Fr Kevin Hegarty
Today’s edition of The Mayo News carries reports and photographs of the annual Croagh Patrick Pilgrimage. It must be one of the longest running stories in Irish history.
In 824 AD the Archbishop of Tuam was embroiled in a dispute with the Archbishop of Armagh over the northern cleric’s claim of dues from Teampall Phádraig on the summit of the mountain.
In 1224 the writer of the Annals of Loch Cé records that the only crime recorded in Connacht that year was of a robbery on the way to the Reek. The guilty man was punished by having his hands and feet cut off. One may wryly comment that is is no wonder crime was so scarce. Zero tolerance thirteenth century style!
One of the most colourful descriptions of the Reek Pilgrimage or Pattern occurs in William Thackeray’s The Irish Sketchbook.
Thackeray was an English novelist and travel writer who toured Ireland in the early 1840s. He had Irish connections. His wife was from Cork while his uncle served as a Church of Ireland clergyman in Dundalk.
His book is a revealing evocation of Irish life on the cusp of the ‘Great Famine’. Though sometimes inclined to stage Irishry, for the most part, he weaves a portrait that rings true.
He was, however, contemptuous of Irish Catholicism. He was especially scathing of Maynooth. Leaving Moate he met up with four students going to Maynooth College.
“One of them, a freshman, was inside the coach with the clergyman, and told him, with rather a long face, of the dismal discipline of the college. They are not allowed to quit the gates (except on general walks); they are expelled if they read a newspaper; and they begin with a retreat of a week, which time they are made to devote to silence, and, as if it is supposed, to devotion and meditation.
“I must say the young fellows drank plenty of whiskey on the road, to prepare them for their year’s abstinence; and when at last arrived in the miserable village of Maynooth, determined not to go into college that night, but to devote the evening to ‘a lark’. They were simple, kind-hearted young men, sons of farmers or tradesmen seemingly; and as is always the case here, except among some of the gentry, very gentlemanlike and pleasing in manners. Their talk was of this companion and that; how one was in rhetoric, and another in logic and a third got his curacy … When the time comes for them to take leave of yonder dismal-looking barracks, they will be men no longer, but bound over to the church, body and soul; their free thoughts chained down and kept in darkness, their honest affections mutilated … The poor freshmen, whose big chest is carried off by the porter yonder to the inn, has but twelve hours more of hearty, natural, human life. Tomorrow, they will begin their work upon him; cramping his mind, and biting his tongue, and firing and cutting at his heart - breaking him to pull the church chariot.”
Thackeray, however, warmed to the ordinary people in Ireland. He loved their humour and admired their resilience in the face of adversity. The poor social conditions in which most of them lived disturbed him greatly. His time here gave him the inspiration for two of his novels, Mr James Freney and The Luck of Berry Lyndon which was made into a film, with a soundtrack by Horslips some years ago.
He liked the ‘pretty town’ of Westport. He devoted a chapter in the ‘Sketchbook’ to it and another to the Reek ‘pattern’ day.
Given his views of Irish Catholicism, it is not surprising that he was unimpressed by the penitential aspects of the ‘pattern’. He saw no meaning in climbing the mountain barefoot.
On the misty morning of the pattern he travelled by coach to the foot of the mountain where he beheld the following scene:
“Stalls were spread about, whereof the owners were shrieking out the praise of their wares - great coarse damp looking barnocks of bread for the most part, or maybe a dirty collection of pigsfeet and such refreshments. Several of the booths professed to belong to confectioners from Westport or Castlebar, the confectionery consisting of huge biscuits and doubtful-looking ginger beer. Add to these cauldrons containing water for ‘tay’ at the doors of the booths, other lots full of masses of pale legs of mutton (the owner ‘prodding’ every now and then for a bit and asking the passenger to buy).
In the booths it was impossible to stand upright, or to see much on account of the smoke. Men and women were crowded in these rude tents, huddled together and disappearing in darkness. Owners came busting out to replenish empty water jugs and landladies stood outside in the rain calling upon all passers-by to enter … Meanwhile, high up on the mountain, the people were dragging their knees from altar to altar, flinging stones and muttering some endless litanies, with the priests standing by.”
No doubt the scene looked totally different last Sunday at the foot of the Reek but I reckon there was one constant - the potent mixture of religion and commerce.