If finding Nirvana on New Year's Eve seems unlikely, the idea of finding it in Ireland on New Year's Eve likely strains credulity. However, last winter my friends and I decided to escape the madding crowds of the Irish pub and welcome 2011 with the gentle gong of a Tibetan meditation bowl. Dzogchen Beara, a Buddhist retreat centre on Ireland's secluded Beara peninsula, seemed like the ideal way to meld Hibernian mystique with a dreamy sense of ShangriLa.
Off we ventured onto the cork-screw byroads we hoped would lead us to the path of enlightenment.
Beara, Ireland's most southwesterly point, is a remote mountainous headland jutting deep into the Atlantic from counties Cork and Kerry. We'd barely reached its welcome sign when a magnificent red deer, poised on the roadside, drew our journey to a screeching premature halt. The Hag of Beara, is said to haunt the peninsula as a deer. My index of Irish superstitions may have been a little rusty, but I put this one down as good luck.
It wouldn't be a true Irish road-trip however were the journey not dramatically punctuated by a stag, a steer or a stallion. Negotiating flocks of sheep and herds of cattle we passed through Killmacalogue, a serene harbor hamlet where local fishermen bantered while shelling scallops on the pier.
The most breathtaking point on en route was at Cahirkeem, where after ascending a steep humpback hill, a vista over Coulagh Bay virtually collapsed before us. Above us, the misty Caha Mountains, with their criss -- cross of stone walled pastures were dotted with mountain sheep. In the distance - the sights of the Skellig Islands, ancient monastic settlements, burst out of the Atlantic like a Gaelic Machu Picchu. It was all already lending to a meditative state.
Indeed our pilgrimage into the Irish wilds was something of a cathartic escape in its own right. By the time we reached our base in the village of Allihies, six hours of highway and byway separated us from the capital, Dublin.
Being Ireland's most remote village, it's by no means coincidence, that wee Allihies (meaning "cliff fields") is also perhaps the country's most beautiful spot. Tucked between a mountain and ocean setting, the postcard village is a mesmerizing throwback to yesteryear Ireland. Town houses were splashed in purples and greens, pubs in blue and scarlet and even with its peach village chapel -- no building escaped its kaleidoscopic explosion. It may have been chilly, but on those rare summer days, when the white sands of Ballydonegan beach horseshoe into an ocean hued with turquoise, Allihies has the air of a Celtic Caribbean.
We stayed in Seaview B&B run by Mary O'Sullivan and her family, who also own the village shop next door. Peering out of our cozy room, the village and local pubs began to bustle ahead of the busiest night of the year. As darkness set in, it was our cue call to make for Dzogchen Beara, and quipped with a set of directions from Mary we made way for our final leg.
Rising above a mountain pass over Allihies, we veered across a heath of winding roads as tussocks of golden grass swept in the gusty night. Now on the outermost periphery of Ireland, my AA membership was reassuring.
The surreal sight of flickering Tibetan prayer flags, soon heralded our arrival
at Dzogchen Beara, spectacularly located above a steep Atlantic cliff face.
The Buddhist retreat centre which runs under the spiritual guidance of Tibetan lama Sogyal Rinpoche and has been providing visitors with an oasis of spiritual calm since 1994.
We headed for the centre's panoramic shrine, adorned with Buddhist prints and effigies. Slightly tardy for the first evening session, we tip-toed over a gathering of lotus-positioned guests, before settling down on an unclaimed patch of carpet.
Initially observing my peers, it took me a while to get into my meditative mojo but our spiritual leaders, Chris and Veronica, soon guided me toward a state of dharma. Beginning with a talk on Loving Kindness and the attitudinal changes we should embrace in order to love thyself, we continued with a video link to a lama's presentation on the how to deal with our "Monkey Mind;" man's predisposition to unsettling and capricious thoughts.
Next up is an activity session -- where we were asked to diarize our dark regrets of the year past on one piece of paper, while charting our hopes and ambitions for the New Year on the next. In quiet reflection, our group began to jot; some, succinct bullet points, others, Oprah-like vision boards. Then, in ceremonial fashion, we braced the outdoors to send those memories into ashes in the stone furnace, before lighting butter lamps in the grotto to cast our dreams for 2011.
Late-supper consisted of a spread of gourmand delights from West Cork's markets - artisan breads, organic dips, farmhouse cheeses. There was no caffeine of booze on offer - just lashings of herbal tea to aid towards our path to enlightenment. It also gave us a chance to mingle with those in attendance, a largely female mélange of middle-aged bohemians. Buddha it seems, attracts a similar demographic to Melissa Etheridge.
Our night gently crescendoed with a cycle of silent meditations, marked by the gentle gong from the Tibetan singing bowl. The dawning of 2011 was simply an estimate, there were no countdowns, no Auld Lang Synes, no groping embraces from strangers -- just the roaring surf from the ocean below lulling our minds to a blissful state of new year nirvana.
We'd truly found ourselves in Beara. Now, we just had to find our way back.
Dzogchen Beara in County Cork is located 85 miles from the nearest airport in Cork city. Weekend retreats, including meals and classes, cost from $250, while their daily guided meditation sessions are free of charge (a donation is appreciated).
Garranes, Allihies, West Cork.
Seaview Bed & Breakfast, overlooking Ballydonegan beach offers rooms from $48 per person sharing and a traditional homely Irish atmosphere,
Allihies, Beara, County Cork.