Croagh Patrick as a Place of Pilgrimage
The Mountain Itself—Ages Gone By
Croagh Patrick has been a place of pilgrimage for many ages. It is said that St. Patrick himself climbed 'the Reek' (as locals call the mountain known as 'Croagh Patrick') around 441 A.D. While on the mountain, Patrick underwent a forty-day ritual of prayer and fasting (DoChara, 2022). However, Ireland’s holy mountain was not always known as ‘Croagh Patrick.’ Instead, it was known as Cruachan Aigli—where Cruachan means a (conical) mountain, and Aigli represents an 'eagle' and also suggests the overall area (Mayo Ireland, 2019). It is said that it was not until around the year 1350 that the mountain became known as Cruaich Patric, and in the 16th Century the mountain came to be known as the Anglicised 'Croagh Patrick’ (The Mayo News, 2016).
But what is it about Croagh Patrick that calls people to itself as a place of pilgrimage, even to this day? By looking at the history of the pilgrimage, we might get a sense as to what is so special about the mountain.
The History of Pilgrimage on the Reek
The yearly pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick is actually one of the oldest practices in Ireland. As a place of Christian pilgrimage, it dates back more than 1500 years, and archaeological finds there suggest that climbing the reek had a ritual significance for millennia before that (DoChara, 2022). It was thought that Irish pagan druids celebrated Lughnasa in August by climbing to the summit of the reek (O’Neill, 2020). The earliest written record that associates Croagh Patrick with pilgrimages is the Brevarium by Tírechan, which recounts that, during Patrick’s mission in the west of Ireland, he fasted on the summit of the mountain for forty days and nights (Pilgrimage Medieval Ireland, 2012). The twelfth century work by Jocelyn named ‘Life of St Patrick’ records pilgrims performing a vigil and fasting where “many are accustomed to spend the night awake and fasting on the mount” (Hughes, 1991, 16—cited in Pilgrimage Medieval Ireland, 2012). Pilgrims continued to be attracted to the holy mountain after the reformation. Detailed accounts of the pilgrim rituals on Croagh Patrick exist which consisted of performing prayers known as 'stations', as well as points of devotion on the landscape of the mountain (Pilgrimage Medieval Ireland, 2012). Modern stations are similar to the older rituals except that some of the rituals are relaxed—for example-- climbing the mountain barefoot. After the Irish famine, pilgrimage appears to have gone into decline, however due to the efforts of the church it was revived (Pilgrimage Medieval Ireland, 2012). Part of this revival is the development of a new church built on the summit in 1905 (Hughes, 2005, 15-22—cited in Pilgrimage Medieval Ireland, 2012). The pilgrimage continues to grow in popularity to this day, and on reek Sunday (the last Sunday in July) it can attract many thousands of climbers (Pilgrimage Medieval Ireland, 2012), (O’Neill, 2020).
Written in the Stars—Croagh Patrick’s Link to Ancient Astronomy
History tells us that the Celts first arrived in Ireland around 600 B.C. However, the reek had already become important to the natives well before that time. The Celt’s predecessors in fact had a strong understanding of astronomy and as we will see, they had connected Croagh Patrick to their knowledge of the stars. In their book entitled “Island of the Setting Sun: In Search of Ireland’s Ancient Astronomers,” (cited in The Mayo News, 2016) Moore and Murphy set forth that Croagh Patrick is at the very western end of an ‘Equinox Line’ which spans 217 kilometres across the country of Ireland from Inbher Colpa (Drogheda). Following this straight line across central Ireland, the authors observe that the sun sets directly over the Hill of Slane where St. Patrick lit his defiant fire at Easter during a full moon. This occurs a few days after the Vernal Equinox and proceeds through the ancient seat of the Kings of Connacht at Rathcroghan (also known as ‘Cruachain’) and finally West to Croagh Patrick. Moore and Murphy state that this line crosses the peak of Croagh Patrick with "breathtaking accuracy" (The Mayo News, 2016). The authors posit that St. Patrick intentionally followed this line across Ireland to Croagh Patrick "following a sacred pathway to the stars" which connected Ireland’s "most significant places." Interestingly, the authors point out that this line was significant to the Irish some "three and a half millennia" before Patrick arrived (The Mayo News, 2016).
The old pilgrim road of Tochar Padraig is a well-known pathway that leads from Ballintubber Abbey to Croagh Patrick. It served as a significant land-based transport route in ancient and medieval Ireland. It is thought that Tochar Padraig is based on a more ancient route from Cruachain in Roscommon—the then seat of the Kings of Connacht—all the way to Croagh Patrick (Mayo County Council, n.d.). Moore and Murphy state, “Evidence is emerging that significant archaeological sites dating from deep in prehistory are linked – not just through mythology, archaeology and cosmology – but through an arrangement of complex, and, in some cases, astonishing alignments” (The Mayo News, 2016).
DoChara Insider Guide to Ireland. (2022) Croagh Patrick 2023. Available at: https://www.dochara.com/events-in-ireland/croagh-patrick/ (Accessed: c. 7th December, 2022).
Hughes, H. 1991. Croagh Patrick: (Cruach Phádraig-The Reek) An Ancient Mountain Pilgrimage. Westport: Berry’s of Westport.
Hughes, H. 2005. Croagh Patrick. Ireland’s Holy Mountain. Westport: The Croagh Patrick Archaeological Committee.
Mayo County Council. (Date Unknown). Tochair Padraig. Available at: https://www.mayo.ie/discover/history-heritage/monastic-sites/tochar-padraig (Accessed c. 7th December, 2022).
Mayo Ireland. (2019). Croagh Patrick, Westport in Co. Mayo. Available at: https://www.mayo-ireland.ie/en/towns-villages/westport/visitors-guide/croagh-patrick.html (Accessed 4th of January, 2023).
O’Neill, B. (2020). The Pilgrimage of Croagh Patrick. Available at: https://www.yourirish.com/traditions/pilgrimage-croagh-patrick#:~:text=Each%20year%20thousands%20of%20people,the%20pagan%20festival%20of%20Lughnasadh (Accessed c. 7th December, 2022).
Pilgrimage Medieval Ireland. (2012). An Overview of the History of Pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick. Available at: https://pilgrimagemedievalireland.com/2012/07/29/an-overview-of-the-history-of-pilgrimage-to-croagh-patrick/ (Accessed c. 7th December, 2022).
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).