An overview of the history of pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick

Today is Reek Sunday the main pilgrimage day to Craogh Patrick. Croagh Patrick is located on the western coast of Mayo on the southern shores of Clew Bay. Its pyramid-shaped summit is known locally as the “The Reek”, and the  mountain has a long  association with St Patrick. Pilgrimage can be undertaken at any time during the year but the main pilgrim days are the last  Friday of July, last Sunday of July or Reek Sunday and the 15thof August. In the coming months I hope to expand on this post and explore the prehistoric,  medieval, early modern and modern pilgrimages in much more detail. What follows is really just an overview of the history of the pilgimage here.

Croagh Patrick

View of Croagh Patrick, taken by Helen Duffy

The mountain has been a focus of pilgrimage from medieval if not pre-historic times  and has an unbroken tradition for pilgrimage through the medieval period  to the present. Little is known about the early medieval history of Croagh Patrick. By the seventh century the mountain was associated with St Patrick. The earliest written record of this association is the Brevarium by  Tírechan which recalls that, during his mission in the west of Ireland, St Patrick  (Mons Aigli)  fasted there for forty days and nights on the summit of Croagh Patrick ( Bieler 2000, 153). Excavations carried out on the summit in 1994 revealed the presence of  a small oratory on the summit dating to between between AD 430 and 890 built in the style of Gallarus oratory Dingle, Co. Kerry (Hughes 2005).

The earliest and most interesting reference to  pilgrimage at the mountain comes from the annals for the year AD 1113 (AU). We are told

A ball of fire came on the night of the feast of Patrick 17 March on Cru chain Aighle, and destroyed thirty of those fasting (AU).

The pilgrims were fasting and performing a night vigil  when this  horrific event occured .  Jocelyn’s twelfth century Life of St Patrick also records pilgrims fasting and performing a vigil ‘That many are accustomed to spend the night awake and fasting on the mount’ (Hughes 1991, 16). In 1432 Pope Eugene IV issued an indulgence of two years and two quarantines  ‘of enjoined penance to penitents who visit and give alms for the repair of the below mentioned chapel’ on the summit of Croagh Patrick on the last Sunday of July (CPL). Croagh Patrick continued to attract pilgrims in the aftermath of the reformation and there are  detailed  ninteenth century accounts of the pilgrim rituals at the mountain. These rituals consisted of performing prayers known as stations, ritual prayers around devotional points in the landscape of the pilgrim site. The stations performed by modern pilgrims are very similar and the core traditions have not changed drastically, with the exception of the relaxing of some of the more penitential aspects of the prayer such as performing the entire pilgrimage barefoot or the stations on bare knees. Following the famine pilgrimage seems to have gone into decline but due to the efforts of the clergy it was revived, and a new church was built on the summit in 1905 (Hughes 2005, 15-22). The  popularity of the pilgrimage has continued to grow and today  pilgrim numbers on the main pilgrim day can reach  tens of thousands.

Modern Pilgrims climbing Croagh Patrick, image from The Guardian 2009


Bieler, L. 2000. (reprint 1979). The Patrician Texts In The Book Of Armagh.  Dublin: The Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

 CLP -Calendar of the Entries in the Papal Registers Relating to Great Britain and Ireland. Papal Letters. Vols. I to XIV, London, HMSO, 1893-1960; Vols. XV-XX, Dublin, Irish Manuscripts Commission, 1978-2005 and in progress.

Hughes, H. 1991. Croagh Patrick: (Cruach Phádraig-The Reek) An Ancient Mountain Pilgrimage. Westport: Berry’s of Westport.

Hughes, H. 2005. Croagh Patrick. Ireland’s Holy Mountain. Westport: The Croagh Patrick Archaeological Committee.

Mac Airt, S. & MacNiocaill, G. (eds.) 1983. The Annals of Ulster (to AD 1131). Dublin.

7 comments on “An overview of the history of pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick

  1. […] Chair’; an appropriate name for such a prominent site situated right on one of Irelands most famous medieval pilgrimage route dedicated to the national saint (see below). The association of Patrick with the mountain, along […]

  2. […] To read original article:… […]

  3. […] Reek Sunday, the last Sunday in July, sees several thousand people climb Croagh Patrick on the southern shore of Clew Bay in Mayo. The sheer scale of the event and its links with the ancient and more modern past, mark it out as one of the most distinct events in Ireland. It is a combination of a variety of elements, including the Celtic feast of  Lughnasa, Patrician lore, spiritual devotion, personal and familial tradition and the sense of an event. For a historical overview of Croagh Patrick, checkout the post from Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland. […]

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  5. […] This year I joined with thousands of pilgrims  in the annual pilgrimage to  Croagh Patrick. For those of you who might not know,  Croagh Patrick is a holy mountain  located on the western coast of May on of the southern shores of Clew Bay associated with St Patrick.  The mountain is  764m (2510 ft) in height.  Pilgrimage can place throughout the year but the main focus for pilgrims takes place the last weekend of August.  The  Friday of this weekend is generally the day local  people climb the mountain and the  Sunday often called Reek Sunday is the main day for pilgrims from a wider geographical hinterland.  Each year on this weekend thousands of people  make pilgrimage and ascend the mountain to pray at its summit.  There is a long history of pilgrimage at this site  which I have discussed in a previous post. […]

  6. […] site on the summit by the eight or ninth century. From there, pilgrimage activity went from strength to strength, especially after the 12thC boom in pilgrimage activity. I like to think of it, in a way, as a by […]

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