15 April 2016 Friday afternoon
On our way back from Kylemore, we stopped at the Croagh Patrick visitor centre, which is across the street from the National Famine Monument.
Croagh Patrick is an important pilgrimage destination and the third highest mountain in County Mayo.
Mt. Croagh Patrick (or Cruach Phádraig in Irish and known by locals as “the Reek”), has a long history that begins centuries before St. Patrick made his pilgrimage up the mountain. The Celtic people believed that the mountain was the home of the deity Crom Dubh. Women from Lughnasa would sleep on the summit of the mountain during the harvest festival as a fertility ritual. But these days, the mountain is best known for a Christian legend that describes how St. Patrick went up the mountain during the harvest festival in 441 AD and fasted for 40 days. Legend has it that during the fast, St. Patrick was attacked by snakes and chased them into the sea, banishing them from Ireland forever. It is true that there are no snakes in Ireland (or Iceland, Greenland, New Zealand and Antarctica for that matter), but the fossil record shows that there never have been, according to an article by James Owen on the National Geographic web site. Why is that? Scientists hypothesize that when the ice age ended 10,000 years ago, the climate became more hospitable for cold-blooded creatures, and as a result, the snakes returned to warmer regions in northern and western Europe. This would have included Great Britain (which has three species of snakes) because of a land bridge that connected the island to what is now continental Europe. But the rising seas that resulted when the glaciers melted covered the land bridge between Ireland and Great Britain some 2000 years before that, and the snakes (who don’t move that fast) never made it. (Rest easy, Indiana Jones.) In fact, there are no other native Ireland reptiles either, with the exception of one species of lizard.
Scholars suggest that the legend is meant to be an allegory and that in bringing Christianity to Ireland, St. Patrick banished snakes of the metaphorical variety. Snakes are often representations of evil (an example is the serpent that tempted Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden) and were also used in pagan rituals. Legend aside, the absence of snakes from Ireland is an environmental cautionary tale. Introduction of snakes, by either the accidental or deliberate release of pet snakes, could wreak havoc on the fragile island ecosystem.
Other Christians have followed in St. Patrick’s footsteps, both in ancient and modern times. Nearly one million pilgrims, some as an act of penance, climb to the top each year. The most popular day to summit is “Reek Sunday”, the last Sunday of July when some 30,000 hikers will summit the mountain. Apparently the views from the top of County Mayo and the Connemara region are spectacular, but unfortunately we could not experience this because the climb was too vigorous and time-consuming for our group to undertake. The next visit, perhaps.
While some members spent time on the mountain, hiking part way to view the statue of St. Patrick, others in the group went across the street to see the National Famine Monument. If you look closely you will see that the rigging of the ship is composed of skeletons. The title of the monument is “Coffin Ship” and it isn’t just a metaphor. The potato famine, which lasted from 1845-1850 when an airborne fungus infected the potato crop, resulted in millions of deaths due to starvation and opportunistic infections such as typhus. The Irish diaspora began when landlords, who could not collect rent money from their cash-strapped starving tenants, instead paid for their passage to America on so-called coffin ships. The conditions on these ships were so bleak that one in five passengers did not survive the journey.
Visiting this monument was surprisingly emotional for me, as my ancestors were aboard one of those coffin ships and managed to survive. The strength and fortitude of my ancestors is astonishing and humbling.