History of Reek Sunday, part 1: Tradition

HISTORY OF REEK SUNDAY

This week I’m in Boston. But last year at this time I was on the west coast of Ireland, where they say, “West o’ here, da next parish over, dat’s Boston.”

This Sunday, the last Sunday in July every year, marks Reek Sunday, or Garland Sunday in Ireland. At this time between 25,000 and 40,000 people will walk the 3-hour round trip up the Reek Mountain, or Croagh Patrick in County Mayo, Ireland, the sacred mountain of St. Patrick in a popular pilgrimage in honor of the patron saint of Ireland, commemorating his driving the snakes from Ireland. Over 100,000 people a year visit Croagh Patrick.

In this history miniseries, we’ll look at the Tradition, the Pilgrimage, and the Location.

The Tradition

On the summit of this mountain it is believed that St. Patrick fasted and prayed for 40 days in 441 A.D. The story goes that at the end of this fast St. Patrick threw a bell down the mountain side and banished all the serpents from Ireland. The fact that snakes never were native to Ireland does not diminish the tradition. Some believe that the banishing of the snakes represents either certain pagan practices or outright evil. In any event, the pilgrimage in honor of St. Patrick goes back to this date. Radiocarbon dating of the remnants of a dry stone oratory is dated at between 430 and 890 AD. This oratory or place of worship is similar in design to the magnificently preserved Gallarus Oratory found on the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry, Ireland. The bell we have now dates from 600 to 900 AD and is kept by the National Museum of Ireland.

As to the Saint’s bell, the so-called “Black Bell of St. Patrick” it remained a highly venerated relic with an old reference in O’Flaherty’s History of West Connaught dating back to 1098 AD. The tradition is that the bell was originally made of a shiny white metal though it became black from constant pelting at the demons in the form of black birds and venomous snakes who came after St. Patrick on the mountain. Patrick banished these powers into the hollow of Log na Deamhan (Lake of the Demons.) The devil’s mother, Corra (the fiery one,) escaped and flew into the lake south of the mountain, known since as Loch na Corra.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
www.billpetro.com

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