The Hills of Mourne. The Cliffs of Doneen. The Fields of Athenry. Galway Bay. So many songs you hear in Ireland are about a place. Over the summer, I was in a country pub that straddles the border of County Mayo and County Galway. An elderly man began to sing a song which I had never heard before, but everyone else in the pub knew it well, for when it came to the chorus, they all sang with considerable gusto and great nods of their heads:
For these are my mountains and this is my glen.
Croagh Patrick, which rises 725 meters above sea level, is a holy mountain overlooking Clew Bay in County Mayo. There are two trails to the summit, where pilgrims can visit a small oratory to pray and light a candle. I was recently on the west slope trail, a much less-used trail than the one on the north slope which draws over 25,000 pilgrims a year. My companion and I prefer the west slope trail for a number of reasons, the most significant being we have the mountain to ourselves. We rarely see another person for the six hours the round trip hike requires. One of the things which brings me back to the summit of Croagh Patrick each summer is this sense of place for I first climbed this mountain with my father in 1965.
Recently, we were about halfway up the mountain when my companion spotted another climber a short distance behind us. He quickly gained on us, and as he approached, he paused to chat. He was around 18, dressed in a short sleeve t-shirt and shorts, compared to us in long pants and our upper parts layered with fleece. After he said hello and inquired how the climb was going for us, he explained he was on his way to work. I did not say anything, but the surprise on my face must have asked for an explanation. His summer job was to open the oratory at ten each morning and then lock it up again at 4, when he would come down the mountain to return home. He then put put his ear phones back on and proceeded up the mountain. With his long legs, he would remind you of a bird as he quickly made his way up the mountain.
When we reached the summit, easily an hour behind him, he was sorting out the candles and other areas of the oratory. After we had eaten our ham sandwiches, we went into the oratory for a prayer, at which time he was nowhere to be seen. We figured he had a room somewhere in the small building where he could hang out until closing time at 4.
After our descent we stopped into the pub at the foot of the west face of the mountain for a pint before heading home. The pub was empty as the day had gone drizzly and not many people were about. A young man, maybe 16, was tending the bar, and we fell into a chat with him. He asked us if there were many on the mountain today, and we responded we had seen one young man on his way to work. That would be my brother, he said. He went on to tell us that his brother did this four days a week, and had done the same last summer. Last summer had gone easier, as his older brother had been studying for the critical exams he would take at the close of his last year in secondary school. This final set of exams would determine where he would go to university in Ireland and what he would study there. Although his older brother had taken this exam this past June, he would not have the results of that exam till August, at which time he would also be informed which university in Ireland he would attend and what his course of study would be. This situation, it was explained to us, left his older brother with no idea what to study to prepare for his first year of university. Then he grinned as only a sibling would at this thought of his older brother on the summit of the mountain every day for six hours with nothing to do.
This young man gave us this story as if it was as normal as a drizzly day in Ireland. He may as well have been talking to us about the weather. Meanwhile, I was trying to get my head around the fact that this young man was making the climb every day that I prepare for in my work outs at home for the better part of three months before flying to Ireland. Furthermore, he does this regardless of the weather, while my companion and I might wait a week for just the right day weather-wise.
We both teach at universities in the states, so we have first-hand knowledge of the numerous issues faced by first year students. This young man’s clear appreciation of the value of education coupled with his work ethic will give him wings with which he will soar. He will not only be successful at university but that success will follow him wherever he goes from there, be this in Ireland or anywhere else in the world where life takes him.
But I also have no doubt that there will come a time in his brilliant future when he will recall his commute to his summer job in 2017 with that same deep love of place which is repeated again and again in the songs of Ireland, for this is his mountain. And I suppose it is the mother in me that makes me think of his mother, and what she has accomplished. For at the end of the day, there are truly only two things parents can give their children – one is roots and the other is wings.
These Are My Mountains
For fame and for fortune I wandered the earth
And now I’ve come back to the land of my birth
I’ve brought back my treasures but only to find
They’re less than the pleasures I first left behind
For these are my mountains and this is my glen
The braes of my childhood will know me again
No land’s ever claimed me tho’ far I did roam
For these are my mountains and I’m going home
The burn by the road sings at my going by
The whaup overhead wings with welcoming cry
The loch where the scart flies at last I can see
It’s here that my heart lies it’s here I’ll be free
Kind faces will meet me and welcome me in
And how they will greet me my ain kith and kin
The night round the ingle old sangs will be sung
At last I’ll be hearing my ain mother tongue.