A Sort of Pilgrimage Up St. Patrick’s Mountain
Michael D. Burke
Standing in a car park outside Westport, Ireland, looking uphill at the steep, stony path we were about to take, I contemplated the meaning of the term “pilgrimage.” Does it imply, I suspected, suffering? Was one obliged to complete a pilgrimage, or could one, perhaps, just sort of stop when one got tired and get a cup of hot chocolate instead?
My wife and I hadn’t embarked on this journey as a pilgrimage, unlike many others who come to this part of the west coast of Ireland. We just thought we’d have a nice hike, a break from our two-week stay in early June in a small village in County Monaghan, near the border with Northern Ireland. So we’d come to Croagh Patrick, the mountain from which St. Patrick banished the snakes from Ireland in the 5th century after a 40-day period of fasting and penance. His “stack” (what the Gaelic word “Croagh” means) is a steep, dark, craggy eminence, usually lost, as now, in the clouds. Pilgrims come any day, but the main pilgrimage day on Croagh Patrick occurs on the last Sunday in July, known as “Reek Sunday,” when as many as 25,000 people take to the trail, some barefoot.
Hiking poles were for rent and sale in a gift store at the bottom of the trail, but foolishly I rejected the offer, which I would come to regret. We left the car park at 10:30, with few others on the trail ahead of us this day. The trail started off deceptively broad and smooth but quickly disintegrated into a stony track, perhaps an old sheep’s path. It led beside a roaring creek with a rock wall on the other side until the path split from the creek as it ascended more steeply. On either side of the trail were low brushy hills, eaten over by sheep and goats. The trail aimed for a saddle, with the much taller peak of Croagh Patrick at 760 meters (2500 feet) to the right from there.
We were just 15 minutes up the trail when the rain and wind began. It swept in from the west, and we were walking south, so first, the right side of our pants legs got wet, then the entire pants were soaked. Mists sailed across the lower slopes of the Croagh; it was all very dramatic and cold. We were doubting the wisdom of our excursion, but then we saw a man below us charging uphill in shorts, tennis shoes, and a nylon sport shirt—no hat, no coat, bare legs, carrying just a bottle of water. A true pilgrim, clearly, suffering to pay obeisance to St. Patrick at the top. We felt as though we were suffering plenty as is, but this was the first of several people we saw for whom the hike was indeed a pilgrimage, not a hike. While carefully stepping up the stony and not very wide path, I thought of Reek Sunday and had a hard time picturing that many people on the mountain and trail. There didn’t seem to be enough room for them all to stand, let alone walk.
The rain stopped after about a half hour, and by the time we reached the saddle—the halfway point of the trail—we had started to dry out a little. The wind still blew—it is hard to imagine that it ever stops—but not too hard, and the sky lifted a bit. At the saddle, we could see back down the hill to the ruins of the 15th century Murrisk Abbey, from where we started, and the islands in Clew Bay, and to the south, fields and loughs. At the saddle, we were blocked from the west wind by the top of Croagh Patrick, and we could walk on level ground for a time. But then the trail once more ascended along the southern flank of the mountain.
A few minutes further on, we passed a pile of stones and a plaque, the first of the three Stations of the Cross that are part of the pilgrimage, this one called Leacht Benain after a disciple of St. Patrick. Soon after, it became clear that the way up was going to be the steepest yet, and the footing looked quite uncertain: there was a narrow trail, but mostly one walked over the large-scale scree. My wife decided her pilgrimage was over, and although I wasn’t happy about leaving her to sit in the mist and wind and cold, we agreed one of us needed to complete the journey; neither of us was quite sure why, but we put aside the “it’s not the destination but the journey” adage for the moment, and I forged ahead.
Up, over loose stone, I went, passing people who wisely were using poles—wiser to use on the way down, but still a comfort on the way up—and into the heart of the clouds on the mountain. Exactly 18 minutes later, I arrived at the top, although until I was about 25 yards from the white church that sits on the top, I didn’t know I had arrived: all I could see in the mist were a few other hikers and a few crumbling stone structures. But then, the small church became visible, and I heard cries of joy and was there.
Some hikers embraced, others took their shoes off to feel the spot more intensely. A wooden sign declaimed that we were on “Ireland’s Holy Mountain.” The church, an improbable structure to find in this location, was closed, but it holds services a few days of the year. The fog/clouds/mist was so thick that there wasn’t much to see from any side of the Croagh, and I spent far too much time wondering how the building materials had been brought up in 1905, impressed by the passion that would motivate someone to attend a service here. I also wanted to hurry back down to my wife, so I circled the church, which is the second Station of the Cross (the third is not on the main trail), steadying myself at times to avoid being blown off the mountain by brutal gusts, then retreated, very very slowly, over the scree.
As conventional wisdom has it, the way down was worse than the way up. Worse, that is, on my thighs and one bad knee. I took it easy, stepping carefully, wishing for one of those poles. I was impressed with the acute angle of the trail, which I could now truly appreciate, as it seemed as though it would be easy for me to tip and pinball down the hill. Later, much further down the mountain, we met an Irish couple who had passed us going up, and the woman said she’d fallen three times descending the steepest part from the peak. “Worse than Jesus,” she said.
I found my wife again, exactly where I’d left her some 40 minutes before, and we continued down. The rule of thumb for Croagh Patrick is that it takes two hours to ascend and one and a half hours to descend. The rule got the first part right, but we used every bit of two hours to carefully make our way back to the car park. We were a bit bedraggled but glad to have had the experience. I couldn’t say that ours counted as a pilgrimage, but it had some of that quality: a combination of suffering, struggle, and, eventually, humility.
About the Author
Michael D. Burke’s publications include the memoir/adventure, The Same River Twice (University of Arizona Press) and feature nonfiction and essays in Down East, Yankee, Islands, Outside, Boston Globe, The New York Times, Maine Décor, AMC Outdoors, The Sunday Times (South Africa), and other national publications. He is also a playwright, having won the 2018 Maine Literary Arts Award for “The Town Meets.” For more than 30 years, he was a whitewater and wilderness river guide in Idaho, Alaska, Oregon, California, Arizona, and Mexico, having made several first descents by raft. He is a Professor of English and Creative Writing at Colby College in Maine.