New York City native Patrick Connolly celebrated his 90th birthday by making a pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick.
Most people, upon reaching their 90th birthday, celebrate the milestone in some way that is significant to themselves and to their loved ones. Most people, upon reaching their 90th birthday, however, do not climb mountains – significant or not. But most people are not Patrick Connolly, and this is exactly what he did. On August 3, 2011, just two days before officially turning 90, he, along with 59 of his relatives, summited Ireland’s holy mountain, Croagh Patrick. The location of the mountain (County Mayo) holds special significance for Patrick, as Mayo was his father’s home, and the place from which his father emigrated so many years before.
From his family farm in Mayo, Patrick’s father, also Patrick Connolly, left for Queenstown (now Cobh) in Ireland, where he boarded the RMS Lusitania. He paid for his passage to America by shoveling coal. It was on the Lusitania that he met Anna Beagan, who was also working on board, as a waitress. Seven years later, to the month, they married. The couple eventually settled in Howard Beach, Queens, just blocks from where their son, Patrick, and his wife, Breeda, live today.
The Connollys’ kitchen is tidy and comfortable. Like the rest of the house, it is filled with family photographs, and carries the faint aroma of homemade bread – soda bread, what else? Every corner, every shelf, has a different story to tell. Here is a little change bank in the shape of a smiling cottage (dubbed the “Ireland or Bust” bank) which once sat atop the fridge collecting pocket change, in an effort to save up money for the family’s first trip to Ireland together. Over here, a clock that was hand-carved for them by a man in Long Kesh Prison, circa 1978; a gift thanking the family for their involvement with a Troubles relief program, Project Children. The late-morning sun falls just on the edge of their kitchen table, which is set for tea. While Breeda pours, Patrick and two of the couple’s eight children, Brian and Stephen, sit down around the table.
“The best you ever had,” Patrick says, referring to Breeda’s soda bread.
And it ought to be. Mary Breeda Walsh grew up in Limerick City until she was 16. She came to America in 1938, just in time for the World’s Fair, to visit her father and brother, who had moved here for work. But in 1939, World War II broke out in Europe, and civilian travel was cut off, leaving her an effective refugee in Howard Beach. It was there, just down the block from her father’s house, that she and Patrick first met through his sister, Helen, whom Breeda had forged a deep friendship with while Patrick was serving in Europe as a bombardier with the Air Corps. And it was 15 years ago, on one of their visits back to Breeda’s homeland, that Patrick saw Croagh Patrick for the first time. They could not climb that day because of bad weather, but just being in the mountain’s presence was enough for him to grasp the meaning of the majestic rock as a place of spiritual power.
Croagh Patrick, or Cruach Phádraig, locally known as the Reek, measures 764 meters (2,507 feet) in height, and is a popular destination for spiritual seekers of many faiths, from all over the world. Saint Patrick is said to have fasted at the top of the mountain for 40 days, and legend says he built a church up there. A small chapel was erected at the summit just after the turn of the 20th century, and some visitors choose to make their way through the difficult – and occasionally deadly – terrain barefoot, as an ascetic act of penance and self-sacrifice. But Croagh Patrick has held holy significance for climbers long before Christianity was introduced to Ireland in the fifth century. The ground there was considered sacred by the Druids, who are thought to have used the mountain for pilgrimages during the summer solstice – a special time of year for them, as they revered the sun.
Patrick describes the view over Clew Bay. “At the end of July, the beginning of August, as the sun’s setting in the west, it looks like it’s rolling down the mountain. And that’s one of the reasons why [the Druids] thought this was a holy place. But it’s biblical, too,” he continues, “that being on a mountain is sacred. That was all part of this.”
By “this,” Patrick means his remarkable ascent up what, towards the top of the summit, becomes a 50-degree incline. But he also means the gathering of approximately 80 of his relatives (those who didn’t do the climb still came to cheer the others on, and to take part in the rest of the 10 days’ worth of activities that Patrick’s son, Stephen, had planned out). It was a get-together which required considerable organization, but Stephen was unfazed by the logistics of it. He has worked with documentary crews in several countries, under all kinds of conditions, and has managed tours for some popular musicians. Of course, it helps to have friends and cousins all over the country, making suggestions for the itinerary.
Two years ago, the Connollys were on another one of their excursions (this one, too, organized by Stephen) when a group decided to attempt climbing Croagh Patrick. It was the elder Patrick’s 88th birthday, and though he got as far up as the first stop on the pilgrimage – a statue of the patron saint – he didn’t trust himself to make it all the way to the top. During a car ride later the same trip, Patrick confided in Stephen that he had made a vow back at the foot of the mountain, that he would climb Croagh Patrick on his 90th birthday, in honor of his and Breeda’s parents.
The only agreement they made: if his doctor said he couldn’t do it, he wouldn’t.
When his doctor asked him why he wanted to do the climb, Patrick told him it was to be his way of thanking God for his Irish roots, for his family, and for his friends. The doctor replied simply, “Well, I’m not going to stand between you and God. So send me a picture of the rock from the top.”
“I have a pacemaker,” Patrick explains, “and take a stress test every six months. I knew it was going to be difficult, that I had to work out. I asked for guidance.” It was while Patrick was exercising, early on into his training, that he suddenly felt an overwhelming sense of calm. It was, he believes, the Holy Spirit, sending him the message, “You do your part, and I’ll do mine.” He began using the treadmill at the gym three times a week, and would spend another one or two days walking around his neighborhood, or in Forest Park, eventually walking four or five miles at a time.
Of course, they still took plenty of precautions. Conveniently, firemen and EMTs abound in this family (Patrick was once himself a fireman). Fully prepared with water, chairs, and even tents in case the need presented itself, the group stopped every 100 yards or so to say a decade of the Rosary, as a way of pacing themselves, and also out of respect for Patrick’s wishes, that this trip be an act of thanksgiving and praise.
Brian Connolly remembers when his children finally reached the summit. “Because it takes so long, and it does challenge your will to continue, they clearly began to understand that ‘this whole thing is bigger than me.’ You have a moment, and whether there’s a church there or not, you realize how small you are, and the majesty of God’s earth…There’s no question, if you’re open, there is a message from the Creator there.”
By Patrick’s side the entire time was his seven-year-old great-grandson, also named Patrick. For the full 15-hour trek, fifth-generation Patrick Connolly stayed right in step with second-generation Patrick Connolly. “Now I know I can do anything,” he told his mother. Seeing this young boy – and the whole span of generations of girls and boys, and women and men (including his younger sister, Nancy, who made the climb despite recent health issues) all gathered together in one place, going on the same journey together – Patrick realized that his should not be thought of as a pilgrimage solely of faith and gratitude for what had already come to pass, but also as one to celebrate hope for the future, and love in the present.
Here, Breeda interjects, “I didn’t climb up. I stayed in Campbell’s Pub!” But then she clarifies, “We were in and out. We did go part ways up the mountain.” This pub, Campbell’s, has been at the foot of Croagh Patrick for centuries, and has been in current owner Pádraig Fitzpatrick’s family for 175 years. “They are Croagh Patrick,” Brian explains. “There’s no other commercial anything there. [Pádraig] is the gatekeeper of Croagh Patrick.” Pádraig kept his pub open well into the night, sitting and chatting with Breeda and the others, waiting to welcome in the hikers. “He kept the pints pouring,” Brian smiles appreciatively. “The sandwiches just kept coming out of the kitchen, and they kept the fire going. I don’t even know if anyone paid a bill that night.”
Stephen has pulled out the family tree that he put together and distributed among his relatives. A bound collection of personal accounts from everyone who has descended from Patrick’s parents, it’s quite a tome. The book’s weight alone suggests how remarkable it is that this large family, which has expanded so rapidly over the course of just a couple of generations, has all come into being because of the love shared between these two courageous immigrants pictured on the cover.
Flipping through the book, Stephen remarks, “It’s happened many times, that there’ll be a wedding scheduled or a party scheduled, and somebody died right before it. A lot of times, people would reschedule the party or cancel the party. But we don’t do that. That party’s going on, and that’s one of the good things about being in this family, because if you were ever a part of the family, you can know we’re going to remember you. And we’ll celebrate your life. But we’re moving on, too, because it’s always going to be about the next generation, and the next generation, and the next generation.”
And the continuation of the generations is really what this whole pilgrimage was about in the first place – thanking those who came before, embracing those who are here now, and awaiting those who are yet to come. For the Connolly clan, as they refer to themselves, doesn’t actually have a family tree, so much as a family mountain. And Patrick Connolly now sits at the very top, beaming.