CROAGH Patrick came up in conversation one evening around the dinner table and — always on the look-out for an adventure — the kids and I decided to set a date to visit. And climb it!
As the responsible adult of the team, I tried to Google a few pointers and tips to plan ahead for our climb. I came across many conflicting statements, with some sites claiming sturdy footwear as crucial and other sites highlighting those who walk it barefoot.
Given that the youngest on our team is 11, I had Googled if young kids can do the climb unaided. Again, the contrast was wide, with some sites saying it’s not recommended for children while others claim the elderly and infirm make the journey.
So, by the time we arrived at the base of the Holy Mountain, or ‘The Reek’ as it’s known colloquially, we were still none the wiser.
Situated on the Wild Atlantic Way on the shores of Clew Bay, beside the town of Murrisk, Croagh Patrick proudly stands 756m (2,507 feet) above sea level. There is a pay-and-display car park from where we set off on foot.
We had pre-equipped ourselves with lightweight backpacks containing picnics, plenty of fluid and ‘common sense’ items such as sunscreen, camera and plasters — the latter for my son who wanted to climb it barefoot!
Once I saw the sharpness of the rocks and the endless track to the top, I thought he may need a suturing kit, let alone a band aid.
In a sense, Croagh Patrick is an ideal mountain for beginners as there are no navigational skills required. The stone-strewn path is clearly defined as is the final destination of the ever looming summit. We had arrived early and already there was a steady stream of people going both up and down the mountain.
Our climb up took about two hours and it quickly became apparent that I needn’t have worried so much about the kids — they streaked ahead like mountain goats, leaving me wheezing in their wake. I stopped more times than I care to admit to ‘admire the view’ but it was really to catch my breath.
It should be said that a level of fitness is required if you have a timescale in which to do the walk. Otherwise, allow for plenty of breaks.
It is clear why Croagh Patrick is popular as a pilgrimage — each step needs focus and care or you can easily trip or slip. Walking with such concentration for 7km really hones your mindfulness and before long I realised I was having profound thoughts about myself and fellow walkers on the trail.
Each person, slipping, sliding, resting, and offering encouragement and cheer to complete strangers, started to feel dear to me. There were many on the path that day — some overtook me with great ease and others I overtook with ease. The camaraderie, in particular on the last ascent, which is an almost perpendicular 4x4 scramble up the scree, was palpable.
People coming down can sense your exertion and offer a helpful ‘just another ten minutes’ as they carefully navigate their way down the stony slope. On my way down, I found that I too encouraged those still on their way up, who were about to abandon hope, by also saying ‘Just another ten minutes’.
The relief and sense of achievement on reaching the summit was astounding. The air was crisp and cool and there was a great sense of peace as the panoramic view of the Clew Bay, with its hundreds of drumlin islands — including Clare and Achill — offered itself up. All around, people were taking photos, resting and smiling with accomplishment.
There was a low hum coming from the church where a mass was in progress, which added a sense of intrigue to the atmosphere.
As I caught my breath and acclimatised, I remember making a mental note that Murrisk and Westport must have the fittest parish priests in all of Ireland.
Croagh Patrick is believed to have been an early pagan pilgrimage trail dating as far back as 3000BC, when the pagan festivals of the summer solstice and the harvest festival of Lughnasadh were celebrated here.
Later, St Patrick was said to have fasted on the summit for 40 days as a Lenten ritual of penance. Legend also has it that that Croagh Patrick is the mount from which he banished snakes from Ireland.
Each year, on the last Sunday of July, Reek Sunday, about 30,000 devotees climb Croagh Patrick. There is growing concern among environmentalists about the erosion along the route because of the estimated million walkers the mountain receives each year.
Like us, not all walkers are pilgrims — sports enthusiasts, spiritualists, and tourists all make up the huge amount of trail-seekers who find adventure on Croagh Patrick.
My barefoot son had numerous photos taken of his dusty feet — which, remarkably, didn’t even suffer a scratch, let alone a cut!
I smiled with satisfied amusement as I heard a beautiful Mayo accent state in passing “Look at that young buck in his feet”.
It is definitely a walk worth doing and it made me see my own children with renewed respect, as I witnessed each of them face the challenge and scale it for themselves.