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