by Douglas DalbyPatrick was a gentleman
He came from decent people,
He built a church in Dublin town
And on it put a steeple.
The Wicklow hills are very high
And so is the hill of Howth, sir,
But there's a hill much higher still,
Much higher than them both, sir.
On the top of this high hill
St Patrick preached his sermon
Which drove the fogs into the bogs
And banished all the vermin.
There's not a mile of Erin's Isle
Where dirty vermin musters
But there he put his dear forefoot
And murdered them in clusters.
THE high hill referred to in this traditional Irish ballad is Croagh Patrick.
It is in fact a 2,500-feet mountain (like most ballads the author wouldn?t
have let the facts get in the way of a good song!). Here, legend has it that
St Patrick drove all the snakes from the island of saints and scholars and began
his conversion of the pagan Irish clans. During his stay on the windswept summit,
black birds that turned into satanic serpents tormented him. Ancient chroniclers
say that Patrick threw his bell at them and banished them from the island forever.
The rest as they say, is history.
Ireland?s Holy Mountain and pre-eminent place of pilgrimage lies a few
miles south of Westport, Co Mayo. Locally, perhaps because of its shape, it
is known as ?The Reek? ? the same word used to describe the distinctive
stacks of turf that dot the roadside and bogs of the west of Ireland. Croagh
Patrick has been a sacred site for at least 5,000 years, being particularly
associated with the Celtic god, Lugh, who gave his name to the harvest fair
Every year thousands of pilgrims wend up its conical shape, braving the treacherous
conditions underfoot ? especially towards the top of the climb because
of sharp, shifting stones that make the going very tough. Indeed, safety concerns
prompted an outright ban on the traditional night pilgrimages as long ago as
1974. On a good day it takes around three hours to climb to the small oratory
at the top where St Patrick is said to have spent his forty days and nights
wrestling with his demons and praying for the conversion of Ireland.
Traditionally, the last Sunday in July is always the busiest day on the mountain.
Thousands of pilgrims of all ages, many of them barefoot and leaning on traditional
blackthorn sticks, make their way to the oratory at the top. There, they circle
the little chapel and the place where the saint is said to have made his bed,
saying the rosary and petition him for special favours. Sometimes, if the summit
isn?t shrouded in mist, they will be rewarded with one of the finest views
in Ireland as they cast their eyes over magnificent Clew Bay and its myriad
But ?Reek Sunday? isn?t all about prayer and penitence. There
is plenty of solace to be found in the pub at the foot of the mountain which
probably does more trade that day than it does for the rest of the year put
together! Thirsts are slaked and songs are sung. It is a peculiarly Irish form
English author William Makepeace Thackery may have described Croagh Patrick
best of all. The author of Vanity Fair once wrote: ?It forms an event in
one?s life to have seen that places, so beautiful is it and so unlike all
other beauties that I know of. Were such beauties lying upon English shores
it would be a world?s wonder.?