Climbing Croagh Patrick in Co. Mayo

If you have never climbed Croagh Patrick then you must set yourself a goal to do so. The annual pilgrimage takes place on the last Sunday of July. It is a spiritual experience. It is also a magical happening. We are fortunate having this great ‘peak’ on our doorstep in the West of Ireland, steeped in such great historical substance attached to Saint Patrick – our patron Saint.

It is estimated that 30,000 complete the annual pilgrimage. Interestingly, the media have reported in recent years that men are holier than women because they made up two thirds of the pilgrims. Another interesting statistic is that only two percent of people climb barefooted each year.

It is immensely difficult to determine a static definition of what it means to be Irish these days. Every generation brings its own perceptions and values – and with these changing parameters comes multi-faceted identities. It is no longer a case of there just being the obvious differences of opinion between old and young in our society. I think if any person looks at someone 10 years older and 10 years younger they will see differences beyond the generation gap in Ireland.

The days of widespread abuse, poverty and oppression have long since become history. People are terrifically well educated these days and we now have a prominent position on the world stage and a thriving economy. Our intelligence as a nation and our contribution to the world of literature and the arts are better recognised now than ever before.

One of the great delights of the Nostalgia Column in The Sligo Weekend is that it reminisces on the best of the past. It goes without saying that there are many past qualities in our culture worth remembering and celebrating. They illustrate great strengths of character alongside the integrity of our people, our cultural richness and our legendary good sense of humour.

Amongst all the changes, I personally cannot think of a better example of Old Ireland meeting New Ireland than the annual pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick, which takes place this Sunday 30th July. Well known simply as ‘The Reek’ because of its shape, the holy mountain has stood firm and resolute through the changes that have taken place in our homeland whilst it, too, has adapted to a few changes of its own along the way.

The following is an extract from an article I wrote last year about religion in Ireland during my youth. The piece is written in past tense and makes reference to Croagh Patrick and the six times that I climbed it during my youth. Our home in Derrykinlough was about fifty five miles from Croagh Patrick – the holy mountain situated in County Mayo, where in the year 441 AD St. Patrick is believed to have spent forty days and nights alone in the bitter cold at the top of the mountain, fasting and contemplating in prayer.

An annual pilgrimage involved climbing three miles up to the top of the mountain and attending Mass. This took place on the last Sunday of July. The climb was quite difficult and took over two hours, the last half a mile mainly consisted of scrambling over rocks and stones making the ascent to the summit quite treacherous. A stick was essential for support and my father always cut one especially for me. But the Order of Malta Ambulance Corps were always on standby, with volunteers ready to administer first aid to anyone who had fallen or to take pilgrims with more serious injuries to hospital. On reaching the top, it was generally considered obligatory to attend confessions and Mass in the tiny chapel there. Several other rituals, however, had to be maintained during the climb including doing a Station of the Cross mid way.

When I was a very young child climbs rarely commenced in daylight and were mainly at night-time. I remember my mother and brothers being collected by neighbours at around 10pm, as I was getting ready for bed. I envied them going on what seemed a mysterious voyage to me. My father stayed at home to mind me. In fact, he only climbed the Reek once. He had found it difficult and never felt the need to make a second pilgrimage. With having the ‘young one’ as I was referred to at home to baby-sit, I provided him with the perfect excuse to stay behind.

I listened with fascination to the stories my mother and brothers brought back. They included tales about people climbing by flashlight and some without any light; itinerant women carrying young children on their backs, some in bare feet – others falling and getting cut. Stories of good humour and camaraderie, with strangers keeping an eye out for each other – everyone united in his or her faith, determined to serve God by undertaking the climb as an act of penance.

The summit of the Reek was always bitterly cold. Thick fog and mist as well as a sharp breeze greeted people as they walked around the church whilst saying a decade of the rosary. When I first climbed the Reek I expected the church to be similar in size and design of other catholic churches but I discovered it was only small and had no altar or pews inside. It was used for confessions and sections were partitioned off for this purpose. Mass was celebrated every half hour from 8am onwards in a little kiosk attached to one of the church gables where people gathered in a large circle to participate. The church was built in the early 1900s. What a remarkable achievement it was to build a church on top of a mountain three miles above ground level. Donkeys would have been used to carry every stone up there because in those days there would have been no other method.

Legend has it that to get to Heaven pilgrims have to climb the Reek three consecutive years to earn the privilege. I duly climbed it three times in a row. It was during one of these last climbs of my childhood that I discovered ‘the third station’.

I accompanied Beatrice, a family friend, on many occasions. During one of these climbs someone gave me a prayer leaflet at the bottom before we began the climb. It was from this that I discovered an additional part of the pilgrimage once you reached the summit. It was optional but Beatrice and I decided to do this extra act of penance consisting of climbing down the opposite side of the mountain for a mile or so. Few pilgrims were doing the third station. Not many knew about it, whilst others who did decided not to take the risk.

The task entailed finding the way through thick fog down to three separate boulders of stones where one had to recite seven Hail Mary’s and seven Our Fathers around each clump. The next year, just before setting out for the climb, I can remember hearing my father say ‘’God Ye’ll end up in the sea if ye’re not careful’’ fearful that we would go off track in the heavy fog and get lost. Apart from being an arduous task, it was doubly hazardous, especially if there were an accident as there was no Order of Malta on standby to whisk one away on a stretcher. It was indeed the ‘survival of the fittest’.

I found the descent from Croagh Patrick to be delightful and easy. Not everyone would agree with me that this was the case. Many people considered it more difficult coming down than going up, not only as it took longer but because of the danger of slipping on the rocks.

During the descent the majestic scenery of Clew Bay across in the distance made the physical challenge all worthwhile. The lake, hills and multitude of greenery made a delightful picture. The fog and mist had usually disappeared by the time one had reached half way down making the views even more breathtaking. It was a relief to reach ground level once again because by that stage, I usually felt physically exhausted, yet mentally refreshed. Stallholders at the bottom of the mountain sold religious memorabilia. Purchasing a medal or picture of St. Patrick ended the pilgrimage appropriately. It was then time to sit down and enjoy the sandwiches and to be smugly satisfied that people at the bottom of the mountain were just starting out on their climb. At this stage after my strenuous efforts, I believed that their task ahead was unenviable to say the least’’.

So if you are game for something a little different this Sunday – get your stick and walking boots out and head for Murrisk – a tiny little village a few miles from Westport where you gain access to the Reek. This will provide a real opportunity to witness a piece of Ireland that expands to all generations. You may even catch sight of a few strong willed pilgrims making the climb in their bare feet. Alas, other commitments prevent me from being present this year. However, I was speaking a few weeks ago to Beatrice who I mentioned in this piece. She is climbing it this year for the 32nd time. This is undoubtedly a remarkable achievement that I imagine very few can equal. I wish all the climbers the very best for Sunday and hope that you all have a safe and enjoyable climb.

Published in The Sligo Weekend.

As a writer, I try to incorporate both sides of humanity into my writing, having learned that life is far from grim and that there is enough kindness, compassion, love and humour to overcome life’s obstacles, regardless of how much misery, abuse, or injustice exists.
Written by Declan Henry


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