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.

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