To mark the beginning of Lent, a time of penitence and self-denial, I thought it appropriate to travel over the sea...over the land...over a bloody great river and a veritable moat of lakes...to a place where the mists of time have born witness to millions of Catholics making themselves suffer.
'It's a big mountain. You have to take your socks off when you go up it, and once you get up the top there they chase you all the way back down again with a big plank. It's great fun' - Father Ted Crilly
It's quite difficult to tour Ireland without noticing...it's a bit on the Catholic side. Artefacts and imagery abound: the famous, such as the Book of Kells in Trinity College library and the gorgeous ancient stone church at Gallarus on Dingle, and the more mundane and everyday such as the countless grottos with lurking Virgin Marys casting a disapproving eye across the multiple misdemeanours committed on the road network. Radio Kerry even does the death announcements immediately after the 9am news and weather...'well, we do love a good requiem mass' as my landlady put it.
But indisputably the biggest symbol of the Catholic faith is the one that rears 2510ft into the air on the Mayo coast near the town of Westport: quite possibly the most brazen landmark on the whole Emerald Isle...Ireland's Holy Mountain, St Patrick's Stack. Native Irish speakers know it as Cruach Phádraig. The majority know it as Croagh Patrick. And to one expatriate Englishman (sorry Dave), it's 'that fecking Reek'.
The First Golden Cleric
You'd have thought that 'being Welsh' would constitute a crippling obstacle on the path to 'becoming patron saint of Ireland'. But Maewyn Succat was made of sterner stuff: born into a Christian family in Wales in 415AD (or maybe 387AD), he was abducted into slavery by an Irish brigand to present-day Antrim when he was 16. Escaping six years later, he gradually made his way to France where he was ordained as a priest, and later as a deacon and a bishop. Pope Celestine sent him back to Ireland, where he remained until his death in 493AD. Or until his death in 461AD. He did die on St Patrick's Day though, which was handy. What he actually did in Ireland during his missionary work is fuzzy, but it mostly seemed to involve travels in the north and west of the country, converting and baptising clan chiefs and their followers. And legendarily, he went to Croagh Patrick...
St Patrick, tired from the hustle, bustle and wild partying of late Iron Age Ireland, allegedly spent 40 days fasting on the summit of the mountain: they didn't have The Late Late Show with Gaybo back then, so to pass the time he built a church on the top, used a silver bell to knock a pesky she-demon out of the sky, and banished all the serpents in Ireland to a hollow near the summit: presumably he used some unusual riverdancing variant of snake-charming to lure them there. Ever since that time, Croagh Patrick has been Ireland's holy mountain, and pilgrims come from the world over to experience it. As a result this is almost certainly the busiest mountain in the country, and you are exceptionally unlikely to have it to yourself (I did it on an overcast, cold, damp day midweek in February, and I reckon I still saw a good fifty people). This is especially true on Reek Sunday, the last Sunday in July, where around 25000 people usually make the ascent.
We're All Going To Heaven Lads, Wayyyy!
If this strikes you as likely to be an almost biblical shambles, well, that's because it is: it speaks volumes that there are normally about 12 mountain rescue teams in place on the day. A wise move, because it seems likely that a large proportion of these pilgrims have never climbed a mountain before, and a large proportion of the remainder who do have previous experience only have previous experience of doing the Reek on a previous Reek Sunday. It has the same potential for disaster as the London Marathon, only with the added frisson of mountain weather, gravity and a comical parade of inappropriate clothing and footwear. (That is, if a pilgrim is sporting any footwear at all: traditionalists will, as St Patrick is assumed to have done, do the climb barefoot. Those of us familiar with the path can only shake our heads in wonder. Sensible folk wear boots, in case you needed telling). In an unfortunate (and rare) moment of sanity the Church discontinued the practice of doing the climb overnight with the Pilgrims all carrying burning torches: this must have been an awesome sight, and well worth the risk that lots of people would set each other on fire and that the dawn would see the mountain looking like the aftermath of a fondue evening at Keith Richards's place.
Flight Into Terror
Regardless, it's tricky to oversell the visual impact of Croagh Patrick. Having sensibly surrounded itself with sea, flatlands and much lower hills, its dominance of the surrounding area is emphasised and unchallenged, steep grassy slopes tapering up to an almost perfect stony cone. This is one mountain that you always recognise when it's in view.
(Although that didn't stop the following exchange occurring during final descent into Knock Airport:
Irish Bloke Who'd Politely Engaged Me In Conversation: 'What's that mountain over there that looks like Croagh Patrick?'
Me: 'Erm...it's Croagh Patrick'
IBWPEMIC: 'Ah. Right so' )
While we're on the subject, Knock Airport (serving Dublin, Glasgow, Birmingham, Bristol, East Mids, Liverpool, Luton, Stansted and Gatwick) is closest (about an hour's drive), with Galway Airport (serving Dublin, Edinburgh, Luton and Manchester) being slightly more distant. This is a semi-sparsely populated region, which does beg the question 'why are there two airports in close proximity? Especially that one built on a bog at Knock?'
Well, as it happens, on the 21st August 1879 apparitions of the Virgin Mary, St Joseph, St John the Evangelist and Jesus Christ (as the Lamb of God) were seen by numerous witnesses at the south gable of Knock Parish Church. Their testimony is drenched in wonderment: the beauty of the figures, the brilliance of the light, the reverence of the Virgin. At no point was 'the potency of the Guinness' even mentioned, although one witness testified that he 'saw a very bright light on the southern gable end of the chapel; it seemed to me to be a large globe of golden beer'. A commission was established by the Catholic Church to investigate this deeply important ecumenical matter, and after what we must assume to have been a very careful, methodical and forensic consideration of the evidence accompanied with exhaustive consideration of all the alternative, non-divine explanations...they believed every word of it. And 100 or so years later, the local parish priest convinced the sitting Taoiseach Charlie 'That Money Was Just Resting In My Account' Haughey to fund an airport so that pilgrims could reach his new basilica more easily...oops, I mean 'so as to bring prosperity and employment to an impoverished corner of Ireland'. Phew. All thanks to the Blessed Virgin for a properly integrated transport policy.
Once you're on the ground cars can be hired, or buses (of whose frequency I am not sure: I always hire a car in Ireland) run to Westport, which also has a railway station. If you're without a car, that still leaves you five miles from the foot of the climb: you could cover it on foot, or you could use the sparse bus service. Thursday is the best day (being as it's the main shopping day in Westport), although the odd bus runs on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Accommodation is plentiful and varied: personally I prefer B&Bs, and if that's your preference too then http://www.gulliver.ie/ should see you right.
'God, it'd be easy to make something like this look cheap and tacky...'
The traditional modern starting point for the ascent is the village of Murrisk on the R335 road to the north-east of the peak: there is a substantial car park here (although not substantial enough on busy days in summer: arrive early. There is another car park on the other side of the road, but even this is hopelessly inadequate on Reek Sunday). Other routes are available but I leave them to the more committed to discover, such as that from near Mullagh to the west, or the original supposedly-trodden-by-St-Patrick pilgrim's route from Ballintubber Abbey to the east: a mere bagatelle of a 44 mile round trip. For now, the modern Pilgrim's Path will do, and it's perfectly reasonable for the able-bodied and semi-fit. Even Chris Moyles could probably manage it right now.
Standing adjacent to the carpark is the Visitor Centre (http://www.croagh-patrick.com/ although the website appears to have given up 'details' for Lent at present). This was shut when I climbed the Reek, and I'm not really a Visitor Centre sort of guy anyway, seeing as I'm under the continuing delusion that I'm more than a mere tourist. But there is a restaurant within, and it would be churlish not to mention their provision of hot showers and secure lockers. Of more dubious use would be the 'climbing sticks' (or, to give them a more accurate name, 'sticks') they sell for the ascent. Take it from me: if you don't normally need a stick in your general perambulations, you don't need one here either. Also, there's the inevitable gift shop where (amongst other things) you can buy 'I Climbed Croagh Patrick' T-shirts, instantly identifying you as someone who's climbed Croagh Patrick...or as someone who wants you to think they have.
But to legitimately wear such a garment, you'll have to climb the mountain...
'Now be sure to keep warm...'
I could glibly suggest 'follow everyone else'. Or concede that even Mark Thatcher would be hard-pressed to lose the path once on it: it's the width of a major road for most of its length (if not quite the smoothness, unless we're talking about an Irish major road). Even Joss Lynam's bible for the Irish hillwalker concedes that a map is not really necessary for navigation on this route. So the Pilgrim can sally forth confident that if they die on the mountain it'll be through clumsiness or adverse climatic conditions, rather than getting lost.
Drift out of the left side of the car park and the path is obvious. The initial stages are easily graded and well-surfaced, but as soon as you pass the statue of St Patrick (who looks a bit overdressed for hillwalking: possibly he wandered into the sale at Habit Hat when aiming for Millets next door) it degenerates into a stony path. Although nowhere near as stony as it gets later: consider yourselves warned in that respect. The path up to the shoulder left of the peak is clearly in view, which is inspiring or depressing depending on how your aerobic respiratory system is coping: it's not long before you are climbing up the left bank of a stream-worn gully and the view ahead closes in.
But if you're in need of oxygen, stop and turn around. As height is gained the view over Clew Bay becomes more expansive and impressive: the bay legendarily has an island for every day of the year (a brief foray onto Google Earth with an abacus suggests this is somewhat optimistic). The bay was carved out by a retreating glacier, and the islands are drumlins: whale-shaped ridges formed during that retreat, and then drowned by the inrushing sea. Reacquainting your nose with the grindstone, the path gradually climbs away from the gully bed before curving right (west) to reach a saddle on the ridge. The poleaxed pilgrim, getting this far, can cheer themselves with the thought that 60% of the altitude has been gained, and that from here the gradient generously eases off for a bit. The path now meanders gently uphill, keeping slightly down on the south side of the ridge (therefore keeping Clew Bay out of sight, preferring to look into the loneliness of the Mayo interior). And it's not long before a block of toilets are passed on the left.
As a fully paid-up member of the 'take only photographs, leave only footprints' militia, I'd usually consider the presence of the little boys room high up on a mountain to be a ghastly eyesore...it's not like there isn't a toilet block in the carpark. Why can't the hills be left free of such conveniences?...the outdoors isn't meant to be convenient. And then I contemplate the 25000+ people swarming all over this mountain on Reek Sunday, and I suddenly think it's a great idea. Anyway, having 'used the facilities' I can report they're a bit dank, but you can't really complain about that given that it must be quite tricky to organise a cleaner.
Onwards and upwards. During this easy section the Reek's steep cone becomes almost overpowering in its proximity, and its culminating shawl of stones sickeningly obvious. With so many pedestrians covering such uncompromising ground the result was never going to be pretty, and once the vegetation gives out the path becomes a crazy conglomeration of sand, gravel, rocks and boulders: too stern and shifting to ever be trodden into submission. Quite steep too, and it behoves walkers to take some care over this section. The penitent pilgrim, climbing the Reek to get closer to their God, will probably have started talking to him (under their breath, and in slightly unflattering terms) by this stage. Progress is awkward, slow and strenuous for a while, but once a right-left zig-zag (whose straight section is the worst bit of all) has been negotiated, you're nearly there. Things are now easier (but not easy), and salvation will be gained upon arrival at the summit chapel. Y'know, in the same way that it's quite a release to stop banging your head against a brick wall.
The chapel was built in 1905, a plain white building. Mass is conducted therein on Reek Sunday, and the church is (allegedly) open every day during summer. I was there in winter where it remained resolutely locked to my heathen ways: apparently God is quite happy to let an atheist get rained on, half-frozen and blown all over the shop. Serves me right, really.
Given that the weather was none too clement when I was up there, I haven't seen the view in person. Which is a shame, given how renowned it is. Pride of place must go to Clew Bay, which looks extraordinary from here, backed by the Nephin range of hills. Sweeping inland, you come to the corridor between Westport and Castlebar, laced with loughans, leading into the Irish interior. Turning south and the view becomes mountainous again, with the huge plateau of Maumtrasna, the Sheeffry hills and the fearsome Mweelrea, before a final seascape with the Aran Islands, the ominous prow of Clare Island and the Ireland-in-miniature of Achill.
It should go without saying that the final section of the ascent needs a bit of care on the descent: try not to dislodge rocks and to miss those dislodged by others, while agreeing that barefooted pilgrims are nutters. The remainder of the descent is straightforward, with the lovely view over the bay to beckon you homeward. As you descend, keep an eye out for the school party I passed while I was returning to my car: they were about a quarter of the way up with less than three hours daylight remaining, wondrously ill-clad and shoddily-shod, progressing upwards in a staccato run-then-collapse-then-run-then-collapse manner that averaged out at 'painfully slow', and quite comically grateful for the spare Lucozade of a descending Englishman. I do hope they're alright.
(5 miles round trip, 2500ft ascent, 3-5 hours)
Anyway, that's Croagh Patrick then. Although jubilant pilgrims celebrating in a quietly meditative manner back at their cars might wish I'd told them this next bit before they set off...
'It's nonsense, isn't it?' 'Sorry, what is?' 'Religion...'
You see, if you just walked up and down the path, even if you had a bit of an old pray on the top...erm...you won't gain any spiritual benefit from it. Because there are rules to be followed if that's what you were after. So, you'd better turn around and head back up again (barefoot, of course), having printed off the following instructions...
There are three stations, and the suitably reverent should perform an assortment of Catholic parlour games at each one.
First Station: Leacht Benáin
(Situated at the base of the cone)
1. Walks seven times around the mound of stones while saying
* Seven 'Our Fathers',
* Seven 'Hail Marys' and
* One 'Creed'.
A mere warm-up, because next up is the Second Station: The Summit
The pilgrim has several hundredweight of Kendal Mint Cake and then:
1. Kneels and says
* Seven 'Our Fathers,
* Seven 'Hail Marys' and
* One 'Creed'.
2. Prays near the Chapel for the Pope's intentions (whatever they might be)
* Walks fifteen times around the chapel saying
* Fifteen 'Our Fathers' and
* Fifteen 'Hail Marys'.
3. Walks seven times around 'Leaba Phádraig' (Patrick's Bed) saying
* Seven 'Our Fathers',
* Seven 'Hail Marys' and
* One 'Creed'.
Now, continue over the top, down to the foot of the summit cone (over which you'll have to return, broken and bleeding, hours later) to the Third Station: Roilig Mhuire. This is fun, isn't it? Careful now.
1. Walks seven times around each mound of stones saying
* Seven 'Our Fathers,
* Seven 'Hail Marys and
* One 'Creed'at each
2. Finally goes around the whole enclosure of Roilig Mhuire seven times praying
Amazingly St Patrick failed to specify that pilgrims perform the Hokey Cokey as well...that's what it's all about, after all. Remember, he wasn't a fascist...he was a priest. Fascists go round dressing in black telling people what to do. Whereas priests...right, back to Murrisk, then!
See you some point next year then. And after this...surely hell can't be THAT bad?
'St Kevin's Stump...that sounds good...The Magic Road...'
Non-devout Catholics (and followers of other faiths. And the faithless) might want to know what else there is to do nearby. As there's plenty, here is a borderline-random selection...
The National Famine Monument and Murrisk Abbey - These are sufficiently 'nearby' to be 'just across the road. Literally.' Ireland is somewhat overloaded with history, and the Famine is one of the darkest corners of it. In the years between 1845 and 1852 potato blight precipitated the deaths of a million people, and the emigration of a million more (apparently God doesn't love the Irish that much): perhaps the vast portions of chips in Irish eateries in modern times are the natives erring on the side of caution. Some nations might have chosen to commemorate this event with something metaphorically understated: the Irish were having none of it. So, we have a subtly symbolic bronze sculpture of a plague ship, crewed by skeletons. Nice. Especially now it's gone green from all the rain. Right next door, on the shoreline, is the fine ruin of Murrisk Abbey: a fine foreground for the bay, and a gorgeous place from which to watch the sunset.
The National Museum Of Country Life - On the other side of Castlebar about 10 miles from Westport. Set in the lovely grounds of Turlough Park House, the Museum deals far more in realism than nostalgia: very gritty recreations of rural life from 1850 onwards are juxtaposed with the main house itself, which has been furnished in the manner of a family mansion from the late 19th / early 20th century. Quite recommended, and that's from someone who doesn't normally like this sort of thing.
Achill Island - 25 miles or so from Westport will bring you to the bridge crossing to Ireland's largest offshore island. It's a trip well worth making, as Achill is a wonderful landscape of lowlands, stark mountains, magnificent beaches and colossal sea cliffs. Easily attainable by car is the conspicuous transmitter atop Minaun mountain: an even better place from which to watch the sunset than Murrisk Abbey. Slightly more worrying is the drive to the end of the island and the lonely, lovely shoreline of Keem Strand: the substantial seaward drops from the narrow road probably bring you nearer to God than anything on Croagh Patrick.
'The Miracle Is Mine'
But back to The Reek. Taken purely as a physical challenge, well, it's a pity about the ravaged path but it's a good sharp climb to an unusual summit. The view is sublime, he says, pointing out that he'll be very upset if anyone else on here gets to actually see it before I do. And if you factor in the history and tradition, it's unique.
Despite myself...highly recommended.
(Previously on Ciao)