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An acclaimed science writer celebrates an enduring symbol of Ireland’s Celtic past, Christian tradition, and love of nature
Mount Brandon is one of several holy mountains in Ireland that attract scores of believers and secular trekkers from around the world. For thirty-two years, Chet Raymo has lived part of each year on the Dingle Peninsula, near the foot of the mountain, and he has climbed it perhaps a hundred times, exploring paths that have been used for centuries by ...
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An acclaimed science writer celebrates an enduring symbol of Ireland’s Celtic past, Christian tradition, and love of nature
Mount Brandon is one of several holy mountains in Ireland that attract scores of believers and secular trekkers from around the world. For thirty-two years, Chet Raymo has lived part of each year on the Dingle Peninsula, near the foot of the mountain, and he has climbed it perhaps a hundred times, exploring paths that have been used for centuries by pilgrims in search of spiritual enlightenment. But the history and geography of Mount Brandon are what drew Raymo to it and offered him a lens through which to view the modern conflicts between science and religion.
When Ireland converted from paganism, it became home to a kind of Christianity that was unique in Europe—intensely intellectual yet attuned to nature, skeptical yet celebratory, grounded in the here-and-now yet open to infinity. In this rich celebration of Mount Brandon, Raymo weaves together myth and science, folklore and natural history, spiritual and physical geographies. He takes us to a time on the wave-lashed edge of the Western world when Mediterranean Christianity ran up against Celtic nature worship and the Irish—with their fondness for ambiguity, double meanings, puns and riddles—forged a fusion of knowledge and faith that sustains us today.
* * *
Thousands of years ago, in a time recorded only by legend, Bran, son of the Irish king Febal, was walking near his father's royal palace when he was lulled to sleep by mysterious music. When he woke, he found beside him a silver branch with white blossoms. He took the branch into the palace, and there a woman appeared to him and his company, inviting him to visit a world of wonder and delight that lay beyond the Western Sea-the Land of the Women-where treachery, sorrow, sickness, and death are unknown. As she prepared to take her leave, the branch of blossoms magically leaped from Bran's hand to hers, and-poof-she was gone. What red-blooded Irishman could resist such an invitation, delivered by a beautiful maiden in exotic dress? Bran wasted no time preparing a boat. The very next day he set out to sea with a crew of three times nine men and eventually arrived with his cohort at the promised isle. They found an elegant house prepared for their arrival, with thrice nine maidens and thrice nine beds, and of course the lady who had invited Bran was there. The voyagers stayed for what seemed to them only a year, but in fact centuries passed. At last, homesick-and perhaps a bit weary of paradise-Bran and his crew set out for home, but not before the woman who issued the invitation warned him not to set foot on Irish soil.
According to local tradition, the returning voyagers made landfall at a place now called Brandon Point, at the foot of Mount Brandon, in southwest Ireland. One of the party, Nechtan by name, impetuously leaped ashore-and collapsed into a heap of dust! No other mariner dared risk a landing. From his place in the boat, Bran shouted out the story of his adventures to people who had gathered on the shore. Then he sailed off into the sunset, with his companions, never to be heard from again.
Was the branch of white blossoms that the fairy lady used to entice Bran westward a staff of apple flowers, as asserted by the standard version of the story? In Irish lore, the apple tree was revered as a symbol of the delights of the otherworld-of fertility, replenishment, and healing. Legend tells of an island in the sea west of Ireland known as Eamhain Abhlach (Land of Apples), and apples (sometimes golden) play roles in other tales of mysterious seduction. British myth, too, has the story of Avalon, the Island of Apples, to which King Arthur was brought to recover from his wounds. Certainly, the apple tree was recognized in ancient Irish law as one of the seven "nobles of the wood," valued for its delicious fruit, with severe penalties attached to its cutting or uprooting.
Or perhaps the branch of white blossoms was hawthorn, the tree that makes the Irish countryside blaze white each spring, every hedgerow a gushing stream of snowy blossoms. A "commoner of the wood," to be sure, but long associated with fairy folk and magical powers. The hawthorn tree was considered unlucky, and if hawthorn was the blossom of the original tale, it may have foretold Bran's ultimate fate, rather than his pleasant sojourn with his companions in the arms of fairy lovers.
Today, Brandon Point, where the returning voyagers approached the shore, is at the end of a narrow road that passes through the villages of Cloghane and Brandon on Ireland's Dingle Peninsula; it is as remote a spot as you are likely to find in County Kerry or throughout the island. Spectacular cliffs, pink with thrift and raucous with the calls of diving birds, fall into the sea. Waves roll endlessly from the western horizon, and one can easily imagine Bran bobbing there in his boat, shouting out the story of the thrice nine maidens and thrice nine beds to his spellbound audience. Turn around, face away from the sea, and a wall of mountain rises before you, mist-shrouded and forbidding, part of the ring of mountains that is Ireland's seaward battlements.
The topography of Ireland resembles a bowl, with a low, fertile limestone interior and a mountainous rim of resistant sandstone and quartz. A few solitary inland prominences have played special roles in Irish history: The Hill of Tara comes to mind, traditional home of ancient Irish kings; and the Rock of Cashel, with its present crown of medieval structures. But it is around the coasts that Ireland shrugs up the boggy shoulders that have long been the strongholds of "the real Ireland," Catholic Ireland, the Ireland of the Gaels.
When Oliver Cromwell conquered Ireland in the seventeenth century, he parceled out the rich interior grasslands to his Protestant English army, banishing the native Catholic Irish "to hell or Connacht." Connacht is the mountainous western province dominated by such familiar peaks as Croagh Patrick and the Twelve Bens of Connemara. The land among these crags was deemed by the English as of not much use for other than stray sheep or Catholics. So too the mountains farther south in the province of Munster became refuges for a conquered people, and they remain today repositories of Gaelic folklore and language.
The westernmost of Ireland's peaks is cloud-capped Mount Brandon, lifting its summit 3,127 feet into the wet Atlantic air. The Gaelic language is still spoken on its flanks, and its glens have a scraggy wildness that makes hell or Connacht seem civilized by comparison. The mountain's black hump rises from rocky fields and gray water near the end of the Dingle Peninsula. It is not the highest mountain in Ireland; that distinction-by a few begrudged feet-belongs to Carrantuohill on the Iveragh Peninsula across Dingle Bay. But Carrantuohill stands among a cluster of high peaks, collectively called the Macgillicuddy Reeks, and its lofty precedence is somewhat disguised by company. Brandon lords it alone over a narrow thumb of land jutting into the sea, and its solitary prominence more than makes up for its somewhat lesser height. Except for a few recent plantations of evergreens at low altitudes, the sides and summit of the mountain are treeless. Experienced walkers are pretty much free to ramble wherever they please, but neophytes best keep to well-trodden paths lest they go astray in mist.
Some say that Mount Brandon takes its name from Bran, the mythic voyager to the Land of the Women. More likely the name recalls the more firmly historical Saint Brendan, known as the Navigator, who was born not far away near the present city of Tralee in the year 484 (or thereabouts), and who late in his life took sail in an oxskin boat from a cove at the base of the mountain on a seven-year voyage in search of the Isles of the Blest. It is claimed that Brendan and his companions "discovered America," but there is no reliable evidence that the voyage took place at all. Nevertheless, Brendan's tale is a compelling metaphor for the journey that carries us all from birth to death, and, for some, in hope, to eternity beyond.
Brendan was one of many highly educated monks of the early Middle Ages who made their home on the rugged west coast of Ireland, facing out into the rain-lashed, fog-shrouded Western Sea. Somewhere beyond those gray mists lay the Isles of the Blest, those holy men believed, a place of rest and happiness. Was it a literal paradise they sought in the apparently boundless waters of the west? Certainly, in those oceanic vistas they sensed the majesty of their God, immanent in wind and wave. In solitude and prayer they sought to know Him. To that end they built huts and oratories of unmortared stone in the westernmost reaches of Europe and focused their attention on the far horizon. Brendan is supposed to have built an oratory, a place of prayer, at Shanakeel (Old Church), at the foot of Mount Brandon, and on the summit of the mountain to this day there are remnants of a stone structure said to be associated with the saint.
Medieval tales of the Isles of the Blest, or Land of Delight, may have had a factual source, perhaps in stories derived from Phoenician sailors blown far out into the Atlantic during voyages beyond the Pillars of Hercules (the Straits of Gibraltar), and who found themselves among the Azores or Cape Verde Islands. In the minds of the Irish monks, rumors of islands in the west might have been conflated with even more ancient Celtic myths of a paradise where the Sun goes in its setting. So rich is early Irish mythology with tales of westward voyaging that it sometimes seems there might have been no one left behind to mind hearth and home. Whatever the reason for the monks' pious westerning, hope and fear conspired to give their faith in eternal salvation a geographic referent. Whereas continental Christians looked for heaven in the sky above, the Irish cast their longing gaze at the sea horizon. Every wave that crashed upon the rockbound pediment of Mount Brandon roared a salvic promise that Brendan and his contemporaries were predisposed by learning and tradition to hear.
The corollary of this shift of faith from the vertical to the horizontal was a concept of God that emphasized immanence over transcendence. An uneasy tension between God's immanence and transcendence resonates through the history of Christianity. Catholicism places a strong (although not predominant) emphasis on immanence, as evidenced by the church's sacramental system; its fondness for incense, bells, candles, relics, statues, and stained glass; its reposing of divine authority in popes and councils. Protestantism, by contrast, stresses the relatively disembodied Word and the wholly otherness of God, and can be partly understood as a protest against the Catholic fondness for material embodiments of things divine. In the Protestant view, Catholicism sins by idolatry, finding God everywhere. In the Catholic view, Protestantism drifts toward atheism by finding God nowhere; God becomes so other that he dissolves into nothingness. Of course, these respective views are generalizations, and in both traditions the two aspects of God are mingled.
My early Roman Catholic schooling affirmed God's transcendence, even as it immersed us in a heady atmosphere of candlelight and pungent smoke. My teachers and spiritual guides-mainly nuns and priests of Irish origin or descent-focused our attention on spirit, not matter; the fate of our immortal and immaterial souls was to be our constant concern. They directed our vision upward, away from the Earth, and even if we were told not to take a celestial heaven literally, it was made clear to us that the fallen world of matter was not the domicile of divinity. What a surprise, then, to discover among the Irish Christians of Brendan's era a horizontal vision, a gazing into sea fog and rolling waves, a celebration of the here and now, a longing to pass across, not upward but westward.
Several hundred million years ago, Brendan would not have required a voyage of seven years to reach America. By keeping to the higher ground, he might have walked there from Ireland dry shod. At that time North America and Europe were part of a single landmass geologists call the Old Red Sandstone Continent. The part of that continent that is now the Dingle Peninsula was then an inland basin, and sands, muds, and pebbles eroded from the surrounding uplands were deposited on the floor of that basin. These eventually became the layered rocks that are the backbone of the Dingle Peninsula: sandstones, mudstones, and conglomerates, gritty, well consolidated, and resistant. Meanwhile, to the south, the drifting continent of Africa was nudging northward, squeezing up against the underbelly of Europe and pushing the floor of an intervening sea back into the interior of the Earth. A great mountain range was lifted skyward, the ancestral Alps. Farther north, behind the jagged peaks, the crust of the Earth was more gently crumpled in wavelike folds, like a carpet pushed from its edge. These folds reveal themselves today in the five rocky fingers of land and intervening bays that are the southwest coast of Ireland. Mount Brandon, like its rival Carrantuohill across Dingle Bay, is the eroded stump of what was once a much higher peak, the floor of a sedimentary basin forced upward.
The folds of these layered rocks are dramatically revealed in the deep glacier-carved valleys that hang on the eastern side of Mount Brandon. Here, an old pilgrim path makes its way to the summit from the village of Faha on the slope of the mountain above Brandon Bay. The path begins at a shrine of the Virgin, where a statue of Saint Brendan looks out from a niche at the Virgin's right hand. Here pilgrims gathered in years gone by on May 16, the saint's feast, to commence in prayer their climb to the top. (Another climb, celebrating a different feast, takes place in summer.) The mountain is still climbed by pilgrims on the Sunday nearest Brendan's feast day, but today most often from the west, on the track from Ballybrack, a gentler and less perilous ascent. In fact, after a decades-long decline in interest, the annual religious pilgrimages up Brandon seem to be attracting more participants-the pious old as always, but also the educated young, who make up in their enthusiasm for an inspiring landscape what they might lack in religious conviction.
Holy mountains figure strongly in the Irish religious imagination. Hardly a summit in Ireland lacks its cross or shrine, and many a path to a summit is marked with Stations of the Cross. Saint Patrick, of course, stands highest in the Irish pantheon of saints, and his mountain in Mayo, Croagh Patrick, is the island's best-known place of pilgrimage. Each year on the last Sunday of July, Reek Sunday (a reek is a mountain in Irish popular speech, a variant of rick, a heap or pile, as in peat rick), thousands of devout trekkers, young and old, climb to the summit where Patrick is said to have made a forty-day solitary vigil in the year A.D. 441. Croagh Patrick was almost certainly "holy" long before Patrick arrived to convert the Irish to Christianity, and the same is true for Mount Brandon. The spirits of Irish warrior heroes of pre-Christian times, including the voyager Bran, share those misty ridges with Brendan's Christian deity. Some places draw us into their thrall because of their inherent aura of majesty and mystery, and this was almost certainly true of Croagh Patrick and Mount Brandon since the earliest arrival of humans in Ireland.
It is a rare day when the summit of Mount Brandon is not capped with cloud, and anyone who lived near the mountain's foot in olden times must have considered its upper slopes a place of formidable mystery. When Brendan went there to build his oratory, he surely went with some trepidation, as if he were entering upon the domain of ancient gods whose influence had not yet been entirely dissipated by the preaching of the Gospel. Saints and holy men and women have long ascended mountains seeking the divine.
Excerpted from CLIMBING BRANDON by CHET RAYMO Copyright © 2004 by Chet Raymo. Excerpted by permission.
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|1||Brandon: Between Heaven & Earth||1|
|2||Cloghane: Twilight of the Gods||21|
|3||Faha: Land of Milk & Honey||43|
|4||Binn na Port: The Wild & the Holy||63|
|5||Coumaknock: Mountain Gloom, Mountain Glory||83|
|6||Summit: Discovery of Ignorance||105|
|7||Atlantic: The New Story||125|
|8||Gallarus: A Nest Beside Thy Altar||147|