A Literary Pilgrimage with Ralph C. Wood

I’ve recently had the pleasure of reading the Christmas Letter of the great literary luminary and scholar, Ralph C. Wood, whose works I have admired for years. It contained details of such a joyous literary romp from the Deep South to the Mystic West (of Ireland) that I’ve sought and received his permission to share this part of his Letter with visitors to the Ink Desk:

  Two summer ventures were among the highlights of our year. In June, we spent a long weekend in Louisiana celebrating the life and work of a writer whom I’ve taught and written about for forty years: Walker Percy. Suzanne and I visited the gravesite of Percy and his wife Bunt in the burial ground of St. Joseph’s Benedictine monastery in Covington. We then circled back to St. Francisville, an historic riverport town located near a great bend of the Mississippi. We joined a host of other folks engaged in lively conversation about the things Percy believed and loved and criticized. Among other delights, there was a crawfish boil, a shrimpfest, a pig pickin’, even a bourbon-tasting tour of four historic homes. The whole event was organized and underwritten by Rod Dreher, author of a remarkable book about leaving the high places of New York journalism to live in his Louisiana hometown. It’s entitled The Little Way of Ruthie Leming. My talk was delivered in the restored Jewish synagogue. It was devoted to Percy’s complex relation to his adoptive father, William Alexander Percy— the Mississippi aristocrat, plantation owner, civic leader, and writer who is remembered mainly for his poignant memoir, Lanterns on the Levee. I would have trembled had anyone told me in advance that there were Percy family members in the audience, including Walker and Bunt’s daughter! Hence my relief when they assured me later that I had got things right.

  Then in July we traveled to Ireland for an international symposium on Flannery O’Connor held at All Souls College in Dublin. We especially enjoyed Trinity College library with its many antique holdings, including the Book of Kells. It was also worthwhile seeing St. Patrick’s Anglican Cathedral, where Jonathan Swift served as Dean from 1713-45. We then traveled northward to follow the trail left by St. Patrick, the heroic 5th century missionary who managed to convert the war-making Irish without incurring a single martyrdom. We visited the holy mountain called Croagh Patrick as well as his gravesite and museum in Downpatrick. We also ascended the gentle but stony slope of Knocknarea to behold a huge 3500 BC rock cairn raised in honor of mythical Queen Maeve. Perhaps the most moving places we visited was the memorial honoring the Irish émigrés who sought to escape the horrible 19th century potato famine—one million died and more than a million were forced to emigrate. As you will notice, its fleeing victims are figured in the ship’s rigging.

  We also attended Evensong in the Anglican church at Sligo where William Butler Yeats’ grandfather served as rector in the 19th century. It was the opening event of the annual Yeats Festival, which this year was led by my Baylor colleague Richard Russell. We visited various Yeats sites in Donegal, among them the medieval High Crosses. At these holy places located at or near monasteries, sermons were preached, covenants made and reconciliations sealed, as the Christian story was figured in the stone. These impressive monuments were Ireland’s chief contribution to medieval art. Then we ventured into Northern Ireland to learn more about the work of Seamus Heaney, the Nobel-winning poet who visited the Baylor campus only two years ago. A friend of the poet, Eugene Kielt, guided us on a splendid tour of several sites that feature prominently in Heaney’s work. Among these were Devlin’s Forge, the family farm in Anahorish, the statue of the Turfman (commemorating Heaney’s most famous poem, “Digging”), the bus station where his mother could have been incinerated when it was blown up by the IRA, as well as Heaney’s grave in Bellaghy. Thus did we enter into the living worlds of poetry and poverty and sainthood as books and pictures could never enable us to do.  

Joseph Pearce
Joseph Pearce is a Catholic author and biographer who has written about subjects as various as GK Chesterton, economics, and Shakespeare. His latest book, Race with the Devil, chronicles his conversion from racial hatred to Catholicism. He is also the Director of the Center for Faith & Culture and Writer-in-Residence at Aquinas College in Nashville as well as the editor of St. Austin Review.

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