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 ├ęchelon, 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.

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