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Holy Ground

posted 17 Jul 2018, 14:09 by Fran Brady

It was never good looking down

And right there where we stood was holy ground

Taylor Swift



The Dubliners - the sixties Irish folk band, not the James Joyce novel - used to sing a song called ‘The Holy Ground’. I first heard it when an Irish University rugby team came over to play in Scotland, to St Andrews where I was a student. My room-mate in Chattan residence was going through her Irish phase (and it lasted long enough for her to do a post-grad at Trinity College Dublin, meet an Irishman called Eamonn, and later marry him) and I found myself dragged along to a noisy, smoky pub, in hopes of meeting some real Irishmen.


In the early years of that decade, Irish nationalism was popular, especially in Roman Catholic circles. Bands like The Clancy Brothers and The Dubliners sang songs like ‘The Patriot Game (Come all ye young rebels and list while I sing … Six counties are under John Bull’s tyranny) and Kevin Barry (who gave his young life in the cause of liberty). We -  my nineteen-year-old pal and I - did not then realise where it was all going. ‘The Cause’ (‘freeing’ those six counties to become part of an independent Ireland) was romantic and its rebel music stirring. 


With our eyes full of tears - and who knew whether they came from breathing in the fervour or the cigarette smoke - we belted out those patriotic songs, extolling the sacrifice of past martyrs to the cause and calling for the next generation of freedom fighters to come forth. 

Even the fairly innocuous ‘Holy Ground’, with its thrilling call of ‘Fine Girl Ye Are’ at the end of each chorus, spoke of the traveller’s longing to be back in Ireland - preferably in the Dublin pub which was called The Holy Ground


Mother Ireland exerts the clarion call that only countries which have known mass and forced emigration can. In Scotland, we know that call well, since The Highland Clearances forcibly scattered Scots all over the New World. ‘How Green was my Valley’ documented the Welsh experience, and in Ireland, thousands were driven to escape from the starvation of the potato famine in the mid nineteenth century. The twentieth century saw the biggest displacement of people ever, during and after the Nazis’ reign of terror. 


‘The old country’, as my cousin who has lived in Canada for sixty of her seventy-five years calls it, takes on a precious significance that those of us who have lived all our lives here cannot imagine. We do not need to, because we see and live with its reality. For the exile, even a third generation one, the old country is like the fallen soldier in Laurence Binyon’s famous poem: age shall not weary nor the years condemn. The image is frozen in time, air-brushed, innocent and perfect, becoming more so with each succeeding generation, as the stories and songs are handed down and the legends thrive and multiply.  


A way of life that was actually brutal - impoverished and virtually enslaved, with infant mortality, starvation, disease and early death all too common - has been idealised. It is the ‘Granny’s Heilan’ Hame’ syndrome: the painting of the tiny whitewashed, red-roofed cottage, nestling in the lee of a heather-clad mountain, masks the reality of a hard, precarious, primitive life. It has become Holy Ground.


The expression, ‘Holy Ground’, probably comes from the translation of Exodus, chapter three, when God says to Moses: ‘Do not come any closer. Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.’ The presence of God - the ultimate Holy One - has conferred the state (and status) of holiness upon the very soil or turf of that place. 


We use the expression freely now in worship:


In him, no sin is found

We stand on holy ground

(from Be still for the presence of the Lord)



There is holy ground to walk upon 
There is peace that you can know 
Faith in God can fill your heart 
And fear and doubt may go 
There is holy ground to walk upon 
Leave behind your heavy shoes 
Come and stand in the shadow of His hands 
For He is calling you.

Ian White (from his album entitled ‘Holy Ground’)


In both these instances, Holy Ground is portrayed as a place of peace and protection, although the Exodus quotation conveys something different: more a sense of awe, dread even, of man being unworthy to stand or walk upon it, only permitted unshod. Football fans sometimes talk of the pitch that their team plays upon as ‘holy ground’, which is closer to the Old Testament sense. Indeed, these fans will sometimes take off their shoes before venturing onto the hallowed turf. They are probably ignorant of Exodus, but the instinct to creep unshod upon Holy Ground seems to be buried deep in the human psyche.


The exile’s old country; the traveller’s touchstone; the nationalist’s totem; the Old Testament’s place of awe; the Christian’s haven of peace; or maybe just a Dublin pub. It is a phrase rich in many meanings. What does it mean to you?