Why don’t we leave earlier in the morning – says she – get to Westport by lunchtime and do the climb in the afternoon…
Well – says he –we could do a bit of it I suppose…
No! No! No! – says she – that’s not the attitude – its all or nothing. We’re going to the top – sure everyone does it …
He says nothing – he knows her well!!
Have you ever had one of those days – of course you have – when you’ve been planning and looking forward to something for ages but as soon as it begins you just KNOW its not going to happen. Well that was me and Croagh Patrick – full disclosure here! I’m just getting it out there before you read ahead, thinking that I made it to the top!
We were heading to Mayo and intended ‘doing’ the climb at some stage but weather, as always in these here parts, was going to dictate the ‘when’. So on the night before we left Dublin, the forecast suggested that the following day might be the best in the immediate future – not best with sun splitting the rocks but rather least likely to rain…
Croagh Patrick – known locally as The Reek – is Ireland’s holiest mountain. (Croagh means hill or mountain). It’s thought to have been a pilgrimage route as far back as 3000BC when pagans gathered to celebrate the start of the harvest season at the festival of Lughnasa – traditionally held around August 1. (Lúnasa is the Irish for August). It was believed to be the dwelling place of the old Celtic fertility deity Crom Dubh. and even though Crom Dubh was considered to possess evil powers, women often slept on the summit during the festival to encourage fertility.
Roll on to 441AD when St. Patrick supposedly fasted on top of the mountain for 40 days.
At the end of his fast, Patrick threw a bell down the mountainside and banished all the snakes from Ireland. (The fact that snakes were never native to Ireland cannot be allowed stand in the way of a good story!!)
The site became an important place of Christian pilgrimage – a dry stone oratory, dating to between 430 and 890AD, was discovered on the summit.
Nowadays, The Reek attracts about 1 million visitors annually, some 25,000 of those making the climb on the last Sunday in July – Reek Sunday. This was a night pilgrimage up until 1973, and many still opt to do the climb barefooted.
I say ‘visitor’ rather than pilgrim – many of those who do the climb – especially on Reek Sunday – are indeed the faithful who believe that the journey to the top is an act of penance. But for most, the climb has no religious meaning and just offers an opportunity to enjoy a good workout with breathtaking views.
What you need to know…..
Duration: 3-4 hours return.
Where exactly is Croagh Patrick.
The village of Murrisk is 8km from Westport. Most people arrive by car but there are bus and train services to Westport from Dublin and Galway and Bus 450 will bring you out from the town.
There’s a car park (with a charge) at the base but its not huge and certainly couldn’t cater for massive crowds. Early risers sometimes park on the roadside (and avoid the charge) if there’s room. On Reek Sunday, local fields are opened for extra parking.
Croagh Patrick Visitor Centre (aka Teach na Miasa) offers information, coffee shop, lockers, tours, toilets etc. Might be worth investing in a climbing stick or two!
It would be lovely to be able to plan for a nice clear day… but good luck with that! The weather here is typically very changeable so come prepared. If you are spending a few days in the region then keep your schedule loose enough to avail of the best conditions.
What to Bring
Wear layers and bring something for rain and wind. Its a very uneven climb – but you’ll still see people in flipflops!! Bring drinks and snacks and a fully charged phone. Sunscreen on a sunny day. Camera and binoculars.
The most common route takes you from Murrisk up the side of the mountain (there are other less frequented options). It would be considered a moderate to strenuous hike. The straightforward path makes for a great walk for those who don’t like straying off the beaten track or are uncomfortable with navigation etc. It’s mostly just a long slog but the top is tricky with loose scree ( and is particularly challenging on the way down).
There are three pilgrimage stations on the way to the summit, each of which has a sign with instructions for the proper rituals and prayers:
First Station (Leacht Benáin): Base of the Mountain
Second Station: The Summit
Third Station: Roilig Mhuir
Off we go……
There she is. Doesn’t look that bad….
I wonder if it’s all like this!!!
The first landmark is the statue of St Patrick, erected in 1928. This is not one of the official Stations but it has become a place of prayer, especially for those unable for the climb. Young children were often taken as far as the statue and told that they had in fact, climbed the mountain!
I spoke too soon…….
You call that a path!
The going is rough to say the least – I certainly wouldn’t fancy it in my bare feet! On the other hand, some rocks are very well-weathered and their smoothness makes them slippery – especially when wet….
There are three general stages on the ascent. The first takes you up to the shoulder or shelf of the mountain. The initial slope is ok but gets steep in places and the surface is grassy and rocky in parts.
For first timers especially, its impossible not too keep looking back at the gorgeous views of Clew Bay opening up behind you.
The bay has 365 islands – one for every day of the year! Of those, 117 are part of a drowned DRUMLIN field…. a Drumlin (Droimnín = littlest field) is a small half egg shaped hill formed by the movement of glacial ice.
WOW…. is that sunshine I see!!! Never going to last!!
I never found my stride that day – I ran out of steam after about an hour… just had enough. I was happy to turn back but himself decided to persevere and made it to the top in about 2 hours…….
The second stage goes along the shoulder of the mountain to the base of the upper slope. Clouds often settle here, obscuring both the peak and the bay below.
The final section is the cone-shaped mountain top, covered in very loose scree and very steep. This is by far the toughest part and involves a bit of scrambling over rocks that slip underfoot. Most accidents on the mountain occur here.
Well done Tommo!!!!
The top of the mountain is big enough to walk around and to sit and enjoy a snack. It’s the incredible panoramic views of south Mayo and north Galway that make this hike worthwhile. You’ll see the hundreds of drumlin islands that make up Clew Bay as well as Clare and Achill Islands in the distance. The Sheefry and Mweelrea Mountains are to the south and the Nephin Beg mountain range to the north.
An archaeological excavation in 1995 unearthed the foundation of a stone oratory dating back to between 430 and 890 AD. Other findings on the summit and around the mountain include an ancient ring fort, Neolithic cooking sites, megalithic tombs, standing stones and dwellings. Amber, blue and black beads have been dated back to the 3rd century.
Following the Great Famine of the 1840’s, the number of pilgrims dwindled. At the turn of the century, efforts were made to revitalize the traditions and this white chapel was built in the early 1900s. 12 local men used local stone and brought cement up the mountain by donkey. In 1905, it’s said that around 10,000 people attended the opening ceremony of the new church.
The first part of the descent, back down through the scree, is tougher than the climb up and involves a lot of slipping and slithering.
One last story……
The Black Bell of St Patrick – Clog Dubh – was once a highly revered relic on Croagh Patrick (the story goes that it was originally of white metal, but became black due to being constantly pelted at the demons who came to molest Patrick on the Reek!!) Dating from 600 to 900 AD, it belonged to the Geraghty family. It was used for swearing on legal matters, no one daring to perjure themselves on it. Every year, on Reek Sunday, the family brought the bell to the top of the mountain, where pilgrims were allowed to kiss it for a penny- if affected by rheumatism pains, one could pass it three times around one’s body for two pennies!
The bell was acquired around 1840 by the Royal Irish Academy – Hugh Geraghty, the then steward of the bell, used the money to pay his passage to America in 1840. The bell is now in the National Museum.