Wednesday, August 6, 2008

St Patrick climbed a mountain and so did we

Hello hello hello!?!
Such a funny word to shout from a mountain-top, and listen for the echo. There was no need for any such exclamations last week when my son David (9) and I climbed Croagh Patrick, Ireland's holy mountain, for the hillside was alive with talk and prayers and all kinds of accents and languages. Yes some hardy pilgrims even climbed it barefoot!
I was in the pub Saturday night talking to a new friend Peter, when he mentioned he was 'Doing the Reek' in the morning and how he used to start at Murrisk, but now prefers to take the slightly shorter and less travelled route from the back of the mountain, the eastern slope as it were. He said he would travel by Leenane in the morning on the way over, turn off at Delphi and make his way from there. I reckoned I'd still be asleep long after he had summited.
No such joy. Wide awake by 7am, I hit off to Galway and collected David from a sleepover at Granny's and then hit off. The ancient route of the Tochar Way pilgrimage was from Ballintubber, through Partry, on to Aughagower and on up the mountain. Patrick stayed 40 days and nights and was assailed by all sorts of temptations and dark thoughts. No way were we going that way, so we drove the ancient route, passing walking pilgrims on the way in glorious July sunshine and showers (the traditional 'mixed bag' of weather, the four seasons in one, rather like the characters in 'stones in your pockets'.
At Aughagower the village was was only 10 am after all. Already the picnic table under the ruined round tower was occupied by a savvy French family, munching their dejeuner, al fresco. I was really taken again by this tranquil spot, with its four graveyards, separated by three tiny pubs. Nice of them to offer spiritual sustenance. The carved face on the lancet in the ruined church gazed warily at our pilgrims garb, no doubt he's seen it all before. The view up through the ruined round tower looked so like a well, but inverted. I am sure there was magic there had we but waited a while.
We left Aughagower on a winding back road and after almost pranging twice with too-fast escaping locals, we arrived at the base station at the back of the mountain, from where all the medical and mountain rescue folks on the hill on the day are marshalled. The Irish Airforce's latest helicopter was ferrying a few unfortunates off the mountain when we arrived. It's one impressive machine, and visible proof of our tax euros at work.
The climb was euphoric...whew, we made it. I was so out of breath initially, but soon got a rythm going. We made the climb, and 30,000 others also did it that day. Most had fine weather but the later pilgrims had low cloud to contend with...and I mean low, literally half the hill was covered in grey clouds...dangerous and takes from the views...and the views are what makes the climb up the Reek so special.
Met Dr. Paul Nolan at the half way stage, at the medical post were he does his thing with his team as medics on the mountain each year. I could tell he was enjoying every minute of it, his A&E on the Reek....sort of an Irish version of MASH. The volunteers from the IMR to the Order of Malta all were superb.
David was a mighty man a regular little Sherpa, no shirt, dashing over the loose shale and rocks like a Kerry goat! He had a blast, what a joi de vivre. He was all for swimming at Glassilaun beach afterwards, but the day eventually took its toll and he fell asleep as we drove home to Barna and Paddy's Cross via the stunning lake and mountain scenery around Doolough and Delphi. Has to be seen to be believed. Ireland still has the capacity to surprise, enthrall and inspire...yes, it was a drive through heaven, having almost expired and gone to hell and back on the mountain climb!
Driving through Leenane, stopped off at Hamiltons and Gaynors for a pint and a choc-ice. Thought fond thoughts of Joe Gaynor and the old Blarney days, all gone now, with O'Leary in the grave. Pretty soon we were back in Galway, and sipping pints where we left them the night before in the Twelve. Another day in Ireland with nothing to do!