Next Sunday, the last Sunday in July, is Reek Sunday which celebrates the national pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick, Ireland’s Holy Mountain. Several thousands of people are expected to make the arduous climb, which can take over two hours to get to its summit. If it’s a clear day the views across Connemara, and along the coast line, are spectacular. If the climb is made in misty weather, then it becomes an adventure of another kind. Whatever the weather there is a real sense of camaraderie, and shared humanity; a feeling too that to take a few hours out of our busy lives, to concentrate on the effort of the climb, and support our fellow travellers, is ‘to experience a life time in miniature.’
The Rev Gary Hastings, in his new book Going Up The Holy Mountain,* accepts that an increasing number of people have no idea about the concept of pilgrimage. They regard the whole thing as something quaint, superstitious and irrelevent. That perception, he believes, is wrong. To make a pilgrimage, even a long walk, or to climb any mountain, is a useful device to have in our ‘spiritual toolkit’. He invites the reader to climb Croagh Patrick, and provides a generous spiritual guide as to how that climb can become meaningful. Climbing the mountain ‘involves concrete action and movement. It is not shrouded in words and theology; it is something you just do. And while you do it, things can change. You leave yourself open to possibility, to the chance of hearing the silence, seeing the meaning.’
Even if you make the climb out of curiousity, it is a rewarding experience. Most of us make the climb just a few times in our lives, but each occasion is remembered vividly. There are many different names for Croagh Patrick, reflecting its Christian and pagan traditions. Last week I mentioned that in prehistoric times, at this time of year, ancient assemblies gathered there to celebrate the harvest. By doing so they acknowledged the power of Lugh, the great champion of the legendary Tuath Dé Danann, who won for his people the secret arts of ploughing, sowing and reaping.
‘Sparkled like silver’
But from very early centuries Croagh Patrick is associated with Saint Patrick. It is actually recorded in seventh century texts ** that having buried his charioteer Totmael (Yes, St Patrick liked to be driven around! ), he climbed to the top of the mountain, named, at the time, Cruachan Aigli, and stayed there 40 days and nights, surrounded by ‘mighty birds so that he could not see the face of the sky, or earth, or sea. For God had said to all the saints of Ireland, past, present and to come: “O Saints go up above the mountain which towers, and is higher than all the mountains that are towards the setting of the sun, to bless the people of Ireland, that Patrick might see the fruit of his labour...”
Today’s pilgrim is more likely to have his views obscured by mist and cloud than by the flocks of ‘mighty birds’ that brought comfort to Patrick. The great scholar Máire MacNeill, looking at ancient manuscripts, offers two interpretations of the legend of the birds and St Patrick. Remember that having starved for 40 days, the poor man may well have been daft from hunger and imagining things.
But one source says that in his suffering God sent him a flock of ‘pure angelic birds, who sang ‘unceasingly in holy choir’. They beat the lake with their ‘smooth shadowing wings’ so that the cold surface ‘sparkled like silver’.
On a clear day Loch Carra was pointed out to me, while I was being told the story. Small white waves gave its surface a silvery sheen.
But there is another more robust telling of the legend. Yes poor Patrick is surrounded by birds, but they are sent by the devil. They are so numerous that they blacked out the sky above him. Exasperated, Patrick throws a bell (given to him by St Brigid ) up into the air, but it lands on stones, chipping its surface. It does the trick, however, and the birds soon scatter. God, who has witnessed all Patrick’s suffering, sends an angel to comfort him, and ‘beautiful white birds to sing melodies to him’.
He blessed the people of Ireland from the Reek. He ordered seven of his household to bare witness of his guardianship of the Irish People, by standing at seven great landmarks around the island, namely Croagh Patrick (Cruachan Aigle ), Benbulben (Benn Gulbain ), Slieve Beagh, in Tyrone (Sliab Bethad ), Slieve Gua in Waterford (Sliab Cua ), Clonard in Meath (Cluain Iraird ), and Slieve Donard (Domangort of Sliab Slangai ). The legend says that they are still standing at their posts.
So you can take you pick which story to believe as you lean on your stick, looking up at the path you have to follow. When you look behind you are surprised at how far you have come, and how small are the pilgrims below you. You can pass the time in conversation or in silence. Or a bit of both. There is definitely a feeling that you are part of something less ordinary. As Gary says: ‘You leave yourself open to possibility, to the chance of hearing the silence, seeing the meaning. The mountain is just a way of thinking.’
NOTES: *Published by The Columba Press, on sale in all Galway bookshops €14.99. Gary is currently Rector of St Nicholas’ Collegiate Church, Galway, and Archdeacon of Tuam.
**I am taking this reference from the Breviarium of Tírechán, written two hundred years after Patrick, quoted by Máire MacNeill in The Festival of Lughnasa, published in 1962 and 1982.