“Are you ready to climb
the reek?” asked Edel as she came in from work.
It was late Sunday morning and I was staying with my
friends Paul and Edel, and had managed to convince them
to join me on a hike up Croagh Patrick; or as they call
it, the reek.
A hasty picnic was thrown together
and we piled into my campervan and sped off west. Croagh
Patrick’s distinctive conical shape soon appeared
on the distant horizon.
Lying at the edge of Clew Bay,
Westport Quay affords outstanding views across glistening
mudflats. Small islands sporadically dot the bay, and
Saint Patrick’s holy mountain is a dominating
presence on the horizon.
During pagan times Croagh Patrick
was known as Crochan Aigh (the mountain of the eagle).
But like all pagan sites in Ireland the busy missionary,
Saint Patrick, came here and made a pilgrimage to the
summit. After his arduous climb he fasted for 40 days,
and also ceremoniously banished all the snakes from
Ireland; this banishment being symbolic of banishing
paganism from the island.
Since then the mountain has been
known as Croagh Patrick. A Christian pilgrimage replaces
the ancient Lughnasa festival and every year on the
last Sunday of July, pilgrims come from all over the
world to climb the reek. This is known as ‘Reek
Sunday’ and over 25,000 attend.
At 2500 feet, the summit can often
be enshrouded in thick cloud. Luckily for us however,
today was crystal clear. It was mid-afternoon. The sky
was clear blue, and the sun shone brightly, so we parked
in the car park at Murrisk and set off.
Depending on your fitness level,
it can take 1-2 hours to reach the summit. Being one
of Ireland’s most popular tourist destinations,
the trail can obviously get quite busy. Thankfully though,
today was quiet.
A statue of Saint Patrick is there
to greet you as you set foot at the start of the trail.
Looming high above you, it feels like a spiritual presence
is there to guide you safely to the top. We began our
climb along soft, muddy terrain that runs beside a small
stream. Soon the trail veers away from the stream and
begins to climb steeply.
“Jesus, however did you
talk me into this?” puffed Paul.
Paul and I didn’t have a
history of hiking mountains together; our history consisted
of drinking copious amounts of alcohol together. And
we had done so the night before.
We wiped the sweat from our brows,
and soldiered on.
About a quarter of the way up
I dared to take my first look down. My mouth dropped
open as the breathtaking view of Clew Bay spread out
before me like an architect’s model. Fluffy white
clouds were scattered across the sky and hazy mountains
lined the horizon. Standing up here you feel like you
are on top of the world. The air is so pure and totally
invigorating. Looking down I felt like a giant in a
land of miniature people. It seemed as though I could
bend over and pick up the distant mountain between my
Halfway up the trail levels off
and for the next half an hour it’s a nice easy
stroll along a gentle undulating ridge. A thin layer
of cloud was now hovering over us, but after all the
physical exertion the cool air was a welcome respite
from the heat of the sun.
We were above the tree-line now.
The final leg of the trail is barely discernable among
the massive pile of loose scoria. Many have been injured
or killed on this mountain. On Reek Sunday the tradition
is to climb the mountain barefoot, but all year round
the most devout Christians make the ascent without footwear;
usually believing it will cure a sick friend or relative.
For the life of me I cannot see how anyone can hike
this or any mountain barefoot.
Quite often when hiking up mountains,
you question why it is you like to punish yourself in
this way. The answer always lies at the top, and it
always hits you right when you least expect it.
Paul and I stepped onto the summit
almost simultaneously. Suddenly, as though the lord
above was praising us, the clouds parted and a ray of
sunshine burst through, illuminating the ground around
us like a floodlight.
“Hallelujah!” I cried.
“God be praised!”
To some this may have been seen
as a moment of divine intervention; a message from God
that we had arrived at the holy land. I had to admit
it did seem rather poignant. But for us non-believers
it felt more like a moment from a Monty Python movie.
A large white chapel sits on the
summit signifying that for the God-fearing hikers this
was not the end. They had to perform many acts of penitence
around the three main stations.
For us it was simply about enjoying
the marvellous view of the sweeping countryside far
below, and taking a well-needed rest.
It had taken two hours to get
here and it took another two to get back down again.
The picnic awaited us in the camper, so we put the kettle
on and tucked hungrily into a large pile of sandwiches,
giving other returning hikers a sight they would have
paid good money for at the zoo.
This story was from the author’s journey to discover
ancient and sacred Ireland. Read all about it in the new
travel guide: Mysterious World: Ireland. Visit the website
for more info: ireland.mysteriousworld.com
Bus 61 goes from Galway to Westport via Clifden once
Bus 52 goes from Galway to Westport 4 times a day, and
to Ballina 5 times, stopping at Cong once a day.
Bus 21 Dublin to Westport direct.
Bus 450 goes twice a day from Westport to Croagh Patrick.
4 times on Thurs, 3 times Tues & Sat.