Croagh Patrick, Ireland's Holy Mountain: 'Sure, it's a bit of a hill'

Croagh Patrick, Ireland's Holy Mountain: 'Sure, it's a bit of a hill'

Paul Russell

In the year 441 St Patrick climbed the mountain near Westport, County Mayo, that now bears his name to spend 40 days in prayer and fasting there before embarking on his evangelisation of the Emerald Isle. Historians have suggested that this holy place has been a centre of pilgrimage dating back to the Stone Age. Certainly, for the last 1,500 years, Catholics have come to Ireland's Holy Mountain as a pilgrimage to their greatest saint.

Croagh Patrick, or "The Reek" as it is also known, rises above the town of Westport to the height of 762 metres. Its conical shape, resembling a stack of wheat (or reek) distinguishes it from other peaks in the region. Each year in July on "Reek" Sunday, 25,000 pilgrims visit this holy place, many to scale its craggy slopes over and over again, year after year.


I have been fascinated for many years by the lure of this distinct and desolate mountain. Images old and new of bare-footed (as is the tradition) pilgrims making what can only be described as a penitential ascent of the craggy and wind-blown slopes, inspired me to beg my Irish host that we make the journey during my short stay in Ireland.

An early morning drive of some four hours, the day after St Patrick's Day celebrations, to the foot of Croagh Patrick seemed foolhardy enough. For nothing could have prepared me for the task at hand that cold March morning to walk, in St Patrick's footsteps, to the summit of Croagh Patrick.

The scenery, both of the bay below us and the mountain above was a welcome distraction from the increasing pain and shortness of breath as we made slow upward progress. At one point we covered no more than 10 to 15 metres at a time, stopping to recover in the thinning, cold air. More than once I contemplated submission.

I quite simply cannot convey the magnitude of the climb in words. The weather changing from sunshine to hail and sleet with strong wind gusts compounded the already difficult task of finding a firm foothold on the wet rocks.

The first stage of the ascent is by way of an adjoining mountain. At times the following stages are hidden from view. This deception caused me to hope (in vain) that the next stage would be easier. A saddle-ridge could be seen ahead offering some relief from the steep inclines. However, the final ascent to the summit still lay ahead.

Before the final climb, the first of two "stations" appeared, beckoning the pilgrim to fulfill the pilgrimage routine by marching seven times around the cairn-like structure, reciting prayers. Conserving energy, I declined the ritual, throwing up a quick plea to St Patrick for protection and endurance.

Funny how things can sometimes come to mind: I found myself uttering the words of St Patrick, "Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ behind me, Christ within me", over and over again, in time with my footsteps, as I trudged onward.

Croagh Patrick is all but denuded of the black turf that covers so much of this region, whereas, the valley below is marked by the precise gridlines of the traditional turf cutters. What remains on the mountain is the substratum of shale and large rocks - the mountain looking rather like a stack of giant pieces of gravel. These large rocks and the steep incline make climbing difficult. At each step my foot was as likely to slide away as it was to find sure footing.

Atop the summit is an oratory church and the memorial marking the spot where St Patrick is supposed to have slept. This sight was still hidden from view as I noticed an elderly man descending from above.

Safe climb

I asked this surefooted gentleman how far I had yet to climb. "Sure, 'tis only ten minutes more and it gets easier from here" was his encouraging reply. After a further 15 minutes climbing with no summit in sight, I became convinced that the gentleman had kissed the Blarney Stone more than once and that Patrick had never been near this bleak place. Surely, I thought, this pilgrimage was an Irish fiction designed to help rid the land of meddlesome tourists like me!

Eventually the summit came into view and with it a vista beyond compare of distant bays and snow-peaked mountains. I uttered a quiet prayer of thanks and praise to God for a safe climb, for Patrick and for the magnificent views.

The way down was much quicker and a little easier on the body, though not entirely without difficulty. Some parts of the final descent approached 45 degrees in pitch. Here I found myself sliding gingerly downwards on my backside in a most undignified manner.

Back at the car park, and with a swelling sense of achievement, I ventured into the tourist shop. I'm not much of a one for trinkets, but I could not let this moment pass without buying one of those "been-there-done-that" T-shirts. As I waited at the cashier's counter - still covered in sweat (and mud from a fall) and wracked with pain - the cashier displayed the typical Irish mastery of understatement: "Sure, it's a bit of a hill."

Paul Russell is South Australian President of the National Civic Council.

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