Guest post by fellow traveler, Chris Sanders.
Having walked the Camino de Santiago, I am always searching for opportunities to embark on other pilgrimages – big or small. I found one such opportunity on a recent vacation to Ireland. In addition to visiting Athone, Galway, Kilkenny, and Dublin (including attending a U2 concert!), my wife and I joined 20,000 other people on an ancient pilgrimage called the Croagh Patrick.
Located a few miles outside of the west coast Irish town of Westport, the Croagh Patrick is the name of the mountain as well as the famous pilgrimage that occurs there. According to Christian tradition, St. Patrick climbed the mountain and fasted there for forty day in AD 441, after which he banished the snakes and demons from all of Ireland. Today, as many as one million pilgrims climb the mountain throughout the year- with 20,000-30,000 making the trek on “Reek Sunday” – the last Sunday in July. Reek Sunday coincided with our vacation so of course we were compelled to do the pilgrimage on this day!
Reek Sunday for Wendy and I began around 8am in Dublin, where we took a taxi to the airport to pick up our rental car. The highway traffic was very light so we were able to reach Westport by 11:00am…we followed the signs for Croagh Patrick and after another 15 minutes of driving, we were at the foot of the mountain. Thousands of people had already converged on the area – there were food and craft vendors, religious activists handing out flyers, and the Garda (Irish police) directing traffic. We pulled into one of many large grassy fields and paid 5 Euros to park. “OK”, I said to Wendy, “let’s go do our penance for the day.”
The weather was cold and a light rain was falling, but we were somewhat prepared with our waterproof jackets and hiking poles! I say “somewhat” because the pilgrimage actually turned out to be quite difficult – the light rain at times became a torrential downpour with strong gusts of wind- the kind of wind that turns rain drops into bullets that sting your face and hands and make loud smats as they bounce off of your jacket…at times it was necessary to stop for a few minutes, standing with your back to the wind. In addition to the weather, two other factors made the pilgrimage difficult.
First, the terrain itself – the first half was a moderately sloping, well worn dirt and rock path that was easily navigated; however, the second half was a much steeper, broad pathless collection of football sized rocks – the kind which shift easily…on a sunny day this terrain is difficult, but on a rainy day it becomes downright treacherous!
Second, the shear number of pilgrims hiking the mountain added to the difficulty. The newspaper indicated approximately 20,000 people were on Croagh Patrick at the same time we were. Some were in front of us, some were behind us, some were coming down as we were going up, and visa versa. With so many people, there was a fair amount of “stop and go” dynamic. We also had to be watchful of the “rolling rocks” unwittingly dislodged by those scrambling up in the mountain in front of us.
Despite the difficulties, Wendy and I persevered and after 3 hours of huffing and puffing – driven by our own determination, our faith and yes – perhaps a little insanity – we reached the summit! We were greeted by one of the more intense rain and wind storms…and near zero visibility. The summit was a flattened area that housed a simple white stone chapel (unfortunately it was not open for worship) – the chapel had a sort of glass bay window where the Arch Bishop says mass to the shivering crowds – we just missed the last mass for the day…as a consolation, we bought an 8 dollar can of sprite from a make shift tent store. We sat down on a rock overlooking the bay below and ate our snack of cheese, crackers, and chocolate we packed. Occasionally, we were treated to crystal clear glimpses of Clew Bay below – multiple shades of blue and green – very beautiful!
Coming down the mountain was in many ways even more challenging than going up – due to the steep declines and shifting rocks and mud…but I’ll spare you the details…suffice it to say, Wendy and I slipped and fell on our backsides more than once – but we were unharmed thankfully…oh and then there was the time we were stopped on the trail while the Order of Malta mountain rescue team placed several people into a military helicopter for evacuation to the hospital.
We reached the bottom of the mountain around 4pm – we were soaking wet and covered with mud, but we both felt a great sense of accomplishment. And as an act of penance, we were also hopeful that our hard work had gotten us – as we heard one pilgrim say – “a little bit closer to Heaven…” Wendy and I pondered the day’s experience on the long drive back to Dublin where a hot shower, dry clothes, and a soft bed awaited us.
If you’ve hiked the Croagh Patrick, share your experiences here! Likewise, if you have any questions, please ask!