Most Unforgettable Character Category—Silver Winner: Pilgrimages to the Edge

by Eileen M. Cunniffe

If I hadn’t been spooked by a newspaper headline, I wouldn’t have found myself in an ambulance on Achill Island, off the coast of Ireland. Of course I wouldn’t have met Pat either, and that would be my great misfortune. The bold headline, glimpsed over the shoulder of a fellow passenger on a Galway-bound bus from Shannon International, read as follows: 10 DEAD IN ROAD ACCIDENTS IN ONE WEEKEND. Hardly encouraging news the day before I was to collect a rental car and begin working my way up Ireland’s jagged west coast.

Being in Ireland is one of my greatest pleasures; driving there is not. And this time I was on my own, which meant I’d have to both drive and navigate the narrow roads, all the while dodging unforgiving stone walls on one side and oncoming traffic on the other. The one side and the other were, of course, the opposite of what I was used to at home.

My destination was Ballycastle, a tiny seaside village in north County Mayo, where my parents were spending six weeks. With a rented cottage as their home base, my mother happily painted in a nearby studio while my father made the most of a sojourn in the county where his parents were born and where many of his cousins still live. When my parents had stayed there the first time two years earlier, I’d traveled to Ballycastle with my sister and her family, taking the direct inland route, a three-hour drive from Galway. This time, I wanted to explore a few more pockets of western Ireland, so I’d set a slower course along the coast, allowing myself three days to reach Ballycastle from Galway.

I’d planned my moves carefully, breaking the drive into short segments and rewarding myself with cozy hotel rooms in mostly pedestrian-friendly towns where I could park once, then do my exploring on foot. One of my planned stops was Achill Island, which had been on my Irish to-do list for some time. But would I dare to drive around the beautiful, roller-coaster terrain of Achill on my own? Even before I spotted the off-putting headline, I had my doubts. I’d booked a room at Ostan Oilean Acla (Achill Island Hotel), just steps from where the bridge from the mainland makes landfall, thereby hedging my bets. I’d be on Achill for less than 24 hours; if there was even a whiff of rain or fog, I could skip the sightseeing and write postcards.

Why was I going to Achill anyway? What was I trying to prove, and to whom, by driving myself around steep cliffs on a remote island where I didn’t know a soul? In half a dozen visits to Ireland, I had developed this habit of island-hoppingleaving the mainland to explore obscure specks of land that fringe the coast. On every trip, I found myself seeking out new islands, flirting with the western edges of Ireland and, therefore, of Europe. Where had this urge come from? Literature, I’d always assumed.

Long before I first set foot on Irish soil in my mid-30s, I yearned to visit the Aran Islands, off the coast near Galway. I’d developed a romantic attachment to these stony scraps when, as a college student, I read J. M. Synge’s plays, set in rural western Ireland, and his memoir, The Aran Islands, which is part ethnographic study, part valentine to the hardy inhabitants of Inishmore, Inishmaan and Inisheer. My grandparents all had emigrated from Ireland as young people, and Synge painted a picture of rural Irish life as I imagined it had been for them. He also captured the odd blend of optimism, fatalism and humor that made them who they weresons and daughters of Ireland, but also survivors, adventurers, who left everything they knew and ferried their dreams across the Atlantic, where they’d taken root in Philadelphia’s burgeoning Irish community.

As a child I learned that the words “home” and “back home,” when used by my grandparents, always referred to Ireland. But not one of my grandparents had ever gone back home. I never asked why, or even if they had wanted to. By the time these questions had fully formed themselves in my mind, it was too late to ask. I grew up with the impression that when you left Ireland, you said goodbye for good; for my grandparents’ generation, there were few exceptions to this rule: One of my father’s aunts did go back once in her middle years, a voyage I learned about long after the fact; I imagine that trip as bittersweet, for in the end she’d had to leave again. When I was eight, two of my mother’s aunts came from Ireland and stayed with us for several weeksthe only time in my grandfather’s life he was reunited with these two sisters, nearly 40 years after he’d left home. We called them “the flying aunts”: no one we knew had ever crossed the ocean in an airplane before.

In those days I never dreamed I’d visit Ireland; the world was a bigger place then, and people didn’t move about it so freely. I could not have imagined I would be reunited with one of the flying aunts near the end of her life and would meet four generations of cousins scattered clear across Ireland. A well-fingered book of Irish fairy tales was the only passport I carried as a child. I memorized Irish emigrant and rebel songs, leafed through yellowed songbooks, played Irish record albums over and over. Ireland was the bravest, most magical place I knew, but as unreachable for me as Shangri-La.
When the world shrunk and eventually I did get there, I was struck by the way my Irish cousinsin Mayo, Sligo and Derryall used the word “home” in relation to their American visitors. They talked about us coming home to Irelandmy parents, me, my aunts and uncles, my siblings. They said “home” without even thinking about it”that time when James was home” or “now that you’re home.”

Each time I hear “home” in that context, the word falls on my ears as equal parts welcome and something else, too; the faintest of accusations, perhaps? It’s almost as if we’re the ones who left Irelandnot the aunts and uncles they never met, but the cousins they never played with as children, the daughters and sons of those cousins. We’re prodigals returned to the fold, welcomed with open arms. This doesn’t erase the sense of loss that was felton both sides of the oceanfor all the decades in between. But each journey from here to there is a kind of homecoming, a way of going back on behalf of my grandparents and the great aunts and uncles who comprised the transplanted Ireland of my childhood.

Among my Irish and Irish-American relatives, I alone seem to find it necessary to touch the edges of the Irish world every time I visit. My Irish cousins smile at my island-hopping, but don’t understand the appeal of these hard-to-reach, not-much-to-do places. I’ve never gone to Ireland without venturing off the coast at least once; I can’t help myself, or so it seems.

On my first visit, my parents humored me by agreeing to an overnight excursion to Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands. The adventure began with a ferry ride on which we all three got sunburned, then continued with a wittily narrated, but bruising, five-mile donkey-cart trip to our thoroughly isolated B&B; I was in love with the island long before we climbed the rocky hill behind the house to view the ruins of the ancient fortress known as Dun Aengus, atop a crumbling cliff perched 200 feet above the sea.

I’ve gone back to Inishmoreusually for a night or two, sometimes as a mere day-tripperhalf a dozen times. So far I’ve only floated by the middle island, Inishmaan, owing to the vagaries of the ferry schedule. I’ve spent three delightful afternoons on Inisheer, the tiniest Aran Island. Once I boarded a motorboat, then made a mid-water transfer, owing to the vagaries of the tides, to a slightly under-inflated orange raft steered by a slightly inept pre-teen to reach the famously “evacuated” Great Blasket Island off the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry. Already on this trip I had visited one new islandtiny Clare, in Clew Bay near Westport. I’d spent five hours strolling Clare’s quiet, gentle hills in the sunshine, wearing only shorts and a t-shirt on a remarkably warm September day.

Until now my Irish island adventures all had begun with boat rides, then mostly proceeded on foot; on Inishmore, I once crossed the island by bicycle and once in the aforementioned donkey cart. No doubt the walking is one of the reasons I visit these remote, nearly traffic-free islands. Feeling a place beneath my feet somehow makes a travel experience more authentic, leaving me with a deeper sense of having been there. But Achill would be different from my other Irish islands: I’d reach it by car, driving from the Curraun Peninsula across the Michael Davitt Bridge and right onto the island. Walking routes abounded, but I’d have to drive inland to reach a jumping-off point for any of them. To appreciate the views from the island’s majestic sea cliffs, I’d have to tackle the most challenging roads.
After my sunny day on Clare Island, I stopped into the tourist office in Westport in search of a detailed map of Achill. A friendly, dark-haired, 20-something woman in the bright green uniform of Ireland’s tourism staff raised her eyebrows slightly when I said I might drive around the island, then encouraged me (or meant to) by saying, “You’ll probably be fine.” She was unaware, she was sorry to say, of any guided tours. I thanked her, then purchased a combination map/guide to Achill Island along with a stack of postcards, just in case.

Back in my room I unfurled the Achill document, compiled in 1988 by Mr. Bob Kingston. The annotated map was as big as the interior of my car, so it would not be terribly useful for driving. Still, it offered a wealth of information under headings such as The Name, most probably from the Gaelic acaill, derived from the Latin aquila, for “Eagle” Island. Other topics included Physical Features, Settlement, People, Tides, Wildlife and Walks. I read through Things to Seea list of 83 sights strewn across Achill’s roughly 50 square miles. Some sounded mundane (#33, Old Coastguard Station), some exotic (#4, Carrick Kildavnet Castle, outpost of Ireland’s 16th-century pirate queen, Grace O’Malley). Numbers 24 and 66 were too sad to contemplatechildren’s graveyards, or killeens, straddling the middle of the island, where unbaptized babies once had been buried to prevent their “unclean” souls from tainting consecrated burial grounds.

By far my favorite section of the guidefor its sheer Irishnesswas one called Tragedies. Only in Ireland, I mused, would a place promote itself to visitors by listing a series of accidents that had befallen its residents: group drownings, mostly; a fire in Scotland which claimed the lives of ten migrant potato workers; a plane crash; and, most recently, the loss of three farmers while “attempting to rescue sheep from cliffs.” The tragedies listed accounted for a grand total of 70 deaths between 1894 and 1983, on an island whose current population is roughly 2,900.

In 1841, before the Irish famine, the island’s population was recorded as 4,901. Yet there was no
mention under Tragedies of the Great Hunger, which took a significant toll on Achill through
starvation and emigration. Mr. Kingston did allude to the famine under Settlement and in a section titled The Achill Mission, about the Church of Ireland’s 19th-century efforts to convert local Catholics to Protestantism, using soup and grain as inducements to the starving populace.

In the same way that only an Irish travel guide would include a section on Tragedies, the third and final paragraph of this section veered unexpectedly toward the positive: “Despite the harsh environment, the island people are a hardy, good humoured lot,” Mr. Kingston wrote, “and man’s indominatability was well marked in September 1987 when Don Allum stepped ashore in a severe gale at Dooagh, having rowed the Atlantic in both directions in a twenty-foot boat, and received a welcome that lasted for more than a week!” Very Irish, I thought, to deftly switch the subject like that from tragedy to triumph.

As I collapsed the sheet back into neat squares, I noticed a listing for Tours. The heading proved misleading, however, as the text described “three spectacular drives which should not be missed,” but then made it clear the tours were meant to be self-propelled. “All of these drives are best done on clear days and in mechanically sound vehicles,” Mr. Kingston cautioned. Again, the recent newspaper headline loomed large in my mind.
Would I or wouldn’t I? I still hadn’t decided as I turned into the small carpark in front of Ostan Oilean Acla late the next morning. The friendly receptionist confirmed that, unfortunately, no tours of Achill were offered. She readily (too readily?) understood my hesitation to attempt the scenic drives alone. She thought for a moment, then suggested that a local gentleman who “sometimes drives people around the island” might be willing to give me a tour. She phoned him and, as it turned out, his afternoon was free. He’d meet me at the front desk after lunch.

The gentleman was Pat, a wiry septuagenarian with a full head of gray hair brushed straight back from his forehead. He wore black slacks, sturdy shoes and a white shirt open at the collar and topped with a navy blue v-neck sweater. The sleeves of the sweater were pushed above his elbows. His leathery face attested to a windswept island life, and his blue eyes gave off just a hint of mischief, although he wasn’t smiling. He greeted me wordlessly with a firm handshake and motioned for me to climb into the front seat.

The maroon van was large, a little clunky-looking, but perfectly neat inside. No name or phone number appeared on the side panels, nothing to suggest it was a commercial vehicle. There were three rows of seats. A large mobile phone perched on the dashboard. Before turning onto the road, Pat offered a caveat: “I should tell you I’m the driver of the island’s only medical transport vehicle, so our trip will have to be cut short if anyone needs a ride to the hospital.” I nodded my understanding. Clearly, sightseeing was secondary to medical emergencies.

Pat bought himself time by indicating that the first noteworthy point was a few miles off. Several minutes passed in utter silence. Pat was friendly to other drivers, lifting his right index finger in the standard Irish road greeting as we passed, waving them on if we came to a tight spot. I was glad to see he was a careful driver. But I was troubled by the awkward lack of communication and wondered what I’d gotten myself into. I supposed he was sizing me up, guessing at what I might know about Achill, what I might expect to see.

After about a mile Pat broke the silence, picking up where he’d left off: Despite the existence of a perfectly good, fully equipped ambulance, no one on the island was certified to drive it. That’s why heand the very van we were incomprised the island’s de facto medical transport system. When summoned, his role was to pick people up and deliver them to the hospital, about 25 miles inland. He had no medical training and did not tend to his passenger-patients. “Over the years,” he said, “I’ve driven some people who were in a bad way, with open fractures and the like. A few of them never made it home. One lady just barely made it to the hospital alive, although I never did find out what was wrong with her.”

I looked around. Not so much as a first-aid kit. To keep our fledgling conversation aloft, I told Pat that a few years earlier I had fallen and broken my ankle. Alone and unable to reach anyone I knew, but not so desperate that I needed an ambulance, I called a taxi to take me to the hospital. I told Pat how the driver kindly lent me his shoulder as I hopped into the emergency room on my good leg. Under the circumstances, it seemed the perfect story to tell. But from the look on Pat’s faceand the silence that once again filled the space between ushe clearly thought I was daft. I thought to myself, but didn’t dare say, how funny it was that when I needed an ambulance, I’d called a taxi, and when I needed a taxi, I unwittingly had called an ambulance.

When we reached the turnoff for The Atlantic Drive, some minutes after our last verbal exchange, the “official” tour began. Pat doled out tidbits of geography and history, if somewhat perfunctorily. I felt the need to make a fresh start, to establish myself as a visitor worthy of his time, someone genuinely interested in his islandjust too wimpy to drive herself around it. I wove threads of my story into the conversation between his comments, which remained sparse. Pat was not impressed with my 100% Irish ancestry, although he glanced over briefly when I mentioned I’d been to each of my grandparents’ childhood homes. As if to test me, he asked where they were from. I recited the litany: “My father’s parents came from Bahola and Knock in Mayo, my mother’s parents came from Draperstown and Magherafelt in Derry.” He perked up slightly at the mention of Knock, but it would be another two hours before I knew why.

It apparently helped my case that I’d been to the Aran Islands and Great Blasket. Like my Irish relatives, Pat had been to neither. I scored points by casually mentioning the elementary Gaelic classes I’d taken. It didn’t matter that I could barely string two Irish words togetherhe confessed he had long since “lost” most of his Irish after too many years away working in England; it seemed enough that I’d made the effort. Nearly half an hour into the trip, I felt I had redeemed myself. My status had been upgraded from mad American woman on holiday who wishes to be chauffeured around Achill, even though she has a perfectly good car sitting in the hotel carpark, to Irish-American visitor who might actually be interested in this island.

The scenery was increasingly spectacular. Achill’s sea cliffs are among the highest in Europe, and as we climbed steep roads that skirted the island, the sun sparkled on blue-green waters far below. Sandy beaches, including the two-and-a-half-mile-long strand at Keel, explained why there were as many holiday cottages as sheep dotting the landscape. On this warm September day, every beach was packed with bathers, many up to their shoulders in the watera sight I’d never seen in Ireland before.

Pat navigated the roads masterfully. Occasionally he pulled over so I could get a better view and
take pictures. At one scenic overlook he offered to take my picture so I would have a record of myself at Achill; this became our routine. His narration swung into higher gear. As he coaxed the van up one particularly nasty corkscrew, he recalled the first time he brought his mother up this road “in a motor car.” She had vowed to find another way down. I understood why: A sheer drop began mere inches from the van’s flank. “I’m glad you’re driving,” I told him, catching my breath.

When we reached the top, Pat let the scenery speak for itself and switched to local gossip and lore. A cove far below evoked the memory of a BBC television crew who, intent on capturing a shot from the water’s edge, had failed to notice the approach of a sizable wave and had been flattened by it, to the utter delight of the locals. We passed a crumbling house with a tenuous link to Pat’s family. There was a slight chance he might someday lay claim to this land and its top-of-the-world view, but the legal dispute had been simmering for years, apparently without his involvement, and he was not counting his chickens.

As we descended toward the coast, Pat glanced at his watch. We’d been on the road for an hour, and he asked if I’d like to keep going. I sensed he’d reached the end of what he thought would qualify as a respectable tour of Achill, if such a tour existed. I said I’d love to see more if he had time. So we set off on the second leg of our journey, with Pat describing other passengers he’d shuttled around between hospital runs: young people who spent weekend nights at two local discos, then called for safe rides home, often near dawn; a girls’ football team, which included one feisty lass who dazzled Pat by teaching her teammates (in the moving van) a stealthy maneuver to knock the wind out of an opponent without being seen by referees; and last, but hardly least, the ladies of Achill, who enjoyed free rides in the van to the island’s scattered shops every Friday. Pat rolled his eyes for effect when he mentioned the latter group.

The golf links, where sheep hungrily mowed the course as we passed, contrasted with remnants of older ways of life, like “booley” villages, stone huts set high in the hills near summer pastures. We stopped at the deserted village in Slievemore, which burrowed into the south-facing slopes of Achill’s highest mountain. Before the famine this had been the island’s largest settlement. Pat and I didn’t speak as we climbed out of the van, but the silence between us was different now, a shared silence, as if we had entered a church. We walked toward the village, the roofless buildings and their mountain backdrop all awash in grays and browns; then we turned and saw what the residents of Slievemore would have seen on any clear summer daythe glimmering teal waters of Lough Keel sprawling toward the sea in an ocean of green, green grass.

Just after Slievemore, we passed a woman walking along an otherwise empty road. She and Pat waved to each other, then she stopped in her tracks and watched until the van disappeared. Pat’s eyes danced with glee. His shopping rounds with the ladies tomorrow were going to be great fun: “They’ll be dying to know the identity of the lady who was spotted with me in the van on Thursday afternoon.” I could tell he would keep them guessing. I liked being in on the joke.
As we drove through one of the island’s 22 villages, Pat pointed out his homea tidy, whitewashed, one-story house near the road. Around the next bend, he pulled into a low-walled area beside a narrow inlet, where we inspected a fleet of upended Achill curraughs, traditional wood and canvas fishing boats. Pat snapped my picture, then let me persuade him to pose for one. He recounted a stormy fishing misadventure that had nearly required a coast guard rescue. His point was not the danger he and his companions had faced, but the embarrassment they’d been spared when they managed to reach the shore safely, on their own: “If we’d called for help, it would have been heard on every radio on the island, and we’d still be living it down.”

A short time later as we passed a stony mountain, Pat pointed out a footpath that wriggled up the steep rise. He explained that in the old days it had been customary for funeral processions to go up and over the mountain to the church in Kildavnet. Everyone walked, the men taking turns as pallbearers. Boulders had been strategically placed to provide resting places for the coffin, thereby minimizing the risk of an undignified slip down the slope for the dearly departed. “Those were hard times,” Pat recalled. “Following a funeral, the women climbed back over the mountain, out of respect for the deceased,” he noted solemnly. “The men,” he added with a wink, “went from the cemetery to the pub, where they offered their own respects. Some hours later, the men went home around the mountain, not over it.” Pat grinned. It crossed my mind that free Friday shuttles for the current generation of Achill Island ladies might represent a form of communal atonement for the old funeral custom.

We had circled the mountain and were nearing Kildavnet, which hovers just above Achill Sound. Pat pulled in beside the church and cemetery and recited the details of Achill’s two great tragediesthe 32 young people who drowned on their way to Scotland in 1894, and the ten who perished there in the 1937 fire. The remains of the victims were buried here, beneath commemorative markers. It was clear from Pat’s tone that the people of Achill did indeed still carry these sad events close to their hearts, even generations later. Why the emphasis on these two stories, I wondered. Both my Achill tour guidesMr. Kingston and Patseemed determined to impress upon me their significance.

It occurred to me while we sat there, comfortably quiet with each other now, that what made these events so tragic for the island community may not have been the deaths themselves. Drownings had long been a fact of life in this part of the world. Certainly other islanders had perished tragically in a rural community with such a modest emergency-response system that even today it lacked proper ambulance service. Surely the “hardy, good humoured lot” Mr. Kingston described ought to have absorbed these old twin sorrows by now. The deeper tragedy, I thought, may have been that those lost souls found it necessary to leave Ireland in the first place, to seek work in strange lands and, saddest of all, that they came home only to be buried. Ireland’s great shameher inability to provide work, or land, or education or hope for so many generations of her young peoplemay have been the real tragedy on Achill Island, as elsewhere. The many who left, never to return; that old refrain again.

Pat, who had left as a young man but later found his way home, had been shuttling me around his island for two hours now. I sensed Kildavnet would be our last stop, and I felt my once-reluctant tour guide had done well to save it for last. It offered both a dramatic view toward the mainland and a poignant reminder of the island’s links to the vast Irish diaspora.
But Pat had one more stop planned for me. As we pulled away from Kildavnet he asked, a bit eagerly, “Did you say you’ve been to Knock?” “I have,” I replied. “My grandfather was baptized in the old church,” I continued. “My father has cousins nearby, some still live on the farm where my grandfather was born. I’ve been to see them, and I’ve been to the shrine.” “Well then,” Pat continued slyly, “If you’ve been to Knock, I’m surprised you haven’t asked to see the House of Prayer. Most Americans who come to Achill are keen to see it, especially the women.” He was being sarcastic now, although I didn’t catch on right away. “I’m afraid I haven’t heard of it,” I said. Pat beamed. I had cleared the final hurdle, passed the ultimate test. He’d been waiting all afternoon for me to ask about the House of Prayer. Once I let him know I’d never heard of the place, and he let me know he whole-heartedly disapproved of it, he insisted on taking me there. “It’s almost beside your hotel,” he coaxed, when I tried to resist.

The House of Prayer required a lengthier preamble than any of our previous stops. We’d criss-crossed the island so often I’d lost my bearings, and I’d left Mr. Kingston back in my room. But I’m nearly certain Pat went the long way around to allow himself time to properly set up the House of Prayer as a sort of punch line. His approach was to compare and contrast the House of Prayer”a bogus shrine,” in his wordswith one of the holiest places in Ireland, the shrine at Knock, roughly 30 miles away. Like virtually everyone from County Mayo, Pat had made countless pilgrimages to Knock: on holy days; before he sailed for England; and just after his brother’s sudden death, when he’d gone there with a friend to have masses said. He offered a dizzying account of the latter trip, although his recollections admittedly were a bit blurred: “Everyone we met insisted on buying me a drink, for my troubles like, you know.”

As Pat drove, I remembered stepping into the small parish church in Knock on my first trip to Ireland. I wasn’t really there for the shrine. My father wisely had steered me away from the busy main street and led me first to the old church, where I’d felt a genuine connection to my grandfather and to the past. I was in a place where he had been a century earlier. I imagined him being baptized, receiving first communion, muttering his prayers; I couldn’t recall ever thinking of him before as being younghe was nearly 80 when I was born.

Knock Parish Church is known throughout the world as a Marian shrine, a site where Mary once appeared, like Lourdes in France or Fatima in Portugal. On August 21, 1879just a few weeks after my grandfather was born in nearby Ballyhaunis15 people witnessed the apparition, which lasted two hours. After lengthy enquiries by the Vatican, Knock was designated as an official shrine. Pilgrims immediately began trickling in, and they haven’t stopped since: Today Knock welcomes 1.5 million visitors a year from around the globe.

The tiny wood-frame church is dwarfed by a towering glass-and-stone basilica, surrounded by a vast carpark, a long row of shops and restaurants, an ever-expanding ring of hotels and B&Bs, a caravan park and one of Ireland’s few international airports. Bumper stickers abound, along with souvenir medals, statues, rosaries and various-sized plastic bottles for holy water. The website for the shrine proclaims, “Knock is a crash course in the Christian life,” as if that were a good thing. The bustling scene bears a vague resemblance to the boardwalk in Atlantic City, minus the slot machines and massage parlors. I say this not to disparage Knock or its visitors, merely to observe that the humble origins of the site where Mary appeared are now buried beneath layers of infrastructure that have evolved to support the weight of so many pilgrims.
As I reminisced, Pat described how the House of Prayer had grown beyond its own humble origins. His facts were sketchy and his editorializing seemed a bit harsh, although the information he relayed jibed with other accounts I would discover later. The House of Prayer was established as a retreat center by Mrs. Christine Gallagher in 1993, and its first few years were unremarkable. Then vague claims of minor miracles began to circulate, including possible stigmata (marks resembling crucifixion wounds) on Mrs. Gallagher and messages delivered directly to her by Our Lady of Peace. The rumors began to attract significant numbers of self-styled pilgrimsas many as 10,000 a yearlifting both the Achill Island economy and the eyebrows of Ireland’s bishops.

An official enquiry revealed “no evidence of supernatural intervention” at the House of Prayer. Church officials did, however, go out of their way to emphasize Mrs. Gallagher’s sincerity and good intentions. Her supporters refer to her as an “Irish mystic” or “visionary”; detractors use terms like “alleged stigmatic.” Her own website proclaims, “Christina Gallagher delivers heaven’s messages to the world,” which sounds pretty confident. The site cautions believers to be wary of imitation “Matrix medals” available from less-than-scrupulous sources, citing only a handful of legitimate distributors; the website further notes that “Our Lady has said that She desires the proceeds from Her Matrix medal to provide upkeep for Her House.”

Despite Church-imposed restrictions against masses and confessions there and a brief stretch in 1998 when the facility temporarily closed, the retreat center remains quite active. Visitors from around the world proudly publish online “miraculous photographs” and testimonials in support of Mrs. Gallagher and her prophesies. Some B&Bs boast of their proximity to the House of Prayer, although Achill’s official tourism materials are mum on the subject. The one island resident I spoke with clearly did not feel blessed to live so close to such holy controversy.

From what I could gather, Pat’s greatest objection to the House of Prayeraside from its inability to hold a candle to Knock (so to speak) as an authentic shrinewas its over-the-top commercialization. “She’s got a gift shop there now and everything, wait until you see.” Having seen Knock in all its modern-day splendor, I braced for the worst. I was surprised when Pat pulled into a parking lot beside a modest two-story house roughly the same size as my own, except for a one-story chapel off to the right side, where I have only a small screened-in porch.

Pat had to be sure I knew what kind of an operation this was so, despite my protests, he insisted I step inside the House of Prayer so I could see for myself what a sham it was. I reluctantly approached the entrance. I balked when we reached the foyer and heard voices reciting the Hail Mary, but Pat wouldn’t let me turn back. He blocked the exit and gently nudged me into the back of the chapel. A pleasant middle-aged woman”That’s herself,” Pat hissedwas leading a small group in reciting the rosary. When she spotted us, she stopped praying for a moment and graciously invited us to join in. Pat yielded then, and I mumbled an apology as we both backed away. He tried to persuade me to have a look at the gift shop, but I won that round.

My formerly reticent host had morphed into an evangelist. There was an urgency about our stop at the House of Prayer, a significance I was meant to grasp. He’d had time to think about this and apparently had decided Knock was the place where our personal historiesmine and hismost closely intersected, or at least raised a finger in greeting as they passed each other on the road. If I understand the gesturea grand one considering how we’d begunPat showed me the House of Prayer to underscore the holiness of Knock, to emphasize the difference between this place and an authentic shrine; he gave me credit for being able to see the difference, at a glance, which I recognized as a compliment. Pat did not offer compliments lightly.

Nearly three hours after leaving Ostan Oilean Acla, we finally turned back. Only after the van pulled into the hotel carpark did we discuss, for the first time, financial terms of the tour. Pat suggested what I thought was a fair price, and I gave him a little extra. I would have hugged him if it had seemed even remotely appropriate, but I didn’t dare risk a breach of our hard-earned entente. So we ended as we had begun, with a handshake, although this time he did smile.

That evening as I thought about my ride with Pat, I found an answer to an old question, a reason for my Irish island-hopping. I had half-way figured it out as we sat beside the cemetery in Kildavnet and I’d thought about all those young people leaving Ireland, never to return. But in a roundabout (and therefore Irish) way, it had taken the House of Prayerbogus or not, who am I to say?to complete the thought. Pat’s discourse on the retreat-house-gone-bad and his reflections on Knock made me wonder what draws people to these places, what they find that resonates within, what they seek that leads them on to the next shrine, the next pilgrimage. Our meandering tour of Achill brought into relief my own small pilgrimages to Ireland’s edge; it made me see I had come here for more than breathtaking views from the island’s cliffs.

My island-hopping is a mock form of leaving Ireland, a way of multiplying the number of returns I can make for my grandparents. On ferry rides, I’ve tried to imagine how it felt for each of them to sail away, to look back at Ireland, to watch her disappear for what they probably knew would be the last time. Whenever I venture off Ireland’s left coast, I push myself out to that edgeand then, of course, I scurry back. Like the House of Prayer, my pilgrimages may not be the real thing, but they nevertheless are sincere. I never will know how it felt to leave, for good; I do, however, know how it feels to come back, again and again.

After just a brief visit, I knew Achill Island was a place I’d return to. Having had the benefit of such a thorough orientation, I wouldn’t hesitate to drive myself around next time. I would, however, be sure to find Pat and catch up on the latest gossip. Mr. Kingston’s map shows some small islands near Achill’s coast. Maybe I could persuade Pat to leave the ambulance behind and take me on a boat ride so I could add a few more islands to my collection. We’d be spotted, of course; and what a tasty morsel that would make for the long-suffering ladies of Achill Island.

Next morning a steady rain fell as I loaded my bags into the car. The string of perfect days had ended, and so had my island hopping, for now. I pulled across the road and turned right toward the mainland and my next stop, Ballycastle. Somewhere on the Michael Davitt Bridge, I glanced back at Achill in the rearview mirror and realized I was, once again, going home to Ireland.


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Travelers' Tales