On the right path: plan to safeguard busy Croagh Patrick from erosion
Up to 9,000 people, from the very young to those in their 80s, made the arduous climb of Croagh Patrick yesterday - some in their bare feet - to mark the annual Reek Sunday.
A new 40 metre path is the first stage of a plan to restore and safeguard Ireland's holy mountain from erosion and ensure climbers are safe as they approach the summit.
Fr Charlie McDonnell, administrator of St Mary's Parish, Westport, told the Irish Independent that some erosion is due to climatic factors, but most of it is human-related and linked to the mountain's increased popularity as a year-round climbing destination, attracting more than 100,000 climbers each year.
"Over the years the numbers have got so big. Now you see people climbing it 365 days of the year - 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 known as Cosáin Phadraig", according to Archbishop Michael Neary of Tuam.
Speaking to the Irish Independent, 73-year-old Dr Neary, who climbed the mountain yesterday 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. He rejected suggestions that the number of pilgrims needed 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 slippy underfoot," he explained.
There were no major incidents for Mayo Mountain Rescue yesterday, although two people were airlifted off the mountain after falls.
A number of climbers suffered minor cuts, fatigue and exposure in the inclement weather.
The Croagh Patrick Stakeholders Group has submitted a planning application to Mayo County Council seeking permission for restoration works on the whole mountain pathway.
Fr McDonnell said this was needed so that "the whole experience from the base to the top of the mountain will be enhanced".
This will necessitate the farmers whose land the pilgrim pathway crosses agreeing to lease the mountain path to the Croagh Patrick Stakeholders Group.
Meanwhile, among the thousands who undertook the climb yesterday was Selene Fee from Co Fermanagh, who along with four family members left her home at 11pm on Saturday.
They started the climb at 3.30am using headlamps to light their path and reached the summit at 4.45am.
"We wanted to see the sun rise from the summit but there was no sun. We had cloud and rain - everything, but no sun," she said. "It was so dark and the ground was wet, we needed the head-lights."