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A good indicator of the state of religious relations in Mayo is the story of how the congregation of the Church of Ireland (Protestant) threw open their doors in Westport to their Catholic neighbours when St. Mary’s church was being renovated in recent times. In today’s west of Ireland, Catholic & Protestant mix without fear or prejudice. Of course it was not always so and the countless ruins caused by religious persecution bear witness to that fact.
The signs of religion are everywhere in Mayo--with abbeys in various states of ruin, round towers and sacred crosses, and stones such as the Rock of Boheh. In every town you will see religious rituals, from weddings to First Holy Communions to funerals, where cortèges of people walking through town are a common sight.
In some cases the roots of a religious icon go back to pagan times and historical accounts are often tinged with a good deal of superstition. Croagh Patrick, for instance, was a destination for pilgrims before Christianity took hold in the 5th century since when it has evolved to become synonymous with Christian pilgrimage. To this day, on the last Sunday of July up to 30,000 people convene in Murrisk to climb the Reek, as it is known locally. Beginning before sunrise, a steady stream of climbers make the arduous ascent over shale and rock, some barefoot in keeping with the tradition. St Patrick is believed to have spent 40 days and nights fasting on the mountain in 441 AD. He had a silver bell, which he used to fend off demons which manifested as crows who turned the bell black. St. Patrick’s Bell is black today. On the last day of his fast, Patrick threw the bell at the chief demon, Corra, knocking her out of the sky. Where she landed a lake formed known as Lough na Corra. To this day, pilgrims on the Reek report hearing the sound of a ringing bell as they climb, which spurs them on to the top.
The 5th century brought Christianity to the country and an image associated with monks, scholarship and Christianity is the Irish Round Tower-- unique to Ireland. While no one knows for sure what the towers were built for, judging by the high doorways, it seems likely that they served as refuges from attackers. Some believe they served as bell-towers where hand-bells rung out a window called the faithful to prayer. With five round towers in the county, together with Kildare, Mayo has the highest number of round towers in Ireland. They are located in Aughagower, Balla, Killala, Meelick and Turlough.
Aughagower is on the Tochar Phadraig (the Pilgrim's Walk) which begins at Ballintubber Abbey and ends at Croagh Patrick, the holy mountain. At Aghagower, traditionally pilgrims stop to perform the ‘rounds,’ a series of prayers before progressing to the Reek. Ballintubber Abbey is described as "the Abbey that refused to die," having been established in 1216 and holding a remarkable record for celebrating mass for 800 years.
The Penal Laws sent religious practice underground and brought about the birth of the ‘Hedge Schools’ to meet the educational needs of Catholic children. Also, secret masses held in abandoned buildings, quarries or anywhere that a lookout could warn the congregation of the approach of authorities--kept Catholicism strong. As the Penal Laws began to wane and Catholic Emancipation grew, the Catholic Church became more visible, taking control of education and formalising all the rituals of life. The church condemned traditional wakes and superstitious beliefs and practices such as dancing at the crossroads which consequently began to die away.
The power of the Catholic Church has waned in Ireland in recent years with the disclosure of abuse scandals and their patronage of schools is dissipating. Mayo has a mixture of old ruined monastic buildings and modern churches which are often built adjacent to or near their ancient predecessors.
The Abbeys of Mayo contribute much in the telling of the county’s Christian history. From the foundation of monastic sites, through the Gothic and Romanesque buildings of the Middle Ages to the scars of the suppression of religious beliefs with their attendant pillaging and destruction of buildings, today we value and treasure the buildings as reminders of the sometimes brave and visionary people who kept faith, learning and literature alive for centuries. Abbeys worth seeing include Cong Abbey, Ballintubber Abbey, Ballina, Rosserk Friary, Moyne Abbey, Killala Round Tower, Mayo Abbey, Aughagower, Errew and Turlough.
Mayo is home to two major pilgrimages on the ecclesiastical calendar: Reek Sunday, which draws 30,000 climbers on one single day and Knock Shrine, which attracts more than a million and a half pilgrims every year, making it one of the most popular shrines in Europe, along with Fatima and Lourdes.