Walk of the week: Mamean Connemara Co Galway
'I always felt close to Máméan," observed Fr. Micheál McGreal down the crackly phone line from Mayo. "My grandparents had their sheep on Binn Mhairg, and I'd spend my summer holidays with them as a child in the 30s and 40s. So I always loved that place."
I'd called Fr. McGreal as soon as I'd got home from Connemara after walking over Máméan, the Pass of the Birds. Who wouldn't be enthused to bursting by this peach of an expedition through the wild and lovely Maumturk Mountains? It was my walking companion on the day, Tom Fitzgerald -- a Kerryman by birth, but a Co Galway resident these 30 years -- who told me, as we climbed the stony path to the pass, of the priest and his revival of a famous, perhaps infamous, pilgrimage.
The 12 Bens of Connemara stood high and handsome behind us across the Inagh Valley, Bencorr in front, with Beanna Beola and Benbaun peeping over her shoulders. Ahead, the slopes of Binn Mhór and Binn Mhairg cradled the rising path, their quartzite rock glinting dully as cloud shadows brushed through, now gleaming dazzlingly as sunlight struck across.
Up at the pass stood a tiny chapel, an altar and the cave-like recess called St Patrick's Bed. A statue of the saint brooded over the path, a sheep at his heels. Had the good shepherd Patrick once walked these slopes, blessed the holy well nearby and slept in the cave? Many down the centuries thought and felt that he had, and they forged a pilgrim path to the pass, with its breathtaking views over the Inagh and Maam valleys.
Three or four decades ago, as Tom Fitzgerald told the story, the pilgrimage had all but died out, partly owing to the hostility of the clergy towards the pilgrims' indulgence in poitín, partly to competition from Reek Sunday -- the Máméan pilgrimage shared the last Sunday in July with the hugely popular gathering at Croagh Patrick only 30 miles away. Then Fr. McGreal took a hand, as he himself recounts: "I had a youth organisation camp up there one day, a terrible wet day. I said Mass under an umbrella, and thought to myself, 'This could go on from here!' So I got formal permission to say another Mass up there. Afterwards, the people pushed a whole lot of money over the rock at me -- I didn't want it, but they insisted. So we built an altar with it. I wanted to put a strong Christian message on the place, without interfering with all the pre-Christian wells and stones and the other sacred sites there."
The other component parts of the site followed over the years: Stations of the Cross, a small chapel, the statue of St Patrick with the sheep, stained-glass windows for the chapel; all built or contributed by local people. Wandering round the Stations and the penitential beds of pebbles, dipping at the holy well, savouring the mighty rushing wind and the never-ending Connemara march of pelting showers, sunbursts and rainbows, one catches the power and pull of this high place.
Tom and I upped anchors eventually and went on down the northern side of the pass, with one of Tom's extra special, homemade blackberry and apple pies -- the promised prize at the end of the walk. It was a magically beautiful descent with the Maam Valley stretched out at our feet, and a farmer and his dogs gathering sheep on the green slopes of Binn Mhairg, as young Micheál McGreal helped his grandfather do some 70 years ago.
"As long as I am a priest," says Fr. McGreal, with quiet determination, "I'll say Mass at Máméan once a year. It's a remarkable experience. Nearly 1,000 people can be up there. I like it when they pray in total silence -- but you have to be very tolerant of the way people worship their God!
"When they are all quiet, it's beautiful, even in the wind, the fog and mist -- just beautiful."