There is a small part of County Wexford, just past Tagoat, that’s an island but not one. The village is called Lady’s Island or Our Lady’s Island. The difference is crucial and here’s why. As my informant told me, there are two origins of the site as a sacred place. The first derives from Oilean na mBan or Women’s Island and comes from pre-Christian raiders taking shelter from the seas around the south coast of Ireland. The story goes that that they ‘brought their faith with them’ to this part of Ireland. The second name origin comes from a bequest of lands from a second Crusade lord to the Augustinian Order. It is not yet clear to me why the name of the place would reflect a dedication to Mary, mother of Jesus, arising from this story. As you can see from here, the Irish names recorded shed no more light than this.
My informant and I sat for 90 minutes talking about the place of the pilgrimage in local stories, why some places are sacred and others not and about secularism as ambiguity-hater. There’s a strange beauty to this part of Wexford. It is a very quiet spot, at least it will be until August 15th when the three week long pilgrimage season to Our Lady’s Island begins. Carne and Carnesore beaches nearby make this place a popular holiday (‘secular’ pilgrimage?) destination. The surrounding area contains many caravan parks and permanent mobile homes. It is clear that people come here for the proximity to the sea and for the sunnier weather than most other parts of the island.
There is also something about the physicality of pilgrimage to a place. My informant talked to me a little about the centrality of touch to this physicality. People come to touch the statue of Mary, usually with beads on that hand and they walk around the island. This is not an endurance pilgrimage like Lough Derg or Croagh Patrick in that there is not great physical hardship involved. Pilgrims lift beads to be blessed during the opening ceremony and above all, the word of God, in the physicality of the Bible, is core to the opening devotion in August. For my informant, the word of God takes precdence over representations such as borne statues. This too is a physical embodiment of faith: it is The Word made present in words, read and heard.
I’ll be back and forth to Wexford over the coming weekends. Going by the photographs I have seen of last year’s pilgrimage and devotions, it will be a fruitful time. Data to be gathered, people’s experiences to be hoovered up and spat out on the page. The reproduction of other’s experiences as mine and their misrepresentation is central to this process.
(I’m kidding about this last bit.)