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Patricia Monaghan

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.

The Goddess Path by Patricia Monaghan

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 family.”

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 would indeed.

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 path.

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.

The Goddess Companion by Patricia Monaghan

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 nurturing wisdom.

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 other ends.

The New Book of Goddesses and Heroines by Patricia Monaghan

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 way back?

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 Dublin.

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 soul?

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.

And gone.

Just like that.

Excerpted from The Red-Haired Girl on the Bog: A Celtic Spiritual Geography 
(New World Library, 2002). © Copyright Patricia Monaghan.

Wild Girls by Patricia Monaghan

Meditations by Patricia Monaghan

Magical Gardens by Patricia Monaghan

The Office Oracle by by Patricia Monaghan

Patricia Monaghan
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: pmonagha@wppost.depaul.edu


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