The saint and the holy mountain

In Ireland we recently celebrated St Patrick’s Day, as indeed it was celebrated in a few other countries around the world where the Irish have left a big enough stamp!

Saint Patrick is the primary patron saint of this green island.  He first came to Ireland as a slave and lived here for six years before escaping back to Britain.  He developed a deep faith in God and after 12 years once again came back to Ireland as a missionary. He stayed in Ireland for another thirty years, converting, baptising, and setting up monasteries.  One of the books he wrote, Confessio, is a spiritual autobiography and one of a few sources of information about St Patrick.

There are also a few legends surrounding the saint, including that he drove the snakes from Ireland into the sea! St Patrick’s Day is celebrated on the date of his death, 17th March.

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But all this talk about Saint Patrick made me think about the ‘holy’ mountain in the west of Ireland – Croagh Patrick which overlooks Clew Bay in County Mayo.  This mountain, which rises to a height of 765 metre, is 8km (5 miles) from Westport.   The start of the Pilgrim’s Path at the base of the mountain is in the village of Murrisk.

The mountain itself is renowned for its Patrician Pilgrimage in honour of St Patrick’s fast on the mountain for 40 days in 441AD.  This custom has been handed down from generation to generation.  On Reek Sunday – the last Sunday in July – thousands of pilgrims visit the Reek.  This includes pilgrims, hill climbers, historians, archaeologists and nature lovers.  The tradition of pilgrimage to this holy mountain stretches back over 5000 years from the Stone Age to the present day and it is estimated that about 1 million people climb the mountain each year.

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Although the climb is steep and very slippery towards the top with loose rocks and stones, the final few climbs to the summit is one of elation. We as a family climbed the mountain during our stay in County Mayo over the Christmas holidays.   I was very impressed that there wasn’t too much in the way of touristic gadgets at the top of the mountain.  Only the small chapel and the view….

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The first part of the climb, a little bit further than the statue, was really tough going.  Once you reach the top of the smaller mountain, so to speak, and you move on to the other side of the mountain the walking gets easier until you reach the stones.

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It used to be that pilgrims would climb the Reek on the last Sunday in July with bare feet, as an act of penance.  Traditionally the pilgrimage also took place at night but due to safety the last 30 years has seen the climb made during daylight hours.  The lady at the restaurant at the foot of the mountain told us that only one or two pilgrims a year still climb it bare feet, “it is really a dying tradition.”  She however climbs the mountain at least once a year, but with shoes on!

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