Barefoot on the Reek


Since time immemorial Croagh Patrick has been a place of pilgrimage for the Irish. The presence of remnants of prehistoric times and the strange rolling sun spectacle at harvest time hint at the fact that the triangular mountain may have been an important religious site during pagan times.

But it was the arrival of St Patrick to County Mayo that initiated the 1500 years of Christian pilgrimage to this the most holy of Irish Christian sites of pilgrimage.

On Croagh Patrick, St Patrick fasted for 40 days and 40 nights and slept on the rocks at the summit. During his stay on the windswept summit, black birds that turned into satanic serpents tormented him. St Patrick threw his bell at them and banished them from the island forever.

The most important day to do the pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick, also called the Reek by locals, is on Garland or Reek Sunday, which is the last Sunday in July. Some of the locals now climb on the Friday before Garland Sunday to avoid the crowds. About one hundred thousand pilgrims (and tourists too) climb the mountain on this day each year in all kinds of weather.

The second day of pilgrimage is as you might expect St Patrick’s day on the 17th of March

Some of the climbers do the Reek barefooted and this is a dangerous slippery ascent in inclement weather, but it increases the significance of the penance being performed. In times gone by pilgrims used to go climb the mountain in the death of night but this was deemed too hazardous and has been discontinued.

There are three stations of the reek that pilgrims perform on their way to mass at the summit.

Station 1. Leacht Benain at the base of the mountain cone. It consists of a circular mound of stones. The pilgrim walks around it seven times – seven our fathers, seven Hail Marys and one creed.

Station 2. On the top of the mountain. The pilgrim kneels down and says seven our Fathers, seven Hail Marys and one Creed. He pays for the Pope’s intentions and then walks around the church at the summit fifteen times, in a clockwise direction, saying fifteen Our Fathers, fifteen Hail Marys and one Creed. The pilgrim then walks seven times around Leaba Padraig (Patrick’s bed) saying seven Our Fathers, seven Hail Marys and one Creed.

Station 3. It takes place at Roilig Mhuire (Virgin’s cemetery on the west side of the mountain. It consists of three mounds of stones. The pilgrims walk around each mound seven times saying seven Our Fathers, seven Hail Marys and one Creed. Continuing to pray they walk around the enclosure seven times.

Since time immemorial Croagh Patrick has been a place of pilgrimage for the Irish. The presence of remnants of prehistoric times and the strange rolling sun spectacle at harvest time hint at the fact that the triangular mountain may have been an important religious site during pagan times. But it was the arrival of St Patrick to County Mayo that initiated the 1500 years of Christian pilgrimage to this the most holy of Irish Christian sites of pilgrimage. On Croagh Patrick, St Patrick fasted for 40 days and 40 nights and slept on the rocks at the summit. During his stay on the windswept summit, black birds that turned into satanic serpents tormented him. St Patrick threw his bell at them and banished them from the island forever.

The most important day to do the pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick, also called the Reek by locals, is on Garland or Reek Sunday, which is the last Sunday in July. Some of the locals now climb on the Friday before Garland Sunday to avoid the crowds. About one hundred thousand pilgrims (and tourists too) climb the mountain on this day each year in all kinds of weather. Some of the climbers do the Reek barefooted and this is a dangerous slippery ascent in inclement weather, but it increases the significance of the penance being performed. In times gone by pilgrims used to go climb the mountain in the death of night but this was deemed too hazardous and has been discontinued.

There are three stations of the reek that pilgrims perform on their way to mass at the summit.

Station 1. Leacht Benain at the base of the mountain cone. It consists of a circular mound of stones. The pilgrim walks around it seven times – seven our fathers, seven Hail Marys and one creed.

Station 2. On the top of the mountain. The pilgrim kneels down and says seven our Fathers, seven Hail Marys and one Creed. He pays for the Pope’s intentions and then walks around the church at the summit fifteen times, in a clockwise direction, saying fifteen Our Fathers, fifteen Hail Marys and one Creed. The pilgrim then walks seven times around Leaba Padraig (Patrick’s bed) saying seven Our Fathers, seven Hail Marys and one Creed.

Station 3. It takes place at Roilig Mhuire (Virgin’s cemetery on the west side of the mountain. It consists of three mounds of stones. The pilgrims walk around each mound seven times saying seven Our Fathers, seven Hail Marys and one Creed. Continuing to pray they walk around the enclosure seven times.

Conor Caffrey is a travel writer and photographer.

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