On the last Sunday of July each year,tens of thousands of people, many barefoot, climb the steep slopes of Croagh (pronounced Croke) Patrick, on a penitential pilgrimage. They are following in the footsteps of generations of pilgrims who have ascended the conical mountain, in the West of Ireland, in County Mayo. The mountain is known locally as ‘The Reek’ and today is ‘Reek Sunday‘
Croagh Patrick dominates the landscape for miles; from the N17 road that runs north to Sligo from Clare, its almost perfect cone can be seen from some 20 miles distant,and on a clear day it can be seen from some 40 miles away. Anyone reaching the summit, whether tourist or pilgrim,is stunned by the magnificent views, most especially of Clew Bay with its more than 300 islands, lying some 2,500 feet below.
It is believed that St Patrick used the mountain as a place of penance and that he fasted for 40 days and nights on the summit in the year 441 A.D. The pilgrimage as we know it today is a religious one, with Masses and Rosaries punctuating the entire day.
Long before St Patrick’s arrival however, the mountain had been a sacred place. In the Celtic tradition, the Festival of Lughnasa (pronounced Loo -nasa) was celebrated on August 1st ( Lughnasa is also the Irish word for August). This was an annual festival honouring of the god Lugh (pronounced Loo) at harvest time. Across the country festivities took place, often on mountains such as Croagh Patrick. Lughnasa was the most important Fire Festival of the Celts and in common with many other pagan festivals and traditions it was Christianized and adopted by the church in a different guise.
Croagh Patrick and the surrounding landscape has much archaeological evidence of the sacredness of this place, going back millenia. A rock, known locally as St Patrick’s Chair, has engravings that date as far back as the neolithic, thousands of years before Christ. Also in the area, remains of a hillfort have been discovered that dates from before 800 B.C.
The local archaeological society recently discovered that, each year on April 18th and August 24th, the sun sets on the summit of Croagh Patrick, and then – rather than slipping behind the mountain – it seems to ‘roll’ down the steep slope. To see some ‘rolling sun’ images, click here.
Croagh Patrick is a spectacular place whose appeal to ordinary humans has lasted thousands of years, and without doubt, will continue to do so for thousands of years to come.
Croagh Patrick. A Place of Pilgrimage . A Place of Beauty. Harry Hughes. O’Brien Press, 2010
There are some beautiful images from this book available here