100 Seconds – The Celtic Maze 06/11/2021

My Journey to Ballymaloe, County Cork, Ireland

I was lost, and what’s more, driving on the “wrong” side of the road (for an American). I slowed down, rolled down the window, and stopped alongside a man with a sturdy walking stick. He laughed, then said “Ballymaloe, been there for dinner and scoops. Cailín, follow your nose. It’s just a wee bit more down the road.” I knew enough to guess that “a wee bit” could vary wildly in Ireland. After a few more miles of passing sheep peacefully munching on the glowing green hills, I found a sign and turned off onto a dirt road. My destination at last, the Ballymaloe cooking school built around an organic farm and gardens.

I spent two days eating wonderful, home cooked meals, fresh from the farm, and having plenty of scoops (drinking Guinness). I can still taste the soda bread, warm from the oven, mussels, clams, and winkles, with all the flavors of the briny Irish sea.

The gardens dated back to the early 19th century when a family of Quakers arrived here. When a well-known Irish chef, named Darina Allen, bought the property fifty years ago, the gardens were little more than brambles and weeds with only a few hints of the past, like a mosaic floor made out of broken china.

The farm and gardens were both quirky and charming, including a lake with a giant flute leaning against a tree (photo 4), a duck and geese enclosure, a converted barn which housed the cooking school, orchard, kitchen potager in the French style (photo 5 and 6), a summer house preserving the century-old mosaic floor, a rustic tree house, wildflower meadow, herb garden, and a classical folly (meaning a structure meant to look like something ancient, in this case, a Roman temple), and blowsy, long flower borders, filled with cottage garden plants. My two Ballymaloe favorites were the Shell House and Celtic Maze.

The Shell House walls, window sills and ceiling were encrusted with a myriad of shells. In the center of the pebble studded floor was a circular pool of shallow, bubbling water.

The Celtic Maze

A bit about mazes. Mazes are typically made of trees, hedges or plants. In Europe, mazes date back thousands of years. The oldest surviving maze today is over 4,000 years old in Italy. The most famous one is in England at Hampton Court, the royal palace of Henry VIII. Substantial mazes require money, people, time, and a very large space.

Is a maze the same as a labyrinth? No, a labyrinth is usually a winding path without any choices. In ancient Ireland, labyrinths were often carved on Stone Age monuments and grave sites, the design representing the soul’s journey into the center of the uterine underworld and its return toward rebirth. One of the oldest archetypal symbols, it is sacred to the earth goddess.

A maze involves making the walker choose between various routes with many dead-ends. Ballymaloe’s maze was based on manuscripts of Ireland’s Golden Age, from monastic works like the Book of Kells, which contain the most intricate and abstract patterns, many of which are maze-like. This Celtic Maze covered about an acre, constructed from yew, hornbeam, and beech trees. Each section had to be carefully measured so that when the final tree was set in place it was exactly where it should be to keep the puzzle intact.

Walking the Celtic maze at Ballymaloe was disorienting, yet a strangely transcendent experience. Much like life.

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