Since our move to Ireland, I’ve been looking for ways to immerse myself in the culture and learn a bit about the country that I now call home. Last weekend it was the Fleadh in Ennis, and today the annual Reek Sunday pilgrimage on Croagh Patrick.
The 764m high peak is Ireland’s holy mountain. It’s the mountain that Saint Patrick climbed 1800-odd years ago, fasted for a month and half, and then drove the snakes out of Ireland*. It’s a hill I wanted to climb since I first saw that it overlooked Clew Bay and its 365 islands; a place that looks amazing on a map, and even better on a sunny day.
On the last Sunday of each July, as many as 25,000 pilgrims walk up the mountain to celebrate mass in the chapel at the summit. Many start before dawn and watch the sunrise from the top, while others walk barefoot as a form of additional penitence.
I did neither.
I was keen to see the spectacle also because one of my very favourite photographers Pentti Sammallahti had walked it (and made much better photographs than these) exactly 40 years ago.
The walk isn’t particularly far, but the terrain is challenging. The final third is a steep scree of watermelon-sized rocks, that despite centuries of people climbing the same route, still moves dangerously underfoot. As a result, injuries are not uncommon with broken legs, sprained ankles and even head injuries not uncommon, meaning that the event draws criticism for the demands put on mountain rescue teams and emergency services.
I woke up a couple of hours later than I’d planned to but enjoyed my first drive up to County Mayo. I parked short of the village and walked a mile to the start of the trail, through the car parks that had popped up on every spare piece of land in the village of Murrisk. By the time I hit the trail at 8:30, many pilgrims were already returning meaning that the trail was busy in both directions. Once through the religious nick-nack sellers, the path steepened quickly and the surface becomes loose. The route, especially on the lower slopes, is badly eroded and the path very wide, as people have tried new routes for an easier ascent.
From the off I encountered people praying aloud as they climbed, reciting Hail Marys as they panted from the exertion. Some were even singing hymns as they stumbled upwards. My fellow walkers were extremely friendly, and even a reserved English interloper like me found himself chatting with people, and checking on those who seemed to be struggling. There were people from 2 to 82 and included many foreign voices, especially later in the day, with large groups of French, Polish, Indian and Thai devotees on the mountain.
Along the route there were plenty of mountain rescue and ‘Order of Malta’ volunteers, the latter being the equivalent of the St. John Ambulance in the UK. They had tents set up and were well equipped with emergency evacuation equipment, a reassuring confidence and good advice.
The walk is tough enough given the surface and steepness of some sections, but you’d have to have committed some pretty serious sins to feel the need to walk up barefoot. How people’s feet weren’t cut to ribbons or crushed by moving rocks, I don’t know. I chatted with a few of the barefoot climbers, and two ladies told me that their feet had had no special preparation for the walk, and that they’d ‘be prepared by the time we get to the top”!
At one point, I saw a five-year old boy take a nasty tumble on the scree as he descended with his dad, twisting his ankle badly. He burst into tears and sat sobbing until I was out of earshot, reminding me of my daughter at home. It felt like a cruel thing to do to drag young children up such a route, especially in a tracksuit and lightweight plimsolls.
What was worse was a guy carrying a two year-old in his arms. It’s too easy to take a tumble on the walk (I took a couple) meaning he’s going to either drop the child or land on it as he falls. I’m all for getting kids involved in things early, but this seemed too much.
Anyway, at the summit, a priest in a greenhouse attached to the chapel was saying mass once an hour, on the hour. When he came the appropriate moment, the doors either side of him opened and the queueing worshippers rushed in to receive Holy Communion (right-hand door) or to confess (queued to the left).
Those completing the full ritual had already recited prayers as they circled the cairns on the way to the summit, and before mass walked around the chapel seven times as they worked through a rosary.
I on the other hand, being a tourist just along for the ride, ignored the good Saint’s fasting precedent as got to work on my packed lunch.
The walk down is, as I’d heard, no easier than the way up. However, the climb is about physical effort of dragging yourself skywards; coming down means concentration, careful placement of one’s feet and controlling your resistance to gravity’s efforts to get you down quicker.
It was a real experience and I’m very happy that I made the effort to go. My legs are burning a little now, but I ate my steak and chips tonight with a true sense of entitlement.
There should be a slideshow of photographs below…