TODAY is Garland Friday, one of the traditional days for climbing Croagh Patrick, St Patrick's penitential mountain in Co Mayo. Here Brendan McDonagh takes a pilgrims'eye view of climbing the reek.
HAVING heard of how St Patrick fasted 40 days on the summit of Croagh Patrick. , highest of the Twelve Pins of Connacht, known locally as the Reek, and was granted his threefold prayer: that he should succeed in bringing the true Faith to the Irish: that should the Irish ever show signs of losing this Faith, they would be wiped off the surface of the earth: and that he should he permitted to be the judge of the Irish on the Last Day. I determined to climb the Reek to see the place where such a remarkable prayer could succeed.
Part one certainly became historical fact; part two appeared, at times, to be a possibility and part three continues to provide a challenge to the theologians.
I decided to undertake the adventure after my visit to the tiny island in Lough Dcrg in Ulster where St Patrick was permitted to view, to his consternation, the torments, not of Hell, but of Catholics' more likely destination: Purgatory, which he found much worse than he had conceived possible.
So prepared, I pitched, as night closed in, my little tent at the foot of the statue of St Patrick which marks the beginning of the Croagh Patrick pilgrimage which thousands take part in each third Sunday of July — Garland Sunday —,whatever the weather.
This is almost always atrocious, with much rain, buffeting winds and poor visibility, resulting in steady streams of battered and bloodstained pilgrims descending against those struggling up, the nearly vertical. and very rocky, vaguely marked line of ascent.
I placed in the tent all 1 was carrying except one light shirt, one saffron kilt, one pair plimsoll, one electric torch, one rain coat and one rosary and commenced the ascent, striving to remember the detailed instructions I had been given regarding the proper observance of the Croagh Patrick pilgrimage, the number olperamhulations round the heaps of boulders, known variously as "Reilg Mhuire," "Leabea Phadraig," "Leacht Mhionnain," denoting the "stations," and the correct number of Paters, Ayes and Glory bes.
• Strictly, I should have been barefooted but, believe me, the light pilmsols I was wearing offered little protection against the extremely sharp-edged, frostbroken stones which constituted the path to the summit. 2.000 feet above.
St Patrick must have recognised in me one deserving of some mercy. after the rigours of his penitential establishment on Lough Derg, because the weather was of the very best, a mellow, warm, almost still summer night, and a glorious full moon sailed in a deep blue. not black. sky.
This moon helped to provide the one really alarming experienCe of the night: when half way up the ,linal stretch of the volcanic cone of the Reek, sloped rather like a church steeple, when one had to clamber on hands and knees over enormous, irregularly shaped blocks of veined quartz with very sharp edges, one small white cloud suddenly appeared, level with me, and very close, in an otherwise perfectly cloudless sky.
The apparent path, or slightly easier way up, curved a bit round the mountain and. as I followed it, the cloud persistently followed me, or so it seemed.
For the first, and, indeed, the only, time during the trip, I became quite terrified and made desperate effOrst to evade the pursuing cloud, or whatever it was, which seemed full of menace. threatening an awful late should it envelop me.
I could only remember that I had been told by my informant on Lough Derg that. like St Anthony in the desert, St Patrick on the Reek had been plagued by demons, notably by one called "Carra" whom he had driven, with great violence. into a hollow at the base of the cone, from which water had gushed forth, forming Lough na Carra, near the birthplace of George Moore whose ashes were scattered nearby.
It was with extreme relief that I finally struggled, with bleeding hands and knees, on to the comparatively level few hundred square yards of the summit and saw the small, roughly built. oratory provided, after great labour, to shelter the masses of the July pilgrimages from the usually "dreadful weather.
Here I rested a while. conveniently omitting to remember the instructions I had been given to proceed on hare knees, remembering all my worst sins. round the marked stations: the terrain consisting, on the summit, of much smaller, but much sharper, stones.
The air was so still that I heard, clearly, a tired peasant, some miles below in the valley, exhorting, in very direct terms, his equally tired beast of burden to greater efforts to get his creaking cart back to their boreen.
It is said, incidentally, that, on a quiet Sunday morning, it is possible to stand on one shore of Clew Bay with its island for each day of the year, below the Reek, and converse easily with a friend on the opposite shore, miles away, over the water when it is very still.
Having arrived at the top, the problem was how to spend the rest of the night before attempting the descent on the opposite side of the cone which, my small torch showed me, was a welldefinedpath of small, always sharp, of course, stones, which made no concession whatever to the steepness of the cone but dropped quite straightly down for about a thousand feet at very little less than 90 degrees to the hodiontal.
Daylight. I was sure, would make the descent more inviting. even if only marginally so. Having regard to the equipment 1 had brought with me, I was indeed grateful to St Patrick for having provided such a warm, almost still, night with a lovely moon, even if it had frightened me so on the way up.
The oratory was firmly locked up but I was able to uproot a tenfoot wooden cross from one of the stations and, leaning this in the doorway and attaching my raincoat to it, I was able to impose a flimsy barrier between me and the vast space surrounding me on top of the Reek.
This attachment of the raincoat was to prove something of a mistake, providing me with a somewhat troubled night though. thanks, I am sure, to St Patrick and my preparatory visit to Lough Dcrg, without the slightest feeling of alarm or fear of any kind: the sheltering cross obviously helped as well.
The trouble was that, all through the night, I was convinced that I was surrounded by the worst of the monsters that tormented St Patrick, truly fearsome beasts snuffling round my very inadequate shelter, the sort so clearly delineated by Hieronymous Bosch as the fauna of Hell.
But, as I have said, this did not prevent me having a restful night, even if I did not apparently, sleep very much: there was not the least trace of the panic which possessed me when chased by the most innocent looking little white cloud.
When the sun rose and I awoke I found that the snuffling sounds were caused by the raincoat blowing against the concrete of the oratory doorway. There was a poor wretch of a mongrel dog wandering around the summit, finding scraps of food left by the last batch of pilgrims, but he was a friendly, if starved, animal who had foolishly followed someone to the top of the Reek and been deserted there.
I sympathised with his reluctance to attempt the most uninviting descent! There was no other sign of life until St Patrick again came up trumps and provided a priest who had, quite unexpectedly, chosen that day to bring a small party of young men to the summit for Mass — so I was able to receive Communion and 1 was given a Thermos cup of tea afterwards, my only refreshment for over 24 hours. I learned what it meant to he really thirsty on a very hot day.
There is not much more to say: I slithered down the straight path to the final boulder marked station, paid my visit to the Blessed Sacrament in the church at Murrisk, and met the town engineer of Westport over a pint of porter in the inn at the foot of the Reek, and was given most generous hospitality by him and his sister for the night. He proudly showed me his branch of the Carnegie Library Scheme, also samples of his excellent work in Westport.
Just one postscript: Miss Cameron of the inn told me this story:
An Irish American, many years ago, hired a native, at avery handsome fee, to accompany him to the top of the Reek, carrying a suitcase. No reason was given, nor was the ease opened at any time and the aforesaid native could not resist asking why he had been given this strange commission.
The American replied: "My mother died some years ago, in the States. Her last request was that her bones be carried to the top of Croagh Patrick, since she had failed to make the pilgrimage for many years."