An invitation to climb Croagh Patrick

Croagh Patrick, ‘dominates an already impressive setting’.

Croagh Patrick, ‘dominates an already impressive setting’.

Sunday week, July 26, is Reek Sunday, or Garland Sunday or Garlic Sunday or even Crom Dubh Sunday, and I am sure there are many other names to describe the  famous pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick, when many thousands climb to its rocky summit.

Croagh Patrick can be seen for miles. Pass near it on a tourist bus, and someone will cry out as it suddenly comes into view. Children will, for a moment at least, be hushed, as you tell them: ’There. Look. Ireland’s Holy Mountain’.

It is very striking. Its steep quartzite cone rises from a narrow ridge along the southern shore of Clew Bay, a broad island-studded inlet of the mighty Atlantic. Croagh Patrick dominates an already impressive setting.

In Máire Mac Neill’s magisterial study,* she locates it more comprehensively: ‘Northwards across the bay the prospect ends in the highlands stretching from the cliffs of Achill to where Nephin stands alone to the east; and southward beyond a valley is the vast  mountain country of southern Mayo and Connemara. Eastward, in contrast, a great plain fans out towards the counties of Roscommon and Galway, and the banks of the Shannon.

‘In this wide, wet land there are many lakes and bogs and the soil lies thin over the limestone; but where the ground rises a little there is good pasture and moderate tillage-land. The plain since prehistoric times has seen much human activity and habitation. Its eastern and fertile part was the place where the pagan kings of Cruachan built their power, and where in later ages the O’Connor family rose to the overlordship of Connacht, and the duel for chief power in Ireland.

‘Still later came the Burkes and other Norman families, who possessed themselves of lands and soon became indistinguishable from their neighbours. There are many ruins of abbeys and small castles which tell of the life of their times as the scattered farmsteads and market towns do today.’

Secret arts

From earliest times the mountain was associated with Saint Patrick. But to celebrate the harvest  it had been a place of gathering in pagan times. The gathering also bore witness as to how the secret of the harvest became known to the Celtic people. The gift of farming is attributed to the great champion Lugh, who commanded the Tuath Dé Danann. In a fierce battle with the invading Formorians, Lugh won a resounding victory. In the slaughter that followed only the life of Bres was spared providing he gave them the secret arts of ploughing, sowing and reaping. That knowledge was known only to him at the time, and thus brought prosperity to the old Gaelic tribes.

A spiritual book

But thats another story. The eclipse by Christian sites over pagan places happened all over Ireland. It tells us that places such as Croagh Patrick, have been ‘holy’ since the dawn of time. Such places appear to exert a fasination, or a need within us, to see these places for ourselves. People like to go to Holy Wells, old monastic ruins, sacred stones, and old pilgrimage paths and to think of gatherings that attracted the generations of long ago. The Rev Gary Hastings, in his new book Going up the Holy Mountain invites us all to take time out and to climb Croagh Patrick: (or any mountain ) with him, and to use the experience ‘as a way of thinking’. He suggests that sometimes we should take time out of our ordinary lives to be on our own. “Time to pray, time to be silent or time to just ‘be’’’.

This is unashamedly a spiritual book.** It is about helping us to find a meaning for our lives, and by actually taking upon ourselves  as tough a climb as Croagh Patrick, we avoid the ‘soft, bendy and blurred’ associations that someone trying to explain what spirituality is, often uses. Life is a serious business. Most of us are so caught up in running our busy lives as best we can that we have forgotten the traditions of the past, the gatherings and pilgrimages people made to ease the pain of their lives, or to express gratitude for its successes.

Some see the photographs  of pilgrims struggling up Croagh Patrick as a mildly sadistic obsession. But Gary writes that those who shake their heads sadly at the pilgrims, are people who have fallen out of ‘the container of tradition’. A pilgrimage, or time out for ourselves in search of meaning in our lives, has a logic to it that resonates with many people. To remove onself from ordinary life, even for a short while, ‘is one of the neutral religious technologies, common to most faiths in the world. People do it, have always done it, because it works. It makes a difference. Spirituality is part of life, part of what we are, and to make a pilgrimage is to experience our life in miniature,’

Next Week: St Patrick’s strange association with the mountain, and the invitation to be a pilgrim. 

NOTES *The Festival of Lughnasa, Published by Comhairle Bhéaloideas Éireann, UCD, 1982.

** Going up the Holy Mountain - A Spiritual Guidebook, by Gary Hastings, published by The Columba Press , on sale at €14.99. Rev Hastings is the Rector of St Nicholas’Collegiate Church, Galway, and Archdeacon of Tuam. He is a well known flute player.

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