Pil­grims, tourists climb St. Pa­trick’s moun­tain

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE - By AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS in­West­port, Ire­land

Shrouded in mist, the sa­cred moun­tain rises above the coun­try­side, ma­jes­tic, mys­te­ri­ous and a lit­tle fore­bod­ing.

Here, on this rocky west-coast promon­tory over­look­ing the At­lantic, St. Pa­trick is said to have fasted for 40 days and nights as he wres­tled with demons and ban­ished snakes from Ire­land.

Ev­eryMarch 17, the world throws a lav­ish cel­e­bra­tion for the fifth-cen­tury preacher who tramped around Ire­land con­vert­ing its peo­ple and leav­ing tales of end­less mir­a­cles along the way. Rev­el­ers around the globe slurp green beer, host pa­rades and wear silly hats.

But those who truly want to honor the pa­tron saint come to Croagh Pa­trick, a re­mote, rugged moun­tain in Coun­tyMayo, which­drawsoveramil­lion pil­grims and tourists each year.

El­ders and chil­dren, believ­ers and hik­ers, tourist­sand­lo­cals. Th­ey­come with walk­ing sticks and hik­ing boots, guide­books and rosary beads. They come for the sweep­ing views of Clew Bay, for the fresh air and ca­ma­raderie, for a day of fun— and penance.

Trekking­tothe­sum­mitinthe­saint’s foot­steps, some climb in their bare feet, paus­ing at three “sta­tions” along the way to re­cite a se­ries of prayers. Thereisas­mal­lorato­ry­on­the­sum­mit where Mass is cel­e­brated on cer­tain feast days and on the last Sun­day in July—“Reek Sun­day”— tra­di­tion­ally the holi­est day to climb, when up to 30,000 vis­i­tors flock to the slopes.

“I do it for the graces it gives me all year,” says Pa­trick Breen, 51, of Athlone, as he be­gan his de­scent last July, his bare feet bruised and swollen af­ter sev­eral hours on the moun­tain. “It’s a gift— a beau­ti­ful gift.”

All around, thick Ir­ish brogues min­gled with lan­guages and ac­cents from around the world. A fam­ily of four from Colorado huffed up the fi­nal leg, the fa­ther cel­e­brat­ing his 55th birth­day, his teenage daugh­ter dreaming of the spa that awaited when they got back to their ho­tel. They passed a trio of 20-some­thing Gyp­sies from County Ca­van, hik­ing bare­foot in honor of two tod­dlers from their com­mu­nity who had drowned in a lake ear­lier in the sum­mer. A Ger­man tourist with a back­pack helped his mother scale the rocks. A young English­woman wig­gled her pink toe­nails and boasted about climb­ing bare­foot just to prove to her boyfriend that “fancy toes” could do it. An older Pol­ish cou­ple pic­nicked at the sum­mit with ham sand­wiches and flasks of hot tea.

Although the moun­tain is just 764 me­ters high, even sea­soned hik­ers are sur­prised by its steep­ness and dif­fi­culty. Over the years, climbers have eroded the orig­i­nal trail, so what re­mains is rocky, un­for­giv­ing and of­ten slip­pery ter­rain. The last leg, be­fore the sum­mit, is a for­mi­da­ble cliff of rolling rocks and shale known as “the scree”. Ca­su­al­ties are com­mo­nand ev­ery year lo­cal res­cue squads air­lift nu­mer­ous in­jured climbers from the slopes.

But that doesn’t de­ter pil­grims, who have been flock­ing to the site since an­cient times. Long be­forePa­trick, the Celts cel­e­brated the har­vest fes­ti­val of Lughnasa here, be­gin­ning in early Au­gust. The sa­cred moun­tain was con­sid­ered es­pe­cially im­por­tant for women who would sleep on the sum­mit dur­ing Lughnasa to en­cour­age fer­til­ity.

To­day St. Pa­trick is big busi­ness in the area with dozens of Pa­tri­cian stat­ues, holy wells and shrines. West­port, a pretty port town about 10 kilo­me­ters from the moun­tain, is filled with stores sell­ing Pa­trick me­mora­bilia and the wooden staffs that are ubiq­ui­tous on the moun­tain. (West­port was also home to 16th-cen­tury pirate queen, Grace O’Mal­ley, who vies with Pa­trick for lo­cal at­ten­tion and lore.)

Nine­teen kilo­me­ters from West­port is Ballintub­ber Abbey, where Pa­trick founded a church and bap­tized his ear­li­est con­verts. The present abbey has been in daily use as a church for near­ly800years. Ballintub­ber also marks the be­gin­ning of an an­cient pil­grim­age route (now called Tochar Phadraig) that winds for 35kmover hill­sand­fields, end­ing at Croagh Pa­trick. Along the way, pil­grims pass a round tower, a holy well and a raised stone carved with Ne­olithic cir­cles called St. Pa­trick’s Chair.

But it is the moun­tain that re­mains the big draw for pil­grims and tourists alike. At al­most any time of the day, any time of the year, it is pos­si­ble to make out a steady stream of climbers in the dis­tance, inch­ing their way to­ward the sum­mit, hunched over their wooden crooks, lit­tle specks of hu­man­ity dis­ap­pear­ing into the mist.

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