Climbing Croagh Patrick on Reek Sunday… Saint Patrick’s Holy Mountain, Co Mayo
Saint Patrick is reputed to have driven the snakes out of Ireland from County Mayo’s notable hill/mountain, Crough Patrick, in 441 AD. This “historic” event took place while he spent 40 days and 40 nights fasting on the summit. Pilgrimages to the top have gone on even before Patrick with Bronze Age peoples recognizing it as a sacred place. The popularity of the pilgrimages waned after the famine years in the 1840s.
In 1903, Archbishop Dr John Healy revived the sacred climb. Two years later, a carpenter, an apprentice stonemason, a building contractor and his young son spent six months in a tent on the peak and were assisted by twelve local men to build a church at the top. The pilgrimage was reborn, and a tradition of climbing barefoot in the dark began. Today, climbers are strongly discouraged from climbing in the dark and the wearing of proper footwear is encouraged.
This weekend, Reek Sunday, is considered the holiest time to make the ascent as it commemorates Patrick’s original climb. Over 25,000 people are expected to reach the top on this day with more making the trip this week and many more throughout the year.
My Climb Up Patrick’s Holy Mountain
My ascent did not begin at 5am as the new tradition dictates. Instead, it was late morning under fair blue skies… only the very peak of Croagh Patrick was covered in clouds. I marched passed the statue of Saint Patrick and the random concrete benches that looked out over Clew Bay. My eye was on the conical shaped mountain in the distance.
The start of the climb was rough. The path also serves as the wash for water pouring off the mountain, so there were loose rocks and random trenches the entire way, but there were also waterfalls and sheep and giant, green boulders of Connemara marble. I was focused on climbing, but feeling a bit winded, I welcomed a chance to chat with a couple from Michigan who were taking a break.
Battling the Elements of Croagh Patrick
Just as the trail was leveling off a bit and the climb getting easier, the wind coming from the other side of the mountain picked up bringing with it gusts of moisture. My clothes were getting damp, but not wet. The higher I stepped, the wetter the air became until full-on horizontal rain sprayed in my face. The front of my shorts were soaking in water, and I was quickly learning that my weather-proof jacket was no match for Croagh Patrick… I needed something WATER-PROOF!
I pressed onwards using the stick that Darren from the hotel insisted I take with me to help keep steady as the incline steepened. The water permeating my jacket was pooling at my elbow, and when I’d straighten my arm, a stream of cold water poured out of my sleeve. Visibility had reduced to about 25 yards, the rain was lashing at my face and the silhouettes of the climbers in front of me appeared and disappeared like stars twinkling in the night sky.
Each time reason told me I should turn back, I reminded myself that at the top I could sit in the church and light a candle for my neighbor Margaret who was buried yesterday. I could also nibble on the sandwich from the bagged lunch from the hotel while I warmed up. The thoughts kept me climbing upward as the grade got steeper, the stones under my feet got looser and the flow of water coming off the mountain was becoming a steady stream.
Along the way there were stations where pilgrims do laps while saying a string of prayers. I opted to skip the extra steps deciding that those were for fair weather trekkers.
Reaching the Top
When I reached the summit, I could hardly make out the shape of the church in the fog. A lad from Northern Ireland climbing alongside me looked over and said, “Oh Jaaay-zus, are we really at the top? If we’re not, I don’t theenk I can go-on. Oh Jaaaay-zus, I think we made it.”
About ten other hikers were huddled against the church walls or were standing in the roofless shelters around it. I headed for the door… it was locked… as was the one on the other side… and the one in the back. My plans for the candle, lunch, warmth… all dashed.
I made my way to the sheltered side of the church, pressed my back against the wall and took an inventory of my electronics. I wanted to take some photos and video, but it was raining so hard, I couldn’t keep the lenses clear of water. I made one more lap around the church before deciding I needed to head down. As I approached the path, an Australian couple huddled in one of the stone shelters joked that they’d be putting lunch on the barbie in a few minutes – yes, they really said “barbie.”
The Careful Climb to the Bottom
The first part of the descent was the worst. The rocks were loose and water was running right down the middle of the trail. The man in front of me was the first to fall. He dusted himself off and kept going. Then down went the woman with him. The lad from Northern Ireland helped her up. She fussed about dropping her water bottle, and the lad stopped her, “Fook the water bottle, yeh need get down eeen one piece,” and he proceeded to show her how to grab the rocks to her side as she inched downward.
Using my stick for balance helped tremendously. I just had to remind myself to hold it to my side… otherwise if I fell forward, I’d be impaled in the process. After crossing the flattest part of the climb, I reached the spot where I first noticed the moisture on the way up. Now, it was a complete rainstorm and visibility was only slightly better than at the summit. Fortunately, the worst of the climb was behind me and the fog cleared with each step down the hill.
People climbing up the mountain looked to those of us climbing down for encouragement. “Are we almost there?” they’d ask. It was a pleasure telling them they didn’t have far to go, but with each group of climbers we’d meet, our enthusiasm would drop a bit… for they had a lot farther to climb than the group in front of them. Towards the bottom it was especially difficult to answer the “Are we there yet?” question to people who already looked exhausted, but hadn’t even reached the halfway point.
Along the way down, there was a young man in his twenties making the climb in his bare feet – I couldn’t even imagine giving that a go. There was also an Italian missionary with eight young teens following him up the mountain saying what sounded like the rosary and singing hymns at the end of each decade. A local character stopped me and asked if I made it all the way to the top; he told me he makes the climb three times a week, and it’s best to let yourself just fall on your backside if you start to go down, “because you don’t want to roll down the hill and take out the people in front of you.”
When I reached the Visitor Centre at the bottom, I ordered a tea and a great, big piece of homemade tart… the ham sandwich, orange and cookies from the hotel would have to wait. It was by far the greatest piece of tart I have ever eaten!
Details About the Climb
I’m certain a climb in the dry weather would be much more enjoyable AND SAFER, but, heck, I wouldn’t have much of a story to tell then
If you’re planning to make the climb, wear sturdy shoes, bring a stick (they sell them for €5 at the base), pack waterproof raingear, bring a bottle of water and travel very, very slowly. I would rate this a “Difficult” hike, so anyone with balance issues or any health problems should NOT go further than the Saint Patrick statue near the bottom (the views are lovely from there, honest).
Croagh Patrick is about 5 miles (8km) from the village of Westport near the village of Murrisk. The car park and climb are free, but donation boxes are set up along the route.
My Stay in Westport
Gotta say, I loved the hotel package I signed on for when I arrived in Westport. The Clew Bay Hotel had two nights B&B with one dinner, one bag lunch and a lift to and from Croagh Patrick for €135 per person. Like most hotels in Ireland, they’ve got all kinds of special packages like that for guests who are considering spending more than one night.
And let me tell you, after that climb, I was thrilled to have a nice hot shower in the sparkling hotel bathroom in my room… oh, and did I mention that AFTER my shower, I looked out the window and the weather had cleared and there were no longer ANY clouds around Croagh Patrick. Ireland has a sense of humor.
Even more cool, Darren, the friendly guy who gave me the walking stick and the lift to and from the mountain, also owns the hotel with his wife… how often do you see a hotel owner that involved in making sure a guest has a good experience?
Oh, and NO I didn’t accept any freebies to say these nice things… I just really enjoyed the place.