Emma Tobin describes a memorable Croagh Patrick pilgrimage
Viewed from the bottom, with five hours of sleep in one hand and a borrowed stick in the other, Croagh Patrick appears ridiculously unassailable. Mist chokes the summit, and the rock face that points out towards Clew Bay is nothing but craggy, vertical shafts of cold grey stone. This has been a place of pilgrimage for over 5,000 years, however, there is a path, winding in small switchbacks over bare rock, a path gouged by millions of feet.
The first section is a path of least resistance gouged out by a small stream, which delights in soaking your shoes completely after you’ve taken about three careless steps up the trail.”
At the bottom, everyone is nervously pristine in their raincoats, buying sticks for €1 just outside the car park and carrying provisions for the two-hour climb, which will obviously require multiple pit-stops for breakfast and second breakfast. About mid-way up the mountain, the path flattens out for half a kilometre as the pilgrim path winds around the mountain to approach the cone from the least treacherous angle, and this is the only part of the climb that is easy.
The first section is a path of least resistance gouged out by a small stream, which delights in soaking your shoes completely after you’ve taken about three careless steps up the trail.
On Reek Sunday, as the last Sunday of July has come to be known, the path is clogged with a kaleidoscope of raincoats, swinging sticks, laughter, and children asking if they’re at the top yet. In the beginning, the atmosphere resembles that of a busy shopping centre, everyone ducking and diving past one another without much regard for anyone’s convenience but their own.
The higher you climb, however, as the drop at your back becomes all the more daunting and the path degenerates to a shifting mass of loose rock, or narrow trails cut tight against the mountainside, people become friendlier. With a trail of exhausted people scrabbling, stopping and starting above and below you, trampling your way through is liable to bring the whole brigade down like dominoes. As the path gets steeper, and the ground drops away sheer beneath you, the only thing you can afford to focus on are the people around you and the next step along the path.
The climb seems to lift people out of the carefully cultivated boundaries of their ordinary lives.”
A pilgrimage isn’t just an especially difficult hike; it’s meant to be a spiritual journey. Navigating a mess of loose stone scattered along an occasionally near-vertical mountain face with hundreds of people tripping and sliding, eating crisps, weaving upwards and downwards with varying degrees of skill, puts a few things into perspective. If Croagh Patrick can teach something to those of us who scramble up its back on Reek Sunday, it is that faith is a journey that cannot really be taken alone. In fact, it is a journey that means the most when it is taken with others.
Following a particularly bright pair of green leggings along the switchbacks at the foot of the mountain, my shoes wet, realising I was wearing entirely the wrong kind of socks, it occurred to me that I would be having an exceptionally bad time if not for the dozens of voices shouting greetings, encouragement, and unhelpful instructions all around me. Cram a couple of thousand people onto its slopes and Croagh Patrick becomes something so much more than a sombre, grey-faced behemoth. Wreathed in a crown of flowing humanity, with everyone from grandparents doggedly regaling their grandchildren with stories of past climbs, while said grandchildren surreptitiously attempt to plug in their earphones, the sense of community is palpable.
The climb seems to lift people out of the carefully cultivated boundaries of their ordinary lives. When someone falls, half a dozen people rush to help them back up. When an older lady fell on her way back down the switchbacks, a man who’d been climbing for 20 minutes offered to escort her back down to the bottom. People make the climb on Reek Sunday for many reasons. Not everyone is doing it for religious reasons, but that’s not a question you ask to someone when their legs collapse beneath them and they need a hand to find their feet again. When someone physically falls, our instinct is to help them, regardless of their identity, or where they come from, or what they believe.
These are the simple truths of living one’s faith that something as simple as climbing a mountain can make evident.”
The annual Croagh Patrick Pilgrimage shows us that our instinct is to help, wordlessly, guilelessly, without hesitation. That the boundaries between ourselves and others are only there if we choose to build them, and that they are quick to crumble in the wind and rain, when the going gets tough. These are the simple truths of living one’s faith that something as simple as climbing a mountain can make evident. Firstly, that we are not alone. Secondly, that helping others comes as naturally as breathing, if only we let it.