God Pods and tea at Glenstal...
Published 05/08/2014 | 02:30
ON a grey morning, I pedal up the long, sloped drive of Glenstal Abbey, and when I arrive, Abbot Mark Patrick Hederman greets me warmly. The man who leads a community of Benedictine monks in Co Limerick laughs heartily as I tell him of my slow progress across the country on a bike.
"I should have sent our two donkeys to help carry your luggage," he says with a Biblical flourish, as I mop my brow inside the monastery, feeling like one of those World Cup footballers nearing the end of extra time.
I'd like to lie down on the ground and lift my legs in the air, as footballers do to ease cramps, but a monastery is probably not the ideal location for that kind of carry-on.
I had just cycled 20km from Limerick city to see Glenstal for the first time. The road out of the city starts with industrial estates, technology parks and shopping centres, and I get lost in a dizzying maze of roundabouts. But once I cross the M7 Dublin motorway, I am out in open country on the road to Murroe, across the rolling hills of East Limerick.
The road up to Glenstal weaves its way through oak woodlands past rhododendrons. Then, I turn a corner and see what seems like a vast Norman Castle, with "Pax" (the Latin for peace") inscribed by the monks at the front.
Before the Benedictines turned it into a monastery, the castle was the home of the Barrington family, who liked to dress up in shining armour like medieval knights.
After I heave myself off the bike, tea and scones are arranged as I sit down in the refectory with Abbot Hederman. He tells me how he came to the monastery first as a 12-year-old to attend the famous boarding school, and has been there for most of his life. "The original intention of the school was that the quiet boys would join the monastery, while the more obstreperous ones would go off to the missions. From my class of 13, five became monks at Glenstal."
The school is now toying with the idea of admitting girls for the first time, but the abbot says this revolutionary step will not happen quickly. "Monasteries do not move in weeks or months, but in thousands of years."
Glenstal would never have become a monastery, were it not for a killing during the War of Independence.
One of the younger Barringtons, Winefred, had a romance going with Captain Biggs, an officer from the hated Black and Tans. The couple were driving to Glenstal, when they ran into an IRA ambush, and Winefred was shot dead. After that, the Barringtons decided it was time to leave Ireland.
The abbot says: "Glenstal was offered to the State as a home for the president, but Liam Cosgrave turned it down."
It would have been an ideal áras for President Michael D Higgins. He goes there regularly to seek sanctuary.
Prayers start at 6.30am - according to Brother Hederman, some visitors find that too early "to say hello to God". They finish with vespers in the evening and Gregorian chant.
At the silent evening meal, a member of the congregation reads aloud while monks and visitors eat.
Brother Hederman is keen to show me one the monastery's most recent innovations, the "God Pods".
The tiny wooden structures on the edge of a field are inspired by the ancient beehive huts at Skellig Michael, off the coast of Kerry, and cater for all the needs of the 21st century hermit.
Promoting the pods, the abbot sounds briefly like a spiritual estate agent.
"Here you are in direct contact with the divine," he says. "It's a red hot line to God."
"There are no wi-fi or internet connections here, but complete silence.
"One of the features of modern life is that people can't cope with silence. We had one pair who came on a motorbike, and one of them hated the fact that there was no noise. So, every so often he insisted on turning on the motorbike engine."
The God Pods may be offline, but the media-savvy monks have not been afraid to use social media to promote their spiritual message. In the shop they sell a range of Glenstal-branded goods, including "monastic licqueurs and dessert truffles".
The abbot asks me to stay for lunch, but sadly there is no time to linger. I glide off down the avenue past the donkeys, the cows and the lake.
Back in Limerick, I stop off at a centre of less silent contemplation, the White House bar on O'Connell Street.
This was once the beating bohemian heart of Limerick, attracting everyone from Jack Charlton to Che Guevara (who knocked back whiskey) and poet Robert Graves.
Graves apparently refused to drink there unless a signed picture of his arch-enemy, the poet Ezra Pound, was removed; this led to the memorable local quip: "Pound devalued in White House."
Kate Hennessy, a local artist, says the pub's most celebrated owner, Eamonn Gleeson, made women feel at home when other bars shunned them. However, he had a dislike of Jesuit priests, and dubbed them the "black aristocracy".
At the door of the White House is a curious memorial to a plumber, Jock Hunter, a regular at the bar. It consists of cement blocks that had been mixed with his ashes surrounded with metal pipe.
The White House holds open mic nights, where visiting poets can read their work. As one observer noted: Limerick poetry, like rugby, is not an elitist sport.
The pub proudly declares that to drink there, it helps to be 'a little bit mad'. But one has to be madder still to leave there at 7pm in the evening on a bike and head for an unknown destination.