An unfortunate pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick on St Patrick’s day in 1113

Today is the eve of the feast of St Patrick. As the country gets ready to celebrate our national saint with street parades, parties,  turning buildings green and the odd pilgrimage, people are carrying on  a tradition of  venerating St Patrick that dates back to  the 6th-7th century, if not before.  Although many modern celebration of the saint are  secular in nature the  relics of medieval  devotion  to Patrick are to be found  across the Irish  countryside, where  rocks, stones, holy wells, mountains,  islands and roads are dedicated to the saint.  Many of these holy places  are still visited today on the saints feast day  and at other times during the year.

Pl. 9 The Casán Phádgaig as it approaches the summit of Croagh Patrick (13)

Cone of Croagh Patrick

One of the earliest medieval accounts of pilgrimage in honor of  St Patrick  concerns pilgrimage to the holy mountain of Croagh Patrick,  in Co Mayo. Legend had it the saint fasted here for 40 days and nights and  banished all the snakes and demons from Ireland.  We are told that in 1113  a  group of unfortunate  pilgrims  suffered a terrible misfortune, when they were struck by lightning while praying on the summit.

Pl.3 Modern church on summit of Croagh Patrick

Modern Church on Summit of Croagh Patrick Taken by Helen Duff

The  annals for the year AD 1113 (AU, AFM, ALC) recount

A ball of fire came on the night of the feast of Patrick 17 March on Cruchain Aighle (Croagh Patrick), and destroyed thirty of those fasting (AU). (see Pilgrims being stuck by lightning at Croagh Patrick by Sarah MacDowell)

Unfortunately we are told no more details and we can only imagine  how the events unfolded.  Croagh Patrick is a 764 meters (2,507 ft) above sea level and its very exposed spot.  It is a very dangerous place in  bad weather. Each year  people fall and injure themselves.  There are also recorded incidents of people getting hypothermia.

According to the annals the pilgrims were fasting and performing a night vigil on the summit of the mountain. Archaeological evidence suggest there was  a small church similar to Gallarus on the summit as early as the 8th century ( to small to hold a large number of people). Most of the pilgrims were probably outside praying when a lightning storm came upon them. Humans or animals struck by lighting may be killed or suffer sever injury due to electrical burns.We do not know how many people were present that night but  the weather conditions must have been extreme  to result in the death of 30 people (although it is possible these figures are exaggerated).   There may also have been many more injured. To get help  those who were not injured would have had to climb down the mountain a good 2 hours walk from the summit of the mountain to the base.

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Pilgrims climbing Croagh Patrick on a wet day in Summer

This tragic event did not deter further pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick  and  Jocelyn’s twelfth century Life of St Patrick which records ‘That many are accustomed to spend the night awake and fasting on the mount’.

In the centuries that follow there was a marked shift in recorded dates of  pilgrimages away from St Patrick’s day to the summer months when the weather was better. Today  very few people  climb the holy Mountain on St Patrick’s day  and modern pilgrimage to the Mountain focuses on the summer months, last Friday of July, last Sunday of July, the 15th of August when the weather conditions are more favorable.

© Louise Nugent 2013

2 comments on “An unfortunate pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick on St Patrick’s day in 1113

  1. […] Este artículo en inglés comenta una noticia del siglo XII recogida en los Anales Irlandeses. […]

  2. […] 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 product of the increasing popularity of certain […]

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