Conquering The Reek

26 04 2008

I sat in the dining room of my bed and breakfast in Westport, County Mayo, eating the delicious breakfast my hostess, Maureen, made for me, with a German couple and an American woman with her parents. I told them all I was climbing Croagh Patrick. At that point I had no idea what I was in for, the Americans had no idea what I was talking about, and the Germans looked at me like I had three heads—I guess they knew what I was in for. Maureen, the liar, said it was a “lovely climb.”

St. Patrick spent 40 days and nights on the peak of Croagh Patrick, or “The Reek,” and drove all of the snakes from Ireland. The mountain is 765 meters high and for penance, on the last Sunday in July (Reek Sunday), pilgrims climb Croagh Patrick.

I wore sneakers but if you have hiking boots they would be easier on your feet, although people have been known to climb barefoot for religious reasons (or on a bet). Also, bring lots of water and a walking stick—and maybe some breadcrumbs and a chauffeur.

I went into town after breakfast and hopped on the 11:15 bus with one other woman.

When I told the driver I was going to Murrisk he said, “So you’re off to climb the Reek? Mary—this girl’s off to climb the Reek!”

Mary said, “Oh, lovely. I used to climb it every year with my family but now I have a bad back and can’t make the climb. Where’s your walking stick dear? Oh, no. So you don’t have one. Well, I suppose you’ll make it without. I don’t mean to scare ya, ya know. You’re walking alone then, are ya? It’s best not to walk alone. I remember one year woman climbed alone, do you remember this woman, Liam? Now I don’t mean to scare ya, but she never returned home that night and the next day she was found dead, fallen off the mountain. Oh, dear. What a tragedy that was.”

Mary paused to make the sign of the cross and Liam the Bus Driver found his chance to cut in.

“Just be sure to stop in at the pub at the bottom and tell everyone in there you’re climbing up the Reek today. Then stop in when you return so they know you’re OK. If you don’t return, they’ll know to contact the proper authorities. Now, I don’t mean to scare ya, but these are just precautions, love. I’ve climbed the damn thing ten times and I survived every time!”

Liam and Mary dropped me off and pointed me in the right direction. I started getting a little worried when I was out of breath even before reaching the official starting point, which was a statue of Saint Patrick himself. I’m sure they put it at the bottom so less foolish people could take pictures of themselves there to prove they had been without actually climbing the damn thing. Two elderly people insisted on taking my picture a few times before they cheerfully sent me on my way—cheerfully because they weren’t going any further.

After the first five minutes, I caught up with a very smart man from Long Island named Jim, who had brought along a walking stick, and he became my walking companion. We both naively thought that the first thirty minute stretch just had to be the hardest part—no trail to speak of—just a bunch of rocks, most of them loose, on the side of the mountain. We passed a stream, presumably the one the bus driver had told me to stick my feet in on the way down to heal them—and continued to make our way through the rocks. I did not notice much wildlife. I guess they were all smarter than we were.

After stopping for a couple of water breaks, Jim and I saw some fellow pilgrims in the distance. It seemed as though they had stopped to rest and were waiting for us to catch up as they kept yelling and waving in our direction. I waved back and soon we were sitting on makeshift stone seats with two Irish men climbing together—one man in his late 50s and the other in his 20s. They were Charlie and Cathal, respectively, and little did I know how these two men would give me one of the most interesting and somewhat scary days in my life.

After a few minutes of chatting, Jim decided to go on and I, being his constant companion, followed him along with Charlie and Cathal, with Charlie beginning a rhetoric that would continue until I left him later that day. Charlie, being a liar like Maureen, told Jim and I that we were “nearly there.” After another thirty odd minutes of vertical climbing we thankfully came to a flat patch of rocks where the wind whipped around us and Clew Bay and its islands were visible in the distance.

According to Charlie, his friend George, a veteran (of which war I have no idea), lived on one of those islands with his wife and his boat, which none of us could see from there except Charlie.

After that flat stretch we could see the peak of the mountain right in front of us. I said, extremely prematurely, that it didn’t look so bad! God obviously heard me and decided to teach me a lesson at this point. The last bit of mountain took another hour to climb—an hour of pure torture. An hour that made me pine for the easy little lanes we had been through before. This last hour consisted of a trail of loose rocks with nothing to hold on to and nothing to stop you from falling off the side into the Bay below. I was terrified. There wasn’t even any place to stop and rest unless you wanted to slide back down from where you came. Soon, our party was split up, with Cathal in front, Charlie behind him, and Jim and I bringing up the rear. At every turn that we thought was the top, the mountain just kept getting higher and higher. My mind went blank and void of all thoughts except not to fall until finally I saw the chapel—the little white chapel at the top. I’ve never been more thankful to see a religious place of worship before in my life.

As I reached the top, I looked around me and first felt relief and accomplishment. I had done the physically most challenging thing in my life. I had climbed three miles straight up through rocks risking my life and for what? Why had I done this? Well, for one thing I was bored of the town I was staying in. It also sounded romantic.

Those were my reasons at the bottom of the mountain. At the top, I had new reasons. Self-discovery was one. Getting back in touch with my religion that I had forgotten and put on the back burner of my priorities for years was another. Doing something that would make my grandparents proud of me. I did it for the sheer simplicity of it—just a mountain and God and me, battling it out as I climbed and crawled and prayed my way to the top. And my fellow climbers, who were total strangers, had encouraged and helped me achieve this goal. If it wasn’t for Jim, Charlie, and Cathal, I probably would have given up and gone back down after not even climbing half way up.

A mass was being said in the tiny chapel and college-aged men were packed into and spilling out of it as they listened to the priest encourage them to pray and be thankful for the journey they were on. I listed for a few minutes and before I knew it, the three men were heading back down and I used my common sense, maybe for the first and last time that day, and joined them. I was not looking forward to the second half of this trek and at this time I firmly believed in strength and safety in numbers.

The way down the Reek was not any easier than the way up. It was hard on the feet and legs as I struggled not to lose my footing on the piles of loose rock. I must have slipped at least five times but regained my footing with dignity as others fell around me left and right. I did not have control over my feet until I saw the wonderful sight of St. Patrick again, greeting and congratulating us at the bottom. Jim was long gone by now. He and his stick had set off at an alarming and inspiring rate so I was left with Charlie and Cathal as we went into the coffee shop at the bottom. I was in good spirits at this point, as I had accomplished something fantastic, not to mention Cathal and Charlie had just told me how surprised they were that I had actually made it all the way up and down. They thought American women were weak and soft and they held me in the utmost respect for being so tough and displaying my “Irish spirit and blood”.

I was treated to two cups of coffee and surprising stories about the Troubles in Northern Ireland. I was in the presence, I soon realized, of two English-hating, IRA-supporting men who told me personal accounts of the British army invading their homes in County Down and shooting people in the street. Charlie told me of a time, twenty-odd years ago, when there was a knock on his door. He was taken into custody by the British army. They put a cloth over his head so he couldn’t see where they were taking him and only took it off so he could look at the pictures they showed him of known IRA members. He said he knew every one of them but lied so well about it they let him go. Their way of “releasing him from custody” was to throw him out of a van on the side of the road.

Cathal started laughing and said, “Remember Jimmy, Charlie?”

“Oh Lord, Jimmy!” chuckled Charlie. “Jimmy was a guy in our town, what a trouble maker he was. He had it out for the police. And the police had it out for him. Every day, Jimmy’d call the police and say, ‘I’m gonna kill one of ya’ t’night!’ and God love ‘em, he always did. He was a fine marksman, eh, Cathal?”

By the time we had finished our coffee and story telling it was 4:30 and they insisted on giving me a lift back to Westport, and since my bus wasn’t for another hour (or more, depending on Irish time), and I hadn’t done enough idiotic things that day, I accepted.

The three of us got into Charlie’s car. I was looking forward to getting back to Westport, showering, eating, and sleeping. But no, with Charlie it wasn’t that simple. He saw the house of one of the hundreds of people he’s friends with and decided to stop for a “short visit.” I started to get a little uneasy. His friend, Herbert, was a naval captain and his wife, Sally, was the cook on his boat. Only Sally was at home when we arrived and she was very scary. Every other word out of her mouth was “fookin” and I don’t think she smiled once in our “short” two-hour visit.

Their house, or “typical Irish cottage” as Cathal put it, was the most filthy, smelly, and overall disgusting home I had ever been in. I timidly sat next to Charlie (where he ordered me to sit) as Sally went off to make some tea. She came back with, surprisingly, very delicious and clean looking sandwiches. Had she just made these? Were they from the store? I didn’t know and didn’t care as it was 5:00 and the last thing I had eaten was breakfast at 9:00 and had just climbed up and down a three-mile high mountain. I started wolfing them down as Charlie kept ordering me to eat (and I did whatever Charlie told me to do).

We chatted with Sally until Herbert arrived. He was a large man, possibly of German descent (I couldn’t place the accent), resembling Santa Claus and a bit less scary than Sally. As we ate our sandwiches and drank our tea, I listened to Charlie recount the most alarming sequence of events. Charlie had recently been arrested because a taxi driver saw a bomb fall out of his pocket and then a building had been burned soon after. So Charlie was awaiting a trial where he was being charged for arson and could get ten years to life in prison. How he was free to climb the Reek with no police escorts, I have no clue. That’s the extremely brief version of a long story that obviously everyone present knew everything about except for me. So I sat there for two hours as Charlie told that story over and over while Sally kept interjecting with “fookin eejits” (this is also what she called the three of us when we told her we had just climbed the Reek).

We finally left that awful home and Charlie and Cathal dropped me off at the Octagon in the center of town after I gave them my address in the U.S. and asked them to let me know how everything turned out for them. They told me they’d write, and to bring my mom back to meet them when she was here, as they were sure that she was “just as lovely and tough as I was”.

I thought about Charlie and Cathal during the next two months I was in Ireland. Every time I did something a little risky, or met a character in a pub, I thought of them and my first brush with adventure on my trip. After I returned to the U.S., normalcy, and unrisky behavior, they became a distant memory until I received a Christmas card in the mail from Charlie. He wrote:

“Dear Erin,

This is to wish you and your family a happy and peaceful Christmas. I hope you are well as I am. My ‘situation’ is A O.K. now thank God. Cathal, my friend, is very ill and I hope you will remember him in your prayers. I intend soon to return and climb Croagh Patrick by way of Thanksgiving, so I will keep an eye out for you! Love from Charles M.”

I haven’t heard from Charlie recently, but every time someone asks about my adventures in Ireland, I get to tell his story.

**iamtheblog has some great photos of Croagh Patrick! Click here to check them out.**

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27 05 2009
International Wish List Summer 2009 « Explore and Eat

[…] Ireland: Spend more time in Donegal, climb Croagh Patrick again, spend another week on Inishmore, and a few days in Galway and […]

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