By Patrick O’Sullivan
According to the writer Michael John Murphy, there are three things which one should do every year: listen to a storyteller at a fireside, give a hand with the gathering of the harvest and climb an Irish mountain.
My mother was born in the valley of Claodach, Gleann na Claoidi, not far from the borders of Cork and Kerry, the legendary peaks of Dá Chích Anann looking down from their places on high. The mountains were dedicated to Danu, the mother of all the gods, especially identified as she was with the province of Munster, its land and its fertility. Danu is described as the mother goddess in Cormac’s Glossary, while another ancient text Coir Anmann has her as the goddess of Munter’s prosperity.
She gave her name to the Tuatha De Danann, the mythical race involved in the fifth invasion of Ireland in a sequence of six.
They came from the northern islands of the world, and were skilled in the arts of druidry and magic.
When they were eventually defeated by the next wave of invaders, the Sons of Mil, they did not disappear entirely but rather retreated into the hills and fairy regions, thus maintaining their association with the landscape; an association given its most vivid expression of all in the identification of the mother goddess with her fabled mountains in Kerry.
My mother was reared in an old two-story house set on an incline overlooking the river and the glen below. She had vivid memories of people stopping at the door as they made their way up to climb the legendary peaks. Sometimes they were given a glass of water or maybe a mug of buttermilk.
Across the river stood the Lodge, an old Victorian house, which belonged to the Lesson-Marshals who used it as a kind of retreat at different times of the year. It was a familiar thing to see the owners of the Lodge and their guests make their way up the mountains too, the music of the river ever and always filling the valley with sound. The fragrance of heather and gorse wafted near and far in summertime, the rowan berries deepening and reddening as the year grew older again.
Mountains were not the only features of the landscape associated with ancient deities. The goddess Boann was the presiding deity of the river Boyne for instance. It is no great wonder I suppose that our ancestors identified their gods and goddesses with such wild and beautiful places, a beauty that surely seemed to them like an expression of the ethereal and the divine.
I thought of all of this again when I saw a programme on television about Mount Kailash, a sacred mountain in Tibet. Here the gods are said to gather at regular intervals, the mountain passes strewn with hundreds, if not thousands, of prayer flags. The flags, inscribed with age-old mantras and prayers come in different colours: blue for the sky, white for the clouds, yellow for the earth and green for the seas, layers and layers of them strung together and left to flutter in the wind.
A favourite motif is that of the Wind Horse the latter carrying the Wish-Fulfilling Jewel of Enlightenment. It is said that the Wind Horse combines the speed of the wind with the strength of the horse to carry the prayers of the pilgrims from earth to heaven. He represents uplifting energy and good fortune, as well as opportunities to do good in life.
No great wonder then that the presenter of the programme, a young man in his twenties, revealed that most of his prayers were for those who could not make the climb. The sacred mountain may not be the highest in the region but the altitude still means that there is half the oxygen normally found at sea level.
The climbing of Mount Brandon in honour of St Brendan, and of Croagh Patrick, in honour of St Patrick, ae just two examples of mountain pilgrimages from Irish Christian tradition. According to the old saying ‘the people will meet but the hills and the mountains never.’ Maybe we take them for granted sometimes, the lofty peaks that are such an integral part of the Irish countryside.
Still what could be lovelier than the sun rising yellow and golden beyond some towering ridge at the very first of morning, the woolliness of sheep sometimes softening the hard angular lines of the folds themselves.
Charles Gavan Duffy had the right idea when he wrote:
‘God bless the gray mountains of dark Donegal,
God bless royal Aileach, the pride of the them all;
For she sits evermore like a queen on her throne,
And smiles on the valleys of Green Inishowen.’
It would do no harm if we followed his lead now and then, rejoicing as he did in the awe-inspiring beauty of the peaks that touch the sky.