Thin Places (Or, the Goat Leg)

Empty your heart of its mortal dream. -William Butler Yeats

Have you heard of “thin places“? It’s originally a Celtic term — the idea that some places on earth are “thin” and therefore closer to “the other side,” whatever that might be.

Ireland is one of those places. Unless you’ve experienced it, it’s a difficult feeling to describe — it’s like you want to enter it, but there’s no “it” to enter. A line I wrote in my travel journal sums it up: “I want to walk away into the mist and leave everything worldly behind.” You feel it walking along the Cliffs of Moher, you feel it watching the ocean break on the coastline, you feel it driving through the bog.

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Admittedly — I totally set myself up to “feel it.” I’ve always been interested in Irish mythology, so I read a lot of Yeats before our trip. In the late 19th century, Yeats collected traditional folk tales about “the gentle folk.” And let me tell you — all in all, the gentle folk aren’t all that gentle.

They steal children, they carry away maidens, they trick and deceive. Basically, if you feel drawn to “walk away into the mist” — NOPE, turn around, it’s probably a fairy trying to trick you. And fairies weren’t the only things to look out for — there were also mermaids (and mermen), banshees, puca (changelings which often took the form of goats). If you saw the color red (the color of magic, according to Yeats), watch out.

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While it’s true that the “old ways” are mostly gone, you still get traces of them here and there. At Blarney Castle, there’s an ancient cave where they claim a witch used to live. And every August, the town of Killorglin in Kerry still celebrates Puck Fair — a festival where they capture a wild goat and name it king of the town for three days.

 

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We passed Killorglin at the start of our Ring of Kerry tour. Kerry is a county in Ireland, and it’s a wild place. Bogs and heath give way to uplands of shale, with sheep grazing wherever they can find vegetation. The predominant color in March: rusty brown shot through with yellow flowering gorse.

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A low mist hung over everything, giving an other-worldly glow — a feeling only heightened when we passed the Eightercua stones.

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Our tour paused at Killarney National Park so we could get out and hike up to Torc waterfall. Now, we’re from the Northwest, which is famed for its greenery. But the hike up to this waterfall — crazy green. Moss covered the trees, the rocks, every possible nook and cranny. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such intense, all-encompassing green. It almost hurt your eyes to look at it.

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Up at the falls, after I’d taken a few photos, Byron said, “I think I see evidence of magic.” He pointed — I saw a red coffee cup sitting next to the trail.

Now, Byron knew I’d been reading all these Yeats books, and he’d been giving me a bit of good-natured teasing. (He’ll probably protest. But I’m calling a spade a spade.) I had told him earlier in the trip about the color red and its association with magic.

“Ha ha,” I said.

“No,” he said. “There.”

I looked. A few feet away from the cup, placed neatly next to the walking path, lay a soggy goat foreleg. If the size hadn’t given it away, the hoof would have. It was unbloodied and, apart from being disembodied, perfectly intact.

“Where did that come from?” I said.

“It must be magic!” Byron said. “I don’t know how else it could have gotten there.”

“Or something ate it,” I said. We’d seen goats wandering the park minutes before.

“But where’s the rest of the body?” Byron said.

It was true — there was no sign of the rest of the goat. And the foreleg was so very neatly cut off — no sign of gnawing or bits of fur lying around. It seemed too clean to be an animal kill. And the way it was lined up next to the path, it did look like someone had placed it there.

“Why would someone put it there?” I said.

“I don’t know. Maybe an offering? It does feel like a magical place.”

I stared at the goat leg for a few moments more, both repulsed and fascinated.

“Are you going to take a picture?” Byron said.

I didn’t take a picture. There is no photographic evidence of the goat leg. I didn’t want the gentle folk to take offense.

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