A long time ago I read Seamus Heaney’s poem
About Gallarus Oratory, then I thought I’d find
My way there when I was living at Dingle.
The “core of dark” which Heaney had spoken of,
Lying within its windowless pile of stones,
Somehow held the promise of illumination.
After a windswept, cliff-edged graveyard
(Which Brendan Behan had once joked
Was “the healthiest graveyard in Ireland”),
There rose a diminutive chapel with room
For few to do much in the way of orating.
This was Séipéilín Ghallarais,
‘The Church of the Place of the Foreigners’.
A tiny smudge on the horizon at Ard na Caithne,
Swelling up from the turf to a sharp point.
I entered, and I felt this black glow.
A few holy snatches came to mind.
I found myself testing the air with them,
For there was no one for miles around.
The stones’ structure held an empowering space.
A fruitful limbo that hovered between life and death.
It seemed a place where goodness could happen,
And also somewhere you could hear an inner voice
Getting louder, and resonating within the chamber
Until you had to apologize for talking to yourself
To a nebulous presence known to the cold air –
To the something that imbued this pile of stones,
And marinated them in prayer and reflection.
The Oratory has stood there since the sixth century.
It offers nothing: no food, no drink,
No mind-expanding chemicals,
Yet it feeds those entering its realm.
Heaney spoke of his being in it alone,
And of having the sense “of dropping
To the heart of the globe.”
That felt about right: a dark-age diving suit
In which to sink down, past the beaten earth floor
And then, reinforced, to ascend just as easily
To where the pointed roof indicated, and beyond.
I felt that Gallarus was there to teach silence,
And to offer the subversive reassurance
That there’s still something that’s not for sale.