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'I was afraid that if I broke my stride now I'd never do Reek Sunday again'

Pilgrims climb Croagh Patrick despite Covid-19

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Young Pilgrims Charlie & Robert McDonnagh from Newcastle West, Co. Limerick. Photo: Michael McLaughlin

Young Pilgrims Charlie & Robert McDonnagh from Newcastle West, Co. Limerick. Photo: Michael McLaughlin

Young Pilgrims Charlie & Robert McDonnagh from Newcastle West, Co. Limerick. Photo: Michael McLaughlin

Gales, hail, rain and a pandemic would not keep Thomas Stokes away from Croagh Patrick on Reek Sunday.

He climbed it barefoot during the severe weather of 2015 when the annual pilgrimage was cancelled and winds were so strong they whisked the glass oratory off the summit church.

That cancellation was billed as a "one in 1,500-year event", but this year's decision to call the penitential climb off due to Covid-19 was not enough to deter Mr Stokes.

"I left north Longford at 2.45am and drove west, and it was dark, cold and wet when I started to climb at about 4.30am," he said.

"I had a bit of a problem with my knee and hip, and didn't want to take a chance with my bare feet.

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Thomas O Malley and his dog Lassie from Thornhill, Lecanvey, Co. Mayo. Photo: Michael McLaughlin

Thomas O Malley and his dog Lassie from Thornhill, Lecanvey, Co. Mayo. Photo: Michael McLaughlin

Thomas O Malley and his dog Lassie from Thornhill, Lecanvey, Co. Mayo. Photo: Michael McLaughlin

"I climb it for my grandchildren and my family, and hope to get the worth of it," he said, explaining he had brought his wife's cane when she couldn't travel.

"I know they asked us to stay away and we have to keep to the law, but I was afraid I'd break my stride and I'd never do it again," he added, explaining that he climbed it once with a broken foot - and without shoes.

Thomas O'Malley from nearby Lecanvey had a stout ash rod, a keen collie dog Lassie and a face mask for the day.

"I said a prayer to the man above at the summit, and he told me there was no need for me to come at all!" Mr O'Malley laughed.

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The annual Reek Sunday pilgrimage on Croagh Patrick in Co Mayo which was officially cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic, didn't stop some pilgrims making the climb. Pilgrim Joseph B O'Reilly from Virginia, Co. Cavan. Photo: Michael McLaughlin

The annual Reek Sunday pilgrimage on Croagh Patrick in Co Mayo which was officially cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic, didn't stop some pilgrims making the climb. Pilgrim Joseph B O'Reilly from Virginia, Co. Cavan. Photo: Michael McLaughlin

The annual Reek Sunday pilgrimage on Croagh Patrick in Co Mayo which was officially cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic, didn't stop some pilgrims making the climb. Pilgrim Joseph B O'Reilly from Virginia, Co. Cavan. Photo: Michael McLaughlin

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Observing his progress were members of the Mayo Mountain Rescue Team, stationed below the shoulder. A second team was located further up just below the summit cone.

By 9am, cloud had lifted and the summit was clear, with sunshine lighting up Clew Bay's drumlins and islands, Clare island to the west, Achill, Corraun and Nephin Beg to the north.

Several adventure runners pelted past as Robert McDonagh, his sons, Robert (7) and Charlie (10) and nephew Alan O'Neill made their way down bearing rosary beads.

They were among a group of five adults and five children who had travelled earlier that morning from Newcastle West, Co Limerick.

"We thought if we came here early enough we wouldn't bother anyone," they said.

Similarly, Sean Groark from Lucan, Co Dublin - camping in Westport with his family - had heard there could be a break in the weather and couldn't resist.

Mary Twohig from Bray, Co Wicklow, had only missed Reek Sunday once in the past 28 years.

"I was even here in the storms of 2015," she said. "We have become a very obedient country when there are so few here today."

A group from India working with Chanelle in Loughrea, Co Galway, took photos of the closed chapel and the views while Galway IT specialist AJ Cahill - accompanied by his son Michael (9) - remembered how the summit had been alight with braziers when he first climbed the Reek.

Murrisk Development Association chairman Frank McCarrick said he was relieved many people had observed the plea by Archbishop Michael Neary.

"There could be 20,000 to 30,000 people on the Reek weekend, but we estimate several hundred and we are happy with that," he said.

"We are a welcoming community, but we just didn't feel it would be safe for Reek Sunday to go ahead."


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