REEK Sunday is a deep part of our spiritual and cultural calendar here in Co Mayo. The manner in which holy mountain Croagh Patrick is revered may have changed significantly over the millennia – and indeed over the last two decades – but thousands of people will still climb its steep slopes next Sunday.
The practice reaches way beyond our Christian evangelisation and right back through Celtic times to our distant Neolithic roots. The cross-millennial thread remains the same though. Whether worshipping a panoply of gods that represented the whims of nature – Lugh, Danu, Mannanán Mac Lir, or a man called Jesus, born in a stable in a country still riven by religious wars – the fundamental question about what our existence means is integral to this uplifting practice of simply climbing a mountain.
Croagh Patrick is a great open-air amphitheatre. It dominates our landscape, from the time we cross the border into Co Mayo – whether that is in Charlestown or Leenane – its pyramidal presence sits on the horizon, with a steadfastness that is both comforting and imposing.
There is no time when a Mass service is closer to its original intention than when celebrated in the simple oratory on the top of this mountain. It is then that the congregations – old and young, barefoot and booted, believers and questioners – kneel and rise to the pared-back message of Christ.
The vagaries of the institutional church will ebb and flow from year to year – the collapse in vocations, the latest clerical scandal, the revelations of the Tuam mother-and-baby home – but the faith that sustained our forebears shines through in this special place of worship. The echoes of their Rosaries – as they rowed their currachs from the islands up to 50 years ago, or cycled from all over the country – will resonate still as the silent cortege of climbers snake up the eroded pathway next Sunday.
There is something special too in the fact that many locals climb the mountain two days earlier, on Garland Friday. This defines a geographic and communal intimacy, particularly since other ancient pathways are used to reach the summit.
So as the community of Murrisk prepares for this year’s influx of pilgrims and climbers over next weekend, it must be remembered what a huge logistical operation this annual event involves. The volunteerism of this small community has been exemplary over the years.
Is there any other annual event in the county – or, indeed, the country – that attracts some 20,000 people over a weekend while relying on such a level of volunteerism?
Of course, it is supported by the local church, An Garda Síochána, Orders of Malta, Mayo Mountain Rescue, the Irish Coast Guard helicopter service. Ultimately, though, it is this small community that hosts this major event. Moreover, with the unbounded success of the Wild Atlantic Way, and its attractions for sports tourism, this little seaside village and its holy mountain have become a destination for visitors all year round.
It thus behoves our local government officials and representatives, Irish Water and our five Dáil deputies, one of whom is a minister with special responsibility for rural Ireland, to resolve Murrisk’s water issues. And, while they are at it, it is past time that the potentially lethal dangers of the mountain’s pathway was addressed. Where has that dedicated committee of stakeholders disappeared to? What has happened to the latest expert report?
When Taoiseach Leo Varadkar visited Westport recently he was greeted with the placards of campaigners looking for clean water. Isn’t it a tad ironic to come into town, amid the usual media circus, to hold a forum about the future of rural Ireland, when just a few kilometres out the road a child has ended up in hospital with cryptosporidium and e-coli?
It is rather pointless too selling the town of Westport as the ‘Best Place to Live in Ireland’, if communities in its hinterland are being advised by the local authority not to drink the water. It is past time to stop the platitudes and obfuscations about very real health-and-safety issues relating to this tourism destination.