Sunday 25 June 2017

Lay of the land: Spirit of the season can be found all around us

Realistic burning candle. Eps 10
Realistic burning candle. Eps 10

Fiona O'Connell

This county town is buzzing with festive cheer - even if Santa Claus has moved on from his headquarters on Main Street. We miss having him here, of course. But it is only fair to share - especially as that's the spirit of Christmas.

Signs of which are everywhere, including the one in the hardware store about a hamper raffle in aid of the county's Search and Rescue. Or outside the senior citizen's second-hand shop in the concert hall, where two volunteers were admiring the arch of Christmas lights. Seamus, who fundraises for the Community Centre, had put them up.

Sadly, there are also signs of the troubled times beyond this country town, such as the notice in the library about a concert of 'Sacred Music From Paris', scene of the recent terrorist bombings. If music is the food of love, as the bard said, then surely this is lighting a candle instead of cursing the darkness.

Speaking of which, placing a candle in a window as a sign of welcome for Mary and Joseph on Christmas Eve is still a hugely popular custom, though many light them in memory of loved ones who are particularly missed this special season.

For just as midnight mass is arguably more a social than religious occasion, the human spirit expresses itself well enough without official pomp and ceremony. So it was in penal times when Catholics, Presbyterians, Quakers and other denominations were forbidden to practice their religion.

Catholics attended Mass Rocks in remote valleys and on hillsides, where worshippers could disperse quickly if discovered - which likely happened in one place on the outskirts of this town.

I sometimes visit it on my late brother's anniversary, which falls over Christmas. Though he is not buried there, it feels appropriate to remember him on this hallowed ground without walls, floor or roof.

The sacred site is biblical in its simplicity, marked only by a metal cross outside the turnstile, after which you pass stables en route to an old gate. Then you are facing down a wide green road, just as countless people have done before you.

The green road curves gently around, emerging into a clearing with streams on all sides where a final gate brings you to layer upon layer of relics, from ancient to medieval to modern times. Stone pews line the bordering walls of stone, before an altar constructed of dolmen-like slabs.

Beyond this rough-hewn place of prayer lies a field of graves, some so old that they no longer bear inscription, if they ever did. Others are once grand family plots.

This cemetery winds up a hill, where you can see the land for miles around. But there is no need to fear, during this or any season. For despite so many appearances to the contrary, love is all around.

Sunday Independent

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