The wonder and awe of high places

The wonder and awe of high places Croagh Patrick, County Mayo
The Irish Spirit – Issue No. 9
John G. O’Dwyer

It is sometimes said that the past never truly dies but invariably comes back to revisit us. Nowhere is this more accurate than with the ageless tradition of pilgrimage.

The idea of taking the high road to spiritual healing on a remote mountain has been an alluring one throughout history since great peaks thrusting heavenward were almost invariably regarded as the abodes of pagan deities or Christian saints.  Little wonder then, that distant and beautiful mountains have continually tempted up-gazing people with an implied “come up if you dare” challenge. It is perhaps the enigmatic quality of high places, their prominence and permanence against our transience and triviality that throughout history has draws us to them.

It is unsurprising therefore that mountains have, since time immemorial, been venerated as special places. Down the ages we have loaded them with legend and credited them with powers of spirituality and magic. To the people of Tibet, Everest is the “mother goddess of the universe” while nearby the beautiful Mount Kailash has never been climbed because of its religious significance.  To aboriginal Australians, Ayers Rock is sacred, while the Alpenglow from the Swiss Mountains was believed to reflect the treasures of the earth. The poet Wordsworth ascended Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales by night. He found the experience transcended “the imperfect offices of prayer and praise” while on the summit he “beheld the emblem of a mind, that feeds upon infinity.”

Small wonder then that salient Irish peaks such as Slieve Gullion, Slievenamon, The Paps, Mount Brandon, Slieve League and Croagh Patrick have also been interwoven with the heroic myths and beliefs systems that bound communities since before the arrival of Christianity. Reek Sunday, which in less dystopian times would have taken place on Sunday last, is just the best-known example of several, pattern-day climbs of pre-Christian origin. These have become seamlessly incorporated into the Christian calendar and are still taking place in mountain areas across Ireland, despite the otherwise steep decline in more formal religious practice. Materialism may squat immovably at the core of modern life, but the multitudes still following the ancient tradition of pilgrimage are the living proof of a continuing desire for higher meaning that material wealth leaves unsatisfied.

If, however, pilgrim walkers come to the “The Reek” or indeed any other Irish mountain, with dreamy visions informed by romantic poets and painters they are bound for disappointment. Mostly, it is not the weather or the unforgiving terrain that spoils the romance but the work of man. Wherever you wander on the Irish hills you’ll come across the monuments of our ancestors. Heading up the Croagh Patrick pilgrims encounter statues, paths, prayer beds, cairns, archaeological remains and hopefully at the end of their penitential trek the early 20th century summit church. Economically, spiritually or politically – depending on contemporary need – the powerful image of high places has been exploited by adding a vein of material symbolism to build and buttress communities.

But would Croagh Patrick or Ireland’s other iconic hills be in some way better if they had been preserved from the multitudes as a pristine mountain pyramid similar to Mount Kailash? I believe not. Mountains are at their best when they contribute to human endeavour. A ruined croft in an upland tells the story of such contribution – a sheep farm on a mountainside affirms the continued importance of this contribution. The burial cairns, the pilgrim paths, the stone walls, the religious artifacts are not incongruous intrusions, but memorials to how we have gained benefit our highest places. Indeed, it is these signs and messages – many from our pagan and early Christian past – that are part of the magnetic power drawing us back to Ireland’s most mystical mountains generation after generation.

Pattern day pilgrimages have long offered an excuse for many to tag a first summit. Of course, climbing uphill is an unaccustomed and singular struggle, no matter how we romanticise it, just as it was an unromantic but accustomed struggle for our forefathers. Today, the value lies not in the summit gained, or even with the view – which considering Irish weather is always a bonus – but in the effort itself and our empathy with the surroundings as we ascend.

On the way to most Irish summits, we will gaze upon the monuments of past generations and hopefully be reminded that these interventions never aspired to improve on creation. The challenge today is to resist the understandable temptation to irrevocably change our mountain areas. Instead, we need to adopt a long-term sustainable approach aimed at supporting the type of healthy interaction between humans and hills, which occurred for countless generations on the last Sunday of July each year.

Wild Stories from the Irish Uplands by John G. O’Dwyer is available from Currach Books.