It takes only 3 hours to drive straight across Ireland. It always surprises the Irish people when I tell them that you could drive for four days to the north, east or west from Toronto and still be in Canada.
The three hour drive is worth the trip. The green mountains stretch the length of the coastline offering spectacular views of the Atlantic Ocean. Anything from puffins, whales and dolphins to ancient monasteries can be spotted from the coast.
The Western Way, is a well-known-less-travelled hiking trail that leads successively through twelve mountains (also known as the Twelve Bens). Oscar Wilde described these mountains as “ruggedly beautiful”. There are hiking paths marked along the drive, but I am holding out for the best possible climb as I have only one shot at the mountains of Connemara. As we pull up to the Tourist Information Office in Maan Cross, there is quite a lot of activity. We have arrived on the day of the annual town celebration. The Tourism Office has been turned into a meeting place where the locals have congregated to share their crafts, stories and traditions.
The Irish are great story tellers. Most people have actually changed their greeting from “Hello”, to “What’s the story?”.
Three industrious women work diligently in the corner turning fresh sheered sheep’s wool into sweaters. There is one woman carding (brushing out the wool), another spinning, and the third lady knitting. Opposite to them, a man churns butter. The entrance fee is 5 euros and I am treated to home-baked goods and tea. Everyone knows each other and they, from time to time, make furtive glances in my direction wondering to who I am and why I am crashing their party. Some friendly souls come over to offer their best ideas for a good hike in the area. The mayor makes his way over and invites us to climb Croagh Patrick the next day. Of course, I say “yes”… but, secretly mean “no”.
In my last post, I boasted about the weather being eternally sunny and temperate. While I am not so vane to admit that I can control the wether, minutes after publishing that post the skies opened up and poured down on Dublin with a vengeance. The days following have been spotted with violent bouts of rain.
As I reach a small church at the top of a mountain the skies turn black. The sheep hide. I am caught in a downpour at the farthest possible place I could be from the car. I pray to the Patron Saint of that church to bring me safely back to shelter. The descent was hot, wet and itchy from the flies that encircled me like Pig Pen.
In Westport, a pub called “Matt Malloy’s” is touted to be the best pub in Ireland. And, thinking about it… if the best pubs originated in Ireland… then, this could possibly be the best pub in the world.
Live music bounces off the walls of several different rooms in the crowded pub. Men in green jerseys belt out their soccer songs in the moments that the band is taking a break. It’s fantastic!
The next morning is not so fantastic. Croagh Patrick is waiting.
So it turns out that it wasn’t just a special invitation for me to join in the annual climb… I am one of 25 thousand pilgrims that have turned up on the last Sunday in July to make the ancient spiritual Pilgrimage to the summit of this holy mountain. Known as “Reek Sunday”, this is a big day for the Irish (comparable to New Year’s).
It all started out about 5,000 years ago around the Pagan celebration of the harvest. The Christians joined in on this celebration. It was then said that Saint Patrick spent 40 days and nights fasting on the top this mountain around 440 AD. This is the popular belief today. To honour Saint Patrick’s devotion, thousands make it out each year to this site. Dozens attempt the climb barefooted to repent for their sins and to reduce their sentence in purgatory… What terrible sins did these people commit? My body aches from the gluttony of the night before. A good ol’ fashion hangover is all the corporeal punishment I’m willing to deal with.
All kinds of people from children to the elderly, climb the steep uneven path each year to seek absolution. Somehow, at the top of the mountain you achieve clarity (and a spectacular view). People from all around the world have been partaking in this tradition for thousands of years. This is my first and last accidental pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick… I take my shoes off 50 metres from the car and toss them in the rubbish bin. I walk barefoot to the car. I am not climbing any more mountains for a while. With a pristine soul, I’m going to make my way to Paris!