An exclusive excerpt from Going Up the Holy Mountain: A Spiritual Guidebook by Gary Hastings
Chapter Three What Does it Mean?
The massive annual pilgrimage on Cruach phádraig has deep religious significance for the people taking part. This chapter will explore how that came about, what form it takes today, and what the sense of such a practice is. It has continued through linguistic, cultural and religious shifts over a very long time, ‘shedding skins’ as it went, if you like. The practices of prayer, meditation and pilgrimage still have resonance and use in the twenty-first century, whoever and wherever we are, and anyone can avail of a mountain, a short trip, a walk, a spare half day, to bring spiritual fulfilment to their lives.
Layers of Meaning
Cruach phádraig carries ideas, associations and meanings piled up as thick as the rocks and ruins our ancestors left behind them on it. Metaphors and perceptions, stories and traditions. They are there if we wish to use them to illuminate our own thinking, to channel it or broaden it. The mountain has a number of names: Cruach phádraig,
Croagh patrick (St Patrick’s Stack, or Rick). ‘Reek’ is a local pronunciation of the word rick. The top of the mountain looks exactly like its agricultural namesake. On first impression the mountain stands alone, looking higher than its 765 metres and is visible from over thirty miles away. Our ancestors, like humans all over the globe when presented with a mountain, came to the opinion it must be a holy place.
As well as geology, there are layers of tradition and concept on the mountain. the layers of meaning on the Reek are not simple and discrete. Older things are reinterpreted in newer times, reused. people look back and see through different eyes. Languages and faiths change. ideas come and go. All this shows the importance this place had for previous generations. It attracted them, interested them and stimulated them to think and imagine and explore – and pray.
The earliest levels of meaning and use are visible in archaeological remains in the vicinity, going back to neolithic times indicating that the Reek may be part of a huge ritual landscape. the nearby Boheh Stone, or ‘St Patrick’s Chair’ is one of the most important neolithic rock art sites in Ireland and Britain. It is covered in ‘Cup and Ring’ markings and other symbols. In the 1990s, Gerry Bracken, a local scholar, discovered the ‘rolling sun’ phenomenon connected with it. Standing at Boheh, the sun seems to sit on the top of the mountain and rolls down it as it sets on 18 April (Spring) and 24 August (harvest), ‘dates significant in the sowing and harvest cycles of contemporary civilisations’. ‘The spectacle would have resembled a golden disk rolling down one side of a perfect triangle before disappearing into darkness’ (Morahan, p. 29).
The Bronze age stone alignment in killadangan lines up on one of the shoulders of the Reek, where the sun disappears on the shortest day of the year. other standing stones in the general area may have been placed to have the summit of the mountain in view. Many of the hut sites high up on the mountain date from this time as well. Leacht Benain, or Mionnain, a prehistoric burial cairn from this period, is the first station of the pilgrimage trail. Benan was supposedly St Patrick’s charioteer. other cairns, in Reilig Mhuire (Mary’s Graveyard), stations where people circumambulate and leave stones, may also be of prehistoric date, but their present ritual and religious significance may not have any especially long history. this is a good example of the layers interacting with each other, as the cairns are much older than the story.
Excavations uncovered the foundations of an ‘upturned boat oratory’, like the one in Gallarus on the Dingle peninsula in Co. Kerry, within a stone rampart encircling the summit, with hut sites surrounding it.
Such remains show the high status of the mountain over a long time. Oral and written legendary associations would tend to affirm this, in addition to parallels with other Irish mountains and connected ecclesiastical and pagan traditions. Most notably Mount Brandon in Kerry, and Slieve Donard in Co. Down, both associated with Crom Dubh, a pagan god, each with a pilgrimage tradition.
Domhnach Crom Dubh (Crom Dubh’s Sunday) is one name of the festival which falls at the end of July or beginning of august, marking the beginning of the harvest season. On that day, people ate a meal of the new staple crops of the year. Local communities all over Ireland and in many parts of the British Isles would go up various local high places or to watersides where they traditionally picked bilberries, and for sports and other festivities. a survival of the Celtic festival of Lughnasa, held on the 1 August, this is the source of the pilgrimage on Cruach phádraig (Máire Macneill, The Festival of Lughnasa).
Lughnasa was one of the four major annual feasts (Imbolg, Bealtaine and Samhain, 1 February, May, and November, respectively). It is a nativity feast in honour of the Celtic god, Lugh, a god of light. in the legend, Lugh wrests from the great god Crom Dubh (Black Bent one) the fruits of the harvest for his followers. Hence the feasting and celebrations. One god is deposed by another.
The Christian legend attached to the mountain is also of one god deposing another; in this case Crom Dubh, representing the pagan religion, is deposed through the agency of Saint Patrick, standing in for Lugh/Christ, in favour of the Christian faith. The oratory on the summit was presumably to securely and definitively nail the door shut after the pagan god had left. Layers, intertwined and adapted to suit a new context.
The Story of St Patrick and the Reek
And Patrick travelled on to Sliab aigli [Cruach phádraig] to fast there for forty days and forty nights, following the example of Moses, Elias and Christ. His charioteer died at Muiriscc Aigli [Murrisk, Co. mayo], that is, on the plain between the sea and Aigle. There Patrick buried his charioteer, Totus Calvus [Totmael], gathered stones together for his cairn, and said, ‘So let him be forever; and he will be visited by me at the end of the world.’
And Patrick went up to the summit of Crochán Aigli and stayed there for forty days and forty nights. And he was tormented by birds gathering towards him so that he couldn’t see the sky or the sea or the land …
Because god said to all the holy people of Ireland, of the past, the present and the future: ‘holy ones, climb to the top of the mountain that rises above and is higher than
all the mountains of the sun’s west, that the people of Ireland may be blessed, that Patrick may see the fruits of his labours. … Because the choir of all the saints of Ireland came to him, to visit their father.’
Bishop Tirechán’s Account of St Patrick’s Journey
(Saint Patrick’s World, 169)
Oral sources tell of patrick’s driving a host of demons into Log na nDeamhan (the hollow of the Demons). They fled in the form of a flock of black crows which may also be the basis of the idea of his expelling the snakes from Ireland. In medieval times the Reek was a major pilgrimage site in Ireland. Ballintubber Abbey (1216), where baths and beds were available for pilgrims, was built on one of the main pilgrimage routes, Tóchar Phádraig (Patrick’s Causeway). It is still possible to walk the Tóchar, moving through ancient Christian and pre-Christian sites. By the sea at the foot of the Reek is Murrisk Abbey (1457) and to the west is Kilgeever Abbey (twelfth century or earlier).
Between the pre-Christian Lughnasa, the imprimatur given by St Patrick, and medieval custom, the pilgrimage tradition is affirmed and continued. In the early nineteenth century, under the influence of continentally trained clergy, the Church began to take a dim view of some of the customs of the peasantry at traditional religious occasions which were perceived as having ‘scandalous’ activity in connection with them: drunkenness and faction fighting, and the usual things which result from intermingling of the genders! Following the tragic effects of the great Famine of the 1840s the pilgrimage seems to go into abeyance. later in the nineteenth century there were moves to revive it, but it was not until 1903 that it was finally officially reinstated. The night-time part of the pilgrimage was discouraged in the middle of the twentieth century, for the same reasons of scandal and drunkenness, though safety was also a primary concern. Until 1971 the Mass at midnight was the main occasion, with further Masses taking place throughout the night. The line of torches going up the Reek in the dark was remarkable to see. Nowadays, official religious proceedings begin at 8 a.m.
The Present Day
The main day is on the last Sunday in July, when between twenty and thirty thousand people ascend the mountain, some barefoot, with sticks and waterproofs, and ambulance and First aid personnel and helicopters on call. Stands sell all possible necessities and rent out walking sticks to the pilgrims. All races, ages and genders are represented. Evangelical religious groups at the foot of the mountain hand out tracts declaring it a ‘vain and empty superstition’, other stands sell religious paraphernalia.
There are tourists just there for a look around, large numbers of the travelling community, for which this is a special event, and pilgrims from all over the world, some fully kitted out for all eventualities, and others determined to be martyrs to style and elegance. The Reek has been climbed in high heels before now, surely a more effective
mortification than bare feet. Confession is available, and Mass is celebrated in the chapel on the summit. this building dates from 1905, and the clergy go up early to be there ready for the pilgrims ascending, though some punters still go up at night, whatever about the ban on it.
There’s more than one way up. From the Murrisk side, where there are car parks and toilets and a pub and cafe with showers, the main pilgrim route is ground into the face of the mountain and visible for miles. From the other side of the mountain the Tóchar arrives after more than twenty miles wending from one significant religious site to another, and you can ascend along the shoulder of the mountain. The shortest route is from the ‘back’ of the mountain. It takes a couple of hours on average to go up the main route. This annual pilgrimage is a major event in the lives of many people in Ireland; it is a vibrant living tradition that still resonates strongly and is in no danger of dying out.
What does it all mean?
The stories aren’t just stories, the traditions weren’t just an excuse for a day out, a bit of craic. These tales and customs associated with the mountain meant something to people at a deep level. The standing stones, rock art, abbeys and pilgrimages gave sense to life and living and dying, to the passing year, to history. they pointed to a hidden future, a hidden, spiritual present. they were sources of structure and meaning for people.
We must approach them with respect and reverence, despite the fact that, culturally, our world is very unlike that of those who went before us, and the gap is still widening very quickly. Much of what and how the people of ancient times thought is lost to us. they are more foreign to us than the most exotic tribespeople now inhabiting the world, and we would be most bizarre and fearsome specimens to them! If the early medieval legend of St Patrick is slightly closer to home than Lugh and Crom Dubh, the society the legend sprang from and whose needs it fulfilled is still very foreign to our own.
Knowing what we know today may mean that what made sense to people 500, 1500, or 3000 years ago, or even only 100 years ago, may no longer resonate with us, may no longer make sense. We should also be aware of projecting back what we want to see, rather than admitting that we don’t know what was there. What we do have in common with those who preceded us is that we are humans, and we work much the same way as they did, and are physically no different, if a bit healthier and better fed. We like pleasure and dislike pain. We have families and loves and hates. We need shelter and company and warmth and food and sex and sociability. Like all the members of our species. and we want to know what things mean. Humans have always adored meaning in stories and songs, talk and discussion. all art, music and literature, indeed all religion, is about meaning. in none of that do we differ from our ancestors. always the idea of meaning and truth has changed and grown to fit the people who used it, to
make sense of where and who they were. That much we can still do, that much we can still understand.
The worth of the history of the Reek is not in any of the detail, specifically, but rather in the way the neutral spiritual technology is reused over and over, even though the context has changed from pagan to Christian, and then from a native, colloquial ‘Celtic’ Christian spirituality, to the revised wider international Christian practices and devotions of the last two centuries. Now, even that style seems threadbare and worn out. ‘Redecoration’ is required for new times, though with respect and consideration of what came before. Change is happening in Christianity in Ireland, whether we wish for it or not. There is an opportunity to widen the scope of the pilgrimage and reinvigorate it for a new time, a new culture. In our society official religion is going into abeyance; almost all Christian denominations are in decline. The children of the
seventies, eighties and nineties in Ireland are finding it harder to understand the faith culture of their parents and grandparents, more than any generation before them. This requires a reinterpretation, new words for old ideas, new ways back into old truths.
The spiritual technology the Reek represents: the pilgrimage, the use of a holy place, prayer and meditation, the solitude of the chapels on the summit, old and new, the
monastic life, all that is still of use to us today. If we have ‘moved on’ in one way, in technological achievement, medicine and science, in another we are still as our ancestors were, humans in search of meaning and fulfilment. Still in awe of where we are placed in the universe and in need of help and direction in our small personal lives and relationships. Still in need of structure, advice and wisdom to run our societies.
Spirituality is a human trait. it’s a way of thinking that has real benefits for us. think of it as a meme, or even as a cultural ‘app’ if you like, but it suits us, rounds us out, fulfils us, helps us. It is a positive, not a negative thing. humans have been spiritual and religious for thousands and thousands of years, certainly back to our direct Cro-magnon ancestors. It is part of being human, part of how we relate to each other as individuals, to the community and society in which we live, and to the world and universe we inhabit. It makes sense of things for us, and sense of our part within those things. These faiths were the places where our ancestors stashed their wisdom; how to live, how to get on with other people, how to be an adult individual, a group, a society. how to be part of this world, this universe; how to relate to existence, to growing
up, to death. these religions held and enshrined their highest ideals, their most valued thoughts, woven into stories and myths to stick in memory and psychology, to shape and guide.
The older forms of faith common in our society were once passed on through ‘cultural osmosis’, but that thread has been broken. Our culture no longer works the same way. New devotional forms will be created and designed by those coming behind us to suit the new contexts in which they find themselves. They may not look or sound the same. Those of us who were raised with an older thing may not like them, but they will work for the people and generations who need them. Christianity and other faiths will survive, I believe, but in new forms answering to new needs, new perceptions.
In part this book is meant as a way in to a new thing, looking at older traditions which have been tried and tested, and bringing in fresh alternatives based on them. the religious devotions of our grandparents are definitely no longer ‘cool’. It isn’t a matter then of resurrecting ancient aboriginal Celtic practices, or quaint medieval customs, or even worse, retreating into modern spit-flecked, antagonistic fundamentalism, but of understanding the context, the reasons, the techniques behind and beneath them, and realising that these are still efficacious, still true; they still work for humans and we can and should still use them. The neutral spiritual technologies we have been bequeathed function whatever colour they are painted. The window dressing may be changed, but we still need a window into ourselves, a window into the reality we gloss over and conceptualise and keep at arm’s length. The reality where god is.
You have the use of the Reek with all its ancient significance, if you wish to avail of it. or you have your own ‘mountain’. Layer that with meaning. See it with new eyes. Your mountain may not have an official, hallowed history, but it has a present, and a presence. It is what it is, and wherever it is, it is special. God is here, reality is present. This in itself is wonderful. We are able to be here too, to exist, live, and not only that, be conscious of living and being. That is a big deal, and we forget.
Let this place be for you a key to let you in to reality, into a special place that can make all places special. We can see from the very top that god is everywhere, and everywhere is in god. Let the mountain take you up into the kingdom, so that you can bring it down with you again, so you can recognise it in your ordinary life, which is not, ever, ordinary.