On my recent trip to Ireland, to the land of my ancestors, I climbed to the top of Ireland’s highest peak, Carrauntoohil, with my friends Simon and Michelle, who make their home these days in Dublin. It was a four hour hike, all uphill, from where we parked our car early that morning: the summit was completely invisible when we set off, lost in cloud. But to our delight the rain that was forecast did not eventuate, and as we wearily approached the top the cloud began to thin out and blow away, giving us glimpses of the lowlands of County Kerry all around and the sea beyond.
On the summit of Carrauntoohil there is a huge iron cross, which has stood there for almost two generations. We could not see it on our approach, but by the time we arrived it was emerging from the mist. We ate our packed lunch at the foot of the cross; a scattering of walkers who had ascended the mountain from other directions were doing the same. We were buffeted by a cold wind, and above us was only the grey-white of cloud, so we did not hang around for long before beginning the muscle taxing descent. But we were there long enough to have our pictures taken, and long enough for me to wonder at who had raised this cross in such a remote place, on the top of Ireland.
Simon told me that about five years ago, in an act of wanton destruction, vandals had felled the cross, cutting it through near the base. However, the local people of the valleys and farms around raised it again within a short time, and it stands to this day, witness to the commitment of the people of Kerry to this timeless symbol, and all that it stands for. I read about the re-raising of the Cross on Carrauntoohil in a book I found about the MacGillicuddy Reeks:
On Saturday [22 November 2014] a mountain guide, Piaras Kelly (kerryclimbing.ie) discovered that the cross had been severed on this the most iconic summit in Ireland. It was an act of vandalism and disrespect, not alone for the cross and all it stood for, but for the community who calls the Reeks home. The re-instatement of the cross was organised by Mike O’Shea, who along with many volunteers on the day, had a direct connection with those who made and erected the first cross in 1952, and again in 1976. The cutting down of the cross caused a storm in the media. However, in the end, the people of the Reeks and landowners decided, quietly and without fuss, to restore the iconic cross… Well before dawn on the 29 November [a week later] Mike and his team headed up… armed with a generator, a number of angle grinders, various materials… and equipment… The work began as the sun began to rise. Everyone knew that it was going to be a special day on Carrauntoohil; blue skies appeared and an amazing cloud cover stayed below the summit for the day. It felt just right, a celebration of community spirit and gratitude…(p.94 The MacGillicuddy’s Reeks, by Valerie O’Sullivan).
The whole story reminded me of an experience I had many years ago in the eighties, when I was working with a Christian organisation called Youth With A Mission (YWAM), in the Midlands of England. Near the old English mansion where we lived (The King’s Lodge) there was an impoverished community called Camp Hill, an outer suburb of the city of Nuneaton. Alongside this disadvantaged housing estate, in the grounds of an old quarry, was a conical looking “mountain,” an old slag heap of waste material from former mining days. It dominated the horizon from where we lived and I saw it every day.
We had started attending an Anglican church in Camp Hill, and had run some kid’s activities there in the school holidays. It was an area of mass unemployment and great disadvantage, certainly not an area known for church attendance or Christian faith, which seemed irrelevant to most of the locals. We had chosen to join the local church to support what we saw as a beacon of light in a difficult place, in the hope that others in the area would see that faith in God was not as irrelevant as it might seem. A group of young people joining the little congregation was somewhat unexpected and aroused some interest.
The enormous slag heap that we saw every day and which we passed whenever we went to Camp Hill, became for me somehow a symbol of the area and its people, leftovers of a previous livelihood, but now of little use and no longer wanted. Then in the weeks leading up to Easter 1988 an idea formed in my mind to raise a giant cross on the top of the slag heap. I knew it would be visible from all around, and I hoped it would be a reminder of the message of Easter for those who saw it. So in the darkness of a chilly night, a group of friends and I dragged some heavy wooden beams and other materials we needed to the peak of the heap, and erected a cross.
Good Friday dawned bright and clear, and there it stood for all to see, the cross we had raised. But within a day or two it had been pulled down, witness to the offence that some feel at this symbol of Jesus’ death, or perhaps just an act of vandalism as happened on Carrauntoohil. I made my way up the pile again a few nights later, to see if it could be salvaged, but there was little I could do by myself, and the wooden beams were left lying on the side of the “mountain.” I wondered then, as I wonder now, why the cross upsets some people so much, while for others, like me, it has become the central symbol of our lives.
The cross of Christ played a profound part in the consciousness of my Irish ancestors, as I have written in previous blogs. My forebears lived their lives in the shadow of the MacGillicuddy’s Reeks, some in Templenoe on the southern slopes of the mountains, where the 1861 Kerry Revival broke out, others in Killorglin and Killarney on the north-eastern side, where the effects of the revival spread. That was almost a hundred years before anyone thought to raise a cross on the summit of Carrauntoohil, but the message of Jesus for which the cross stands made a lasting impression on my ancestors, and the influence of that revival spread with them to Australia where the two families (Hickson and Byrne) ended up in the latter part of the 1800s.
That legacy has come down to me, mainly through my mother, who was descended from the Needham family of Templenoe, who were in the thick of the heady revival days in Templenoe. I knew nothing of my Irish family when I did my “discipleship training” in YWAM in the 80s. Nor did I know anything back then of my Scottish ancestors, who were profoundly affected by the revivals in the Highlands in the first half of the 1800s, and brought that heritage to Australia with them when they came. My father’s great grandfather was a certain James Ross, who was a teenager in the days when a great evangelist named John MacDonald was preaching in the towns and villages of the Highlands. James was profoundly affected by the Highland revival and brought his faith with him to Sydney, where he migrated in the 1860s with his wife and children. One of his great grandsons, my dad’s cousin, ended up an archbishop in Sydney. The Christian faith is undeniably part of our family’s spiritual DNA.
The cross on Carrauntoohil was not there when my Kerry family left for Australia in the second half of the 1800s. But the message for which it stands was impacting lives then as it still is now. At the climax of our tiring climb to the summit of Carrauntoohil a few months ago I was excited to see the great iron cross standing there on the roof of Ireland, and I was pleased and moved to see that the people of one of my ancestral homelands remain committed to this symbol of the hope that comes from knowing Jesus.
The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”1 Corinthians 1:18,19