Climbing Croagh Patrick ~ In the Footsteps of a Saint

Filed in Gather Writing Essential by on March 17, 2008 0 Comments

"It is clothed in the most magnificent violet-color, and a couple of round clouds were exploding, as it were from the summit, that part of them towards the sea lighted up with the most delicate gold and rose-colour."
William Makepeace Thackeray in The Irish Sketch Book (1842)

In 2001, Zach, our youngest son graduated from Falmouth Academy in June.  Knowing soon enough in the fall he would be leaving for college and away from the bosom of the family, Papa and I decided that we would take him to Ireland for a four week stay.  Although I myself had been back to the Emerald Isle several times, I wanted Zach to explore all the guide books and create his own itinerary…one that would be of interest to him and that he would be fully invested in.  Over the Spring, he planned well and it looked as though we were going to experience a Literary Ireland through the eyes of James Joyce, Yeats, and John Millington Synge with a few prehistoric sites peppered throughout.  As our date of departure came closer, Katherine,  one of Zach's good friends approached us and asked if she might accompany us on this trip.  We thought it was a wonderful idea…it would give Zach a chance in the big cities to  explore the nightlife and the bustling pubs in Temple Bar with a person his own age.  Since Zach and Katherine had a pure friendship, no physical love involved, Papa and I knew we wouldn't have to be monitors.  Who would want to travel through Ireland being "sex monitors"?

On an early morning on July 1 we arrived in Dublin and immediately drove into the city for a four day stay.  We found sleeping quarters at a hostel across the street from Christ Church Cathedral, in the Temple Bar section of Dublin.  After ridding ourselves of our backpacks, we wandered across the street to have a large Irish breakfast.  It was here, Zach's wallet and passport was stolen…forcing Zach and Papa to spend the rest of the day at the Garde Station and the American Embassy while Katherine and I spent a busy day touring Christ Church Cathredral and St. Patrick's as well Dublin Castle.  Meeting up later in the afternoon with the guys we wandered the narrow cobblestone streets of Temple Bar, the famed arts and entertainment section of Dublin.  We had a grand time drinking Guinness and listening to the sounds of Irish fiddlin' and watching energetic stepdancing.  Over the next three days, we followed the footsteps of James Joyce's Dublin.  One night we were able to obtain tickets at the Abbey Theater for J.M. Synge's play, "Playboy of the Western World"….Zach was excited…in his junior year at Falmouth, he, along with his best friend Allan had acted in this very play.

Leaving Dublin, we headed North to Newgrange, Slane Castle (where U2 was playing), the Giant's Causeway and the Inishhowen Peninsula…was it not here  that my greatgrandfather Edward Devlin, a poor tenant farmer from Altahalla  fell in love with my great grandmother, Mary McLaughlin, a landowner's daughter from Clonmary.  I wanted to show Zach "the castle in Ireland (turned out it was a run-down Norman castle) that waits for you", words my grandmother used to whisper to me.  Leaving Inishhowen we traveled through Donegal and out to Slieve League, took the ferry out to the island of Inishbofin for a three day hill climb, then down to Sligo to lay roses on Yeat's grave and climb his tower home and out to Lady Gregory's for a picnic lunch.  But the best was yet to come…Zach, being the religious kid he was had put "climbing Croach Patrick" at the top of his list of things he wanted to do in Ireland. 

"You want to climb a mountain, Zach" I asked?

"I really do, Mom.  Katherine, Pa are you game?"

"This is a mountain people climb seeking penance.  Why do you need to seek penance?  You have no sins or at least I don't think you do.  Anything you want to tell me?

"Mom, legend has it that long before St. Patrick, the Celtics believed this mountain was the dwelling place of
the deity Cron Dubh.  It was the focus of the harvest festival of Lughnasa.  Woman used to come up here and sleep on the summit so they might become fertile.  Hey, maybe once again you'd be fertile"

"Ummm….I don't think it would work for me Zach…even if I slept on the mountain naked, I think I'm beyond that stage of my life…unless I was John the Baptist's mother."

"Regardless, I still want to climb Mom…how can you say you've really been to Ireland if you haven't climbed "the reek" in St. Patrick's footprints.  It was here he cast out the snakes and demons from Ireland."

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Legend has it that in 441, St. Patrick climbed this mountain and spent 40 days in prayer and fasting there before embarking on his evangelisation of Ireland.  Historians have suggested that this holy place has been a center of pilgrimage dating back to the Stone Age.  Catholics have been making the pilgrimage to this site for the past 1,500 years.  Today, nearly a million people make the climb, some barefoot. 

So, in the spirit of community, the four of us set out from a hostel in Westport, six miles from the mountain, on a beautiful, sunny summer day in July.  After locking the car and packing our backpacks with water, crackers, cheese, and apples we headed up from the base.  The first main sight on the pilgrimage path is a large statue to St. Patrick.  Passing that, the four of us came to the First Station, one of three on the way to the summit.  Each station has a sign with instructions for the proper rituals and prayers.

"OK, here we have to walk around the mound and say 7 Our Fathers, 7 Hail Mary's, 1 Creed," Zach read.

"Being an Episcopalian, I don't know the Hail Mary, Zach…you'll have to help me", said Katherine.

"Katherine, all you have to do is mumble-jumble  as Zach and Mrs. E. say it…that's what I do when I attend Mass.  No one knows the difference. 

After following the instructions, we carried on up the heather clad slope bordered by a large stone wall..  In my mind, I was thinking, this isn't going to be bad at all. Following the track, we noticed to the west a  very dark cloud  over Clew Bay.  As we watched, the black cloud moved faster and faster till it was over us and first a gentle then pelting rain left us soaked.  All four of us ran towards the stone wall and crouched down.  The wind was horrific.  Once the rain passed, Katherine stood up, her tee shirt soaked through and through, leaving nothing to the imagination.

"Hey guys, I think I'm going back to the base and sit in the Welcome Center.  I noticed a small cafe there.  I'm an Episcopalian, I don't need to climb this mountain", said Katherine.

"Nor does a Jew, Katherine.  I think I'll join you.  Mom, you and Zach can go ahead.  We'll be at the base.  Take your time.  We have plenty to read in the car."

 And so now what were once four pilgrims, were now two.  Going down to the cafe sounded like a good plan to me, too….but hell, I was a Catholic….did I have a choice?

And so I trudged on in all my wetness.  The scenery, both of the bay below us and the mountain above was a welcome distraction from the increasing pain and shortness of breath I was experiencing as I trudged on upward.  Zach, being younger and more in shape, left me behind.  The terrain had now changed, what was once heather was now gravel and rocks….large rocks.  The incline was quite steep, making climbing extremely difficult.  At each step my foot was as likely to slide away as it was to find sure footing since the rocks were wet.  Though the sun was out once more, there was still a strong wind.   The mountain is very deceptive….one feels one is near the top only to find around the bend, another steep slope.  Finally, I reached Stage 2 where I found Zach waiting by a large boulder near a small white chapel.  Once again, we read the directions on the sign. 

"OK, Mom, we have to kneel and say 7 Our Fathers, 7 Hail Mary's and 1 Creed.  Then we need to go over to that Chapel and pray for the Pope."

"Yup, I can do that."

"It's not over yet,  Mom, we then have to walk 15 times around the chapel saying 15 Our Fathers, 15 Hail Mary's….and would you believe after that we need to walk seven times around St. Patrick's Bed saying another round of seven."

"Shit, I wish I wasn't a Catholic!  Well, let's have a go at it.  We can do it Zach!"

After fullfilling the pilgrimage routine, Zach and I continue the trudge up the mountain to the summit.  I find myself climbing in a robot fashion, one bloody step after another.  I feel like strangling Zach….he's singing in a loud booming voice.  I start to wonder where did I get this boy….this boy that takes each challenge with a smile on his face?  In my mind I start uttering the words of St. Patrick, "Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ behind me, Christ within me", over and over again in time with my footsteps.  "Listen God, are you going to let me do this or not?"

Just then I hear a loud cry from Zach….."Yahoo, Mom…..we made it…look down below…you did it, we did it!"

I start to smile.  Here we are at the top of the world.  One more challenge we have faced and have come out smiling.  The view is spectacular…Connemara, Clew Bay, the Neiphin Beg mountain range, Achill and Clare Island.  "Wow" is all I can say.  We kneel down and say our own prayer….a quiet prayer of thanks and praise to God our Father that we had a safe climb…and yes, one to Patrick himself for giving us these magnificent views! 

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About the Author ()

I am a child of the light, seeking truth beyond the horizon. I came of age during the late 60's and through my wanderings and explorations I discovered great truths about how I wanted to live my life. At the break of day, despite the wrinkles and liver s

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