I’ve had many people ask me about a certain picture on my website, where I’m standing against a gray stone wall on a windswept day in the middle of an Irish field, with what are obviously the ruins of a monastery behind me. Observant people have thought, “Wait, there’s a ruined monastery behind her, why is her back turned as she looks into the camera, holding a set of keys in her hand as if it were the bigger focal point?” I’m glad for the opportunity to explain that picture here.
We kind of knew where we were heading, my friend Tama and I, and by this I mean we had a loose plan with regard to how we were going to spend the afternoon in Gort, Ireland. We’d been freewheeling across the countryside in a rented car the size of a matchbox, its steering wheel on the right side while we drove on the left of the two-lane road as if trying to best a test for dyslexia.
Tama is a devout Catholic, who has a thing about historic churches, which is why we couldn’t have adhered to a plan had we made one. “Stop,” Tama would shout each time we spied one of the dim, ominous structures in the distance. We’d scratch the gravel driveway and wander inside, our solitary footsteps crossing the marble floor in a tread lightly and humble yourself echo off the cavernous vaulted ceiling. We did this so many times that after yet another sweep inside a church, I’d leave Tama to light a red votive candle and fall to her pious knees while I wandered the graveyards and read the tombstone inscriptions thinking about impermanence; knowing I was passing through in more ways than one.
I thought I was alone in the graveyard when a voice sailed from behind me. “Have you found your way to Kilmacduagh monastery?” it queried. I turned to find a young woman taking in my outlander attire of all-weather jacket and rubber-soled shoes. “It’s just up the road there,” she pointed. “You’ll want to knock on the door of the middle house across the road and ask Lily for the keys.”
I was standing behind Tama when she knocked on the front door of a low slung house on a sparsely populated lane. Across the lane, placid fields of damp clover shimmered in the afternoon mist as far as the eye could see. On one verdant field, a series of interspersed ruins jutted in damp metal-gray; some without roofs, some with wrought-iron gates, one in particular beside a towering stone spire with two windows cut in vertical slashes above a narrow door. When the front door opened, a pair of blue water eyes gave us the once over with a suspicious, “Yes?”
“Are you Lily?” Tama asked.
“I am,” the woman stated.
“We’re here for the keys,” Tama said.
“The keys, is it? Just a moment there,” Lily said, and after she closed the door, Tama and I stood on the doorstep wordlessly, waiting for the next thing to happen. Seconds later, the door opened and Lily handed us a set of long metal keys. “Just slip them through the door slot when you’re through,” she said with a quick nod and closed the door.
There was no indication of which key went to what, among the cluster of gates and doors throughout the 7th-century monastery called Kilmacduagh, but after enough scrambling, we figured it out. I was so tickled over being given the keys that I couldn’t get over it. “Is this weird?” I said to Tama. “We could be anybody. It feels like we’ve been given the keys to the kingdom without being vetted. It’s not that there’s anything anybody could steal, but that’s not the point.
I could wax rhapsody over the hours we spent unlocking gates, pushing through doors and climbing the ruins of the eerie, hallowed grounds, but that’s not my point either. My point is that’s Ireland for you: a stranger offering directions without being asked, Lily handing over the keys like an afterthought, and Tama and I trolling the grounds of historic, sacred space when nobody else was around.
A German couple appeared as we made our way back up the lane. They looked at us wide-eyed and queried, “What is this place?”
“It’s a 7th century monastery,” I said, “here, take these keys and slip them through Lily’s door when you’re through.”
Claire Fullerton is the author of Dancing to an Irish Reel, A Portal in Time, Mourning Dove, and coming May 1st, Litle Tea.