Sometimes, it’s only when something familiar is taken way that we appreciate its true significance. Hopefully, the cancellation of the Reek pilgrimage will be for this year only, enough to underline the profound influence the ancient ritual has had on our history and culture. And yes, there may even be an upside, in that the mountain may be given the respite to recover from its maltreatment overecent years.
The cancellation news finally prompted a return to a book on the long-standing ‘must read’ shelf – ‘Atlantic Tabor, the Pilgrims of Croagh Patrick’, a mixture of scholarly reading and a gallery of unique photographs taken on the mountain over a five-year period.
The book’s text is by Dr Patrick Claffey, the Castlerea-born priest who is attached to the Department of Religions and Theology at Trinity College. The photos are by Tomasz Bereska and Tomasz Szustek, and they capture the great diversity and different backgrounds of the pilgrims, but also what they have in common, the pilgrim spirit.
Dr Claffey’s text is both an analysis of the broader pilgrimage phenomenon across different religions, as well as a detailed exploration of Croagh Patrick and what it means to Irish people. Pilgrimages, he explains, were once primarily sacred but increasingly, have become secular, as people respond to different spiritual needs.
But he also presents a highly readable account of the myths, pre history and early history, associated with Croagh Patrick, and examines the role the Reek came to play over the centuries in Connacht Catholicism and eventually in an emerging Irish nationalism.
That the Reek tradition has survived is, Dr Claffey suggests, largely due to the dogged, anti-establishment nationalism of Archbishop John MacHale and his successor in Tuam, Dr Healy. The old tradition, with its pagan roots, where old and new religions met, was severely disapproved of by the hierarchy of the mid 19th-century, with its strong fealty to the orthodoxy of Rome.
But then, as ‘Atlantic Tabor’ reminds us, maybe they had reason to disapprove, since the traditional Reek pilgrimage of its time often mixed the sacred with the profane. Rev James Page, writing in 1836 of some of the practices he observed in relation to fertility rites, noted of Leaba Phadraig (St Patrick’s Bed) that ‘none but those that are barren go there, to commit the most abominable practices that would make human nature, in its most degraded state, blush’.
Two years later, John O’Donovan wrote: “There were several enclosures of stone not all dedicated to St Patrick or the purpose of penance, but rather to Bacchus and built for sheltering whiskey drinkers from the asperity of the weather and the fury of the Atlantic blasts on the day of the pattern, held in August on the road at the base of the Reek.”
And Harry Hughes, in his seminal history of Croagh Patrick remarks that, up until the late 1800s, the festivities in the pattern field of Murrisk were an integral part of the pilgrimage day.
Patrick Claffey reminds us that, for many like himself, climbing the Reek was a type of schoolboy initiation, coinciding with the Connacht final and the Galway races, the night climb, the morning sun splendid over Clew Bay, and then drinking his first Guinness at Campbell’s pub.
It is a memory captured in his evocative poem, ‘Atlantic Tabor’.
The rain lashed the gable that summer morning
The last Sunday in July,
I think it was the Sunday after the Connacht final,
as the peaked caps and craggy faces clambered in the steps of the saint
Rosary and ash plant in hand,
drovers of sin