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About John Of Celtic Ways

Updated on February 11, 2013

It all really started when I was 6 years old

It all started when I was about 6 years old in the moors of the West Riding of Yorkshire. I found an ancient passage cairn in a woodland valley, known as barrows there, that became my den.

It was where I would hide and imagine.

About this time my father took me on a trip to Devon and we passed Stonehenge on the way there. I had never heard of Stonehenge and my jaw dropped.

The sun had just set, the sky was red and the stones just present in gothic silhouette. I begged my father to detour to look closer.

This was during a time before visitor's centres, gift shops and "keep out" ropes. From that young age I was hooked on megolithomania and grew with a constant wonder about nature and our place in it.

out came The Book !!!

Another turning point, that I only now appreciate in my current work, happened about a year earlier. My mother passed away when I was 4 years old and my father married very quickly after.

My new step-mother was very assertive and ambitious. She was determined I would be a strong reader before i started school so I would always be “top of the class”. No, it was not ABC and Janet and John books to get me started in reading. First book I was given to learn was – The Bible!

Surprisingly, I remember liking the challenge and got right into it. As a wee boy I had no concept of religion, so to me the Bible was a story book, a stunningly good story book, and that’s still how I view it today. I still feel, and am sure I always will, regard good story books as far better teachers than text books and research papers.

Another thing my step mother did, at the same time, was drag me to talent contests and thrown me on stage, without me knowing what was going end. I have memories of her shouting “do something!”. I recall trying to sing nursery rhymes and throwing titbits from Bible stories in between verses. I do not remember winning any prizes though. Still, it sparked a longing for drama within me.

When I started school, as I was advanced in reading I soon became very bored at school. I think I actually gave up most book reading then, that has lasted to this day. Instead, I became addicted to Ordnance Survey maps. My imagination used to run wild as I browsed the different colour contours and roads, place names, and especially symbols that represented the location of ancient sites.

Most parents would be horrified with where I took my young school mates on bicycle rides to see and explore ancient sites I had picked out on OS maps. Visiting these sites was not enough for me, though. I wanted to know what happened at these places, especially as my first memory of Stonehenge kept repeating in my mind.

my ancestry of guides and healers

My family on my father's side, for many generations back, had a local nickname of being "cunning ones", but as half the village, a Hertfordshire village, not a Yorkshire village, was family. This, I believe was due to their knowledge and practice with herbs, astrology, divining, tree lore, what is now called earth healing or rieki, and some things that I only share with retreat groups here that have a sympathy with that wisdom.

Today folks talk of shamanism, druidism, wicca, paganism and so forth, but I feel uncomfortable using those words for myself. Some folks seem to feel a bit more comfortable around me if they do call me something like that. I just did not hear those words from my family as a child. My family members called themselves healers and guides.

Through my early teens my father's family side started dying off quite rapidly. I was also seeing very little of my father, so my involvement in these earth spirit ways probably waned for awhile. I was becoming a fan of blues and soul music.

Surprisingly, at a couple of reunions with folks from my high school days they remind me of the classroom lectures and mini-workshops I used to give on this stuff. I find it quite a compliment that they remember this, yet I do not.

Did it mean something to them?

What did build up through my teens, though, was an increasing yearning to understand what happened at these ancient sacred sites. I was starting to discover more through ancient poetry, ancient songs, and ancient folk drama scripts and trying them out. I was also dabbling in visualisation.

from folk drama to sacred stone work.

After my grammar school years my life was a bit of a dabble trying out all kinds of things for a few weeks at a time, but I feel my career life really started in community theatre with music on the side, and herbal and astrology studies too.

For four years I was based in Somerset, England, and working in Bath and Glastonbury. Some friends and myself explored ancient folk drama. We performed sacred plays, mummers plays and circle ceremonies along with old music, songs and dances, usually for fund raising for the theatre that employed us.

With music, my fascination was to investigate the oldest of music or music inspired by the oldest mythology. This included a fascination the oldest of instruments, especially harps and lyres. Strangely, I never learned to play any of these. I did become a fiddle player in my teens but turned to other stringed instruments to accompany my poetry and songs. Really, I've always been happier as a music fan than a musician.

It was near poverty from the bardic work that led me to working with stones. Community theatre could never pay much. I seem to remember earning either £6 or £8 a week in the early 70s. So, three of us did some mid week lawn cutting and care that led onto requests for building rock gardens.

Soon, back in Scotland, back on the Isle Of Mull, a beautiful place to rear our family. My association with stones moved into dry stone walling, stone and slate cutting, then stone carving and finally into full stone masonry. This led to work on Iona where I assisted the restoration of the Relig Oran chapel, re-built the alter at the nunnery and did some considerable work to damp-proof the Abbey.

From this I took breaks to do forestry and shell fishing work, and started to become successful as a writer, but more of that later.

I also returned to learning my father's family traditions in herbs and astrology and studied to get formal qualifications in these.

from Iona to along the paths of the Ghaels

Being on Iona and the Inner Hebrides, I was also again exposed to stories and the tradition of ceilidhs by the hearth. It brought back memories of when this tradition was also alive in our cottage home in Yorkshire, sitting by the hob of the fire after my tin bath scrubbing with real sponges and pummy stone, then toasting bread of the fire with a toasting fork. In Scotland I now understand what happened, when the "grown ups" arrived.

During these years, the 70s folks on the Isle Of Mull were being lured to so called better opportunities in New Zealand. Some locals had emigrated and enjoyed success, so the word was out and others followed on the emigration trail. Meanwhile, folks of Counties Donegal and Sligo in Ireland were having a really hard time and some became lured to the new vacancies in construction, forestry and fishing that were opening up on Mull due to through those leaving.

A hovercraft, or was it a large hydrofoil, service set up between Oban and Malin Head on Inishowen, Co. Donegal. It stopped off at Fionnphort on the west side of Mull and Iona.

Through curiosity, along with new coastal traditions I learned from these Irish men, I took time off. I put my bike on board the new whizzy ferry boat to Co. Donegal, and cycled around parts of North West Ireland learning stories, recipes, and visiting their ancient sites on those wonderful Irish Ordnance Survey maps. I made that bike journey a few times

Of course, I did not know then how those days would one day be an important gateway to my wonderful life now.

becoming a writer and guide

An interesting friend at the time, Russell Grant, who became popular as a TV astrologer and travel guide, kindly introduced my to agencies that took on my Celtic tradition and myths writing work and syndicated it to some quite exotic publications, such as Tatler, Bride, Family Circle, Living, and perhaps the motherload was on the Saturday centre pages of Scotland’s Daily Record tabloid. This would be mid to late 70s, I believe.

This new media “fame” led to me providing talks, being invited to workshops and new age fairs and hosting successful weekend and week long retreats on Iona or the Isle Of Mull.

I eventually left stone masonry work because, like with music, I thought I performed better as a fan of stone work and stone sculptures than being a creator or restorer of them. I also wanted to focus on running my own publishing company, a dream that had actually been with me since high school days.

back to herb lore ... into science, and the woods

During the 80s, my publishing work led to presenting more workshops on various astro-archaeology, ancient astrology and Celtic mythology topics and I found I enjoyed this work much more than publishing.

After a bout of chronic fatigue illness, that was largely relieved through diet changes, I ventured into continuing studies and learning herbalism a lot more. After earning a herbalism diploma I created a goal of converting this wisdom into a "real job".

The herbalism I learned contained a lot of mythology and trust in lore so i decided to study and earn a degree in food science with intent of deeply understanding the workings of plants and nutrition.

My intention was to venture into commercial herb tincture and concentrates production based on ancient healing texts from Britain, India and China.

This intent came to an abrupt end when I showed off new learned jargon-rich science to my Chinese herb company employer when he responded, "Yes John, we just call that the balance of Yin and Yang".

Yes, any value of my recent years of dedication to science learning came to a grinding halt. I realized that through intense science study I may have departed from my divine story.

All was not wasted, though. Since then, I have discovered that my science time did actually incubate a divine wisdom that has since been very useful for my sense of tolerance and understanding, which are two essential spiritual ingredients for all practices and attention to herb lore.

During this study time I also became quite an activist for forestry, due to being disturbed by corporate forestry and lack of local and rural management of native woodslands .... this was to come back to me in later years.

the calling of Riverdance

No I did not become a Riverdance dancer :-) .

I was on my way back to Scotland, after working with a herb company in the USA, and thought I would visit a friend in Florida on the way home.

During my visit, as a favour I covered her work of providing transport for some blind people, a job she did on the side.

This one favour, hastily led to contacts, changed my arrangements and events and within what seemed like a few days I was teaching blind people how to use PCs with screen readers and voice synthesizers. This was early 90s now.

After I had taught some blind people how to teach other blind people the same I quickly moved onto creating and events and catering company, in Florida, that gave employment to blind and mentally disabled people. This was far removed from anything I had done or ever intended or dreamed of doing. The whole experience was a rapid "go with the flow" time.

Recently I have understood the benefits of this extreme diversion. For one it gave me an incredible insight into the lives of USA people.

Within my catering work I desired to keep a connection to my Celtic interests so as a hobby I set up my Celtic Ways web site during 1995 to share my knowledge and interest in Celtic music, theatre, mythology and traditions. At that point I was only doing this as a hobby to archive my knowledge, so far, so it was not forgotten.

Then Riverdance came to the USA and captured USA interest. It seemed that an overnight Celtic culture not only embraced but seemed to be something almost invented by the USA. Before then I do not remember anyone in Scotland or Ireland talking to me about Celtic unless it was about the famous Scottish soccer team started by an Irishman from Co. Sligo.

the discovery of MP3s

At the time Riverdance came to the USA, the MP3 audio compression software had been invented. I had met and heard various "celtic" music musicians and singers, some that we contracted for some of our own Celtic theme events, that just had no decent outlets for their music.

I started to introduce the idea of Celticmusicians in the USA putting their music into MP3 format, putting it online and offering folks to download and play it.

One thing missing, an online audio player.

Through being active in MIDI audio forums I quickly found someone who was quite dedicated to the new MP3 format and had written software to play the files - so we were off up and running featuring online MP3 format music for downloading and a downloadable software player to play it on! Online speeds were not yet very good for streaming mp3 files.

My Celtic Ways web site quickly changed from being a Celtic lore and mythology information site to being a Celtic music site with Celtic music in MP3 format and a player to download to play it. This is how I met Claire :-)

Soon after I had launched this idea along came the launch of a major web site called MP3.com.

MP3.com truly established this new format and circulated it quickly, much like the launch of Facebook. MP3s then took on viral popularity as people became familiar with the format and the portabiity of the music, though actual portable hardware MP3 players were still a couple of years away

Before the hardware MP3 players came along that were MP3 CD discs and the Sony Walkman CD players that clumsily played the MP3 files from these discs.

I was introduced to Claire Roche's music by another Celtic music musician. Her music quickly became popular online and our friendship grew.

An interesting karmic thing started to happen then.

The people who downloaded this new Celtic music on MP3 filed started to send me emails asking questions about the Celtic countries, their traditions, legends, cultures, ancient history and Celtic Christianity.

I found their questions and interest was calling me back to re-enter the work I had been doing through the 60s, 70s and 80s.

In 2001, I realized that I was now in the wrong country and wanted to hastily return to Scotland. Circumstances changed quickly and I ended up in Ireland instead ...

the calling of Erin

I found a sort of home in Glendalough, Co. Wicklow, as I worked as a manager at the hotel there.

I bought a car and spent three years using time off during the day, full days off, and my five weeks a year vacation, travelling all around Ireland searching for and exploring many hidden sacred sites and talking to local people about their legends and traditions.

My Celtic Ways web site then reduced its music content and gradually returned to how it started in 1995 with its Celtic lore and myth stories. This time, I was including photos and logs of my travels and discoveries around Ireland.

Many people noticed my site, mainly from Google searches I think, and wrote to me to ask if they could join me on my travels, and so they did :-)

finally, I am at home in Co. Sligo

I found myself frequently returning to Co. Sligo and the other counties of the Breifne region, these being the counties of Leitrim, Cavan, Fermanagh and some of Roscommon, as this area seemed to be more abundant in ancient sites and traditions than the rest of Ireland combined. I also must add the beautiful Co. Donegal to this.

More important, this was returning memories of when I cycled these parts during the 70s

Betty Bunn, wife of renowned Ireland photographer Mike Bunn and friend of Claire, heard of my interest in Co. Sligo and the Breifne, found a cottage for me below the Keash Caves, a site of some of the most profound legends of Ireland, especially of Morrigan, so I moved in.

My plan was to work a “normal” well paid job as manager of Markree Castle and spend my free time continuing to explore the endless sacred sites of this Breifne region …… but two things happened very quickly.

sacred sites tour guide?

Being a manager of a popular hotel for weddings, like Markree Castle,

leaves very little spare time.

Also, at Markree Castle, I was forever chatting to guests about the local ancient sites and legends. They wanted to visit them and no local minibus services were doing this at that time.

A choice had to be made by me!

I resigned from Markree Castle, bought a minibus, and with exceptional, encouragement, support, and help from partner Claire Roche, Celtic Ways became a travel company offering exploring our local sacred sites.

To attract people to join Celtic Ways guided tours I quickly discovered that I also needed to arrange accommodation, dining, entertainment and group itineraries

... a full vacation service.

Folks inquiring about tours also wanted to explore much more than just our North West Ireland area. They were coming here for 2 or 3 weeks of guided touring and hoped to explore ALL of Ireland. We had some wonderful times visiting many hidden sacred sites in scenic places plus sharing stories and traditions all over Ireland.

A few years ago many folks budgeted $3000 to $8000 each for such a long and thorough vacation of Ireland, especially people from the USA and many from Australia too..

Then, the economic bubbles of the world burst, and the budgets spent on a vacation were reduced down to under $2000 by most people with several inquiries of how to be in Ireland with just a few hundred dollars.

Their vacation times here were slashed from 2 or 3 weeks to 5 to 8 days ... but they still wanted to see and experience ALL of Ireland.

To do this, we ended up spending most time travelling on the roads and stops at sites became very minimal, no more than quick photo stops and maybe picking up a book or two to read about what was being missed. The experiences of sites and sacredness of vacations was starting to dissolve quickly.

It was time for me to change what I offered through Celtic Ways again ...

Celtic Dreamtime retreat

During 2004, Claire came up with the idea of restoring a traditional Irish cottage and suggested that I should use it as a base to re-visit the skills and wisdoms I have accumulated through my life and find a way to present them together within the restored cottage

My reply was that one important skill I have not learned that binds this all together is the bardic songs, stories and muse of the harper, which Claire can share with all who listen in a very levitating way.

November 2008, after returning from our shared tour of Australia and New Zealand, I moved into Carrowcrory Cottage, to offer as a kind of centre of all things I now do with the Celtic Ways brand.

Through the winter of 2008/2009 I built the first big labyrinth between Samhain and Imbolc, a good weather winter that was with many sunny dry days. Our first ceilis and meals were served around our hearths then too. with songs, music and stories.

The anticipated Two Worlds Theatre, from a converted milking shed has had its setbacks, such as the inner wall collapsing in but the builder did compensate. .

It was spring of 2009 when I met the wonderful Karen and Eddie Litton and family at Ballaghboy Lodge Farm who has also brought an old cottage and farm back to life and extended to house guests. Their accommodation was and still is stunning and so are their meals and hospitality.

I thought, why do people need to do exhausting road hugging tours all over Ireland when we can share a complete vacation here with a choice of ancient and heritage sites, traditions, relaxations and activities that are more than what anyone can include in any vacation?

I decided to serve vacations that are about experiencing more from travelling less, and to bring in the sense of personal retreat and restoration.

Through that year of 2009, folks enjoyed arriving in Ireland, spending a few days with us here, and then renting a car and van to complete their Ireland journey in their own way. We also had a wonderful 2nd Words and Harps Day featuring Robin Williamson, best nown as a founder of the Incredible String Band.

... but, alas, in spring 2010, a very unexpected personal challenge,

changed my direction once again ...

Garden Of Labyrinths

May 2010, I was crippled with a stroke.

I am mobile now but stress and bad diet choices can and do knock me out quite quickly

so I am uch more careful with how I live.

The jury is still out regarding what caused my stroke as all scans show my heart to be in

quite good shape but the infliction has changed a lot in my life.

First, the minibus had to go, as I am unable and it is illegal for me

to drive a minibus any more in the Irish Republic.

In short I have gone into an attempted stress free semi-retirement.

I became a keeper and carer of my Garden Of Labyrinths, though expanding this is very, very slow.

Folks enjoy visiting and using my big tree labyrinth :-)

When folks visit here at Carrowcrory, sometimes Claire Roche is here with her harps, stories and songs.

On rainy days, I started writing about my adventures and learning

through the past 57 years, that I also share with those who visit Carrowcrory here today.

Bards In The Woods

I read a report that claimed more than 60% of people in Ireland had never visited a public access woodland in their lives since leaving school.

I then read other reports saying how Ireland has the worst tree coverage in Europe and threats of government sell off of forestry land, some of it to cattle farmers. Before that, it has been revealed that forestry land had been sold for development that now sits as unused ghost estates that the Irish tax payer is now bailing out.

It occurred to me that Ireland reveled in ruins. Its tourism is largely based on ruins and graveyards. Why not be involved in something that is living and regenerating.

To me, this means trees, water springs, woodlands and forests.

How do we encourage more people, in Ireland, to visit more woodlands more often. The Five national forest parks are well attended, but what about the other 150 ish public access woodlands around the country?

For National Tree Week, March 2012, I started the idea of having Bards In The Woods, a very vague theme, and poet Edward Durand promoted a Poetree Walk in Hazel Wood Sligo. Turnout was awful, but i liked the idea and promoted it for the following Sunday. Turnout was great :-)

So from then on, each Sunday afternoon, until the last Sunday in October Bards, Poets and Storytellers have shared Sunday afternoons in Ireland's public access woodlands.

We have combined tree identification and appreciation with poems and stories about trees, and share picnics of local foods from local farmers markets, growers and producers too.

Our gatherings have become remarkable stress relieving times that are similar to the Japanese Shinrin Yoku, Forest Bathing, but we call our's Boladh na Sioga, blessed by the Fae's Breath.

We look forward to repeating this and expanding this through 2013.

click here for my Bards In The Woods web site

Ogma's Tale of The Trees

Several diviners from medieval times until the present have tried to align the mythology of trees to Ogham symbols. This is an endless quest that links tree lore with seasons of the year, seasons of our life, and lifestyle choices too.

Ogma's Tale of The Trees is an ongoing writing and recording project of mine these days. It started from when I first learned of it in the early 70s in Scotland, and I have come back to it from time to time since.

Since having a stroke, and especially through this past winter, I have been quite devoted to this project. It is something I can still do. The current intent is a book and double CD set.

Please take a peek ...

click here for my Ogma's Tale Of The Trees web site

to visit me

Using the the labyrinths has no fee

I invite people to visit between 2 pm and 5 pm.

It is essential to phone ahead though, 071 966 6480

at least a day before arrival though, if you can.

There is a collection box to help with upkeep costs

or please volunteer some weeding, mulching, mowing

or kerb stone maintenance.

My labyrinth garden relies a lot on volunteer help now.

click here to message me

I look forward to hearing from you one day

click here to return to my Celtic Ways web site

your words about John and Celtic Ways

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      anonymous 4 years ago

      John ~ Our week with you was absolutely wonderful. Thank you for opening our eyes to magical, mystical, spiritual and BEAUTIFUL Ireland! Your insights were fascinating, mesmerizing and quite simply delightful. We look forward to MUCH more reading, learning, exploring and ENJOYING of this incredibly special place. Your own story is fascinating, as well. Thank you, again, for all you did to turn our week into a "magical mystery tour."

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      Incredible John ... Incredible .

    • Wendy Gillissen profile image

      Wendy Gillissen 5 years ago

      Nice to read more about your personal life John!:-)

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Hello John, lovely to read of your travels... to Mull and Iona.. Glastonbury...

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Interesting article, and nice to get to know about you! :)

    • flicker lm profile image

      flicker lm 5 years ago

      Thanks for sharing your very interesting story! I enjoyed it.

    • linhah lm profile image

      Linda Hahn 5 years ago from California

      Very nice look at some of the old ways. I would love to visit.

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      John! That was a truly wonderful and comfortable and fascinating read! - thank you so much for the sharing of it - it is wonderful to know some of your history, along with and backing the sites and pages that you keep going. I am so hoping I can get there sometime!