Despite our lingering warm weather, we are entering the autumn season of the year. The ancient Celts called this the “thin time”, culminating with the Feast of Samhain on October 31st. References to the “thin time” and to “thin places” are a major aspect of Celtic spirituality. At this time and in those places, the boundary between heaven and earth is especially thin, and one can more readily sense the divine. The veil between our world and the Other World thins out, making the Other World nearer to us. In the same sense, thin places are marked by the presence of human spirits, those who have gone before us. It is said that truth—raw, hard, naked truth—abides in these places, but that we are given the strength and grace to be in the presence of such truth. Whether one senses the divine in the essence of God or in the essence of nature depends on whether one is a Celtic pagan or a Celtic Christian.
My wife and I have an expression that, when uttered by one, is immediately recognized by the other. On cool days of misting rain, one of us will say to the other, “it’s a day on the Dingle,” and we both are transported in our memories of visits to Ireland. The Dingle Peninsula on the Western coast of Ireland has to be one of the most mystical places in the world. Anyone who has been there will tell you that the Dingle is a very thin place.
The town of Dingle is located on the Southwest side of the Peninsula. The harbor is filled with fishing boats belonging to those who make their living on the sea. In earlier times, pilgrims from the British Isles left from the Dingle harbor making their way by sea to Santiago da Compostela, the famous shrine of St. James on the western coast of Spain. From Dingle, one can follow the Slea Head Loop along the western coast of the peninsula. Along the road are beehive huts, oratories, monastic ruins, cross slabs and ancient cemeteries.
The Fahan beehive huts, also called Caher Conor, are located along the Slea Head Loop. There are five huts. It is unknown whether the huts were the settlement of a monastic order or single family homes, built by Celts who had been driven to the coast by Viking invaders. But given the numerous monastic ruins along this road, it would be logical to assume that hermit monks inhabited the huts at a time prior to living in full community. The huts were constructed by circles of successive strata, each built a little closer to the center, so that the top could be closed by a single capstone. No mortar was used in the construction of the drystone hut with corbelled roof, called a clochán by the Irish.
Beehive huts were not invented by the Celts, but can be traced much farther back in time. The tholos, a circular or beehive tomb, was used for burial by early Mediterranean societies. These tombs appeared on the island of Crete during the early Minoan period. They were built in a similar style to the Mycenaean chamber tombs, also with corbelled vaults. The Treasury of Atreus, sometimes called the Tomb of Agamemnon, is a fine example of these Mycenaean tombs. Atreus dates from around 1250 BCE.
The Gallarus Oratory, an early Celtic Christian church on the Dingle, overlooks the harbor at Ard na Caithne. It is the perfect example of an upturned boat, in the style of the boats commonly seen at the Dingle harbor. This construction also uses techniques of the Neolithic tomb makers. The stones are laid, without mortar, at a slight angle to allow water to run off. Residents of the Dingle refer to Gallarus Oratory as “The Church of the Place of the Foreigners”. Corbel vaulting completes the construction. The thick oratory walls are made of sandstone. At the side of the North wall stands a leacht and cross slab, designed with the equal-armed cross within a circle.
Celtic Christianity in Ireland dates from the late fifth century. It is closely linked to the traditional clan relationships. A monastery might well be built on a tract of land belonging to a particular clan. The monastic system was established by Saints Brendan, ColumCille, and Columbanus, pre-dating the arrival of St. Patrick. Celtic Christianity is closely related to Domestic Spirituality, a vision of God in all things unique to the British Isles. Major sources, such as the Bobbio and the Stowe Missal, provide many clues to monastic life in this rugged and often naturally violent region. Traditions and practices frequently differed from and caused great conflict with Rome. It is interesting that the Celtic monks did not fear pagan learning, thereby preserving many ancient manuscripts that otherwise might have been destroyed. Looking at their living conditions, it seems that they feared nothing!
Skellig Michael, across the bay from the Dingle, was home to an Augustinian monastery, built between the eighth and twelfth centuries. The monastery was dissolved in 1578, during the reign of Elizabeth-R I. The ruins and cemetery still remain atop the mountain island.
Whether or not you believe these sites to be “thin places”, one cannot fail to grasp the mystery and mysticism that surrounds them. Standing beside a beehive hut or outside the oratory, one cannot help but wonder, “Who lived here?”, “Who died here?”, “For what or whom did they pray?” There is a sense that time stops in these places. There is an overwhelming sense of our own smallness in a far vaster spiritual world. And yet, we belong there, knowing that those who have come before us have laid a solid foundation in which we can have a sure and certain hope.