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The Holy Mountain of Ireland: Croagh Patrick
Croagh Patrick, one of the highest peaks in western Ireland, rises above the village of Murrisk about 8km (5 miles) from Westport in County Mayo, Ireland. Tradition says the mountain is ‘the holiest mountain in Ireland’ due to its connection with St. Patrick, Ireland’s patron, and the many centuries of pilgrimage to its summit.
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My Croagh Patrick Hike
I climbed the mountain on a summer day with clear blue skies and remarkably cooperative weather. The terrain is atmospheric regardless of the weather; however, the views of the surrounding countryside and the bright water of Clew Bay are particularly stunning on a clear day.
The mountain is a more challenging climb than may be anticipated for an Irish peak. The following will describe what to expect out of a visit and provide some tips on how to prepare for the conditions.
A Reminder of the Irish Famine when Climbing Croagh Patrick
At the base of the mountain is the National Famine Monument of Murrisk. The nineteenth-century famine and subsequent decades of migration abroad particularly ravaged County Mayo. Croagh Patrick is surrounded by former famine lands, which still contain abandoned, collapsing buildings from the period.
The sculpture (1997) by John Behan depicts a Coffin Ship formed of the suffering skeleton bodies of famine victims. The ship points out toward Clew Bay in remembrance of the Irish Diaspora. The monument is across from the car park and can be visited on the way to the mountain or viewed from the main route.
The mountain is a place of natural beauty mixed with a deep and pious history. A place of remembrance for a significant event like the famine, which had such a long-standing impact on the local and global community, seems a fitting way to start an approach to the summit. In fact, the official site for Croagh Patrick tourism describes the mountain as a ‘gathering place for the global community’ despite its setting in this rural and depopulated location.
The Croagh Patrick Hike is not too Intense
The main route of Croagh Patrick originates at the Visitor Center and is marked by a statue of St. Patrick (1928) welcoming pilgrims and hikers to the mountain. The mountain is 2510 feet/765m above sea level. It took me and a friend (both experienced mountain climbers) about 4 hours to summit and descend the mountain. We also had about an hour of rest (and a packed lunch) at the summit.
The main route of the mountain consists of an initial ascent alongside sheep fields, natural waterfalls, and views of Murrisk and Clew Bay with its sunken drumlins. A mid-way point just before the steep summit ascent provides views of the south Mayo countryside.
A Chapel for the Croagh Patrick Pilgrimage
A chapel for pilgrims is located at the summit, along with a stone memorial marking St Patrick’s bed (‘Leaba Phádraig’). On a clear day, the summit views of Clew Bay and the surrounding countryside are magnificent.
It is said that St. Patrick fasted for forty days on the summit of the mountain in 441 AD and pilgrims have recognized this event for centuries. Some estimates say that The Reek, a pilgrimage in honor of St. Patrick, is estimated to draw around one million people to the mountain annually. Thus the description of the mountain as a ‘global gathering place.’
Croagh Patrick Pilgrimage on Reek Sunday
On the last Sunday in July, ‘Reek Sunday,’ around 25,000 pilgrims visit the mountain at once to perform penance rituals and celebrate mass in the summit chapel. Certain penance rituals include climbing the mountain in bare feet (or on bare knees) or following the traditional stations (signs with instructions are provided at the base of the mountain and at the summit). For instance, traditional ‘rounding rituals’ are performed, such as the First Station (Leacht Benain) where the pilgrim walks around the mountain seven times while saying seven Our Fathers, seven Hail Marys, and one Creed.
It is also said that every pilgrim who summits on their Croagh Patrick Pilgrimage on St. Patrick’s Day or during the months of June, July, August, and September and performs certain prescribed actions is eligible for special blessings. However, all of this penitent pilgrim traffic has taken its toll on the environmental aspects of the mountain. The main route is highly eroded and covered in slippery, ankle-twisting scree – not the most forgiving elements for the barefoot pilgrim nor the average visitor.
Preparing appropriately for the conditions of the mountain is important. The wild countryside and views from the summit are well worth the investment of the climb, but be aware that both the ascent and the descent are far more arduous than it first appears.
The Croagh Patrick Hike Sounds Easy Enough
I read several personal accounts available online, and the information provided by the official site, before going to the mountain. Many of these state that it is an easy climb for the average person, only taking a few hours without any preparation required. After all, thousands of pilgrims are able to do it every year, even in their bare feet and on bare knees! I have summited 14-ers in the American Rockies and my friend who accompanied me on the Croagh Patrick Hike has summited many challenging mountains, including Kilimanjaro.
Cautionary Notes to Consider when Climbing Croagh Patrick
We did see a few people sprinting up and down the route with a mountain goat’s acumen; however, my friend and I both found the scree conditions while climbing Croagh Patrick to be dangerous and tiring, even for experienced climbers. The main path is heavily eroded by the busy foot traffic leading to constant sliding and tripping on the loose rocks.
Furthermore, the main route is at a fairly steep incline from the start, with no relief, so you are fighting against a difficult pitch while sliding on every step. At some points, I was forced to climb on my hands and knees to prevent falling or twisting my ankles. We even met a group of teenagers visiting from Spain who were unable to reach the summit due to poor footwear. The slippery rocks are particularly liable to cause injury on the descent when your legs are fatigued and there is no motivation of a summit.
Top 5 Tips for Climbing Croagh Patrick:
- Wear sturdy mountain hiking shoes with adequate grips
- Keep bags light (or don’t take bags at all). Fighting against loose, sliding rocks for hours causes fatigue and hauling heavy packs makes this much worse
- Check weather conditions before you go. The west coast of Ireland is prone to wild weather and cold blowing rain makes the mountain less enjoyable and more hazardous
- Take a walking stick for extra support (even for experienced climbers). These are available from the Visitor Center
- On the final stages of the descent, there is a small sheep path leading away from the main path. This path is dirt (rather than the eroded scree of the main route) and provides relief from the incline by winding down the mountain. The path is not marked, but there is only one and we were able to follow it zig-zagging down sheep fields to a point where it rejoins the main route near the Visitor Center.
After Climbing Croagh Patrick visit the Visitor Center for a meal
There is a café and shop connected to the Visitor Center. The restaurant is family-run and provides a range of homemade cakes, pastries, sandwiches, tea and coffee. The shop is a great place to pick up a souvenir, such as local crafts and books, or gear for the mountain, such as water bottles, walking sticks, rainwear, or branded Croagh Patrick t-shirts.
We enjoyed afternoon tea with homemade scones after descending the mountain. There are many fine restaurants in the Westport area, but the amiable staff and pleasant family atmosphere of the Croagh Patrick café, right at the base of the mountain, make it a good place to complete your journey.
Year Round Croagh Patrick Hike
I visited for the first time in early July (before all of the pilgrim traffic) and found the weather to be excellent and the mountain relatively uncrowded. The mountain is open all year round (limited times in the winter). A visit in the summer is recommended for the best chance of not only summiting the mountain, but enjoying the experience without foul weather interference.
There are places to stay in Murrisk and other surrounding villages, but I recommend staying in Westport (only 8km/5 miles away), especially if you’re planning to do other things in the area. Westport has been built up to accommodate tourism and there are many new and comfortable options.
When Visiting Croagh Patrick Ireland – Stay in Quay West
I stayed in Quay West where there is a choice of self-catering apartments on offer, such as those managed by The Helm [https://www.thehelm.ie/]. This is an excellent location set right on the water with views of the bay and access to walking paths.
There is a good choice of quality restaurants, breakfast spots, and cafes. It is also within walking distance of Westport House and is a good starting off point for road trips along the Wild Atlantic Way or to neighboring villages in the countryside.
Croagh Patrick Hike – Opening Times:
Spring Season (Mid-March, April and May) 10.00 am – 6.00 pm
High Season (June through August) 10.00 am – 7.00 pm
Shoulder Season (September and October) 10.00 am – 5.00 pm
Low Season (November through early March) Limited opening hours at weekends
Croagh Patrick Visitor Center [http://www.croagh-patrick.com]
Teach na Miasa
Main Telephone: +353 (0) 98 64114
Group pilgrimage inquiries call: +353 (0) 98 28871
The Holy Mountain of Ireland: Croagh Patrick was written by and photos by Guest Contributor Erin Connelly for Europe Up Close.
Erin Connelly travels frequently in the UK and Europe. She particularly enjoys outdoor excursions, points of historical interest, and experiencing new cultures.
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