“O Fintan,” said the king, “and Ireland, how has it been partitioned, where have things been therein?”
“Easy to say,” said Fintan: “Knowledge in the west, battle in the north, prosperity in the east, music in the south, kingship in the centre.”
-- from “The Settling of the Manor of Tara”
Irish mythology associates the west of Ireland with knowledge, and we are very much in the west today on Inishmore, the largest of the Aran islands in Galway Bay. This afternoon we’ll be standing high above the Atlantic’s edge on the cliffs at Dun Aengus, a windswept prehistoric fortress on the west coast. For now, however, we’re visiting a gentler and more sheltered spot nestled in the hills. It’s a small monastic site which was founded by Saint Brecan and remained a place of learning and pilgrimage for many centuries back when Ireland was renowned in the Middle Ages as a land of saints and scholars. The name itself -- the Seven Churches -- is something of a mystery since there are only two churches here, but that name is modern anyway. The community was known as Dísert Brecán in medieval times: “Brecan’s desert,” evoking the earliest monastic traditions of the desert fathers who withdrew from society to seek God in solitude.
What knowledge do we gain from this place in the west of Ireland? Consider it on two levels like that poem by Seamus Heaney about Saint Kevin. What’s apparent on the surface is that this place is cluttered, literally crowded with the dead. Broken shafts of high crosses with twelfth-century interlace stand guard over graves adorned with photographs, the medieval and the modern meeting in a way that seems very Irish. There are other places to be buried on the island, but this is considered very sacred ground, and so the dead keep squeezing in.