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.
Designated a national shrine, Saint Patrick is said to have fasted for 40 days and nights up there in 441 AD and 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.
The mountain can be reached by a number of entrances, 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 sits on; 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) 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 Macfarlanevs Guardian article.
And yet I didn’t make it. Such disappointment.
Earlier I had asked 2 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 was slow and it was hard work. My head hurt from the onslaught, but I took mini rests and was determined.
The way snakes around the slopes, pale grey in the distance, and is covered with whiter 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 were blown off. I retreated from the path and hunkered down to see if it would abate. I tried 3 times to move on upwards 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 attaining my aim. I had made the journey from Sligo (58 miles / 93 kms and 2 buses) the day before 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, however I knew I also always preferred to trek from a to b to c, reaching a new destination every night. I had thoroughly enjoyed the first hour before I turned into the wind; I had quite liked the the second part of the climb, the tough part, perhaps more because it really pushed me and I was enthusiastic about the amazing views I saw when I looked back.
See the rainbow!
Though taken up with putting one foot in front of the other, my mind had strayed occasionally to the summit with the church I had seen in the photos. I guessed I would be able to see 360 degrees worth of Ireland if the mist lifted.
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 almost knocked me forwards and I was concerned that more people were passing me going up, most of whom had trainers, no poles, sometimes no coat or hat. I worried for one very young woman. Perhaps, I had reasoned, heavier men could withstand the weather, or maybe those with stronger legs?
Suffice to say that by the time I was on the level the rain was lashing, the wind was damaging plants even at sea level and my legs were shaking. The kind woman I asked said I had done the right thing.
Lucky for me, 50 minutes later, I was under a hot shower! Maybe I will try again another time – good excuse to revisit this beautiful part of the world.
a caochan, for instance, is “a slender moor-stream obscured by vegetation such that it is virtually hidden from sight”
Heritage Trail link
Croagh Patrick link
St Patrick link