Wednesday 29 July 2015

For heaven's sake

While the people of the the South-East celebrate the high Summer with a lot of fresh fruit and some snogging in the hollows, in the West they take a more directly religious view of the day. The last Sunday of July is known in Mayo and further afield as Domhnach na Cruaiche or Reek Sunday because on that day thousands of people go on pilgrimage to the top of Cruach Phádraig Croagh Patrick, which translates as St Patrick's [hay]stack or rick or indeed Reek. The mountain is made up of quartzite rather than dried grass, which is interesting geologically for two reasons.  First the rock is run through with several seams of gold-bearing quartz of which analysis in the 1980s suggested ore to the tune of half-an-ounce [15g] of gold to the ton. A cunning plan to take away one of the really sacred places on the island in 40 ton dumper trucks was put forward. This had the potential to realise someone $300 million despite the price of gold being currently in free-fall from its highs of nearly $2000/oz four years ago. The plain people of Mayo were canny enough to realise that they would see none of that and so planning/development permission was refused.

The other geological consequence is that the approach to the summit is largely made up of fist-sized scree and lumpier boulders that make for very unstable footing.  About 100,000 people make it to the summit each year; a third of them in a single 24 hr period at the end of July. They have been doing this for 1500 years [Pathe report from 1964] and so the path has experienced significant erosion. There is no grass or heather left to hold things together. Indeed mountain expert Elfyn Jones pronounced last year that Croagh Patrick is the worst damaged mountain path in these islands. You can see the scar of the pilgrim autoroute in the picture [L]. About 2% of the pilgrims make the climb in bare-feet, just like our 10 y.o Dau.I did yomping up similarly sized Mt Leinster. But because of the tiny footfall, and consequent lack of erosion, on our mountain it was possible for her to do her trek with hardly any contact with bare rock.

I've written about the experience of pilgrimage before: been there, done that, entitled to an opinion. I've also whanged on about the commodification of walking: how difficult can it be? It's what human do; in principle it just takes a pair of legs. The rest of the "kit" deemed to be essential is driven by anxiety or commerce.  Enterprising members of the plain people of Mayo will, for €3, sell you an ash-plant or a blackthorn stick to help you up Croagh Patrick or if that's too steep, will rent you one for €1.50! There is a long tradition of making money from any pilgrim tide. I'm sure you can buy water, fizzy or still, at the standard jumping off point and I'll bet you can buy it cheaper in Westport, the nearest town.

One thing that I learned in Spain is that pilgrimage is hard.  The Camino Frances to Santiago is structured as a physical metaphor for the inner journey.  You start with a brutal climb to a ridge in the Pyrenees and down the other side: that ladles out physical pain - blisters, shin-splints, turned ankles - which you must endure.  Then you must walk for 10 days, often under a broiling sun, through a featureless plain of corn and sunflower fields: you must learn to endure your own company.  Not until you have been through physical and mental fire are you fit to approach the City of God in the midst of the mountains of Galicia. If you could be helicoptered to the top of Croagh Patrick it wouldn't count - there would be no more transformative potential in it than taking a fair-ground ride.

Every recent year, the Archbishop of Tuam has led the pilgrims up on the morning of Reek Sunday and conducted mass from a glass box outside the little chapel. Being the West of Ireland the weather can be unreliable. 2009 was pretty grim and numbers were down to about half the usual amount.  About 18,000 people in need of some spiritual uplift nevertheless went the whole way. This year, 26th July 2015, the forecast was similar but the police and local mountain rescue [promotional video] and ambulance corps prevailed on the holy catholic church to cancel the pilgrimage and hold the commemorative mass in the church near the foot of the mountain. One of the cited reasons was that the Knights of Malta first-aid tent had blown over in the wind. The wind was 'gusting force 7' at dawn but moderating and 25mm of rain fell in the 24 hours. The Man then spent the rest of the day hanging around in the car-park telling people NOT to go up the mountain today, they couldn't be held responsible etc. Well indeed not!  I wouldn't be asking for mountain rescue to rescue me.  Rather "I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.” And he replied:Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.” [Minnie Haskins] There are other sources of help other than the mountain rescue.  No I wouldn't expect to have a deity bail me out if I broke my leg in a fall but I would not be surprised to find sufficient compassion and physical strength among the thousands of other hardy souls who were on the mountain that day. About 5,000 went to the top and back this year including a child of 8 and a 12 week-old infant wrapped up in a back-pack.  The child was reported as mildly hypothermic [shivering] when she came down and the city-boy press quickly shed the "mildly" so it looked like the parents deserved a visit from the Cruelty Officer.  I was trying to put my finger on what was jangling my chain on this one and after a night of troubled dreams I reckon it is the word volunteer.  The aid organisations are all run by volunteers: brave and selfless chaps in high-viz jackets who use their expertise and experience to pull the benighted, incompetent and injured off the wild places of these islands. They do what they do because they have it in them to give. They wouldn't be there but for the folly and misfortune of people less fit.  As I see it they have two options: retire to their tents like Achilles or suck it up and perform some challenging rescues which will be good training for an operation in a blizzard in winter.  What they don't have is locus standi to prevent others from doing what they think is foolish. Otherwise the tail is wagging the dog.

Another problem, as I see it, is that in a temperate island, with no poisonous snakes, no earthquakes or active volcanoes, no tornadoes and a hurricane but once every generation Ireland has very little exciting in the way of adverse natural phenomena. So the police, the weather bureau, and the mountain rescue have the vapours and issue yellow, orange and red warnings if a weather event in the 95th percentile comes through. Talk to people living in the Caribbean through the hurricane season about high winds and heavy rain.  It would be probably foolish, as well as disrespectful, to try paragliding under the conditions pertaining last Sunday but a slippy wet walk was not out of the question.  And the stats bear me out: nobody died.  Next time The Man issues a warning there will be some legitimate skepticism about His judgement.  The case is altered if you are on another mountain and/or on your own and/or with inadequate clothing & calories in similar conditions but religious practice needs to be cut some slack . . . for heaven's sake.

No comments:

Post a Comment