An Irish April Fool’s Day

At the peak of a mountain on Ireland’s rugged west coast sits a small, white chapel. The mountain, Croagh (pronounced “crow”) Patrick, rises 2,500 feet above Clew Bay near the town of Louisburgh, my great-grandparents’ hometown. Croagh Patrick has been a site of pagan and Christian pilgrimage for centuries. Apparently, St. Patrick fasted on top of the mountain for forty days back in the 5th century.

A handful of my aunts, uncles, and cousins have made the trek too, but not to retrace St. Patrick’s steps. Walter Heneghan, my great-great-uncle, built the chapel at the top in 1905. His name is inscribed in stone above the chapel’s door. There are plenty of ways to retrace my Irish ancestors’ steps. Above all, hiking Croagh Patrick has become the Holy Grail for Heneghan family tree fanatics.

Walter Heneghan's Chapel

Walter Heneghan’s Chapel

I spent five months in Ireland last year, and my parents came to visit me in late March. A hike up Croagh Patrick was at the top of our to-do list while they were here. When they arrived, we drove from my apartment in Cork City across to County Mayo. As we neared the coast, Croagh Patrick came into view, and my dad eagerly pointed out the little white speck at the top of the mountain. There’s the chapel!

Unlike most of my days in Ireland up to that point, the sun was shining on the morning of our hike. As we ate an extra-hearty breakfast, our B&B host came into the dining room with the local paper, The Mayo News. She handed the paper to my dad. He froze.

Front page of the Mayo News, April 1st, 2014

Front page of the Mayo News, April 1st, 2014

The headline read, “Sinkhole Causes Church Collapse on Croagh Patrick.” The photograph splayed across the front page showed the chapel in ruins, sunken into the ground.

We were heartbroken. How was this possible? This chapel was a touchstone to our roots, our home, our past. Yet, after all this anticipation, it didn’t make sense not to do the hike.

This is not an easy hike. The terrain is like gravel on steroids, and the incline was so steep I felt I should have a harness on. It was exhausting and frightening at times, but stunning. I had been in Ireland for three months, and this was one of the most glorious days yet. There were moments when I forgot about the sinkhole completely.

Natalie-Hiking

As I chugged along, I could start to see the tippy-top of the chapel. To me it looked pretty much intact. My parents were lagging behind and I was getting impatient. We’d regroup at the top.

By the last few hundred yards that the chapel came into full view. I don’t get it. It’s totally fine! It looked just like my uncle’s pictures from his trip the year before. I ran around to the other side. Not a crack. I didn’t understand until I heard my dad approaching – half-laughing and half-wheezing from the final push to the peak: “It’s April Fool’s Day!”

Croagh-Patrick-Chapel

Yep, the local newspaper duped us. Not just unsuspecting tourists – everyone. We were relieved – ecstatic, really – to see our special place unharmed. But locals were upset, even disturbed, that anyone would mess with Croagh Patrick. The mountain and its little chapel are not important only because St. Patrick happened to climb it hundreds of years ago. It has been and continues to be a landmark, a community centerpiece, a spiritual site, a bucket list hike, and to us, a family heirloom.

Natalie Heneghan

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