Friday 23 February 2018

Croagh Patrick: Pilgrimage site could face similar extinction due to erosion and overuse

Wayne O’Connor climbs Croagh Patrick
Wayne O’Connor climbs Croagh Patrick
The Mountain Rescue Team set up a storm shelter while helping pilgrims stranded on the slopes of Croagh Patrick last Sunday
John Cummins
Wayne O'Connor with Fr Karl Burns on the mountainside
Wayne O'Connor

Wayne O'Connor

Snakes were banished from Ireland here but the future of our holiest pilgrimage site could face similar extinction due to erosion and overuse of Croagh Patrick.

This year's Reek Sunday pilgrimage to the top of the sacred mountain was the first to be cancelled in living memory.

Parish Priest Charlie McDonnell said they had no option but to tell people to stay away from the site. It might be known globally as St Patrick's Reek, but Fr Charlie insisted it is the local sacristan John Cummins who is the real authority there.

"The surface on the way up is just too bad at the best of times. John slept in the church at the top that night and he called me at 4.45am to say he had never seen conditions like it," said Fr Charlie.

"John knows the mountain better than anyone so what he says, goes."

Born and bred at the foot of Croagh Patrick, John has been tending to it and the church at the top for more than 47 years.

Wayne O'Connor with Fr Karl Burns on the mountainside
Wayne O'Connor with Fr Karl Burns on the mountainside

He hikes to its peak 200 times every year and was married on it. Local curate Fr Karl Burns guided the Irish Independent up the slippery slope this week to meet John.

On the way up, the dangers become abundantly clear.

The path surface is made up of loose stones, and it is so worn in places that walkers spend more time looking for spots to avoid instead of places to plant their feet.

The occasional splattered blood drops on the ground remind us that tracing over St Patrick's footsteps is a challenge not to be taken lightly.

Howling winds caused damage to the mountain-top's church oratory last Saturday night and biblical rain, aligned with constant erosion, made the Reek unpassable for this year's pilgrimage. The weather had ceased and lifted for our journey but conditions were still tricky underfoot.

"Ever since the time of Patrick in 441AD there has been a pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick so this year's cancellation is a first," said Fr Karl on the way up.

"Tradition has it that Patrick spent 40 days and 40 nights here and ever since then this place has been associated with him.

"Even before the time of Patrick, it was a sacred site for pagan worship as well. There has always been a pilgrimage here. Even during penal times there has been a pilgrimage."

Upon reaching the top you are greeted with a huge sense of accomplishment.

The views over Clew Bay and its islands in the clear blue Atlantic are a sight to behold.

John (63) finishes repair work to a wall at the front of the church before greeting us at the top.

People are kneeling inside the church offering a prayer to St Patrick when John invites us into a small room at the back. He quickly produces a kettle and tea is served up with chocolate biscuits, a welcome reward after a cautious climb.

"It was 1968 when I started helping out here and I have been here since," said John.

The Mountain Rescue Team set up a storm shelter while helping pilgrims stranded on the slopes of Croagh Patrick last Sunday
The Mountain Rescue Team set up a storm shelter while helping pilgrims stranded on the slopes of Croagh Patrick last Sunday

"I was married here in '84. I was the second marriage here and there has been six other weddings here since.

"I just thought it was a nice idea and she (his wife Anne) had no choice," he laughs.

"There was an army wedding here last year and a red carpet brought up for it by donkey. The wedding gear was on two army stretchers.

"You wouldn't come up in a dress so the bridesmaids got changed in a room here."

That was a relatively small operation for John to manage compared to what he is used to. As well as bringing up the materials a few years ago to construct public toilets on the mountain, he has to make sure the materials needed for the masses on Reek Sunday arrive safely.It takes two days to bring up the 7,000 communion hosts, wine, vestments and audio equipment needed.

His love for the mountain is as obvious as his concern for its future.

"They are coming all year round now and we get 1,000 or 2,000 people here on a Friday and Saturday. We get a lot of sporting events through here now too which we could do without," he said.

"They are only causing erosion and bringing litter on to the mountain, but sure, what can you do with them?"

Local archaeologist Gerry Walsh expressed concern about the volume of traffic on the mountain, saying the heritage must be protected.

"There are significant historical interests here with features like ramparts, ancient walling and dwellings that must be preserved," said Gerry. "Long before St Patrick ever came here, the summit was occupied by hill forts."

Making our way back down the mountain is more difficult than the climb.

The dangers posed are highlighted further by a man in his 60s near the top of the cone who is frozen solid, sitting on the 'bad bend' where most accidents occur.

Whether he has suffered a bout of vertigo, is struggling with a fear of heights or is just afraid of falling because of the uneven loose gravel surface is unclear. What is clear is that he is not going anywhere without help.

A passer-by brings him to his feet, scoops his arms around him and guides him down to a safe part of the descent. Some GAA chat proves a welcome distraction.

Fr Karl said this is typical of the support people give each other on a pilgrimage.

"There is a great sense of camaraderie on the mountain," he explained.

"It is not just conquering something - people bring their own pain and their own problems to the top as well."

However, nature is threatening the future of the event - and with 200,000 journeys made on the mountain every year, it is clear the Reek is struggling to cope with what is demanded of it.

Mayo Mountain Rescue help more than 80 people off Croagh Patrick every year. Team Leader Jerome Hopkins gave the Irish Independent his tips before making the climb.

"If climbers have boots on, they are a lot less likely to injure their ankles. More than 90pc of our call-outs are for lower leg injuries and they can come about because of inappropriate footwear," he said.

"If boots are not available, a good strong pair of quality runners would help."

Jerome also said that bringing a small bag with some essentials is important.

"The wind chill is dramatic and you can get wind chill on a gloriously hot day, so I would advise bringing a little day bag with a bottle of water, a snack such as chocolate or a sandwich, a light rain jacket and a few jumpers," he said.

"Communication is vital and everyone should bring a mobile phone in case they have an accident."

Climbers should also keep up to date with weather conditions.

"If there is a storm or gale-force wind blowing, you should not be climbing any mountain. We have been up there on days when standing up right was impossible and nobody should have been on the mountain."

Irish Independent

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