Croagh Patrick towers over Clew Bay in County Mayo and is one of Ireland's most stunning mountain climbs. This peak rises in a conical point on the edge of the wild Atlantic Ocean, and offers panoramic views of the surrounding area.
Clew bay is dotted with hundreds of small, green drumlin islands, left behind by a giant glacier in the Ice Age. Along the mountain path up the slopes of Croagh Patrick, Clare Island and Achill Island can be seen in the distance, and the town of Westport lies to the east.
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A Mountain Steeped in History
This mountain is steeped in history and stories of Saint Patrick, Ireland's patron saint.
The word croagh means hill or mountain and is pronounced as croke. It comes fromt he Irish word cruach (pronounced crew-ock) for mountain. In Irish a cruachán is a conical mountain. The anglicized version of the word is croagh.
Even before Saint Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland, the Celts climbed this mountain as part of a spiritual pilgrimage to celebrate Lughanasadh and the beginning of the harvest. They named the mountain Cruachan Aigli, meaning eagles' mountain.
Croagh Patrick As A Place of Pilgrimage
An important part of any culture is the religion people observe in that region. Historically, Ireland is known for being mostly Catholic, and there is a rich history of religious traditions that families in Ireland have been participating in ever since the Celts settled in Ireland around 1200 BC.
One of these Irish Catholic traditions is a yearly pilgrimage to a mountain called Croagh Patrick, or Cruach Phádraig in Irish. This peak is considered a holy site in Ireland.
There's a lot of historical information and religious stories that explain why this mountain is so important to the Irish. If you are of Irish descent, you might have already been there before!
If you’re curious about this mystical mountain, you’re in the right place. Let’s dive in to the religious significance and history of Croagh Patrick.
History of Croagh Patrick
The first thing to know about Croagh Patrick is that it’s also called St. Patrick’s Stack, and the story behind this name holds the key to understanding the significance of this holy site.
The Christian history of Croagh Patrick spans back 1580 years to 441 AD, to the life of St. Patrick, an important holy figure in Irish religious tradition.
Croagh Patrick is considered to be Ireland's holiest mountain because of its links to Saint Patrick.
The story goes that St. Patrick retreated to Croagh Patrick during lent in 441 AD to fast for 40 days at the peak. In the Old Testament Moses fasted on Mount Sinai for 40 days and nights, and in the New Testament we learn that Jesus fasted in the desert for 40 days and nights. During this time he was tempted by Satan.
Saint Patrick fasted just as Jesus and Moses had done before him.
Because of this Catholic history, the mountain was originally named Cruaich Patric, after St. Patrick, in 1350, and it kept that name until the 1500’s when it was changed to Croagh Patrick to fit a more Anglican linguistic tradition.
Local people in County Mayo nicknamed the mountain ‘the Reek’ which is a form of the word stack.
St. Patrick’s Fast
A religious document called the Bethu Phátraic, which chronicles St. Patrick’s life, details several stories of what happened while St. Patrick was fasting on the summit of the mountain.
One is that a group of black demonic birds attacked him, and he rang a bell to send them to the “hollow of the demons,” known as the hollow of Lugnademon. Saint Patrick disprersed the birds.
Tradition also states that he was harassed by a Satanic serpent, and cast her into Lough Na Corra (a place below Croagh Patrick) or into a hollow where the lake came from.
St. Patrick is said to have stopped fasting when God agreed to let him judge the people of Ireland at the Last Judgment, and when God said He would exclude Ireland from the destruction detailed in Revelation. If this holds true the Irish can be eternally grateful to their patron saint.
Geological Features and Location of Croagh Patrick
If you are ever on the northwest coast of Ireland, you might see Croagh Patrick. It is a pyramid-shaped mountain with a peak made out of gray quartzite.
Grass and heather cover the lower slopes, and the grasses parts to form one main rocky path up to the summit.
Croagh Patrick is south of Clew Bay and west of Westport. It is in County Mayo, and it reaches a height of 2510 feet or 764m.
It's not the tallest peak in Connacht, which is Mweelrea at 814 m. However, climbing Croagh Patrick is like a rite of passage for Irish hiking enthusiasts.
The most common hiking route starts in the small village of Murrisk at the foot of the mountain. This starting point is only about a 15-minute drive from Westport.
Murrisk is home to a visitor’s centre known as Teach na Miasa (pronounced tch-ock nah mee-sha). This either means house of the altar or house of the dishes - I would guess the name refers to an altar because this is such a holy mountain.
Here you'll find tourist information services, toilets, lockers, a craft center and a coffee shop. You can even arrange a guided mountain tour from here.
Luckily, they also sell climbing sticks in the shop - highly recommended for extra stablity on this steep hike. From the car park the trail uphill is 4.3 miles long.
The first part of the climb takes you along the shelf of the mountain, where the initial gradient is not too steep. The surface is primarily grassy but it is a little rocky in parts.
The second section takes you along the shoulder of the mountain and to the base of the upper slopes. This section is the easiest part for climbers who are rewarded with spectacular views over Clew Bay on sunny days.
The final section takes you to the top of the pointed mountain. This part of the trail is covered in loose gravel known as scree.
This section is very steep and climbers must be very cautious because of all the loose stones. Good footwear is recommended but some people climb this mountain barefoot when on pilgrimage.
The History of Reek Sunday
A holiday called Reek Sunday was established around the 10th century to honor St. Patrick and celebrate him driving the snakes out of Ireland.
Reek Sunday is the most popular annual Croagh Patrick pilgrimage.
This religious tradition takes place on the last Sunday of July each year. Thousands of people make a pilgrimage to this holy mountain especially for Reek Sunday. There are a lot of different parts to this tradition that can be observed, and different people participate differently.
Some people climb the mountain barefoot. This is a painful practice, as the mountain path is rocky and full of rough shale. Climbing barefoot is considered a sign of repentance and, in a way, paying for one's sins.
Some also complete “rounding rituals,” a tradition where they pray and walk clockwise around various features on the mountain, like 3 ancient graveyards that are on the mountainside.
Historically there has always been a church atop the mountain. The first one was built in the 5th century, and the one that currently stands on the summit was constructed in 1905.
It was built by local men using stone from the surrounding area. Cement and the stones were carted to the top of the mountain by donkeys.
Masses (church services) are held at this chapel every Reek Sunday for people to attend in remembrance of St. Patrick.
In 1995 an archaeological excavation at the summit of Croagh Patrick, unearthed the foundation stones of an old oratory. It dates back to between the years 430 AD and 890 AD.
Additional Religious Features
The mountain itself is not the only place that is considered a historical site. There are many other spiritual locations surrounding the mountain, as it is considered a holy area.
If you go to participate in Reek Sunday or simply to visit this important site, there are plenty of other places you can visit to observe the historical and religious significance. We have explored the pilgrim path from Ballintuber in a previous post.
At the summit of the mountain and at the half way point you'll find a cairn, which is a mound of rocks. These cairns were formed by pilgrims over the centuries.
In medieval times pilgrims would carry a stone with them up the mountain as an act of penance. The stone was a physical representation of their prayer intention.
The stones were either added to the cairn at the top of the mountain or half way up the mountain. Cairns are found on many of Ireland's pilgrim paths.
Have you ever participated in Reek Sunday or visited Croagh Patrick?
If not, I would highly encourage looking into it. This is a powerful Irish tradition that reminds us of our heritage and allows us to celebrate our faith together.
Slán agus beannacht,
(Goodbye and blessings)
Mairéad -Irish American Mom
Pronunciation - slawn ah-gus ban-ock-th
Mairéad - rhymes with parade