Irish Pilgrims and the Celtic Fire Festival of Lughnasa

Today,on the last Sunday of July thousands are on the slopes of  Croagh Patrick, braving heat, thundery downpours and winds, to make a personal pilgrimage to the top of this iconic mountain.  Here is a post I made  on this day in 2011 about the mountain.

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


The Pilgrim Path . Image Wikimedia Commons

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.

Spectacular Clew Bay far below the summit of Croagh Patrick. Image Wikimedia Commons

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  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  a terrific sequence of ‘rolling sun’ images, click here.

Croagh Patrick is a spectacular and special 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 in this book

Sacred Destinations

The Sacred Island



Filed under Celebrations in Ireland, Ireland, Irish Culture, Irish Heritage, Irish Traditions, Living in Ireland, Social History Ireland

14 responses to “Irish Pilgrims and the Celtic Fire Festival of Lughnasa

  1. I learn something every time with your posts…Reek Sunday…pagan festivals. Croagh Patrick. Thanks for liking one of my simple posts.

  2. Seems it was dangerous up in the Reek yesterday, with a couple of people airlifted to hospital. I can imagine decent on that steep gravelly section being lethal in the rain and with crowds around.
    Lovely pic and lovely post on a very special place.

    • Yes I hear there were 20,000 up on it yesterday and I hope that the injured will be ok. I am not sure how many go barefoot anymore.Sturdy walking boots should be the norm. My son went up with a school group when he was 16 and he said that scree section was dreadful – one step forward and two back, so I am full of admiration for anyone who does this, especially older people. Glad you enjoyed the post – thanks!

  3. Love reading about those Celtic traditions which have lived on into our ultra modern times. That rolling sun is pretty spectacular. (I think you’ve linked to the wrong Fire Festival page though :-))

    • Fixed the bad Fire Festival- those links often leave me perplexed! I love that link back to the ancient too – it seems that almost everything religious can be linked back to well before 1 A.D and pre Rome. Thanks for that and for your visit!

  4. Oh… thankyou Angela for another delightful and informative post.
    This certainly adds to my knowledge of Saint Patrick and the pilgrimages to the top of Croagh Patrick… though I can’t help wondering why the locals name it “the Reek”… mmmhhh
    Thanks also for adding the links to those magnificent images and agree with Roy McCarthy that the “rolling sun is pretty spectacular”… indeedie!!! 🙂

    • Hi Cáit! Glad you enjoyed the post! The word Reek is not only applied to Croagh Patrick, but we also have a range of mountains in Kerry called The Magacillacuddy Reeks! The origins of the word as used here seem to be lost, as it is not in any dictionary that I can find. I have heard some say it may be derived from the word ‘rick’ meaning a stack or mound as in ‘a rick of hay’. I have a nicer theory that is all my own and probably 100 % incorrect, but I like it! In Tennessee they have the Smoky Mountains, so called because of the hazy mist that seems to hang over them. I wonder if The Reek is so called because it often would have cloud on top, as would the Magacillacuddy Reeks. The word ‘reek’ can mean bad smelling or a plume of smoke I think?
      Either way, the rolling sun is amazing, isn’t it – it certainly adds to the mystery of the place!
      Thanks for visiting – as ever! A

  5. I learn more from one of your blogs than from all the years of reading and searching.

    Thank you yet again.

  6. So much history, that most Americans are unaware of … Many pieces stand out in your post, such as the islands (250-ish? WOW) … and the gentleman who went atop the mountain and fasted for 40 days & 40 nights … 441 A.D. Yeah, you guys have so much history, so much legend, so many stories …. Thanks for bringing Irish history and culture into our lives.

  7. Pingback: Croagh Patrick - Ultimate climbing guide and the interesting history of the Reek - ConnollyCove

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