Folklore from the Foot of The Reek

These stories were collected from locals in 1938-39 and memorialized in a book by Catriona Hastings entitled “Ag Bun na Cruaiche” – Folklore and Folklife from the Foot of Croagh Patrick. Many of these stories focus on the two villages that reside at the foot of the mountain – Murrisk and Lecanvey.

The Reek - January 20th, 2016

Dawn near the Reek – Looking from Lecanvey Pier towards Murrisk Village – January 20th, 2016

Murrisk Village

Murrisk Village is situated beside the sea, about six miles west of Westport – ‘muir’ meaning the sea, and ‘uisge’ the water.  It is at the foot of Croagh Patrick or ‘Cruach Padraig’ – the Hill of Patrick, where Saint Patrick was said to have spent forty days and nights fasting on the summit. Before Saint Patrick, it was known as ‘Cruachan Aigle’ or Eagles Mountain, at which time most of it was said to have been covered by woods. The small road leading to the mountain is called ‘Bothar na Mios’, or the road of the dishes. This is apparently because people used to cook food nearby before climbing the Reek.  To the northeast of Murrisk, the sea comes in, in some places, and forms deep holes in the land. This place is known as ‘Murrisk na bPoll’ or Murrisk of the holes. To the west of the village is a place called ‘Cathair na Ranna’ (now known as Cahernaran Island) where there was once said to be a fort built by a chieftain named ‘Rann’, but that has vanished without a trace.

Looking towards Croagh Patrick around 1900 (Robert French, 1841-1917 photographer)

Looking towards Croagh Patrick around 1900 (Robert French, 1841-1917 photographer)

Clew Bay itself was called ‘Cuan Modh’. There is much mystery about how it got its name, but according to local legend a tribal chieftain named Aengus built a fort on one of the islands that was known as ‘Inis Modh’. Creag Bui, Sidh Rua and Creagan Ard are big hills around Croagh Patrick. Sidh Rua is so called because there is supposed to be a fairy living there.

According to local farmer Michael Gavin, “there is the ruin of an old abbey where Augustinian monks lived long ago. Grainne Uaile, the Sea Queen of the West, was baptised in Murrisk Abbey. There is a place called Log na nDeamhan (Serpents’ Hollow) at the foot of Croagh Patrick, where Patrick is said to have banished the snakes long ago”.

Lecanvey Village

Lecanvey is situated at the foot of the Reek on the western side, about two miles from Murrisk. The name Lecanvey means ‘Flag of the Storm’ – ‘Leac an Anfaidh’. It is said to merit the name due to the Atlantic storms that typically occur during the months of December and January. There are said to be many local stories of fairy forts and ‘pisreoga’ or superstition among the older villagers. For example, “if you see a white horse and if you wet your finger with spittle and rub it on your heel, you’ll have good luck”, or “if you are going to play cards and you walk three times under a briar, you’ll be lucky”, or “if someone dies in the house, stop the clock and chase out the cat”.

The oldest type of dwelling which is remembered to exist in the area was a small house made of sods. The roof was also made of sods and beams of bog deal were laid across under the sods as a means of support for the roof. The roof was thatched with rushes or sedges to keep the sods from getting wet. There was a hole in the centre of the roof which supplied the place of a chimney. This type of chimney was plastered with clay. These types of dwelling went by the name of bothain. There was only one room in these houses and this had to suffice as a bedroom as well as a cooking and eating area.

Looking west from Lecanvey Pier towards Old Head

Looking west from Lecanvey Pier towards Old Head at sunset

According to the locals, the sea at Lecanvey is a great indicator of the weather. When the sea is green it is a sign of bad weather. When it is dark and rough, a storm is brewing. A blue sea, tranquil and calm, indicates a spell of fine weather. When the Reek appears near, it is a sign of bad weather. A dense fog on the Reek, with a west wind, foretells rain. When the haze leaves the top and rests on the base of the mountain, fine weather is expected. When the dust rises in clouds from the roadway, rains will follow. The bat foretells of fine weather when he flies about in the dusk or twilight. When the cattle or annoyed by the cuileoga (horse flies), it foretells of great heat. When the flies gather thickly on the window panes, especially after cold weather, it is a sign that sign weather is at hand. Beware the southeast wind at Lecanvey – it tells of a coming storm.

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Everest Sherpas on Croagh Patrick

On Sunday, January 3rd 2016, Sherpa Mingma Tsiri – a man who has climbed Mount Everest 19 times and and is the first Nepalese to summit K2 – and his brother Pasang climbed Croagh Patrick as part of an effort to develop closer ties with Ireland and promote tourism in Nepal, a country that has suffered greatly since the earthquake in April 2015 that killed over 8,000 people.

Mingma Tsiri and the author on the should of Croagh Patrick

Mingma Tsiri and the author on the shoulder of Croagh Patrick

Mingma was at Everest Base Camp when the earthquake triggered an avalanche that killed nineteen people. In a talk given at Outback Jacks in Galway two days after his hike up Croagh Patrick, Mingma explained that if the earthquake had struck during the night, the sixty people rescued at base camp after being buried beneath the snow might not have survived.

Mingma Sherpa

The Reek attracts one of the world’s top mountaineers

Mingma’s brother Pasang, who himself has climbed Everest nine times (the family holds the Guinness World Record for most siblings to have climbed Mount Everest – a total of 56 ascents between seven brothers) explained how his father was employed by the first expedition to successfully climb Everest in 1953. His job was to collect from and deliver mail to Edmund Hillary and other climbers at base camp by running to and from Lukla – a distance of 38 miles each way.

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Trekking party in the Everest region of Nepal

Sherpas are an ethnic group from the most mountainous region of Nepal. ‘Sherpa’ is now used as a generic name by many westerners to describe mountain guides from the Everest region. Being born at an altitude of 4,100 metres (13,400 feet), Sherpas like Mingma Tsiri and Pasang are at home in places where most people would experience symptoms of altitude sickness.

Sherpa Mingma

Sherpas and Irishman Cian O’Brolchain en route to the summit

Pasang also spoke about the difficulty of rebuilding his own village, which was destroyed and is still without electricity nine months after the disaster. Despite this situation, he believes that Nepal is recovering quickly and that anyone interested in trekking or even climbing there should consider 2016 as a great year to visit.

Exploring the Islands of Clew Bay

Croagh Patrick and Clare Island are the two most recognizable icons in the Clew Bay area. It is said that there is an island for every day of the year in the bay. Of course, much depends upon the definition of ‘island’, but even at high tide there are certainly more than one hundred distinctive pieces of land – drumlins – surrounded by water within the confines of Clew Bay. There are at least twice as many rock outcrops and drowned drumlins beneath the Atlantic waves.

Looking west at sunset towards Old Head, with Clare Island (left of centre), whose 1500 foot peak Knockmore is topped by a cloud

Looking west at sunset towards Old Head, with Clare Island (left of centre), whose 1500 foot peak Knockmore is topped by a cloud

A little known fact is that several of the islands of Clew Bay are accessible by foot at low tide. However, there are a few very important caveats to keep in mind should any of the hikes described below be attempted. First and foremost, check the tide tables. Never attempt to reach the islands when the tide is coming in. Sea levels can rise over ten feet in Clew Bay on a ‘normal’ day. Secondly, do not set off for the islands in bad weather or if poor weather is forecast, Squalls on Clew Bay can be sudden and dangerous, and hurricane force wind gusts are common, especially in winter. Thirdly, keep to the shoreline of the islands, do not trespass on the fields. Although the vast majority are now uninhabited, most of the islands are leased by local farmers as grazing land for sheep, and sometimes cattle.

Islands around the entrance to Westport Bay

Islands around the entrance to Westport Bay, including the bird-like shape of Dorinish (commonly called ‘John Lennon’s Island’) middle left, and Inish Gort (top centre, home of the only working lighthouse in the bay), as viewed from Croagh Patrick

Most of the large outer islands are inaccessible other than by boat, while those in the shallower waters of Westport and Newport Bays may be reached by foot at low tide. Of course, these include islands that have been connected to the mainland by a causeway or bridge, such as Rossmore, Inishnakillew and Inishcottle, but also islands that on first glance appear to be far out in the bay.

One such island is Collan More, which is the largest mass of offshore land in the area, apart from Clare Island.

Collan More Island, with Collan Beg on the western tip, Inish Lyre to the south, and Inish Gort beyond Collan Beg, and Island More to the north west

Collan More Island, with Collan Beg on the western tip, Inish Lyre to the south, Clynish to the north, and Inish Gort beyond Collan Beg, and Island More to the north west (connected to Inish Gort by a bar)

Collan More (Collainn Mhór – formerly Cuileann or Holly Island. Mhór – big) is an inhabited island situated in Newport Bay, just northwest of Rosmoney Pier. It can also be seen from the mainland at Roscahill, about nine kilometres from Westport (left off the N59 after about five kilometres and about three kilometres west).

Looking south to Croagh Patrick from Collan More

Looking south to Croagh Patrick from Collan More. Collan Beg is in the foreground, with Inish Lyre behind it.

Collan More was inhabited by 218 people in 1841. In 1911, it included Collanmore National School and nine private dwellings occupied by forty people. By 2006, there were just eighteen inhabitants and the school had closed.

Looking towards the mainland from Collan More

Looking towards the mainland from Collan More. At low tide, this lengthy walk across Carrigeenglas South is possible, although wellington boots are recommended for the swampy shallows, as well as a close eye on the tidal clock.

Collan More is a long island, stretching from west to east. At its westernmost end is the island of Collan Beg. This too is reachable at low tide, across a narrow channel. Allow at least an hour to walk from the mainland to the western tip of Collan Beg. A stone’s throw away is the island of Inish Gort, home of the only working lighthouse in the area, and the entrance to Westport Bay. At this stage, you are at the most westerly point possible for a hiker in Clew Bay.

Looking north to the inhabited Clynish island from Collan More

Looking north to the inhabited Clynish island from Collan More

Looking across the channel from Collan Beg to Inish Gort, which currently has one inhabitant. The working lighthouse is hidden behind the hill.

Looking west from Collan Beg to Inish Gort, which currently has one inhabitant. The working lighthouse is hidden behind the hill.

Looking west from Collan More towards Clare Island, with the bar between Inish Gort and Island More clearly visible

Looking west from Collan Beg towards Clare Island, with the bar between Inish Gort and Island More clearly visible at low tide

Looking north from Collan Beg to the now uninhabited Island More, apart from a summer home for adventurous tourists

Looking northwest from Collan Beg to the now uninhabited Island More, apart from a summer home for adventurous tourists

Sheep gathered on Collan Beg

Sheep flock on Collan Beg just before a winter squall

The Rolling Sun Spectacle

The Rolling Sun - GIF image courtesy of Ken Williams

The Rolling Sun – GIF image courtesy of Ken Williams

Every year on April 18th and August 24th – on a clear day – a phenomenon known as the ‘Rolling Sun’ occurs when Croagh Patrick is viewed from the ancient stone at Boheh. This spectacle involves the sun tracing the western edge of the north face as though it is ‘rolling’ down the mountain. The two dates on which this occurs may be combined with the date of the winter solstice to split the year into three more or less equal parts. This may correspond to the sowing and reaping cycles even in contemporary civilizations. However, the significance attached to it by ancient civilization may never be fully understood.

The Boheh Stone

The Boheh Stone

Experts believe that the theory of crop production related to the Boheh stone and wonder about the relationship between the setting sun, the triangle of the mountain and the decorations found even today on the Boheh.

Looking east towards the Boheh Stone from near the summit

Looking east towards the Boheh Stone from near the summit

As Gerry Bracken, who first identified the ‘rolling sun’ phenomenon, points out, the Boheh Stone is an unremarkable mass of fractured rock that probably only escaped demolition because of its association with Saint Patrick (it is on the Tochar Phadraig trail that runs from Ballintubber Abbey to Croagh Patrick). On closer examination, archaeologists noted that the rock designs predated Patrick by at least two thousand years.

Patrick’s Causeway – from The Battlements to Coill an Bhaile

Tóchar Phádraig, or Patrick’s Causeway, is an ancient route that begins at the 13th century Ballintubber Abbey and finishes some 20 miles away, on Croagh Patrick. It is actually part of a long lost route from Rathcroghan, formerly the seat of the high kings of Connaught, in County Roscommon to what was then Cruáchan Aigle, the pagan name for the Reek. It is known as a ’causeway’ because it was originally built to carry heavy traffic, such as horse-drawn ‘chariots’, across the boggy terrain.

Looking west from the Causeway

Looking west from the Causeway – December 17th 2015

The route from Ballintubber Abbey to the Reek crosses no less than 113 stiles. In winter, the Tóchar can be a difficult hike, and waterproof footwear is a must. On a dark December day, I joined the trail at Stile 36, in an area known as ‘The Battlement’. Here the Aille River was in full flood as it rushed past the ruined Killawullaun Mill.

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Killawullaun Mill failed as a result of an argument between Lord Avonmore and another landowner over use of the Aille River

During penal times (when a series of laws were imposed in an attempt to force Irish Roman Catholics and Protestant dissenters to accept a reformed denomination as defined by the Anglican Church), a man who became known as Sean na Sagart was employed to hunt priests in the area. Despite the best efforts of the locals to protect the priests, this man enjoyed some success before he himself was stabbed to death. The trail passed close to a lake known as Lough na gCeann – Lake of the Heads – where it is said that Sean disposed of his victims heads after claiming his reward.

After weeks of rain, the trail was extremely boggy. Several times I sank up to the tops of my boots. Fortunately, the landowners had allowed the trail pioneers to maintain small bridges across some of the swollen streams.

Bridges have been built across deep streams

Bridges have been built across deep streams

I followed the Aille River for about a mile, crossing several more stiles, before coming to a place named Teampleshaunaglasha, the ruins of a church that was abandoned in 1562. It is believed that the ‘Shaun’ in the name was a hermit who lived in this place in later years. The ruins were surrounded by a killeen – a unbaptized infants graveyard – and other graves from the famine years. There are several legends associated with this place, particularly those involving the terrible fate of individuals who removed stones or artifacts from the old church.

Teampleshaunaglasha Church

Teampleshaunaglasha Church

A bohreen (little road) at Stile 46 then led through overhanging trees to the remains of a famine village that once housed 26 families. A legend tells of a mysterious woman who visited at night to leave food for the starving inhabitants.

The remains of a famine village

The remains of the famine village are now part of a farm

Large slabs of limestone became visible as the Aille River emerged from its underground course at Stile 50. Potholers have measured the underground course of the river at Pollflanagan to a depth of 112 feet, where they reported the existence of fish with no eyes. Nearby is another cave known as Pollhondra, where a man named Hondra is said to have hidden after he killed his wife. It seemed that there was a tragic story at every turn of this route.

Limestone flags on the Aille River

Limestone flags on the Aille River

To be continued – from Coill an Bhaile to Aughagower…

First Snow

The first snow since March fell on the Reek last night. We took the ‘normal’ pilgrims route up the mountain from Murrisk in order to take a closer look.

The Approach to the Northeast Face

The Approach to the Northeast Face

Conditions were quite calm on the lower slopes, with the snow really starting to accumulate about halfway to the shoulder. Once into the clouds, however, it was quite a different story. As we approached the first station at about 1700 feet, a strong north wind was blowing. This was to become a gale higher up the mountain.

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Not many ventured beyond the shoulder

There was evidence that at least one person, armed with a ski pole – an good idea even in fine weather, had been up and down the mountain earlier in the day.

The First Station looms out of the mist

The First Station looms out of the mist

By the time we reached the base of the summit cone, the snow drifts were up to three feet deep in places due to a powerful north wind. Now the going started to get difficult, with ice forming on the exposed rocks.

The path to the summit was more challenging than usual

The path to the summit was more challenging than usual

Approaching the summit, we were surprised to see a shadowy form emerge from the mists to my right and stagger off down the mountain. Realizing that the person was on a route that led towards the steep north east face, I shouted a warning that was lost in the gale.

There wasn't much shelter to be found

There wasn’t much shelter to be found

Despite relying on sturdy hiking boots, we realized that the surface rocks on the summit cone were going to be a challenge, as they were sliding even more easily than usual. So it was a case of two steps up and one step back for a while.

Descending from the summit, it was obvious how easy it would be to veer off the normal path, as everything basically looked the same, with snow-filled gullies left and right. With the wind howling, the temperature change above the shoulder was dramatic. Even wearing a woolen hat and anorak hood, I could feel my ears acknowledging the sub zero wind chill.

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Some climbers were dressed for the weather

Back on the shoulder, two more people came walking along the ridge. They were well kitted out for the challenge, with poles, gaiters and Goretex clothing. However, the next group of individuals were ascending with ordinary shoes, no hats and thin jackets. They confirmed that they were heading for the top.

“How is it up there?” one asked, at the same time offering 20 Euros if I would give him a ‘lift’ to the summit.

“It’s a bit dodgy,” I replied. “You need to stay well to the left and watch out for the deeper drifts.”

“That’s fine,” he said. “We’re a dodgy crowd at the best of times.”

The drifts were up to three feet deep in places

The drifts were up to three feet deep in places

We wished them good luck and realized that it would be a challenge for most of us to get off the mountain and home to a warm fire without a few unplanned excursions on the slippery way down.

I was relieved to see the entire vista of Clew Bay again

It was calm on the lower slopes

The difficulties of this climb reminded me that despite its proximity to civilization and a warm bowl of soup in Campbells pub, Croagh Patrick is not a mountain to be taken lightly, especially when conditions can deteriorate without warning on higher ground. Once back in the car park, I used my binoculars to scan the visible parts of the northeast face for any sign of the climber who had taken the wrong path, and was relieved to see him traversing across to the main route.

Anyone planning to scale the Reek after a fresh fall of snow would do well to prepare for difficult conditions on the summit cone – strong hiking boots are essential, along with waterproof trousers and several layers of clothing, including gloves and warm headgear. Despite the well-worn path, it is important to be vigilant on the descent and not be lured into one of several gullies that sweep to the left of the mountain. The northeast face can be treacherous, even in summer. Bring extra food and a flask, and even a compass – better safe than sorry!