Croagh Patrick is one of the “must see” destinations in Ireland and has been known as a “thin place” or site of sacred power for thousands of years. Plan to spend at least half a day.
The mountain that dominates the landscape in Westport, Achill, and Murrisk, is also known as the Holy Mountain and “the Reek.” It was on this mountain that St. Patrick spent 40 day and nights fasting and praying – and emerged transformed, spiritually enriched, ready to fight the demons (mostly other people in positions of power) that assailed him. The myth that St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland was born of his retreat on Croagh Patrick.
Every July pilgrims come from the world over to Mayo, to be a part of the “climbing of the reek” as St. Patrick once did. But all year long, pilgrims come and climb and the mountain. At the foot of the mountain, a vendor sells and rents walking sticks to lend support as part of the ascent (and descent) can be treacherous.
Because my broken foot is still healing, I coudn’t do the full climb. I climbed up to the first station where a chalk white, life-sized statue of St. Patrick stands greeting the pilgrims who continue the climb. From that plateau, the views of Clew Bay are stunning. I’ve seen photos of this same panorama, but nothing comes close to the live view of the Bay that has 365 islands – one for each day of the year – the Bay where St Colman founded a community and Grace O’Malley,the red-headed pirate queen ruled over the sea and land.
The words of my friend Michael Mullen came to mind, “On this arid summit where the wind blows hard, where no root takes hold, where distance seems infinite and heaven close, the spirit is tested and replenished … for the pilgrim has reached a thin place, where one steps into the highest dimension of one’s existence.”
The wind is both fierce and remarkable on the mountain. It hisses and moans. If you stand still enough and listen carefully, you can almost make out a voice. There are benches every few hundred feet where tired pilgrims can rest. They also offer a space for stopping to notice the details of the landscape. Everyone should do this in a thin place (a place where the veil between this world and the eternal world is thin).
Notice the gorse and the hawthorn. Notice the shape of the mountains against the horizon, how the white caps skate across the bay, the ruins of Murrisk Abbey, the famine memorial in Millennium Park, the chapel to our Lady, the sounds the birds make, the rushing water of the mountain stream.. It’s no wonder St. Patrick came here. For him it was 40 days and a complete spiritual transformation … for me, a very clear head and a sense of blessing.
At the foot of Croagh Patrick is the Famine Memorial – a large bronze sculpture of a “coffin ship” or ship resembling those who took the starving Irish away from their homeland to America during the Great Hunger – aka the potato famine. These ships became known as coffin ships because so many died on them before reaching America. Unsanitary conditions combined with weak health was a recipe for massive deaths.
The sculpture, set against the backdrop of Clew Bay, show skeletons suspended above the ship, as if sailing in the wind, seeming to escape the coffin ship in anguish.
County Mayo was hit hard by the famine. It’s little wonder that the native people placed a memorial to their greatest tragedy, their deepest sorrow in the towering shadow of their symbol of spiritual power and transformation.
At the shore of Clew Bay, just past the Famine Memorial, is the ruined Murrisk Abbey. Though it serves as a modern day cemetery. The abbey grounds also show old lumps and stones marking graves hundreds of years old. The Abbey is the traditional starting point for making the pilgrimage climb to the peak of Croagh Patrick.
When the sky is clear, you can see the a tiny white building at the summit. This is a small church. I hope one day to make the full ascent to the top and see what I’ve only seen in pictures up until now. But even climbing to the first station is worth the whole trip to Ireland.