Thursday 22 August 2019

Reek Sunday: 'They are in touch with God, nature and themselves' - thousands of pilgrims climb Croagh Patrick

Pilgrims climbing Croagh Patrick
Photo: Conor McKeown
Pilgrims climbing Croagh Patrick Photo: Conor McKeown
Pilgrims climbing Croagh Patrick Photo: Conor McKeown
Walkers on Croagh Patrick. Photo: Fáilte Ireland

Sarah Mac Donald

THE number of pilgrims who took part in the annual Reek Sunday climb of Croagh Patrick was up on previous years as a new path on the mountain helped the event pass off without major incident.

As many as 9,000 people, from the very young to those in their eighties, some in their bare feet, made the arduous climb of the 764m Co Mayo peak in rain with occasional sunshine breaking through the low cloud ceiling.

The new 40 metre path on Croagh Patrick is the first stage of a plan to restore and safeguard Ireland’s holy mountain from further erosion and ensure climbers are safe as they approach the summit.

Fr Charlie McDonnell, Administrator of St Mary’s Parish, Westport, told Independent.ie that some of erosion on the mountain is due to climate erosion but most of it is human-related degradation linked to the mountain’s increased popularity as an all-year-round climbing destination. Croagh Patrick attracts over 100,000 climbers annually.

“Over the years the numbers have got so big. Now you see people climbing it 365 days of the years, there will be people up there on New Year’s Day,” Fr McDonnell said.

One of the factors in the erosion of the mountain path has been those who in recent years began to “deviate from the traditional pilgrim path was known as Cosáin Phadraig,” according to Archbishop Michael Neary of Tuam.

Speaking to Independent.ie, 73-year-old Dr Neary, who climbed the mountain on Sunday to say Mass at the summit for pilgrims, said the new path was aimed at restoring the pilgrim path and ensuring climbers were safe.

“This is a special place. It is a holy mountain made holy by St Patrick, but also by the people who come here on pilgrimage every year. They are in touch with God and in touch with nature and in touch with themselves – I think that needs to be respected,” the Archbishop said.

Pilgrims climbing Croagh Patrick
Photo: Conor McKeown
Pilgrims climbing Croagh Patrick Photo: Conor McKeown

He rejected suggestions that the number of pilgrims needs to be reduced in order to prevent degradation. “I don’t think there is any need to reduce the numbers if people respect and use the acknowledged pilgrim path.”

According to Fr McDonnell, on the cone of Croagh Patrick, some climbers had “moved out towards the cliff edge” making that part of the pathway “quite dangerous. The majority of call outs for Mayo Mountain Rescue would be from this spot which is quite slippery underfoot.”

The Croagh Patrick Stakeholders Group has submitted a planning application to Mayo County Council seeking permission for restoration works on the whole of the mountain pathway “So the whole experience from the base to the top of the mountain will be enhanced,” Fr McDonnell said.

This will necessitate the farmers whose land the pilgrim pathway crosses agreeing to lease the mountain path to the Croagh Patrick Stakeholders Group.

“It has gone to Section A planning,” Fr McDonnell explained and appealed to climbers to make submissions online on their experience of their Croagh Patrick climb before the deadline on September 24.

There were no major incidents on Sunday for Mayo Mountain Rescue. Two people were airlifted off the mountain after falls and a number of people suffered minor cuts, fatigue and exposure in the inclement weather.

Amongst the thousands who undertook the mountain climb was Selene Fee, from Co Fermanagh, who left her home at 11pm on Saturday evening along with four other family members.

“We wanted to see the sun rise from the summit but there was no sun! We had cloud and rain - everything but no sun.” The family group started their climb at 3.30am and reached the mountain top at 4.45am, aided with headlights to help them see their way. “It was so dark, and the ground was wet, we definitely needed the headlights.”

She explained that twenty years ago she had climbed Croagh Patrick but hadn’t done it since. “It was so tough I said I would never do it again. But twenty years later I decided to give it another go, and I made friends with the mountain today! It is a fabulous experience. It is real eye opener to see some people walking up there in their bare feet – we counted about eight people in their bare feet.”

She said the reason she had undertaken the pilgrimage was because “I have lost brothers and family this year. I needed to remember them. We brought prayer stones from Fermanagh to the summit along with our prayers and thoughts for those we lost.” She added, “I will be back next year.”

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