Every summer on the 15th of August, the Feast of the Assumption, local people make a pilgrimage to the Holy Year cross on the beautiful mountain of Sliabhnamon in south county Tipperary, Ireland. That pilgrimage is the inspiration for this short story of a young boy who makes the journey to the cross alone and continues to the mountain top.
Feast of the Assumption.
I didn’t tell anyone I was going. Just slipped out the door at half-one and swung onto the saddle of my bike. Earlier – because the sky was black and Sliabhnamon looking spooky in a scarf of mist – I’d wrapped my overcoat around the handlebars of the bike. With a bottle of O’Brien’s orange and a Flash bar shoved into a pocket for a little feast later on.
It was downhill from our house to the creamery on the edge of town so I flew along at first. Hills were nothing to me – excitement and anticipation had my legs pumping relentlessly.
I was setting out on a great adventure, felt fit for anything.
At least until I was forced to dismount on the long, steep hill at Springmount.
I paused on the brow of the hill, feeling a moment of unease as I gazed along the road that wound away before me into unfamiliar countryside.
For a second I wavered, considered turning back.
What if I got lost? Had to find my way home later in the dark?
I imagined them all at home wondering where I’d disappeared to, their surprise when l told them where I’d been. How they’d ply me with questions.
I mounted the bike and pedalled on.
It was the 15th of August, a holy-day, the Feast of the Assumption. I was ten years old cycling alone to take part in the annual pilgrimage to the Holy Year cross high up on Sliabhnamon. It was a four mile cycle from our house. I had never been so far from home. None of my older brothers had made this pilgrimage up the gently-curving mountain that dominated the landscape all around our home.
I would be the first.
A signpost directed me off the main road and onto a narrow, bye-road that went up and up. The mountain loomed above me now, the white Holy Year Cross clearly visible on a hump some way below the crown of the mountain. The ground began to rise ever more steeply. I came to where bikes were piled against the wall of a farmyard and left mine there.
The pilgrims had departed. I struggled on uphill until I reached a gate beyond which there was no road. Just a rough path winding between rocks and large expanses of heather. Roughly half- way between the gate and the cross pilgrims were strung out in a ragged line.
The rhythmic incantation of the rosary came to my ears. I leaned forward pushing my aching legs, determined to catch up before they reached the cross.
I caught them at the three-quarters stage. Sweat poured from me, my breath rasped.
The curate was leading the pilgrimage dressed in white surplice over a black soutane.
Must be pretty warm in that gear, I thought.
‘Weren’t you a great boy to come,’ a woman said.
My reply was indifferent – inside I swelled with pride.
We gathered round the cross and prayed the final Mysteries.
I paid little attention to the prayers. Studied faces, Women with eyes closed in supplication. Men mumbling along, eyes fixed on the ground.
When the praying finished the pilgrims mingled and chatted before beginning the descent. I gazed towards the crown. Reaching it would mean going down into a boggy area and then tackling a steep ascent. My intention had been to come as far as the cross. Now I wanted to go all the way to the top. After all, I reasoned, what was the point in going up a mountain without reaching the top?
‘You can see the sea from the top,’ an elderly man said.
That decided me.
I set off.
An hour later I was alone on the mountain-top, seeing my world from a different perspective. Earlier my view had been foreshortened by so many things that rose above me. Now a new vista was opening out before me. The town whose streets I knew so well was a grey blur on the green landscape. The countryside seemed flat, the hills and hollows indistinguishable one from another. The Galtees were far, far away, a blue and mystic horizon.
The sea was lost in a dreamy haze.
I sat on a cairn of stones, drank my orange, ate my Flash bar.
Feeling exquisitely alone, elated.
For the first time in my twelve year old life I had done a big thing by myself, without older brothers or grown-ups directing me. I had set out, I had been afraid, I had kept going, I had come to the mountain-top, the mountain that dominated all of the world that I knew.
I would fly home along the roads hidden in the landscape below filled with a new energy, Columbus on a bike returning full of news from the New World to the Old.