Croagh Patrick

Asenath Nicholson
Chapter XXV (14) | Start of Chapter

I was now in the vicinity of the celebrated mountain, where we are told St. Patrick stood, when he banished the venomous serpents from the island. Its lofty sharp peak, at a distance, towering to the skies, looked as if it could scarcely afford breadth for more than one foot at a time. But here we are told the holy saint stood, and here we are shown the prints of his knees where he prayed. Here, too, is an altar for worship, and here the inhabitants of the adjacent parishes assemble yearly, at an early hour, on the last Friday in July, to perform what they call stations. Multitudes are seen climbing the difficult and dangerous ascent, from the town of Westport, to mingle with fellow pilgrims from other parts; to go nine times around a pile of stones, call their sins to remembrance, ask forgiveness, and promise better lives in future. A sprightly young girl I had met on the path offered to accompany me at an early hour to the mountain. I called at her door and knocked; the girl was asleep, and I passed on. A country school-master soon accosted me, and learning who I was, walked a mile with me, to give a history of his school and country. Like most country school-teachers, he had become acquainted with the hearths of all the domestic domiciles in his parish; and to appearance he could rival Goldsmith's controversialist:—

"For e'en though vanquished, he could argue still."

He told me it would be presumptuous to attempt the ascent of the mountain alone, and begged me not to think of it. "You will be lost, and never find your way; and should any accident befal you, no one could know it, and you would perish alone." This was all good sense, and I was more than mad that I did not heed it. Reaching the foot of the mountain, a cabin woman met me, and offered her bright lad as a guide, for any trifle that the lady might plase to give. I offered as a trial two pence half-penny, for I did not intend taking a guide if possible to avoid it. "Oh, he shall not go for that; but as you are a lone solitary cratur, he shall go chaper than he ever did, and that's for a six-pence." I happily got rid of the annoyance in this way, and heard, after passing the door, "She'll be destroyed." I went on, and inquired of another the best path. A man answered, "And do ye think ye could reach the top alone? no mortal bein' could do it. But one man ever did it, and then declared he wouldn't do the like again for all the parish. But I have as sprightly a little gal as is in all the country, who will show ye every inch." I made the same offer as to the woman, and received the same answer, and I found him willing to run the risk of having me killed, which he assured me must be the case, rather than lend me a guide for a trifle. I mention these two cases, as the only ones I now recollect in all Ireland, who refused me a favor for a small equivalent.

It was now two o'clock: three Irish miles from the main road was the top of the mountain said to be. I looked up, the sun was shining, the air was breezy, my strength and spirits were good, and why should I hesitate, when I had so many times in Ireland done more out-of-the-way "impossibilities?" I went on, but soon was lost in miry bog, and intricate windings of deceitful paths, for two hours. At last I lost a beautiful Testament, which had been my companion for many a mile; and when looking for that, a man called out, "Ye ar'n't thinkin' ye can go up the mountain tonight? Darkness 'll be on ye before ye reach the top, and ye'll perish there. Go home, and some long day bring a friend with ye. Ye're out of the path; the fowls might pick yer bones upon this mountain, and not a h'porth be haird about it." This looked a little discouraging, and I sat down to consider. I looked up at the dizzy height above, then at the sun; thought what a prospect I should have at the top, of the beautiful islands, the sea, and the lakes under my feet; and I made the fruitless effort to find the path. It was a fearful undertaking, and I record it not as a proof of valor or wisdom; it was the height of folly, if not recklessness. By crawling and pulling, a little was gained, till a-head I saw a white track, taking a circuitous route around a smaller mountain, which was to lead to the great one in view. I reached it and sat down; the prospect here was beautiful, was grand. I solaced my eyes, and endeavored to make up my mind that this would answer without proceeding. But this could not satisfy me. I was in Ireland, on the side of one of its loftiest and most celebrated mountains, and though a dangerous ascent, yet younger and older feet had reached the top, and what others had done I could do. But I was alone, and the hour was late. What if some joint should be dislocated, or I should stumble and go headlong? I might suffer days, and die at last unheeded. "I will go a few yards more and then stop." The few yards were attained. I sat down and said, "Am I tempting my Maker?" A little refreshed, and another point was gained, till a dizzy and almost perpendicular steep, with white round stones for a path—which had been washed by water till a channel was formed, in which lay these stones—was my only road. I made a desperate effort, crawling and holding by the heath where I could, till almost exhausted, I ventured to look again, and saw a large pile of stones upon the top, and knew they must be the stations around which the devotees performed their penances. Another effort, and my feet stood upon the grand pinnacle.

Ireland’s Welome to the Stranger is one of the best accounts of Irish social conditions, customs, quirks and habits that you could wish for. The author, Mrs Asenath Nicholson, was an American widow who travelled extensively in Ireland on the eve of the Great Famine and meticulously observed the Irish peasantry at work and play, as well as noting their living conditions and diet. The book is also available from Kindle.