More than a mountain


A lone Pilgrim takes a moment of contempletation as he makes his way up Croagh Patrick at dawn for the annual Reek Sunday pilgrimage.  Pic: Michael Mc Laughlin

The Croagh Patrick pilgrimage will be extended next month due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but what does the future hold for the holy mountain?

Áine Ryan

ONE can only begin to imagine the heated debates on barstools and at kitchen tables after retired Parish Priest, Fr Tony King suggested that holy mountain Croagh Patrick should be closed down for three years. Preaching from St Mary’s Church in Westport during June, 2015, he argued that the 764metres high mountain should be off-limits for extreme sports athletes and, moreover, that the annual Reek Sunday pilgrimage, at the end of July, should be suspended for three years due to the hazards on the extremely eroded and precipitous pathway.
It was during a time in the mountain’s cross-millennial cultural story when extreme sports – running, walking, climbing – had really taken off here in the west and its deep and challenging pathway was proving to be a Mecca for the multitudes. Its attractiveness for all sorts of outdoor events had also taken a turn towards the bizarre and quirky with its slopes being the subject of the highest bra chain in the world for a charity fundraiser and, separately, a venue for a dating festival.
Of course, in this pyramidal mountain’s long history of seasonal rituals, which reach right back to Neolithic times, it is not surprising that it is the repository of all sorts of daft happenings.   
Well, there used to be all sorts of shenanigans there in pre-Christian times during the Celtic festival of Lúghnasa, for example, to honour the god of the harvest. By some accounts, our patron saint Patrick, who walked the Tóchar Phádraig – leaving a trail of Christian artifacts that to this day tell us an important story of his christian evangelism – brought his personal brewer, Mescan on his pilgrimage. One has to assume he abstained from beer during the 40 days and 40 nights fast in 441AD. But, then, you wouldn’t begrudge him the odd drop of the crathur if the winds turned wild and those mysterious mists rolled in off the ocean.
Last week’s announcement that the annual pilgrimage will be extended over the month of July to avoid congestion on Reek Sunday due to government restrictions put the holy mountain in the spotlight once again. Westport Parish’s Administrator, Fr Charlie McDonnell explained that there was a long tradition in the church to offer ‘indulgences’ to pilgrims from June to September anyway.   
Fr McDonnell said the decision to extend the period of pilgrimage with daily Masses throughout July from Wednesdays to Sundays, weather permitting, was also made due to the lack of the usual infrastructure needed to facilitate some 30,000 pilgrims over the Reek Sunday weekend.
The really good news is that the much-needed dedicated pathway is being progressed with a team on the mountain these days carrying out essential preparatory works and building the pathway from indigenous stone.
Whilst the plan is to return to the original Reek Sunday pilgrimage next year, perhaps it is timely to focus on what is best for Co Mayo’s spectacular ‘cathedral en plein air’.
So, let’s begin by chatting to a few people about what the mountain means to them.

From my earliest days and while I was growing up in Castlebar, the Reek was constantly in view. At times the mountain was spectacularly clear, at other times it was shaded and dark, and sometimes completely enveloped by the clouds. However, Croagh Patrick was always a physical reminder of something greater than a mere mountain.
Later, when I had the opportunity to study the sacred scriptures in detail, I was often reminded of Ireland’s Holy Mountain when I discovered in the Bible that it was on mountain tops that God chose to reveal himself  to His people, or to communicate something important to them.
Generations of Irish people have set time aside to make the challenging climb to the Reek’s summit in order to do penance, to pray for a special intention, to ‘carry’ someone who was ill, or simply walk in the footsteps of St Patrick and to give thanks to God for the faith they held dear.
Throughout my years as a priest, and particularly during my times as Archbishop, I have been privileged to be part of the annual pilgrimage. I have been humbled by witnessing the faith of fellow pilgrims, and I have been unceasingly aware of the fact that the path to the summit has been made holy by the footsteps of countless men, women and children who have worked that journey before me.

– Most Reverend Michael Neary

My great-grandfather raised his family in a small stone cottage in Carrowholly. My grandfather was born and reared there. Every day of his young life he saw the great purple pyramid of the Reek. Whether he was happy or sad, appreciative or indifferent, there it was, implacable, calmly going about its mountainy business. He and that family are long gone but five generations later, my adult children’s sense of being ‘at home’ centres on seeing that mountain before them. Someday, I and they will also be gone. But the Reek will remain. Grandchildren and great-grandchildren to come will see it and climb it and find their way to its summit and see exactly what their ancestors saw.
Thomas Berry, the eco-theologian, said that the great error of the modern human was to think that we live in a world that was a collection of objects rather than a communion of subjects. The Reek is no object. For as long as we can know, the Reek has been a sacred being, or a location where the sacred can be experienced.
The ancient figure Crom Dubh was honoured there. Then the Celtic Lugh replaced him, associating the mountain with the Lúghnasa festival, the tradition we still have. Patrick was drawn to climb too and could declare that here all along was Christ.
Religion didn’t make the mountain sacred. It is sacred in itself. Religion came to it. The Reek is one small part of creation where the human is humbled in the hard climb and awed by what awaits on the summit. But the mountain does its own thing and can reveal itself, or hide itself, can be full of light or shrouded in mist. In this way the Reek offers itself as a site of pilgrimage, a reflection of life itself.

– Dr Mark Garavan

Extending Reek Sunday throughout the month of July is unquestionably sensible. I want to commend Fr Charlie McDonnell for offering to say Mass from Wednesday to Saturday at 12 noon each week. If agreeable with local clergy I think this is something that should be considered beyond the global pandemic. Despite having done pilgrimages all over the world, I am one of the few people who has never climbed the Reek. I hope to rectify this on Friday, June 25 (speaking last Wednesday)when I plan to climb for the first time. I am hoping it will be a personal spiritual experience.
I think Croagh Patrick will always be spiritually relevant to a significant number of people in Ireland and worldwide.  We have a collective responsibility to ensure the mountain is preserved.  That does not mean that approved activities that are of benefit to the local community cannot be facilitated in a sustainable manner.
There must be an agreed criteria for such activities that protect the natural resource and pilgrim site that is Croagh Patrick so it can be enjoyed by future generations for centuries to come.

 – Rose Conway Walsh

Overlooking Westport and Clew Bay, Croagh Patrick is an iconic mountain that stands out as the focal point of the region.  As such, even people who normally have no interest in climbing mountains are drawn to it, and probably have been since long before the time of Saint Patrick.
On a fine day, people climb in shorts and tee-shirts.  They enjoy the spectacular views, give glowing reports, and generally wonder what all the fuss is about.
All too often however, the weather changes and these same people find themselves very cold and wet and a long way from the water bottle and warm clothes they left in their car.  Their ‘enjoyable day’ morphs into an ‘epic adventure’ and this fuels the reputation of the mountain as having a challenging or adventurous edge. Everything we do entails risk. Nobody sets out to climb Croagh Patrick with the intention of being stretchered off by Mayo Mountain Rescue. If the chance of something going wrong is one in ten thousand, then by definition, for every ten thousand people who climb the Reek, one will need some help.
It is important that people are able to call for help when they need it, without fear of judgement or ridicule.  For this reason we are very slow to pass judgement on the people who call for help.  Our job is simply to get them down safely and on to definitive care as necessary.
People climb Croagh Patrick for many reasons. These include adventure, challenge, exercise but one reason that is unique to Croagh Patrick is penance. This is not just for the devoutly religious.  Often people of little or no faith climb Croagh Patrick as a ‘rite of passage’ to atone for some perceived indiscretion or wrongdoing in their past. 
As a rescue team we must recognise that we don’t know what is going on in people’s lives.  If climbing Croagh Patrick in a way that seems unreasonable to us, helps them to find peace, then of course we must respect their decisions.

 – Mike Keating