides. Where
they joined was an almost perfectly circular pool, the
lifesource of the goddess. The water moved constantly,
bubbling from springs fed by rain from swallowholes in
the white chalk hill above. The pool’s sloping sides
were green and slick. At the one place I could approach,
bright primroses bloomed beneath the surface. I leaned
down, holding my breath. Was the salmon there?
I have known salmon all my life. As a girl in Alaska
I watched them in the shadowy riverbanks, waiting for
the tide to turn, great looming urgent presences, their
gills bloody, their skin torn into shreds by their
headlong migration. My father fed us on salmon he caught
in the churning Kenai River or the placid gray waters of
Lake Louise. Later I fished Prince William Sound for
red-fleshed kings and bargained with Native fishermen on
the Yukon for huge pale dog salmon. Alaska’s salmon
are a different species than Ireland’s, but they share
a homing instinct that leads them from the salt ocean
where they lived amid whales and dolphins, back to the
river mouth they exited as fry, to the exact spot they
hatched years earlier, there to spawn, there to die. Who
is wiser than one who knows the way home?
In Ireland, the salmon run begins just as the
mayflies—their Latin name of ephemeroptera
captures the brevity of their lives—hatch, mate and
die, all within hours. It was spring; scores of mayflies
added agitation to the Shannon Pot. Were I a salmon in
that bubbling pond, I would surely rise to feed. I sat
on the green hillside and waited.
Were those silver fins beneath the water?
I had come without a map to a place where slant light
gleamed on the undersides of slim willow leaves. To a
round pool that bubbled softly. To an opening beneath a
mountain belly from which wisdom might be born. I had
failed in my first attempts to find the source. Might it
not take several visits to win the eye of the salmon of
wisdom? But after all, I reasoned, this was no longer
the age of myth, anything I saw would just be a fish, a
migrating fish that had swum up from Limerick, past
Kilaloe and Portumna, through Lough Ree and Lough Bofin,
past Carrick-on-Shannon—just a fish, no mythic being
with the power to impart wisdom, just a fish after all—
Still I stared at the pool and waited.
Sitting on the green slope, I pondered the
persistence of my search. I was not from the region; I
had no special devotion to the river’s tutelary
goddess, Sionann; yet the image of a circular pool from
which a great river rises held some compelling power to
which I responded. And the Shannon Pot had repaid my
persistence, for on that splendid day in May it was
uncannily beautiful, a place I could credit with
The Apache people of the American southwest say that
“wisdom sits in places” and tell their children to
“drink from places.” Apache sage Dudley Patterson
once described wisdom as “water that never dries up.”
He articulated the connection of place and soul this
way: “You need to drink water to stay alive, don’t
you? Well, you also need to drink from places. You must
learn their names. You must remember what happened at
them long ago.” The Apache are a desert people, but
their idea of wisdom strangely echoes that which of
rainy Ireland. It is important, both say, to repeat the
names of places, for in doing so we evoke their stories.
That happened there: place and story are
deeply tied both Apache and Irish wisdom traditions.
I remembered listening once to the great novelist
Salman Rushdie on the radio, praising the postmodern
world as one in which place has become unnecessary. “The
roots of the self are no longer in places,” he said.
The City is our place now, he proclaimed, not separate
place-bound cities but that exciting multicultural
global City where we will find our stories from now on.
But must a denationalized world, I wondered, be
denaturalized as well? Where is the place for storied
places of the past, places created by nature but filled
with storied wisdom by humans?
But things do not just happen there; they also
happen then. A story makes then and there into
here and now. Past, whether mythic or historical,
connects to future in the momentary present. Story
revivifies place, bring it alive with people and events,
with tears and blood, with tragedy and hope. And some
places draw to themselves more powerful stories than
others. Such a place is the Shannon Pot, where the
maiden Sionann devoured the salmon of wisdom, then
dissolved into Ireland’s greatest river. Philosopher
Mikhail Bakhtin called such places chronotopes,
“where time takes on flesh and becomes visible for
human contemplation; space becomes charged and
responsible to the movements of history and the enduring
character of a people.” At such places, the beauty of
land and the mystery of myth come together so precisely
that it is impossible to tell where one begins, the
Place-stories—from myth, history, rumor, gossip—have
been told and retold for millennia in Ireland, a story
for each name on the map. The traditional poetry called
the Dindshenchas, where we find the tale of the maid
Sionann, was devoted to such place-name narratives.
Within such stories, wisdom lived like a salmon in a
secret pool, for narrative is an ancient way of
preserving human knowledge.
Great places, argued W.B.Yeats, were like great
books, and perhaps even more lasting: “in a little
time, places may begin to seem the only hieroglyphs that
cannot be forgotten.” But I wonder if we will continue
to read those unforgettable texts. So much of what
anthropologist Clifford Geertz calls “local knowledge”
is being lost, in Ireland as elsewhere, and with it, a
certain kind of wisdom. Not a universal, abstract
wisdom, the same no matter where you stand, but wisdom
expressed and embodied in specific places. We still say
we “come from” a place, as though we were birthed by
the earth at a specific spot. Yet who among us knows
that mother place? Who could, like the salmon, find the
My grandparents came from a pre-global village. When
economic exile drove them from Bohola, they left
brothers and parents, cousins and friends. My
grandmother never returned; my grandfather only once, in
his 80’s. Occasional letters carried vital news across
the great water, but everyday news went unexpressed. Did
the old dog die? How was the weather? What color was the
shed painted? We might dismiss such matters as trivial,
but in doing so we would be deaf to the word’s
meaning, for Trivia was the Roman goddess of crossroads.
Every trivial exchange leads us towards or away from
deeper relationship. Without witnessing the trivia of
each other’s days, even kinfolk become strangers.
Unlike Rushdie, I do not warm to the postmodern city,
for I love wild nature in salmon streams and hedgerows,
the weedy corners of my garden, the mating of mayflies,
all those huge and tiny mysteries. I do not yearn to
lose myself in a stream of humanity, however rich and
diverse. For that richness, that diversity has its base
in beloved places of some homeland, without which we
become homogenized into those new beings so aptly dubbed
“airport people,” people whose stylish corporate
surroundings look the same in Tokyo or New York or
Instead of Rushdie’s beloved City, I want the
village. I already live in one,
a global village, albeit a virtual one. I am in daily
touch with a dozen people, weekly with scores. I hear
about Dawn’s accident in Iowa and the bad weather down
Maggie’s way in Florida. I hear about Fiona’s art
opening in Laois, my cousin Mike’s dog trials in
Australia, the marching season in Bob’s Ulster town.
My siblings send around jokes (invariably groaners),
reminders of birthdays, grievances and peeves, song
lyrics. I love this ever-widening pool of relationships
and wonder how, just a few years ago, I lived in a
narrower, more constricted world.
Once we knew our homeplaces, physically, viscerally,
by sight and sound and smell. But we increasingly share
a world for which we have no accurate map, where place
is supplanted by site, homeplace by homepage, the
tactile by the virtual. What is the wisdom of this
village where we can be intimate with people whose
laughter we cannot hear, whose tears we cannot dry? It
would be easy to deny that the virtual world can be
sacred as the Shannon’s source. Easy to demand that we
return to a simpler time when only what the tangible was
real. But human connection has always transcended the
physical. We have always touched even when our bodies
are separate. How many stories have we heard of mothers
who have known the instant their children were hurt? Of
people who saw a relative just at the moment he died in
a distant city? Is not the ultimate virtual reality the
As we learn to navigate this new world, mythic wisdom
becomes more, rather than less, important, for as
Michael Dames has pointed out, myth does not follow a
binary “either/or” logic but employs “both/and”
terms. The salmon of wisdom is named both Fintan and
Goll; it has two eyes and only one; it was once a man
and has always been a salmon; it was only captured by
one person, Fionn and Sionann; the Shannon Pot is a
cauldron and a womb; all and only some of these things
are simultaneously true. To sustain both our literal and
our global villages, we need to learn to think like
that, holding apparent contradictions as equally true.
I sat on the wet grass by the Shannon Pot, pondering
its past and its future.
The willows swayed. The cow lowed. The insects
buzzed. The pool bubbled.
Then, a flash of silver.
Just like that.
Excerpted from The Red-Haired Girl on the Bog: A Celtic Spiritual Geography
(New World Library, 2002). © Copyright Patricia
Patricia Monaghan, one of the leaders of the contemporary earth spirituality movement,
has spent more than 20 years researching and writing about alternative spiritual visions of the earth. Raised in Alaska, where much of her family still lives, she considers herself blessed to have learned the ecology of the taiga, the subarctic forest, in her youth. She was a writer and reporter on science and energy-related issues before turning her attention to the impact of myth on our daily lives.
The worldwide vision of the earth as feminine–as a goddess, called Gaia by the Greeks–led her to recognize the connection between ecological damage and the oppression of the feminine. Much of her work since that time has explored the role of feminine power in our world, in an inclusive and multicultural way. Her newest book, Wild Girls, focuses on the revival of girl power.
In addition to her exacting research, Patricia is an award-winning poet whose work has been set to music and is performed around the world. She is also an acclaimed lecturer who has appeared at hundreds of universities, festivals, bookstores and community centers around the United States and Europe. A longtime member of the Society of Friends (Quakers), she is delighted to have been born on Susan B. Anthony's birthday; Patricia practices several forms of meditation daily and has co-written a book on the subject.
An avid traveler, Patricia has researched earth spirituality and goddess worship on three continents. She has traveled widely in Europe, especially in Ireland; she holds dual US/Irish citizenship and has edited two anthologies of contemporary Irish-American writing. She is at work on a book on Irish spiritual geography and has recently completed editing a book of essays on Irish spirituality.
The widow of acclaimed novelist Robert Shea (Illuminatus!; Shike; Shaman), Patricia lives in Chicago. She is a member of the Resident Faculty at DePaul University's School for New Learning, where she teaches science and literature. Patricia is a reviewer for Booklist, the Journal of the American Library Association.
Patricia's hobbies include gardening, camping, too many crafts to fit in one closet, apparently endless interior decorating and rehab, and talking with her friends. Her theme parties are locally famous.
Email Patricia at: email@example.com
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