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Notions About Time at Muckross Abbey

by Silke Elzner

The air around us at Killarney National Park was heavy with moisture. The clouds were hanging from the sky, covering the landscape like a blanket, drowning all colours of the day. The first leaves had fallen, brave first messengers of autumn. Their shy yellow hues contrasted with the light evergreen of the bushes around us. In Ireland, seasons did exist, but it was a more subtle, more fluid transition.

Rarely did we see a flower or a fruit, but when we did, it was a cause for celebration. “Look,” I said to my friend, picking up a nut from the floor. “It’s an acorn. I haven’t seen these since I was a young girl!” Memories of walks in the woods flashing by my inner eye, warm fuzzy feelings of being loved and having trust in the people around me. Upon further inspection we discovered that it was not acorn, the mistake was mine. Yet, the warmth of my childhood memories lingered on.

Time, it seemed, as we walked through the national park to Muckross Abbey, was a constant companion in these woods.
Autumn has arrived at Killarney National Park

A Life-Time Long Forgotten

On soft forest paths, fragrant and moist, we walked along the shores of Lough Leanne, one of the three big lakes of Killarney. The water was dark and still, only tiny waves rippled the surface in a constant motion, like a metronome of time. No one else around us, only the songs of birds and the lapping of the water as it rolled ashore. A small rowing boat was lying aground just a couple of metres offshore, partly submerged like a relict from the past.

Only a few things reminded us of days gone by, a boathouse among them. It was almost a hundred years old – for a moment I had visions of young local men in old-fashioned clothes, pushing long boats onto the still surface of the lake. Maybe they had been watched by young girls, who had brought picnic baskets full of apples and bread and cheese. In my fantasy, hearts might have been lost on those occasions, marriages might have been dreamed of, joint lives might have been plotted.
Boat on Lough Leane

The Time of Others

Finally, we arrived at the ruins of Muckross Abbey, once a thriving monastic centre just outside of Killarney. The Franciscans who lived, prayed, and died here, had a very different concept of time to us. For them, time on earth was just the beginning, the means to an end. It was the after-life that counted, the reward for a pious and devout life that was serving others and God.

As I was wandering the ancient grounds, inspected the roofless ruins of church, transept and chancel I wondered if the monks had ever wasted time thinking about the future. Did they ever fear that life as they knew it would come to an end, did they realise that politics might interfere with their plans for eternity?

The roofless church at Muckross Abbey

The ruins of Muckross Abbey appeared like an oddity to me. The monastery was in extraordinary condition, almost pristine on eye-level. But the lack of a roof was a stark reminder that nothing was for sure and that not even the dedication to an order could guarantee a continuation of things until the end of time.

The Notion of Eternity

The only living thing left within the monastery walls, the only reminder long after the monks had abandoned the buildings, was the massive trunk of the old yew tree in the centre of the cloisters. It made me think that trees and nature had indeed a very different concept of time.

The trees at Killarney National Parks constantly told their stories. Unlike what we did with humans, their dead had not been removed from the place where they used to live, there was no tree cemetery in the park. Their giant bodies were lying there where they had fallen, cushioned by their own massive crowns. Enormous structures, grown over centuries.

What have they seen in their lifetime, what have they been witnesses to? To them, our lives surely must have been just a blink, a side-note, a short interruption in their eternal lives. And even though they might have been lying there, left to rot, their destiny wasn’t over yet. There was still a purpose for their existence, a second life of providing shelter, and food, and nourishment to those around them.

A dead fallen tree

A walk in Killarney National Park was both, an opportunity to reflect on time, and an occasion to enjoy all aspects of life. In the great scheme of things, our lifetime on earth meant nothing.

Yet, this didn’t mean that we couldn’t build something of substance, leaving behind memories, and making sense in our short existence.
Signs of life at Killarney National Park

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Yew tree in the cloisters