That great observer of landscape Tim Robinson reminds us that Connemara is full of saints. Perhaps there isn’t a saint in the place today, but they were certainly there in profusion in earlier times. Looking around him from the heights of Errislannan, near Clifden, Tim observes that practically every one of the headlands and islands that he sees has its saint. There is St Roc at Little Killary, St Colmán on Inishboffin, St Ceannanach at Cleggan, St Féichín in Omey and High Island, and all the saints in the tangled archipelagos east of Carna, Bearchan, Breacán, and Enda; and the obscure Mocán or Smocán of Barr an Doire near An Cheathrú Rua, ‘and finally the great St Colm Cille who has all the south Connemara coast under his protection...’ But no St Patrick. I can only surmise that Connemara has so much beauty, so many stories of its people and places, its own music, magic and legends, that even the sandalled steps, and gentle words of the great Irish saint would have come and gone unnoticed.
Instead, on his way into Mayo he came to Maam Eán, the only pass in the Maam Turk mountains. Looking down on a vast pastiche of misty tones of cream, green and gold all the way to the ocean, tradition tells us that he blessed Connemara, before moving on.
The great Irish scholar Máire Mac Neill* tells us that before St Patrick arrived on the scene, the mountain pass between two remote territories, was guarded by the pagan god Crom Dubh ( literally ‘Crooked and black’ ). The god was originally associated with fertility and good harvests, but the threat of Christianity made him watchful, and distrustful of strangers. There is a well there, and a small lake, its name given variously as Loch Mhám Eán (the lake of the Bird’s Gap ), Loch an Dá Eán (the Lake of the Two Birds ), and Loch an Tairbh (the Bull’s Lake ); and of each of these names legends are known.
When Crom Dubh saw St Patrick climbing towards him he changed his shape into a fierce bull and charged. There was a fearsome struggle as the saint wrestled with him. After some time, as the two forces pushed, heaved, and dragged each other over the mountainside, the saint eventually forced his enemy into the lake where it drowned. There is another legend which says that when the bull saw St Patrick, he was overcome with repentance, and knelt before him. Nevertheless, whichever story you believe, Crom Dubh no longer guards the pass.
‘A curse on Ireland’
A third legend tells us that after Patrick drove the bull into the lake, there is a strange red glow on it ever since (see if you can spot it ). Another legend tells us that the lake is enchanted, where a serpent (oll-phéist ) is imprisoned in its depths. The lake is also believed to be bottomless. Loch an Dá Eán is so called because there are always two birds swimming on its surface.
After all that excitement a strange thing happened. The saint, weary after all his exertions with Crom Dubh, laid down to rest. He had a quick-witted boy with him. He asked the boy to stay awake, and to listen carefully in case, troubled by nightmares, prompted by the violent struggle, he might call out in his sleep. Sure enough once he was asleep Patrick shouted out: “ I put a curse on Ireland!” which the boy immediately passed on ‘to the foam on the river’. (It’s well known that if a curse is said, then the object of that curse can be saved if it is immediately passed on to something else ).
But the saint was not finished. Again he shouted out, in his sleep, “A curse on Ireland!” Which the boy immediately countered with ‘let it be on the tip of the rush!’ The saint called out a curse on Ireland a third time. Again the boy passed it on to the tip of the wild bracken.
The saint awoke, and when he heard all that he said, he thanked God for the wisdom of the boy. The two of them went on their journey together. To this day the black bog-rush, with its little head of blackish flower-spikelets, and the burnt bracken heads, at the end of summer, carry the saint’s curse into eternity.
A peaceful place
The Jesuit scholar, Fr Michael MacGréil, confidently states that the saint’s visit to Maam Eán took place in 441AD, an amazing 1,570 years ago. The good father did much to revive the mountain pass as a place of pilgrimage. There was a famous Pattern there up to the end of the 19th century, where large crowds gathered, ostensibly for a Mass on Garlic/Garland Sunday (the last Sunday in July ), but usually the occasion deteriorated into a wild brawl fuelled by poitín and, old quarrels.
It is, however, a peaceful place today, with a slight pagan feel about it. The ancient well (Tobar Phádraic ) is there, as is the lake (sometimes with its strange tinge of red ), and the old stone circle ‘stations.’ The saint’s ‘bed’, a shelf cut into the rock, is there too. Nevertheless Christianity has triumphed. There is a small oratory there, and a very fine full size sculpture of ‘St Patrick, the shepherd’, by renowned artist Cliodhna Cussen, helicoptered into its position in 1987.
Maam Eán is a solitary icon of pilgrimage and prayer, and well worth a visit. Mass will be celebrated there this St Partick’s Day at 1.30pm (It’s easily found. If you drive from Oughterard to Clifden, it is signposted to the right before you come to Recess. On the other side of the Maam Turks, it is signposted to the left about 8kms from Maam Bridge, and Keanes’bar and shop ).
The last word I leave with Tim Robinson: ‘The acts of the saints are inward and invisible signs pointing us to outward and visible graces; then interventions in topography - passes open through hills, rocks sailed from one geology to another, springs summoned forth, potholed fonts hollowed out of granite - stand for the extra dimensions human histories have grafted onto places. These names speak to me of the wonders of this world.’
NOTES: * Máire Mac Neill’s famous study: The Festival of Lughnasa - A study of the survival of the Celtic festival of the beginning of the harvest, first published 1962, and republished lately.
**Connemara - The last pool of darkness, by Tim Robinson, published by Penguin Ireland, 2008.