Lines are traced and followed, made and extended, grooved and lived. I’m concerned with the lines of the pilgrim path. Using the ‘Pencil Sketch’ function on MS Powerpoint I altered some fieldwork photos taken while walking Tóchar Phádraig as part of different groups over the past few years as a way of exploring the role of lines. Starting with the literal lines of the images rendered as drawings, I wish to explore the others lines and meanings present.
Robert Stoddard, in his 1987 article Pilgrimages Along Sacred Paths, explored the geography of sacred space as points, lines, or areas, with the lines category referring to the routes of travel of activities associated with religious motives. This classification draws attention to the line itself, that is the pilgrim path in this cases, as having significance, rather than being a mere route to a sacred site (spot). Elsewhere, the anthropologist Tim Ingold, in his book Lines: A Brief History, explores the potential of the line as movement, through the concept of wayfaring. The line is a pathway, it is movement, it is the means through a person engages with the surrounding environment.
Through a few (geo) poetic stanzas I trace some thoughts on lines in this pilgrimage. I wonder where they will lead?
A row setting out
Near departure, pace emerging
Movements and motions linking each person to the next
Each person is the line
Leading and following, a common rhythm, an alignment
Pilgrims as line
The path is active
It has been walked and will be walked
Stretching across the boggy terrain
A trackway towards the Reek,
but also approaching other places
Lines roaming out, in and beyond
Sweeping, reaching, gliding
The path, the land, the pilgrims are spaced
Each line mingles and flows
The path is landscape, landscape is pilgrim, pilgrim is path
All are lines
Reek Sunday, the last Sunday in July, sees several thousand people climb Croagh Patrick on the southern shore of Clew Bay in Mayo. The sheer scale of the event and its links with the ancient and more modern past, mark it out as one of the most distinct events in Ireland. It is a combination of a variety of elements, including the Celtic feast of Lughnasa, Patrician lore, spiritual devotion, personal and familial tradition and the sense of an event. For a historical overview of Croagh Patrick, checkout the post from Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland.
Although Croagh Patrick is climbed throughout the year, Reek Sunday is a special day. People from all over Ireland travel especially on that day. You are guaranteed to encounter all manner of humanity here. It is also on this day that some of the more religious or spiritual elements come to the fore. My fieldwork involved me engaging with the events, people and landscape of Croagh Patrick throughout Reek Sunday. I started off about 6am walking; however, I made frequent stops to photograph and record events. I spent a few hours on the summit taking everything in and talking to some people and, then, descended slowly, arriving down by 4pm.
This video is an amalgamation of different recordings I made throughout the day. It attempts to give a sense of the movements, sounds and moments that make up the pilgrimage.
One of the most striking aspects of the day is the significant numbers who are climbing at an early hour. While some people still practice the traditional night pilgrimage, the main crowds start arriving from about dawn. When I was walking up after 6am, there were at least several thousand people on the Reek. While most of the world rests on this Sunday morning, the approaching roads, fields being used as car parks and the paths are alive with activity. In a previous post, I have outlined the route and character of the main path leading up from Murrisk.
Pilgrims pass the statue of St Patrick as they begin their ascent, just after dawn.
A long trail of pilgrims ascending to the main ridge at about 6.20 am.
The steep pathway leading up the Reek proper – Casán Phádraig – is what is associated most frequently with Croagh Patrick. Pilgrims, usually with sticks, struggle up the loose surface, while those descending are moving cautiously, ever conscious of balance. On this day, the path is a stream of activity with hundreds of feet, unsecured stones, encounters and conversations. This audio secording gives as sense of how much is actually going on and how active the path is
Pilgrims climbing Casán Phádraig, the path leading up the Reek proper, early in the morning.
The summit is the site of masses all morning with pilgrims gathering on the gable end of the Chapel from where the mass is celebrated; confessions are also available. While acting as a central point of the pilgrimage as a Catholic event, it is also related to the Plenary Indulgence associated with Croagh Patrick. Rounds of the chapel and St Patrick’s bed are practised, with each been circled by pilgrims saying the Rosary. Many others rest, eat and often take photos of the views across Clew Bay. Also, there are usually a number of stalls selling drinks, tea and bars of chocolate (at airport prices!). There is a sense of being separate from the mundane on the mountain. The views allows a wider perspective, with many of the immediate concerns being left behind. This sense is a crucial component of the pilgrimage experience; and, although the summit is so busy there is still a feeling of being removed from everything else
St Patrick’s Chapel on the summit, just after one of the masses (one every half hour between 8am & 2pm). Pilgrims on the left are queueing for Confessions and those on the right for Communion.
A recording of the gospel (The Beatitudes formthe Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:3–12) at the 9.30am mass, read by Archbishop Charles John Brown, Apostolic Nuncio to Ireland.
A pilgrim rounding the chapel with their rosary beads. The congregation at mass are in the background.
Leaba Phádraig: A number of pilgrims follow the traditional stations of the route by rounding St Patrick’s Bed reciting prayers.
Going down, which is often seen as being more challenging, involves steady footing and heavy use of the stick almost as a third foot. The mountain is known for the camaraderie it encourages in people. Those descending continually assure those coming up that there almost there, some giving slightly unrealistic estimations, possible to bolster confidence and determination. Furthermore, these seems to have been a perennial characteristic of Croagh Patrick with one 1910 commentator, known only as E O’L. writing in The Irish Monthly saying that such assurances were “well calculated to cheer and revive the drooping spirits, such as ” Bravo ! you’re getting on grand, you have only a few hundred yards more to climb,”…” (p.592).
Descending the Casán: going down the steep path on uncertain surfaces is often considered to be the most challening aspect. Here the feet, the means by which the pilgrim engages physically with the mountain, are adjusting to the incline.
The Reek proper in the early afternoon, the steady flow of pilgrims are evident, animating the path all the way up the peak.
Further down the path one goes the more the everyday world encroaches, as everything gradually becomes closer and more real. Adding to this sensation is the collection of stalls and people at the end of the path. Whether selling or promoting something, they speak to a real world, with concerns beyond the mountain
Numerous groups and business set up stalls at the base of the path in Murrisk. While, some are promotion particular causes or denominations, others are selling religious items or food.
This was my second Reek Sunday (both being motivated by my research), but I’ve already grown fond of the day. It has a distinct feel to it and I can understand some of what draws people back year after year. Also, the role played by groups such as volunteer first aiders, stewards, Gardaí, the Air Corps, clergy and local people should be acknowledged.
Hughes, H., 2005. Croagh Patrick: Ireland’s Holy Mountain. The Croagh Patrick Archaeological Committee.
Hughes, H., 2010. Croagh Patrick: a place of pilgrimage, a place of beauty. O’Brien Pub.
O’L., E., 1910. A Pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick: July 31, 1910. The Irish Monthly, 38(448), pp.585–596.
Road to Emmaus staff, 2011. Croagh Patrick: The glorious climb of Ireland’s holy mountain. Road to Emmaus, 12(2), pp.1–45.
A photo of the short path leading down to the well, which has briars and different plants growing into it. The path is barely noticeable from the road.
A photo showing the holy well at the end of the path. The well, on the right, is set into the hillside and is surrounding by a simple stone structure with a stone drain channel, capped by a slab at the well, running directly out from it. On either side of the well two rocks, which are part of the setting, each have a cross ingrained in them from pilgrims using stones.
The well, referred to as ‘Sunday Well‘ in maps, is small and pleasant, although it looks like it is rarely used. The archaeological record refers to rounds which were performed their in the past. The site is clean and tidy, but the path down is slightly overgrown and unless you were looking for it, it is unlikely that you would see it. It seems as though it may be visited by a small number of people, presumably locals.
The well occupies a space between sites of devotion and activity and ones which have been abandoned. In this, there is a something nice and intimate about visiting the site, although there is the risk that it may fall into disuse and poor repair.
ArchaeologicalSurvey ofIreland Sites and Monuments Record (SMR) Number: CO087-017
CO087-017 (Archaeological Survey of Ireland, Record Details) on http://www.archaeology.ie. Posted: 14 Jan 2009
St Fanahan’s holy well complex, Mitchelstown, Co. Cork. A collection of photographs taken on the afternoon of Sunday, 25th November 2012, which is the feast day of St Fanahan. The seventh century saint, who is referred to as a warrior monk, is the patron of the town.
Photos, clockwise from top left: The holy well site just north of Mitchelstown, the well, with a semi-circular concrete border, is to the fore, a stone cross, some trees and a circular path are behind it; the stone cross, including a sculpture of the saint, with a sword in his belt and holding a staff, above a serpent, and a number of artificial candles surround it; a group of pilgrims do the pattern around the site, involving rounding, saying decades of the rosary, stopping at the well, blessings themselves and consuming the water; a glass, with some well water still in it, stands on a flagstone by the well, left by one pilgrim, awaiting another.
This collection of images represents the main path on Croagh Patrick. Most people who climb the mountain do so along this route, which runs from Murrisk, with a car park and amenities, up the to main ridge, along a section of that ridge and then up the Reek proper. This path is what defines the Croagh Patrick experience for most people. Its uneven surface, its weaving up the ridge and its loose screen shape the climb. The devoted pilgrim, the curious tourist and eager hillwalker all engage with the same trail, each experiencing it in their own way.
Photos, clockwise from top left-hand corner: the statue of St Patrick at the base of the mountain; walkers moving through a narrow gap in a small ridge shortly into the climb; the path weaving up the northern slope of the main ridge; looking down on Casán Phádraig (the path of St Patrick) with its steep incline and loose scree; a group of pilgrims eating and chatting in the shelter of the chapel on the summit; Casán Phádraig climbs up the scree on the side of the Reek.