Walkers seeking peace and solitude on one of Ireland’s best known mountains this weekend should forget the idea.
Around 20,000 people will make their way this Sunday to the summit of the 764m (2,510ft) Croagh Patrick, the shapely cone of quartzite-covered rock near Westport in County Mayo. The last Sunday in July is the traditional date of the annual pilgrimage to the top of the mountain named after the country’s patron saint.
‘Reek Sunday’ not only sees throngs of believers making their ascent, but numerous stall holders along the route up the mountain selling sandwiches and refreshments. Tradition has it that Saint Patrick, who was kidnapped by Irish pirates from his home in northern England and escaped to devote his life to spreading the Christian word throughout Ireland, spent 40 days fasting on the mountain.
Latter-day pilgrims now make the journey to the chapel established at the summit, pausing first at a statue of the saint erected in 1928. It’s then on to three traditional stations, the first of which is a pile of stones which has to be circumnavigated seven times while praying; at the summit, 15 circuits of the chapel are required and finally at the Roilig Mhuire enclosure a further seven circuits are made, while reciting a final round of Our Fathers and Hail Marys.
The point of the Reek Sunday ascent is penance, and many pilgrims formerly made the journey either barefoot or even on their knees. Mayo Mountain Rescue Team (MRT) now advises against this. In fact, the MRT advice is unlike any you’re likely to see elsewhere. Notes to pilgrims state: “Barefoot and blind: while the traditional pilgrimage was undertaken at night and barefoot, this practice is no longer encouraged. Indeed the night pilgrimage has been officially discontinued by the Tuam Diocese on safety grounds since the 1960s.”
For those absolutely intent on going up the mountain without footwear, the MRT says: “[The team] suggests that they at least bring a pair of shoes with them in case the effort becomes too painful or excessive. Also the use of a stick and maintaining a very slow and careful pace is the key to a safe and successful barefoot pilgrimage.”
Pilgrims are encouraged to stick to the spirit of the event: “Venturing onto the mountain with alcohol taken or drinking alcohol on the mountain is strongly advised against. Apart from the effect that even a little alcohol can have on balance and judgement, it should be remembered that this is a holy place of pilgrimage warranting respect also.” The annual event, as well as being the Mayo MRT’s busiest day of the year, also leaves it mark on the mountain. The track is left strewn with litter and discarded drinks bottles, despite the presence of wardens handing out on-the-spot fines to litterbugs.
Croagh Patrick has been considered a sacred place even before Patrick’s fifth-century visit, during which legend has it he cast all serpents from the emerald isle. There are many prehistoric sites in the area and in pagan days, childless women would spend a night on the summit in the hope of increasing their fertility. It was named Cruachán Aigle – Eagle Mountain – in a mediaeval chronicle.
In the year 1113, 30 pilgrims were killed by a lighting strike. The summit chapel was the subject of an ownership dispute between the Archbishops of Tuam and Armagh. A papal decree granted the spoils to Tuam in 1216.
If the turmoil of Reeks Sunday puts you off a visit to the mountain this weekend, there are plenty of alternatives on the Walking Ireland website.