Book review: Atlantic Tabor — The Pilgrims of Croagh Patrick

As Europe gets more secular, pilgrimages are enjoying a boom and are now said to rival their popularity during the Middle Ages. Frank MacGabhann considers the progress of pilgrims both home and abroad.

Patrick Claffey

Photographs: Tomasz Bereska, Tomasz Szustek

Liffey Press, €19.95

The Pilgrim Journey — A History of Pilgrimage in the Western World

James Harpur

Lion Books, €11.99

ON September 8, 1397, Catalan nobleman Raimon de Perrellos left the Pope’s palace in Avignon and set out on a pilgrimage to St Patrick’s Purgatory at Lough Derg with a retinue of other nobles. 

Such was the fame of Ireland as a pilgrimage destination that this group of Catalan nobles spent seven months travelling over the winter in order to spend a few days in Lough Derg.

Croagh Patrick, in County Mayo, has been a place of pilgrimage for over 2,000 years, even before Christianity came to these shores. 

This delightful book, Atlantic Tabor — The Pilgrims of Croagh Patrick, is a photographic essay about that mountain and place of pilgrimage, which the author of the text, Patrick Claffey, compares to Mt Tabor in Galilee where, the Gospels tell us, Jesus was transfigured and appeared with the prophets Moses and Elijah. Mount Tabor is also the title of a poem that Claffey has written about Croagh Patrick.

Claffey has written a very personal, yet erudite encounter with the stones and slopes of Croagh Patrick.

The photographs were taken by Tomasz Bereska and Tomasz Szustek, who are Polish and live in Ireland. About half of the photos are colour portraits, mostly of individuals all with walking stick or staff in hand. 

The other half are shot in black and white and are of the bleak scenery, or group shots, or action shots (to the extent that it can be said that action shots are possible on a pilgrimage!).

This reviewer confesses that he much prefers the black and white photos to the colour ones. Similarly with Rodin over Michelangelo — Michelangelo is too perfect while Rodin makes the onlooker “fill in the blanks”. 

I agree that the colour portraits themselves are incisive and excellent. But, in this reviewer’s opinion, there is more tension in Rodin’s sculptures and in the black and white photos.

After taking the reader through a tour of many other shrines and pilgrimages, we learn that St Patrick not only drove the venomous snakes from Ireland, but also the many demons prowling around here and, to my great surprise, the magicians! 

We also learn that many Christian pilgrimage sites and holy wells had been the object of pagan, Druidic worship, including, of course, Croagh Patrick.

In the 1840s, according to Thackeray, following the descent from the summit of the holy mountain there was whiskey, dancing and “lovemaking”!

Claffey has a very interesting chapter on Cardinal Paul Cullen of Dublin and Archbishop John MacHale of Tuam, polar opposites in theology and behaviour. 

Jansenist vs Celtic Christian — proponent of the new doctrine of papal infallibility v the opponent of it — metropolitan centralism v episcopal collegiality — Romeward looking v Irish nationalist. 

Although Claffey rightly states that MacHale spoke against the motion to accept papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council, he is incorrect when he states that MacHale voted against the motion. 

By absenting himself from the final vote in July 1870 (not 1869 as the author states) it is believed that he was, in effect, abstaining.

But he did not vote against it. In the end there were only two votes against, one an Irishman, Limerick-born Bishop Edward Fitzgerald of Little Rock in Arkansas!

In The Pilgrim Journey — A History of Pilgrimage in the Western World, the author, James Harpur, takes the reader on a very interesting historical tour of pilgrimages. 

He begins by speculating that pre-Christian pagan sites such as Newgrange, Stonehenge, Carnac and later the oracle at Delphi and others may have had some of the characteristics of later Christian pilgrimages. 

The year AD 312 is one of the key dates in European history as in that year the Roman Emperor Constantine legalised Christianity. 

By the time of Constantine’s death in AD 337 Christians were already entrenched in the Roman Empire’s “imperial establishment” gaining money and property.

The author believes that this gave rise to a counter-movement of the first recognisable pilgrims making journeys to primitive

monasteries founded by St Anthony of Egypt “in order to deepen their own spirituality”.

The first guide book for pilgrims to Rome appeared as early as the seventh century. 

The sale of relics of the martyrs became big business. Harpur refers to the “pardoner” in Chaucer’s wonderful The Canterbury Tales and his selling of pig’s bones as Christian relics to gullible pilgrims! One church in Normandy in the 12th century claimed to have an arm of Mary Magdalene!

Naturally, Palestine became the most important pilgrimage in the Early Middle Ages since Jesus had been buried there. That probably accelerated the international traffic in relics, especially that of the True Cross.

The fall of Jerusalem to the “Saracens”caused a steep decline in travel to the Holy Land. 

However, the slack was taken up by the emergence of local pilgrimages, such as Canterbury in England, Santiago de Compostela in Spain and Lough Derg in Donegal.

Surprisingly, Lough Derg is not mentioned in the book.

Inevitably, this book is a short history of Christianity as the history of pilgrimage is intimately connected with Christianity as it developed. 

There are interesting stories and vignettes about many people, including St Brendan, St Columbanus, St James of Spain, St Thomas à Becket, Martin Luther and King Henry VIII, who was particularly nasty to poor St Thomas à Becket, whom he declared “a rebel and a traitor” — only 350 years after his murder! 

"The Reformation dealt a severe blow to pilgrimages, not to mention indulgences! The author speculates that Protestants “would have turned to local herbalists and white witches for medicinal help”. 

Spa resorts, we are told, became more popular with Protestant invalids who, when cured, would leave their crutches behind at the spa!

The practice of making the “Grand Tour”in the 18th century, the author tells us, had many similarities to the medieval pilgrimage — the preparation, the excitement, the travelling, the fulfillment, not to mention the swindling, the insects and the danger of being robbed. 

And instead of kneeling at the shrine of St Thomas à Becket in Canterbury and making a donation, the Grand Tourist would stand and gaze at the sculpture of David by Michelangelo in Florence and buy a guidebook.

Finally, Harpur relates the stories of how the modern shrines came into being, especially Lourdes, Fatima and Knock and the reported apparitions of the Virgin Mary before commenting on the recent revival of pilgrimages to Iona, Glastonbury, Canterbury, Walsingham and Croagh Patrick.

It is perhaps a paradox that as Europe gets more secular, pilgrimages are enjoying a boom — the author believes that pilgrimages now rival their popularity during the Middle Ages. At first glance this is very surprising given the steep decline in church attendance over the last few decades. 

Or perhaps it may be something similar to what happened when people flocked to seek out hermits and monasteries as the Church became the part of the power structure in Constantine’s time.

People may be seeking out new ways of spirituality in the wake of the scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church. 

Many non-believers are now doing the Way to Santiago. Perhaps this searching reflects a deep-seated need within the human spirit.

Both believers and sceptics will enjoy reading this book as well, despite the author’s annoying affectation in departing from the standard ‘BC’ and ‘AD’ for dates.



Breaking Stories

Murder investigation launched into Amanda Carroll’s death

Councillor Ken O’Flynn calls for ‘We Are Cork’ branding spend refund

Cork County Council wants stiffer penalty for owners of derelict sites

HSE under fire over delays to care data

Breaking Stories

Whole world in their hands: Icons design globes in aid of GOAL

Nerina Pallot dancing to her own tune

Little-known plan could save you inheritance tax

Murder they wrote: Authors prepare for Ireland's first crime writing festival

More From The Irish Examiner