This Holy Mountain, known around Ireland as ‘the Reek,’ stands at a majestic 765 meters (2,510 feet) and has been a place of worship for Christians since 441 AD. It was at that time that Saint Patrick is said to have spent 40 days and 40 nights on top of the mountain, where he prayed and fasted (Michigan State University, 2009). Hence, the mountain aptly came to be named after Saint Patrick, himself (Ireland Calling, n.d.). On account of this Christian link, a small church was built in the early part of the 1900’s on top of the mountain, and the Reek is also known as Ireland’s ‘Holy Mountain’ (Outsider.ie, 2017). Now people come from all over the world to this sacred mountain—some performing stations, while others simply view it as a spiritual pilgrimage of a kind (Michigan State University, 2009). Only 8 km away from the Reek is the lovely tourist town of Westport, County Mayo (Discover Ireland, 2023). Westport is a fine tourist destination in itself, with its ornate shop displays and lovely artisan crafts on offer. From the summit of the Reek, the ‘Nephin Beg’ mountain can be seen as well as the many drumlins of Clew Bay (Mayo.ie, 2006-2023).
The history and significance of the mountain
Well before St. Patrick’s pilgrimage the Reek was named ‘Cruachan Aigli,’ where Cruachan means a (conical) mountain, and Aigli represents an 'eagle,' (Mayo Ireland, 2019). It is said that it was not until around the year 1350 that the mountain came to be known as ‘Cruaich Patric,’ which means Patrick’s Stack (Ireland Calling, n.d.). And then in the 16th Century the mountain came to be known as the Anglicised 'Croagh Patrick’ (The Mayo News, 2016).
It should be mentioned however that it was not Saint Patrick who made the mountain a landmark (Mayo Ireland, 2019). The Mayo.ie (2006-2023) source states that Croagh Patrick has always been where the local Irish have turned for reassurance prior to their harvest—a topic that brings us to the Reek’s ancient spiritual link.
Harry Hughes says in his (1991) book Croagh Patrick: A place of pilgrimage, a place of beauty that, “For thousands of years this pyramidal mountain has been a sacred place. When Saint Patrick visited Ireland, he would have found a highly organised Celtic tradition of four festival holidays in the year: Samhain (November 1), Imbolg (February 1), Beltaine (May 1) and Lughnasa (August 1).”
The Celts celebrated Lughnasa (or harvest) in honour of Lugh, the ancient god of the Irish race (Ireland’s Own, 2023). It is believed that the Irish gathered on Croagh Patrick to celebrate the beginning of the harvest season. It is thought also that there was a pagan pilgrimage way or trail, dating as far back as 3000 BC, well before Christian times (Outsider.ie, 2017). Of course, these festivals only increased the mountain’s status as a spiritual landmark in ancient times.
Archaeological surveys on the mountain have revealed a surprising array of ancient human activity. The website source ‘Mayo-Ireland’ (2023) reports on this by saying, “A recent archaeological survey uncovered an impressive range of ancient sites on the summit and around the mountain including, fulachta fiadh (Neolithic cooking sites), megalithic tombs, standing stones, ring forts, stone ramparts, and dwellings. Some amber, blue and black beads dating back to the 3rd century BC were found. More than 30 hut sites and the foundations of an early Christian oratory were discovered on the mountain slopes.” There are also some stone cairns on the eastern and western shoulders of the Reek, as well as promontory forts—all on the Reek. These respectively confirm the prehistorical ritual significance and early Christian legacy on the Reek itself (Michigan State University, 2009).
Although it was not until 1905 that the chapel on the summit of Croagh Patrick was rebuilt, one source relates that St. Patrick himself “celebrated mass on the mountain, from which we infer that he had an alter and a place to shelter it. For several centuries the Archbishops of Armagh laid claim to the chapel on the grounds that it was founded by St. Patrick and that they were his successors; but the Archbishops of Tuam contended that it belonged to their jurisdiction. Finally, Pope Honorius III on the 30th of July, 1216 assigned it to the Archbishop of Tuam (Calendar Pap. Reg., Vol 1)” (New Advent, 2021).
Climbing the Reek
As many as 25,000 pilgrims still climb the mountain every year on the final Sunday of July. This is the closest Sunday to the historical festival of Lughnasa (Mayo.ie, 2006-2023). The source ‘Mayo-Ireland’ (2023) says in fact that “Until 1973 the pilgrimage used to take place at night.” ‘Mayo-Ireland’ (2023) also says that according to tradition, locals climb the Reek on “Garland Friday,” which is the last Friday of July. The name “Garland Friday” possibly comes from “the tradition of wearing garlands of flowers,” according to Mayo.ie (Mayo County Library) (2006-2023).
The Mayo.ie (Mayo County Council) (2006-2023) website sums up how St. Patrick’s religious zeal influenced Ireland, when they say, “It’s hard not be moved by the courage St Patrick showed by coming here to battle what he regarded as pagan darkness and to bring the Irish into the light of Christianity.” Bravo Saint Patrick!
Written in the stars
Croagh Patrick also has many fascinating cosmological alignments all over the west of Mayo (Michigan State University, 2009) —as well as a cosmological line spreading even as far as the ‘Hill of Slane’ in the east of the country-- all the way to Croagh Patrick in the west. This line was significant to the Irish some "three and a half millennia" before Patrick arrived (The Mayo News, 2016). In their book entitled “Island of the Setting Sun: In Search of Ireland’s Ancient Astronomers,” (cited in The Mayo News, 2016) Murphy and Moore put forth that St. Patrick intentionally followed this line across Ireland to Croagh Patrick "following a sacred pathway to the stars." They also say that this pathway connected Ireland’s "most significant places."
You can also see the article entitled “Croagh Patrick as a place of pilgrimage” on this website for more detail on the cosmological significance of Croagh Patrick. It also covers the significance of pilgrimages associated with Croagh Patrick.
Discover Ireland (2023). Croagh Patrick. Available at: https://www.discoverireland.ie/mayo/croagh-patrick. (Accessed 10th of May, 2023.)
Hughes, Harry. Croagh Patrick: A place of pilgrimage, a place of beauty. Dublin: The O’Brien Press, 1991, pp. 25-26.
Ireland Calling (n.d). Croagh Patrick—The Mountain of St. Patrick. Available at: https://ireland-calling.com/croagh-patrick/ (Accessed 19th of May, 2023).
Ireland’s Own (2023). Lugh and Lughnasa. Available at: https://www.irelandsown.ie/lugh-and-lughnasa-issue-5512/ (Accessed 25th of May, 2023).
Mayo.ie (Mayo County Council) (2006-2023). Croagh Patrick-Ireland’s Holy Mountain. Available at: https://www.mayo.ie/attractions/croagh-patrick. (Accessed 10th of May, 2023.)
Mayo.ie (Mayo County Library)(2006-2023) Religion. Available at: https://www.mayo.ie/library/local-history/historical-events/religion (Accessed 19th of May, 2023.)
Mayo-Ireland (2023). Croagh Patrick, Westport in Co. Mayo. Available at: https://www.mayo-ireland.ie/en/towns-villages/westport/visitors-guide/croagh-patrick.html (Accessed 10th of May, 2023).
Michigan State University, Study Abroad Programme. (2009). Croagh Patrick. Internal Report: Folder 4, Croagh Patrick Heritage Trail—Clogher Environmental Group Ltd. Unpublished.
New Advent Catholic Encyclopaedia (2021). Croagh Patrick. Available at: https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04509b.htm (Accessed 8th of June, 2023).
Outsider.ie (Ireland’s Adventure Magazine), (2017). Hiking Croagh Patrick: Everything you need to know. Available at: https://outsider.ie/ireland/croagh-patrick-essential-information/ . (Accessed 10th of May, 2023.)
RTE.ie (Marion McGarry) (2022). Why the last Sunday in July was celebrated in Ireland of old. Available at: https://www.rte.ie/brainstorm/2022/0715/1064857-ireland-last-sunday-in-july-garland-sunday-bilberry-sunday-reek-sunday-hungry-july/ (Accessed 19th of May, 2023).
The Mayo News (2016). The History and Mystery of Croagh Patrick. Available at: https://www.mayonews.ie/features/28259-the-history-and-mystery-of-croagh-patrick. (Accessed c. 7th December, 2022).