Pilgrims Climb St. Patrick’s Holy Mountain — ‘Symbol of Ireland’s Enduring Faith’
Croagh Patrick, also known as ‘The Reek,’ is a place of pilgrimage holding a deep spiritual significance for the Irish people. Traditionally, on one Sunday every summer, pilgrims congregate there for Reek Sunday to climb the mountain. Now, COVID-19 has brought challenges and some new opportunities.
Croagh Patrick is Ireland’s most-climbed mountain and oldest pilgrimage site, located on the rugged west coast of Mayo, overlooking beautiful Clew Bay and the Atlantic.
Historical accounts tell us that, in 441, St. Patrick fasted and prayed on what is also known as “The Reek” for 40 days and 40 nights, facing the elements and assailed by demonic crows. The faithful have been climbing this holy mountain for 1,500 years since.
Archbishop John Healey of Tuam, in 1903, revived the pilgrimage, saying, “We have come to love The Reek with a kind of personal love; it is Patrick’s holy mountain. … It is to us the symbol of Ireland’s enduring faith.”
Father Charlie McDonnell, administrator of Westport parish and responsible for Croagh Patrick, said, “I have a vision for Croagh Patrick going forward that is clear that this is a Catholic site and a holy Catholic mountain. Some people may disagree, but we have a church on the top, and it’s a national historic place of pilgrimage in Ireland. The mountain has become more secular with endurance events, but it is a historic holy site.”
Father McDonnell points to the extensive maintenance works required to keep the mountain safe for the huge numbers of visitors that it attracts. The high point of the pilgrimage season has traditionally been “Reek Sunday,” the last Sunday in July, when thousands of pilgrims congregate to climb the mountain, some barefoot. At the summit there is Mass and confession at the small oratory.
In 2020 the annual Reek Sunday pilgrimage was canceled due to COVID. As Father McDonnell explained, “I was very disappointed we couldn’t offer the pilgrimage. I made up my mind last July — come hell or high water — that the pilgrimage had to come back in 2021, that we would provide a presence on the mountain. I’m happy that the presence we have provided is well within the guidelines, and the service we are providing now is the best we have ever provided for people.”
“Next year, we will restore Reek Sunday. It’s iconic and very important here and to people throughout the country,” he added.
Due to the pandemic, the pilgrims have more opportunities to ascend the mountain.
The pilgrimage season has always been from June to September, and indulgences associated with the pilgrimage are offered on St. Patrick’s Day and during those months. Now, COVID-19 has offered new opportunities to accommodate the faithful beyond Reek Sunday. Throughout July, every day between Wednesday and Saturday was designated for pilgrimage with Mass and confession on the summit, which meant 16 Masses celebrated outside the oratory on the summit by priests from all over Ireland.
Father McDonnell explained, “People thought that we wouldn’t be able to get the priests. We actually had a surplus of priests volunteering after a national campaign. That generosity meant so much.”
“Other preparations involved getting stewards, and we have a very experienced team of stewards from Reek Sunday, local people who have given us a day a week for five weeks.”
Climbing The Reek is challenging, and the elements can bring havoc. In 2015, the pilgrimage was canceled entirely due to extreme weather, and a number of people who recklessly disregarded the conditions had to be rescued and treated for hypothermia. The same year the oratory was damaged by the elements and blown down the mountain.
Each year the oratory must be repainted, such is the toll wrought by the Atlantic weather. “With COVID, the oratory wasn’t painted last year. So we had to get eight large, 10-liter drums of paint up to the summit. We had to engage a helicopter on a day that it could land safely up there. Eventually we got it up there, and our sacristan, John Cummins, supervised the work. It’s his 52nd year looking after Croagh Patrick.”
As Many Reasons as Pilgrims
“Anyone coming to the mountain to climb it knows that it’s a holy and sacred place,” said Father McDonnell. “People come here on a particular type of pilgrimage. They may be church people. They may be people seeking to reconcile with the Church; people perhaps trying to stay in touch with God. They’re coming to the mountain and then maybe feel or experience some sort of renewal.”
“People come to the mountain for all sorts of reasons,” the priest added, “so whilst it could be secular, people still realize the sacredness of the place; you still see people bless themselves as they set off. For many, you can see that there is a layer of belief.”
Nial McSorley is from Omagh, County Tyrone, and has just returned from the mountain. For McSorley, it was a pilgrimage in memory of a friend that has become a family tradition.
“In 2019, after the sudden passing of my friend Barry, I decided to climb The Reek in his memory, and now it has become a family tradition, which I hope will last for years to come.”
“Climbing Croagh Patrick is so special to me — where I can spend a few quiet hours with my family overcoming the challenge of wobbly stones and steep hills whilst still having many laughs together,” he said. “My children love it.”
“At the top the views are spectacular, and there is a sense of achievement with a little bit of magic,” he added. “It’s amazing how many people do the climb each day, especially in July during the pilgrimage, with folks of all ages sharing smiles as they pass each other — naturally, bigger smiles on the way down!”
“Thankfully, this year, COVID has not impacted the climb, and if you’re up early you can attend Mass in the small, quaint church at the top during the July pilgrimage season.”
Schira McGoldrick and her husband, Sean, from Derry, climbed Croagh Patrick while on their honeymoon 36 years ago. Schira has also completed the Lough Derg pilgrimage on numerous occasions.
“Croagh Patrick is a very beautiful location, and on the summit, you can definitely feel peace and a closeness to God. There was a light sea mist when we were there, and it gave the mountain a prayerfulness. It is an arduous climb, but a different pilgrimage from Lough Derg, which is an entirely different experience but still rewarding.”
The Future for Croagh Patrick
This year, Father McDonnell has been able to provide confession at the base of the mountain in the Murrisk Community Center, itself closed due to COVID-19. He would like to continue that service, facilities permitting. The maintenance of the mountain and the oratory continue to be a physical and financial challenge for him and the local community every year.
He pointed to one example: “The doors of the oratory need replaced; we need in the range of 10,000 euro to do that. One of the doors — you couldn’t even open it this year, on the confessional side of the oratory.”
He said, “It’s a special place, and I know there is a strong sense that there is a lot going on up on that mountain for a lot of people, a closeness to God, keeping spirituality alive.”
Added Schira McGoldrick, “Even after these years, there is still a strong attachment to Croagh Patrick and a powerful devotion to St. Patrick.”
Climbing The Reek
- The path to the summit is an arduous and strenuous climb over rough ground of loose rocks and shale.
- Over the years many of the faithful completed the route barefoot with only a wooden staff for balance on the steep descent. This practice is now discouraged.
- The reward for completing the Reek Sunday pilgrimage was the opportunity to attend Mass and make your confession on The Reek.
- This year Mass and confession were offered on an additional 16 days.
- Pilgrims undertake a sequence of prayers at each of three beds on the summit.
- On Reek Sunday as many as 20,000 people may be on the mountain.
- Located on the summit is a small oratory, exposed to harsh Atlantic gales.
- The oratory was consecrated in 1905, replacing an earlier structure.
- Archaeological evidence on the summit points to an early monastic-type dwelling similar to the Gallarus Oratory on the Dingle Peninsula.
This story was updated after posting to correct the spelling of Father McDonnell’s name. The Register regrets the error.