THE FAR SIDE OF THE SKY

© Christopher Earls Brennen

SLEMISH

``.. the greatness of Patrick (St. Patrick) is beyond dispute: the first human being in the history of the world to speak out unequivocally against slavery.''

From "How the Irish saved civilization" by Thomas Cahill (1995).

A large fraction of my ancestors lived out their lives on the narrow strip of coastal land around the northeast corner of Ireland, along the coast of County Antrim. The Dicks and Dales, the McCloys and the Earls, peoples mostly of Scottish heritage, eked out a livelihood from the land and the sea, farming in one season and fishing in the next. Undoubtedly there was also a little smuggling and some illicit distilling. The only viable means for travelling any distance was by sea and so their lines of communication and commerce were along the coast and across the Irish sea to Scotland rather than overland to the interior of Ireland. This was especially the case along the Antrim coast for just inland from the coastal strip rose a substantial escarpment edged by basalt cliffs and topped with bleak and forbidding moorland. Of course, as the rich coastal land became crowded, the poorer families would be forced up onto these moors or at least to the parts where the drainage was sufficient to allow some meagre farming. Huddled in their stone cottages, constantly buffeted by the wind and the rain, these hardy people would have lived quite isolated lives, answerable to no-one beyond their own tightly knit community.

   
Slemish from afar Slemish and the road to the trailhead

Rising dramatically out of this moorland plateau are the eroded remains of a prehistoric volcano, a plug of basalt with steep sides and a flat, rounded top. Known by its ancient Celtic name, Slemish, the 1437ft high mountain can seen from thirty miles away on a clear day, though one must admit there are few such days in this misty land. Instantly recognizable by its prominence and unusual shape, it was the focus of local myths and legends far back into prehistoric time. But it acquired a very special place in Irish folklore and history during the days of St. Patrick.

Born in Britain about 385AD, Patricius or Patrick was one of the last generations of Britons with Roman heritage. His father, Calpornius, is believed to have been a churchman. At the age of sixteen Patrick was kidnapped by Irish raiders, carried back to Ireland and sold as a slave to a chieftain called Miliucc. He was put to work as a shepherd tending sheep on Slemish mountain. During his six years as a slave he underwent profound spiritual development, in which prayers on the mountain top became a major part of his life. After six years, he escaped and travelled by boat to France before returning to his family in Britain. There he had a dream in which he believed he heard the Irish calling for him to return, a call that he interpreted as coming from God. To prepare for this calling, Patrick travelled to Auxerre in France where he studied with Germanus and was ordained as a deacon. Finally, in 432 he was consecrated a bishop and began his mission to Ireland. During his years in Ireland as a travelling apostle he effected a remarkable religious conversion among the Irish people, an achievement that continues to be recognized and celebrated down to the present day. The germination of that great movement is Patrick's epiphany and, in the Irish tradition, that transformation is closely connected with Slemish mountain. So it is that today, on every St. Patrick's Day, every March 17th, a religious service is held on the summit of Slemish to commemorate his life and work.

Patrick's writings, his "Confessions" and "Letters to Coroticus", continue to be the focus of detailed study and interpretation. Once seen as the works of a barely literate rustic, more recent scholarly evaluations consider them a powerful manifestation of his commitment and spiritual depth. Moreover, in some respects Patrick was more than a millenium ahead of his time, especially in his condemnation of slavery. Thomas Cahill writes that ``.. the greatness of Patrick (St. Patrick) is beyond dispute: the first human being in the history of the world to speak out unequivocally against slavery.'' A powerful legacy indeed.


In my youthful travels through County Antrim, I would often, on a clear day, glance across the rolling hills at the profile of Slemish and think idly of climbing to the summit. My inspiration was in part its prominence and in part its legend; but this was never quite enough to produce any action. However, after the death of my own son Patrick in a terrible automobile accident, the life and legends of St. Patrick took on a new relevance and meaning for me. Thus it was that I resolved to climb to the summit of Slemish at some point during a visit to my homeland.

One day in August 2002, when Doreen and I were exploring the coast of County Antrim, we had both the time and the opportunity to satisfy this whim. From the coastal village of Glenarm we drove up through one of the most beautiful of the renowned Glens of Antrim, past South Munie where my McCloy ancestors farmed, and onto the bleak moorland on top of the escarpment. Heading west the narrow mountain roads gradually took us down to drumlin-rolling hills dotted with tiny farms and a patchwork of small fields. We soon discerned the unmistakable shape of Slemish. But it took some rather intuitive navigation to negotiate the maze of small roads around the north side of Slemish and some trial and error before we located the route to the trailhead on the west side of the mountain. We later recognized that the approach from the west, starting in the town of Broughshane, would have been much easier; it is even signposted.

As well as a large stone shelter and restrooms, the trailhead (elevation 810ft) includes information on St. Patrick, on the geology and on the trails to the top. The summit trail heads directly up a modest slope to the base of a steep incline with many braided trails. On a rainy day like I encountered, this steep incline needs care for the rock and the mud provide for uncertain steps. But it is still a very short climb and soon one is clambering over less steep but grassy banks toward the flat 1437ft summit. The climb takes about 35min. On a clear day it is said that the panoramic view from the top of Slemish is inspiring. Some say that they have been able to see the tops of the Glens of Antrim, even the mountains of Scotland about 30 miles away. And to the west, the distant Sperrin Mountains in County Derry may reportedly be visible. More realistically one can look down from the summit and see the circular fields that date from the time of St. Patrick or before. Then the woods would have been cleared by hand. The fields may even have belonged to the chief Miliucc, Patrick's owner. A modern cottage stands on the site of Miliucc's stronghold; ironically this cottage is available for rent by visitors.

But I could see none of this for the mist allowed only a few yards of sight. Around me lay the flat earth and summit rock where St. Patrick spent years in prayer and thought. In the ancient tradition of the Irish the rock was covered by coins jammed in every crevice, balanced on every flat surface. I took a Lincoln penny from my pocket and placed it with all the others for my Patrick had been the essence of an American boy. The rain dripped down the hood of my weatherproof jacket, masking the tears that fell for my beloved son. Time does not heal all wounds; there are some that one lives with for all time.

But Doreen was waiting for me back at the trailhead and I reflected, as I often do on such occasions, that the part of our son that was most alive was our precious family memory of him. And so it was that I sighed and turned to leave, intent on departing the darkness of the summit and resolved to hasten to that person and that place where I could find comfort and the echo of my Patrick. I hurried down the grassy slope and the steep incline, even jogged across the field just above the trailhead. Doreen had been watching for me to emerge from the mist, concerned about both my physical and emotional well-being. We hugged and hastened into the warmth of the car. Soon we were speeding across the moorland toward a family welcome.

I could not tell you what I accomplished that afternoon; but there seemed some rightness to the moment. Perhaps it was that I had brought the memory of my son back to the home of his ancestors and to the place of his namesake. Perhaps, on the other hand, I was just being self-indulgent. I am not sure that it matters whether or not I can distinguish between the two for I shall for ever be slave to both.

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Last updated 1/27/03.
Christopher E. Brennen