A pilgrimage to Slemish Mountain
The story of Saint Patrick, Ireland’s Patron Saint, has been handed down to us over the centuries. It’s a great story in which it is hard to separate fact from fiction as there are scant contemporaneous records of his life in existence. I have some sympathy for poor Bishop Palladius who was sent here by Pope Celestine to spread the Gospel – before Patrick, but he gets little credit!
Patrick though wrote what must be a rare autobiography of an Irish Saint, his Confessio or Confession, which is his life story, though it lacks names and places, is an original source. And we can thank our own St Fiac, of Sleaty, (I often cycle past his cross in Sleaty graveyard, near Knockbeg College) who wrote his hymn on the Life of St Patrick:
He was six years in slavery;
Human food he ate it not.
Cothraige he was called,
for as slave he served four families.
Victor said to Milcho’s slave:
“Go thoust over the sea”:
He placed his foot upon the ‘leac’ (stone):
It’s trace remains, it does not wear away.Life of St Patrick by St Fiac of Sleaty.
It’s pretty clear he was captured and brought to Ireland and the story is he spent 6 years as a slave of Milchú on Slemish Mountain (or Sliabh Mish) tending to flocks of sheep. This was one of those stories we learned in primary school; I was always fascinated by his time in slavery and so this was a place I have long intended visiting, and what better day to do it than on 17th March, the Feast Day of our National Saint. Slemish is located just outside Ballymena in County Antrim, a nice little drive! My route up took me past two very important sites central to the Patrick story – the Hill of Tara and the Hill of Slane. Had I more time I would have stopped off but it’s 293 kms, door to door, to the foot of Slemish! I’ve been on both these famed hills in the past and the story of the conversion of the High King of ireland is central to the conversion of Ireland to Christianity.
But after I reached Ireland I used to pasture the flock each day and I used to pray many times a day. More and more did the love of God, and my fear of him and faith increase, and my spirit was moved so that in a day I said from one up to a hundred prayers, and in the night a like number; besides I used wake up before daylight to pray in the snow, in icy coldness, in rain, and I used feel neither ill nor any slothfulness, because, as I now see, the Spirit was burning in me at that time.
And it was there of course that one night in my sleep I heard a voice to me: ‘You do well to fast: soon you will depart for your home country.’ And again, a very short time later, there was a voice prophesying: ‘Behold, your ship is ready.’ And it was not close by, as it happened, two hundred miles away, where I had never been or known any person. And shortly thereafter I turned about and fled from the man with whom I had been for six years, and I came, by the power of God who directed my route to advantage (and I was afraid of nothing), until I reached he ship.Saint Patrick’s words form his Confession.
He was out of there!
I thought there might be a few people walking the route to the top and it was shock to see Police bollards along the narrow local roads to prevent parking. There was a Park and Ride system in place from the village of Broughshane, about 7kms away. The mini buses were ferrying people all day long from 9am to the base of the mountain and they came from all over the north. I met quite a few from Derry and Tyrone including the father of Paul Wilson, who won an All Ireland Club medal all of 21 years ago with Ballinderry as an attacking half back. It was great to see families of Polish and Ukrainians, who made the hard trek up to the cross on the mountain top. And not a sign of a Far right protestor making the pilgrimage…
At just 437 metres high, technically this is not a mountain, but it is a tough little nut to crack! The path is very very steep – 29% gradient at one point. Underfoot the ground is extremely wet and slippy and there are lots of protruding sharp rocks to provide added danger. It’s not a place to go in runners – as many did today! I found this to be one of the toughest short rambles I’ve done in a long time and to see little kids scrambling past me was a little hard to take!
I’m not a fan of what St Patricks Day has become. Today was much more enjoyable for me than a lot of the paddy whackery we see typically associated with our celebrations of being Irish. I like the outdoors, solitude, visiting interesting places, heritage and history and today had all of that.
Saint Patrick is not the exclusive preserve of Catholics and Slemish of course is located in the ‘Bible Belt’ of the North. I got a lot of leaflets and pamphlets handed to me on my finishing the climb from different groups of evangelists. I’m not sure if they all work together or are separate distinct groupings.
I mentioned earlier that a Park and Ride system operated out of Broughshane. (I had come through Ballyclare to the start point). After I was directed there by two very helpful PSNI officers I saw a few people with their Orange sashes and bandsmen outfits. I thought it was a bit strange that the Orange order were taking part in the celebrations! It was only when I got home that I read an online article in the Irish News about disruption caused to pilgrims by an Orange March through the village which created huge delays for the pilgrim buses heading to Slemish. Luckily I missed all that. Somethings never change.
Link to Irish News Article: