Have Bag, Will Travel
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On account of the previous day rain and fearing the worst I was somewhat reluctant to draw back the curtains to reveal the weather but as promised the sky was blue with just a smattering of cloud and just a few miles away I could see the top of Croagh Patrick, Ireland’s Holy Mountain and major Pilgrim magnet.
I was pleased about that because that is where we were planning to go today.
The tradition of pilgrimage to this holy mountain stretches back over five thousand years from the Stone Age to the present day. Its religious significance dates back to Pagan times when people are thought to have gathered here to celebrate the beginning of the harvest season. Today, when there aren’t so many Pagan visitors, Croagh Patrick is best known as a Pilgrimage site in honour of Saint Patrick for it was on the summit of the mountain that he fasted for forty days in 441 AD and the custom has been faithfully handed down ever since over the generations.
Each year, The Reek, as it is colloquially known, attracts about one million pilgrims. So many in fact that the pathway is becoming loose underfoot, unstable and dangerous. On ‘Reek Sunday’, the last Sunday in July, over twenty-five thousand pilgrims visit the mountain which makes it rather congested. At the top, there is a modern chapel where mass is celebrated and confessions are heard.
We set off immediately after breakfast and at mid-morning found the visitor centre car park which was already quite full and we could see ahead of us a line of people tackling the arduous climb. A lava stream of kagools and backpacks making steady progress up and careful progress back down.
The first part is quite straight-forward, a set of steps that ends at the first stopping point where Pilgrims stop to photograph a statue of St. Patrick statue erected in 1928 and paid for by funding from Irish ex-pats in the USA.
Here he is, St. Patrick, the original Fidget Spinner…
After that the going quickly began to get really tough because let me tell you this is not an easy climb up a steep glacial valley littered with boulders and sharp stones which makes it difficult to keep safe footings. It is hard enough in a stout pair of shoes but on pilgrimage days some people prefer to climb in the traditional way – bare-footed. Nothing on earth would persuade me to do that I can tell you!
The climb has two stages. The first ascends up a rocky foothill covered in heather and moss with a narrow stream running next to the well-trodden path. It took us about forty-five minutes to complete. Apparently it gets even more difficult after that so rapidly running out of enthusiasm for the project, we collectively agreed that we were not sufficiently adventurous to try and find out so after a short debate we took our photographs and made our tentative way back to the car park and going down is harder than going up believe me!
I decided that if anyone ever asked me if I have climbed Croagh Patrick I could genuinely say yes just so long as they didn’t specifically enquire if I got all the way to the top.
Back at sea level we visited the ruins of a medieval abbey and walked for a while on a long sandy beach and then visited the National Famine Monument which is a powerful piece of sculpture which depicts a Coffin Ship with skeleton bodies and commemorates the anniversary of the Irish Famine.
In terms of human tragedy, the famine was probably the single most important event in modern Irish history but to a certain extent they brought it upon themselves. It seems that at that time Irish people lived almost entirely on a diet of potatoes and that a working man would eat as much as fourteen pounds a day, that’s almost two tons a year or about an average sized hippopotamus, about sixty golf ball sized tubors every day – that is a lot of potatoes, to put that into perspective that is roughly equivalent to about two hundred and fifty standard size bags of potato crisps and that is a lot of crisps (chips if you prefer).
Now, I know potatoes are versatile – boiled, roasted, baked, mashed, chips (fries if you prefer), dauphinoise, gnocchi etc. but I imagine this sort of diet can become awfully monotonous! The Irish however were so fond of potatoes that they ate it to the exclusion of anything else; they didn’t grow vegetables, keep chickens for eggs or catch fish from the rivers or the sea. They just grew potatoes!
Unfortunately not only did they rely completely on the potato they specialised in just one variety. It was rather unflatteringly called the ‘Irish Lumper’ which was a heavy cropper even in poor soil and wet conditions but by all accounts didn’t even taste very nice and was described as a “wet, nasty, knobbly old potato.” It was also particularly susceptible to the potato blight virus and a succession of harvest failures in the late 1840s led to starvation, death, farm failure, cruel and vexatious evictions by English absentee landlords and eventually mass emigration to the United States.
Interestingly it is most likely that the virus came from the United States in the first place (just like the phylloxera virus that infected French vine crops at about the same time) but regardless of this they blamed the English and five million Irish (80% of the total population at the time) chose to go there anyway. Today nearly sixty million people in the USA, almost 20% of the population, claim Irish heritage and twenty-two out of forty-five of US Presidents have claimed Irish ancestry. Not Donald Trump by-the-way, who has a German heritage.
In complete contrast to the previous day the weather was glorious now so we stayed for a while and had a Guinness and then made our way back into Westport.
Almost as soon as we returned to the car and drove away from Knock it started to rain and by the time we reached the city of Galway we were very glad of underground parking facilities at the hotel so that we didn’t get soaked through getting to reception.
This wet weather came as something as a surprise. We travelled to Ireland in 2014 and went to the west coast, a year later we went to Northern Ireland and stayed in Belfast and in 2016 visited Cork and the South Coast. Despite Ireland’s reputation for dreary weather and lots of rain we enjoyed sunshine and blue skies on all three occasions.
So good was the weather in fact that Kim thinks it is permanently sunny in the Emerald Isle so she was especially dismayed to see the grey skies and persistent rain.
So persistent as it happened that we were unable and unwilling to step out of the hotel and walk into the city centre for evening meal and made do with the hotel restaurant instead.
Overnight there was no improvement and in the morning a peek through the curtains revealed a dismal view of steel grey sky and bands of drenching rain swooping in from the Atlantic Ocean. Kim ventured outside for an early morning stroll but was very soon forced back inside to the shelter of the hotel.
Our first day plans were in tatters. It had been our intention to spend the morning in Galway, a city that we had really liked on our first visit in 2014 but the rain was so bad there seemed little point taking to the streets that we had enjoyed in brilliant sunshine at that time. A good job that we had been there before then because if this was my only visit it wouldn’t be on my going back to list that’s for sure.
Several countries claim to be wettest in Europe including Switzerland, Norway and Scotland but I have visited Ljubljana in Slovenia which has the dubious distinction of being the wettest capital city in Europe and at fifty three inches that would certainly take some beating. Before I knew this I would probably have guessed that it would be Cardiff, in Wales, because that is fairly damp as well but the Welsh capital city is left way behind at only forty inches or so.
We were going to drive along the coast but with the road shrouded in mist we abandoned that plan as well and took a more direct route alongside Loch Corrib towards our far west destination via Joyce Country and the Connemara National Park. After an hour or so the rain eased off to a light drizzle so encouraged by that we eventually made for the coast and the fishing village of Roundstone.
I like this picture. There is a saying “Only in Ireland” and I suggest that only in Ireland would you find gas bottles stored next to the petrol pump…
At Roundstone there was minor improvement as we drove in and parked the car and by some small miracle, which I attributed to having visited the Holy Shrine at Knock, it had stopped raining and were able to take a walk around the harbour and the streets without a rain coat or an umbrella.
It didn’t last long however and soon it started to rain once more. Our outline plan for this holiday was to roughly follow the west coast route along the Wild Atlantic Way through Counties Galway, Mayo and Sligo and for a few miles we followed a lonely coast road that weaved its way through a landscape of giant boulders and heathland which struggled to look at all interesting in the sweeping rain. We were heading now for our two night stay in the holiday town of Westport.
In Connamara National Park we looked for The Twelve Pins a mountain range of apprimately two thousand feet high which should have been easy to spot but the cloud was so low and the rain so steady that it was impossible to find them so we just drove on through the damp town of Clifden until we arrived at a windswept car park that a place that commemorated two important events.
First this was the site of a previous transmitting station where Marconi sent transatlantic radio messages to Glace Bay in Newfoundland. Grainy photographs reveal the huge scale of the building, with the large condenser house building, the power house with its six boilers and the massive aerial system consisting of eight wooden masts, each over two hundred feet high. It is long since gone of course there is nothing very much to see even on a good day.
Secondly this is the landing site of the first non-stop transatlantic flight piloted by British pioneer aviators Alcock and Brown who landed at this place in June 1919 although looking carefully at the photograph below that looks more like a crash to me rather than a landing and judging by the heavy overcoats it was probably as cold on that occasion as it was today and we stood and shivered in the rain for only a few moments before returning to the car and making our way to Westport.
We spent a damp evening in Westport but the owner of the B&B assured us of good weather for the following two days so were optimistic about that and the other good thing is that it doesn’t rain in pubs and we finished the evening in a bar where local musicians entertained with traditional Irish music.
As we walked back to the B&B we were happy to see that the sky was definitely clearing away to the west.
Richard and Pauline had been to this bar twelve years previously and he sent me this picture to prove it. Goodness me, they were the same musicians…
“The official Pilgrimage Season at Knock Shrine begins on Sunday 30th April.The 12 noon & 3pm Sunday Masses in the Basilica can be viewed live on the Watch page and can also be viewed afterwards on the Knock Shrine YouTube Channel”. – Knock Shrine Official Web Page.
Knock (or West Ireland Airport) is built in the middle of almost nowhere, the nearest cities are Galway to the south and Sligo to the north, both over forty miles away. It was built here following a campaign by Monsignor James Horan who had a sort of evangelical business plan to bring pilgrims to the nearby religious site of the Knock Shrine.
The Shrine is probably the most religious place in all of Ireland and as we were close by we thought that perhaps we should pay a visit ourselves.
The most religious country in Europe is Malta where in a survey in 2010 95% of the population said that they were practicing Catholics. Nearby Italy (where the Pope lives) only managed 74%. Ireland registered 54%. The least religious countries are all in the north where over 80% of respondents in Estonia, Norway, Denmark and Sweden all said that religion isn’t very important at all.
Interestingly this survey didn’t seem to include the Vatican State where I imagine the response would surely have been 100%.
The remarkable story of Knock began on the 21st August, 1879 when, at approximately eight o’clock in the evening, fifteen people from the village claimed that they witnessed a Marian Apparition* on an altar at the gable wall of the Parish Church. An Apparition of The Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph, Saint John the Evangelist, a choir of angels, the Lamb of God (Jesus Christ) and a cross.
The witnesses watched the Apparition in the pouring rain for two hours whilst reciting the Rosary. Although they themselves were saturated not a single drop of rain fell on the gable or vision. Each of the witnesses gave testimonies to a Commission of Enquiry in October 1879 and the findings of the Commission were that the testimonies were both trustworthy and satisfactory. Hmmm!
As a consequence of this the site is now an important Pilgrimage centre with a four thousand seat Basilica, a Museum, a Research centre, the original Parish Church and the Holy Shrine itself. With an estimated million and a half visitors a year this makes it the most visited place in Ireland just ahead of the Guinness Brewery in Dublin.
Most of these visitors are genuine Pilgrims, not just nosey parkers like us, who come to celebrate Mass, make Confession, seek spiritual guidance or simply to lay hands on the wall where the Apparition took place. Actually there is only a small portion of the wall these days because so many people were chipping bits off for a souvenir that it had to be taken down and kept somewhere secret for safety.
The whole village is a religious enclave where every shop sells spiritual gifts, grave memorials, plastic bottles to collect Holy Water and Votive Candles. If you want to stay overnight in Knock then you are probably going to book in at The Shrine View Guest House, The Lamb of God B&B or the Divine Mercy Hotel.
The village and the Holy Site reminded me of the Greek Island of Tinos where there is a similar story of a divine miracle and a Basilica and a Pilgrim Trail to go with it.
As we walked around the Basilica not everyone was absolutely delighted by the experience and I overheard two Nuns in conversation – “So how do you like the place Sister, said the first, “Well, I am a bit disappointed” replied the second “ I have to say, I tort there would be more Priests and tings!”
The modern Basilica is quite magnificent and the best thing about is the Apparition Mosaic which depicts the scene as described in the testimony of the witnesses and donated by an individual donor in memory of his family and friends. That is quite some gift let me tell you, it is one of the largest mosaics in Europe consisting of over one and a half million pieces of hand cut marble and glass and crafted in Spilimbergo in Italy by Travisanutto Mosaics who are said to be the best in the World and also have mosaics in Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington DC.
I am really glad that I visited the Knock Shrine, I didn’t get any sort of Divine thrill I have to say, I am not a religious person at all, I only go to Church for weddings, christenings and funerals and remain sceptical about things such as this but if so many people believe in it then I feel obliged to keep an open mind.
* A Marian Apparition is a reported supernatural appearance by the Blessed Virgin Mary. The miracle is often named after the town where it is reported.
There is a simple pub quiz question that comes up regularly and which I always get wrong. The question is ‘what is the nearest country to the United Kingdom’ and the answer of course is Southern Ireland or Eire but I always forget about the border with Northern Ireland and blurt out ‘France, it must be France’.
If the Scottish Nationalists ever get their way then there will be two correct answers to the question which is likely to cause a lot of bar-room arguments!
I suppose I have always been a bit hesitant about travelling in the British Isles because being English I have always been rather conscious that we are not going to win many popularity contests with our nearest neighbours.
A lot of Scottish people seem to hate us and the Scottish First Minister, the Anglophobe, Nicola Sturgeon, desperately wants a vote in favour of independence. Until quite recently the Welsh used to burn down our holiday homes and the last time I went there I got a speeding ticket which I am convinced was issued only on the basis that I had an English registered car. So I was a little concerned about visiting a country who apparently regard the English responsible for all their recent disasters from the Irish Famine to the failure to qualify for the Football World Cup!
On a more positive note, although it is a thousand miles away or so, Gibraltar seems to like to retain its British connections even if this is motivated by indecent self-interest!
The British Isles are a group of islands off the north-western coast of continental Europe that consist of the islands of Great Britain, Ireland and over six thousand smaller islands. The term British Isles however is controversial in Ireland where there are objections to its usage due to the association of the word British which in terms of Irish history continues to be considered colonialist. The Government of Ireland does not recognise or use the term and it prefers the term Britain and Ireland as an alternative description. Even the British Lions Rugby team is now rebranded as the British and Irish Lions.
The England Cricket Team has an Irish Captain who refuses to sing the National Anthem which to me means he is simply not eligible! Previously there has been a Scottish captain, Mike Denness and a Welsh Captain, Tony Lewis who didn’t have the same problem. I would say to Eoin Morgan sing or you don’t play and get the appearance money!
In preparation for travel I carried out my usual research and used my favourite benchmarks to try and understand the country that I was visiting. Most impressive is that Ireland is placed eighth in the Human Development Index which means that it is the top ten of the most highly developed countries in the World and before the recent economic crisis it used to be in the top five. The Index ranks countries by level of ‘human development’ and the statistic is composed from data on life expectancy, education and per-capita gross national income.
The economic crisis has had a negative effect on Ireland’s position in the European Happiness Index however and it is rated at only fourteenth out of thirty which is a very long way behind the United Kingdom but I was interested to see that in a recent poll in the Irish Times that Galway was voted the happiest place to be in Ireland and I was glad about that because that was where we were planning to go first.
Ireland has only two UNESCO World Heritage Sites which, let’s be honest, is a rather poor performance and I would suggest that someone in Dublin needs to start travelling around and making some applications – Australia has got nineteen for goodness sake! The country also needs to do something about its Blue Flag Beaches because it now only has seventy when a few years ago it had one hundred and forty-two!
But some statistics continue to be impressive and Ireland remains the most successful nation in the Eurovision Song Contest, which with seven wins is higher than all other competitors so who really cares about the economic crisis anyway?
We arrived in Ireland (an hour late thanks to unannouced Ryanair flight rescheduling) at Knock Airport, or Ireland West Airport as it is now known and as we descended the aircraft steps the wind tugged at the buttons of our shirts and the rain stung our cheeks as though we were walking through a swarm of bees.
It turns out that this is a most unlikely airport. The site, on a hill in boggy terrain that is often shrouded in dense fog, was thought by airport planning experts to be hopelessly unrealistic but was built following a long and controversial campaign by Monsignor James Horan who had a sort of evangelical business plan to bring pilgrims to the nearby religious site of the Knock Shrine (more about that later) and who convinced both the Irish Government and the European Union to fund the project.
Perhaps due to Devine Intervention it is now the fourth busiest airport in Ireland after Dublin, Shannon and Cork and we were happy about that because on our quest to visit all of Ireland this provided us with a gateway to the North West.
When I was a boy I used to like stories from the Bible and although a lot of the learning bits about going to school I found thoroughly uninteresting and a bit of a chore I did enjoy religious education and especially used to look forward to morning assembly when once a week the Minister from the Methodist Chapel nearby used to attend and tell a story or two in a children’s sermon.
Some of my school reports from this time revealed quite stunning results in religious education and at the same time as I was without fail picking up a disappointing sequence of Ds and Es for the important subjects like Arithmetic and English I was consistently being awarded As and Bs in religion. In 1963 I scored an unbeatable 100% in the end of year exams.
Strictly speaking we were a Church of England family but the Parish Church of St. John the Baptist in Hillmorton was in a sorry state of neglect and significant disrepair on account of the fact that the Vicar had little interest in his parish or his congregation because he preferred his drink. People use to say that you always knew when he was coming because the beer bottles used to rattle in the whicker basket that he had attached to the handlebars of his bike. More charitable folk said that it was communion wine. He didn’t hold many services in the Church, well, certainly not as many as he was supposed to, and there was definitely no Sunday school.
For this reason I was sent to the Methodist Chapel where the Reverend Keene and the Sunday school teacher Christine Herrington made us feel most welcome. I liked the Reverend Keene, he was down to earth and amusing and later he also came to secondary school to teach religious studies and take a weekly assembly there as well.
I remember that he smiled permanently and had a most pleasant disposition that was appropriate to a minister of the church. He had one leg shorter than the other and wore a corrective shoe. One morning in 1969 without any warning the Headmaster announced at morning assembly that following an operation he had died suddenly and I was really sad about that.
I don’t suppose so many children go to Sunday school any more but I used to really enjoy it. The origin of the Sunday school is attributed to the philanthropist and author Hannah More who opened the first one in 1789 in Cheddar in Somerset and for the next two hundred years parents right across the country must have been grateful to her for getting the kids out of the way on a Sunday morning and giving them some peace and quiet and a chance of a lie in.
In contrast to the Hillmorton County Junior School I seemed to be learning something at Chapel and what’s more I was being really successful. Every year we used to take an exam, well, more of a little test really, and if you passed there was a colourful certificate with a picture of Jesus and signed by absolutely everyone who was anyone in the Methodist Church hierarchy. I was awarded a first class pass three years running and even though the school headmaster had written me of as an educational no-hoper I wasn’t in the slightest bit concerned because I was becoming convinced that I was going to be a vicar.
I must have inherited this from my mother…
I had heard it said that people went into the clergy after getting a calling from God and I used to lie awake at night straining out listening for it. It never came. I also understood that it might alternatively come as a sign and I used to walk around looking for anything unusual but this never happened either.
One night, some time in 1966, I think God dialed a wrong number and got dad instead because overnight he suddenly got religion in a very big way and we all started going to St John the Baptist which by now had got a new vicar. His name was Peter Bennett and he was starting to deal with the problems left behind by the previous man who had retired somewhere into an alcoholic stupor.
At twelve years old I was too old for Sunday school and went to church now instead, I was confirmed in 1967 and joined first Pathfinders and then the Christian Youth Fellowship Association or CYFA for short which was (and still is) a national Christian youth club. The good thing about CYFA was that I got to go away to youth conferences and camps and there were lots of girls there too. The girl in the middle was called Elizabeth and was my first girlfriend!
I auditioned for the choir but was rejected on account of being tone deaf but to compensate for this disappointment the Vicar appointed me a server which meant that I got to wear a scarlet cassock, which I thought made me look like a Cardinal and had the important job of carrying the processional cross down the aisle at the beginning of evensong and putting the candles out at the end.
None of this could last of course and with no sign of the calling (there is no such thing as a sign unless you want there to be) and with dad’s religious fervour waning, my attention began to drift off in other directions such as pop music, girls and woodpecker cider and gradually I just stopped going to Church and to CYFA, left the bell ringing group and all of my scripture exam certificates were put away in an envelope in the family memory box and simply got forgotten.
In 2012 I visited the city of Padova in Northern Italy and dropped in to the Basilica of Saint Anthony (A Basilica is technically a double Cathedral because it has two naves) and inside there was a pile of postcards in different languages with an invitation to write to the Saint with a request. I assume this could be like writing to
Jim’ll Fix It Father Christmas or to ask for a cure for a gammy leg or something but I thought that I might use the opportunity to enquire why that elusive call never came?
Once again I didn’t get a response from the Big Man!