Reek Sunday 2014: my pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick

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.

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Croagh Patrick in Co Mayo

Pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick  2014

On  the morning of  the  27th of  July  I joined with circa twenty thousands  pilgrims in the annual pilgrimage  to the summit of Croagh Patrick. There are a number of approach route the summit. The majority of pilgrim climb from  the townland of Murrisk following a track worn by centuries of feet known as the Cásan Phádraig (the Path of Patrick).

I arrived  by car to the base of the mountain  about 10.00am.  An early start for a Sunday but not at Croagh Patrick, where pilgrims had begun climbing in the early hours of the morning to arrive at  6 am on the summit.  I parked my car in one of the fields converted into temporary car parks to cope with the influx of traffic  and paid a  5 Euro fee for the  day.    As I pulled on my walking boots and pack my rucksack with food and water,  I noticed many of the  people  in my car park were having picnics out of their cars , tea and sandwiches, a reward for a pilgrimage completed or perhaps fuel for the climb ahead.  To begin my climb   I a short distance to a small laneway located beside  the car park of the Croagh Patrick  visitor centre.

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Pilgrims begin their climb at the car park at the base of the mountain.

I have  climbed this mountain many times over the years  in various weather condition while doing research for my PhD thesis  but this was my first climb with actual pilgrims.  I was slightly apprehensive.  I am not a fan of very large crowds  and knowing how difficult the terrain of the mountain is I worried  crowds the  would make the climb uncomfortable however  once I began my fears were soon allayed but I was conscious throughout the climb of what was going on about me.

On the main pilgrimage day  Mountain Rescue groups and the Order of Malta have a very visible presence and  they do really excellent work to help pilgrims get up and down the mountain safely.  Croagh Patrick can be a dangerous mountain.  Much of the route  and in particular the conical top  of the mountain  is covered by loose shale which moves under foot and can be very slippery in wet weather.   The terrain is difficult especially in the final stages.  The weather conditions on the summit can be very changeable  and temperatures at the top of the mountain can be up to 10 degrees colder than at sea level.  It is very important to be prepared for the climb and to  have good footware, appropriate clothing water and a stick.  As I walked to the summit I noticed blood on some of the stones on the path and I witnessed at least 3 people fall  and many more stumble but retain their balance because of their sticks.

The following day I read that there had been 17 casualties on this years pilgrimage   with four people  taken off the mountain via stretcher, and two helicopter evacuations. On my way up I saw one person being carried by stretcher from the cone of the mountain and one person being  air lifted from the mountain during my decent.

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Helicopter getting ready to take an injured person off the mountain

 

The Cásan Phádriag

The pilgrim climb in Murrisk begins at the  base of the mountain at a small laneway on the east side of the carpark of the visitor centre.   This path  takes you passed numerous  stalls  such as the legion of Mary  as well as vendors selling religious items.

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Vendor selling religious items.

At the top of the lane  you come face to face with a large statue  of   St Patrick and get a great view of the mountain looming behind. The weather conditions were pretty good it was a warm day with a slight refreshing breeze.  During my climb summit of the mountain was covered with low-lying  cloud, that cleared  intermittently to reveal the top. I could see  people  on the summit who from a distance looked like tiny colourful ants.

 

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Statue of St Patrick at the base of Croagh Patrick.

On the way up the path was very busy with  a constant stream of people coming up and down the mountain passing each other by. The pilgrims were made up of  all age groups from  as young as 7/8 to  people in their 80’s.  Some people walk alone while others  walk in small  groups of friends or family.

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Pilgrims climbing the lower sections of the Cásan Phádraig.

People climb and participate in Reek Sunday for  many reasons some for religious and spiritual reasons, others to carry on family traditions and other to  experience this unique occasion and to enjoy the amazing scenery.  As I walked along I saw a wide range  of human emotions; a father and his small child  quarrelling about the climb, a woman sitting down and spontaneously crying, children racing along like mountain goats and a woman helping bandage the hand of a stranger who had fallen and cut his fingers.  There was a great sense of  comradery among pilgrims. I noticed  people would often stop and help people who slipped or ask others  who stopped for their breath, if they were ok.  In the final stages of climbing the cone those coming down the mountain would offer words of encouragement “your nearly there now”  “Nearly at the top now”.   I also noted a handful of people climbing the mountain in their bare  feet as part of their penitential pilgrimage.

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Pilgrims walking the lower section of the Cásan Phádraig

Climbing the Croagh Patrick on such a busy day means that you must pay extra attention to where you walk. One often needs to   manoeuvre and avoid  walking in the path of those  coming down  the mountain  as well as those walking  ahead at a slower pace  or those who  stop suddenly in front of you. You also need to be aware of where to put your feet and to try and choose the best path ahead.

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Views of Clew bay from the lower section of Croagh Patrick

Depending on your level of fitness and weather conditions it can take anywhere between 1.5 to 2/3  to reach the summit.  It took me ages as I was constantly stopping to take photos.

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Cásan Phádraig as it levels out before reaching the cone.

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Pilgrims approaching the cone of Croagh Patrick

At the base of the cone of the mountain pilgrims encounter the pilgrim station known as Leacht Mionnáin/Benan. This is a large cairn of stones probably of 19th century date.

 

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Pilgrims walking in prayer around Leacht Benan a the base of the cone.

Pilgrims preforming the rounds (traditional prayer focused on a number of holy foci ) walk in a clockwise direction around the cairn reciting the following prayers; 7 Our Fathers, 7 Hail Mary’s and  the Creed. Having finished they embark on the final climb  to the summit. The steepness of this section of the route and the movable terrain underfoot  make this the most difficult section of the climb.

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Pilgrims starting to climb the cone of the mountain the final stages of the ascent.

As I climbed upward the summit was hidden from by the clouds. The final stage of the climb is very steep and lots of concentration is needed to keep your balance but  almost without realising it the ground suddenly becomes flat and you realise you have made it in one piece to the summit.

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Some pilgrims perform their pilgrimage barefoot

The first thing I did was to sit down and catch my breath. I was sitting on the left hand side of the church  lots of pilgrims were sitting down in this area too.    It wasn’t long before I noticed the cold air and I was very glad of the fleece top I had packed at the bottom of my rucksack.  The summit is a large flat area enclosed by a dry stone wall  in poor condition on the top are  toilets,  a small church and a number of pilgrim stations.

The pilgrimage rituals on the summit include  visiting the remaining stations or foci of devotion,  as well as attending mass and confession. The first station is an unnamed cairn of stones.

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The pilgrim kneels at the cairn and recites 7 Hail Marys, 7 Our Fathers, and 1 creed.  Next the  pilgrim prays near the modern chapel for the Pope’s intentions and walks 15 times round the oratory reciting 15 Our Fathers, 15 Hail Marys and 1 Creed.

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The back the oratory on the summit of Croagh Patrick

Finally, the pilgrim proceeds to the station known as Leabha Phádraig/Patrick’s bed. This is a small hollow defined by a metal railing. The pilgrim walks clockwise around  reciting  7 Our Fathers, 7 Hail Marys and 1 Creed.

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The small chapel on the summit provided the sacrament of confessions begin on the summit at 7:30am and continuing until 2:00pm.   The first Mass on the summit began  at 8:00am and every half hour thereafter until the last Mass which at 2:00pm.

 

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Pilgrims attending mass on the summit.

Traditionally  the final pilgrim station of the pilgrimage was a visit to large possible Bronze age enclosure called Roiling Mhuire (Virgin’s Cemetery) on the western side of the mountain. Three cairns of stones are found within the enclosure and the pilgrim walked 7 times round each cairn, saying 7 Our Fathers, 7  Hail Mary’s and 1 Creed and finally go round the whole enclosure seven times praying.  The majority of modern pilgrims skip this final stage and finish their pilgrimage on the summit.

 

While the pilgrims pray and perform their rounds  other pilgrims take the opportunity to relax after their arduous climb many  take the opportunity to sit and eat the food they have brought with them or purchased at the food stall that sells tea and sandwiches.

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Stall selling food and hot drinks on the summit.

The summit was covered in cloud but intermittently the cloud would clear to reveal the stunning scenery and let the sun warm the weary pilgrims.

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Views of Clew Bay from the summit.

I also notice people taking selfies on their mobile photos in front of the church or  Leabha Phádraig  while others posed beside a signs placed here in 2013  which says Croagh Patrick Ireland’s Holy Mountain. I am not sure sure why you need a sign to tell you your are on the summit  but those who were photographed beside it seem to like it.

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Sign on top of Croagh Patrick.

 

The final part of the pilgrimage is the decent.  Climbing back down is as difficult if not more so then the ascent. This is also when most accidents take place.  It was here that I found my trusty  stick  most useful.

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Climbing down Craogh Patrick.

Taking part in this pilgrimage was a wonderful experience and I hope I will be lucky enough to take part again in the future. Pilgrims  who climb here should also be aware that the constant foot fall of pilgrims and tourists whose numbers can be up to 100, 000  during the year  is causing sever erosion of the mountain. To find out more about this check out  Mountaineering Ireland website.

Having returned safely down the mountain I  ended my pilgrimage here by  visiting the nearby sites of Glaspatrick and Kilgeever-   posts to follow.

Further reading on this years pilgrimage.

http://www.irishmirror.ie/news/irish-news/croagh-patrick-pilgrimage-17-people-3922909

http://www.rte.ie/news/2014/0727/633338-croagh-patrick/

http://www.mountaineering.ie/aboutus/news/2013/default.aspx?iid=305

https://pilgrimagemedievalireland.com/2012/07/29/an-overview-of-the-history-of-pilgrimage-to-croagh-patrick/

http://liminalentwinings.com/path-croagh-patrick/

 

 

 

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11 comments on “Reek Sunday 2014: my pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick

  1. My husband and I climbed Croagh Patrick avfew years back on one of our trips to Ireland. One of my most treasured memories. We had the entire mountain to ourselves. Not another soul encountered until our return and we were leaving the base. We couldn’t imagine it with thousands of others.

  2. Kay says:

    This is a climb that I would really like to do, and I enjoyed reading your account.

  3. Finola says:

    Great account of the day! Have never done this, but it’s a goal!

  4. […] and encounters with pilgrims.  I have climbed Croagh Patrick a number of times most recently on  Reek Sunday in 2014 and it struck me that the 1910 account has a number of parallels to  the modern pilgrimage in […]

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