For thousands of years people have been following in the footsteps of St Patrick and climbing to the summit of Croagh Patrick on Reek Sunday – the last Sunday in July. People of all ages partake in the pilgrimage, many of whom follow the tradition of climbing the rocky terrain in their bare feet. Despite the arduous nature of this pilgrimage, huge numbers of people continually return year after year.
“It’s tough. But something keeps drawing you back,” said Nancy Boyce from Mullingar, who has done the pilgrimage on and off since she was 16. “You’re exhausted and hungry, and you say ‘I’m never doing that again!’ I said that just now even, coming up the mountain. ‘This is the last time, I’m done!’ But you go home, get rested, and next year comes around and you’re always drawn back. There’s just something to it.”
To celebrate the Year of Faith and the Gathering this year, Mayo County Council and Westport parish expanded the traditional one day pilgrimage to the summit of Croagh Patrick on Reek Sunday into ‘Reek Week’ - a week-long celebration with activities including a lecture series on the heritage and history of the pilgrimage, guided tours through the sites of the archaeological trail, a traditional music session in Murrisk and an exhibition of old Croagh Patrick photographs. Mass was held at midday every day on the summit, and the week culminated in Reek Sunday, when tens of thousands of pilgrims flooded the mountain.
This marks the first time the pilgrimage has extended into a week of activities, and those who registered for the climb received an official Reek Week 2013 certificate, confirming the completion of the pilgrimage, as well as a prayer card to help guide pilgrims through the various prayer sites along the mountain.
Fr Charlie McDonnell, administrator of Westport parish, says that Reek Week will probably be a one-time expansion for the Year of Faith and the Gathering, though the organisers will reassess for next year. “The turnout’s been quite good,” said Fr Charlie. “It’s been about 50 or 60 at the Mass each day but people seem to be climbing the mountain, about a few hundred every day. So at that level it’s positive. Most people who are climbing it are doing so for pilgrimage purposes, and I have to say, it’s up lifting to hear that.”
Fr Charlie says that people do the pilgrimage for all different reasons. “It’s practice for some people. It’s challenge for others. It’s an expression of faith outside of the structure of Church. I think people climb for a reason, because someone is sick or because something is going on in their own life, or simply to just empty themselves of something. The number, the volume, and the age of people who go to Confession on the top of the mountain speaks for itself.”
Sense of purpose
And indeed many pilgrims find their own sense of purpose at the top of the mountain. Margaret Clarke from Sligo said she travelled to Westport to make the pilgrimage because of a promise she made to herself after she was diagnosed with cancer. “This is my third time now,” she said after Mass at the summit. “You just have to look at things differently, make the best of it. Now that I’ve done it I feel at the top of the world, I’m really enjoying life.”
Martin Enright and his son Colin say they have been meaning to do the pilgrimage for over 20 years, and they finally made it from Sligo last week. “I’ve been putting it off for many, many years,” said Martin. “I’ve been reading all about it, and it’s great to finally get out. It’s very satisfying, very gratifying. There’s something so simple about it, it expresses such simplicity in faith.”
Richard Scriven from Cork climbed Croagh Patrick three times throughout Reek Week as research for his dissertation on Irish pilgrimages. “I’m very much interested in people’s personal experience. It’s the idea that each person who does Croagh Patrick experiences the mountain differently, and together that makes a very rich, full tapestry. It’s important to understand that each individual person walking up there matters, and what they do matters, and so then trying to be aware that, as a result, what we all do matters.”
Last year was Richard’s first time doing the pilgrimage on Reek Sunday. “It’s a completely different mountain. There are just so many people; I remember hundreds of people coming up against me at like 7:15 on a Sunday morning. It’s just quite interesting how far people travel, from all over Ireland to it. And it literally has all manner of humanity there. People of various nationalities; people there who are in their sports gear, some people in their hiking gear, some people look like they’ve just walked out of their house. And they’re all up there and they’re all doing the same thing together, it’s a fantastic day.”
“I think the chapel on top is unique not just in pilgrimage terms but in that it’s something very concrete and tactile that you can go to. The fact that it’s open I think means an awful lot to people, the fact that you go to the Mass or even just say a prayer or light a candle, there is a particular focus to the day.”
Many pilgrims express their sense of spiritual gratification upon attending Mass at the mountain’s summit. Fr Charlie has led Mass on Reek Sunday numerous times and describes the experience as special and unique. “The crowd is different; it’s quite spectacular on a clear day. You’re conscious that you’re with these people who’ve made the journey, and made it for their own reasons. You really feel the history of the place. Not just Patrick, but the countless generations of people from western Ireland and all over the country who climbed that mountain.”
Fr Fintan Monahan, who celebrated Mass on the summit last week, climbs the mountain frequently throughout the year and thinks it is the transformative nature of the pilgrimage that brings people back. “This year there’s a great big theme of Gathering, and pilgrimage is a great way of gathering people together. It draws people together in communion. And you get a sense of the sacred, a sense of something different, something very unique. It throws people out of their banal day-to-day routine. You feel transformed and transfigured in some way coming down the mountain; you’re recreated as a new person.
“Every time you go into the hills at the weekend, when you arrive back in the office on Monday morning you’re a different person because you’ve in some way gotten in touch with the supreme creator and the beauty of nature. It has a real soothing effect one’s personality, one’s spirituality and one’s psyche.”