Archives for category: the pilgrimage


On the first afternoon of the Pilgrimage we invited everyone to join the circle in a space we had christened “The Playroom”. A converted barn at the heart of Ardtarmon we created an open space that the group used for meditations, body work, discussions, salons and creative sharing of work through projections, performances, reading and debate.  We asked each artist to introduce themselves to the group, talking about their current practice, what was making them come alive at that moment and what they hoped to get from the week.

Before we heard from each pilgrim Kathy and I tried to answer the question of why we were there; why had we gathered everyone together and what the pilgrimage hoped to achieve. As a process based project we had no pre-defined output; we weren’t working toward a performance or recording or specific end point. Rather we had created the project specifically to focus on the process, on the container of the residency, so that we could discover what happens when you gather a group of artists together to explore and exchange their practice, their inspirations, their work.

So why Sligo? Why Land? Why Myth?

We chose Sligo because we wanted a rural location for the project. In part, as is often traditional for residencies, we wanted to take urban based artists out of their usual context and situate them in a quiet reflective environment, but we had other considerations in mind too.

The move from urban to rural represents a shift from linear time to a more circular rural time. In cities we’re disconnected from the land and its cycles….the seasons, the weather and their effects and through pilgrimage we were interested to explore what we might have lost from this distance from the land. We’re also interested in how the land acts as a memory bank, a retrieval system for stories, human experience and human endeavour.  Sligo has a huge confluence of ancient sites throwing up countless opportunities to deeply connect with our ancient past though visiting sites like Knocknarea, Carrowkeel or Inishmurray that have changed so little over thousands of years.

We’re interested in myth because it represents knowledge that has been handed down for generations, and in that way allows us to get get closer to the threads of our national identity. Myths are metaphorical stories that convey deeper meaning and, like art, tap into a very different part of our brain, allowing us to absorb information in a more immediate and sub conscious way.  Maybe there’s something about living in Queen Maeve’s shadow, but myth is still very much a part of day to day modern life here. The veil between “world” and “other world” is that bit thinner in Sligo.


Opening the Circle – The Celtic Tradition


“In the Irish psyche, landscape has a unique presence. One of the wonderful insights of the Celtic imagination is that landscape is alive, the outer landscape becomes a metaphor for the unknown inner landscape”   John O’ Donohue

The ethos of Pilgrimage Project is one of a collaborative and experimental spirit. Our cultural expedition to the North West of Ireland was to navigate inspiring territory on the interior and the exterior. We invited a group of eclectic pioneers diverse in experience and practice to come and share with the pilgrims. The pioneer sessions were designed as touchstone enquires to allow both pilgrims and pioneers to dive into a deep learning process.

Our opening Pioneer Session was hosted by Dolores WhelanKaren Ward and Mari Kennedy. Together, they worked collaboratively to reveal the ancient wisdom of the Celtic Tradition, taking the group through mystical layers of time and space through storytelling, movement, song and ceremony.

The Celtic spiritual tradition can be understood as something that is both very ancient and new. It is a way of perceiving the world and reality and a way of being in the world. The tradition embodies what has become known as Celtic consciousness, or Celto-megalithic consciousness, as it unfolded within Ireland over the millennia, in a conceptual rather than chronological way. The pioneers weaved spirals of connectivity linking the ancient Celtic Tradition to time, myth, nature, landscape and pilgrimage.

Below is the story of Sheela Na Gig as told by Karen Ward :

Once upon a time the five sons of the HIgh King of Ireland went hunting together. At twilight they set up camp and one of them went off to find water.
He returned without any, saying, ‘There was a monstrous black hag guarding the well. she wouldn’t let me have any water because I refused to kiss her’.
 One by one the other brothers went and came back with the same account – without water, except Fiachra who gave her ‘a bare touch of a kiss’, for which she promised him ‘ a mere contact with Tara’.
 Finally, the youngest prince, Niall by name, went and returned with an abundant supply. Not only had he kissed the hag, he lay with her. With that, she turned into the most beautiful woman in the world. ‘Who are you?’ asked the hero. ‘I am sovereignty (the goddess of the land)’and because you honour me, you will be High King over the whole of Ireland and your seed shall be over every clan’. And so it came to pass.

The Celts integrated “The Great Mother” as the original energy of the Druidic Religion. Symbolized in the ‘Sheela na gigs’, these carved stoned female figures exposing their genital organs, represented the land, fertility and new life. Later, as Roman Church supplanted Celtic Christianity,

these figures were turned from Divine Hag into Harlot. Freedom from fear, ecstasy and at-one-ment with Sophia the goddess of wisdom are the gifts the Sheela archetype brings. The one who has the courage to look beyond the illusions is rewarded with sovereignty over self, genuine love, inner peace and peace on earth. Sheela Na Gigs are still found all over Ireland and many are under lock and key at our National Museum of Ireland in Dublin.

Mari Kennedy brought the teachings of the Celtic tradition into a contemporary context by exploring ideas of inner landscape and the journey between shadow and light. She led a meditation practice and a deep enquiry in to the art of collaboration highlighting the Celtic way of welcoming complexity and paradox – finding light amid the darkest shadow of our inner terrain.


That evening following supper we prepared for our Opening Ceremony by getting crafty in the dining room with Ivy and Blossom. We learned how to weave ceremonial headdresses which ingeniously doubled up as portals in the other world.

We walked together by candlelight down to the beach at Ard Tarmon where John had prepared a roaring fire for the Pilgrimage Opening Ceremony. At midnight the ritual began under the stars with the elemental sounds of the waves crashing down on the shore. The portal had been opened……


“Walking shares with making and working that crucial element of engagement of the body and the mind with the world, of knowing the world through the body and the body through the world.” Rebecca Solnit

An important part of the Pilgrimage project is taking the group into the landscape on specific field trips. We do this in part so we can connect more closely with our ancient heritage, and the land, but also so that the group can walk and talk and form new relationships. It’s been well documented that walking can stimulate creative thought, and the process of being out in the open air, walking side by side with endless space to the front and behind, can open up new possibilities through new ways of thinking and a renewed ability to share intimacies.

The first of these field trips was to explore two key sites in Sligo both dating some 5,000 years old; Knocknarea; that most recognisable of landscapes with Queen Maeve’s cairn perched on top, and Carrowkeel; a less well travelled mountain with spectacular examples of intact cairns that you can still enter and experience.

For our first climb we were guided by archeologist Stefan Bergh, whose main research interest is focused on the interaction between people, place and landscapes in prehistory. He is an expert on Knocknarea, having published several pieces of work about the mountain. He is currently completing a new body of research which is nearing publication in the coming year or so.

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Pilgrimage brought together some outstanding music makers, and it’s no surprise that one of our first evenings led to  storytelling and music making after dinner.

The dining room in candle light at Ardtarmon house seems especially conducive to music, particularly after breaking bread together to replenish ourselves from a day of walking on Knocknarea and Carrowkeel. We were joined after dinner by Steve Wickham, who regaled us with stories of Inishmurray’s “Mad Dog” Brady, while kicking off an after dinner music session. He was soon joined by pilgrims Sean MacErlaine, Linda Buckely, Mikahail Karakis and Valgeir Sigurðsson to improvise and make music together.

We have a (basic) recording from the night that also features tales from pioneer Martin Enright and Ardtarmon owner Charles Henry which you can listen to below (or click here if the player below doesn’t appear)


“A procession is a participants’ journey” – Rebecca Solnit

If felt like a portentous gathering on Wednesday as we emerged from our cottages for breakfast in tandem with the dawn chorus.  We had planned a “ mystery field trip “ for that morning which involved considerable traveling on our school bus to a top secret destination. The game was up when Iarla realized that we were travelling through a Gaeltacht area and announced that we were possibly in County Donegal.

A huge inspiration at the heart of this project is the ancient thread that connects the Irish Monks who departed from Teelin in Southwest Donegal and the first settlers in Iceland. That morning we made a return procession to Teelin with our fellow Icelandic (& Greek) pilgrims. We arrived in driving rain to a misty inlet on the north side of Donegal Bay – the fishing village of Teelin.

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