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Is running up the reek a new religion

On the Edge

Is running up the Reek a new religion?


Áine Ryan

THE call for the closure of Croagh Patrick (The Mayo News, June 16) caused quite a stir on social media with one rather poetic commentator likening Father Tony King to ‘Another Mad Mullah’.
Isn’t it so easy to be flippant and abusive under the cowl of relative anonymity offered by the world wide web? Indeed, several of the responses both on the Facebook pages of The Mayo News and The Irish Times (where the article also appeared) were trite and juvenile and failed to engage in a serious debate about this important place of Irish heritage. Thankfully, there were some notable exceptions which, while expressing opposing views about the use of the mountain, at least, added thoughtful comments.
When Fr King, a retired parish priest, delivered his hard-hitting homily some weeks ago at a Sunday Mass in Westport, he was greeted with applause by the congregation.
In summary, he argued that Croagh Patrick should be ‘off-limits’ for all the extreme sports enthusiasts who, in recent years, individually, or as competitors in dedicated races, should be banned from using the badly eroded pathway to the 764-metre high peak. He also suggested that the annual Reek Sunday pilgrimage should be suspended for three years to allow a proper conservation plan to be implemented.
He framed his call within the broader context of Pope Francis’s, subsequently published, encyclical on the environment, entitled “Our Care for our Common Home.”

Climate change
In a review for An Taisce of the encyclical, Ireland’s leading Climate Scientist, Professor John Sweeney, along with Fr Seán McDonagh, a Catholic commentator on the environment, wrote the following: “The Pope’s message is highly relevant to Ireland. It is a reminder of the urgent and compelling need for courageous political leadership to see off short term powerful interest groups in putting in place a legislative regime that is not simply a minimalist effort. It is also a stark reminder that climate change mitigation should not simply involve an economist-centred approach, but one that reflects the global as well as local interests of climate justice.”
Isn’t it so easy to view climate change in global terms while ignoring the impact of our own footprints and furrows on our local environment? Over the millennia, Croagh Patrick – or Cruachán Aigle as it was known in pre-Christian times – has been the subject of many forms of rituals. The Reek Sunday pilgrimage, at the end of July, is simply the subsuming of rituals whose origins reach back to the Neolithic (and barbaric) practice of sacrificing the Corn King to appease the gods before winter and, subsequently, the nine-day festival of Lughnasa, when our Celtic forebears placated their panoply of deities, who could manifest their power through the wrath of nature.
These days, it is not just the wrath of nature that is eroding the mountain’s pathway. Experts say it is highly dangerous and in need of a €1 million conservation project.

Reek Sunday pilgrimage
Despite the dramatic decline in formal church worship in recent decades, the numbers observing the Reek Sunday pilgrimage have increased. Indeed, along with the 30,000 or so people who climb it over that weekend, there are, at least another 70,000 plus undertaking the grueling ascent throughout the year.
One question raised by Fr King is: should this sacred place, ‘the great cathedral of the west’, be used for sports events? He isn’t the first priest to pose this question. Fr Frank Fahey, of Ballintubber Abbey, and the conceptual developer of the Tóchar Phádraig, expressed similar reservations, when, two years ago, a Canadian sculptor, Timothy Schmalz, proposed erecting a 100-foot statue of Croagh Patrick on the side of the holy mountain.  
Interestingly, one of the social media commentators on Fr King’s sermon argued that, perhaps, the many runners who now use the mountain are, in fact, on some sort of spiritual quest.
Father Fahey once said: “There is an innate longing within us all to discover ‘the mystery’, to find a meaning for life. The decline in the number of churchgoers is irrelevant to this basic human need, When we climb to the top of a mountain, and especially a mountain with such a rich spiritual history, we can behold the edge of the world, the horizon. We can distinguish where the ocean meets the land. We can imagine Hy Brazil and Tír na nÓg, the elusive world of metaphysics.”
Perhaps, then, running is a new form of religion and part of the long narrative of rituals on this holy mountain. Whatever your view, it is past time to make its pathway safe.