25th September 2018. Croagh Patrick Mountain, Co. Mayo, Ireland.
Situated 8 km from the well equipped town of Westport, Croagh Patrick (Cruach Phádraig in Irish Gaelic) is a renowned place of pilgrimage, the Holy Mountain. Once a year on the last Sunday in July – Reek Sunday- and the Friday before – Garland Friday – Masses are held at the summit where the Chapel is situated and in the car park at the bottom, with 1000s attending from all over the country.
Croagh Patrick is designated a national shrine to Saint Patrick, who is said to have fasted for 40 days and nights on the mountain in 441 AD. He is said to have used the Black Bell (now on the Chapel) to banish the demons from the surrounding valley (Log na nDeamhan, Hollow of the Demons) ) and beyond, a laudable community service.
The mountain can be reached by a number of ways, however there is an information centre, toilets and cafe (with wonderful looking cakes) by the aforementioned car park. This way there is first a set of steps and the imposing statue of St. P, followed by slate rocks and a water course before the path proper.
I approached from behind my air bnb Teach na Croithe and walked westwards along the Commonage where the Croagh Patrick Heritage Trail runs (a 62 km / 38.5 miles walk starting from Balla and ending at Murrisk where the ascent starts). The wind was incredibly strong and there was heavy cloud cover, but no rain at the start.
Ireland’s iconic green
The light quality was as stunning as the previous evening despite there being no sun. It somehow highlighted the colours of the landscape: the bright and bold green which Ireland is made of; the copper Autumnal bracken; ebony blackberries; and almost-magenta heather. The peat is a duller black, the moss a pale scarlet and the sheep and stones white as can be. I stumbled over bronzed rocks and squelched through petrol-peaty bogs as the draughts blew at my left shoulder.
Clad warmly in layers of hiking gear, a hat as well as a hood at times, and armed with my trusty green (children’s) walking poles, I was as sensibly equipped as I could have possibly been.
a caochan, for instance, is “a slender moor-stream obscured by vegetation such that it is virtually hidden from sight” From Robert Macfarlane’s Guardian article.
And yet I didn’t make it. Such disappointment.
The weather was bad and looked as if it would get worse, so earlier I had asked a couple of men who were coming down (a chatty one from the Netherlands here on business, and an Irishman who said he hadn’t walked much recently) if it was possible to reach the top and they said ‘yes’. Further on I had been warned by a woman with a triathlon top on that there was no visibility at the top and to be seriously careful, given I was on my own.
It was some of the hardest climbing I have done. The wind was at gale force coming right at me and so I made slow progress. It was hard work. My head hurt from the blasts, but I took mini rests and was determined.
The way snakes around the slopes, pale grey in the distance, and is covered with white boulders and small stones, making it slippery. For most of the time the light black pointed peak (765 metres / 2519 feet of it) was on my right, the goal.
I reached a large cairn (pile of stones) and a tall unexplained metal frame, but by this time I simply could not stand up: even sitting on my bottom the wind blew me along which was scary; when I planted my poles on the ground as anchors, the ends of them were blown off! I retreated from the path and hunkered down to see if it would abate. I tried three times to move on upwards, even on my hands and knees, but to no avail. I had to give up.
This was a new sort of pilgrimage challenge for me – how to deal with the disappointment of not reaching the summit. I had made the journey from Sligo the day before (58 miles / 93 kms and 2 buses), and had booked two nights using the air bnb voucher the organisation gave me for being a double Superhost. My attitude has always been that the journey is the important part, not the destination, but I would have dearly loved to have reached the top.
See the rainbow!
I thoroughly enjoyed the first hour before I turned into the wind. I quite liked the the second part of the climb, the tough part where it was just me and the elements. I was immersed in putting one foot in front of the other, though my mind strayed occasionally to the summit and the chapel I had seen in the photos. I guess I would be able to see 360 degrees worth of Ireland if the mist had lifted and I had been able to climb on.
Even so, the views were amazing when I stopped to get my breath and looked back.
Looking back to Clew Bay, 365 islands, one for every day of the year
And I got none of that – except in my imagination. I was forced to turn tail and slide down. The huge and sudden bursts of wind almost knocked me forwards and I was concerned that more people were passing me going up, most of whom had trainers on, no poles and sometimes no coat or hat.
By the time I was on the level again, the rain was lashing, the wind was damaging plants and my legs were shaking. The kind woman I spoke to at the cafe said I had done the right thing. She added that if I’d gone up, I would probably have had to be airlifted off!
Lucky for me, 50 minutes later, I was under a hot shower! Maybe I will try again another time – what a good excuse to revisit this beautiful part of the world.
Heritage Trail link
Croagh Patrick link
St Patrick link