'Halfway to heaven, maybe'


DISCOMFORT ZONE:POLITICS IS a different kind of penance, but it’s still a mesmerising zone of discomfort for sinners throwing themselves upon the mercy of a greater power. Where my more normal line of work is concerned, that power is called the electorate – worshipped and loathed in fairly equal measures. Any TD will tell you that voters are far less benign and unforgiving than the deity who draws the crowds to Croagh Patrick on Reek Day, writes MIRIAM LORD

This is the compassionate god of the pamphlets thrust towards pilgrims by squads of religious leafleteers at the beginning and start of their journey. The god of the holy pictures – election leaflets of the Paradise party – on sale at the stalls, along with the Madonna and child bracelets, St Padre Pio earrings, and battery-operated Sacred Hearts.

One blessing from climbing this holy mountain is that the ordeal is done and dusted in a day. In Leinster House, the climbing never ends. And like the Reek, it’s crowded and dangerous and with added mud, particularly on the lower slopes.

For me, it’s now the political low season. But a hack’s job is never done, and clearly, I’ve fallen out with the powers that be in The Irish Times. (But that’s neither here nor there, because after yesterday, I’ve fallen out with them. There’s more than one reason to buy a well-strung set of rosary beads. It was in an episode of Columbo.) Look at the evidence published so far: poor Fintan, fiddle-faddling with a race card somewhere near the Red Cow roundabout; unlucky Waters, forced to ruminate in a trendy warehouse in Dublin as fashion models flounced past; or Battersby, ordered to confront her worst nightmare – an oyster – while gorgeous and in a very nice part of county Clare. And so on.

“Would you do Croagh Patrick?” “What’s the alternative?” “None.” “Feck.” Couldn’t think of anything worse. A good hike is fine, if you’ve done the preparation and the views are nice. But with rosaries and added indulgences? No thanks.

I told my mother where I was off to at the weekend. Pause. “Serves you right.” Then she couldn’t stop laughing. Rather unsettlingly, news of this adventure has been a cause of great hilarity among my wider circle.

With photographer Brenda Fitzsimons clutching the other short straw, we left Castlebar for Murrisk just after 6am. Too late, according to those in the know. “I did it three times in the one day, for the blind,” the night porter told us as we staggered outside. “Ye lads should get up to the top in two hours, taking her very steady.” We could see he was only humouring us.

Out past Westport, the peak loomed, defying cliche by not being shrouded in mist. The road to the mountain was busy with walkers and hawkers. I decided not to buy a plastic Stetson – what would Jesus think? – opting instead for a stout hazel stick at €2. It was the best purchase of the day.

The man from the Catholic press office told us the Archbishop of Tuam would be starting his pilgrimage from the car park at 7.30am. We had about an hour on him, as, leaning upon our stout hazel sticks, we managed to make it up the punishing flight of steps to the beginning of the trail. At this point, we both thought we were going to die.

Onwards ho! Hordes of people are making the same journey – up and down in 3.5 hours, says the official sign. It’s only 772m above sea-level to where we’re headed.

Some hardened stalwarts of the holy slopes like to refer to it as “Croker”. Suddenly (for we were scarcely 50m into the ascent before delirium set in) it all made sense. The gap in U2 concerts this weekend. Friday, Saturday, Monday. Bono and God must have compared diaries. It was big of Bono to concede to another Croker on Sunday. We hear God was most grateful.

Brenda was in search of recitations of the rosary to use in the audio for her irishtimes.com slideshow. Nothing, despite expecting to meet flying columns at every turn. We met a woman wearing pink pyjamas though, belting back down from the summit after seeing in the dawn.

A striking aspect of the climb is the large numbers taking part. All ages, but the young women stood out, with their immaculate make-up, trainers that started out gleaming white, and fashionable leisure outfits in pastel shades. The advice issued before the day stressed that suitable clothing should be worn – layered tops, wetgear, boots. Team Irish Timeslooked like it had fallen from the front window of the Great Outdoors – for all the good it did us. The Archbishop of Tuam rattled past us after an hour.

There were loads of kids, skipping up and sliding down the shale like mountain goats – of which we saw none. Everyone had a stick or a walking pole. The experienced hikers marched past, arms pumping like cross-country skiers’. Friends met and chatted – many locals, doing Reek Sunday, as they do every year. It’s all very friendly, pilgrims supporting each other: “Ah, we’ll get there. Will we say mass here? We’ll sleep tonight.”

Ann Mallon from Longford and her brother Michael were walking barefoot for the first time. Both have climbed Croagh Patrick since they were children. Ann looked fresh in pinks and greys, her toenails painted a glossy pink, shining through the mud.

Is it slow going? “Well yes, we started at 9.30am.” Such mortification. We started at 7.30am. They agreed they were climbing for “spiritual enlightenment”. Michael tried to explain: “It’s an insight . . . basically, we’re spirits having human contact . . . It’s like meditation. When you’re concentrating, you’re not thinking of your everyday worries.”

Up and up we went in search of a rosary for Brenda. Old men in suit jackets were overtaking us. The sun came out. The sun went in. The rain and wind took turns to torment us. We had to keep stopping as crowds pelted past.

It was cruel. Really cruel. One of the leaftlets had promised us “seven steps to God”. Seven steps? We’re halfway up a bleedin’ mountain, for Bono’s sake.

Somehow, hours on, we reached base camp for the final climb. Fed up. Exhausted. This was too much. Knackered, but no enlightenment. No soaring of the shining soul at the sight of Clew Bay below.

We turned back while people twice our age struggled on towards the final leg. An older woman, wearing her ordinary sensible comfort shoes, picked her way by, slowly, the steadying arms of two younger relatives ready to assist her. On she went.

Yet I couldn’t because I didn’t really want to. I felt tears in my eyes. For her pain, her strength, her unshakeable faith. But what else? Jealousy, guilt, sadness?

The descent was terrifying. Slipping, tripping, painful on the knees. Brenda fell heavily, almost doing a front somersault. People rushed to help her as she lay, shocked, on the stones.

She sat, dazed, on a large rock. “Do you want a chocolate biscuit?” asked a woman.

I heard the masses drifting down from the summit. A bit like standing at the back of the church on Sunday. Halfway to heaven, maybe.

But for all the true camaraderie among strangers, the touching faith, the sense of community, the high spirits, I didn’t get Croagh Patrick. It was too dangerous and too difficult. No amount of chivvying from well-meaning souls could sway me.

Been there, nearly did it, don’t want the T-shirt.