Castles, Follies & Four-Leaf Clovers
I must declare an interest. Rosamund Burton, the gentle and charming author of Castles, Follies & Four-Leaf Clovers, is an old and dear friend.
What's more, I was the person she asked to launch the book.
That out of the way, let me begin my review of this delightful and quite unique travel-memoir about a journey along St. Declan's Way, a largely forgotten pilgrimage path through Ireland.
There is much that enchanted me about the book. I am always interested in pilgrimage, an interest that I think is shared by more and more people.
Rosamund's pilgrimage in Ireland is to the holy sites dedicated largely to St. Declan, an indigenous Irish saint whose antique memory has been eclipsed somewhat by the much more familiar St. Patrick. Indeed, it seems as though St. Declan has become something of a patron saint of lost causes, the one that people turn to when things are too desperate, lost or sad. At the site of his birthplace Rosamund writes that "babies that died before they were baptized used to be buried."
A touching and sorrowful little detail, one of many that fill this lovely book and bring to life the incredible mystical spirit of the Irish and the importance of landscape and place to them. St. Declan's well is the place where people come to have their skin disorders cured, though the pilgrim seeking healing must make something of a commitment - three consecutive sundays are required for the healing to take place. Rosamund notes that a local butcher testified to the efficacy and permanence of the cure. Along the way the author stays at a Cistercian nunnery called St. Mary's, where she becomes instantly fascinated by the nuns' lives. It is a measure of the continued glamour of the nun's role that most people quickly become enchanted when they come face-to-face with the lived spirituality of the confessed religious. Castles, Follies & Four-Leaf Clovers captures perfectly the fascinating and reliable rhythm of the nuns' lives, lives which we hear about so rarely now. It is another of the lost worlds that Rosamund Burton is able to capture and record in the book.
The main concern of the book, though subtly expressed, is the sense of loss and longing that seems uniquely to belong to the modern pilgrim. Rosamund herself is a veteran of several previous pilgrimages, including one to the by-now famous Santiago de Compostela. She manages to pre-empt the reader's questions about the purpose of this pilgrimage through Ireland by stopping to ask herself what it is she is trying to achieve on such a journey and how on earth she can possibly identify with the religious sites along the way when she herself (though coming from Ireland) is now so obviously a stranger. Who should read it? Anyone with an interest in Ireland, or who has Irish blood flowing through their veins (a goodly number of the people reading this book, I should imagine). And all of those who ache in some way to be transformed through travel, and who hope that the foreign will bring some richer sense of meaning into their lives.
This is a thoroughly charming and distinctly modern book. Rosamund is no great sage expounding her constant epiphanies as she crosses the wild landscape of rural Ireland. She questions herself and her motives as she encounters fairies, floods and the relentless wet weather. Like all of us she is awkward and nervous while she travels, tempted always by laziness and a lingering lack of reverence for the things she knows should be sacred. I loved this book, and I know you will too.