(New Beginnings, No. 17)
Each year, at about eight p.m. on the first Saturday of July, a group of about fifty people leaves the Capuchin friary in Dublin for Croagh Patrick in Co. Mayo. According to tradition, Saint Patrick, at a time of crisis in his mission, spent forty days in prayer on the mountain. The pilgrims travel by bus heading towards the setting sun. They are a pick-and-mix group of many sorts: housewives, students, a German economist seconded to the Central Bank, a Dáil secretary, a telecom worker, retired people, Travellers, a doctor, priests, an American tourist, seminarians, and so on. Some have climbed the mountain before; for others it is their first time, and they are unsure of themselves. But all are made welcome.
People come with every kind of interest and expectation: some have a special intention to pray for, often parents worrying about a son or daughter, people with problems in their marriage, people burdened by an addiction, people giving thanks for favours received, or even people who just enjoy the challenge of a climb.
It is not an easy climb. After a meal in Loughrea on the way, the group arrives in Murrisk, the foot of the mountain, at about 2 a.m. They start at sea level from the beautiful but haunting Famine Memorial near the ruined Augustinian friary. The climb of about 650 metres is mostly fairly steep, the last one-third being the hardest, as there is loose stone underfoot, and for every step forward you slide half a step back. Often the mountain is veiled in mist, and visibility is limited.
Pilgrims take from two to three hours, depending more on fitness than age. This year a sprightly granny of seventy years plus (she refused to disclose her age) went up and down like a mountain goat! The youngest was fourteen.
On the way, people pray quietly, stopping at “Stations” for a pattern of Our Fathers, Hail Marys and a Creed. On the summit is the small chapel, windswept, wet and cold; it appears out of the mist as a haven of rest and shelter. Since this is a pilgrimage, an opportunity is provided for people to go to confession, the sacrament of reconciliation.
When the group has gathered, the Mass of Saint Patrick begins. The small chapel is full, so that some have to stand. A special mystique pervades the scene: there is a sense of shared support, people help each other; everyone sings the hymns; the light of early dawn – it’s about 5 a.m. – supplements the candles, giving the chapel a warm glow, despite the cold; the morning mist takes the place of incense, the wind represents the voice of nature.
The descent is usually slower than the climb. It’s easy to fall, though usually no harm comes of it. Sometimes the sky is clear, giving a magnificent view of Clew Bay, dotted with its many islands. After some early morning refreshments, and lunch in Loughrea, the group returns to Dublin by about 4.30 p.m. on Sunday.
The most noticeable effect of the pilgrimage is the sense of solidarity that develops in the group, a not insignificant achievement in a world that is fractured and atomized. A good proportion of people comes for the pilgrimage each year and value it as a re-union with friends.
Come for the climb, stay for the prayer, and make a new friend on the mountain of Patrick.