It’s our Camino de Santiago; our Via Francigena; our Lourdes. Ireland’s holy mountain of pilgrimage, , has been a peak of spiritual significance for thousands of years, well before Christanity, and St Patrick claimed it as their own. And today, multitudes still scale its slopes for the rejuvenation, the views and the craic.
Croagh Patrick (Gaelic for ‘Patrick’s Stack’) stands 762 meters above sea level, a height made all the more dramatic as the mountain arrows skyward opening up heavenly views of the Atlantic and Mayo’s
beautiful island-strewn . In fact, drama could be Croagh Patrick’s middle name, considering how often it’s been a footnote in the history of the island.
Jog back with us to 441 AD when St Patrick scaled the rocky mountain (barefoot, remember. Saints here hard folk back then), to fast for forty days and nights atop the summit in emulation of Jesus in the desert. The story goes that a flock of demons tried to distract him – as they do – but St Patrick banished the pesky spirits with a mighty peal from his legendary bell Finn-Foya. St Patrick’s epic adventures were enough for the mountain to be named after him, and anoint it as Ireland’s primary pilgrimage hotspot.
Even further back through the mists of time (we’re talking 5,000 years ago), well before the original snake-buster showed up, the mountain served as a centre of pagan worship known as Cruach Aigli (Gaelic that roughly translates to ‘Stack of the eagle’). Here, the festival Lughnasa was celebrated each year to appease the fickle pagan god Lugh and ensure a bountiful harvest season. The pagans also believed that women who scaled the mountain and slept on the summit would improve their fertility.
You could safely, then, consider Croagh Patrick a ‘well-beaten path’. But that doesn’t make it any less popular to scale today as it was thousands of years ago. The pilgrimage route starts in the village of Murrisk at the base of the mountain beside the Croagh Patrick Visitor Centre. From here, the climb is broken up into three pilgrim stations, each with their own associated rituals and prayers.
Extend your journey to the surroundings before you even get to the base, and there’s plenty to see. In Murrisk, pause at the poignant Famine Memorial; a Coffin Ship sculpture with haunting skeleton bodies inside.
The Boheh Stone (also known as St Patrick’s Chair) is a large rock on the eastern approach to Croagh Patrick, which is covered in swirling Neolithic art motifs (think entrance stone). The carvings mark a ‘rolling sun phenomenon‘. When standing at the rock on April 18th and August 24th, the sun smolders and sets on the summit of Croagh Patrick, but instead of passing behind the mountain like you’d expect it to, the golden rays cascade down its right-hand slope. It’s a rare spectacle and extraordinary when you consider the prehistoric people who were able to note it.
In 1928, a statue of St Patrick himself was erected by a Reverend Father Patterson, and now marks the first pilgrim station. Atop the summit you’ll find a beautifully but modest whitewashed chapel where services are held on special occasions. The one reward everyone can expect upon reaching the summit is jaw-dropping views. And what a view! An endless patchwork of fields and cottages unrolls before the mountain to the east, and to the west the island of Ireland itself seems to break apart and peter out into a myriad of sunken drumlins peppering Clew Bay.
Each year on the last Sunday in July, known as Reek Sunday, around 30,000 people descend on Mayo to climb the mountain. While it’s entwinned with Christian heritage, the mountain is really for everyone; all faiths, creeds and nationalities. And each have their own reasons to climb; be it for spiritual sustenance, physical challenge, or simply the glorious view from the summit.
When you scale these slopes you are literally following in the footsteps of Ireland’s ancestors. Legends, traditions, myths and superstitions have attached themselves to the mountain; it means more to people than just a way to spend an afternoon. People find solace and camaraderie up along the climb; they share an objective and a human experience regardless of religious beliefs. In this way Croagh Patrick strips away the details that separate us in life, and unifies its climbers.
Don’t forget our adventurous blogger Orla will be blogging live from the St Patrick’s Day parade in Dublin City! She’ll begin at 1pm GMT on the 17th of March with photos, clips and stories from right inside the action! Bookmark the page now!
As you’d expect, there’s tons going on around the island in celebration of St Patrick’s Day. We’ve put together this guide for all the St Patrick’s Festivals and events in Ireland.
Interested to know who St Patrick actually was? We’ve recreated the St Patrick story with his myths and legends, Hollywood style.
If you’d like to throw your own St Patrick’s Day party, we have special Irish recipes for you to try for the big day. The party doesn’t end there, we’ve also got the recipes for St Patrick’s Party drinks, from cocktails to milkshakes. If you fancy a dish that’s a little less green but just as traditionally Irish, try our Irish Stew recipe.