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Science and Faith on Ireland’s Holy Mountain

by Chet Raymo

Pub Date: May 1st, 2004
ISBN: 0-8027-1433-1
Publisher: Walker

A natty physical and spiritual geography of Ireland’s holy Mount Brandon.

For the last three decades, the author has spent part of each year in his house on Ireland’s Dingle Peninsula at the foot of Mount Brandon. Hundreds of times he has made the pilgrimage to the summit. This is not a purely recreational climb; science writer Raymo (The Path, 2003, etc.) experiences it as a foray into a slice of the Celtic soul as well as a walk through geological time. He sees the mountain as “a great, black, boggy, cloud-capped hump rising from the sea”; Gaelic is still spoken on its flanks, and there is a scraggy wildness to the glens. The writer may be questing after the symbolic side of Brandon, but his eyes are ever peeled at the lay of the land, and there are some lovely descriptions of his treks: once he made his way between ancient remnants of mountainside fortifications in the company of a dozen red admiral butterflies. He is also attuned to the mountain’s associations as a refuge from invaders and enclosure laws, as well as a solitary vigil post for saints. These associations make for fascinating reading because they illustrate the singular fusion of faiths that characterized a certain period in Irish history, when monotheism and polytheism overlapped and “what Celtic Christianity offered Europe was a religion of celebration and praise, in which God is manifest in every element of everyday life.” Further back still, Raymo details how the tilt of the Earth’s axis relative to the Sun gave rise to early paganism, standing stones, and stone circles. He has found his own space between “a religion—continental Christianity—that preached the fallen state of nature, on the one hand, and an exaggerated Enlightenment rationalism that saw nature as little more than an object of dispassionate investigation.”

Celtic polytheism, Christian monotheism, and scientific rationalism, all tied neatly together into an Irish arabesque.