Since today is the kick-off day for celebrating all things Irish, I decided to write the first of a short series of posts on a few places in Ireland that have special meaning on St. Patrick’s Day or special meaning to me. I’m beginning with a place associated with the man of the hour himself, a mountain in the west of Ireland known as Croagh Patrick.
|Croagh Patrick, County Mayo, Ireland|
Armagh, also in the North, is where Patrick established his bishopric and principal church in the year 457, while Downpatrick, another Northern town, is said to be where Patrick is buried, along with his fellow Irish patron saints, Brigid and Columcille.
|Stone believed to be from Patrick's grave, in Downpatrick.|
|Celtic cross outside cathedral in Downpatrick.|
Over in County Donegal, in the middle of Lough (Lake) Derg, is a lonely rock of a place called Station Island, where hides a cave that was said to be the entrance to hell. Here St. Patrick was said to have gone to get a glimpse of the fires of hell for himself and spend 40 days and nights living, sleeping, and fasting in the cave, until the evil spirits were driven away and the last stronghold of the devil in Ireland was broken. Over time Station Island became a popular pilgrimage place in Ireland for Christians who wanted to spend time on the island, fasting and living under very ascetic conditions, in an attempt cast out their own demons. Station Island is still surprisingly popular today as a pilgrimage site--however, only in the summer months and only for 3-day pilgrimages, a far cry from the 40 days Patrick endured or even the 15 days of the site’s early pilgrims.
A place with a similar story is Croagh Patrick, on the western coast in County Mayo. On Croagh Patrick, St. Patrick made another one of his 40-day hauls of fasting, praying, casting out of demons. Legend says that Patrick went up the mountain and built a church and brought with him a bell. At the end of his 40 days he stood on the southern face of the mountain and rang his bell so loud that the clangor drove away all the venomous creatures (including snakes) out of the country. (Some say he also threw the bell down the side of the mountain, knocking a goddess or she-demon named Corra who lived in the sky out of her perch and into a nearby lake, now known as Lough Nacorra--or Lough na Corra.)
|Mountainside on way up Croagh Patrick|
|Flat sheet of stone believed to be where Patrick slept on the mountain. (Water bottle blown in by the wind.)|
As with Station Island in Lough Derg, Croagh Patrick has become one of Ireland’s most important pilgrimage sites. But unlike Station Island, which affords pilgrimage visits throughout the summer, Croagh Patrick’s occasion for pilgrimage is set for only one day of the year, the last Sunday in July, commonly called Reek Sunday (as another name for Croagh Patrick is The Reek). Of course, the mountain can be, and is, climbed any day of the year, and in recent years Croagh Patrick has even become the site of a runner’s race up and down the mountain. But Reek Sunday sees the most visitors to the mountain by far, with usually from 15,000 to 20,000 people making the pilgrimage on that day each year.
|Pilgrims heading down the mountain, near beginning of climb, on Reek Sunday.|
The climb up Croagh Patrick is traditionally done for penance, and for a long time most pilgrims made the attempt up and down the very stony mountain in their bare feet. It’s said some even used to do the climb on their knees--not out of fatigue, but as atonement for their sins. These days only the odd pilgrim makes the climb barefoot, and most of the more religious climbers settle with simply making the stations on their way up the mountain. The stations are designated stops so to speak on the way up the mountain where pilgrims are supposed to pause from climbing and say a series of prayers while encircling the station, thus keeping in motion all the time except for occasions to kneel. No rest for the wicked.
|Pilgrim praying at station on summit of Croagh Patrick.|
At the top of the mountain is a small church where masses are held on Reek Sunday from 8 AM to 2 PM, usually every hour or half hour, and where the sacrament of reconciliation is given throughout the day. In spite of this time frame for church service, many pilgrims begin their way up the mountain much earlier in the morning, even before sunrise, carrying flashlights with them, and some pilgrims can be seen beginning their climb in the afternoon, well after the last mass of the day.
What’s it all about? Really? Given how many Irish people have fallen away from the Catholic Church and even religion in general in modern times, how can there still be so many making the pilgrimage up some lonesome, craggy, windswept mountain every year?
Well, for one, there’s the mere challenge of it. And climbing Croagh Patrick is a challenge. While not a very high mountain (about 2,500 feet), Croagh Patrick is a very rugged one. Essentially a big pile of stones topped by a steep stack of treacherously loose shale. It’s hard on the feet, bare or shod, and hard on the knees. Throw in Ireland’s notoriously inclement and mercurial weather, and you could be making your pilgrimage in lashing rain and battling winds. Kind of like I did.
|View of Croagh Patrick from Westport. I walked all the way to mountain from this spot.|
I made the pilgrimage trek up Croagh Patrick on the Reek Sunday of 2009. I made the decision to do it only a couple weeks before. It was a difficult summer for me that year, and by end of June I was beginning to hatch plans for escape for a long while. I wanted a meaningful escape though and at first planned a grand tour of pilgrimage sites, beginning with Croagh Patrick and including Lough Derg and Station Island, Lourdes in France, Santiago de Compostela in Spain, and maybe even Fatima in Portugal. I only made it to two--Lourdes and Croagh Patrick. Transport and weather problems kept me from getting to Lough Derg (not regretfully) and I decided to leave Santiago for another time (maybe this year?), when I could walk the whole pilgrimage journey there, like in the old days.
Once I decided to go, I flew into Ireland just a couple days before Reek Sunday and headed to Westport, a lively and neat little town 7 miles or so from the mountain and the base for many Reek Sunday pilgrims. I stayed in a hostel in town where on the day of the climb most of the others in the hostel got up at the crack of dawn to head out to the mountain. I had myself a pokey morning, nervously dawdling (because I don’t have much experience with mountain climbing) at breakfast while chatting with an old Irish-English woman named Rita. Rita had been up the mountain at least a dozen times in years past. But this year, though she came all the way from England with intentions of making the climb again, she didn’t feel strong enough this time. And she sensed the weather wouldn’t be good. No matter to her though--I think she just enjoyed being near the mountain. She shared with me memories she had of climbing it with her family in the past, and talked about the many other families I’d undoubtedly see today--granddads going up with their grandchildren, helping each other up. She assured me that everyone would be looking out for each other on the mountain, helping each other out. For Rita (and I’d find for many other pilgrims), Croagh Patrick symbolized more than--or not even--religion or faith or penance. It symbolized family and tradition and the endurance and strength of both over many years.
Rita told me I could easily find someone to give me a lift to the mountain. Just begin walking on the main road out of town and put my thumb out--there’d still be loads of cars headed out to the Reek. But I got too late of a start, and the few cars that passed me did just that--passed me by. I cursed their lack of Christian charity, even if I knew they might not have been headed to the mountain, and yeah, that’s right kids, that meant I ended up walking nearly the whole way out to the damn, er, blessed thing. Nearly 7 full miles of pounding the pavement before climbing a mountain. I don’t recommend it.
About a half-mile to the mountain, where traffic was backed up, someone finally offered me a lift. Two blonde lesbians from Boston, one fat, one thin, both also attempting the climb for the first time, were my saviors. I rested my already sore feet in the back seat of their rental car and considered myself pretty lucky to meet their acquaintance. But I only got to ride along with them (and rest) for about 10 minutes. While pulling over to buy some walking sticks from a roadside hawker, a driver from New York (“Figures,” the heavy lesbian grumbled) sideswiped the car, which ended my joy ride. I walked on while the women chased down the New York driver and sorted things out, passing a pub at the base of the mountain crowded with pilgrims who’d already been up and down and were rewarding themselves with a pint. This was still about only 10 or 11 in the morning. It’s Ireland.
|Pilgrims having a pint at mountain base pub. Reek Sunday morning, 2009.|
I passed hundreds of people coming down, and I met a slough of religious vendors at the very base of the mountain--maybe a half-dozen little booths decked out with rosaries, prayer cards, miraculous medals, and such for sale. There was one lonesome Protestant vendor set up at the base as well, a church from the North whose booth conspicuously lacked the Catholic paraphernalia of the other booths (nothing with the pope, the Virgin Mary, or any saint but Patrick on it). The Northern church people were giving out books, pamphlets, and free samples of Tang. Tang! Drink of the astronauts? More like nectar of the gods after walking 7 miles! I drank my Tang while a kindly man from the church talked to me and advised me to go at my own pace up the mountain. Before leaving he also asked me if I was saved. I told him I didn’t know. It was beyond my mental capacity at the time, what with a mountain to climb before me and sore feet at the bottom of me.
I have no idea how long it took me to get up the mountain. I took many breaks. I nearly turned around a couple times. I felt like crying more than a couple times. Did I pray? Did I feel spiritual? I wouldn’t exactly say climbing Croagh Patrick made me feel more spiritual. No, not when you hear yourself taking the Lord’s name in vain about 50,000 times in 50,000 ways while making the climb. And the stations, did I do the stations? Please. I forgot all about them. Misery makes for a short memory.
There are essentially 3 segments of the climb. The 1st segment is a fairly steep incline that is somewhat muddy and slippery, but mainly very stony. This is the part that’s hard on the feet after awhile. After getting past this part, the 2nd segment levels out for a ways. On a good day this part would be a relief and probably pretty pleasant to walk. But my Reek Sunday wasn’t a good day. By the time I made it to the 2nd segment, the weather was getting misty and the wind had become very strong and relentless. Several times I was sure I was going to be picked up and blown off the mountain in mid-step, and I also nearly went mad from the constant roar of the wind in my ears. It was on this part of the mountain that I saw the thin half of the couple who gave me a lift (and who probably got at least a half-hour later start after me) pass me by, quick and light as a gazelle.
|View of bay on way up mountain on bad weather day.|
|View on a finer day.|
I truly nearly gave up when I got to the 3rd and final segment and looked what seemed like straight up to the top. A very steep summit of almost pure shale. The only reason I went ahead is because I figured I had come too far and too close to turn around. The time to turn around was past me.
To be honest, it was terrifying. There was as many people coming down as going up, with very little space to do it in. I worried as much about someone falling on me and knocking me off the mountain as me falling myself. There was no such thing as steady footing on this part as well. Every time anyone took a step, piles of rock and shale went sliding, which means one was always stepping on sliding rock, given how many people were around taking steps. There were mountain rescue people stationed all up and down the mountain tending to injured people, but this is where the bulk of the injuries was occurring. I heard one man joke, “Couldn’t Patrick have found a smaller mountain anywheres?” It amazed me that there were small children and elderly people going up this thing, and I think the thought that if they could do it, so could I, was what mainly kept me going.
But here’s a good thing: Rita was right. People do look out for each other on the mountain. All the way the climbers coming down speak encouragement to those making their way up. And if at any moment you feel like you might fall, nobody minds if you reach out to them for balance, if you grab ahold of their shoulder or the edge of their jacket, regardless whether you’re a stranger. You might need to hold onto someone one moment, and the next moment someone might need to hold onto you.
|My friend Amanda made the climb last summer, on a better day than I did.|
I made it to the top just before the last mass of the day, and just before a squall moved in that turned the mist into full-on rain. As the last mass was getting ready to begin, a line formed on one side of the chapel for communion. (A line on the other side for confessions only had a few takers.) There was no seating inside the chapel, just a little overhang for shelter that wasn’t sufficient for all the pilgrims on the summit. A loudspeaker that was meant to allow for everyone on the top to hear the mass did little good as well--the wind mostly drowned out the priest’s words. I stood away from the huddle of pilgrims that crowded right in front of the chapel. And I faced away from the chapel as the prayers were said, looking out from the mountain instead and trying to see the bay through the squall, ignoring the fact that I was drenched and nearly deaf from the wind. That was the best part of the day for me, odd as it sounds. That was when I felt like I got what I came for. A devil of a climb behind me, a devil of a descent ahead of me, swirls of rain and prayers and wind and sky all around me, but nobody near me. Standing off by myself, like Patrick who came here alone, and looking out at the same scene as Patrick did, long long ago. Fadó fadó.
|Me at the summit, Reek Sunday 2009.|