Bill Vernon

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NONFICTION

Skeptics on Patrick’s Stack

At the foot, although we could see only two hundred yards ahead, Laura said, “That’s not a mountain, just another big hill.” Our daughter, twelve years old and jaded already?

I smiled because, having seen “real” mountains on television and in movies, she’d said the same thing about mountains in West Virginia, driving through them last summer. It’d take a snow-capped County Mayo peak in July to drag an ooh or an aah from her.

“Hush,” said her mother Rosha. “Your Aunt Tess told me that from on top of the holy mountain we’d be able to see the village of Mulranny, and my mom’s old family home.”

“It looks too muddy to be a holy mountain,” Laura said. “It’s been raining for hours.”

Rosha glowered. “Are you trying to ruin our vacation?”

I said, “A three- or four-hour hike will be good exercise for a soccer player like you.”

Rosha said, “You’re part Irish. It’s your heritage, too.”

The girl said, “We don’t even have an umbrella in case it pours again.”

“God won’t let that happen,” I said, but gazing at the gray swirl above us, I added, “Maybe Laura has a point. We won’t be able to see much through the clouds.”

Guidebook in hand, Rosha stepped forward. “We won’t know that until we get there.”

***

Climbing Croagh Phadraig—St. Patrick’s Mountain, translated “Patrick’s Stack,” nicknamed “The Reek”—we were digging into legends. There was no question about doing it. We’d only been making noises, expressing anxieties, uncertainties, and confusions. Having heard endless stories and songs describing Ireland, we felt strange actually finding the place as solid and real as our backyard. Experiential facts were adjusting our imagination.

From the parking lot, we started with an undemanding climb to a starkly white, oversize statue of Patrick on a concrete pedestal, where we paused, sightseeing you might say. My tendency throughout this trip, and perhaps theirs, too, was to search for meaning in the obvious.

The wisps of clouds swirling down closer to us reminded me of spirits that were almost touchable if we jumped. The Saint’s image was familiar: bearded man, left hand holding a shepherd’s staff to the ground, while raising his right hand as if blessing his flock—a common pose of Christ in pictures and statues. The idea occurred to me that Patrick could as well be ordering snakes off the island, a story derived from the fact that no serpents, except perhaps the Satanic kind, were natives. You couldn’t blame Patrick for that. Snakes are, after all, much easier to deal with than demons.

Facing the uphill task remaining, I remembered how the passage to this point was easy, but also rocky, eroded, and wet. That meant that an uneven and slippery trail lay in our future. Was that a sign or a symbol? Both, I thought without telling my two companions.

From this point on, in fact, the increasing steepness of increasingly less stable surfaces for two hours of nearly constant movement demanded that we concentrate. Such an effort was primal and natural, familiar to all three of us because of our exercise routines, and it took us not only forward but also inside ourselves.

***

Rosha is my spelling of the Irish version of Rose. I call her that because being Irish was an important part of her identity. Though only half-Irish, she can blurt two Gaelic curses along with a few other common Irish exclamations. She couldn’t or wouldn’t tell me the meaning of the words though, but their emotional content was clear. She had also applied for and obtained an Irish passport as the daughter of an Irish mother, and she frequently wore Claddagh rings, often with a Celtic cross on a necklace or pin.

Despite never kissing the Blarney stone, she’d inherited a powerful gift of gab. Her talk could dominate conversations such as the three of us had had, motoring in a rental from Limerick to Croagh Patrick. As navigator reading maps, she directed us up the western coast of Erin, through the Burren in County Clare, and through Connemara, stopping wherever curiosity overwhelmed her. I supported her search for whatever she sought, questioned few of her orders, and trusted her intentions and judgment if not completely, at least 90 percent. I did not consider her voice a Banshee cry, predicting someone’s doom.

My main job was clearly defined: driving safely. I was acutely conscious that accidents happen. As pilot, I maneuvered cautiously, always keeping aware that the steering wheel was on the right and the car’s proper lane was on the left. I’d heard of several visitors slipping back into American habits over here and causing tragedy on the rather narrow roads.

Continuing our climb, we entered fog, which further locked us in, limiting our ability to see much around us. As perspiration began and breathing sped up, we took occasional rests. A bit of talk occurred then, mainly checking each other’s status, both physical and emotional. Hearing any doubts about reaching the top, Rosha reminded us that her father in his mid-seventies, in street shoes, suit, and overcoat, had accomplished it without a whimper.

Of course he could do that, I thought but didn’t say. A product of the depression, son of strict German immigrant parents, he’d done men’s work on farms in his childhood, sired the first of five children in his forties, then retired from carpentry in his seventies.

In contrast, during our first rest, Laura’s father (myself) said, “Who needs a drink?”

Both ladies said they did, and eagerly looked at me.

I smiled as if teaching a sad lesson, “I ain’t got none. We should’ve bought water bottles in that restaurant by the parking lot. As I suggested, remember?”

Rosha muttered what sounded like an Irish cuss word. Laura jabbed my nearer shoulder with a boney fist.

In the parking lot at the time, Rosha had diverted our attention from future thirst by saying, “We’ve just missed the annual pilgrimage. It’s on the last Sunday of July. This sign tells how they climb Croagh Patrick in a devotional manner. Too bad. That might’ve been fun.”

Laura said, “It doesn’t sound like fun to me. Praying all the way? Going barefoot?”

I listened while Rosha recited, not the rosary as she might have done were we pious, but other facts from her reading: particulars like the hill’s 2500-foot height, the average number of pilgrims, their stations of the cross, and the “booths” where pilgrims might quench their thirst with a pint of Guinness.

Hearing this last comment, I’d interrupted. “In fact, I have one can of that holy water, but it’s for the end of our journey.”

***

It was a whitish trail that led us up through the clouds, and the little we could see of the land around us seemed desert-like, without trees or many bushes. Patches of green were gorse and grass, but no shamrocks. Clear-cutting and erosion must have denuded the hillsides.

Rocks made avoiding mud easy, paving our way. But despite centuries of feet stamping them down, they were unlevel, unstable, unpredictably wet, irregularly shaped and sized.

“Be careful,” I said. “When you tire, bad decisions can hurt you. Don’t rush.”

Who could rush? With the difficult footing, the clouds thickened and their clamminess increased. Our pace slowed but exertions grew as the climb steepened. Pious pilgrims would have no doubt gone onto their knees to thank the Lord for these opportunities to suffer and gain grace. Laura and I focused on Rosha, who exercised less than we did. When boulders tempted her to sit, we coaxed her on with words of wisdom like, Look at this as a good workout.

But where was the top? Believing it was near, I clawed on all fours across a long, exceptionally steep area buried beneath a jumble of fist-size stones. Each step forward I seemed to slip a half-step back. I panted, stopped often to catch my breath, and at last tripped onto level ground. There I gasped for several minutes before looking back down the hill.

Laura appeared, took my hand, and stumbled up beside me.

“Way to go,” I said.

She looked back. “Where’s Mom?”

I pointed downhill.

Rosha was a dark shadow in the mist. We waved and yelled but she didn’t glance at us. When her slow pace let her gradually solidify near us, we grabbed her arms and pulled her up.

She leaned against me and uttered something garbled. Her breathing slowed, she jerked her arms from my grip, panted, and finally said clearly, “Drink. Drink.”

I swept an arm around to indicate the summit. “Here’s what you wanted to see.”

“Not funny!” Rosha began pawing the jacket I’d sleeve-tied around my waist.

I knew what she wanted and jumped out of her reach.

She frowned. “The beer! You didn’t drink it already?”

“You mean the Guinness you don’t like?” But I took the can from my trousers’ back pocket. This was all we had to drink, and there at the summit we imbibed—mama, daughter, then me. Our communion, swallowing a quaff appropriate for St. Patrick’s mountain in Ireland.

Rosha wiped her mouth with a hanky. “Thoughts of drinking that kept me going. If it was gone before I got any, I’d have cried.”

Laura said, “It tastes awful, but at least it’s wet.”

***

We sat and took a few minutes to more fully recover. We should have photographed ourselves but didn’t. The displaced persons from Ohio had been too tired to think of it.

Rosha shook her head. “We went through a lot to get here, but we see only fog.”

I said, “We were idiots, hiking up here unprepared. We should have brought water, a snack, umbrella or slicker, and worn heavy shoes.” We were all guilty of being innocent.

I think we all felt exhilaration, walking in clouds, taking stock of what was here: a patch of rocks laid out in the large rectangle, which I’d guessed from a distance might be a flower bed. A sign marked it as Saint Patrick’s grave though that seemed untrue. He’d been in Ireland 1500 years ago. Also, there were a large conical pile of rocks, a cairn, and a white-washed chapel.

We filed into the building and sat in a pew. The interior was so cool, I put on my jacket. The wood seats were so soft, I closed my eyes and stretched out my legs.

Rosha nudged me. “While we’re here, we should say a prayer.”

So, we prayed instead of napping. Rosha led us making the sign of the cross, saying the Our Father and Hail Mary, and crossing ourselves again, which made me think of magicians waving a wand.

Then, from the dim interior of the chapel we emerged into bright sunlight. We squinted, adjusting, very surprised. The clouds had broken into irregular puffs of what I was tempted to call the Lord’s breath. The country spread out below us, and on the north side was the ocean. This change in our vista might not have been miraculous, but it felt as if it were.

Atop the third highest peak in County Mayo, I saw that our road near ocean level passed through land as green as the legend, and that ashy stone walls striped the green into squares like a tartan pattern. In Clew Bay, irregularly shaped little islands in the sunlight resembled green and brown polished gems lying on blue velvet. During low tides, Rosha’s grandparents and some of her mother’s siblings had driven their cattle onto one of those close-to-shore islets, supplementing the family pastures.

The concentration of buildings to the east had to be Newport, so north of it somewhere was Rosha’s mother’s home. Farther north around the bay, according to what relatives had told us, the white shoreline marked the hamlet of Mulranny. South of it was the Cusack children’s old schoolhouse in Rosgalive. A photograph of Rosha’s barefoot mother there, with classmates about Laura’s age, suggested a poverty beyond our knowledge. Near Rosgalive, Rosha’s grandmother raised fifteen children in a stone building the size of a two-car garage. All those were tomorrow’s destinations.

The sun stayed with us descending and illuminated much of what we’d missed climbing. It flared off the surfaces, suggesting a land rich in mystery, laden with what had happened there before us, and I caught myself believing that St. Patrick could in reality, as well as in legend, have fasted forty days and nights on those heights where we’d been.


Bill Vernon studied English literature, then taught it. Writing is his therapy, along with exercising outdoors and doing international folk dances. His poetry, fiction and nonfiction occasionally appear in journals and anthologies, and Five Star Mysteries published his novel OLD TOWN.


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Photo Credit: “ST. PATRICK SAYS GOODBYE” by johanvanbetsbrugge.

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