Croagh Patrick

by Douglas Dalby

Patrick 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.

(Trad: Excerpt)

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 of Lughnasa.

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 islets.

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 of penitence!

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.? s


 © 2009