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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

15 December 2023

Malcolm Guite returns to Glendalough, in Co. Wicklow, 46 years since his first visit

THERE is a special pleasure in returning to places where one has had some significant encounter or insight — places that, for that reason, have remained vivid in one’s mind.

I had just that pleasure recently when I revisited Glendalough, in Co. Wicklow, a sacred monastic site, dedicated in honour of St Kevin, and a place of pilgrimage since the sixth century. I first ventured there in 1977, as a 19-year-old pilgrim, who had yet to discover the true meaning of his pilgrimage. I was walking slowly round Ireland in my “gap year”, drawn to the island more by a love of literature than by any grasp, as yet, of its deep Christian heritage.

It had been quite a contrast to come to this magical glen with its two beautiful lakes, its round tower, and the ruins of its churches and hermit cells, after all the urbane delights of Dublin. In Dublin, I had been tracing the steps of Leopold Bloom, my worn copy of Ulysses in hand, and reciting Yeats’s “Easter, 1916”, among the “grey eighteenth-century houses”, reflecting on the “terrible beauty” that was born there; but, at Glendalough, I was in another, earlier world.

The sheer beauty of the valley, the sense of its continuity as a place of prayer, moved me, made me want to pray, but, as an agnostic, I didn’t know how or to whom; so, I recited poetry instead: some lines of early Irish verse in translation, which I was carrying with me, hoping that the old hermit-poet’s faith would stand in for my hesitancy:

I wish, O Son of the living God, O ancient,
    eternal King,

For a hidden little hut in the wilderness that
    it may be my dwelling.

An all-grey lithe little lark to be by its side,
A clear pool to wash away sins through the
    grace of the Holy Spirit.

But now, on my return, 46 years later, I could make that prayer my own, and join it for a moment with all the prayer that rises and has risen from that place.

There were only a few other people there; for it was a dark, bitterly cold December day, but three young men appeared from one of the ruins, long-haired and with braided beards, looking for all the world like some of the stone carvings or figures in illuminated manuscripts that I had seen.

They were, in fact, musicians on tour, who had come down from Dublin to touch the earth in a sacred space. We got on well, and exchanged songs and poems, and, a little later, having left them, I walked up near Kevin’s cell, and saw, just on the fringe of the woods, three deer come down to graze and look at me with their gentle eyes. I half wondered whether these were not the three whom I had met before, but transformed, for a while, as in so many Irish stories, into deer.

My companion, a priest in the Church of Ireland, recalled the story of the three strangers who came to Abraham at the Oak of Mamre, and we set off back to Dublin, feeling that, in one way or another, we had been blessed by the Trinity.

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