Exclusive Excerpt: Wild Stories from the Irish Uplands by John G. O’Dwyer

Exclusive Excerpt: Wild Stories from the Irish Uplands by John G. O’Dwyer Author John G. O'Dwyer
Exclusive Excerpt
Wild Stories from the Irish Uplands
(Columba Books, €14.99)

The Ancient Journey

“As you walk you will be going not only on a spiritual pilgrimage, but on a cultural and historical journey that will take you down through the ages also. And if you take it upon yourself to enter fully into these experiences, this should bring about the change of heart and insight of mind which is essential to a pilgrim’s progress.” With these uplifting words from Father Frank Fahey in the beautifully restored church of Ballintubber Abbey we are inducted into the pilgrim experience. Requested not to complain and to include the stranger in our group as we journey, we are told that pilgrimage consists of five elements: faith, penance, community, change of heart and final celebration. Then, having been requested to first light a candle in the Abbey Church before setting out, we are released to the considerable challenge of Ireland’s most renowned penitential path.

I am in Mayo to explore what meaning pilgrimage holds in 21st Century Ireland by completing the ancient 35km pilgrim path leading from Ballintubber Abbey to Croagh Patrick, which is Ireland’s oldest pilgrim trail. It is also one of Europe’s most ancient penitential routes, long predating the much more youthful, but presently better known, Spanish Camino. To facilitate this journey, I join a group about to finish the full Irish pilgrim journey which requires completion of 120km on five medieval penitential paths. Having finished Cnoc na dTobar and Cosáin na Naomh, in Co. Kerry along with St Finbarr’s Pilgrim Path, Co. Cork and St Kevin’s Way, Co. Wicklow, the final requirement for the group is the ancient Tóchar Phádraig to the mystical mountain of Croagh Patrick. As I arrive, everyone is in high spirits as they look forward to the journey’s end and receiving their Teastas (completion certificate) afterwards.

Ballintubber Abbey has a long and turbulent history. Situated on the shores of Lough Carra, the Abbey was built by Cathal O’Connor, King of Connacht, in 1216 for the Augustinian Canons Regular. The only church in Ireland that was founded by an Irish King, it has been continually in use ever since. In the medieval period, it became an important overnight stop for pilgrims making their way along the Tóchar to Croagh Patrick.

The Abbey was located in a Gaelic controlled part of Ireland and so was out of reach of the general monastic dissolution by Henry VIII. After the fall of Gaelic Ireland, however, its land holdings were confiscated by James I in 1603. The Abbey was then taken over by the Augustinian friars, who as a mendicant order did not require land. Their time in the abbey was short-lived, however. Most of the buildings were burned by Cromwellian soldiers in the mid-17th Century, but the church escaped total destruction and has continued unbroken as a place of worship throughout the intervening centuries.

Before the off, I make time to visit the grave of the notorious priest hunter Seán na Sagart, which lies in the abbey grounds. In early Penal times, Catholic priests and bishops had, in common with wolves, a price on their heads. This sometimes proved an irresistible temptation for poor people who perceived easy money. It is said that Seán, whose name was John Malowney, was responsible for the capture of a number of priests and then claiming the price on their heads. Stabbed to death by a local man while trying to detain a priest, his body was thrown into a lake by local people. The priest whom Sean had been trying to detain ordered, however, that the body be taken from the lake and given a Christian burial. Seán was then buried in Ballintubber, but in a mark of disrespect, he was faced north so that he would never see the rising sun. A local tradition holds that an ash tree grew up soon and split his grave in two. This part of the story certainly holds true for, sure enough, a large ash tree has grown up from the grave and split the great concrete slab above the tomb.

Then it’s time for the off, but before we set out there is a reminder that early Tóchar pilgrimages were undertaken without such self-indulgent fripperies as boots. Passing the remains of foot baths, we are reminded by Fr Fahey that penitents bathed here on their return after their barefoot walk to and from Croagh Patrick.

Released into a landscape drenched in history and abounding with myth-making potential, we soon find ourselves tramping some of the original stones of the ancient path still visible beneath out feet. There are stories of holy wells, flax mills, fairy forests and villages entirely obliterated by the Famine hunger. Initially, it’s through low-lying fields and woodland paths before the route suddenly dives into the wildest of Mayo countryside. Rural and raw, it’s genuinely unsanitised pilgrim terrain but excellent signposting ensures we eventually re-join tarmac.

The Tóchar Phádraig was a paved chariot road leading 72 miles from Rathcroghan, the seat of the Kings of Connaught in what is now Co. Roscommon, to Cruachán Aigle, the ancient name for Croagh Patrick, which even in pagan times was venerated as a sacred mountain. Later, Saint Patrick is reputed to have Christianised the route as he passed along it on his journey to Croagh Patrick. According to the Book of Armagh, which was written in the 8th Century, Saint Patrick tarried long enough on the mountain summit to build a place of worship there. In some collaboration of this account, an archaeological excavation in 1994 proved that an oratory built in the early Christian period did exist on the summit. Soon after Patrick’s journey, pilgrims, drawn by the promise of Christian immortality, began to follow that same road to Ireland’s holy mountain and over time the route became known as the Tóchar Phádraig or St Patrick’s Causeway. These days most pilgrims climb Croagh Patrick in about 3 hours coming from Murrisk to the northeast of the mountain, but we are following the ancient route and this is set to take about 10 to 11 hours.

Down the road, arrows point us to the wild flower rich banks of the Aille River, which remain much as they were in ancient times, when pilgrims passed this way in search of spiritual immortality. Ascending to higher ground we are immediately rewarded, for filling the horizon is the symmetrical quartzite cone of Ireland’s holiest and handsomest hill. Undoubtedly a moment of joyful epiphany for fatigued medieval penitents; for day explorers like us it’s a place to take our obligatory selfies.

As we continue, the thought occurs to me that Medieval pilgrims must have been a uniformly tough bunch. Regularly, they must have felt isolated, lonely and vulnerable to robbery, kidnap and even death. And yet, whether motivated by escaping damnation or gaining eternal reward themselves or for a loved one who had passed away, they persisted, driven on each day by the need to reach the sanctuary of a monastery or an inn before nightfall. This was, of course, a simpler pre-Reformation time when virtually all of Europe was unified with one purpose; the glorification of God.

Gradually we settle into the metronomic but strangely comforting rhythm of walking, with almost every wood, lane, mass rock and stream we encounter seemingly laden with a saga from earlier times. Here it occurs to me that modern life has virtually killed the concept of travel; we are now rushed by mechanical transport from one place to another with little concept of the actual distance involved. On a pilgrim path, however, we experience the landscape in its true proportions. We pass a poignant famine graveyard and great cliffs where the jewels of Connacht are reputedly secreted. Later, the path traverses a deserted village before gaining the viewing point of Cloondachon Hill and descending into the pretty little village of Aughagower. Here, on a monastic site, which is reputed to have been founded by St Patrick, there is a later medieval church and the remains of a 10th Century round tower. More importantly and unusually for a small Irish village these days, Aughagower boasts a shop with a pub to the rear. As one, the entire group tumble in to enjoy a pit stop.

With the dissolution of Irish monasteries such as the ones at Aughagower and Ballintubber following the English Reformation, the Tóchar fell into disuse. It was almost totally abandoned when penal laws were enacted against Catholics. Remaining silent and almost forgotten for 400 years, it was the coming of Fr Frank Fahey to Ballintubber Abbey that was the driving force behind its re-awakening in 1988. It was also the first stirring in Ireland’s modern pilgrim era.

Speaking earlier with Fr Frank, he told me something of his life story. Born near Ballyhaunis on the Roscommon/Mayo border in 1936, his father was a farmer and his mother a teacher. Educated at St Jarlath’s College, it was here he developed a passion for Gaelic Football and was a member of the Mayo minor football team that won the All Ireland Championship in 1953. Having studied at St Patrick’s Training College in Dublin, he subsequently worked as a primary schoolteacher in the capital. Entering the seminary as a late vocation to Maynooth in 1968, his studies coincided with an era of great change in the church, which he describes as “some of it good, some bad”. Always his own man, he had some influence on changing the Pontifical University for the better; he was part of a successful strike that did much to improve the conditions for clerical students.

After his ordination, he was briefly appointed to Inishboffin Island which he loved because of its rich heritage and abundant folklore. Then, he was transferred to a place that was literally a world away; for two and a half years he was part of the United States mission. On what many would describe as a dream appointment, he was based between New York and Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles. Here, he worked as a programme organiser for famous rosary priest, Fr Patrick Peyton, who was also a native of County Mayo. A media superstar in his day, Peyton was close to many of the Hollywood glitterati such as Raymond Burr, Bing Crosby and Lorretta Young. One of the first to use the mass media to promote the benefits of family prayer for all religions, his catchphrase was “The family that prays together stays together”.

After returning to Ireland in 1976, Fr Frank was appointed as curate to the Marian shrine at Knock, Co. Mayo. He spent a decade ministering there with the legendary Monsignor James Horan. This he describes as a very exciting time with the centenary celebrations for the Shrine, the building of the huge new Basilica of Our Lady and the coming of Pope John Paul II in 1979. He recalls being at the famous breakfast in the Parochial House in 1980 that followed the anniversary mass which celebrated the Pope’s visit. This was attended by government ministers Pádraig Flynn and Albert Reynolds and was to immediately make another Irish upland famous. This was the occasion where Irish Taoiseach Charles Haughey promised the wily Monsignor Horan what he thought was a tiny grass airfield for Knock. Soon after, the Monsignor publicly unveiled plans for an international airport capable of handling trans-Atlantic jets on an upland site that was located over 200m above sea-level. Jim Mitchell, of opposition Fine Gael party, famously described the airport as located “high on a foggy, boggy, hill” but it was too late for Haughey to back out of his promise. With the benefit of hindsight, this has proven a good thing; Ireland West Airport has since proven an invaluable lifeline for Mayo and the surrounding counties and now handles about three quarters of a million passengers annually.

Next in his series of high-profile postings, Fr Frank was transferred to Ballintubber. The Abbey was already well known nationally having been restored and roofed in time for the 750th anniversary of its foundation, in 1966. The Tóchar Phádraig had, however, returned to almost total obscurity, with its last recorded use being in 1588. It was then used by Richard Bingham, President of Connacht, as a convenient pathway for his army heading for Aughagower to punish the rebellious Burkes for giving succour to the survivors of the Spanish Armada.

With his legendary enthusiasm and energy, Fr Frank immediately set about restoring the final section of the route from Ballintubber Abbey to Croagh Patrick. There were 64 landowners involved along the 22-mile trail and all gave consent to the restoration of the path, despite the fact that they received no monetary compensation for this. “It was a time of extremely high unemployment in Ireland” explains Fr Fahey, “and the farmers were delighted to help. We had 15 of the very best people on a FÁS (community employment) scheme who had been let go from their jobs. They did great work on the route and we opened in 1988. We were then very glad that the first pilgrims to walk the Tóchar in modern times were a group of Irish army officers, led by Coronel Michael Walsh.”

He doesn’t mention it himself, but it appears abundantly clear to me that it was Fr Frank’s speedy actions after arriving to Ballintubber that ensured the survival of the Tóchar as a pilgrim route for the modern era. Had he not made moves in the mid-1980s to re-open the route, it is doubtful if it could be done in today’s litigation and insurance conscious age. Certainly, he was surfing a wave with the Tóchar as the highly formalised belief systems of the 20th Century gave way to the more informal and individualised spirituality of the 21st Century, that commonly expressed itself through pilgrim walking.

Since the re-opening, Fr Frank has seen a big increase in the numbers walking the route. “In the beginning, we just had local people, but now, with the great expansion of pilgrim walking, the Tóchar has become much more popular. Most days in summer we have groups or individuals setting out from the Abbey to walk to Croagh Patrick. The majority are Irish, but we are also seeing more Europeans and Americans as the word gets out that completing this prehistoric route is a truly worthwhile experience. For those attempting it in a day, it is a tough 35km, but people are also completing it in a more manageable two days, with some local B&Bs dropping walkers out to the start and collecting them in the evening.”

Subsequent to the re-opening of the Tóchar, the next major event at the Abbey took place in 1997 when the chapter house and dormitories were restored under the direction of Fr Frank. It is this area that is now used to cater for the thousands of tourists, pilgrim walkers and retreat participants who come each year to an Abbey that has simply refused to die.

Beyond Aughagower, we descend fields and join a road as the terrain changes noticeably. At its essence, pilgrimage is, of course, just meditative walking and it immediately seems to me that the landscape here is eminently suitable for a contemplative experience, since it is mostly on serene, tree-lined little roads that we make our final approach to “the Reek”. Diving briefly into the surrounding countryside, we come upon the Boheh Stone, a pre-historic scene of druidic worship that was reputedly a massrock for St Patrick. Here we are amazed to discover it is in the back garden of a derelict house. Everyone immediately agrees that this important heritage site should long ago have been purchased by the State and the eyesore dwelling demolished.

One last excursion through fields and a crossing of the Owenwee River brings us to a tiny road skirting the overwhelming emptiness of Croagh Patrick’s south face. Continuing along this and crossing the Western Way, we reach a base for Mayo Mountain Rescue and a last unwelcome sting in the tail. Here a switchback path leads steeply upwards to join the modern Pilgrim Trail on Croagh Patrick, it is tough going at the end of the day but eventually we reach the saddle between Crott Mountain and Croagh Patrick. This was our “wow moment” for into view came the great sweep of Clew Bay and the lordly Nephin Mountain beyond. Then, leaving an attempt on the summit of Ireland’s holiest mountain for another day, we follow, as passport pilgrims are required, the trail downhill to the journey’s weary end at Murrisk on the shores of Clew Bay.

Those finishing the Irish pilgrim journey then head off to have their passports stamped for the final time while the remainder of us enjoy a self-congratulatory coffee in Campbells atmospheric pub while secure in the knowledge we have, like penitent’s past, defeated distance to complete the Causeway of St Patrick.

Having pondered this issue on my walk, I questioned Fr Fahey when I finally got back to Ballintubber Abbey, about what he believes is the motivation to embark on a pilgrim journey in the modern world. “People are taking up the pilgrim challenge in the 21st Century for two reasons,” says Fr Fahey. “First is the modern trend towards incorporating walking the outdoors as part of a healthy lifestyle. But, on a more profound level, people are searching for a deeper meaning that the material world is not giving them. They are finding meaning, instead, within the simple but fulfilling experience of walking an ancient mystical path. These paths provide the space and the ambience to explore and, perhaps, find that which gives wholeness to their lives.”

Never one to sit on his laurels, Fr Frank has, at the time of writing, obtained planning permission for the reconstruction of the East Wing of the Abbey. Showing me around the site, he hops from one foundation stone to another, while I puff along in his wake. Then he stops and points. “This will be an Interactive Learning Centre, exploring the pilgrim paths and centres of study since the beginning of time that have contributed so much to human identity, heritage and culture. The theme of the new centre will be the pilgrimage journey which has been there since the dawn of humanity. It will be titled ‘footprints in the Sands of Time’ and one of its most important themes will be the story of early pilgrimage to and from Ireland.”

“Ireland was an important centre for pilgrimage in the early Christian period. We had people from across Europe coming to centres of learning like Clonmacnoise and Glendalough, while saints such as Columbanus and Gall went in the opposite direction to spread the gospel. Pilgrimage is the great historic bond linking us with the Continent. I believe the time has come to tell the story of how early Irish monks transformed Europe when it was devastated by invaders. We expect the Interactive Learning Centre will make Ballintubber an international centre for monastic tourism.”

Later, after leaving the Abbey, I discover that one happening in his life story has been omitted. What he modestly refrains from telling me is that in 2016 the legendary curate of Ballintubber Abbey was inducted into the Mayo Hall of Fame alongside the former Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny. One thing is certain, nobody can accuse Fr Frank of not having lived a full life.

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