High Mass in Kerry

The villagers in Ballybrack, at the end of Kerry’s Dingle Peninsula, were certain the Mass would be called off: the mist was too low on the mountain. It was too bad a day to be climbing Mount Brandon, even in June. My friend Jonathan however, suggested we at least stretch our legs and follow the trackway leading out of the village to the start of the Pilgrim’s Path that leads to the top of Brandon, and perhaps follow the path as far as the cloud base. Had we not done this we would never have discovered a whole group of people gathered at the foot of the path still expecting the Mass to take place.
I took most of the crowd to be scoláirí (secondary school students) in the area to study Irish. They were mostly dressed in tee shirts and jeans and plimsolls and were better equipped for a trip to the shops than a climb up a mountain. They were waiting for the priest to arrive. His appearance, or non appearance, would signify whether the Mass was on or not. He was meant to arrive twixt half twelve and one, and as it had only just turned half twelve Jonathan and I decided to wait as well.
In the next half hour a more rugged bunch of lads turned up, led by a tall gangling fellow with a large bush of greying hair and an equal sized beard to match. Apparently this was the Kerry Mountain Rescue Team, though they seemed little better equipped than the youngsters and little better shod either. To my own eyes they looked potential candidates for rescuing rather than potential rescuers!
The priest arrived a little after one o’clock. Though he was a young priest he looked pretty glum at the prospect of the long haul he had ahead of him. His arrival however signalled that the Mass was indeed going to take place and every one began moving up the Pilgrim’s Path, except that is for Jonathan who was adamant that he wasn’t going to climb any mountain in the mist, and, but for the fact that I hoped to gain some photographs out of the venture, I would have agreed with him.
Mount Brandon is of course named after Saint Brendan the Irish monk who legend has it sailed to America in a boat made of leather some thousand years before Columbus. On the top of the mountain are the remains of a stone oratory. Though it is named after Saint Brendan there is no record that he used it. The legend has it that he did, and it is easy to imagine Saint Brendan fasting on top of the mountain, looking out across the seeming infinity of the Atlantic and believing that somewhere out in that infinity was another land peopled with souls yet to be Christianized, a belief which led him to embark on his odyssey. Mount Brandon then is something of a holy mountain and hence the annual event, weather permitting, of holding a Mass on the summit.
Being more used to hill climbing than most of the other ‘pilgrims’ I soon found myself ahead of them and walking on my own in the mist. The Pilgrim’s Path is a very grand sounding name but it no longer really exists. It seems to have long ago sunk into the surface bog of the mountain. Instead of a path I found myself following, often with some difficulty, the vague remains of a long, steep, continuous wall. At about two thousand feet I reached a large twelve foot wide cairn with a tall obelisk of a rock centred in the middle of it. Knowing of its existence it was reassuring to locate it in the mist as I then knew I was still on the right route. It was here I also gained the sense of there possibly being a very pleasing prospect ahead of me. The cloud seemed to be thinning and the gloom of the mist was giving way to a detectable brightness. With luck it seemed by the time I reached the top of Mount Brandon I might actually be above the clouds. This indeed is what happened. As I climbed the mist grew thinner and thinner and the brightness ever brighter till eventually the mist seemed to roll away and I was in radiant, warm sunshine. It was an exhilarating moment, like emerging from the gloom of a darkened cell into the brightness of daylight. All around me was a vast even sea of level cloud broken only by the sharp crispness of Brandon’s summit ridge and a more distant peak further away along the Dingle peninsula.
Some sixty people eventually gathered on the summit of Brandon; they milled around laughing and joking just as you would find people doing on the summit of Snowdon or Scafell Pike on a busy summer’s day. Only one man behaved with any sense of piety; a lean, elderly man with leathery features who looked askance at all the rest of us. Clutching a thick hawthorn stick and with a grim face he constantly circled the summit of the mountain counting off the beads of his rosary in his right hand. Someone next to me explained that to do the pilgrimage correctly one was really supposed to circle the summit twelve times counting the rosary, and if you were really pious, you also did it barefoot.
Almost the last man to arrive on the summit was the priest himself, looking very fatigued. After taking several minutes to regain his breath he eventually donned his cassock and vestments, a garment of vivid emerald green which lightly blew in the summit’s breeze, and placed a glinting chalice and plate on the summit’s trig point. Immediately a change came over the crowd assembled on the summit, or most of them, for a handful of heathens drew a little way off whilst the majority gathered closer together in front of the priest, ceasing their chatter and readying themselves for the Mass.
Most of the Mass was said in Irish, but enough was also said in English to keep the interest of non Irish speakers. The priest drew the inevitable parallel between life and the struggle up the mountain, and then he also said something which I thought very odd for a priest. “If there is a God I am sure we are a lot closer to Him here.”A priest expressing doubt in a sermon? Two hymns were sung in Irish by a group of trainee teachers who acted as a scratch choir, and even a small bell was rung at the appropriate moments. It was a beautiful service to witness, a small crowd of people gathered in bright sunshine on the bareness of a mountain summit, above a sea of white cloud, with only the gentlest of winds blowing and for most of the time only the voice of the priest top be heard.
The Mass finished, the priest thanked us for attending and adjured us to be careful on our way down, and not to fall.
Whilst I had ascended the mountain almost on my own, on the descent I found myself in the company of the trainee teachers. We descended back into the cloud and the bright sunshine was gone from us; we were once more back in the gloom and dankness of the mist.
We reached the big cairn well enough and here I was sure we veered left as we had to do to retrace our route of ascent. It was soon evident to me however that we were not doing this. Perhaps we had veered too far to the left I thought; but no matter, we would doubtless find ourselves somewhere near Ballybrack at the finish. But this proved not to be so. When we finally got below the cloud base to my amazement I found we were looking out to sea which we definitely shouldn’t have been. Somehow in the disorientation of the mist we had managed to turn right at the cairn instead of left: though how we did this is still a complete mystery.
We were now two miles from Ballybrack. Still, this also meant we were a lot closer to the nearest pub! Perhaps Saint Brendan was looking after us after all.

©: Paul Buttle, Keswick, Cumbria, writes and publishes his own books on hill walking. He has been learning Irish for a number of years.

Published in The Green Dragon No 7, Summer 1998