If mountains are nature's cathedrals, Croagh Patrick draws the crowds. Not because of its height—it rises only to 764m—but because its history, location and myth inspire awe and wonder. Perseverance and a good walking stick offer their own rewards, with breathtaking views of dozens of islands dotted about Clew Bay like a school of whales coming up for air. Dubbed Ireland’s Holy Mountain, it was here St. Patrick fasted and prayed for 40 days and nights, following the footsteps of Christ and Moses before him.
Probably before St. Patrick’s time 1500 years ago, but certainly since, the Reek has been a place of pilgrimage, calling the faithful of all creeds and philosophies to climb its conical peak--some barefoot in the dark, such is its lure. For a period in the 1960s night pilgrimages took place to alleviate the pressure during the day. What a sight it must have been to see the trail of blazing lights snaking up the mountain in the pitch black night. It was here that St. Patrick reputedly banished snakes from Ireland by throwing them into the sea. He built a small chapel in a hollow at the top, where a primitive church remained for many years. In 1905 the “new church” was built, with all the materials carried to the top by local tradesmen.
Locally known as ‘the Reek’ Croagh Patrick is the anchor of Southwest Mayo: its peak can be seen for miles in any direction and is like the sound of the kettle on the boil to a weary traveller. William Makepeace Thackeray was one such traveller who rode in a horse and car from Leenane to Westport in 1843 and recounted his journey:
“The car-boy presently yelled out “Reek, Reek!”...I caught sight not only of a fine view, but of the most beautiful view in the world, I think and to enjoy the splendour of which I would travel a hundred miles in that car with that very horse and driver….the Bay and the Reek which sweeps down to the sea and a hundred islands in it, were dressed up in gold and purple and crimson, with the whole cloudy west in a flame. Wonderful, wonderful!”
Prior to the the Christians claiming the pilgrimage route as their own, pre-Christians had already made their mark there. Along the pilgrim’s way (Tóchar Phádraig) from Ballintubber Abbey to Croagh Patrick lies St. Patrick’s Chair or the Rock of Boheh, a druidic rock. This large pre-Christian stone is inscribed with circles which some believe suggest sun worship. However obscure the inscription’s meaning to us today, standing on the ancient route one feels a powerful connection through the ages, both to the pilgrims who passed along this route before us and to the ancients who carved their values and beliefs into this stone. The Christian tradition holds that the rock’s carvings are the result of an altercation with St. Patrick's Bell. This integration of the pagan symbol into the Christian story is in many ways the story of Ireland.
Besides its place as a sacred mountain Croagh Patrick is popular with hill walkers (though don’t underestimate the climb) and in recent years adventure sports enthusiasts, who incorporate it into racing routes and cycling events.
Cloud formations often distort the appearance of the mountain (or swallow it entirely), making the peak appear to float atop the clouds with no relationship to the earth below. Every season brings different vistas but always visitors. Whatever one’s relationship to the Reek, its symmetrical beauty demands attention and draws the eye if not the feet sooner or later.