—John O’Donohue, Anam Cara
A shell-shaped spiral emerged in my center when my child-eyes first beheld the rugged cove outside the cottage where I was born on the west coast of Ireland. The clear wavelets lapped over gray-blue rocks and my little pink toes, and washed into my fragile senses. This shape was all around me as I grew—mollusca, seahorses, and scolelepis squamata (the Bristleworm, slender bluish green, who swims in spirals when disturbed)—and I collected many to set upon my shelf.
The Gaelic tongue curled into the whirls of my ear, to the spiral ganglion, sending the sound to my brain when my mother called me home across fields of high grass (gabh isteach!) or my own voice raised in song (amhran) or my grandmother (mathair mhor) murmured her love, saying “Tagraagam duit.” The lonely tones of a uileann pipe chased the wind through mist-kissed air to rustle the leaves of the wild cherry tree I climbed.
When I was four years old, my mother held my newborn sister in her arms and I put my hand upon her small head, smoothing her silky black hair.
“See this place where God breathed life into her,” my mother said. “Right here on the top of her head it was; see how her hair grows around and around the spot. It happened just the same way with you, love.”
She cupped her hand on the top of my head and smiled.
My grandfather took me for long walks along leafy lanes. One autumn day he pointed to a falling leaf.
“Watch the wind waft it down in spiralesque whooshes, darling,” he said. He reached down and pulled the ribbon from my head and my long hair lifted and fanned out and wrapped around my face. The sound of our laughter rose and was carried off.
He put his gnarled finger on the tip of mine and whispered that the spirals there were my very own print, with none other like it in the wide world. He told me about limitless galaxies that danced in space in the very same shape, and magnetic fields that drew objects together. He showed me rings upon a freshly chopped tree trunk, and tendrils of flower stems and vines which grew in loops.
Some days at dusk, I stood on the shore and watched for my father’s boat on distant waves. He’d told me that the oceans ushered their tides in and out in a spiral motion, and I trusted the sea to return him to me in just this same way.
Smoke snaked into my nostrils from a peat fire in the hearth of our cottage then again in another cottage, then again in another, illuminating, cooking, warming and ever burning—smoldering overnight then blown to orangish life in the morning. The smell wound around my redbright heart while my family slept and waked and worked and ate and stared into those licking flames; we were warmed outside and in.
I remember arcs of sparks leaping from fires.
A strange thing happened to me when I was fourteen, walking home late one night across a high plain in County Kerry. Across the black inkspill of sky I saw fires on far horizons. Suddenly, my spirit flew backwards over decades, centuries, millenniums to a night halfway between Spring Equinox and Summer Solstice. I was standing inside a circle of gigantic stones and there were fires everywhere. The warm earth pulsed under my bare feet and a restless breeze raised the hair on my arms. A heavy cloak pressed my shoulders (I knew, of course, that it was white). My raised hand held a dagger.
Bealtaine, the fire festival.
I was at the place of seventeen pillars, Drombeg, called Druid’s Altar, over in County Cork, miles from my home. I knew the bonfires were the burning of winter bedding and floor coverings, and some saw witches jumping through flames in ethereal ecstasy while others performed rituals to protect people from otherworldly spirits. It was the Bronze Age. As I stood surrounded by the stones, spirals sparked from the fire and sprinkled down from shooting stars straight into me.
And just as suddenly as I’d appeared at the bonfires, I was at the gate of our cottage—my hand on the latch, my feet on the path. It was like something out of a story, it was, that apparition of myself. Even now when I think of that dagger, I am filled with fright. Have I been gifted with a faery life?
It sounds strange, but the spirals I felt that night remained inside me, wrapping around time and place, turning memory to experience and experience to memory, in spite of time’s insistence otherwise. What is this shape that laps around and around my awareness of the real?
These ancient symbols existed before the written word. Before the pyramids emerged in Egypt, in a place called Newgrange on the eastern side of Ireland, the people sensed something quickening inside their bodies when they looked up at the swirling of the heavens. They sought to imprint this upon their stones, to show order coming out of chaos. The spiral’s mystical powers were thought to repel evil spirits from entering tombs, and the stones of Newgrange were covered with these curving carvings.
Bees danced in a spiral near their hive, revealing the source of honey I collected as a young woman. It was for the making of the mead: ambrosia, honey-wine, the Nectar of the Gods, which promised pleasures of the palate and the flesh, and quickened the mysterious pulsings of arousal that were beginning to stir in my blood when I felt the touch of a certain young man.
My people always felt this force whisking through their beings, so they carved, painted, and drew it upon their treasures: jewelry, tools, precious metalwork, and always the stones.
What does the shape signify? The self expanding out or the natural world reaching in? The spiritual balance between ourselves, the sun, and the Cosmos? Land, sea, sky or the holy trinity? The constant spiraling of the soul through death, initiation and rebirth? The answer is unknown because myths and spiritual ideas in Celtic culture were passed down one generation at a time, through ritual, storytelling, music and dance, but never the written word because these secrets were too sacred.
One thing is sure: theories and sophisticated stories were spun to explain our existence, and we Irish developed brilliant minds and unparalleled lyrical grace that remained unsullied through centuries of enslavement.
Throughout my years in Ireland, the green ribbon grew like stardust out of a magic wand, sparking in one long line that looped up and around and through my eyes, ears, skin, hair and heart, tingeing my life with magic.
Childhood passed swiftly. It seemed suddenly I was a grown woman living in America, married into a clan who kept Irish traditions by producing a never-ending stream of children, celebrating life’s end with four-day-long wakes, and declaring love often with kisses on the lips and long-winded, sentimental toasts.
Now my home is Washington State where the rain keeps everything green, but I pine for patchwork farms and roads lined with wild fuchsias. I think of Ireland so often that this country intertwines with that country until both places are one.
The ring I wear has three spirals, the tristele, a tiny silver reminder of what winds within. This shape is, to me, alainn: beautiful. I chose it to decorate my home: my favorite upholstered chair is covered with gold threads of spirals, the rug beneath my feet is bordered with wavelets of them, and a print upon my wall of van Gogh’s Starry Night has in its center an undulating starswirl in greeny white-blue—all around my house spirals pirouette. There is even a calligraphic curlicue at the top of the first letter of my own symbolic name.
I see widening gyres in my mind’s eye, next to me on life’s journey, gently rolling or flying forward. Through times of poisonous loneliness, stinging sorrow, or the dark grip of grief, they illuminate my path like a chain of tiny emeralds pulled across an expanse of black velvet, making visible the invisible, making brighter the divine.
These sixth-sense Irish arabesques steer clear of the English in me, and skirt the Scottish, but cling to my Americanness. Their motion is ceaseless, their repetition reassuring—up and down and around and around again and again, these Celtic spirals, spinning on their predestined course. They are mine to keep; when my spirit leaves my body they will fly with me.
I came again to that Kerry coastline years later and the vortex inside me lit up like phosphorescence. As I stood on the bluff over Ventry Bay, out of the corner of my eye I saw tips of long strands that ignited and flashed from auburn to silver as the breeze again swirled my hair around my shoulders.
I returned, with my husband and sons, to fields where black and white cows lounged in front of rugged castle and cathedral ruins, to the land of the navigator whose name I gave one of my strapping sons, and the place that holds the illuminated manuscript the other son is named after. The taste of soda bread dripping with butter and honey orbited my tongue, taking me back to simple meals with many bodies wedged around a rough-hewn table inside a country cottage.
John O’Donohue, Irish poet, philosopher and scholar, wrote that the eternal world and the mortal world are not parallel, but fused, as captured in the Gaelic phrase “fighte fuaighte,” “woven into and through each other.” I felt this fusion when I returned alone at night to that megalithic circle.
Drombeg sat silent and stoic upon its high plain, the stones shimmering silver in the moonlight. I had heard when the site was excavated they had found the remains of an adolescent wrapped in a thick cloth inside a pot in the circle’s center. I stood again inside the circle remembering the raised dagger and the hair on my arms rose: what had happened the night I crossed over?
When all is said and done, how do we not know but that our own unreason may be better than another’s truth?
For it has been warmed on our hearths and in our souls, and is ready for the wild bees of truth to hive in it, and make their sweet honey.
—William Butler Yeats, Celtic Twilight
I ask: is a soul decorated only with the times and places that the body inhabits? Is not the lace we are made of more intricate and complicated than that, woven of what exists within our senses and what we sense from our existence? Is yours forged within the confines of reality? Mine is not.
For I was not born in Ireland, nor did I grow in many cottages there, or climb the wild cherry to the echo of the uileann. I first set foot on Irish soil when there were slivers of silver in my reddish hair and my sons were nearly grown. But when I arrived, it was—to every cell in my body, each neuron in my brain, and all the sensors in my spirit—a homecoming, a return. The coils inside me glowed and sizzled as I remembered—in the truest sense of my experience of memory—a past I didn’t possess.
Unreasonable to some, perhaps. But whether placed there gingerly by my ancestors—for I am surely of Irish heritage—or, stranger still, through a series of previous lives spanning thousands of years, these curls cling sweetly. I suppose there is a way to test the truth of this.
Into my soul, which has been honeycombed with golden spirals, I invite the bees.
Erin Byrne is a writer whose work explores travel, cultural and political themes. Her essays have won numerous awards including five Solas Awards from Travelers’ Tales Best Travel Writing, and the Grand Prize at the Book Passage Travel, Food and Photography Conference. Erin’s work has appeared in Everywhere magazine, World Hum, The Literary Traveler, Brave New Traveler, Travelers’ Tales, and a variety of other publications.
Her essay about Winged Victory is included in the anthology The Best Travel Writing 2011. A new piece about van Gogh will be in the upcoming issue of Crab Creek Review. Erin is a guest instructor of the Evening Writing Workshop at Shakespeare and Company Bookstore in Paris.
Erin is currently working on Wings From Victory, a collection of essays about Paris, Solange, a novel of the French Revolution, and Siesta, a screenplay to be filmed in Spain. She lives with her family in the Seattle area. A complete list of awards and links to Erin’s work can be found at www.e-byrne.com.
Her story, “Spirals — Memoir of a Celtic Soul,” won the Grand Prize Silver Award in the Sixth Annual Solas Awards.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.