By Ann Harte O’Toole
Croagh Patrick is a majestic pyramid shaped peak mountain 764 meters in height. This stunning mountain is looking down on the Atlantic ocean as the sea retreats and advances on the golden beach below. From this beautiful mountain known locally as the ‘Reek’ you will experience breath-taking views.
The 365 islands in Clew Bay look like green moss clumps floating in the ocean. Achill Island, Clare Island and the Nephin mountains are all visible on a clear dry day. Foxes and hares run in and out between the purple and yellow heather on the side of the mountain. Green-blue crumbling rock walls from ancient times are still visible on the slopes. The silver streams running down the mountain on their way to the sea sound like music to the ears.
Croagh Patrick is about five miles from the picturesque tourist town of Westport on the west coast of Ireland. The village of Murrisk is built at the foot of the mountain. There is a small church on the summit of Croagh Patrick which was built in 1905 by 12 local men using local stone.
The sight at night is awesome. The sky studded with the crystal light of stars and the moon casting mint light over the mountain. Though you are in darkness your way is guided by the lights of bicycle flash lamps. The sight of only the lights on their way to the summit is magic to the eye from the village of Murrisk. Mass is said there on Reek Sunday which is the last Sunday in July and on many more dates throughout the year.
25,000 people climb Croagh Patrick each year.
People come from all parts of Ireland and England to do the climb. People come by train, bus, car, bicycle and some walk long distances. Some people climb for penance, some for fun and laughter and some people do it for indulgence. Pope Eugene IV in 1432 offered pilgrims an indulgence. An indulgence is a way to reduce the amount of punishment one has to undergo for sins. The climb to the summit is very difficult; stones, rocks and gravel roll out in front of you.
The descend is more difficult. A strong walking stick is essential. Some people walk in their bare feet. Prior to 1979 the majority of people did the climb at night. The train and bus company put on extra trains and buses for the occasion.
Patrick came from a wealthy family in Wales. He was kidnapped at the age of 16 and taken to Ireland by Irish raiders.
He was taken to work as a slave on Mt Slemish in Co Antrim. He worked as a shepherd. During his captivity he turned to his religion. He had a dream of converting the Irish to Christianity. After six years of slavery on the mountain he escaped to his home. He studied for the priesthood. When he was ordained as a priest he was sent back to Ireland as a bishop by the Pope to convert the Irish to Christianity. It was 12 years since he left Ireland. He landed at Strangford Lough, Co Down. Most of the Irish were pagans they worshipped the seasons and the stars.
As a young schoolgirl I lived near the train station. On Reek Saturday and Sunday the trains parked behind our house, as the railway line ran at the back of our garden. The shunting of the trains filled our ears with noise. The smoke from the coal furnace on the train filled the sky with smoke. We knew Reek Saturday was here once we heard the clatter of the carriages from our bedroom, so as children would be very excited. On those days we would take a trip to the station to see all the people alighting from the trains. Most people would carry a stick and a small package and a flash lamp. People would travel in twos mostly. They would wear their oldest shoes and clothes.
I climbed Croagh Patrick as a teenager, I climbed at night, there was a light mist as we arrived at the summit. It was a great feeling of achievement once we arrived at the top.
On Reek Saturday nights my father and our neighbours would spend many hours outside our house conducting traffic, and helping people walking and cycling to the mountain. Showing them the shortest journey to Murrisk. My father enjoyed it immensely.
One Reek Saturday my mother decided to serve teas and sandwiches to people coming off the train on their way to Murrisk. She set up the dining and sitting room in her house with every table she could find. She covered the tables with white cloths. My brother made a sign on a piece of plywood it read ‘Teas and Sandwiches Served Here’ he stood the sign in our front garden. Early Saturday morning we all helped to make sandwiches and rock buns. It was my job to butter the bread and boil the eggs, wash the lettuce from our garden at the back of our house.
We put the prepared sandwiches in a tea chest which came lined with tinfoil and covered it with a piece of plywood. We set the tables for four people. The arrangements were four sandwiches and four rock buns would be served on each table. The customer only paid for what they eat. Large pots of tea were made in kettles and tea pots. Men arrived in big hobnail boots, long wool army coats, hard hats, tweed caps and large walking sticks bigger than us children. The kettle was on the boil all the time on the big black range in our kitchen. My sister collected the money from the customers on their way out. High Nelly Bicycles could be seen up against the front wall of our house.
On Reek Sunday night pilgrims slept in the open air under the light of the orange red moon. On our way to early Mass in the town we would pass by them. We were instructed by our mother to walk to Mass in silence. They slept on benches, on the ground in the Fair Green, at the end of the church.
They slept at the doors of the Fire station, which was near my home. They slept at the convent gate. Some people had their bicycles beside them and their sticks. Some had their wool coats over them, while some slept in their coats. A lot of these people were waiting for the trains and buses to bring them home after their tiring adventure.
On one early Reek Sunday morning, most people were in a deep slumber when a fire broke out in the upper part of the town. The shrieking fire siren in the fire station went off, people ran in all directions. They ran to the houses and the convent near by. Some of the pilgrims were frightened as they had lived in London during the blitz. The sound of the siren was normal to us children who lived near by. Reek Saturday and Sunday has changed a lot since the 1950s. People no longer sleep in the open.