History of Reek Sunday: the Legend of St. Patrick Driving the Snakes from Ireland
Several years ago at this time of the Summer, on one of my teaching trips to Ireland, I found myself on the west coast, where they have a saying,
“Ahh… west o’ here, the next parish over is Boston.“
This Sunday, the last one in July every year, marks Reek Sunday, or Garland Sunday in Ireland. During this event 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. It’s the sacred mountain of St. Patrick and a popular pilgrimage in honor of the patron saint of Ireland, commemorating his driving the snakes from Ireland. Over 100,000 people visit Croagh Patrick throughout the year.
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 mountainside 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 over 1,500 years ago.
The Bell and the Snakes
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 goes like this. The bell was originally made of shiny white metal. It became black from constant pelting at the demons in the form of blackbirds 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. The bell we have now dates from 600 to 900 AD and is kept by the National Museum of Ireland.
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.
I’ve stood inside that oratory; it’s made of stones laid without mortar, but so finely fit that when it rains no water passes inside.
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Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian