A few weeks ago, some of our Mitchell class visited Glenstal Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in County Limerick. I had been looking forward to this trip all year. One of my college professors had once told me a story about a pilgrimage you can do at a monastery on a small Irish island, where you have to take a vow of silence and can only walk around on your knees while you’re on the island. For whatever reason – maybe my very secular upbringing – that story is vividly imprinted in my mind as an awe-inspiring act of faith, and all monasteries in Ireland have since been associated with that awe.
At Glenstal, we received a tour of the Abbey grounds from Brother Anthony, who was incredibly knowledgeable about the many historic trees on the Abbey’s grounds, and we met with Lord Abbot Mark Patrick Hederman, who showed us the Abbey’s icon chapel. The Abbey built the icon chapel after a visionary, a woman in Switzerland, contacted Glenstal to say that she had visions specifying the Abbey needed to build an icon chapel to be opened on April 10, 1988. The icon chapel would house Russian Orthodox icons that had been sold from Russian and former Soviet states, and the chapel would be modeled after the Hagia Sophia. According to the visionary, if the Abbey built the chapel by April 10, something good would happen for both Russia and Ireland.
At the time, the Abbey didn’t have the budget to build an icon chapel, and the monks were wary of taking on such a grand task on the word of a visionary they did not know. Irish artist, James Scanlon, the same artist who created the stained glass for Galway Cathedral, approached the Abbey soon after and reported having a dream that told him the Abbey was constructing an icon chapel for which he would donate artwork. Miraculously, the chapel was completed on April 10, 1988. Lord Abbot Hederman noted that after the chapel’s completion, the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and exactly ten years later, on April 10, 1998, the Good Friday Agreement was signed.
Perhaps the greatest highlight of my trip was hearing singer, Noirin Ni Rian, sing traditional Irish songs and hymns for us in the Glenstal chapel before Vespers. We met Noirin over tea and scones at the Abbey, and she mentioned that she loved the Mitchell Scholarship because one of her sons had married a Mitchell Scholar. Little did we know that she was the famous Noirin Ni Rian, but after we heard her sing, we knew she had to be a big deal. Her voice was remarkable and touching, and I got goosebumps and started tearing up because her voice was so striking. Noirin provided really interesting context for the songs she would sing us – from why the alternation of Irish and English lyrics in songs were significant to how lamentations figured into the history of Ireland. Noirin had also visited the visionary in Switzerland and learned songs from the visionary’s auditory visions, which she performed for us.
As my year in Ireland draws to a close, I find myself very comfortable and content in my routines. I have my favorite pubs and cafes and am a pro at navigating Dublin’s public transport, but I still have days, where simply walking around the city fills me with wonder. Although my romantic notions about Ireland and Irish monasteries are no more, having experiences like hearing Noirin sing at Glenstal and seeing 15th century icons in a chapel are perhaps even more awe-inspiring because I’ve grown to have a more multidimensional understanding of Ireland’s history and culture that deepens my ability to be awed.