Croagh Patrick - Climbing the Reek - Part 3

Guest blogger, Michael Mullen, well-known author in Ireland, presents Part III of his series of posts on Crough Patrick, the Holy Mountain in County Mayo.

Croagh Patrick is a singular mountain. Above all it is a spiritual place. Set about it are the remains of the Celtic Church. On Inisboffin to the south-west lies the remains on a small monastery. The window frames the great mountain. It was here that Bishop Colman of Lindisfarne came after the his defeat at the Synod of Whitby. He brought with him Irish and English monks. There was a dispute between the two groups, so he left the island with the English group and set up Mayo Abbey. Recent archaeological surveys indicate that Mayo Abbey was as important in its time as Clonmacnoise and that Saxon students were drawn to this place of learning.

One summer's day I sailed to this island. The waves were calm and a curious seal, well moustached, peered out at us from the tranquil water. We approached the island from the west for there is a small anchorage there, and the small hermitage, with its sacred slabs and crosses, is well protected from the south westerly gales.

St. Colman - Clare Island and Clew Bay
It is well called Cathair na Naomh or the enclosure of the saints. Many of the earliest Celtic ornaments are engraved on the slabs standing about the enclosure , particularly the Dolphin slab, which date it to the sixth and early part of the seventh century. Of these decorated stones Professor Herity writes,

It appears that the hermitages, both on the islands and the desert places of the mainland opposite, are foundations of the earliest centuries of Christianity, a fact demonstrated by the early dates of the cross-slabs. Further, many of these slabs demonstrate surprisingly direct contacts with centers of innovation in Ireland and the continent. Through them we can dimly perceive the presence in the west of early illuminated manuscripts and metalwork crosses which may have served to transmit some of the designs of the cross-carved slabs.

Saint Patrick's influence was firm and vital. All about the sacred mountain lie early churches, early symbols and early crosses.  How can we catch the Celtic voice of that time? The most immediate voice is that of Saint Patrick's breastplate or Lorcia, which although not written by Saint Patrick catches the mind set of the time. It is a long poem and it is obvious that it is chanted like some incantation against evil. I quote and unfamiliar passage

I invoke to-day all these virtues
Against every hostile merciless power
Which may assail my body and my soul,
Against the incantations of false prophets,
Against the black laws of heathenism,
Against the false laws of heresy,
Against the deceits of idolatry,
Against the spells of women, and smiths, and druids,
Against every knowledge that binds the soul of man.

It possesses immediately spiritual strength and is the voice of the early church. Croagh Patrick, in a physical manner, dominated the Celtic Church. It possessed a simplicity and an intensity which a more formal church lacks. It possessed a joy and an awakening to a fresh and spiritual view of the world. It is a pastoral world, surrounded by the beauties of nature, where the saints can pray and meditate. It is a world where the natural is so close to the supernatural that the mind moves easily from one to the other.

Saint Columcille writes,

How happy the son is of Dima! No sorrow
For him is designed,
He is having, this hour, round his own cell in Durrow
The wish of his mind:
The sound of the wind in the elms, like the strings of
A harp being played,
The note of the blackbird that claps with the wings of
Delight in the glade.
With him in Rosgrencha the cattle are lowing
At earliest dawn,
On the brink of the summer the pigeons are cooing
And doves on his lawn.

For the early Irish church was filled with poetry and music, a delicate delight in nature, a direct relationship with God, unburden by complicated theology. After the death of Saint Patrick, the church flourished. Ireland did become the Island of Saints and scholars, and the three great monuments to this golden period are The Book of Kells; the Ardagh Chalice and Muiredach's Cross at Monasterboice. Thus the great period is marked in vellum, silver and stone, each a masterpiece and each carrying the mystical circles of an earlier age.

Croagh Patrick then is the sacred mountain, perhaps as sacred now as it was in the early Christian Church. As the twentieth century, reels from materialism and all the wars which have ravaged the century, the Holocaust and the local wars and the soul looks for some definition, it will find it in high and thin places, remote and awesome. That is why pilgrims, sometimes in bare feet, make their way along the path worn out by the footsteps of their ancestors.
Doo Lough - County Mayo

This great mountain has dominated my life. I know it in all its moods. On a summer day it stands sharp and pristine against a blue sky. It shimmers like some Greek mountain upon which the gods take residence. It dominates the landscape with its imposing presence and the eye is drawn towards its and the mind is called towards its summit. In autumn, as the strength of the sun wanes, it carries deeper colors. In winter, it is the first mountain to bear a cap of snow and then it is almost inaccessible and private. Springs brings a renewal and the beginning of pilgrimage.

It is a mountain of many moods. On wet and on windy days is becomes opaque. When the mists roll in from the sea it is shrouded and inaccessible and dangerous to attempt the summit. It becomes a private and introspective place. When luminous clouds pass above it, it carries their shapes across its surface. When the sun shines firmly on its surfaces, it is light purple and in the hollows dark purple. It fits all our human moods the variety of our spiritual desires.

The grey path, etched by pilgrim feet draw the pilgrim towards the summit.

One night as a young man, I set off for the summit with the pilgrims in July. I joined the human chain which stretched from the base at Murrisk to the top of the mountain. The pilgrims were funneled on to the path at Owen Campbell's pub and we began the arduous ascent. At this level some small bushes and shrubs gains sustenance from the boggy soil, but soon the trace of vegetation, falls away. Moss and rough grass is barely sustained on the lower limits.

The path is tortuous and uneven. Rough stones break the surface and pilgrims sometimes balance precariously on the rocks. The accents are familiar and they mingle together. Small groups call out the rosary as they move up the slope. Others, with pilgrim staffs, search for purchase. Some walk on bare feet. The young push optimistically up the slope, those who are older plod onwards. The level land has fallen away and small lights on the flatlands mark individual habitations, clusters of lights mark the towns and the light house at the eastern end of the bay, flashes out its warning beam.

Now I join a human river of feeling. A sense of individuality falls away and I become part of a spiritual process, part of something which has gone on for a long time. There are no words to define the change within or the link I feel with all those bound to the surface of the mountain and to all the pilgrims who have taken this track for more years than the archaeologists can ascertain. 

On the lower summit, it grows lonely and the pilgrims bend their backs towards the slope . There is greater silence now. On the hip of the mountain there is a small respite. The path runs level. It is time to prepare for the final ascent.  The winds curve up the mountain from the south. Even on a summer night their is wind on the mountain. It grows colder and the mind grows bleak.  There is no icon or image to sustain one on the final push. At this point the  mountain slope rises sharply. It is covered by shards of rock, which run beneath the pilgrims feet. One bends forward and clings to the mountain. Nothing is easy now and the darkness does not reveal the summit.

Those returning call out words of encouragement. Finally there is a small tilt and the going gets easy. A few more meters brings the pilgrim to the summit.  I had reached the highest level. A great circle of people bound closely together in a human wheel moved about the church calling out the pilgrims prayers, their voices raised in petition. I join the pilgrims, individuality shed.

I had reached the platform on the mountain. Here Patrick had lived and slept for forty days. On this spot he has tussled with demons and deepened his spirituality. In this bleak place he could come to terms with himself and his mission. No one is unmoved on this platform on the very edge of Europe and while the comfort is cold, the weather variable and the body weary the spirit takes heart. One looks evenly on life and eternity, at the ephemeral and that which is profound and fecund. The better part of ones nature is freed for a time and from time, soars for a shot time on the back of an eagle's wings.

You come face to face with your better nature and that is a frightening thing. Who wishes to look into the clear face of God particularly a sin sodden soul like myself. But these are moments or epiphanies when light flashes within the mind, when the spirits is illuminated and charged. It happened to Paul in a dramatic fashion on the way to Damascus and quietly to Augustine at Ostia, and surprisingly to Aquinas at the very end of his days, when the most rational of men had a mystical vision.

I had none of these experiences on Croagh Patrick, but I did climb up out of a normal habitat and a normal world until I could climb no further. I stood close to a thin place, a place of white light before it is fragmented into weaker color. There is no need for voice or complexity on this platform, for that splinters vision.

That was a long time ago and I need to return to this place again. I need to climb out of existence, its speed, its vast communication network, its cynical propaganda, its Babel of voices and particularly the Babel of philosophers who eschew wisdom which is damn tiresome and a thin pabulum for my soul. I will never cross over to the other side as the mystics have done for like Sancha Panza I ride upon a mule and I never had the idealism to tilt at a windmill.

As I recall the first experience, I remember how the dawn broke uncertainly in the east, then how the sky was suffused with light, how the landscape and seascape took dark form and then final form. The great bay lay beneath me, the drumlin islands, en échelon, as the geologists say. They set the direction from which the great glaciers came and point in the direction towards which they departed. A cairn of rounded stones lie about each island base. They say that there is an island in the bay for every year, but I have never counted them and I do not know if it is true. To the north lay the mountains of Mayo, to the south the Skeffrey hills and in a line west Ahagower where Saint Patrick celebrated Easter.

The descent from the mountain was rapid. The scree ran before us and soon we were on the saddle, then we took the broader path towards Murrisk. I was secure on the flat lands, safe in its intimate beauty. Every pilgrim had been moved in some way by the mountain. The physical challenge alone has its own value, the spiritual challenge is profound and not easily described. But it is deeply felt and sets deep roots.

I have traveled in many places since then. I have stood on the plateau of Massada and looked across the Dead Sea towards Moab, walked across Red Square and looked at the waxen face of Lenin, lay upon my back and studied the Sistine chapel, visited Tsarkoe Selo and prayed in the small chapel frequented by the Romanov family, before they were transported to Siberia and execution. I witnessed the White nights of Saint Petersburg and sailed upon the Sea of Galilee. I prayed at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and took a bus to Bethlehem. But I have never been in a thin place comparable to Croagh Patrick, where there was no image and no icon, little comfort and dawn a toss away. What happened there was profound and silent and I could never catch it in the net of words.

If you cross the road at Owen Campbell's pub and continue the path to the sea you will come upon one of my favorite places, Murrisk Abbey. I will neither describe its architecture, its history or its topography. It was founded in 1457 and its function failed somewhere at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

In 1730 Father William Bourke was transferred from the abbey and sent inland. He expresses the sadness of departure in this Irish poem which I translate freely.

Fare well to you Murrisk,
A most pleasant , most joyful place.
Farewell to the to the honey bearing mountains,
South of the Reek.
Most glorious to me
Was the oyster catcher wading on the sea margin
More glorious than the fairy music of the world.
-all the fairy music of the world.
Now when I rise in the morning
I see in the distance the Reek,
My heart within is in frenzy
And my mind burdened.
I am not accustomed to these inland people
They are not pleasant and lack joy.
They are images cut from a green oak
With an axe.
If I can endure this place
Until the cuckoo speaks
I will then return home
And visit my favored place.
Were it not for the submission and respect
I always have held for the order,
I would never have abandoned Murrisk
And the beauty of its harbors.
There is little more to say. The rest is monastic silence.

St. Patrick and His Holy Mountain - Part I by Michael Mullen
St. Patrick and His Holy Mountain  Part II  by Michael Mullen

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Guest author today is Michael Mullen of Castlebar, County Mayo. Michael is a well known Irish writer of Children's Literature, Historical Fiction and many works written in Gaeilge, the Irish native language. This is the final entry of a three part series of posts on St. Patrick and his holy mountain known as Croagh Patrick.

Text Copyright 2001, 2011 by Michael Mullen. All Rights Reserved. Used with permission.

Richard Rohr - The Celts Didn't Invent Thin Places

Janus figure - Caldragh Cemetery, Boa Island
Richard Rohr is a Franciscan priest, author, speaker and spiritual leader I have long followed and respected. His insights into spirituality, prayer and contemplation are some of the best in today's world of faith leaders. However, his post, Life on the Edge: Understanding the Prophetic Position in the Huffington Post today disappoints me. He relates living on the "spiritual edge" as living in a thin place.

The post points out that thresholds, doorways, bridges and other entryways, have long been linked to guardians or helpers appointed to assist with crossing over. He then links the same concept to spiritual thresholds and calls them thin places.

I don't mind if he wants to use "thin place" as his personal, spiritual term for a threshold to a spiritual state state of contemplation.

However, in his post, Fr. Rohr links the term "thin places" to the the Celts. He states, "The edge is a holy place, or as the Celts called it, "a thin place" and you have to be taught how to live there."

The Celts were a culture of people that arrived in Ireland after 500 BC. The idea of thin places or doorways to the Otherworld were solidly a part of the Irish culture long before the Celts came. Newgrange passage tomb is 5200 years old and has entrance stones with large spirals carved into the surface, common symbols for the pre-Christian Irish - and linked to their concept of thin places.

Drombeg and other stone circles in Ireland date 800 - 1200 BC.  Tombs on the Hill of Tara date back to 3000 BC. The Poulnabrone dolmen in the Burren dates back 5000 years.  We know that sects of the pre-Christian Irish believed there was another world - and Underworld where a parallel civilization (often linked to enchantments) lived. They believed there were openings where the inhabitants of the other world came and went between worlds - thin places. Legends of fairy forts or nodes where passage between worlds was possible were known as thin places or enchanted places.

The Hill of Uisneach was believed to be a thin place, not so much because of its being an opening for passing between worlds, but for the strong energy that comes to the through the earth from below - supernatural power that humans could draw from.

The thin places concept was a part of the pre-Christian or pagan charism and these beliefs or sensitivities - existed prior to the Celts.  The concept is rejected by many of the present day Christian communities, often being linked to "new age" heathenism.

Fr. Rohr also writes, "To take your position on the spiritual edge of things is to learn how to move safely in and out, back and forth, across and return. It is a prophetic position..." He uses this phrase not to relate that the place where you physically stand (on the edge) puts you in a prophetic position.  He's writing about something ephemeral or of the consciousness or mind. The physical place doesn't appear to have any significance in his definition.

These pre-Christian Irish people believed the thin place itself had the mystical or spiritual power. One didn't create a thin place simply by moving into a state of contemplation or spiritual trance. The site itself was thin and that made spiritual contemplation more powerful.

I have no issue with people who want to give their own definitions to the term thin place.  But I find it frustrating when writers recreate the pre-Christian Irish definition to suit whatever spiritual premise they happen to be writing about.

Considering Fr. Rohr is a scholar and has traveled much of the world, his "thin places" reference in this post appears to be reaching .... and sounds trite and sappy. It seems to be a feeble support to a lofty, contemplative concept.

Croagh Patrick - Climbing the Reek Part 2

This is the second of a three part series of posts on St. Patrick and his holy mountain known as Croagh Patrick written by Irish author, Michael Mullen.  Read first post in the series - St. Patrick and His Holy Mountain.

If one studies the movement of the sun On 18th of April and 24 August the setting sun rests on the summit of the mountain and then slides down the northern flank. So perhaps the mountain marked the movement of the sun across the heavens. How many other markings lie about the county aligned with this sacred mountain? To ascribe a low intelligence to our ancestors a lack of a deep religious instinct to diminish both them and us. The story of Saint Patrick has been well and often told. It is pivotal to the story of the Mountain. The outline of the story is familiar. As Daphne C. Pochin Mould says in her books The Irish Saints.

Patrick, apostle of Ireland, head of the belief of the Gaels, as he is styled in the Martyrology of Gormon, is a person of whom we know, as it were, everything and nothing.

He is the author to two works -his Confessions and Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus. The Lorica or Breastplate of Saint Patrick, once attributed to him, is believed to be of later provenance. But let us see what is firmly established about the man.

St. Patrick the man
We cannot give a date for his birth but it is believed that he died in 493 and is buried in Armagh. He was born near the west coast of Roman Britain and was given the name Succat. His people were Christian and his father an official of some importance. He was taken captive by Irish raiders and brought to Ireland where he was sold to a pig farmer. Many associate him with Co. Antrim but there is equally strong evidence that he served out his time in County Mayo, perhaps in North Mayo. He spent six years herding swine on a mountain. In fact he must have been attracted to the loneliness of mountains. While herding swine he became prayerful.

So he became familiar with the solitude of the Irish hillsides and the Irish woods. He learned the Irish tongue and through his master Milchu, he became familiar with the rituals of Druidism. One the mountain of Slemish he was visited by visions and in one he was instructed to escape. There is a tradition that made his way to Mayo and sailed out of Clew Bay. He was taken aboard a the ship which carried Irish wolfhounds. If he did then one of the last things he saw as the coast receded was the great mountain of quartzite. His journey was eventful. They were shipwrecked and traveled through a strange and desolate landscape.

He gives us the following tentative information concerning his life.

I am Patrick, a sinner, most unlearned, the least of all the faithful, and utterly despised by many. My father was Calpornius, a deacon, son of Potitus, of the village of Bannaven Tuburniae; he had a country seat nearby and there I was taken captive. I was then about sixteen years of age. I did not know the true God. I was taken into captivity to Ireland with many thousands of people..

And I used to get up for prayer before daylight, through snow, through frost, through rain, and I felt no harm, and there was no sloth in me-as I now see, because the spirit within me was then fervent.

Eventually he reached home and would have stayed contentedly with his own people but he head the voice of the Irish, close to the Wood of Voclut near the Western Sea, which called him to come and walk with them. Had he been more accurate and was he familiar with modern autobiography we would have a much clearer knowledge of his life. Wishing to become a priest he went Saint Martin's Monastery at Tours, and again to the island sanctuary of Léirns. It is obvious from the life of Saint Germain that Patrick was a capable and suitable candidate to send to Ireland to convert the Irish. Others had failed. He arrived with a retinue of people knew exactly what he was about. He must have been familiar with the landscape of Ireland and the centre of power and culture. Contrary to the law of the high king he lit a Pascal fire on Slane hill, a hill within view of Tara. With that gesture he challenged the druidical power.

The following words are ascribed to the druids although there is no historical proof for this event as the Pascal fire goes back to the 8th century.

O King live for ever; this fire, which has been lighted in defiance of the royal edict, will blaze for ever in this land unless it be this very night extinguished.

So he took on their power of fire with the Pascal fire. It was a symbol of what was to come. With fire he dealt with fire. This was an affirmation and a moment which marks the firm beginning of conversion.  His life as a missionary was not an easy one. In fact it was dangerous. He writes of "twelve dangers in which my life was at stake-not to mention numerous plots." This phrase alone opens up a whole field of speculation.  What were the dangers and who were his enemies? No doubt he was engaged in a power struggle with kings and druids. He lived dangerously and his mind was singularly determined.

St. Patrick's Pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick
During all his travels and visitations he came to Croagh Patrick. He traveled to Aughagower in 440. He would have journey along the ancient path from Cruchan. Aughagower was an important location and the seat of a chieftain. When Patrick arrived he came with his house hold. We have a list in the life of Saint Patrick written in the seventh century by Tírechán. He arrived with his bishop, his priest, his judge, his chaplain, his psalmist, his chamberlain, his bell-ringer, his cook, his brewer, his charioteer, his masons, his woodsman, his cowherd and many others.

In other words he was equal to any chieftain. He was also well organized. Most likely he built a church there and set about appointing bishops. As he looked west he would note the high, quartzite cone of Mount Eagle as it was then known. He would have been curious about the mountain and known its importance to the ancient Irish. Here too he would leave the Christian mark, as he had left it on standing stones and in other places sacred to the druids.

And so he set out to climb Mons Aigli, the Mountain of the eagle, as it was then called. He passed along the path, worn by other visitors. As he mounted the minor flanks he would observe the breathtaking scenery about him; towards the south the Sheffery hills running directly towards Killery harbour; to the north, the lone shape of Neiphin Mountain and the mountains of Mayo. As he reached the base of the central cone, the myriad islands in Clew bay, with their humped backs would become more distinct.

Now the path rises steeply, and small, flinty rocks, sharp and jagged would have slipped beneath his feet as he arched forward and clung to the steep mountain. Finally he reached the summit, with its slight, platform. Now he could see the bulk of Clare island, stout and firm at the opening to the bay. Beyond that lay an unknown world, which Saint Brendan would later navigate. He would have looked all around him and observed every interesting, outcrop of rock and mountain. He stood above his kingdom. Indeed this moment was a watershed for the Celtic Church.

It is said that he remained on the mountain for forty days. He would have no doubt remembered the visit of Moses to Mount Sinai. It was on such a high pinnacle that Moses received and formulated the ten commandments He could also have been preparing for Easter and the Resurrection. But it was a remote time for him, a time for prayer and reflection and Saint Patrick and a period when he could be removed from the sea of trouble which washed around the base of the mountain. It was this time period which gives the mountain its vast spiritual significance and it is here that the old ends and the new begins. The pagan pilgrimage path would become a Christian pilgrimage path and the stone buildings on the mountain be supplanted by an oratory.

Excavations of Croagh Patrick
Recently excavations have discovered an oratory, not unlike the stone oratory at Gallaraus, which was made of dry stone, and shaped like the centre of an upturned boat.  This is the moment of silence and reflection and since then every pilgrim has been drawn to the mountain by the same spiritual instinct. They say that he banished the snakes, but there never were snakes in Ireland. That he banished demons in another thing; the demons were the demons of paganism.

In the Tripartite Life of Saint Patrick the following strange image occurs.

Now at the end of those forty days and forty nights the mountain was filled with black birds, so that he knew not heaven nor earth. He strikes his bell at them, so that the men of Ireland heard its voice and he flung it at them, so that its gap broke out of it ... no demon came to the land of Erin after that.
Croagh Patrick - a thin place
A precipice to the south side of the mountain is known as the Hollow of the Demons. This makes Croagh Patrick relevant on many levels and it is the core reason why pilgrims have been drawn to the summit for seventeen hundred years.

Croagh Patrick with Famine Ship

On this arid summit, where the winds blow hard, where no root takes hold, where distance seems infinite and heaven close, the spirit is tested and replenished, for the pilgrim had reached a thin place, where one steps into the highest dimension of one's existence.

The deserts of Egypt drew the early fathers to is dry expanses. The summit of the mountain is a hard desert where only the spirit can flourish, where the ground is covered with sharp rocks, where the back drops to ordinary life are removed. It is here that the human spirit passes from the comfortable world into a spiritual world. That is why it is a significant place.

On this singular mountain, forty days before Easter, where Patrick faced came face to face with himself, perhaps where he was tested by temptation and visited with visions. It is from these forty days, or period of silence, prayer and penitence that Mount Aglie derives part of its intense spiritual energy and which set standards for the early Celtic Church. It became a symbol of Ireland's enduring faith.

St. Patrick after Croagh Patrick mission
Having finished this, the most intense spiritual period of his life, Patrick descended along the pilgrim path, energized and refreshed. He walked to Aghagower to his friend, Senach the bishop and Mathone the Nun and celebrated the Easter festival with them. This was a decisive moment for Saint Patrick and the early Christian church. It happened in the year 441.

Patrick had twenty more years of missionary activity. He developed a native clergy, fostered the growth of monasticism, established diocese, and held church councils. He was a man of action who lived a vigorous life, who intellectual ability and honesty had been questioned, whose suitability to the priesthood had been challenged and who had lead a life of hardship and danger. When he died his body was interred in Armagh.

Croagh Patrick is a singular mountain. Above all it is a spiritual place. Set about it are the remains of the Celtic Church. On Inisboffin to the south-west lies the remains on a small monastery. The window frames the great mountain. It was here that Bishop Colman of Lindisfarne came after the his defeat at the Synod of Whitby. He brought with him Irish and English monks. There was a dispute between the two groups, so he left the island with the English group and set up Mayo Abbey. Recent archaeological surveys indicate that Mayo Abbey was as important in its time as Clonmacnoise and that Saxon students were drawn to this place of learning.

Watch this blog for St. Patrick and His Holy Mountain - Part III
Read first post in the series - St. Patrick and His Holy Mountain.

Guest author today is Michael Mullen of Castlebar, County Mayo. Michael is a well known Irish writer of Children's Literature, Historical Fiction and many works written in Gaeilge, the Irish native language

Text Copyright 2001, 2011 by Michael Mullen. All Rights Reserved. Used with permission.

Two St. Patrick's - Armagh - Twin Symbols of Conflict and Unity

St. Patrick's Cathedral - Armagh - Roman Catholic
Coming into Armagh from the Monaghan Road one gets a dramatic view of the city skyline, especially at twilight. The view is dominated by two buildings on two hills - St. Patrick's Cathedral and St. Patrick's Cathedral.

Both are diocesan bishoprics, both built on holy ground and both tied to legends of St. Patrick. One is the Church of Ireland cathedral built on the ancient holy site where St. Patrick is believed to have built his first stone church in the 5th century. The other is a stunning Gothic-style Roman Catholic Cathedral, its cornerstone laid on St. Patrick's Day 1840. It was completed in the early 20th century, with a serious halt to the construction during the Great Hunger.

St Patrick's Cathedral - Armagh - Church of Ireland

One view of that skyline speaks volumes. The twin pinnacles of the city bolstering two similar houses of worship whose congregations have withstood centuries of conflict and division. Some say they mirror the ancient story of the twins of Macha, birthed after an exhausting (and pointless) race. She cursed the land as her revenge.

My first entry into Northern Ireland through Armagh in April of 1998.  just a week after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.  I didn't know much about the conflict except for what I acquired listening to Irish ballads.  I always wanted to see that movie with Daniel Day Lewis about the Northern Irish Catholic father and son, but never managed to get my hands on copy.  I knew our relatives were from Derry, and  we were a part of this genetic landscape.  I had great interest in the culture, people and places here, but had little information. I entered Northern Ireland full of curiosity.

We checked into Padua House Bed and Breakfast, run by Kathleen O'Hagan.  It's a brownstone, townhouse located on the main road at the base of St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Cathedral.  Kathleen was (and is) one of the most hospitable hosts I've encountered in all my travels.  Her home was simple and warm as was her sense of hospitality.

Notice the Details.  Mark the Coincidences.  Chart Synchronicity 

If we are to grow spiritually from travel, noticing coincidences is part of the learning. I keep a log when I travel and jot down events, feelings and coincidences.  Synchronicity is the language of the spirit.  It's when unrelated events seem to come together in a common purpose that we know we are touching the otherworld.  The events may not speak to us until long after the journey is over.  Tracing the path in words and recollections can reveal wonders later.

Here's an excerpt from my travel log written the first night in Armagh.  

April 19, 1998 - 11pm ~ Armagh
I write from a bedroom located in Padua House, a B&B in downtown Armagh. I am lying on a bed in front of a large window. I was startled when I pulled back the drapes. Consuming every inch of the glass is a spectacular view of St. Patrick’s Cathedral (Catholic) - a prominent sight in the Armagh skyline. If I turn off the incandescent light in my room I can still write by the lights coming off the Cathedral - and when I look up, I'm  consumed by the awe of those twin spires and that Gothic face.

Three blocks from the Catholic Cathedral, skyline is the CI Cathedral, also named St. Patrick’s. It was from that hill that St. Patrick himself led the Irish Church in 5th century, and became noted for being one of the only leaders in history to spread Christianity throughout a nation without inflicting or creating bloodshed in the process. The bodies of Brian Boru and his eldest son rest in the ground here, noted by a plaque on the Cathedral wall.

The Armagh skyline with these two holy places climbing out of the landscape speaks volumes about the Irish people. Two separate groups reaching for the same prize, claiming the same name, but can't seem to reach each other. 

Coincidences and events - 

  • I'm arriving in Northern Ireland for the first time one week after the Good Friday Agreement was reached - a turning point in deescalation of violence between Catholics and Protestants.  Also one week to the day from Easter Sunday.
  • I am staying at Padua House named for my close spiritual friend [Anthony of Padua] - a patron of the owner as well.
  • My room has is the smallest in the house, but has the magnificent view of the Cathedral and is the only room in the house with a view of the Cathedral. No one appreciates the view of a holy place like me.
  • Mrs. O’Hagan served us tea before we retired to our rooms. Larry and Sheila [my traveling companions] were exhausted but I was wound up. I was invited  to watch television with the family and we watched In the Name of the Father, a film about the troubles in Northern Ireland.  Seeing this movie with a Northern Ireland family  who had their house - Padua House - destroyed by a bomb was strange - but strangley meaningful. 
  • Just as I conclude writing these coincidences and events, the cathedral bells begin to chime marking the midnight hour.

What wonderful gifts .... Mrs. O’Hagan, Pauda House, In the Name of the Father, the view of the Cathedral, the sound of the bells.

This moment stands still in time. I figure I'll always remember it. Who knows for what?

The next day we saw the occupying forces crouching in doorways, carrying machine guns as they lingered in Portadown and Armagh. Ornate graffiti with militant images, razor wire around buildings, and IRA signage was a eerie shift from the loud tourist welcome we experienced in the Republic [of Ireland].  But I loved that visit to the north.  I never felt unsafe.  I knew the anger was not with tourists.  My travel log entry from that day was more vivid than my memory.

April 20, 1998 - 9 pm
At breakfast, Mrs. O’Hagan shared the story of how her house was destroyed. Someone planted a car bomb outside her house and when it exploded she and her family were in the back yard. The windows were all blown out, the fireplaces destroyed. All wiring and lighting fixtures, and windows had to be replaced and the walls re-plastered. The bomb was a random act, not intended for anyone in particular. One of her grandchildren was sleeping near the stairwell, and while he was not hurt badly, he was terrified and covered with glass. They found the front window curtains in the back yard. Insurance covered none of the cost of restoration.
Mrs O'Hagan said there was a nice brick mason who came in to rebuild her fireplaces and chimneys and commented, “Pity, the poor man was shot and killed by a British soldier just weeks after he finished the work.” I asked why he was shot...was he a member of the IRA or targeted because of political ties. She replied “No. He was just a Catholic.” She then went on to say, "Everyone here has been touched by the Troubles.”

We went up the hill to attend 10:00 mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The Cathedral is magnificent! It's the combination of the ancient and the modern all woven into a masterpiece that stirs the spirit and proclaims the greatness of God. I had two thoughts as I walked through. One - all the saints depicted are Irish, most with names I've never heard. It seems that the Irish are so into being Irish. Would a Cathedral in France or Spain or Italy only depict native saints? Does any country have this many saints? Two - not one square inch of this massive structure is blank or vacant. It is all covered with art. Even the paint on the walls is covered with Celtic designs. And all the art means something or is remembering something or someone. It’s almost impossible to take in that much meaning...

…On our way to Lurgan we went through Portadown. The British forces in uniform stood with grease paint on their faces and machine guns prepared for use. Their tanks blocked a section of the street. We ate lunch here and again experienced the cold apprehension of the people of the North. Two days after our visit here, a Catholic cab driver (father of 5) was gunned down randomly in a parking lot.

Armagh - a City Transformed

Since that visit thirteen years ago, a generation has come of age in Northern Ireland, and the people there have achieved success in mending divisions and unifying communities.  It's a safe and comfortable place, still with differences, but tempered by common purposes. All in the North I've spoken to admit to wanting more united communities and less focus on differences. Tourism has flourished, the apprehensive facades have fallen away and been replaced by enthusiasm.  Economic growth and a regional pride in one common heritage have laid a foundation for the visitor to have rich, meaningful, fun experiences.

One quality I love about the North is that tourism has not (yet) overwhelmed the country as it has in parts of the Republic. One can still visit "old Ireland" and connect with people that carry qualities of the ancient, mystical culture. Many of the rural landscapes seem more pristine, and less interrupted by development. I encourage all to visit Armagh and all parts of the North.

Visit Armgah's Thin Places
Both St. Patrick's Cathedrals in Armagh are rich in history and art and worth an hour visit each. Nearby are some remarkable thin places including Killevy, Emhain Macha, Slieve Gullion passage tomb, Clontygorra, and Kilnasaggart. The Ballykeel dolmen is also worth visiting and is very near Killevy.

Related Posts - Padua House and Kathleen O'Hagan of Armagh

Croagh Patrick - Climbing the Reek Part 1

Guest author today is Michael Mullen of Castlebar, County Mayo. Michael is well known in Ireland as writer of Children's Literature, Historical Fiction and works in Gaeilge, the Irish native language. This post is the first of a series of three posts on the holy mountain, Croagh Patrick, and ancient mystical site where St. Patrick is said to have spent 40 days in contemplation.

Croagh Patrick - a Thin Place
Christian and pagan, this is a sacred mountain. Set at the western edge of Europe and standing above Clew Bay, it dominates the landscape and the sea scape. Its spine is franked with a gray path, traced out by pilgrim feet, for pilgrims have made their way to the summit of this majestic mountain for many thousands of years.
It is the quartz core of a much larger mountain, but time, and weather have worn it down and polished it into a pyramid. At its northern base, scree, lies about it, a testimony to the wear and tear upon ancient things.

Each day of year some pilgrim makes his her way to the sacred summit. Sometimes only a few pilgrims are strung out on the mountain path but during the great festivals, it becomes a living path. Day and night they come and go along the tortuous path, each linked together by some sacred purpose. On the important nights it is a river of living light. This has gone on for two millennia, perhaps three, and it will continue while the mountain holds and that will take it to the rim of forever.

Croagh Patrick - "It is a singular place, set in a primitive landscape, lonely and challenging"
For on this high and remote place one is close to the gate of heaven, close to the early Christian spirit and perhaps close to ones best aspirations. It is a singular place, set in a primitive landscape, lonely and challenging, like the sharp pinnacles of Schelig Mhicil in Kerry or Mont San Michel of the coast of France

Croagh Patrick - a thin place
The mystical and the pilgrim parts of our nature are attracted to such places. It is as natural as the air we breathe. In fact the first poem in Irish literature, written by Amergin has the following strange lines. It was composed well over two thousand years ago and possesses a haunting, magical quality. The poet stands at a point where he is in a thin place and passing towards some magical or spiritual plain.

I am the god who creates in the head of man the fire of thought. 
Who is it who throws light into the meeting on the mountain?

These lines have the ring of spirituality. They represent something profound, and when Saint Patrick arrived in Ireland on his mission he knew something of the ancient rituals and the mind set of the druids and the kings. He was Roman and Celt and this gave him a singular advantage in his missionary work. He imposed a new spirituality on an old spirituality and there is a continuum in the thought patterns between the pagan and the Christian mind. On many of the pagan symbols he and his followers cut the firm cross of Christ. Perhaps we could say that the ancient Irish possessed minds that were naturally Christian.

The beginning of Tóchar Phádraig
at Ballintubber Abbey

St. Patrick imposed a new spirituality on an old spirituality
In recent years, through archaeology and historical research, our fragments of knowledge concerning this singular mountain are taking a more definite shape. The mountain is being restored to its important place in our archaeology, history, spirituality and culture.

The mountain is singular in its presence, not unlike the great central arch of a Gothic cathedral, supported by two lesser arches. It is clean cut against the sky and arrests the eye. No other mountain creates such an impression except perhaps Knocknarea in County Sligo, with its great megalithic cairn of stones. Knocknarea is set above Sligo bay and has a seminal influence on the poet W. B. Yeats.

What Jacqueline O Brien and Peter Harbison say of Knocknarea in their book Ancient Ireland is applicable to Croagh Patrick.

Strong religious beliefs and social circumstances must have motivated the creation of the eleven meter high megalithic monument on top of Knocnarea in County Sligo- and undertaking as difficult to achieve as trying to work out how many Stone Age man hours went into its undertaking.

This gives us a method of reading the sacred history of Croagh Patrick, for as I said it has always been sacred. It gives us also a method of reading ancient and Celtic spirituality, for the Irish Church was different to the Roman Church and this created much controversy at the time; many assemblies, many arguments and defeat in the end for the Irish. It came to a head at the Whiteby.

The Ancient History of the Mountain
One must place the Mountain in its archaeological context for it is part of the archaeological remains which stand on the mountain side and lie about the base and stretch far into the surrounding country. Man and women has left their mark upon the landscape from the very beginning. The date of the arrival of the first settlers in Mayo cannot be ascertained definitely, but we can say with some certainly that the arrived some seven and a half thousand years ago. They were Stone Age people and they were a highly organized and religious people.

We know this from the excavations at the Céide fields in North Mayo. Here Doctor Seamus Caulfield discovered a civilization beneath a vast blanket bog. It is all quite exciting how this discovery was made. For many years turf cutters had encountered wall places beneath the bogs. This argued that prior to the growth of the bog cover a system of fields had been built. Though archaeological excavations it was discovered that an extensive filed pattern covering some thousand acres lay beneath the blanket of bog. So a highly organized society lived here many thousands of years ago. It is the beginning of archaeology.

Linked to these fields were huge burial tombs, with their great orthostats, their stone caps and their orientation towards the east, the source of light. We can argue from the presence of these Iron age monuments that these first settlers followed rituals that we no longer understand, but they were the rituals of life and death; rituals that must have been related to the seasons and the harvests. They were a reasonable and intelligent people and the great and mysterious monument, Newgrange was built a thousand years before the pyramids. It remains a mathematical and mysterious puzzle. The markings the tomb have never been deciphered, but the building is linked to the movements of the sun and the stars.

Ancient Meanings Linked to Today
All this is central to the importance of Croagh Patrick. If ritual was part of the old world then there is no doubt that ritual was central to their great quartzite mountain. The path which the pilgrims take is very ancient and stretches far back into history and right to the centre of Ireland. The ancient route from Cruachan, to the summit of Croagh Patrick, is now call Tóchar Phádraig, which in translation means Patrick's Causeway. It led, we believe along a road which stretches from Roscommon to Mayo. Today this route is marked out by ruined churches, abbeys and settlements. Thus, we establish the first tentative link with the sacred mountain on the very edge of the Atlantic. We are more definite when we take up the pilgrim route at Ballintubber Abbey. A pilgrim can now take the route from the famous Abbey and travel through Aghagower on the way to Croagh Patrick. One is almost certain that this was Saint Patrick's route to the sacred mountain.

It is only now that we are coming to understand the great monuments of the ancient world; the pyramids of Egypt, Stonehenge, the Mexican temples, Newgrange, the ziggurats of Mesopotamia and many others. The were more than massive monuments, requiring great engineering skills. They were solar temples, celestial observation points, centers were the rhythm of the seasons and the passage of stars across the heavens were computed. Croagh Patrick seems to be locked into some understanding of the movements of the sun. There is a remarkable rock outcrop decorated with Prehistoric Art.

Watch this blog for St. Patrick and His Holy Mountain - Part II and Part III
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Text Copyright 2001, 2011 by Michael Mullen. All Rights Reserved. Used with permission.