Notes From Ireland: Close Encounters with Faeries and Dakinis, the Wisdom Goddesses of Ireland and Tibet
NOTE TO THE READER: I wrote this piece in 2002 after returning to the U.S. from Ireland, my ancestral homeland, where I had lived for two years. I recently found it while rummaging through some files on my computer. I share it with the public for the first time here.
I catch my first glimpse of Tara, the Buddhist Goddess Tara, that is, in 1987. My journey has led me into a doctoral program in the Psychology of Religion and Women’s Spirituality at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. A woman by the name of China Galland is giving a slide presentation of dark, feminine images of divinity, in conjunction with the release of her new book Longing for Darkness: Tara and the Black Madonna. When I see the image of the Green Tara, I experience a profound sense of recognition, longing and affinity. China explains that in the Tibetan scheme of things, Tara is understood as a fully-enlightened, female Buddha. She is also a Bodhisattva, a being of infinite compassion who has taken a vow not to rest until all being are liberated from suffering. For China, this green form of Tara, as well as several other dark, feminine forms of the sacred which exist cross-culturally, represents everything that has been submerged, repressed, denied. She is the Dark Mother, the Womb of God. Everything is held in Her embrace. Nothing is left out. Nothing is artificially set apart from anything else.
Once I find Tara, I can’t let her go. Or is it She who isn’t letting me go? For me, She is the answer, in iconographic form, to the problem of dualism/dissociation with which I have been wrestling throughout much of my academic career. And She is so much more than a mere image. In fact, She has become a real presence in my life. My dreams and waking moments are taken up with Her. I read everything I can find about Her, meditate daily on Her image, and eventually write my dissertation on Her role in recovery for Buddhist 12-Steppers. I even spend a year on the staff of a Buddhist retreat center in Colorado, Tara Mandala, named in Her honor and devoted to Her compassionate mission. In 1997, I change my name to Tara, in recognition of the fact that my identity and inner world have been so completely transformed by Her influence, and also as a way of affirming my Irish ancestry. Through the symbolic act of renaming myself, my Buddhist and Celtic worlds, previously unrelated, begin to collide and then to interweave.
In the winter of 2000, the time is finally right for a long anticipated pilgrimage to Ireland. I have a strong intuition that somehow the Hill of Tara (after which, by the way, the plantation in Gone With the Wind is named), Ireland’s most high holy place and seat of royal power for centuries, and the Buddhist Goddess Tara, are connected. I have no evidence whatsoever to back this up. I go to Ireland with only the prayer that I will be guided to the deepest possible truth about this matter.
Seriously jet lagged, I find myself browsing in a bookstore at Trinity College, in Dublin, on the very day of my arrival in Ireland. Serendipitously, I happen upon The Book of Tara, written in 1996 by Michael Slavin, a journalist who, according to the book jacket, has lived in Tara Village at the base of the Hill of Tara for the past thirty years. He asserts that because Tara Hill is fundamentally a spiritual place, its mysteries are, ultimately, beyond the reach of historians, archaeologists and scientists, and can best be known by dreamers, storytellers and mystics. Since I fall within the latter category, I feel emboldened in my quest. Back in my room, reading The Book of Tara that night, I have a premonition that I am going to meet Michael and that he will help me know the secrets that are “unspoken” but “can be heard in whispers” at the Hill of Tara.
In the morning I set out for the Hill of Tara with a tour group scheduled to stop briefly at Tara before going on to Newgrange, another historic site dating back to the Stone Age. We get off the tour bus at Tara, located about thirty miles north of Dublin and I make a bee-line for the gift shop at the base of the Hill, hoping to find Michael Slavin there, or at the very least to find out how to contact him. I am a woman on a mission. Two young Irishmen follow me into the shop and before I have a chance to inquire, they ask the clerk if Michael is around. Turns out he’s only in on odd days and this is one of the even ones. I tell the clerk that I’ve been reading Michael’s book and would like to speak to him about the Hill of Tara. “Michael loves to talk about the Hill,” she says, and gives me his number so that I can “ring him up.”
The next thing I know, I’m talking to Michael Slavin on the phone, telling him I’ve come all the way from the United States to be at the Hill of Tara and asking if he’d mind talking to me about the place. “That would be lovely,” he says in his lilting brogue, “I’ll be there in ten minutes.” Sure enough, ten minutes later I’m being introduced to Michael by the two Irishmen. He’s a man in his late seventies with one of those wonderful, map-of-Ireland faces. He couldn’t be more delightful in a grandfatherly sort of way. Taking both my hands in both of his, he says, “Tara, welcome to Tara.”
It becomes obvious very quickly that I will not be getting back on the bus to Newgrange, so I retrieve my backpack and tell the tour guide I’ll be staying at the Hill. “That’s very good,” he says, “Having Michael Slavin all to yourself is much better than listening to me ramble on, anyway.” I pick Michael’s brain for about an hour and he is very generous in answering all my questions with great candor, passion and lucidity. Michael believes, with persuasive historical evidence to back him up, that the Hill of Tara is named after the Celtic queen Tea who traveled from Northern Spain to Ireland in the 3rd century B.C.E. According to legend, she took up residence at the Hill and is, in fact, buried there, though her body has yet to be found. He goes on to say that during the British occupation of the Irish Republic, there was an archaeological dig at the Hill whose mission was to find the Ark of the Covenant, also rumored to be buried there. Michael dismisses this notion as “pure foolishness.”
Finally, Michael says he has to go but if I stay overnight at Mrs. Maguire’s Bed and Breakfast, just down the road a bit, he’ll be happy to take me up to the Hill the following morning and show me where he thinks queen Tea’s body is buried. We make a plan to meet at 10:30 a.m. and say our goodbyes. I spend the rest of the day reading The Hill of Tara and chatting with Mrs. Maguire who, by her own admission, has “the gift of the gab.” Her ancestors have lived at the base of Tara Hill for the past six generations, and, along with her husband, Dezzy, she’s raised five children there, one of whom owns and operates the gift shop where I first spoke with Michael Slavin on the phone.
Eventually, I get around to asking Mrs. Maguire what Tara Hill is all about for her. She tells me she goes for a walk on the Hill almost every day and for her “it’s about the wee people and the faeries.” She suggests I go up on the Hill by myself and walk around and be very quiet, insisting that that is the only way I will really understand. Two mornings later, I do just that, though the weather is very cold and wet and the wind is absolutely wild. I have on five layers of clothing, including a new sweater from the Aran Islands bought the day before at the Tara gift shop, plus Dezzy’s rubber boots. At first, my head is full of questions: Who was Tea really? Could she actually be buried here? And what about the Ark of the Covenant? What really happened on this Hill? etc., etc. After about an hour of this, I have driven myself nuts and am not feeling at all quiet or peaceful. So, I just give up, thinking I will have to come back some other time, on some other trip, when I can stay longer and really settle in to whatever the place has to tell me.
At this point, I am at the apex of the Hill looking across Ireland toward Galway, which amazingly enough, can be seen from the Hill, though it is at least 200 miles away! I look down the western slope of the Hill and there in a little, protected valley at its base is the most beautiful tree I have ever seen. I have to look again because it appears to have a halo of rainbow colored light encircling it. As I walk toward it, I see strips of bright cloth and yarn hanging from some of its branches. When I am within three feet of it, I see that its trunk is shimmering with tiny orbs of luminous energy. I can hardly believe what I’m seeing, but there’s no denying it. Then I see that crystals and mirrors and jewelry and colored glass and coins and candles are nestled in every nook and cranny of the tree’s trunk and lower branches. It’s leaves look like faerie wings fluttering in the breeze. The energy coming off the tree is pure bliss. I am hit with wave after wave of it. I walk around the tree and from every angle it is absolute perfection, so beautiful I can hardly bear it. Finally, I sit down under the tree on one of its roots, which forms a perfect meditation seat, and begin to meditate.
As soon as my eyes are closed and I have taken a few deep breaths, I begin to feel as if I have stumbled into a swarm of bees, except that instead of being stung, I am caressed by thousands of tiny, silk wings. I have the realization that I am in the midst of something like a faerie hive. I am overcome with a deep sense of homecoming. I understand that I am, in fact, IRISH, and that, ultimately, this is what it means to be Irish. It’s as if I have passed through a spiritual vortex of some sort and into something both uniquely Irish and fundamentally universal at the same time. I am immersed in the collective Irish soul, which is, itself, floating in the ocean of pure awareness common to us all. I know that nothing can ever desecrate or diminish, in any way, this holy place ~ not foreign invasion, not Famine, not “The Troubles,” not the Irish diaspora. Here, under this faerie tree, I know that Irish people, both those who still live in Ireland and those who have been forced to leave their homeland, are essentially whole and intact, despite any and all appearances to the contrary.
More insights flood in. I see that the faeries are none other than the Irish version of what in Tibet are known as “dakinis,” or wisdom goddesses. Tara is one such dakini (in addition to being a Buddha and a Bodhisattva). The Tibetans teach that the dakinis are protectors of various gateways into other dimensions of reality. They protect “terma,” sacred teachings that have been buried in trees and rocks and other natural settings until such time as they can be reclaimed. I understand that Ireland’s sacred teachings have, of necessity, gone underground. But they have not been lost. The faeries are protecting them, saving them, holding them, for the Irish people, for all of humankind. In the Tibetan tradition, the dakini Tara, in her green manifestation, is the protector of the forests. She lives there among the trees. It’s obvious that this Buddhist Tara is a close cousin to the little green faerie bees protecting Ireland’s precious spiritual resources.
Mrs. Maguire is waiting for me when I arrive back at the Bed and Breakfast, wanting to know how things have gone up on the Hill. “I found the faerie tree,” I blurt out, smiling. “Achhh, you found the faerie tree, did’ya?” she says, delightedly. “I’ve been going there since I was a wee girl and so have most of the locals.” I take this information in for a moment. “It was glowing with light!” I say in wonder. “Yes,” she says simply. “It does that.” After a hearty Irish breakfast, I visit Michael at his bookshop and tell him my news, as well. “Aye, then you know what Tara is really all about now, don’t'cha?” he says, with a big grin on his face. “In the end, it’s not about whether Tea or the Ark of the Covenant is buried here,” I say. “It’s about the spiritual teachings buried here and the faeries protecting their ancient Celtic treasure.” “That’s right. That’s exactly right,” he says, and seems very pleased. I have passed the test and am unceremoniously welcomed into the tribe and treated accordingly.
Meanwhile, I continue to reflect upon the magic of the faerie tree. “Coincidentally,” the pictures I took of the tree could not be developed. The entire roll of film was mysteriously defective. So, I am left with only the memory of my experience, which is, I suspect, exactly what the faeries/dakinis intended. A quick internet search yields others who have made the connection between Irish faeries and Tibetan dakinis. The mystic Bhagavan Das describes the dakinis, whom he claims to be able to see, as “very subtle, petite, naked faeries” who “flit around like humming birds in the air and inside your mind.” Likewise, independent scholar Max Dashu asserts that dakinis and faeries are simply different cultural variations on the underlying wisdom goddess stream. I imagine the little faerie bees at the Hill of Tara have had a good laugh at my expense and are shaking their heads in wonder that it took me so long to figure out something which, in retrospect, seems so obvious.