Updated: Oct 4, 2020
In 2008, while preparing a lecture entitled “Songs of Loss and Longing”, the phone rang. As chance would have it, the class was a clear reflection of my feelings at the time, as I hadn’t been able to visit Scotland in seven years. The person on the other end of the line, was a former student, with an unexpected proposition. She wanted to know if I was given a plane ticket to Scotland, would I be willing to be her tour guide. I jumped at the opportunity and a few months later we were on our way to the land of my ancestors.
Our destination was the island of Iona is a tiny island, located at the southern end of the Island of Mull. It is home to a small community, as well a renowned abbey which was built in the Middle Ages. It has been visited by pilgrims for over 800 years.
While staying in a Catholic retreat house, I was delighted to discover that the priest in residence, as well as three of the guests, had close connections with Donegal, Ireland, where some of my paternal grandmother’s people are from. Donegal is part of the area known as the Gaeltachd, which is the Gaelic for the heartland of the Gael. Due to my passionate connection to the Gaelic language and culture, I feel powerfully drawn to this part of Ireland. Perhaps it was no coincidence that these guests had ancestors from that part of the world.
On Easter Sunday morning we assembled for mass in St. Michael’s Chapel, which is connected to the Abbey. There were about two dozen of us gathered there. Having met the priest at the retreat centre, I felt comfortable asking him if I could sing a Gaelic blessing at the end of the celebration. He enthusiastically agreed. When the time came, I shared a prayer from the esteemed Alexander Carmichael collection, which I had set to music many years before. When I sang the last note I felt an expected surge of emotion, then I returned to my seat for the priest's final blessing. I had been aware, to some degree, of the importance of my calling as a tradition bearer, but it was at that moment that I fully grasped the magnitude of my work.
Each of us has soul gifts that we are called to share with the world. One of mine is to honour and pass on the songs of my ancestors.. Only a handful of people will understand and be drawn to what I have to offer. However, the numbers are not important. As I sat pondering these thoughts, a handsome man approached. He explained that listening to the prayer had brought him to tears. He had never expected to hear the old language in these days, on the Island. Hearing his Irish accent I asked where he was from, but before he replied I already knew the answer, he too was from Donegal.
The story doesn’t end there. When I returned home to Glengarry, Canada, I told my Father the story. He was writing a column for our local paper at the time and he suggested I write an article about what had transpired. I decided to give a little background before telling the story, so I explained that St. Columba had founded a monastery there in the 6th century. I asked my Father what part of Ireland Columba was from. He couldn’t remember. I discovered that his home had also been Donegal.
A few weeks ago, I was telling this story to a group of students who understand the power of honouring our ancestors. One of the participants asked me how the connection with my People, impacts my life. I often get tongue tied when asked questions which require such an involved answer. However, the Iona suddenly came to me, which I shared. I was thanked by the student who then explained that her people were also from Donegal.