Not so much looking down as across..

Saturday, June 19, 2010

When St. Patrick looked out over Clew Bay

Even allowing for exaggeration and the separation of time we can be fairly sure that St. Patrick came to Ireland, first as a slave and then as a missionary 20 years later around AD431. He is reputed to have spent forty days and forty nights in prayer on the holy mountain that overlooks Clew Bay in County Mayo. The mountain is named after Patrick for that reason. 'Croagh' is the anglicised name for mountain. To complicate matters further the locals refer to the mountain as the Reek. The annual pilgrimage takes place on the last Sunday in July and is termed 'Reek Sunday'.
I was born in a little ten-house village (that has barely changed in 60 years) at the foot of Croagh Patrick called Murrisk on the eve of Reek Sunday 1951. My mother who nearly died in my delivery was recovering in Castlebar Hospital while my father climbed the reek in thanksgiving. His thanksgiving had begun in the pub the previous night and had lasted into the small hours whereupon he begun the treacherous ascent. It was a miracle of St. Patrick himself that my father got up the Reek and even more miraculous that he descended. While my poor suffering mother was up the creek, her celebratory husband was up the Reek.
My son Daniel and I climbed Croagh Patrick last year to raise money for Amnesty International. Daniel had climbed the mountain previously but this was my first (and perhaps last) time. Despite many promises made and broken I had never succeeded in scaling the mountain that overlooked our first family home which was a humble cottage in Murrisk.
On recovering, my mother returned to the cottage with her new born son. She tells me that she spent those first early months walking with me in the pram along the road that is overlooked by the mountain and in turn overlooks Clew Bay. Apparently in 1951 the Bay turned an emerald green because of the plankton (certainly not my fault). Maybe it is while sitting up in my pram that I developed my love for the West of Ireland, for the sea and its harsh majesty and for the bare but beautiful mountains Four years ago my mother and I retraced our steps. We tried to find the cottage we had left in Spring 1952 for the town of Birr, Co. Offaly. We discovered the house had been demolished but we were able to trace its foundations to the stream where my mother used to wash our clothes - no tap water in those days - even less a washing machine. As we walked the field we felt the shadow of Croagh Patrick loom over us as we climbed over the stream that makes its gurgling passage to the sea beyond.
In honour of my Grandfather, I was called Patrick and in deference to the Mayo version of Patrick, I was called Padraic. That is Padraic with a 'c' not a 'g'. Thanks to the great golfer Padraig Harrington the name with a 'g' is well established - perhaps too well established. I often give up explaining the difference between 'c' and 'g'. Nearly all of my friends to this day call me Padraic and write to me as Padraig. I am sure I have been called worse.
Parents should be very careful of the name they give to their children. My daughter Claire's middle name is Marie which never gave her any trouble until the day she went to receive her parchment in UCD on Graduation Day. When her name was called out 'Claire Marie Murray' (try saying it out loud..) there was a snigger in the Aula and I have not been forgiven yet.
The recently publicised census' of 1901 and 1911 have revealed to me some things I never knew - that my paternal grandfather - Patrick -(who was to die in 1924 when my father was only 4 ) also had a son called Patrick who must have died before his first birthday.
Despite having to explain and spell my name for the last 59 years I am still proud of it - except when I travel to Spain. The name Padraic can be mistaken aurally for 'podrido' - 'rotten' - so I go by 'Patrick' - my late grandfather's and uncle's name - full circle.
St. Patrick also gave one of the best explanations of what Christians call the Trinity -by using a shamrock. It was a clever prop. One God with three divine persons, one shamrock with three leaves. Even though I harbour growing doubts about the divinity of Jesus I am still proud of what Patrick did and guilty that I cannot share his conviction.
Notwithstanding my struggle with faith I still admire and revere the prayer attributed to him, his breastplate which contains many sublime lines and includes
Christ be with me. Christ be within me
Christ behind me, Christ before me
I spent four happy summers in the Gaeltacht in the West of Ireland where the presence of God was a natural and daily occurrence that included greetings - 'Dia dhuit '- 'God be with you' and the response 'buiochas le dia' 'thanks be to God'. God moved easily in and out of the lives of the spiritual people that lived in the poor conditions of the Atlantic seaboard where Cromwell had banished them. Part of their unconscious spirituality lies within my DNA.
Patrick is a name that has travelled widely. It is well established in France, perhaps through the wild geese. It almost has cult status in Mexico where the 'San Patricio's' - an Irish band of renegades or freedom fighters - depending on your point of view - turned sides and defended Mexico against an imperialist US army towards the middle of the 19th century.
From the top of Croagh Patrick you can see the beautiful expanse of Clew Bay which allegedly has 365 islands - a handy number. There is a majesty and still beauty looking across the bay to hills that have been weathered for over a million years. A stark and haunting landscape. No wonder St. Patrick chose to spend his retreat on this holy mountain. No wonder thousands have climbed the Reek for centuries as they will again on July 24th this year.
I think I might climb it again this year. Certainly with Daniel. but certainly not on Reek Sunday. The crowds do not make it easy to ascend or descend. St. Patrick has already saved one Murray; it would be a lot for us to expect him to save two more, no matter the forename


  1. Interesting to see you are on a St Patrick theme, too. There must be something in the air, a lovely story about your family and I loved the idea of your mother wheeling you as a newborn around the country roads. Huge achievement to have climbed to the top, best of luck if you do it this year. I have similar problems with the spelling of my name.

  2. Thanks Brigid. And the coincidences continue. The original St. Brigid (the one before you) was converted by St. Patrick and founded a wonderful Abbey in Kildare that lasted for centuries. My own mother is Bridget (tricky spelling) but normally goes by her middle name..on and on it goes. Shalom! P

  3. Hi Padraic - trying to catch up with blogs. This is a great post full of gems of wisdom and moments when my brain shouts 'absolutely' and 'oh yeah' as I am reading.

    Love the family information. Werent women back then just wonderful.. washing clothes in the river and I still moan if one load gets caught in the rain while on the line.

    I share the love of St Patricks Breastplate and also have a deep love of Celtic Spirituality which wound pagan love of nature and Christ into life in a very real way. I must immerse myself in a Gaelthact again soon.

    We visited the area of Mayo you describe a couple of years ago and I was stunned by the beauty of Clew Bay!

    Anyway - keep writing.. love reading your thoughts!

  4. Thanks B for your kind words of encouragement. If you get a chance you should try and visit the Aran Islands - preferably off season. I visited Aran Mor one year with my daughter over the Hallowe'en break. It was marvellous! Mad! Not for the faint of heart!