In which I become a tour guide.
I have already introduced our two Christmas hosts in Freiburg.
I want to say a little bit more about Mamotchka, real name Sophia Ivanov, and her daughter Svetlana Geier (as much as I know that is). Mamotchka lived in Kiev with her husband and young daughter Svetlana. Her husband was a plant scientist and he was shot by the communists at the beginning of the war. Mother and daughter had to flee and went to Germany, where they were considered displaced persons and put in a camp. Svetlana was very bright and quickly learnt German and the Germans employed her as a translator from Russian to German, so they had some privileges I imagine. When the war ended they found themselves destitute but someone, recognising Svetlana’s talent, suggested that she should become a student at Freiburg University. Somehow they managed to rent a house but they were in a bad way. That’s where Betty came in. She was running the student barrack where students could get meals, clothing, have somewhere to socialise, read etc. She helped Mamotchka and Svetlana in a huge way and they never forgot.
The Quaker Student barrack in Freiburg 1944
Betty Collins running the barrack in Freiburg im Breisgau in 1944
Svetlana Geier in later years…to read her whole story, put her name in Google it comes up on Wikipedia.
Svetlana married a violinist and had two children, but it didn’t work out and they divorced. She was highly intellectual and refined in her taste, though she also liked simple Russian peasant type things as well. She had good quality but simple clothes. In her own way she was beautiful but enigmatic. I always felt that she the air of the faded aristocracy. Mamotchka was much more earthy and enjoyed stomping around. In her Russian way she was warm and bear hugging. She would gather you up and smother you with kindness.
Svetlana as I have said before was an anthroposophist (a follower of Rudolph Steiner) both the children were educated at the Steiner School in Freiburg. For some reason or other she longed to go to Ireland to visit the early Christian sites, it was something to do with the early Christians also embracing the sun god, I never really got to the bottom of it. I had hitched round Ireland and had already visited some sites. She asked me (through Betty) if I would plan a summer tour.
This is Monasterboise again, it appears that the Steiner followers believe that the addition of the circle to the cross is a reference to the old sun god.
I really put my all into it and it was made incredibly easy by the quite fantastic Irish Tourist Board in Bond Street. I just said where I wanted to go and they planned the whole itinerary with bed and breakfast everywhere we wanted to stop. They did say that sometimes they would be grand houses and sometimes smaller houses but that was fine by me.
Our first stop was at Glendalough. This had been such an important monastery that monks came from all over Europe to study there. Hard to imagine in this peaceful place what a hot bed of learning it was. St Kevin is the local saint, he moved from the monastery to take up residence like a hermit in a cave above the tranquil lake. Seamus Heaney has written a poem about him
Glendalough and St. Kevin’s Bed (his cave)
Our bed and breakfast that night was in a beautiful Georgian House set in its own grounds and approached along a long drive bordered by trees. Very gracious, things were looking good.
I may not get the exact order but it really doesn’t matter. This is Clonmacnoise. It’s very haunting as it is not near a village, but close by this atmospheric waterland.The cross is beautiful but the most interesting thing for me was the graveyard with the sculptured and lettered stones put up for the monks. I took lots of pictures but I can’t find them. This place has really stayed in my mind.
The B and B was at a farm. There was a fine farm house but they didn’t live in it, they lived in a bungalow built right next to it. I found that all over the place in Ireland, the abandonment of the real solid farmhouse for a plain little bungalow. The breakfast was fabulous, fresh eggs, fresh milk, home made marmalade; I was on a winning streak.
The primitive High Cross at Moone one of my all time favourites, it is so direct and child like. The funny thing is that when I saw it first in the early fifties, nobody in the village knew where it was, then somebody said ‘Are you meaning that old stone?’ it turned out to be in someones private farm yard. They let us come in and it was in the middle of a muddy yard…things had certainly changed.
The B and B…well, it didn’t go down very well. It was in a council house in the middle of a little council estate. It was pin clean but totally loaded with every brightly coloured knick knack you could think of, not a book to be seen.. The lady was kindness itself, she was so welcoming and made us tea and scones but clearly Svetlana didn’t like it, I could see that she was turning her nose up at what she saw as bad taste and scowling. I don’t like that in people, especially when someone is being kind. I felt ashamed that she was making it so obvious. Although Svetlana had had a refugee experience, she had led a sheltered intellectual existence and had no sympathy or understanding of ordinary working class life. The nearest equivalent that I can think of would be taking Virginia Woolf into such a place. It got worse later as the hostess got out masses of photographs of her daughters wedding. When we left in the morning Svetlana didn’t say thank you at all. I over compensated but I hoped that the woman didn’t notice.
On to the Ring of Kerry and the Dingle Peninsula. This is the Gaeltacht where Irish is commonly used. It is rumoured that they don’t like the English but we got on just fine in rooms above a pub in the middle of Dingle town. The curiosities here are the beehive huts along the coastal road, still standing in fields and peoples gardens. These were used by monks, I’m not sure whether they were hermits. We couldn’t visit the most spectacular ones situated on the Skellig Islands off shore. The monks really wanted to cut themselves off from civilisation much as the desert fathers did.
The next day we drove over the pass on St Brendans Mountain. We came to a magnificent empty white sand beach, stretching for what seemed like a mile. Definitely a stop for paddling. Svetlana took her shoes off to walk along by the water. She stowed them in a safe place in the marram grass, by a big rock. When we came back they were gone. Fortunately she had another pair, it was sad but there wasn’t much we could do about it. The mountain and the beach were said to be holy because of St. Brendan and we decided that he must have wanted a pair of shoes as tribute!
Not far away is Gallerus Oratory a tiny rudimentary church, touching in it’s simplicity. Once again when Eric and I had hitch hiked here it was in a muddy cow field with no nice wall around it.
There followed Jerpoint Abbey, left a bit disappointing because it didn’t have much in the way of sculpture, and Clonfert, right. Glorious.
Then the next disaster of a B and B it was in Limerick by the river docks. It was a dirty little run down terrace house. We knocked on the door and a man appeared who looked as though he’d just stepped out of the Munsters. He beckoned us in, it was dark and weird inside, then his wife came shuffling out of a back room and there were cats. Both of them were a bit sinister and he kept wringing his hands like Uriah Heap. There was nothing for it, it was dark and smelly, but we had no where else to go but all three of us were glad to escape the next morning.
Monasterboice the next day, it has probable the finest cross in Ireland, and there are three of them but I have already illustrated them. Finally two unrelated things, but they were requested. My honour as a tour guide was at stake so I had complied. The first one Sligo, to see the grave of W B Yeats and then Ben Bulben, not that you can miss it, it dominates the landscape A delightful place Sligo.
One more place that I was looking forward to. Not Christian but much much older. New Grange, near the hill of Tara.
New Grange burial mound, I had never seen it before and it is quite extraordinary, mainly because it is faced with glittering white square stones. This is a more up to date photograph. it wasn’t as complete as this when we were there. Obviously they have restored it to it’s original glory but is is spectacular. When you go in you are going from the light into the dark leading to the main chamber. You could well imagine watching the sunrise during the solstice through the opening. I was so glad that I had seen it.
When I went to Ireland the first time we also went searching for the ancient stones with Ogham carved on them, an ancient form of writing and the great stone of Turlough, (which was just there in the open) covered in swirling labyrinthine patterns. Well all in all I had done too badly as a tour guide and organiser……. but I decided to stick to the day job after all!