Saturday, December 16, 2006

Croagh Patrick Pilgrimage

Everyone likes pictures right. What's a story without pictures. This is me in a tent in West country Ireland. This trip was part of a pilgrimage that climbed Croagh Patrick, the highest mountain on the island on the last Sunday in July, locally known as Reek Sunday. Another pilgrimage to this site takes place on the summer solstice and the tradition has roots in pre-Christian Ireland. The solstice pilgrimage doesn't attract close to the numbers of the Christian pilgrimage. Croagh Patrick is in County Mayo, only a few klicks from Westport where I was camping. We hitchiked to the mountain in the mid morning. It was really more of a large hill made of granite shale. It takes about six hours to get up and back down to the town below. It wasn't the time it took that was arduous however, it was the slippery footing. Everybody on the pilgramage fell at least once. The most devout of the lot actually hiked up barefoot. Many of them were bleeding quite bad by the time we got to the top.
The kids from the town at the foot of the mountain had a good business going selling walking sticks to pilgrims, and some were so resourceful as to claim their sticks were blessed or dipped in holy water. There were also little shops in the town selling supposed artifacts and pieces of cloth that belonged to St. Patrick himself. The whole story about the snakes being banished from Ireland is tied up in this pilgrimage. Something like when the barefooted Patrick reached the top he shouted at them, or threw a bell at them, and they all fled into the sea. Something like that. Like I said, people were doing this pilgrimage long before Patrick, and most probably there never were any snakes in Ireland to begin with. But what do I know?
I know that I made fun of the size of the hill -- it is nothing compared to the Rockies (or even downtown St. John's), but the shale and loose footing made it trecherous. And when you fell, it was inevitably on sharp pointy rocks. I'm pretty nimble and I think I fell only two or three times. Some of the people travelling with me fell all the time and were bruised and filthy. There were adults, kids and the very elderly, people from all nations around the world, in this strange common hardship that everyone gladly endured and with a smile at that. At the summit was this very humble chaple. There were no seats or gold or paintings. Just one cross centered in a fresco on the front wall. Outside were faucets where the pilgrims washed away their blood and grime.

I'm not especially religous, and the Catholicism from my youth seems now more like a wierd dream, but I got something from that trip. I went along to sort of observe these spiritual people and maybe get to know what they're all about. When I was on the way back down I noticed how much more open people were with one another, helping the elderly and the young, walking beside the old man with no shoes, everyone talking, sharing their stories. And they didn't want to talk about god or Roman politics, and they probably didn't even notice that they were compelled to speak -- compelled to speak by a new shared identity, a new kinship. Compelled to words that even though they were not prayers were a homage to the miracle of the sun bursting forth as we descended to reveal Patrick's snakes, fleeing into the sea.


EC said...

Ah, those were the days!

Anonymous said...

Croagh Patrick is only the third highest mountain in Co. Mayo at height of 640m, highest mountain in Ireland is Carrantuohill in Kerry with a height of over 1000m

ironbed said...

Ireland is a religious country and a spiritual country and it is a conduit to another world. Strangers leave Ireland and go home but they always leave a little piece of themselves behind here in the mists and land. To visit Ireland is to epxerience liminality.