A Croagh Patrick Pilgrimage
Rising above Clew Bay and the picture postcard town of Westport in Co. Mayo, is Croagh Patrick, the mountain where as legend would have it, Saint Patrick banished all the snakes from Ireland.
Croagh Patrick is known throughout Ireland as the Reek and each year on the last Sunday of July (known locally as Reek Sunday) thousands of people of all ages and from all walks of life, make the trek up the loose scree pathway to its 765m peak. Many do it barefoot and at one time a midnight torchlit procession was held on Reek Sunday.
Admittedly when I paid a visit to Westport in County Mayo, I wasn't that penitent. Although I did make the trek in thick fog and had the Reek virtually to myself as I followed in the footsteps of Saint Patrick.
The story goes that in 441AD St Patrick spent 40 days and 40 nights fasting on Croagh Patrick before performing his most famous miracle of banishing the snakes from Ireland. In reality, there never were any snakes in Ireland, to cold and wet I guess, instead the act is seen as a metaphor for St Patrick replacing the Druidic faith, who's symbol was the snake, with Christianity in Ireland. But why let the truth get in the way of a good story.
As I parked the car at the visitor centre at the foot of Croagh Patrick, it was a grey autumnal day and the radio was warning of winds blowing in thick fog from the Atlantic. But it was now or never and even though it was 2pm in the afternoon with only four hours of daylight left, it wasn't going to stop my solo pilgrimage, though this is certainly not recommended practice. On that note - allow four hours to get up and down Croagh Patrick, wear solid footware and dress appropriately. And don't go alone or in bad weather!
As I started on the pathway I was greeted by a tall and pristine marble statue of St. Patrick, blessing pilgrims like myself with an emerald green shamrock. With this weather I'll need all the luck I can get, I muttered to myself as I traipsed up into the mist.
The route to the top of the Reek, begins with a long and steep ascent and the further up I got, the looser the scree became and the fact that I could only just see my feet in front of me wasn't making things any easier.
Further up I could hear the trickle of water and noticed that the path followed the line of a stream of clear and very cold water. Thank good it's not raining I thought, otherwise I'd be really up the reek without a paddle!
After a the long ascent the path levelled and just as I was beginning to think that I was at the top and that it didn't take long at all and I could have don it barefoot, the path veered off to the right and the fog lifted slightly to reveal another steep climb. Along this base point is one of three piles of stones, these are the traditional stations of the Reek where pilgrims should walk around while praying. But I think given the conditions I'm paying penance enough.
It's about this time I passed some other pilgrims for the first time - a middle aged couple with young teenage kids on holiday from England. They were all wrapped up well - better than me anyway and its just as well, as two days ago they were climbing up Carrantuohil, Ireland's tallest peak, in the Killarney National Park in Co. Kerry. The father laughs as he describes weather much worse than this and his kids clinging onto the cross at the top of the Carrantuohil for dear life - no doubt a priceless family moment.
Inevitably the fog got thicker as I came to the final ascent to the top and the scree was loosening rocks the size of my fist, when a figure appeared from the mist. I watched as, like Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia, the figure got closer and a young American woman stumbled precariously towards me. She'd chosen to turn back and left her husband to make the final ascent by himself as she didn't feel safe enough. But I'd not come all this way to turn back now and so I headed on as she looked up after me with a worried expression.
The Reek certainly leaves the hardest part to the last and I was literally crawling on my hands with the wind blowing all around me, before finally I'd reach the top shrouded in mist. I bumped into the American husband, almost quite literally before he headed down. I'm staying for the view, I told him, but the irony was lost somehow.
"Magnificent views of Clew Bay and the surrounding south Mayo countryside" it says in the guidebooks, but I could barely see the nose on my face. I tried the door to the small chapel at the top but it was sensibly closed.
40 days and nights on this windswept peak would seem like an eternity, no wonder the snakes left, I thought to myself, before making my way back down. I didn't see a soul for the entire descent, no-one else was daft enough to make the climb that day and I reached the bottom just as the sun was setting, somewhere through the mists.
The next day, while I was out on Achill Island on the opposite side of the bay from Croagh Patrick, the skies were clear blue and I could see that lofty peak I'd climbed 24 hours earlier quite visibly. Typical, I thought, but then I guess I used up all my luck getting of the Reek in one piece.
Where to stay:
Knockranny Hotel House & Spa situated just outside the colourful heritage town of Westport boasts an excellent selection of spacious, well-appointed and tranquil bedrooms with restful colours blend, tasteful furnishings and all the necessary comforts and facilities from $239 per room per night. While the excellent Spa facilities are ideal for soothing the aches and pains from a day trekking up the Reek.