The Princess and the Saint: the visit of Princess Grace of Monaco to Croagh Patrick.

I love old  Hollywood films but  I never thought I would be writing about one of my favourite actresses Grace Kelly  and one of my favourite pilgrim sites Croagh Patrick in the same blog post. Grace was born  on the  12 November 1929, as her surname would suggest she was of Irish decent.  Grace  had a short but successful film career staring in some classic films like High Noon and  Dial M for Murder.  She retired at the age of  26 when she married  Prince Rainier of Monaco.


Grace Kelly

In 1961  Princess Grace and her husband Prince Rainier  came to Ireland.  During the trip they travelled to Co Mayo, visiting the family home place of  Grace’s grandfather John Peter Kelly in the townland of Drimurla, who  left Ireland in 1887 for America.  At the  time of the visit the Kelly homestead was in the ownership of a lady known as the Widow Mulchrone.  According to the Mayo News

For weeks preparations had been made for the special royal visit of June 15 1961. The roof was newly thatched, the hedges cut and the pathway sanded. Dressed in black, and wearing her finest apron, the widow had spent the morning baking griddle cakes and polishing the glassware and good china. Up in “the good room”, which doubled up as the widow’s bedroom, she set the tables with six cups and saucers and bedecked it with a selection of cakes and soda bread. Back in the kitchen a big black kettle hung boiling and hissing over the open fire. According to lore, the widow regaled the royal visitors with stories and, at one point, ordered an on-duty policeman to “wet another cup of tay, the prince could murder another drop”. She even recited a special poem to mark the occasion, which she dubbed the most important day of her life.


Princess Grace visiting her ancestral home  (

During her time in Mayo the princess also made a pilgrimage to  Croagh Patrick, as many of her ancestor had done before her.  Wearing a two piece suit, sun glasses and glamorous headscarf, Princess Grace was one of the most elegant and stylish pilgrims to ever visit the holy mountain.  The photos and film footage of the visit show her  wearing flat shoes and carrying a blackthorn walking stick.  Looking every inch the  Hollywood star she walked  along the laneway  which leads from the modern car park to the statue of St Patrick at the base of the mountain.  The royal couple was followed by photographers, curious local people and members of the  garda síochána.  One can only imagine the excitement of people who lived in the area.

at shrine

Princess Grace praying at the base of Croagh Patrick (image taken

The princess  didn’t climb to  the summit of Croagh Patrick  but she prayed before the  statue of St Patrick which stands  at the mountain’s base.  There is fantastic film footage of the event  available on the British Pathé website (the link is below in references).


Coming down the mountain (image taken

 Princess Grace’s visited Ireland on two other occasions but the this first visit is still remembered fondly in Co Mayo.


Ryan, A. 2010. ‘Fairtale Princess Grace dreamed of Mayo Roots’,

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.


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

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.